How to be an Effective Language Learner

I’ve been involved in English language teaching now for over a decade. In that time I’ve met some students who made quick progress and others who didn’t seem to learn at all.

What makes the difference between a good and not-so-good learner?

Of course, there are some obvious things: you need a good teacher, you need a course that’s at the right level (not too hard, but not too comfortable), you need to attend the lessons and join in with the activities. Those are the basics!

There are also some habits and mindsets which really make a difference to how effective you can be as a language learner. I’ve noticed all of these things in my classes, over the years, and some of them are also backed up by research. I’d like to introduce three things here: we could call them ‘Three Habits of Effective Language Learners’.

Note that these points are mainly for learners who attend classes with a teacher. If you’re doing self-study via an app or book, you might still find some of these apply to your situation, but in a different way.

1. Study outside class time.

This isn’t just about doing the homework that the teacher gives you. To get better faster you should also practise and learn on your own. This could mean reading (magazines, blogs, Youtube comments), listening (podcasts, films, news), writing (blogging, commenting) and speaking (for example with a language exchange partner).

In an experiment by Lillian Wong and David Nunan, undergraduate students in Hong Kong were asked to agree or disagree with statements about their language learning habits, for example:

  • I like to study English by myself (alone).
  • At home, I like to learn by reading newspapers, etc.
  • At home, I like to learn by watching TV in English.
  • I like to learn by talking to friends in English.

For each of these four statements, there was a big difference between the students with top grades in the English test and the students with lower grades. The most effective students were more likely to agree with these four statements – in other words, they tended to study at home, independently and/or with friends.

Now, of course you could call this a chicken-and-egg situation: did some students get good grades because they watched TV and chatted to friends in English, or did these students watch TV and chat to friends in English because they were already good students (hardworking, motivated, competent etc.)?

That’s not clear from this research, but there are clear benefits to studying outside lessons:

  • More exposure to the language can only be a good thing. What’s better, one 90-minute lesson every week, or a 90-minute lesson plus 2 hours of self-study?
  • The language you’ll read or hear outside the classroom is authentic. For example, a TV news reporter doesn’t make things easier for you to understand. You have to work harder to listen, and try to understand as much as you can. This is a challenge, but it’s really good for your listening skills! The same with newspapers and websites: you can develop your reading skills by trying to discover the story when you don’t understand all the words. We call this skill decoding.
  • It’s fun! You choose what to study. You can focus on things that you like – whether that’s football, knitting, penguins or David Bowie songs.

2. Get into the habit of noticing.

A few years back, one of my students came into class with a question. I particularly remember this event, because it was a grammar question, and students don’t often choose to talk about grammar, especially not at the start of the lesson!

His question was this: he had been listening to the radio and had heard the song ‘If I were a Rich Man’ – and he wanted to understand why the song used ‘If I were…’ and not ‘If I was…’.

This student was making impressively fast progress, and his question shows one reason for this progress: he was paying attention to the choice of words, even when just listening to an English song in the car. In class, he was attentive too; for example, he would often ask questions about vocabulary from the lesson or check if something he wanted to say was correct.

There’s an argument between groups of psycholinguistics researchers about whether it’s necessary to notice grammar and vocabulary in order to use it. It may be possible to start using a word or phrase correctly without being aware of what makes it correct or incorrect. But there is evidence that noticing is a skill that can help with both accuracy and communication.

You’ve probably heard teachers ask a lot of questions in class. For example:

If it rains tomorrow, I will stay in the house

Teacher: “Do I know it’s going to rain tomorrow?” (No, of course not)

Teacher: “If it rains tomorrow, will I go out?” (No, I will stay in)

Teacher: “Where’s the stress, is the stress on will?” (No, it’s on house) etc.

The point of these questions is not to be annoying! It’s to make sure that you notice three things: meaning, form (grammar/ vocabulary) and pronunciation. But a highly effective student won’t need the teacher to ask the questions: they’ll be asking questions as soon as they read or hear a new word or phrase:

  • What does this mean? What doesn’t it mean?
  • What other word could you use instead? Why did they choose *this word* and not *that word*?
  • Does the pronunciation sound like how I’d say it? What’s different about it?

