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Why is it that some people seem to have no trouble learning English while others, no matter how hard they try, can’t seem to progress as quickly?
Well, it’s not that some people are more intelligent. You don’t have to be smart to learn English.
So what do you have to be? Is there a list of characteristics that can help you successfully master the language?
As it turns out, there’s some research on this.
Researchers and language teachers have also asked this question to try to understand how to improve the performance of students learning a second language, such as English. They came up with a bunch of strategies and techniques that were common among successful English learners.
In this article, we’ll share the “superpowers” that effective English learners have. These are the traits that you can develop to supercharge your English learning and make faster progress than ever before.
1. Consistent Practice
Practice is the single most important factor in learning a language. And that practice must be consistent.
In his TED talk, Josh Kaufman argues that you can learn anything—including a language—in 20 hours of deliberate practice.
That's right, twenty.
Twenty hours works out to be about 45 minutes a day for a month. A month or two isn’t enough to make you speak like a native, but it’ll definitely get you started. Daily practice is a must when it comes to learning a language.
Good English learners know that their progress is closely linked to the habit of studying every day. One of the reasons why many students do not improve is that they do not create an English study plan and routine. You can't study once every two weeks and expect to be fluent in a year. That’s not how it works.
The take-away: Practise English at least a little each day. Build a language-learning schedule using activities for all four skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
2. A Mistake-Friendly Attitude
Everyone makes mistakes learning a language. It’s actually an essential part of the learning process.
But while people do not differ in terms of making mistakes, they do differ in terms of their attitude towards making mistakes.
Some people think that they shouldn’t make mistakes; that they should strive to be perfect. In fact, this is a common myth about becoming fluent in English.
As an English teacher, my best English students are not those that make the fewest mistakes, but those that are not ashamed of making mistakes. These students do not let their fear of making mistakes prevent them from trying and from experimenting with English.
This friendly attitude to mistakes is what makes good English students so successful.
This isn’t just my experience, but it’s supported by research as well: those learners that are the least inhibited are those that learn the best.
The take-away: you will make mistakes, and you might feel foolish. The trick is to breathe through those feelings, acknowledge them, learn from them, and try to avoid making the mistake the next time.
Patience is one of the most important traits in language learning.
If you are impatient and want to learn everything quickly, you might give up as soon as things get difficult.
Effective English learners are kind to themselves. That means they know that the journey to fluency takes time; no one can speak like a native in a week. A language, like playing an instrument, learning to sing, or any other skill, requires dedication and time to become a reality.
The take-away: Be patient. Patience is a superpower for good language learners because they know that, for better or for worse, their study habits and effort will have an impact eventually. It will help you stay committed even when it gets difficult.
4. Exposure to Native English
Several studies have shown that the acquisition of a language is a matter of exposure to the language. This is Krashen’s famous “input” hypothesis: language acquisition will occur with increased language input. And it’s ideal if that input is just a bit beyond your level.
So good language students use tonnes of native English language materials to support their learning. They expose themselves to as many opportunities for contact with the language as possible.
Good English learners:
- Listen to English podcasts
- Watch English TV shows and videos on Netflix or Youtube
- Read English articles or books
- Speak with other English speakers
An effective English learner will look for opportunities to use everything he or she has learned—even if he or she is at a basic level. Everyone’s routines are different, but the secret is to look for ways to build English into your daily routine.
Even 10 years ago, listening to native speakers might have been hard. You might have had to go to an English speaking country, bought English language films, or found a penpal.
Now, with podcasts, YouTube, Netflix, and all manner of content available at your fingertips, there is no reason to not expose yourself to native English at every opportunity.
The take-away: Build English into your day. Try one of these simple and inexpensive ways to learn English from home.
5. A Motivation and a Drive to Communicate
This superpower may seem obvious. Of course you need to be motivated to do anything. Right?
Sure, but this is more than that. Good language learners don’t just have the motivation to study, the way that a person might have the motivation to workout. It’s a drive to be able to communicate. Maybe it’s even an obsession.
Having a strong desire to learn English makes it interesting. If you have this drive, you won’t feel like learning English is an obligation; it’s actually a pleasure.
How do you get this drive?
One way is to really think about your goals. Visualise them. Maybe you want to do a drive across Canada or study in Australia or a job in the UK. Visualise yourself in the car, driving through the Rocky mountains. See yourself at the student bar at the University of Melbourne, chatting with locals. Really focus on the value you’d get. Then, write down your goals to keep them in mind.
Another way is to make sure you learn about things you like. Alastair created English Learning for Curious Minds precisely for those who are motivated to satisfy their curiosity and learn new things (while also practising their English).
The take-away: Find your drive to learn English. When you have an intrinsic motivation to learn English, you’ll find that your study even becomes fun. And you’ll get good at it.
6. Intelligent Guessing
This was one of the findings from the research on what makes an effective English learner that surprised me: the best English learners are good guessers.
But it makes sense. When we learn a language, we’re often presented with words that we don’t know. We’ll hear new words all the time: reading books, listening to an English podcast, or talking to a native speaker.
The good language learner is a good guesser. What does that mean?
It means that they can listen to a sentence, find the words they understand and use the context to infer the meaning. They may take cues from the situation, from characteristics of the speaker, from word associations, and even pieces of outside knowledge. Guessing turns out to be an important way that we develop vocabulary.
This also means that the effective language learner is comfortable with uncertainty. They’re okay with not knowing exactly what was said. Instead, they fully engage with the text even though they are not always sure what it means.
The take-away: If you want to be an effective learner of English, you need to get comfortable with uncertainty. Rather than stopping to engage with a text because you don’t know some words, try to work out the meaning using contextual cues.
Effective English learners are curious. They want to find out more. About everything.
Curious students not only ask questions but also actively seek out the answers. Studies show that students who are curious about a topic tend to learn faster, and that includes languages. For example, one study found that curiosity primes the brain for learning.
In my experience, I have discovered that curiosity is linked to motivation. Students who are motivated to learn are often more curious and actively seek answers to their questions outside of grammar books or classrooms.
The take-away: Get curious about what’s around you, and especially about English. Always ask yourself ‘why’. Go deeper into everything you do, and apply this to your language learning as well.
The best English learners don’t need a prescribed course or curriculum to learn English, they use what they are interested in and what they like… and turn that into an English learning tool.
For example, some people read their favourite books or watch their favourite TV programmes in English; others message strangers on Skype; others use videogames to learn a language; still others people make their own English podcasts.
Each of these people are taking what they like and turning it into a language training exercise.
That ability to not require a curriculum and, instead, to turn one’s hobbies or passions into a language training exercise is common among strong language learners. They don’t need to be given English activities, they can find their own materials and make it an English activity.
The take-away: Figure out what you like to do and figure out a way to make it into an English activity. We can help if what you like to do is listen to podcasts. But there are lots of options. You don’t need an English class to learn English. Instead, you can turn what you already do and what you already like into English learning activities.
Want to Become an Effective English Learner? Develop These Traits
Some people really are better at learning languages. But it’s not because they’re smarter. Instead, they’ve developed a set of characteristics that facilitate learning.
You can develop them too.
Your mission from now on is to evaluate your English learning process and see how you can improve it. Try going through the traits above. Think about them. And then try to apply them.
Trying to take on these traits will help you learn English effectively and get fluent in English quicker.