All posts by Andrew Weiler

Does Imitation Work?

On the surface, at times it does appear that imitation does work when wanting to improve your pronunciation.  For the people who have heard something and imitated it successfully, they would be convinced that all you need to do is to imitate to get the pronunciation of a new language. This is a grave mistake and I will show you why here.

For some people, it may work sometimes. That's the important thing to note..."sometimes" It works sometimes because the person doing it has done the preliminary work at some point in their life. However, other times it won't work.  For many people it just does not work.

So, let's look at that and look at why. The fact that imitation does not work  in some situations, suggests that there is something more to it than meets the eye. Here is an example where I would suggest  nearly all of you will have trouble imitating. In the Khoisan languages of Africa, they use four clicking sounds. IF you could hear them all and distinguish them, that already would be something! If you cannot even hear the four how could you ever hope to imitate them? Impossible!

Listen to the following recording of the language ...
- Can you hear the clicks?
- Can you distinguish the 4 different kinds?

I could talk to you a lot about all that needs to happen for you to "hear the 4 sounds as different...and then a whole lot more of what it would take to say these 4 sounds.

Rather than do that, I will instead talk to you about the fat that we are talking about skills here.

Do you really think that you could use imitation to get to the level of Roger Federer, Andrea Bocelli, Jamie Oliver or Pablo Picasso? Imitation has never enabled anyone to reach the heights in any skill. Skill development requires steps. We could not even see the full range of skills that these people have imitating what we cannot even see is impossible.

Best to put this strategy out of your mind, as all it will do is distract you from what you really need to focus on....
which is...

  1. Find some difference between your skill and the "locals"... the smaller and the more foundational it is the better.
  2. Improve your skill so it sounds closer to the target ( a step at a time). Distinguishing that movement IS essential.
  3. Work to make it a regular part of your performance. being aware of this again is critical. Without achieving this, real change has not been achieved.

So, stop trying to imitate and instead work to improve your skills.


The Zen of Learning English

Why Doing Nothing* Can Be Better Than Doing Something

At advanced levels of English it can be problematic knowing where exactly to focus and what to do to keep improving. Getting stuck at more advanced levels for these reasons is much more common than you would expect. For this reason and for others, we have talked about elsewhere.

Zen and learning English

The problems, the lacks, the misunderstandings, the awkwardness all tend to become smaller and smaller, the better you become. Hence they are harder to find!

What may have worked before does not seem to work, so what is the answer?

Well, of course the answer is never just one thing. However, this one suggestion I am about to make is something that may well work for you, no matter what you are doing, or not doing!

When something goes wrong, your first reaction can be, you have to do something. Or when you think, “I really need to put some effort into my English”. Yes, clearly something has to be done differently to before. if the results you wanted weren’t forthcoming.

My suggestion is that before rushing in and doing something, you need to find out what is not working or what could be done a better.

So the very first thing to do is to become more attentive, more watchful. To do that, and this might go against all that you have been taught, do “nothing. In other words stop actively looking for an answer on Google, stop learning grammar, vocabulary, listening to experts on YouTube, etc.

Instead be quieter …. Of course, don’t stop speaking to people!  Focus on quieting the internal chatter, or at least learn to not get caught up in it.

Blaming, worrying, criticising, fantasising, judging etc etc is just noise that can fill us up, leaving little or no energy to deploy to become more aware of what is going on around us and within us. Awareness of something new, something different is what is going to enable you to find a direction.

This can be a big ask, as we are so used to filling up out days and our mind with activity. 

As has been said by others, you have to learn to be quiet so you can hear more.

By becoming quieter, you free up some energy with which you can now direct for your own purposes.

Should you decide to try this and focus on thinking less, so you can see more…. I would suggest that in that quietness you find something to focus on and once you do, stay with it… You can focus on the interactions of people, the words they use, how they say those words, the emotions behind the words, the intent behind the words, and so on.

Any insights you gain here will deepen your connection with English and how people use words to express all that is behind it.

You can explore the nature of sounds, the contours of communication, the edges of meaning where the meaning can flip form one to another thing just by adding an inflexion or even a space, the nuances that people add by adding a space between sentences.

By doing this you are expanding your awareness about so many things, including how people communicate in English. This way you can push your learning forward. If you do this often enough you will come to be more at ease as you better understand.

IF you are not able to find something to focus on by this method, use some other method to find some area you need to focus on ( eg. typical errors that people from your language background make when learning English)

The aim however should be for you to learn to find your own…

The more you work at this approach, the better you can become at it.

Action, that is translating what you have become aware of to a skill, is of course also necessary. However, the actions you need to take will become more evident, as you work to implement what you can now see and feel more clearly.


How to Practice for Best Results

​One of the central key beliefs in improving skills is the idea of practice. "Everyone" says you need to practice if you want to improve. Is this advice actually going to work? ​Having a clear understanding of what kind of practices WILL give you the results you are aiming for is important. Then you can avoid the kinds ​of practices that will only lead to mediocrity. Read on so you can identify each kind.

Before you move on, have you ever ​heard a competitive sportsperson say, "I practice....?" Maybe a few might say yes. However, the majority will I believe look at you quizzically. For them, they work at their sport. They are either working at gaining improvement OR working at consistency. Neither of these activities can be called practice. Rather, they are working to achieve a result. Some have labelled this kind of work "deliberate practice"​. This is very different to the conventional idea of practice. 

In real life, when ​we talk to people, there is usually an unspoken result ​we ​have in our minds. May be it is:

  • achieving some kind of exchange ( like buying something at a shop)
  • creating or maintaining a friendship
  • helping somebody with a problem
  • etc

That is "life". Calling ​these kinds of activities practice is not really correct.

Practicing a skill in the way that is talked about in classes and course books is a very different kind of activity. In the Merriam Webster dictionary, one definition is "to train by repeated exercises". This is the one that I believe most people think of when they told to practice. However in the area of skills, without building into it a defined outcome one is trying to achieve, it is a practice designed to have mixed or limited results. Repetition is, I would suggest, not a ​sufficient aim of itself.

​​Listen in, as I ​talk about this and a lot more to a group of advanced English learners with whom I ​was working with recently.

​Alternatively, you may like to read a sanitized version of this recording ​below.

“The thing to understand is you can't remember a skill. I cannot remember skill. No one remembers skills you either do the skill or you don't do the skill. Either you can play basketball or you can't it. Either you can play guitar or you can't play guitar. We don't try to remember to play guitar, except for the meaning of having an intent to play or not. Once we decide, we sit down and play the guitar. Then, we either play the way we want or we don’t. And if we get it wrong, we fix it.  

Remembering how to play is the wrong idea. We will never remember pronunciation as we speak. It's the wrong way to try to improve your pronunciation.  The way to do it is to fix it and work at it so it sounds the way we want. I hate, I hate this word “practice” Do you know why?

Because …… I'll give you this example .... when you learn to play basketball, you try to get the ball into the basket, right? ​ When you learn to play basketball, that's what you do. You spend a lot of time, you know, throwing in the direction of the basket, trying to get it in. Practicing is the wrong word. What you're trying to do is to get the ball in the basket. If you get the ball in the basket you are successful. If ​you miss it, you're not successful. So each time you are trying to achieve a measurable result.

