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How Language Learning Works

3 essential conditions for language learning

Students often ask me questions about how to learn English, the language I teach. These are some of the most common ones:

  • Is it better to read or listen?
  • Should I do more speaking or more writing?
  • How can I motivate myself to learn?
  • How can I learn English quickly?
  • Do I need to learn grammar?
  • I always think in my first language when I speak. Is this OK?

You might already know that there are a million ways to learn a language. You can read books, listen to songs, watch movies, take a course, use language apps and websites, hire a private teacher, move abroad, marry a native speaker (the fastest way to improve!) and so on. 

This might be nothing new to you.

Whatever you decide to do, keep in mind that there are three essential gearwheels that you have to put into your language learning machine if you want it to function properly: exposure, communication and motivation.

1. Exposure to language

Exposure = ‘receiving’ language

You can read or listen, or better still, you can do both. Expose yourself to a lot of language that you can understand without too much difficulty. This is what teachers call comprehensible input, and it’s crucial to improve. 

When I worked in London, my non-native English speaker colleagues were my main source of comprehensible input and my English improved greatly just by working and chatting with them.

Exposing your brain to comprehensible language is good, but this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read or listen to something that’s beyond your current abilities. Just keep in mind that it’s not going to be easy, so be ready to meet difficulties.

When I was an intermediate learner of English, for example, I used to watch The Simpsons and expected to understand everything. The reality was that I could understand very little, sometimes nothing at all.

It was clear that I was not ready for such an advanced level of language input. They spoke too fast, used lots of words I couldn’t recognize, and structured their sentences in a way that made no sense to me. I had to be realistic and very soon gave up the idea of understanding everything.

But instead of beating myself up and telling myself that I was an idiot who couldn’t even understand cartoons, I created some personal mini-challenges while watching.

I started watching episodes with a task in mind: ‘Let’s see how much I can understand today’. This was fun and I always felt good when I was able to catch some words and expressions. If you don’t take yourself too seriously, this can be a very motivating and enjoyable activity.

You’ll understand what you’ll understand, and if you don’t understand, it’s fine because learning a second language isn’t easy. Get comfortable with this idea and don’t believe those who tell you that it is.

If you’re exposing yourself to a lot of input and turning problems into opportunities, I can guarantee you’re on the right track.

2. Communication: using language for real purposes

In other words, speak and write to real people to do real things (socialising, asking for information, buying things, exchanging opinions, making friends, flirting, etc.)

This is what we need a language for. Ultimately, you need a second or third language to communicate with people who don’t speak your first language.

Learning grammar rules, vocabulary, and pronunciation is great, but it’s not everything. If you’re only studying the language and not using it, you’re not doing enough. It’s like learning how to drive by only reading a manual and never getting in a real car. Impossible.

When you start communicating, amazing things happen: you will need to clarify your message, reformulate, repeat, correct yourself, ask if you don’t understand, think about what you’re saying, find the right words, listen to what people tell you, pay attention to a particular word you’ve just heard, and so on.

This is how you develop.

And yes, in your mind you will translate things from your first language into the one you’re learning. It’s inevitable. It’ll happen and it’s OK.

3. Motivation

Research into motivation is wide, but let’s keep it simple here: there’s no way to learn anything without motivation.

No one can improve your language skills for you. Your teachers can help you, but they aren’t magicians. I always tell my students that if they don’t work at their English, no one else will.

We’re all different so we might have different goals in life and different reasons to learn, but I can share some daily affirmations I had when I was a student that I used to keep my motivation high:

  • My English isn’t the best today, but one day it’ll be excellent. Keep practicing, listening, studying, speaking, reading, writing.
  • It’s OK if I don’t understand. English isn’t my first language.
  • It’s OK if I make mistakes. English isn’t my first language (I should’ve used this much more!)
  • If I don’t practice, I won’t improve.
  • If I can’t communicate well in English, I won’t be able to interact with non-Italian speakers.
  • If I can’t communicate well in English, I won’t be able to understand how other cultures see the world.
  • If I can’t communicate well in English, I won’t become an English teacher.

These kept me going. What are yours?

Obviously, your level of motivation depends on your goals. I wanted to become a teacher so I wanted to achieve a native-like level of English. You might well have a different goal.

What’s your personal objective? What do you want to achieve? Do you need to speak like a native?

Take my girlfriend, for example. She has very good English but knows she makes lots of small mistakes. This doesn’t bother her, though. She’s proud of her achievements in learning the language and thinks her English is enough.

Whatever your language goal is, work at it constantly, stop making excuses, and enjoy the learning process.

These elements are vital, and to make progress you need all three of them. So, listen, speak, write, read. And believe you can do it because you already have what you need to succeed.
Now, go do it and make it happen!

Fabio Cerpelloni is an English language teacher, writer, author, and podcaster from Italy. You can find out more about him and his work by clicking on his glass of beer in the photo.