Learning a second language has a lot in common with learning to play an instrument or sport. They all require frequent practice and sustained effort. Over time learners, musicians and athletes receive feedback, refine their techniques and develop positive habits.
While individual talent or aptitude can be a factor, success in learning a new skill is more often the result of other characteristics. Ambition? Creativity? Organisation? What are the characteristics of a ‘Good Language Learner’?
Keep reading to find out the answer to this and other important questions. For example, how is learning a language different from other skills? How long does a language take to learn? What can you do to speed up that process?
The 10,000 hour rule was made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his famous book, Outliers. The main idea is that it takes a total of 10,000 hours to learn a new skill. To put that into perspective, that’s the time you would spend in a full-time job over a period of 5 years!
This estimate is wrong and here’s why. The original research, carried out by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson, looked at expert musicians. So, really, 10,000 hours is the time it takes not to learn a skill, but to become the very best at it. For most language learners, the aim is not to be world-class.
Language learning doesn’t involve one skill, it involves many skills. Besides the ‘classic four’ (reading, writing, listening and speaking), skills related to phonetic memory, the ability to retain vocabulary and solve grammatical problems are also essential.
Even so, with the right approach, a learner can reach a good level in a new language surprisingly quickly. In his TED talk, Josh Kaufman sets the figure at just 20 hours!
Twenty hours works out as 45 minutes a day for a month. OK, you’re a busy person, so how about 30 minutes? A month isn’t enough to know a language inside-out, but daily practice is a great start.
You see, a ‘Good Language Learner’ doesn’t necessarily spend a lot of time studying. As long as you spend your time focusing on what’s important, you can maximise your efforts. This brings us onto our next rule.
The 80/20 rule! This states that “80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes”. The rule has been used to explain trends in many different fields, from economics to baseball. As for language learning, it predicts that 80% of your progress will come from 20% of your training.
The point is that some activities are more effective than others. Clearly, half-watching an English TV series on netflix (while playing on your phone) is not time well spent.
So how does a Good Language Learner spend their time?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to language learning, so you need to try different activities and resources and identify what works for you.
Whether you prefer using pen and paper or the latest app, it’s important to be organised and keep track of your learning.
These are rhymes and word associations that help you to store new vocabulary and assimilate new rules. E.g. when you come across a new word, try to connect it to a song or a brand name that you know.
The activities you do in class are important for your progress, but so is what you do out of the classroom. You should always be on the lookout for opportunities to practise.
One of the frustrations of learning a second language is not understanding everything that’s being said around you. This is normal and it’s something you just have to accept. The uncertainty will push you to learn more.
Remember, communication is not only about language. Use people’s gestures, facial expressions and other contextual information to help you follow the conversation.
Although no two languages are the same, there are always some useful similarities. Instead of completely ignoring your first language, start thinking about what you can and cannot borrow.
Until you become highly proficient in English, there will be gaps in your knowledge. It’s fine, just think about your options and have a guess! This is an important way of testing out new words and structures.
Of course, some of this guessing will lead to mistakes, maybe even some embarrassment. Don’t let it get to you, learn from your mistakes and, with any luck, you won’t repeat them.
If you can’t think of the word, try to describe it. If you don’t understand someone, ask them to speak more slowly. These are all techniques that help you keep the conversation going.
Find the following words in the article and then write down any new ones you didn’t know.
To carry out (pv): to conduct or do something.
World-class (adj): to be among the best in the world.
To know something inside out (exp): to know all the parts of something.
To half-watch (v): to watch with half of your attention.
One-size-fits-all (adj): suitable for all circumstances.
To be on the lookout for (vp) : to be watching carefully in order to obtain something.
pv = phrasal verb
adj = adjective
exp = expression
v = verb
vp = verb phrase