How to Get On The Road to Success as a Language Learner

Any journey will have its difficulties

Language learning presents different types challenges at different points along the experience. This time round I wish to look at language learners who have difficulty in achieving blast off.  These are the learners who put in a lot of (well at least some!) energy at the start but don’t seem to achieve enough velocity to break out of the atmosphere of their first language.

They set out to learn a language with the best of intentions but come unstuck before they get any level of real fluency. They may think that maybe the course they took may not have been so good, so they try another.  Unfortunately many times they get the same or similar results, namely that progress seems very slow, they keep forgetting what they learn and they can’t seem to be able to speak, beyond some phrases even after months of study. They slowly come to the conclusion, reinforced by their less than inspiring experiences learning languages in school, that really they have little aptitude for learning languages. At this point they may well give up on learning another language mistakenly believing that they are never going to be successful.

Why do we struggle?

The first thing I will say, if you fit into this category, is not to blame yourself for your lack of success. Most people in fact give up learning languages! They can give up for a number of reasons, but usually the reason revolves around the issue that it just seemed all too hard.

Language learning is not “easy” but then it is not “hard”. With every skill we learn, we pass through stages of struggle and clumsiness but we do get through them if we persist and learn from our mistakes. One reason why we might not get through these stages is because we are using the wrong strategies and we persist using them, rather than look for other ones. Just try cutting a log with a blunt saw, or heaven forbid a knife, and you will soon know what I am talking about.

Another reason is that we entered the experience not fully committed to it and once we encountered some resistance, we are out of there. This can happen because we may have entered the experience on a whim, rather than having a deep seated drive to learn.

So most people don’t succeed not because they have a poor memory or they have poor language learning capacity. In fact we showed we had great capacities when we learned our first. There are different kinds of reasons why people may be tempted to give up. Getting some clarity about what it is for you can help you pass through this stage.

Why do some people give up?

We give up for other reasons as well.

Our strategies

A key one is that the way we are using to learn, for instance to remember vocabulary, is just not not going to be effective. I bet you remember some things really well (like when you share your experiences with your family, partner or friend). This shows that your memory is working well. What changes when we learn a language is that we are trying to remember things in ways that don’t utilize the memory skills we all have. Instead we may call upon memorization skills. These skills whilst useful for remembering phone numbers and random facts are not the best when we are trying to learn something that needs to be integrated into a complex framework. The other other areas of language learning also need strategies that are going to work. When you are learning a language it is really important that you find ways that will give you results.

Our beliefs

If you use poor methods, you will soon end up believing that you are a lousy language learner and once that happens, you have another powerful reason that will prevent any real progress. As soon as we believe we can’t, we are not talented, we never were, it is all too hard, etc, then we are destined for failure. Talk to any successful person about their success and they will tell you that they believed that success would come, even when there was no evidence that it would happen. Believing that you can achieve is fundamental to success. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you believe you can or whether you believe you can’t, you are right!”

Some keys to success

So what are some other language learning strategies that will assist you to become a successful language learner? I will here list a few key ones:

  • Remember what you learn has to connect with your perception, understanding and what you already know, plus you need to be engaged when you learning it. Much the same way as you would when you are fully focused on a game and having a hoot of a time. If all that is not happening, then learning has little chance of working for most of us.
  • If you want to learn to speak, then you need to speak. Being a good reader and writer seldom translates into speaking skills. You need MANY hours of real live use with, ideally, real people. Some learners find this the most difficult, but without this kind of practice, becoming fluent is beyond the powers of most people.
  • Language is built on a scaffold of language structure. Establishing this scaffold should take precedence at the early stages. That way when you learn the vocabulary, it can slot into the structure in a natural way. You can learn the structure in different ways. Just remember to always connect what you learn to what you do and say. So act out, where possible, what you are trying to learn.
  • Language is an expression of what we think, see, feel, want, etc. so learning a new language is best accomplished through keeping translation to a minimum. That way it is your perception and thinking that you are using to understand the world, rather than coming to it through the filter of translation. I have seen so many students who have difficulty letting go of translation. It has become like a walking stick that they have difficulty dispensing with. One result is that the other skills we have are never given a chance to express themselves so their progress will be handicapped.

There are of course many other keys to becoming a successful language learner. The main thing I would like you to take away from all this is that it is what you do (and don’t do!) that will determine whether you will be successful learning another language. Not some gene or capacity that you were implanted with at birth. Learning pronunciation is like learning any other skill. It can be fun and a motivating experience or it can be the opposite. Find what is needed to make it into the former and then you can be on the road to success.

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