You’re really focused, really focused on getting the ball into the basket. This notion of just throwing the ball and just practicing is a useless idea. You don't just throw the ball, practicing. You don’t just keep doing the thing and think you'll get better. You never get better just by doing the thing when you play basketball. The people who get better are very highly focused on getting the ball into the basket.

People who are really good at something will not say, “I just practiced” Practice somehow implies the idea of doing something nearly mindlessly. You are just practicing, you are just doing it.  For somebody who's serious about improving a skill, they don't just practice. Their “practice” is, instead, highly focused.

It’s like laser focus. The trouble is that people practice and because they haven't got laser focus they waste their time doing this kind of repetition. Repetition is not the answer. Laser focus is the answer. This laser is a very thin light that can go a long distance and your focus is on this very thin piece of light.

The idea is not to focus all over the shop. You just focus on something very, very specific. Right? So, when basketball players are playing they are watching their hand movement, the speed of their throw, etc. They have laser focus on this. It's not just the throwing the ball any old way.

So practice doesn't make perfect. Practice makes repetition. If you want your “practice” to be useful, then you are working at improving. If you're not improving, there's no point to practice.

You have to be improving in some way.  The improvement might be just making a skill stable. When you learn a new skill it seldom or ever starts off stable, you are just finding something new, a new position or something new. The function of “practice” is to make that really stable so it becomes really an unconscious skill you have. It’s an improvement. The improvement is that you have gone from an unstable skill to a stable skill or from having no skill to some skill.

So practice needs to result in improvement. If it doesn't result in improvement you have been wasting your time. This way you can practice 10 years and it still won’t make any difference. I have had many students who tell me they go home and practice English for two hours. They come back the next day. Their English is no better.

In my, opinion they have been wasting their time.

You have to have a kind of discipline or kind of work that results in improvement. That can only come from laser focus because if you are just sort of you know throwing the ball, improvement will be slow or non at all. Or if you are just practicing by reading a book, what's the improvement? I don't know what the improvement is. There may have been some.

However if you are aiming for some kind of improvement, then the result is not left to chance.

Does that make sense Sheikah?

​Sheikah: “You mean that if you are reading a book, practice means yes, we're reading but if we focus on the language feature, is that what you're talking about?”

“When you're reading it depends on the reason you're reading. Sometimes, I mean if you got to ​a good level of English, let's say you may be reading for pleasure. Right? You are just enjoying the book.

Or you may be reading for information. That's not practice, that's reading because you're trying to get new information. Or you are just trying to relax and enjoy a book, right? They are different reasons.

​The answer depends on why you're reading and what's the purpose of the reading.  I don't call reading a book to enjoy it, for example, practice. I call that reading a book to enjoy it. Even if it’s a simple book, right. To call it practice is the wrong ​idea because if you're reading a book just for practice you are wasting your time. Read the book to enjoy it.

Now if you want to read the book for another reason, like to improve your grammar, it's a different kind of purpose, a different kind of focus. Everything is different.

So the important thing is to recognize why you are reading.

That’s the reason for it. Now. I'm sometimes you just really just use tired you'll reading and that's fine. But I'm talking about learning, right, trying to improve what you're doing. So, if you're trying to read to improve, be clear about why you reading. Now, maybe like I said just to enjoy and to learn to read a book and to enjoy the novel and as you enjoy it, you get better at it.  It can happen because you are enjoying it.

Right, but if you try and improve consciously in any conscious way, you some kind of reason, some kind of purpose of why you're doing it."

Your Ears Have It!

​​Have any of you ever heard ​someone say ( apart from me!) that playing basketball (or any sport really) is like learning to improve your speaking of English.

​I am sure you are thinking…huh?? Is he for real?

Hear me out!

Of course, playing a sport is VERY different from learning a language. However, in many ways the principles behind the learning of​ a language are similar to that of learning to play a game.



I am here not talking about ​studying the rules of grammar .​.. which really should only be the province of linguists who study languages. This activity is all about increasing your knowledge, not skills.

Skill learning or acquisition has certain non-negotiable requirements. Ignore them and you will pay the price! One obvious one is use!

Unfortunately, this key ​understanding has nearly been completely buried by the practices commonplace in language classes and in the training of language teachers.

Learning a skill is all about becoming aware of a lack, a difference or a possibility and then learning to incorporate it into what ​we can do. 

In sport, we can see what is required. It is our eyes and our physical sense of touch that we have to focus on. It is “easy” to see whether the ball goes into a basket, goes where we want it to, etc. The issue of strategy is a different and does of course come into it but let's leave that for another post.

In​, for example, basketball, the ​reality is that we can see so much (slam dunks, amazing footwork, ​ball skills, etc). To learn the game, we ​play and practice it and as we ​do that we improve the bits that come to our attention or awareness. It's what we see that is critical. In languages, the issue is ​what we hear. ​To improve, we have to hear what we haven't heard before...something new. This sense is very different to sight and is arguably a more difficult one to work with. 

This is the reason it is said that muscians make good language learners. They also need to develop their hearing senses to a high level if they wish to excel. There may be some truth to that, however its not always the case, that's for sure.

​To make the matter even more interesting, with languages there are different things that we have to focus on with our ears ​if we wish to improve all aspects of speaking. Not just the meaning, but also the tones, the rhythms and the sounds of the language.

In learning to speak a language, of course our eyes do play a role (though ​they do not have to, as in the case of blind people), however, it is our ears which ha​s the primary role of becoming aware of sounds, rhythms, tones etc. Unless we learn to focus our awareness in these areas, our learning will be limited. 

Awareness of our mouth, tongue and other aspects of our vocal apparatus and how ​varying any aspect will affect the sounds we produce, of course, is important ( as is the role of touch in basketball). Without ​deepening and broadening these awarenesses, our improvements will ​inevitably be limited.

​​Awareness is the first step. Without this step, the next step, learning to control, ​cannot happen. It's a little more complex than this, but for now let’s leave it at that, as this ​realisation is so fundamental.

The next step is learning to control what we do so that our awareness starts to guide ​our control and where we go next. In much the same way as it would in ​learning to improve our basketball playing.

​Here is a bit of one of my coaching sessions where I explain what I have written here, in another way. You might find the audio more approachable. 🙂

​If you prefer to watch some graphics whilst you listen to this, you might like to click here​. 🙂

​So, if you want to really improve how you speak, focus more on your listening. To what you hear, to the silences, to the tones, etc. As you learn to hear more, you can then start to work on your control. Learning to work this way will put you on the road to the level of mastery you need or desire.

Native-Like Speaking is Within Your Reach

​The text below whilst on the same topic is slightly different

It is easy to come to the conclusion that for English learners at the advanced levels further improvements in English and in accent are not easy, and may even be not possible. Indeed, you may have even heard teachers say that.

Many come to such a conclusion because they have not sufficiently considered the contrary viewpoint, that indeed, each person has everything that it takes to achieve whatever level they aspire to and that the only thing stopping them is what they are doing and what they are thinking. You just need to look around and you will find adults who have achieved native-like levels. Talent, a commonly given reason, does not explain those that struggled and struggled initially and then at some point found the keys to their complete success.

I said you have everything at your disposal because you have already shown it by learning the most difficult language of them all, your first! It is the most difficult because you started out with no concept of language, no ability to form words and no real assistance as to how to do it all. You just did it!

