Ask Elaine: "Now That I Really Want to Learn Language, How Can I Do It?"

Ask Elaine: "Now That I Really Want to Learn Language, How Can I Do It?"

Work/Life English's founder, Elaine Kirn-Rubin, has over 40 years of experience teaching, developing, and publishing effective English language learning and teaching tools. Send us an email below if you want your question covered in the next "Ask Elaine" post! 

10 Reasons to Study English

Why does language proficiency matter?

If you’re reading this blog post, you must already know major reasons that native and non-native speakers strive to use the English language, as efficiently, as effectively, and as well as they can possibly manage. Good language skills increase job and business opportunity. They make further education more readily accessible. They enhance the rewards of travel, both real and virtual, adding to our enjoyment of worldwide culture and entertainment. And most important of all, they increase our communication abilities, making us better able to cope with the everyday challenges, have fulfilling relationships, and develop values and character.

So where can we get advice?

There’s a plethora of advice on how to learn foreign languages—including ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages). Beyond novice levels, most of these directives can also be applied to the attainment of oral and written language-skills proficiency in our native tongues. Some language-learning articles offer established academic counsel, from the days of high school and college foreign language or English courses with tests and grades and credits. Such instructions tend to be seriously solemn, linking gravity of purpose with the rigor of self-disciplined study habits or methodologies.

Also, illustrated summaries of conventional “study tips and tricks” appear at sites like WikiHow. Take a no-nonsense look!

Other locations emphasize the seriously fun aspects of language. Self-assured students of all ages learn linguistic oddities, amusing expressions and slang, rhymes, songs, and tongue twisters. They watch videos, soap operas, and movies; read children’s stories and amusing quotes; hear podcasts; download apps; sing karaoke; play games; tell jokes and laugh at funny ads or cartoons; and have a good time doing whatever they like to do in the language they are progressing in. Typical ideas of this kind are listed at FluentU here. Enjoy them for all they’re worth!

To us, some language-acquisition advice sounds both elemental and brilliant but, as such posts have been updated and energized with visuals, sound, video pep talk, and a lot more knowledge and experience, as at this blog. Other “Language Superlearners” known as hyperpolyglots—and their admirers—have revealed their seriously competitive secrets here, and on comparable sites.

Now that you really want to learn language, how can you do it?

From a combination of ideas from the serious, fun, and competitive web posts listed above—along with our own intuition and experience—here’s our wide-ranging, generalized summary of the concepts, info, and advice that we value most. Whenever we try to learn, create, and communicate, these are the “imperatives” that we give ourselves:

