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7 tips to be a better language learner

This is one of my most popular blog posts, first published in 2021. I thought it was worth publishing it again and hope you find it useful.

As part of my studies in Applied Linguistics I asked my students to complete a survey about learning styles. I wanted to know whether there is such a thing as a 'good language learner' and importantly, whether people can become better at language learning.

As a teacher, I have always believed in the potential of all my students. I don't believe that there are people who are simply good at learning languages, rather I think that learning a language is a skill that can be developed.

After doing the research and getting feedback from my students, I reached various conclusions about becoming a better language learner. Here are my seven tips:

1. Appreciate that learning a language takes a long time

It is really helpful if students believe that they can succeed. One of my roles as a teacher is to boost the confidence of my learners. One way of doing this is to make sure that learners realise that learning a language is a huge challenge. I've been learning German now for almost twenty years and am still not fluent but I'm happy that my German skills are improving. If I used my German skills more, I'm sure they would improve faster, which takes us neatly to the next recommendation.

2. Use the language whenever possible

I'm guilty of not doing this, particularly when it comes to writing. I tell myself that I don't have time to write in German so I revert to English because it's quicker and simpler. Of course this does not help me to improve my German. If you want to learn a language efficiently, use every opportunity you can to practice!

3. Recognise your achievements

This also ties in with the idea of self-esteem. There is no need to strive for perfection. Be happy that you are able to communicate and remember that people will help you. Focus on the things that you can do, rather than the things that you can't. Share your language successes with your classmates and friends.

4. Regard errors as opportunities to learn

Error correction is a big topic in the field of language teaching. To correct or not to correct? In my experience, students want to receive feedback about their errors. They realise that it might be difficult to stop making these errors, especially if they have been doing something 'wrong' for a long time. However they are happy to get the feedback, particularly when it leads to an interesting discussion about the language in question. There are many ways that a teacher can give feedback (that's a topic for another day). Quite often my slightly puzzled expression is enough for students to realise they've made a slight error which they then try to self-correct. Embrace your errors and see them as evidence that you are making progress!

5. Be willing to try out different strategies

This is really important. There are many different ways to learn. Talk to your teacher and to your fellow students to discover the strategies they use and try them for yourself. Read different authors until you find a favourite, try audio books instead of the written version, practice your language by describing pictures, learn vocabulary by making up stories. The options are endless! Adding some variety to the ways that you learn will help to keep you motivated.

6. Find English language resources which interest you

My students know that I'm always asking them about the books they are reading or the television series that they are watching. Homework can sometimes be a bit boring but watching your favourite television program, or viewing a YouTube video that you are interested in isn't!

7. Ask questions

This is at the heart of my approach to teaching. I want students to ask questions. Students do this because they are interested in the topic and in the explanation provided. In other words, they are motivated to learn. Perhaps their classmates can answer the question and if not, the teacher should be able to. Alternatively, the teacher might demonstrate different resources, such as Skell, a good dictionary or a grammar guide, where the answer can be found. Don't worry about asking questions if you're in a group - probably all the other students will also want to know the answer and will be pleased that you've asked. My favourite students are the ones who ask questions.

I'm trying to follow some of these tips to help me learn German and they are making a difference. My social media feeds are no longer completely in English but contain lots of German and French posts. I've also been watching more German-language TV and have started to write regularly as part of this challenge. Another thing I've been doing is going for walks in the forest with friends and chatting in German, that is probably my favourite way of practicing.

Finally, I want to say a huge thank you to all my students who helped me with this research. I really appreciate your time and help. Thank you 🙏.

Did you find any of the tips helpful? Hopefully they've inspired you to try something new.

Reading list

Brown, H. D. (2000). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching

Corder, S. P. (1967). The Significance of Learner's Errors

Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom

Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2013). How Languages are Learned.

Oxford, R. (1990). Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know


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