How to become a successful language learner

“How can I best learn English quickly and effectively?” has been the subtlest question from students I have faced in my teaching career. From my observation, however, many Cambodian students do not in fact know how to ‘learn’ a second language effectively. They seem to try to ‘study’ the language more. Learning, to me, is a more subconscious and light-hearted approach to language acquisition, mostly done away from more intense serious ‘study’ we do in class. Indeed, learning a second language—unlike taking a subject like Economics or Biology where serious study is required—can be enjoyable and more relaxing while at the same time effective. What, then, is central to successful language learning? This article will try to unravel some of the secrets behind effective language learners by looking at my own learning experience of English and the success stories of some of my students.

There is no one best way of learning a new language. That is, there are many factors that contribute to success in second language acquisition. However, my long history of language learning—five languages altogether—has taught me that it is more effective to learn a language naturally than intensively or analytically. In the case of learning English, Cambodian students, who face so much interference from their native language—Khmer, have to try to best create an English-speaking environment around them. From my observation, successful language learners are those who (1) know what learning style works best with them and (2) expose themselves to the language as much as possible.

Throughout my history of language learning, like many successful language learners, I have been an audio-visual learner—that is, someone who learns best by hearing things and seeing or reading things. Since this is my preferred way of learning, I have adapted suitable learning strategies and basically learned English by ‘listening to’ and ‘seeing’ English. During my early days of studying English, I believed this style worked best with me. And it did!

Being an audio-visual kind of learner helped improve my English proficiency in all the four language skills. I enjoyed exposing myself to a variety of audio-visual language materials ranging from BBC radio broadcasts, to HBO movies, to the latest English smash hits. This helped me become a good listener and speaker of English. In addition, I was a keen reader, enjoying the pleasures found in novels and story books, and often found myself buried in extensive reading. In other words, I read unspecified texts and articles of various topics of my interest (unassigned topics). Outside class, I frequented the Self-Access Center and the Internet and could make use of the abundant information the two sources provided. To my surprise, extensive reading also contributed to my interest and improvement in writing. I felt that the more I read, the more natural and well-structured my writing became.

In addition to improvements in the four language skills, my approach to acquiring the language meant that I had to be more of a communicative learner than an analytical one. This helped me learn grammar and vocabulary more effectively. From my experience, direct study and analyses of grammatical points and the memorization of vocabulary was somewhat boring and difficult, and proved to be only a minor driving force to success. Instead, it was my active use of the language both in class and outside class that really substantiated my knowledge bank of grammar and vocabulary.

In class, I remember being active in group and whole class discussions, debates, presentations, and other activities. Outside class, I tried to grasp any available opportunity to use the language. These included small talks with friends and native speakers, participations in workshops and conferences, self-study and research, listening to songs, watching movies and documentaries, writing e-mails and journal entries, and any conceivable activity that required me to use the language—English, of course.

Now looking at my own students’ learning process, I can see success stories in the making. In all of my classes, I have observed that top students do share common characteristics. Through interview, I found out that all of them are very active in class, do extensive self-study outside class, have set goals for their language learning, and are not easily discouraged by mistakes they make in their pursuit of improved English proficiency. “I don’t mind if people laugh when I speak English,” said one of them, confidently.

Although successful language learners possess certain identifiable qualities, they may use different strategies to achieving success. In any case, they all know what works best with them. To be a better learning learner, then, it is your task to identify what learning style works best with you to make your learning process more enjoyable. If my history of language learning sounds familiar to you and similar to what you practice, I am reasonably confident that it can earn you an A for most of your works—it really did for my TOEFL! If what you’ve read sounds out of your sphere of learning, and learning English has so far been difficult for you, I suggest you give my way a try! More importantly, if you have other [better] ways of learning a new language quickly and effectively, please do share your experience with all of us. After all, ‘learn’ smart, don’t ‘study’ hard!

Author’s note: This article was published in a 2007 edition of the IFL Prospect, the English Department’s Newsletter (volume 1, issue 3/April-June 2007). I wrote this for an audience of year one and two students. It details my personal experience with learning English. As I have received some very positive feedback on that article, I thought it might be useful for other language learners the general public to get another perspective on learning English.”

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