The Secret to Learning a Language

A lot of people might wonder what the secret to learning is, and I learnt it today. You can just jump to the end if you don’t want to wade through the drivel between these opening remarks and the ‘secret’.
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The drivel: I am often asked by English-language learners how they can improve their English. I recommend ways, as anyone does whose occupation it is to help people improve their English-language skills. I analyse their needs by speaking with her or him for a few minutes. It might be that she pauses, seemingly searching for a word mid-flow, or that he can’t create a grammatical construction he needs to express himself more precisely, as he would in his own language. It might be that her speaking is staccato or that individual sounds are mispronounced, causing a breakdown in coherence.


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Based on what I see or I hear, I can recommend speaking with a friend or family member in English, reading a blog or listening to a podcast on a subject she is interested in. I might tell him to keep track of new words: write them down! Or in rare cases to borrow a grammar book, label their world with Post-its: fridge, dog, mouse, cloud.

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Many of these people progress, many of them don’t, and I know from my own language-learning that there are sudden spurts of improvement and aeons of sitting on the plateau. So, why do some people pick up a language like that! While it takes some of us an eternity to remember the simplest of grammatical rules or a handful of basic vocabulary? This afternoon I learnt why.


I was listening to a podcast, and I heard a Russian woman talk about learning Italian. She started from a complete beginner level and progressed to gain a qualification in teaching Italian, and correcting her Italian friends. She spoke about the parts of the language she loved, and she spoke about the parts she never uses (the passato prossimo). At the end of the fascinating interview, the interviewer asked the lady for her advice for other people who want to learn a language.

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The end: What would she recommend: Watching films in Italian? Listening to Italian singers? Practising speaking the language at every opportunity? Well yes, all of these, but the key, according to this polyglot (she also speaks Spanish, French and English)? Motivation. She said without it, learning a language is almost impossible. It sounds so obvious but as soon as she said it, with delight in her voice, I instantly thought back to all those students who had asked me for the way to learn English. Significantly, her motivation was purely intrinsic: she took joy from engaging with language.
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If you’re not motivated to actually learn the language you will waste a lot of your time. It might be that your motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic, it could be cultural, social, for the sense of achievement, to communicate with the handsome American guy (I am assured they do exist), but motivated you must be, and that is the ‘secret’ because after that you will seek out your target language everywhere you can find it, you will hunt it, embrace it, and acquire it.

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