Language Learning Toolkit:

How to Learn a Language

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The language learning toolkit is a model that identifies the most important variables that influence language development. Students can use these tools to understand the different aspects of language learning and to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Teachers can use the toolkit to guide students and improve the efficiency of their instruction by boiling language learning down to its essentials.

 

Genetics
A classic debate in biology is the role of nature (genetics) versus nurture (environment) in human development. The debate can be put to rest because current scientific evidence suggests that both factors play a significant role in nearly everything we do. In other words, nature and nurture are deeply intertwined. This means that each person has a unique language learning ability. Two people who spend the same amount of time and who use the same methods to learn a language are bound to have different abilities because of their different language aptitudes. Not everyone has the ability to become a highly adept polyglot with motivation, effort, or strategy. The genetic disposition of an individual does matter. Having said that, unfavorable genetic characteristics are not an excuse for a lack of effort or dedication. Above all, it is the environment that maximizes genetic potential. Talent without hard work is simply a tragedy. Some people grow up believing they were not born with the “language” gene. Others give up when they hit a few roadblocks. Given the right combination of instruction, motivation, effort, consistency, positivity, and environment, most people have the potential to reach a very high level of language proficiency in a second language.
Warren Buffett in his signature folksy Nebraskan wittiness compares a person’s ability to engine power. He often asks students how big their engine is, and how efficiently they put it to work. A student who produces 200 horsepower on a 200 horsepower engine—100% efficiency—is far better off than someone who produces 100 horsepower with a 400 horsepower engine—25% efficiency. Most people have the necessary horsepower to be bilingual, but to be a competent polyglot is a different story. Ultimately, it’s not about wishing you were dealt different cards but about playing efficiently with the cards you have.
Motivation & Purpose
Motivation is the starting point, the catalyst, the reason for behavior. Whereas, excellence is unlocked only through a consistent, long-term desire to improve. Motivation fluctuates daily. Some days, we are very driven. Other days, we have no interest in learning. Motivation is sustainable as long as this up and down relationship results in a net positive over time. Think of motivation as a hungry beast that needs to be constantly fed with small wins and occasional milestones. If total motivation is negative, the likelihood of giving up is much higher and the beast dies.
There are three types of motion: forward, backward, stationary. Forward motion is growth. Students who have a purpose have a reason to march forward. They continue moving toward their goals despite hitting a few obstacles on the way. Naturally over time, forward momentum decreases. Backward motion is regression. In this state, students experience demotivation and are unable to fight the resistance inherent in the learning process. The forces moving backward grow stronger with time. Lastly, students who are standing still are in a state of idleness, apathy, and boredom in which learning is no longer valuable. Worse, in this day and age, being stationary is equal to moving backward. Students need to be very clear about their purpose, and they need to understand their own motivation to go to war against the demons of resistance. Without a purpose or the right motivation, learning is unsustainable in the long run.
Students should be honest with themselves and recognize when and how they will use the language. Not all learners want to or need to reach native-like fluency in all language skills. Some just want to have conversations with native speakers. Others want to read novels written in the original language or simply exchange business e-mails without miscommunication. And some students just want to study a language for fun. Before embarking on their language journey, students should figure out what their goals are and how they envision their future self.
Psychology
Psychology is an underestimated aspect of language learning. Generally, students focus on the tangible aspects of language: grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading, culture, etc. Yet,the intangible parts of language such as confidence, emotion, self-knowledge and resilience are equally important. Timothy Gallwey, the author of The Inner Game of Tennis, would describe the distinction between the tangible elements and intangible elements as the difference between the outer game and the inner game. The outer game deals with the actual language material. Whereas, the inner game is concerned with the psychological fortitude of the student. The journey towards fluency is always paved with twists and turns. Students who are particularly sensitive to judgment and making mistakes are sometimes not even aware of the psychological tools that can manage anxiety, stress, fear, and negativity. They have to learn healthy coping mechanisms, develop positive thinking habits, and improve their mental strength. Learning is intimately tied to mood and emotion. When someone feels discouraged, he or she is less likely to be enthusiastic about learning. Having the right mindset has tremendous benefits: increased confidence, resilience, and motivation; improved focus and self-knowledge; and decreased influence of negative emotions. Just as elite athletes seek guidance from a sport psychologist to achieve peak mental performance, students should find instructors who are experienced at teaching the psychological skills necessary for optimal language performance. Differences in ability come down not only to innate ability, habits or learning strategies but also to mindset. Students with a stronger mental game have a big advantage.
Input & Output