Let me look at the issue by coming from another angle. Just imagine trying to go through a brick wall with your bare hands. Not really possible is it. Once you understand the nature of a brick wall, you will know you need to learn to use appropriate tools, if you wish to get through. Hence, the importance of understanding the problems you face, finding the necessary tools and developing appropriate skills.

Now, you may be thinking that you can’t compare first language learning to adult learning. Of course, there are differences but to dismiss all that we can see and learn from our childhood language learning experiences is a grave mistake. One that unfortunately keeps being made…and not just by learners! 

Just because so many people struggle to learn English does not mean that their experience is the only valid one. In much the same way, just because for so long everyone considered the earth to be flat did not make it so.

​The reason why so many struggle to become confident and fluent in English is that they persist in learning in ways that don't produce the results they are seeking. They don't look elsewhere. So instead of questioning your prowess, question how you are learning!

An additional factor, not really given enough weight, are the ways you learned at the lower levels may not really be appropriate at the upper levels. I have come across numerous learners at the advanced levels who do exactly that. Namely, use inappropriate strategies such as translation, grammar study and pronunciation recordings. Each of these strategies may have some use for very particular situations, but to use them indiscriminately will only divert you from your goal to paths characterised by hardship and slow to no progress.

Then there are of course the ones that do realize something has to change but they do not know what to do. So, what is going to work?

So what can be done?

Before I get to that, I need to also mention that our thinking is also a key determinant to our success. As has been said by many different people in different ways, “the kind of thoughts you have will determine how successful you will be”. So, what kind of thinking gets in the way and what kind will help you on your journey?

Spend a bit of time on this question and check to see that you are not undermining your learning. One example I come across often is that I hear people say things like “language learning is hard”. Such ideas can really slow you down in more ways than you can imagine. Try changing that statement to something like, “Isn’t that interesting!”. A simple change like that can completely change how you approach the issues you come across. Now an attitude of curiosity starts to prevail, rather than one of “hardship and suffering!”

At the advanced level, generic one size fits all solutions do not usually work. That is the reason why people at advanced levels of skills in all areas do not tend to go to classes. Most of the ones that do invariably leave them dissatisfied with the progress made. The main reason for that is most classes offer general solutions. At advanced levels (or any other I would suggest), that is not what is needed.

There are then the ones who just try by themselves. Some of these do go on to the highest of levels but most seem to get stuck on a plateau well below their wishes or needs.

Then there are the ones who get themselves a coach. A coach who can identify the exact issues they face and propose solutions custom-built solutions for them. And then adjust the methods as need be, as the learner makes progress.

Exceptional coaches will not only do that. They will work with you in ways so you realize what you need to do AND keep doing as you improve. They will work with you to develop skills that you can use to keep expanding, improving and refining your English. This way you can become, over time, independently able to keep learning as you use the language.

They will also work with you to develop ways of working that you will be attracted to and find rewarding. ALL successful people talk about passion and loving what they do. They do not talk about hard work. Of course, they work at it, but hard work is not what defines their activity. It is the love of what they do that does.

So don’t give up on your dreams, don’t listen to the naysayers. Believe that you have what it takes to become what you want to be and do what you want to do. Search for the ways and the people that can help you achieve them.

Learning English (or any language) Sustainably

English native like levels are possible

The text below is a slightly amended transcribed version of the clip above. With subheadings included to improve readability.

​​Hi there

Over the past few weeks, I've been looking at the myth that is is not really possible for an adult to reach native-like levels in a new language. (The other 3 pillars I talk about on my YouTube Channel - You will find the links to each pillar at the end of this post)) I have put forward the idea that there are four pillars that hold up this myth.  It has been my intention, over the past few weeks, to destroy each one of these myths one by one.

In the first week, I looked at translation and why excessive use of it will positively undermine your efforts to learn the language to the highest of levels. In the second week, I looked at passion and and why it is critically important that a learner gets really engaged passionate, involved in the actual learning. In the third week, last week in fact, I looked at the issue that if you go about learning language in ways that reflect that it is knowledge as opposed to skills, you're going to really undermine your efforts to learn the language. It doesn't matter whether you are learning at the lower levels or the highest levels. But, in fact, at the highest levels, it's impossible to do that.

How are you supposed to learn

This week, I'm going to look at the fourth pillar. Here the issue is that if you discount all the practices I have referred to over the past few weeks, how in fact would you go about learning a language. Well, there’s not really much out there. So, most people when they get pushed between a rock and a hard place, they'll resort to translation or going to a dictionary, doing some study or something like that.  They don't quite know what else they can do.

That's an issue especially at the highest levels. Those methods referred to before really don't work at all and will never work. At the lower levels somehow you can think they're working and they are doing something but at he higher levels they  are just obviously inappropriate. So what effect does a person do to learn a language?

Well, as I explained last week language is a skill and we sort of know at a common sense level what's involved in learning a skill. You've got to actually notice what's going on and then you've got to do something about it and start to do the thing that will sort of approximate the skills you see or need.

Practical life skills compared to language skills

With practical skills, you can see what you need to do. You start at the lowest levels and you build yourself up, layer by layer as it were. As you do the things you notice the things aren't going the way you want. Then we do a bit more and somehow by adjusting, by looking, by trying, somehow we learn the skill.

Now in a skill like basketball, for example, and as I said before the principles are identical, you can actually see how the games are played ​ so you can see exactly what's going on. It's a visual thing. So, whether you you can bounce the ball or whether you can shoot the ball in the basket, it's easy to see what needs to be done.

In learning a language, it's interesting. You have to use your eyes but the eyes are not critically important. What is critically important is you're listening and listening is a much more sort of elusive kind of skill, you could say, when compared to what you can see. So it's really up to us whether we hear it or we don't hear it. It's the same in basketball. Whether you see it or you don't see it is the issue. In language it is whether you hear it or you don't hear it. That's the fundamental reality that  basically underlies all language learning, in terms of the speaking of the language.

In any language there are different elements to listen to. There are, for example,  the individual sounds, the phonemes, as we call them. In English we got something like 44 sounds (phonemes). Then there's the actual stress in a word.  Like when you say “about”. The second syllable is stressed, not the first. So you have to learn to listen to where the stresses are. Then you've got to learn to listen to how words get combined.  

Then you've got to listen to the intonation, the tones going up and down. Then the rhythm of the sentence and so on.

So each of these is an element to listen to and to master.  On top of all that, that's only the sound we're talking about right? There's also the meaning and with meaning there's all different levels of meaning so there's a lot to listen to!  It's easy to get bamboozled, easy to get confused, easy to get distracted, easy to get stuck on one aspect of the listening and not ​even think about the other elements of the l​anguage.

Of course we all did it in our first language and there are many people of course who master a second language to the highest native-like levels, so it's well within our capacity.  But, there are issues that are more sort of subtle because you can't really see so readily what you're doing. You have to hear it and it's a little bit more complicated because as I mentioned before there are all the other different elements to listen to.  One has to learn to focus on them and if you don't focus on these elements one at a time, you won’t develop the required skills in ​them.

It's going to be difficult to put it all together and the top of all that you got all the other distractions that we've talked about before. Some people think you should be learning in a certain way, or you you should try to memorize what you are learning. These ways may not be what is needed. Then there's also the issues that relate to our own personal character. You know, we can start get worried about things sometimes when things don’t go the way we want. Or, we can get worried about making mistakes and looking foolish. So, there are lots of elements that can get in the way of of the listening that we have to do and we can easily get distracted from it.

