What makes a language learner an effective acquirer of
a foreign language? What methods and approaches do they use that enables
them to become fluent more quickly than the average language learner?
What can we learn from their techniques that we can pass on to other language
They take and create opportunities
to use the language
Many language learners avoid using the language in the early stages for
fear of a breakdown in communication. The good language learner, on the
other hand, uses the language at every available opportunity. They are
forever seeking out opportunities both to use and to hear the language,
e.g. chatting with storekeepers (rather than just purchasing the goods
they have gone there to buy); asking people at the bus stop how to get
to where they want to go (even though they are clear on this already!)
instead of just getting on the bus; asking someone in the street to explain
some unusual object or event (rather than just passing it by); asking
someone on the bus or train to explain something in their Chinese textbook,
etc.. All the while, therefore, they are taking and creating opportunities
to use the language.
They practice what they have
Many language learners practice in class, but few practice enough outside
the classroom. The good language learner practices what they have just
learnt as soon as possible. For example, while on bus or bicycle, they
are going through in their mind what they have recently learnt in class
by holding an imaginary conversation with someone. And straight after
class, or in the evening, they visit their sympathetic listeners (whether
they be neighbors, street vendors, store assistants, etc.) telling them
what they have just learnt that day.
They are willing to try anything
in order to get their message across
Many language students, if they don't know the correct word or phrase
for what they wish to communicate, simply avoid the subject completely
or use English. The good language learner, possessing such a strong desire
to communicate, is willing to try out different ways in order to get their
message across. For instance, if they don't know the word for 'language
school', they might say (in Chinese), "the place where I learn Chinese".
They even resort to acting if necessary! They are willing to try almost
anything, even to appear foolish if necessary, in order to communicate.
They are willing to live with
The average language learner, when hearing something which they don't
understand, often feels embarrassed and may try to change to another topic
of conversation. The good language learner doesn't give up so easily!
They are able to overcome their initial feelings of uneasiness, and in
fact, may even enjoy it -- seeing it as a game to be played! They hazard
a guess as to what the meaning might be, trying out their hunches by asking
suitable questions which they hope will shed light on the matter. The
good language learner uses all the clues which the context of the conversation
offers them. And they are content to rest with a general conclusion as
to what the meaning might be, knowing that everything will clarify itself
They monitor their own speech
as well as the speech of others
Many language students are so bound up with getting their message across
or trying to understand what the other person is trying to say that they
learn little from the communication process. The good language learner,
however, is firstly monitoring their own speech -- listening to themselves
speak and noting how their speech is being received by their listeners
(e.g. facial expressions, etc.). To them, such feedback is very important.
Then, secondly, they are monitoring the other person's speech -- noting
how they use words and phrases, as well as grammar structures.
They are constantly looking
for patterns in the language
Many language learners absorb only what they are taught in class about
the language; if the teacher or their textbook hasn't yet covered that
point, they shut their minds to it. The good language learner is constantly
analyzing, categorizing and synthesizing their new language. They know
that learning a new language is a very complex matter -- like putting
together the pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle. They absorb what they are
taught in class, but they are also actively involved in discovering where
new pieces fit in to the overall picture. And so they are constantly trying
to find schemes for classifying the information they have gathered.
They are a systematic organizer
The poor language learner often lacks a planned and systematic approach
to acquiring the language, and hence fails to reach a reasonable standard
of performance. The good language learner, however, recognizing the magnitude
of the task, sets down a plan of campaign, dividing their study program
into attainable goals, and organizing regular times for study. Then they
systematically record what they learn about the language -- whether pronunciation,
grammar or vocabulary -- so that it is readily available for reference.
They are willing to experiment
with different learning methods
The poor language learner, upon discovering that the way they were taught
to learn the language has proven ineffective, complains and gives up!
The good language learner tries out different approaches to acquiring
the language, chooses those that work for them and discards the rest.
They also note how other people learnt the language, trying out their
methods to see if they are suitable for them.
They make errors work
The poor language learner is so afraid of making mistakes that they say
nothing until they are sure that they can say it absolutely correctly
-- and that day never arrives! The good language learner knows differently.
They recognize that errors are a part of the learning process itself and
looks upon them as a potential source of information, as well as a way
of improving their language skills. They not only note their errors, but
also try to understand why they made them and how to avoid making them
again in the future.
They are a friendly initiator
For many language students, it must be the other person who initiates
a conversation before communication takes place. The good language learner
knows that it is best if they start the ball rolling by initiating the
conversation with a question or comment. And by doing it in a warm and
friendly tone of voice, they find that the other person is usually very
happy to chat with them.
People often say, "Extroverts get the language much more easily than
introverts." This is only partly true. Extroverts do have the advantage
of being less shy than introverts, but they often lack the discipline
and determination that learning a language requires. The person who succeeds
is the restless searcher after clues -- one whose mind is constantly looking
for the thousands of pieces in the jigsaw that will eventually fit together
to complete the puzzle. They understand how to use the people all around
them to help reach their goal of fluency in Chinese and hence successfully
integrate into the local community.
(This article is adapted from 'What the
Good Language Learner can Teach Us' by Rubin & Thompson)
The Good Language
Learner's Strategies 1