Input refers to parts of language that the learner receives, mainly listening and reading. Whereas output refers to parts of language that the learner produces, meaning speaking and writing. To improve speaking, students need to produce output. To improve reading, they need to increase input. Some students prefer to focus on input and gradually on output as they gain confidence. While others start speaking from day one, thus producing output and receiving input at the same time. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Students should choose the strategy that matches their learning style, temperament, and purpose.
Students who want to raise their general language ability should blend input and output together in their learning. Input can come from other speakers, textbooks, newspapers, books, comics, music, TV shows, movies, radio, etc. The quality of input is very important because the resources you use will either facilitate or hinder your progress. Many textbooks have inauthentic texts or dialogues. Speakers use outdated expressions or speak in a very formulaic and overly enunciated manner. When students learn from those resources, they have a harder time using the language in real life and comprehending native speakers who have very different intonation and rhythm. In addition, not all input is comprehensible. If the input is at a level much beyond a learner’s skill, then it will be incomprehensible. Imagine a beginner English speaker trying to understand CNN, or read the New York Times. Those resources are far too difficult for the learner and essentially useless. Resources should also be engaging or fun for the learner. If the material doesn’t pique the learner’s interest, then there’s a high chance of boredom and demotivation. Lastly, the material should also be similar to the input you are likely to receive in the future when you have attained a higher fluency. If you think you will use the language in a business setting, then spend more time acquiring input from business resources. Due to limited time and energy, students should strategically allocate their time and energy. Input should be authentic, comprehensible, interesting, and relevant.
The same principles that apply to input also apply to output. In traditional language classrooms, the teacher’s primary focus is on input. Output is often in the form of written homework, but speaking is rarely practiced. Teachers need to design activities to encourage more output. Classes should have more discussions, debates, pairwork, presentations, and short role-playing activities. Teachers should encourage students to use the language as much as possible. Quality output is achieved through enormous amounts of timely and relevant feedback. Students have to iteratively refine their output. Some students record themselves and fix their own issues. Most learners need an expert to point out their flaws and guide them towards better output. High output without correction focuses on speed, whereas low output of a higher quality focuses on accuracy. The best students find ways to balance both speed and accuracy. Again, there are pros and cons to each. Choose whatever feels more natural to you, and as you progress, remember to focus on both quality and quantity. The main takeaway for this topic is balance: fast and accurate.
Community
Having a community helps language learners in numerous ways: social connections, support network, shared memories, positivity, feedback, motivation, reinforcement, input-output opportunities, cultural exchange—the list goes on. Our brains are designed for emotion and connection. Joining a language school is not necessarily about the instruction or content, but about automatic group membership. Schools, or any social organization, facilitate the formation of community. Think about it this way: most people who join the gym would prefer to have a gym buddy. Going to the gym together is mutually beneficial because partners push each other, exchange knowledge, and support each other through thick and thin. Learning another language is one of the most difficult and exhausting undertakings. There will be setbacks. There will be days when students are not motivated. There will be days when they question everything. Sharing their pain, frustration, or disappointment with their community is cathartic. That connection can help them overcome resistance and difficulty. Sharing one’s experiences with others makes the journey all the more worthwhile.
Culture & Context
Language and culture enjoy an inseparable, symbiotic relationship. Different metaphors can be used to describe the intertwinement of these two elements. One metaphor describes language as the mirror of culture. Cultural values, attitudes, and norms are reflected through language. Take, for instance, idiomatic expressions. They are often metaphorical. In English, argument is war: to attack an argument, to defend an argument, to win an argument, to lose an argument, to shoot down an argument. Time is money: to spend time, to borrow time, to lose time, to waste time, to invest time. These expressions reflect how people think and act. Another metaphor describes language as the flesh, and culture as the blood of a living organism. Focusing solely on the language without the culture can make you sound or appear lifeless, perhaps even, robotic. To be native-like, you need to live and breathe the language. To do so requires an understanding of culture.
In a hyper-connected global world, resourceful, self-motivated, and curious students can learn about culture online. Many of my friends picked up a foreign language and reached a very high level of fluency without ever stepping foot in another country. Some of them joined a chat group, made friends, and bonded over shared interests. Others picked up bits and pieces as they played online video games where they build up enough vocabulary and slang overtime to actually have decent conversations. The point is that the Internet has facilitated the transfer of language and culture. In the classroom, teachers can design many exercises to simulate an immersive environment in the target language. These students pick up vocabulary and context from real-world scenarios. Students really benefit when their instructors integrate culture as part of their language curriculum. For students who can afford it, living in a country where the target language is spoken is invaluable. After all, living in a language-rich environment is the most real-life, authentic experience.
Learning Habits & Strategies