Perception, listening and awareness are keys

To learn a language to the highest levels, it's necessary to focus all our attention on our listening, on our perception and our understanding, and learn to control the elements we can control, one at a time.

If you haven't been doing this in a conscious way and you are just sort of doing it, in a sense, unconsciously, then it's much harder to start to get it under control. This is because you have not been fully aware of what works and what does not. Now, of course there ​may be no issue with that. But it takes a bit of self training or training to learn to sort it out in a much more methodical way so what works can be replicated and what does not, discarded.

It is necessary to focus on the elements that are not working for you.  So, I'll talk about one example of a way of using noticing in our listening with, you could say, natural learning skills. When we have something that we don't understand or we can’t sort of follow, our brain tries to make sense of it and one of the ways that the brain tries to make sense of it is to see patterns or to hear patterns. This is one way of learning that, unfortunately, that in formal language learning here’s virtually nothing done about it. 

The power of patterns

People do ​notice patterns in an ad hoc way, But very few teachers or very few methodologies actually deal with this in any sort of systematic way. I am here talking about the the skill of looking or listening for patterns, that is recognizing patterns in language. 

Now, you may have started thinking of rules. The rules in the grammar books are rules that you may have studied. Well, rules are abstraction of the patterns. Somebody has sat down, observed the patterns and written up the rules. ​

​But a step has been missed out and it actually throws you, the learner, off. That's what happens.  The grammatical rules are an intellectual abstraction that don’t really easily relate to our perception and to our abilities.  Patterns however are intimately related to our awareness, to our listening, to our perception. So, that’s what I suggest you do, if you want to start to improve how you're going about learning - start looking for patterns.

Patterns are evident in all aspects of language. In numbers, there are very very strong patterns that you can start noticing in terms of how we put the numbers together. So, for example, we count from 1 to 13. Each one of these numbers is different. However, with the exception of 15, everything we say is put togther from what we have already said. 16 is merely 6 + teen. Then ​after we learn 20 nothing really new appears till we get to 100. ​Amazing, huh, once you look at it this way. These patterns were established long ago, obviously from when the language was put together.

We can also see the patterns in the sounds we say. There are  patterns in the ways we write. There are patterns in every aspect of language. Patterns are an efficient way of making sense of the things we're trying to say or how we see reality. So these patterns are something that you can start looking for.  There are patterns everywhere. By doing this you will start to heighten your awareness, to heighten your sense of noticing, heighten your sense of of activity and engagement and that's what learning is all about.

Improving your learning is all about becoming more perceptive. By listening better, seeing more, hearing more and by looking for patterns, you're exercising necessary language learning skills. That's why looking for patterns are a great way to help you actually push your language up and push it in so many different ways. There's a lot more that can be said about this particular issue.  

For now, I hope you got a sense that by changing the way you're learning language, it will actually change the results you get.

So, I hope that this kind of expose I have conducted about this myth has tickled some of you brain cells, tickled some of your thoughts so you're now going to approach learning a language with a whole new attitude and a whole new approach.  And you start to get really excited about the fact that yes, you can approach and yes, you can achieve native-like like levels in English or any other language you're learning.

So that's it for me now. So thank you so much for listening.

It's been Andrew Weiler here.

​The Four Pillars

holding up the myth that learning a language to native like levels is not really possible

English native like levels are possible

In this Introductory video clip you will find out why I believe that the belief that learning a second language to native-like levels is really a myth.

​The first main reason why this myth has persisted is all to do with the excessive reliance learners have on translation. From day 1 to even the advanced levels. Listen to why this practice works to undermine your efforts.

​​Most people will readily accept that enjoying how we are learning is a key to success. Then why is it that we tend to practice in ways that is far from that. Rewarding learning experiences are essential if you to really want to continue.

​Here you will find the third pillar holding up the myth. This one is all about how English is taught or learned. Too often it is learned as if it is knowledge. It is not, it is a skill. Discover why I say that and what you can do to start learning it like a skill.

​In the fourth and the last of the pillars I have been talking about, you will discover a number of practices that are not used, but which need to be used if you wish to keep improving, especially at the upper levels.

Language is Not Knowledge

The text below is a slightly amended transcribed version of the clip above. With subheadings included to improve readability.

​Hi there.


This is the fourth in the series of videos where I have been looking at the myth of why most people consider that it is not possible for an adult to learn a second language to native-like proficiency. There are four legs that hold up this myth.

The first ​one I looked at was translation and why excessive use of it actually undermines the ability to learn a new language and especially to get to the higher levels.

The second ​factor I talked about in the following week was about the issue of passion and why without having a real passion in the learning that you're doing, achieving these levels is not really possible.

(Anyways, if you want to listen more into more depth about th​ese factors and the myth itself, just ​click on the links above... OR head to the bottom of this post to find all the videos posted there.)

Language is not Knowledge

So, what I want to talk about today is the third ​ factor and this is to do with the fact that even though we understand that language is a skill, in fact, most practices that people ​use and ​they've been taught at school right through school and University is all about seeing language as knowledge.

This is such an important factor that it really deserves its own spot really and we needs to be looked at very, very carefully because it's easy to skim past and say “Oh, yeah, yeah, I know that.”  But the the implications of fully understanding what is a skill and what you have to do to actually learn languages as a skill is something that has not really fully permeated into our learning and teaching cultures.

​You may be wondering about what I actually mean here. So I'll give you a few examples. The first one is memorization. Now, I suspect that most language learners learning any language would have used this practice. Basically, how this works is you take a piece of language, like a word or a phrase or maybe a grammar rule.  Then you try to commit it to memory. I'm sure you all know of memorization is. This practice rests on the notion that language is a piece of knowledge that you can memorize, that you can take and put  it into your brain and then use later as a skill.
Now, I ask you, in what practical skill can you think of where we do this. I mention practical skills here because they are the best ones to talk about because it's easy to see the parallels, and the principles are identical. So, in what practical skill, for example, cooking, basketball, weaving, piano playing or whatever has anybody sat down and worked at memorizing some aspect of it.

What guitar player will try to memorize the chords? "This is how I hold my fingers and I've got to memorize it." They don't do that. What they do do is they do the thing. They play the chords and playing the chords is a physical skill. It goes into a kind of memory without a doubt, but it's not memorization. Basically by doing it you learn these things and that that's the critical difference between memorization and learning something through doing it.

Another example is repetition. You may repeat something because you want to memorize it.  Now again, a basketball player will repeat shooting baskets, time and time again. But the difference is that they're trying to achieve something and they see by doing it, whether they've achieved it or not. By doing that, they then adjust what they did for the next time and try to make it a little bit better. So, everything is based on what you can do. It is not based on some bit of memory that you're trying to put it in your brain somehow.

Language is a Skill

As language is a skill, you can't access these random bits of information stored in the brain. It's why people get stuck, because you're trying to access these random bits of memory with no connection to anything else. They just planted them in the brain. They are just sitting there and of course when you try to speak or try to use the language, these bits don't jump back.

This is one of the reasons why so many people say, “I’ve learned all these words. I've learnt all this I learnt all that but I can't seem to be able to use it.” Fundamentally, the reason for that is because they learned it the wrong way.

