Ten rules for effective language learning


Apologies in advance to all my readers. This is quite a lengthy and serious post and one that will require  your concentration, but these are, what I like to call, the ground rules for learning a foreign language, the key principles to ensure an optimal learning experience.

Let’s get on with it then, shall we?

The truth about learning a  foreign language is that everybody has the potential to be successful, if they put their mind to it. Here are 10  rules to keep in mind to make the process effective and enjoyable at the same time.

1. Learn with a long-term goal in mind

Think about a simple driving course. You don’t do it just for the sake of memorising the rules of the highway code and spending twenty hours in the car with the instructor telling you what to do. You do it with the view to one day being able to cruise independently and freely to any destination imaginable and feeling  in full control of the vehicle.

It’s the same with learning to master a foreign language. It’s a process that requires some guidance, practice and time but with the mastery comes the world of infinite possibilities: better career prospects and employment opportunities, more options for education, better travel experience, international friendships and unlimited understanding of authentic materials (books, films, TV programmes, magazine and newspaper articles, etc.) to name but a few.

Decide what it is that YOU  want to be able to do and study towards this objective. Studying anything without the right  motivation or without understanding why you do it is pointless.

2. Set short-term goals to help you organize your learning

Short term objectives  are as important as long-term ones. While in the long term you  aspire to achieve a strong command of the target language, short-term goals are the little steps that will take you to that destination. A short-term goal might be to learn seven news words a week, get to the next level on your language app or listen to two podcasts a month.

Short-term goals keep you on track and help you organize your learning. It’s a good idea to keep a journal too and write down your action plan and  record your progress.

3. Be realistic about your goals

All goals, big and small, are limited by our human capacities. You might be the most ambitious creature on the planet and yet you’ll not be able to memorize 100 new words a day, unless you’re some sort of savant or  a genius. In a similar fashion, you can’t expect to progress from elementary to advanced in the course of a couple of months. Learning takes time and for your goal-based scheme to work, goals must be realistic and achievable, otherwise you’ll end up feeling frustrated and disheartened.

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4. Make learning a regular affair

Remember, language learning is a commitment and frequent  and consistent effort is key to success. You’re more likely to progress fast if you study the language three times a week for one hour than if you do it once a week for three hours. Ideally, you should incorporate language learning into your daily routine, even if it’s just for twenty minutes a day. Decide when you are most efficient (in the morning or in the afternoon, during the week or at the weekend) and make a point of allocating a certain amount of time for studying.

5. Realise that there’s more than one way to skin a cat

A lot of people just like to study with a good old coursebook or do an online course, but there are many ways to enhance learning. You might want to listen to a podcast on your phone on the way to work,  read a novel (or a graded reader version if you’re a lower level), watch a youtube video, download an app for fun language games or  tune in to a radio station in the language you want to learn. The internet is your best friend for whatever resources you’re after so dig in to discover a whole world of learning opportunities.

6. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

Remember when you first learnt to ride a bike? It involved a few crashes and grazed elbows and knees. Whatever you are learning to do, you are bound to make mistakes and stumble and it’s o.k. – that’s part and parcel of the learning process. People who don’t make mistakes don’t develop, don’t progress, don’t grow.  A fear of making a mistake will hold you back and kill the spontaneity  needed for interaction to happen. Don’t let that be the case.

7. Combine  language learning with your hobby

It’s a smart approach to combine your  pastime activities with language learning. Whatever you are into, whether it’s gardening, cooking, work-outs, yoga, make-up, arts and crafts, instead of choosing articles and videos in your own language, opt for ones in the target language to kill two birds with one stone.

8. Find opportunities to activate the language

Wherever you are in your journey towards your big language goal, always look for opportunities to activate your skills. Make international friends, engage in conversation with people on various topical forums, join a speaking club (there are plenty of those to be found in big cities and also online), write a review of a hotel you stayed at, or a product you used. This will make you realise what a super power knowing  a foreign language is and it will work wonders for your motivation too.

9. Revise

Unfortunately not all language content we ever come in contact with gets automatically saved in our long -term memory. In fact a very small proportion does, unless we make an effort to remember. Revise vocabulary frequently and regularly to build up a lasting lexical database. You can use various mnemonic techniques such as association, acronyms or drawing to aid your memory. Write down sentences or stories with the words you want to learn and try to relate the new language to your personal experiences. Keep a diary. Create your own flash cards. The more the target language is repeated and reused, the more likely it is to end up in long-term memory.

10. Have fun

Even if it was your boss who made you do a foreign language course, you must never see learning as a drag, otherwise you’ll fail. There are fun ways to learn for everybody, whatever floats your boat. I hope I have given you some ideas in the previous points but the world is your oyster when it comes to learning possibilities nowadays so there’s bound to be an enjoyable method that will suit your needs. Become a linguistic explorer, don’t be afraid to experiment, challenge yourself and have fun while you do all those things. With all the learning tools available today, you really can.

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