You can practise noticing inside or outside class. Even just focusing on one word in a song title can help to expand your knowledge of the language, and set you on a path towards using it more effectively.

3. Get comfortable with not knowing everything

All language teachers will have met these two students: let’s call them students A and B:

  • Student A reads a text, understands about 70% of it, says “That’s an interesting text, I think I got most of it!” and continues with a discussion of the contents of the text.
  • Student B reads the same text, doesn’t understand about 30% of it, says “I don’t understand this text, it’s too hard!” and waits for the teacher to solve the problem.

Student A is much, much more likely to make progress in overall competence. A class of Student As can handle new topics, can eat up grammar and vocabulary, and develop their ability to communicate on more and more topics and in an increasing variety of situations. Lessons will be fast-moving and probably fun!

Student B might beat Student A on some tests, if those tests focus on accuracy alone: students like this tend to value getting it right. But they will fall behind on their ability to handle real-world communication. The teacher will be restricted in what they can teach to these students. There will need to be a lot of repetition in lessons, with the associated risk of boredom.

Be like Student A!

And avoid the three killer attitudes. Killer because they kill the lesson that your teacher planned. They kill progress. They kill the pace and interest in the lesson. They force the teacher to restrict everything, to bring lessons down to a level where they’re not challenging you any more.

These killer attitudes are:

  1. If I make a mistake then I fail.
  2. If I don’t understand 100% of something then I understand 0% of it.
  3. If I don’t know 100% of something then I can’t answer any questions about it.

It’s OK to make mistakes in the classroom – in fact, this is the perfect place to make mistakes! You’ve even got a teacher there, ready to correct those mistakes and (if necessary) to help you practise so that you can avoid making the same mistakes again.

It’s also OK not to know every word in a text, not to understand everything. Try to focus on what you do know and understand. Then try to notice and pick out a few specific things that are blocking your understanding. These might be phrases that are new for you, or words that are used in an unfamiliar way – the teacher can help you to learn those. Focus on the solutions, not the problem.

Finally, you’re allowed to express an opinion even when you’re not an expert. You don’t have to be an architect to know whether you prefer modern or classic architecture. You don’t have to be an economist to be able to say something about Bitcoin. Relax – it’s a language lesson! You can talk a lot of nonsense about economics and the teacher probably won’t notice – they’re probably not an expert either, and they’re probably listening more for the words you use than the ideas you are trying to explain. The only way to fail is to give up and say “It’s too hard”!

Form habits that help you learn

So there are three positive actions that language learners can take in order to become more effective: self-study, noticing and accepting not knowing.

You can see that all three are outside the control of teachers. Indeed, you might argue that points 2 and 3 are difficult for a learner to control, being affected by different personality types. Some people are naturally better ‘noticers’, and some are more confident at handling situations of ambiguity.

But I’d argue that just as anyone can become more effective at sport, no matter their physical type, anyone can build up stronger mental habits with exercise. Self-study involves self-discipline; noticing correlates to independence and taking ownership of the language; while getting comfortable with not knowing everything is a way of growing a mindset of resilience.

When linked together in this way, it’s possible to see how these habits form a powerful learning attitude that can help any language learner to make quicker and smoother progress.

Schmidt, Richard (2010): ‘Attention, awareness, and individual differences in language learning.’ In W. M. Chan, S. Chi, K. N. Cin, J. Istanto, M. Nagami, J. W. Sew, T. Suthiwan, & I. Walker: Proceedings of CLaSIC 2010, Singapore, December 2-4, pp. 721-737. Singapore: National University of Singapore, Centre for Language Studies.

Wong, Lillian L. C. and Nunan, David (2011): The learning styles and strategies of effective language learners. In Science Direct, system 39, pp. 144-163.

Photo by Matej from Pexels.

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