So, another example of ways skill is not being used is how many people go and study the grammar rules. They go through a book, look at the grammar rules and try to understand it and then you do some exercises on it. All of this again is to do with kind of memory. It's a little bit different because what they do is also based on understanding.  But understanding is not a skill. Sorry, understanding is a skill. But understanding of itself is not a language skill. And it is language skills we are talking about here.

So that's why when you even though, for example, you know a grammar rule and then you can do all these exercises on it, it doesn't actually mean you're going to be able to use it when you need it. This is because you've learned something not as a skill, you've learned it as a piece of knowledge and understanding that you put into your brain, in a different part of the brain to where it needs to be for its use.  

There are some people who can take all this, what they've been taught in school or how they've learnt it in this way and transform it back into a skill. Now what these people do is if they've actually unconsciously worked out a process of transforming what they have learned this way into a skill. Because no one ever gets taught this, most people never work it out and as a consequence most of them get stuck.

Now, the interesting thing is that even the ones who get to a high level through doing this process will never achieve native-like levels. This is because it requires something else at the higher levels then doing this. The skill development they need to have mastered. they haven't actually completely mastered.

Psychological Impacts

Another big problem that comes out of learning language as knowledge that by working at language in this way, they actually end up feeling disempowered by the whole process and losing what passion they had. This is because the person who is learning knows that.  “I've done all this work and still I can't speak well”.

What this does is it basically cuts your legs off as it were. It actually disempowers you, it takes away your passion, it takes away your gut urge to learn the language because you feel, “I can't do it. There's something wrong with me. I haven't got the genes. I haven't let you know that aptitude.” Well, you do have it. It's just that you've been going about it in the wrong way and that's why you've got stuck. So, by now you may be wondering. Well, what can I do? If I don't do all these things well,

The Alternatives

You know obviously, in such a short time as we have here, I can't go into the nuts and bolts of it.  What I can do is to talk about a few fundamental principles. The first one is that skills are built from the bottom up. So with any skills you can think about, it's like a layering of skill levels. You can't get to the higher levels without properly mastering the lower ones.

Make sure that whenever you learn something you build on what you can already do, not on what you know. This is because when you start building on things that you know but don't don you're actually creating new problems for yourself. It's going to lead you down paths you don't want to be on. So, always come back to this whole notion of, “What can I actually do? What can I actually say properly or fluently or confidently?” And then build on that. If you stick to this, that one principle, that will get you a long way.

Also, as you go up to the higher levels and you want to widen and deepen your your language skills, make sure that you're building them on a firm structure. If you go about deepening and widening your language skills, and there are faulty layers of skills underneath, basically, what that's going to do is create some problems. It is going to embed the problems even deeper and they will be more difficult to unpack.

You can certainly fix the skills at any stage. But the higher you go, you have to go deeper and deeper to fix these issues up.

Another important thing in working with language is a skill is that it is up to you really to start to notice where you're struggling. Where are the problems, where are the issues you have? And so this whole focus now has to be of raising your awareness, of becoming more sensitive to things, of becoming more perceptive, about what's going on with your language and how people react to you and how you sound compared to others. So the things you notice becomes food for you. It will tell you what you need to do next. Rather than go to a book and think, what do I need to learn? Focus on what you are not doing, ore on what you need to do, and then work on that skill.

That brings me to another key point. That is it is really important to notice, to learn to notice you're making improvements. So, for example, I'm working on this particular language bit of language.  For example, the articles.

“Before, I really was not doing them that well and now I'm doing them better and better all the time. I'm getting a better and better understanding of how they work and actually am using them at the right point in time.”

If you can notice that, it will give you confidence in yourself and it will give you some feeling for yourself about “I can do this!” Your skills will start rising.  So, noticing what's going wrong and noticing what you've done and noticing how you've improved is critical when you go onto the path of improving your language as a skill.

Of course, there's a lot more that can be said here but I hope you now have a sense of why this particular leg of this myth ( the one which says that language can be learned like knowledge), the third one, is such an important one. One that has to be chopped down. Why it has to be gotten rid of from your arsenal of learning. Because, if you don’t, it will keep undermining you. It'll keep giving you problems down the road forever more as long as you keep learning language in that way.

I do I hope this talk has been a value to you and I look forward to talking to you again next week about the fourth and final leg of what's been holding up this myth. Thank you for listening.

It's been Andrew Weiler here.

​The Four Pillars

holding up the myth that learning a language to native like levels is not really possible

English native like levels are possible

In this Introductory video clip you will find out why I believe that the belief that learning a second language to native-like levels is really a myth.

​The first main reason why this myth has persisted is all to do with the excessive reliance learners have on translation. From day 1 to even the advanced levels. Listen to why this practice works to undermine your efforts.

​​Most people will readily accept that enjoying how we are learning is a key to success. Then why is it that we tend to practice in ways that is far from that. Rewarding learning experiences are essential if you to really want to continue.

​Here you will find the third pillar holding up the myth. This one is all about how English is taught or learned. Too often it is learned as if it is knowledge. It is not, it is a skill. Discover why I say that and what you can do to start learning it like a skill.

​In the fourth and the last of the pillars I have been talking about, you will discover a number of practices that are not used, but which need to be used if you wish to keep improving, especially at the upper levels.

Passion for Learning a Language

​The text below is a slightly edited version of the video clip.

​Hi there.

Today. I would like to talk about the second factor that contributes to the prevailing myth that achieving native life levels in a second language is just too difficult. As I've been explaining over the past few weeks, it certainly is within the capacity of each person to achieve these levels.

Last week I talked about the first main reason and that was to do with the fact that translation is so prevalent and overused in the learning of languages. If you want to hear more about that just go to th​is video clip.

​So, today I want to talk about the second reason and that is to do with understanding, knowing and actually living the experience that the only way to be truly successful in any skill is to be passionate about it.  In the same way as people throw themselves into sports, music and computer games. When these people throw themselves into it and actually get passionate about it, it's difficult to drag them away from what they are doing. I'm sure you have come across people like that and you may be a person like this yourself, in some particular skill you've been learning.

​One of the reasons that people don't really get this in languages is that we've all been brought up with the idea that to learn a second language, we have to go and study it. We have to go and look at the grammar, look at the pronunciation and do the drills and go to classes. The way that most classes are taught are mainly to do with passing on knowledge. Then you are somehow expected to take that knowledge and make it into skills, which sometimes works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it is all hit and miss, for the most part, and there is a lot of struggle.

passion for learning English

​​People learning languages struggle a lot, typically. Of course, there are the few that don't but they're really the few because they have figured out what they need to do to actually master the skill and that's what they go about doing. Of course ,in life you can go about and study things and actually somehow improve your skill at it. But for the most part, study only adds to knowledge. Skill is all about doing something. It's all about doing. It's not about knowing. Knowing comes from the doing, fundamentally it’s all about doing the thing and learning from that.

Just think of yourself. What skills have you learned without being fully engrossed in? Whether it be a sport, cooking or dancing or anything else in life. There are many, many skills, but the physical, practical skills are the best ones to look at in terms of looking for the principles of what actually works. Of course, there are all kinds of skills, like communication skills and emotional skills and so forth and so on. However, I want to ignore that for the time being because the principles are bit harder to extract for us, in the short time that we have here.

