Did you make any new year’s resolutions this year? Have you broken any of them yet?
So what can everyone do to become a better language learner?
First of all don’t make any absolute promises. These resolutions are a bit more flexible unlike, “go to the Gym 3 times every week” and “don’t eat chocolate”. More along the lines of ‘drink less coffee’ and ‘get more exercise’. NB: I’m writing this almost a week after the 1st. The more, and the more often, you do these the more it will help, but if you miss a day, or even a week you don’t need to wait for next year to start again.
The current dominant theories of how we learn languages are grouped together as ‘usage based’ that’s right we learn language by using language. So resolution number one is use the language you want to learn. By this we mean if you want to speak a language, speak, if you want to write in it then write. Don’t just try to memorise words and/or grammatical rules. There are more than a few language learners who find they can communicate perfectly well without an encyclopaedic knowledge of the target language. Think about how many of the rules of your own language you consciously know… unless you are a translator/editor or linguist it’s unlikely to be many.
The second resolution sounds a little more traditional, the average adult learns best for 20-45 minutes, every day. It’s just like exercise, half an hour or so every day, is better for you than four hours only once a week. So resolution number two is do some (almost) every day. This can of course be applied to a wide range of learning not just exercise.
Use some study skills to help you. Yes you can memorise texts by repeating them again and again but this won’t actually help you in conversation. Fewer than 5% of people apply study skills to their language learning. This limits them very seriously; natural languages are large, complex and organic systems. Study skills can help by letting you organise the information in a more systematic way, or a range of more systematic ways. Resolution three is use study skills.
Everyone is different, your best friend may find reading on the sofa with the TV on an effective means of studying but I don’t. Learn what works for you, and this can be very broad. For example, I write much more effectively in the mornings than I do in the evenings. (Annoyingly I’m not a morning person.) I can read and even edit at night but it’s faster and easier if I write before lunch. Wherever possible do what works for you. Remembering of course that this isn’t necessarily what you enjoy. Resolution number four is do what works for you, or at least try to notice what does and doesn’t work for you.
Take breaks, there is a habit at this and many universities of marathon study/research/essay writing sessions. They don’t work. We learn just as much if not more in breaks than we do when actively studying. Regular, short breaks allow your brain to process the information that you’ve been studying. They also help to offset the impact of what Krashen would call the Affective Filter Hypothesis, which states that when a person is hungry/tired/stressed etc. they learn less well, if at all. Yes Resolution number five is to take breaks, short ones but frequently.
Resolution number six is perhaps the most valuable for language learners. Don’t worry about mistakes. Making mistakes is part of learning. Scientists regularly have to ‘test their assumptions’ that means they are making mistakes but using them in a positive fashion. Children learning English may call a small dog a cat, or even a horse as it’s a four-legged animal with fur and a tail. This is known as overextension, when a rule is applied further and more frequently than it should be. It is almost a universal of language learning. Learners will also apply it to irregular verbs go becomes *goed rather than go becoming went and the verb cook becoming the person cooker (which is actually the machine) just like run becomes runner and teach becomes teacher. While it’s good to notice mistakes, this helps us improve. It’s a bad thing to get upset about them as this distracts us from learning and could trigger your affective filter.