3 Key Factors when Learning a Language

I’m currently learning a language using the Say Something In series. Apart from finding the series remarkably effective, what I’m particularly delighted by are the additional tips and tricks the course provides to help you become a better language learner.

Concept of six ability in human brain

The study of any subject, be it history, biology or a language, requires developing good study habits. This is something which is often overlooked in today’s education, as most schools and institutions have to focus on the transfer of knowledge and high-stakes assessment.

In most learning establishments, teaching is seen as a universal trait: what is good teaching for one subject is good for another. However, I think the approach to effective teaching should vary from subject to subject, particularly between diverse topics such as history, calculus and grammar.

To learn a foreign language you need effective teaching techniques as well as effective learning techniques. So what makes for good learning habits when studying a language? Keep reading to find out…

Short Term Memory

As Daisy Christodoulou points out in her seminal tome Seven Myths about Education, short term memory plays a crucial role in the Learning Process. You first have to place new words and phrases into your short term memory and practise recalling them regularly before they will move into your long term memory. Recalling items from your short term memory can be hard work, especially since it can only hold around 3 to 5 items at a time. So if you’ve just learnt to say in a foreign language I’d likecoffee, please, with, milk, cold, and hot in a foreign language, then stringing together the sentence I’d like a coffee with cold milk please requires you to hold around four lexical items in your short term memory, and that’s besides thinking about their pronunciation and any grammatical features. However, this becomes easier once these have been automated.

Automation

Trying to recall words, phrases and grammatical structures from your short term memory can be hard work, but it’s simplified with a process in language learning known as Automation. As Thornbury (Online) points out in his blog post, automation is the ability to “draw on” memorised chunks of language without having “to assemble each utterance from scratch” or “word by word” and with no “expense” to fluency. But how do you reach automation? First and foremost, through regular practice! You have to move what you’re learning into your short term memory, then your long term memory and then become efficient in recalling it without even thinking.  This process is not quick and it will be take time. It also involves practice in the form of focused manipulation i.e. sitting down and trying to recall discrete items of language, as well as attempts to recall language when communicating a message in real life.

During A Task

As language is a school subject, we’re often taught to set aside dedicated study time. This is because other school subjects, such as history and mathematics, often require you to sit down and process a wealth of information. However, the predominant function of language is communication: we use language to encode and decode spoken and written messages. That means we use language as a mere tool when carrying out other tasks, such as explaining an idea, reading the newspaper or catching up with a friend. It shouldn’t come then as too much of a surprise to be told that it’s beneficial to learn a language while doing something else. After all, that’s when you’d use it in real life, right? So if you’re using an audio-based series, such as the Say Something In series, then why not listen to the lessons while running, driving to work or cleaning the house?

So there you have it, three key things to take into consideration when learning a foreign language. Have you considered any of these during your own language learning? If you’re a teacher, what about with your learners – do you recommend any of these tips or others when helping them to become better learners? If you do, we’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

References

Christodoulou, D. (2014) Seven myths about education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Thornbury, S. (Online) “A is for authenticity” An A-Z of ELT Blog. Available at: https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/a-is-for-automaticity/

 

15 thoughts on “3 Key Factors when Learning a Language

  1. “So if you’ve just learnt to say in a foreign language I’d like, coffee, please, with, milk, cold, and hot in a foreign language, then stringing together the sentence I’d like a coffee with cold milk please requires you to hold around four lexical items in your short term memory, and that’s besides thinking about their pronunciation and any grammatical features. However, this becomes easier once these have been automated.So learning a language involves practice.”

    To whom is this dross directed? Who do you suppose needs telling that language learning involves practice? Just how unoriginal and trite can suggestions for “practice” get?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I know at least one of my English students listens to audio books whilst he is driving, which would seem to fit with your point about during a task. I also thought the point of sitting down and reading books was interesting. I know we often talk about learning language like this, and you’re quite right. It’s actually quite a different thing to learning about an academic subject. Practise and frequent short repetition and exposure to the language seems to be key in my experience.

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    1. The merit of, say, listening to audio books while driving is surely only that it constitiutes an effective use of time, not that the benefits of the input are actually enhanced by our doing something else at the same time. Do we seriously think that listening to audio books whilst not driving is a less effective means of acquiring another language than is doing so whilst driving, that the driving itself actually enhances language acquisition? The notion, I think, is sufficiently counter-intuitive as to require very considerable evidence to support it.

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      1. I often listen to Italian radio whilst ironing, but do so because there’s ironing needing done, not because I think the act of ironing will improve my comprehension of what I hear on the radio.

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        1. Hi! No, I don’t mean it makes the learning better or more effective. It’s just more reflective of real language use: we listen to the radio or chat to our friend while driving. As you said, it’s good use of time 🙂

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  3. Language can b learned very easily by thinking in the very language one is learning. Learning new words on daily basis and using them again and again in communication. If someone feel shy they should practice with their own children.

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      1. Hi Lana! Thank you for the comment. It’s a great question and one I’ve pondered for some time. From my experience of language education and living abroad, I think that this has less to do with language knowledge and more to do with culture. If you spoke French every day, read French newspapers and watched French TV, but lived in Spain, I don’t think you’d end up thinking in French necessarily, as the surroundings, noises and sounds, and culture are all in Spanish.

        What do you think? 🙂

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        1. I do think culture plays a role in this aspect of language learning, there seems to be more to this. I teach secondary students with refugee status in Texas. The younger they begin they seem to think in both languages and/or the most convenient. Adults and older teens struggle with the skill even when they have been almost totally immersed in English.

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          1. Ah yes, that’s all to do with Critical Period Hypothesis. It’s the idea that children can acquire any language as a native language up until a certain age. After this point, native like acquisition is impossible, hence my adult learners never seem to become natives of second language.

            There’s lots of about this in the ELT literature, but for quick reference here’s a Wiki page on it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_period_hypothesis

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    1. Hi Aabish! Thank you for the comment 🙂 I think practice is very important. I never used to have anyone to practise speaking French with, so my mother would listen to me, even though she didn’t understand. Or sometimes I would just practise speaking aloud on my own. Either way, what was important was that I practised producing the language.

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  4. This is a key point that I focus on in many of my blog posts. Students need to be responsible for their own learning and feel that the Teacher gives them opportunities to use language and be creative. If this does not happen, learners will never reach the automation stage. Language needs to be flexible so We also need to be. Teachers need to find strategies to get this across to their students in a fun and dynamic way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi there! Is it Marc from Intercambio Idiomas?

      Thank you for the comment. I really share your take on this. Teachers do need to give learners the opportunities to practise putting the language they’ve learnt into use. And as you said, this is the only way automation will happen i.e. with plenty of practice 🙂

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