So, just think of children that when they learn the skills they do when they are young, they throw themselves into it. Now, of course what happens and we've all seen it, is that that parental pressure can be such that kids are encouraged, dare I say, even forced to go and learn an instrument or go and play a sport or do something else like that.

I'm sure we've all seen examples where these students have not really done much with that particular skill. They've maybe learned the piano or learned the guitar or able to play soccer or tennis or something. They may well have learned it but never really achieved any great level or any great skill. They've been sort of okay, but the ones who actually excel at it are the ones who have moved from feeling the parental pressure to having something caught their imagination. That has caught them somehow.

And they basically throw themselves into it and then transform themselves in the skills. Then they start excelling in it, The same thing can happen when we can start doing some kind of skill at a young age because of peer pressure.  As our mates are doing it, so we're going to do it too. But again the same thing happens. Mediocrity is the norm (we achieve) unless something else happens. And the something else is it captures our imagination.  It captures something within us and we want to excel at it for its own sake, not for anything else.  

We can start learning a skill because of self-induced pressure or something like, “I need to learn this skill so I can get a better job or I need to do this to learn that instrument because I think it's a good idea or I will become a better person if I learn X or something like that.”

So, all these kind of motivations are all artificial and basically in these cases the skill never gets to any great height. The ones who become really good at something are the ones who actually transform that practice. Again, into something that is core for them. They get passionate and really engaged in it and start to really do well at it.

​Learning a language is much the same. The core thing in excelling in English ( or any other language you are learning) is going from the point of thinking. “I want to improve in this because it's good for my job or I am living in the country or I'm going to get a better job, or a better life or
get a better wife ( haha) or husband or something” to basically you want to do it because it somehow captures you, it's interesting, it's engaging its enthralling, it's wonderful.

It becomes something that you want to do for its own sake not because of some ulterior motive. It's that kind of attitude that has to shift, that has to happen if somebody actually is going to take off and start to reach the native-life levels. Because to reach those native-like levels, it requires a level of engagement and a level of interest that doesn't come from artificial study or artificial working. It has to be organic. It has to be learning as you're doing the thing. Learning as you are speaking and being involved in it, so deeply, with such interest and with such wonderment that it captures you and you just want to keep improving all the time and it is just what sets you on fire. It makes you excited. It gets you up in the morning. It keeps you going all day. That's the kind of energy that will help a person to reach native-like levels.

So, unfortunately what happens is that sometimes some people get these ideas, “if I want to achieve these levels I have to do certain things”. And what I've seen with so many people I've come across who have achieved or are achieving these like levels, it's not necessarily the thing that ​they're doing. It's how you are doing it and and it's all about the person finding something in that activity and how they approach it that has them be completely engaged in what they're doing.  

A lot of the practices are traditional ones that people refer to. Imitation or translation or memorization or study actually take you away from being engaged in what you're doing and actually lead you on a path to being disengaged of not really enjoying and not really getting the results you are looking for and that's a big problem.

So, for somebody like yourself, maybe, who wants to achieve native-like levels, I encourage you to find that spark in yourself, to find that interesting thing, to find that activity whether it's watching movies or whether it's reading a book or whether it's talking to people that actually has you want to do more of it and you find that by wanting to do more and because you want to do it better, because you want it to excel at it, because it's something that you find that it's going to give you satisfaction, your skills actually improve.

That's the way improvements are going to happen.  To give you an example, for the first few years of my teaching career, I was what I would call mediocre. Some would say, maybe, even a bad teacher. I wouldn't disagree with that at all. And then, I came across some ideas and an educationalist that actually completely transformed my views and understanding of what teaching is about, what learning is all about.

Out of that experience, I got really inspired and really passionate about understanding learning and understanding teaching and becoming a better teacher. And I found myself pulled into this experience of teaching and of becoming a better and better teacher and becoming better and better at understanding what actually is involved in all aspects of teaching. That has kept me going for you know, we could say 40 years.

Nothing has stopped me since. I mean, I am still as passionate now as I was 40 years ago, and I really enjoy what I'm doing. That’s why I believe I have become, I think, a really good teacher because of that passion I have for what I'm doing.  It's the same thing for you learning a language. Once you find that you can become excellent and excel in your learning, then you can get to native-like levels. So, if you want to get to these levels, I encourage you to find ways and find the ideas and find the inspiration, find that which will enable you to make that shift.

Find ways of learning and find ways of doing things that will encourage you to keep going in that way of learning. Rather than take you back to ways of learning that really take you away from that kind of feeling, from that kind of experience.

So, I hope this discussion has helped you clarify for yourself what you can do to move towards native-like expression native-like production, native-like speaking, and hope it has also helped you to basically to take away the second leg of this myth that adults are not able to become native-like speakers in a new language.

Until next time enjoy your learning.

All the best. It’s been Andrew Weiler here.

The Dangers of Translation

​Last week as you might recall, I set about debunking the idea that learning a second language like English for example, or French or German to native-like levels as an adult is not really possible.

There are a number of practices that you might be doing that will prevent you from ever reaching these levels. So, today what I want to do is look at the first of four practices that I believe hold up this myth. These are like four legs of a table. So each week, I'm going to look at one of the legs and chop away one of the legs so, hopefully, by the end of the fourth week the whole myth will come tumbling down.

You will find a  slightly edited version of the video below it - just to improve how it reads. The content stays much the same.

​There are a number of practices that you might be doing that will prevent you from ever reaching these levels. So, today what I want to do is look at the first of four practices that I believe hold up this myth. These are like four legs of a table. So each week, I'm going to look at one of the legs and chop away one of the legs so, hopefully, by the end of the fourth week the whole myth will come tumbling down.

​Translation has benefits

The first one is that many have a belief translation is a necessary part of learning a new language. Everyone can see its benefits. They don't know a word or something and they look it up and bang you have it. You have the word instantly. It's instant gratification. You feel like you can relax a bit. You feel like you know the language a bit more and so it actually is very alluring, a very tempting thing to do is to translate. So, why on Earth would anybody do anything else differently ?

It seems to me that very few in fact do, so what could be so wrong with it. We’ll look at that into that shortly. But before I do, I want to you to consider a number of, what I will call, irrefutable facts and these are not false facts. 🙂 These are irrefutable. They can't be dispelled. Well, that is what I think anyway! 🙂 You can judge for yourself when you listen to them.

The facts of translation

The first one is - that every language you learn occupies a different physical place in your brain. So, for example, English might be in one area, your first language in another and then another language in a different place. I'm not sure exactly where the places are, but I have seen the brain maps and it's incontrovertible that when a person speaks one language, it lights up in that part of the brain.  There's no other lights going up anywhere else. These lights aren't real lights, of course. It is the energy that gets activated when you are speaking a particular language.

The second irrefutable fact is that when you speak in a new language that you're learning, you have no time to translate and if you are translating with your speaking, you must be speaking very very, very slowly indeed. So anybody who gets to any decent level of competency at all, will recognize that there's no time to translate.

So the second thing is to do with that is the same for listening. If you are listening to somebody, translation is possible.  However, all that will do is take you away from whatever else they're saying. So you really can't be taking the trouble to translate, going back to back with and forth in different parts of the brain at the same time as closely following what they are saying, as translation is a very slow process.

There are people who can do that, translators, However, that is their profession. They've been trained to do that but for the likes of you and me, this is not really possible.  

