Lessons From Sun Tzu’s "The Art of War" For English Learners

Published on
January 28, 2021
Updated on
November 15, 2022
min read
This article may contain affiliate links
Written by
Alastair Budge

It’s a 2,500-year-old book about military strategy written by a Chinese general. Is there anything that English learners can take from it?

Lessons From Sun Tzu’s "The Art of War" For English Learners
Table of contents

This is a shortened version of Episode 128 - The Art of War

"The Art of War" was written around 2,500 years ago, in China's Warring States period. 

In it, Sun Tzu writes about military strategy, how to negotiate the battlefield, how to outsmart your enemy, and how to be victorious against all the odds.

It’s a book that has been trusted not just by military leaders, but by sports managers, business executives, and people like you and me, trying to live their lives in a more effective way.

When Sun Tzu was writing it, the English language didn’t even exist.

But some of the lessons that Sun teaches in the book are applicable today, 2,500 years later, when it comes to learning English.

Here are three of them.

Lesson 1: Be prepared to change

“Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”

If this sounds like gobbledygook to you, it can be translated as “don’t keep doing the same things over and over”.

Now, this could perhaps be applied to any situation in life, but it is particularly appropriate when it comes to learning English.

Learning English is a journey. The start might seem easy, as you discover that it’s actually not too difficult to hold a conversation. 

Then you start to discover the delights of phrasal verbs, you realise that English pronunciation is far from easy, and you feel like you’re stuck on the intermediate plateau.

As you progress on your English learning journey, the same things that got you this far might not work as well to get you to the next stage.

Once you are intermediate or above, spending hours with your head stuck in a grammar book isn’t going to be very useful, and it’s not going to be much fun either.

If you can understand most of a film with English subtitles, it might be time to turn the subtitles off.

If you know that your listening comprehension is good, but you feel uncomfortable speaking, perhaps it’s time to try something like Shadowing.

The point is that as you progress, the tactics that got you this far might not take you to the next level, so be prepared to change. 

Especially if you are learning independently, you will be able to build your own English course, and choose from an ‘infinite variety’ of materials.

Lesson 2: Have a plan (and the tools to achieve it)

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy are the noise before defeat.”

When it comes to military strategy, of course it’s necessary to have an overall plan and the tactics that you can use to achieve it. The greatest military commanders in history weren’t the ones with the strongest swords, but the ability to outthink the enemy.

Learning English isn’t warfare, but the importance of having a plan (and the tools to achieve it) cannot be overstated.

On this blog we might sound like a broken record (we’ve already written about everything from mind mapping to sticking to your learning goals, creating your own learning system to creating your own immersion course), but one of the main differences between successful and unsuccessful independent English learners is the ability to make a plan and stick to it.

It’s important to have a plan, but it’s also important to have the tools to achieve it. Sun says that you will achieve ‘victory’ with a plan but no tools (but it will be very slow), but if you only have the tools and no plan, you will be defeated.

So, the smart independent English learner follows the advice of the great Master Sun and builds her own English learning toolkit, and develops her own plan of how to achieve her goals.

Lesson 3: Do everything

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized." 

Sun Tzu suggests that when a military commander sees an opportunity on the battlefield, he should take it, because with every new opportunity, another one presents itself.

When it comes to learning English–and especially for independent English learners–exactly the same is true.

With every opportunity to engage in English, another one crops up.

If you think of some of the most successful English learners that you know, they probably put themselves in situations where they can speak in English as often as possible. They find English conversation partners, they are part of English communities, perhaps they even do things like start a podcast in English.

The point is that every time you have an opportunity to use English, you give yourself the chance of discovering new opportunities. 

Perhaps it’s attending one of our members-only sessions and finding a conversation partner, perhaps it’s starting to keep a journal and discovering that you love the habit of writing in English

It could be anything. But it’s only through taking these opportunities that they start to multiply.

Final thoughts

The Art of War might have been written 2,500 years ago, but there are several important pieces of advice that you can apply to your own study of English. 

There’s one major difference between learning English and The Art of War, and it’s that learning a language shouldn’t be thought of as a battle.

There is no enemy, despite how you might feel about phrasal verbs.

You aren’t fighting against anyone, and indeed the magical thing about learning a language is that it isn’t a competition, so you might be thinking that you should ignore all of the advice you’ve just heard.

But if there is something that you can take from this 2,500 year old book that does help you with your English learning, then you won’t be the first–and certainly won’t be the last–to be guided by the works of Master Sun.

You might also like

24 Unorthodox Ways To Stick To Your English Learning Goals in 2024
mins to read
Learning English is hard, and one of the hardest things about it is staying motivated. Here are 24 ways that you can stay motivated and hit your goals in 2024.
10 Activities to Improve Your English Pronunciation [Self-Study Guide #7]
mins to read
Pronunciation is more than just getting different sounds correct. It’s speaking clearly with the correct pace, tone and stress. These ten simple activities will help you practise all these things.
The Introvert’s Guide to Learning English
mins to read
To learn English you have to use it… but what if you’re shy? Don’t worry: introverts can master English, too—here’s how.