  • Want fervently to optimize your language abilities, whether for necessity (survival and/or everyday tasks), other real reasons in real life, and/or from inner drive to “be all that you can be.” Build emotion. Imagine how mastering the “language of your desires” will not only fulfill short- term objectives—like taking a test, getting a high score, or acing a job interview—but how it will lead to a happier and more successful life overall.
  • Resolve to think in your target language. Linguists say that people don’t really learn their first (mother) or another tongue, they simply get used to it. Getting your brain to think in verse, prose, or any “voice” that it’s unaccustomed to can activate patterns and vocabulary you’ve heard and/or seen by supplying an actual and immediate use for them. For native English speakers, this approach will speed up acquisition of different dialects or even styles of speaking or writing for real-life practical purposes. By providing your mind with “psychological distance” from your usual habits, thinking in another language will “jump-start” your linguistic abilities by re-shaping your state of mind. Eventually, you’ll notice that you’re day-dreaming in it—or even conversing with yourself on the street (which may get you strange looks but will help keep dangerous strangers at a distance!)
  • Use formal language study mainly for its intended functions, maybe to pass exams or courses, obtain certificates or degrees, advance your career, etc. Such concerted effort will certainly increase your potential for acquiring a language well. But isn’t it your authentic, all-embracing goal to maximize your skills and competencies for your life’s work, purposes, and happiness? Then academic assignments, scheduled study sessions, cramming your brain, memorization, and other artificial means will never be as efficient or effective as you need them to be. They may even detract from your motivating enthusiasm, which is crucial to your progress, achievement, and success.
  • Commit to immersing yourself in the language. Anticipate the power of your decision to do what works in producing real and lasting improvement in your language(s) or dialect(s) of choice. For instance, you can surround yourself with everyday English in as many areas of your life as feasible—at work, in business, while shopping, in your family and social life, when you read, through the media, on the internet, and on your own mobile devices. You can use the real-life (physical) and computerized features that work best for you: perhaps research, translation (to or from other languages), music (especially song), audio and video (with and without subtitles), entertainment, social media, and whatever else energizes or inspires when it comes up. Multilingually if it helps, but keep up on news and current events, eat out and cook, do your errands, relax, and have fun! In other words, do what you’d usually do in your regular life, but make your new or continuing language-learning momentum a natural part of it. Make accomplishment, satisfaction, and progress inevitable. 
  • Learn both actively (with conscious effort) and passively (without resistance). Notice, repeat, paraphrase, and delve into explicit learning points. Put vocabulary and phrasing into your own sentences in possible contexts that occur to you; change them into questions, other tense forms, the affirmative or negative, the singular or plural, and the like. For the second, surround yourself with English input in the environment, whether it’s live (from people), audio, video, musical, and/or printed. “Absorb” its effects, its meanings, its word choices, and its structure and patterns. As you develop “feel for the language,” the grammar and expressions you need, even how they sound and are spelled, are likely to come to mind naturally, if and when you need them for real. 
  • Learn both inductively—by sensing and stating conclusions based on specific examples—and deductively—by applying principles to particular instances of “well-put” English. Get used to noticing meaningful features, like noun and verb forms, related parts of speech, word order, emphasis, length and rhythm of utterances and printed text, synonyms and opposites, connecting words, etc., Of course, take note of their functions, contexts, and “messages.” To “test your hypotheses” about what language is appropriate and useful for your intents and purposes, look up what you plan to say or write online or in dictionaries, to see how other people make use of it. Say or write it to proficient speakers/writers that welcome involvement in your efforts. Request and take in corrections and suggestions. And if you’re enjoying the process, think of, say, and/ or write down even more ways to express the same (or opposite or different)—ideas. In your head and/or with others that are interested, “play games” with language whenever you can, silently, aloud, and/or mutually. 
  • Deliberately seek out what you need to know in each situation, whether it’s vocabulary necessary to understand or express a thought or a grammar pattern that fits into current aspects of your life. Unless you love memorizing long lists of vocabulary because it’s in your nature, don’t burden yourself with “learning all the words possible” before you need them. (Since 20% of English vocabulary can give you up to 80% comprehension, it’s far more efficient to look up words or ask listeners for phrasing when you need them to express a point). Of course, it’s probable that some memorization will be necessary. If it is, it’s more effective and more fun to apply your imagination to proven learning techniques—like association (mentally connecting things), visualization (inventing memorable images), creating stories with the relevant items, using rhymes and other mnemonics, coming up with cognates (words with the same origin) and similar sounds that have meaning to you, and other personalized “tricks of the trade.”
  • Be on the lookout for target-language material that interests you. Huge amounts of English-language audio and/or visual matter appears in the media There are movies (with subtitles for the audio or translations into a different language) and TV, including cable networks, broadcasts news, talk shows, sports, documentaries, comedy, soap operas, series, films, animation, and the like. Radio offers other formats without visuals. Readily available online are printed articles and blog entries to skim or read; demonstrations to watch; lectures to hear; pictures to view; games to play; chats and video conversations to take part in; and much more. Print matter can be newspapers, fliers, magazines; signs, advertising; non-fiction reference books, e-books, novels, (illustrated) stories; and a lot more. From such sources, you’re likely to pick up interesting and important language in memorable contexts, some of which will come to mind at exactly the right moments. And so much input will result naturally in output, as you talk about what “grabbed” you, and as you write or even journal about it.
  • Enjoy improving your English proficiency, skills, and knowledge. Tell others what you have learned or discovered and what has excited or impressed you. Make language acquisition an adventure, like the first time you discovered reading, or another culture, or the Internet. As you attain your goals, express your enthusiasm to others; help them along their own satisfying roads to success.


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