Now, let’s go back and look at the reasons why it is a good idea to avoid translation as much as possible. Before I look into the reasons, I will say one more thing.

Translation can be necessary

There are times when translation is necessary or advisable, even a good idea. Let's say, you go to a doctor or a lawyer or there's some kind of serious kind of situation you are involved where knowing the exact meaning is essential. Now, using translation here is a tool, not as a way of learning. I will draw a distinction here.

So when you're reading a book you don't need to translate or when you're talking to some of your friends or listening to TV. You don't need to do it, necessarily. However, in some situations you may well need to. So, don't get me wrong, it is sometimes a good idea to do it. 

Reasons to avoid translation

​Now, for the first main reason why translation should be best avoided as much as possible. I want you to consider young kids learning their first language. Now, you may jump and think "Ah, now that’s different - adult learning is different to kids learning.” Well, yeah, of course, I agree.

​But to actually say the two are completely different and ignore what we did as a child, I believe is a big mistake. There are things we should and we need to learn from that experience. Some things we did as children don’t really relate to the life of adults but there are many things that do.

​One of the issues worth looking at ​is that, as a child is learning their first language, they develop certain skills.  Particular skills that enable them to learn that language. So, they develop really good listening skills, not just listening to sounds but to meanings and to develop really good looking and perceptual skills. They learn to look at things really carefully and try to work out the meaning from what actually is going on, not just the language.

As their first language gets better and better, their ability to deduce things, to work things out, to infer things to, to guess things gets better and better as well. These are all skills. They develop these skills.  You will also need to call on these skills if you want to learn any language to high levels.  These skills can be developed from the get-go, from the beginning, or they can be redeveloped later. Whatever stage you're at, you can still work at developing these necessary skills.

I believe it's completely impossible to learn a language to any decent level, short of even a native-like level, if you don't get these skills up and to a really high level. The one way, I believe that can really help you develop these skills is to stop translating. Stop right now. Don't do it anymore. Unless you really need to. That's the one thing that I believe will help you enormously to start to activate this skills.

Now, the second reason.  It is a little bit related to the first, in fact. Let’s say you are learning English, as an example. You're developing the English muscles in your brain, right? That's what you're doing. And so everything you do has to be developing these muscles. Now, if you're actually linking this language, English, to your first language by translating, what you're doing is also setting up these connections, neural pathways as they are called. They are not developing your English muscle! You are building these pathways!

And the more you use the​se pathways, the stronger they become.  And so what happens is that even when you get to a high level, really high level, it still can feel like like you are using your first language.  I hear this time and time again from people and the only reason why that's happening is because they have established these neural pathways. So even though their English is at a really high level, these links are just jumping into use all the time. ​

This basically sets up a feeling in them that they need their first language and it actually creates a lack of confidence in themselves because they know this is not the thing to do, inwardly. And so, these neural pathways that ​are created by translating creates real barriers for evermore.

On a positive note,  I will say is that these pathways can be left to degrade. They can be left to rot away.  And the way you do that is by stopping translating. If you stop translating and stop thinking in your first language and translating into your second, they will gradually disappear. ​ If you don't use it, you lose it. To avoid all this grief in the first place, it’s a really good strategy to not put these pathways into place at all!.

Now again, sometimes you do need them, as I mentioned before. But if you use it once or twice or whenever, it’s not going to set these pathways up. You are just using the tool. It's just fine.

These are, I believe, really powerful reasons to radically reduce the translation activities that you do. 

Alternatives to translation

Now, you may be asking well, “What can I do, if I don't translate?” Well, one thing you'll find if you've been doing a lot of translation is that when you stop it, you'll feel a bit of discomfort. Discomfort is fine. You know, just as we say in English, “suck it up”. It's fine. It's something that you will soon learn to adjust to and what will happen is that you'll find that other parts of your brain, other other parts of you as a person just swing into action. You will start paying more attention, you'll be listening better and you'll be looking at things more closely. Everything starts to improve because you ​aren't using the easy go-to tool (translation).  So, other learning skills have to come into play.

So, your ability to guess, the ability to infer, your ability to deduce things will all improve. Of course, you can always ask the person you are talking to help.

One thing I will say about asking people, is that obviously you can't keep asking them all the time. But, sometimes you can ask for some critical words or issues that come up. The one thing that will help you with this is to ​resist the temptation to ask people to repeat themselves, if you do that.  

Asking somebody, “Could you please say that again?” is saying you haven't heard what they have said. Well, the reality is you probably have heard most of it and it may be that you understand most of it but there's some word or some phrase that has somehow thrown you. That has somehow stopped you.

​One suggestion is to train yourself to say something like, “I'm sorry. I am not quite sure if I got that. Were you saying blah blah blah?”. Now by doing that you're actually showing the person you're listening really attentively. And in fact you had to listen attentively if you're going to say that. This technique forces you to bring into play, to activate what you actually heard. If you get it a little bit wrong, they'll straighten you out or maybe you actually worked out exactly what they were saying.

This is a really powerful way of actually getting you to be more active in your listening and more active in getting people to help you. The people will respect you for that. If you keep asking somebody to please repeat that, please repeat that, it's not a good look. But by using an alternative strategy, such as the one I just suggested, you are actually showing people that you are really attentive and listening. They will appreciate that.

So I hope with all this, I've completely cut one leg off the table so you are a little bit less assured about believing that myth that learning a new language to native-like levels for an adult is not really possible..  

I hope that's been of use and I'll talk to you next time. It's been Andrew Weiler here.

​Here is the audio file in case you prefer to listen to it.

The Myth about Achieving Native-Like Levels

​The post below is an edited (improved) version of the video clip above.

Hi there.  Today, I want to address the question of why so many people believe that attaining native-like levels in accent or fluency or expressive ability in a second language is not really possible, if you're learning a second language as an adult.

Now there are many reasons for this and I'm only going to talk about the main ones. The reasons I am going to talk about aren't listed in order of importance. The first one I want to talk about is belief.


Because you believe something, it means that the odds of you actually exceeding your belief is very very limited. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you believe you can or whether you believe you can't, you are right”.

Put it another way, if you believe you can't do something, it means that whenever you come across a big problem, you're going to unconsciously be thinking, "Well the reason I can't solve it is because I know I don't really have the ability to do it anyway. So, why even try?" In other words, you're not going to go out of your way to go to find out an alternate solution. Or, you're not going to try to find what you can do to get past the problem. Unconsciously you tend to give up and that's fundamentally the reason why beliefs actually form an important part of the reason why the myth of not being able to attain native-like levels persists.

It is a myth and I can say it's a myth because I've seen enough examples to know that. Having worked with over a thousand language learners, I can, equally confidently, say that this reason, belief, is a powerful one. Time and time again, I have heard some version of this being uttered. " I have no talent, ability" . "I am no good at learning". "I just don't understand things like this". Then I see the results of that. 

A powerful way to work against such beliefs is to find practices that give real results! More on that another time.

Practice and Use

The second reason, which you might find surprising but I believe it's a critical one, is the issue of practice or use. I have troubles with this word “practice” in English because practice has a certain implication that what you do is artificial and you're repeating what you do. Repetition does have a function, but when it is done without conscious attention and without the view to improve, it can actually be counter productive.