The most successful students have exceptional learning habits. Habits are simply repeated behavior at specific times. Successful students embody the archetype of a professional athlete. They transform from amateurs to professionals by letting routine and process drive them forward. They understand that discipline and consistency are far more important than talent. They value the importance of simple routines and turn motivation into a system of habits. And, they find a way to fit their target language into their daily agenda. Communicating in their target language is not just a hobby, but an integral part of their lives.
Efficient learning strategies can accelerate the learning process. For starters, learning should be active. Active learners are proactive about their learning. They take notes. They ask questions. They review the material periodically. They seek communities. They discuss language with others. They notice the form and function of the language. They teach others what they know. They find opportunities to practice. In contrast, passive learners are content on going through the motions. They go to school. They do the homework. And that’s it. Specific language learning strategies are related to concepts such as elaborative encoding, spaced repetition, forced retrieval, chunking, interleaving, goal-setting, and among others. Strategies help students figure out what to study, how to study, how often to study, how intensely to study, and all the subtle nuances related to more effective learning.
Class & Teacher
Whether students decide to attend class, hire a tutor or study by themselves will depend on their particular needs, temperament, learning style, and constraints (finances, time, access to resources). There are pros and cons to each choice.
Class is not a compulsory part of language learning, but it can supplement learning through feedback, quality instruction, and community. Belonging to a group has many benefits, particularly for beginners and low-intermediate students. The ideal class gives students tons of opportunities for input and creates a safe environment for output. When they reach a higher level of fluency, the focus can shift to refinement. The ideal class has a great teacher; a safe, positive and supportive class atmosphere; respectful, helpful and engaged classmates; interesting, goal-oriented content; communicative-based activities; single-digit class size; clean and comfortable facilities. Student progress and performance are profoundly influenced by the educational environment in which they learn. Classroom learning is a social activity, therefore, the people—the teacher and classmates—will make or break the learning experience.
A competent teacher can offer students much needed timely feedback while personalizing the learning process. With tutors, students have more control over what, when and how they learn. Great teachers understand their subject matter deeply and can change their approach to suit their students’ needs. Over time, great teachers build a huge database of knowledge and experience which lets them quickly diagnose the problem and come up with solutions for each individual student. If your tutor seems particularly rigid, or inflexible in negotiating the terms of the class—content, instruction style, feedback, activities, etc.—find someone else. Ideally, students have various options at affordable price points, which lets them choose who they learn from. There is no perfect teacher, each instructor will have their own style. However, a few characteristics of a great teacher to consider when you’re searching: character, personality, motivation, talent, competence, and results.
Students can also choose to learn a language by themselves at their own pace. This approach usually requires a bigger time commitment and more intrinsic motivation. For most students, even with an abundance of resources, learning a completely new skill without external help is daunting. Having an instructor to guide you can be infinitely helpful—it reduces the time you spend combing through resources, watching how-to videos, and figuring out the best studying approach. There is a limit to self-analysis. Without quality feedback from another person, students are likely to develop bad habits that impede their progress. On the other hand, one of the advantages of autodidacticism—i.e. self-education—is a deeper understanding of the material. People who are self-taught have to actively engage in the content, whereas, students who learn from others can absorb information passively, sometimes leading to illusional competence. My suggestion, as usual, is to mix and match the different methods to find the right balance for you.
Time & Exposure
Learning any skill takes time and patience. Instead of searching for secrets or shortcuts, students should focus on the basic principles of language learning outlined in this article. Even so, some people are afraid of the basics; they are eager to find a silver bullet and unwilling to dedicate themselves to the grueling, tedious, repetitive fundamentals. The reality is that learning is a cumulative, incremental process. Improvement happens only through consistent effort and repeated exposure over a long period of time. It can take years before students reach a high level of proficiency. In those years, they have to repeatedly fight resistance, monotony, and demotivation. They should expect to put in monotonous hours and go through long periods of stagnation. On the other hand, there are also students who are able to progress much more quickly and achieve a very high level of fluency in a few months. Due to each person’s uniqueness, progress will vary. Different people will pick up different skills at different speeds. Variables that influence this time include age, motivation, prior language learning experience, amount of daily exposure, and language aptitude. Other equally important variables are geography and economics, which cover elements such as linguistic distance, access to resources, and wealth effects.
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is used to describe standardized language ability regardless of the language. It estimates the time required to advance one language level to be approximately 200 hours. This means that a beginner (A1) can reach advanced proficiency (C2) after roughly 1,200 hours of guided learning. That’s 23 hours per week of learning in one year or 11.5 hours per week in two years. Even though these numbers are just guidelines, students benefit from having a reference point. In my own experience, students require 2 or 3 times the amount of time set by CEFR guidelines. In the end, students should remain patient and understand that total study time and exposure are positively correlated with language success.

 

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