Whereas, in using a skill, a lot of the time what is important is that you use the skill. So, for example, people talk about “I need to practice English.” Well, “practice” English doesn't quite get it right. I believe with some things clearly you need to do some practice, but I believe what's really important in skill development is using it. So, for example, if you're going to be practicing basketball, you are at home playing shots or you are doing other such things, right. But if you are playing games, that's not practicing, you are actually doing it. You actually are playing the game of basketball. That is the same as using English (or any other language) in real life.

You can be at home practicing certain sounds or doing certain exercises. But ultimately until you get out into the court, or out into life and actually using English, it may not amount to much really, as many of you will know. So, anyway, back to the question of this practice / use issue. You need extensive hours of using a skill like English or a language to get to the highest levels. Practice is not enough. You need a lot of use.

I will go back to the example of basketball, it's a really good analogy. Just because you're practicing basketball at home or with your mates, it doesn't mean you can go out the next day or the next week and play like Michael Jordan. You need a lot of games in between. You need extensive use.

Malcolm Gladwell, who did extensive research on this, maintains you need 10,000 hours of practice.  Practice by itself will not get you there. ​ 10,000 hours, to me, sounds like a lot. If you work out the arithmetic of that in terms of how many hours a day, it adds up to a long time. I'm not convinced about that in terms of mastering a language, but you certainly do need a lot.

You need to not just, you know, going out and talking to somebody on the street, but you need a whole array of situations, from talking about family kind of stuff, to arguing, to talking about ideas, to talking about religion, to disagreements, negotiating and so on.

You've got to get yourself involved in all these different kinds of language experiences, Not necessarily all kinds but, you do need to have a really broad array of situations where you can actually use the language to express different kinds of thoughts, emotions, suspicions, biases and so on! That's the way to broaden and deepen your new language.

If you're not exposing yourself to these different kinds of uses, you may well end up feeling you are limited in your ability. That happens because you haven't "stress tested" your English. That can create a feeling of a lack of confidence in your language skills. The wider the variety of people you talk to and the more situations you are involved in over time, you can build belief in your abilities in and feel “I can do all this”. 

However, use or practice is not really sufficient in explaining what can go wrong. I'll give you an example. I live in Australia and here we have migrants who have lived here for many, many years. Most of them have been using English for a long long time, having well more than 10,000 hours. But many don’t sound native-like. Many, actually sound heavily accented and sometimes with severe grammatical issues. They can make themselves understood, don't get me wrong. But in terms of becoming native-life, they are a still a long way from it. They may have satisfied the need for extensive practice or use but many haven't managed to get to the highest levels. Why?

I will suggest that the reason has nothing to do with a lack of ability or some misplaced gene. It is more to do with the fact that they haven't learned how to use the time when they are using a language to actually improve it.

Learning at the Higher Levels 
(Compared to the Lower Levels)

This is a very different kind of learning that you have to get engaged in if you are to approach native-like.  That is the next reason, which is the third I believe. There is a difference between learning English or a language at the lower levels or learning it or improving at the higher levels.

At the lower levels, the distinctions are coarse. It's more a question of:

  • Do you know it or don't you know it?
  • ​Do you know the sound in question or don't you know it.
  • ​Can you say this word or not?
  • Can you ​express that idea?
  • ​Can you speak about the past or can't you speak about the past?

At some point, you start to learn all that and may even become quite good at it. But to get to native-like levels you require more than just a bit of skill. You need to get better and better and better. At the upper levels, you need to become more and more sensitive. You're talking about becoming attentive to finer and finer gradations of meaning, or finer and finer differences in meaning or sounds. To become aware of these distinctions, you have to become more and more sensitive, and more and more perceptive.

Without doing that, it's not really possible to get to the highest of levels. The only way you can do that is to do be "learning" in the midst of talking to people, while using a language. This is a skill or an art that many people don't actually master because no one's really taught this. No one talks about or actually shows you how to keep learning while using the language.  Sometimes this happens ad hoc or accidentally, or as part of what happens to you. It just sort of seems to happen. But this is ad hoc. It means it's just accidental or random. It doesn't mean you have a system for it. Without having a system for it, it just remains a random event, which you can't really rely upon to keep improving.

That's a key reason why people get stuck because they don't really master what they have to do to become better and better and better at the upper levels. It remains an art form out of the reach of most people. It, of course, does not have to be like that.

People don't really talk about how to improve after you leave formal instruction or learning. You don't really hear it mentioned. Just something your teachers assume you will do after you have left their classes… to keep improving. Well, sorry it doesn't just happen naturally to most people.


A part of this kind of learning at the high levels of becoming more and more sensitive and becoming aware of the finer and finer gradations of meaning requires you to have some sort of passion or interest in what you're doing

Without having that kind of passion, that kind of drive inside you that has you want to keep paying attention, that has you want to keep finding the differences and has you want to keep doing this, it's not going to happen because nothing is driving you forward. 

This passion is evident for anybody who's at the highest level of skill in any area. Whether it's a sport or whether it's business or whether it's in the arts or in fact anything in life. The people at the highest levels display this kind of passion, this kind of urgency, or this kind of feeling about what they do. It's something of a kind you can't even drag them away from it. They don't want to leave it and this comes back to that they feel inside, in their heart.  It's not in their head.

It's in their heart so they want to keep doing what they are because it's part of who they are. They enjoy it, revel in it, extract satisfaction from it. They get better and better at it. It is not just that they want to get better and better. It is deeper than that. They want to keep doing what they are, as they feel fulfilled in what they are doing,  so they can fulfill their own potential so they can feel alive. It's something deeper than just wanting to get there. The passion aspect is critical for the learning to be sustainable.

So, if you don't feel this passion, if you don't start to do something that enables his passion to show itself, to become evident so you can actually feel it, I would say it again, it's nearly impossible to get to the native-like levels because there's nothing driving you forward. So this passion is what we're talking about.

It is not just passion but it has to be also in the way you are actually learning. So, for example, if you're learning in ways that don't lend themselves to passion appearing, you are going to struggle. An example would be studying from a book. I mean, I don't know if you can get really passionate about studying in the book. I don't. Maybe you can.

​Your practices and what you do have to in fact support or ​create a passion. So​, passion and what you do have to be in sync, work together. In other words you have to develop practices and ways of learning that support your passion and that basically keep feeding you. The practices can't be divorced from the passion.

So you have to have practices that actually not just support but become a part of or generate the passion. They have to serve your passion in what you're doing, and what you're doing supports your passion as it were so it's like a loop to support each other. 

So, that's another reason that can have people give up. They may have a passion but the practice they use doesn't really support their passion. So the practices they use act to reduce their passion and then they start to give up on their learning practices. There's a whole art to finding the kind of practices that will feed your passion and having a passion that drives your practices.

The Result

From this discussion you may come to see that there are real reasons why having this idea that second language can't be fully mastered as an adult is really a myth. It's nothing more than that. It is a myth because most people just don't understand what they have to do to get to native-like levels. As a result their belief becomes perpetuating. It's supported by their practices because they're doing the wrong kinds of things.

Then they start thinking, "Of course, I can't get to the highest levels." And so the only way you can break this myth is one start believing you can and then start changing your practices and changing what you're doing. That ​may then start helping you to create this passion that you need that in turn will create your more practices that will support the passion and so forth. So it becomes like a loop. 

Anyway, I hope this little talk has been of help to you. I will talk to you more about this later on when I will start to unpack some of the elements I have been talking about.

Bye for now.