Most language learners (and teachers) seem exclusively concerned about the language they are learning (teaching), not themselves (the learner). Having been a language teacher for many years now, I have come to recognise that there are certain types of people who find it easier to learn languages than others. There are no hard and fast rules here, however, these factors undoubtedly make a large difference to becoming a better language learner
I did an exercise with a number of advanced language learners recently and it confirmed to me that the more open you are as a person and prepared to face the unknown head on, the easier it is to come to the various understandings you have to arrive at to master another language. In the exercise, the students were being challenged at a number of levels but the area I wish to concentrate on for the purposes of this post is on the area of vocabulary. I could have looked at other language areas as well in the same vein, but this one lends itself to clearer analysis.
After the students had read for themselves the text I had chosen (without the use of a dictionary), we read through the text together. When there were difficulties, I first encouraged the student who had the problem to guess from context or from the meaning of the structure used. Sometimes that did not immediately work, so if I believed s/he could figure out the meaning, but somehow were missing it, I persisted asking the student questions, rather than open the problem to the class.
After a time, from the responses various students gave me (and dictionaries were still not allowed for this exercise), it became clear that there were two quite different types of responses to trying to understand the words that were causing difficulties.
When a difficult word came up, there were students who instinctively wanted to compare the unknown word with a word they already knew and define it from that perspective, that is more or less of that meaning. So for “marvellous” one guess, a student came back with a guess of “surprising”. When we went back to the text we could all see that in fact in the text marvellous had a positive quality to it. From that, some people adjusted their guesses to “very surprising”. The possibility of there being a word, which was different from the previous one, did not come readily for some. In fact, there was some difficulty letting go of this meaning of “surprise”. Of course, the problem could have been with the understanding of surprising…but that proved not to be the case.
There were the other kinds of students who were more open to seeing different meanings, the differences in meaning, not just more or less of what they already knew. They did not jump so readily back to what they knew but went back to the text to see what else could help them understand the feeling or sense they were looking for. So instead of “very surprising” what 2 students came back with was “wonderful”.
The difference between how these two kinds of learners approached the problem at hand has a lot to do with their ability to entertain the unknown, to be open and vulnerable. It did not appear to me to be anything to do with their learning style but more to do with who they were as a person.
So it would appear that the more resistant to change you may be or the more closed you are, the more difficult it will be for you to come to necessary understandings. Or if you are stuck with giving meanings to the new language from the “old”, because you don’t want to let go of that, then you are less likely to get the nuances, the subtleties that distinguish languages (the grammars, the vocabularies, etc) from each other. Instead, if you are looking for the meaning, ready to accept whatever may come, rather than trying to make the meaning fit what you already know, then your progress will be more assured.
As a little aside, this is one reason why bilingual teaching/learning of a language and excessive reliance on a bilingual dictionary is counterproductive to encouraging learners to embrace the unknown and to learn from it. The bilingual approach to learning/teaching does not encourage the learner to take on the unknown but instead encourages the learner to persist with an approach to learning that keeps them trying to interpret the new from what they already know. I have come across some learners who feel completely lost without the use of these tools, even at the advanced levels. It does not augur well for their continued improvement to native like proficiency for this kind of learner.
If you have become accustomed to a bilingual approach then a different way, for example, such as the way I suggested in the post on learning vocabulary, may appear at first to be slow in the beginning and hence appear to be more frustrating but in the long term it can do a lot in helping you to become more and more effective in your learning. Another key benefit is that a barrier to your continual improvement will have been removed.
To recognise which kind of learner you are, reflect on these questions:
- Do you feel comfortable with the unknown?
- How prepared are you to entertain uncertainty?
- Do you rush to a bilingual dictionary for every word you do not know?
- Do you want to confirm everything new you come across immediately or are you prepared to tolerate some ambiguity or confusion?
Okay, so what can you change so you can become a better language learner:
- Become less concerned with your personal reactions and more concerned with being open to what other people are saying/writing so you understand them from their perspective
- Do whatever it takes to become a less fearful kind of person as fear inevitably will have you return to what you know rather than go forward into uncharted waters.
- Look for ways of learning where your other learning powers are being encouraged (rather than a translation – that being one way of learning)
- Dispense with your bilingual dictionary as soon as possible and use it only for emergencies
- Reduce your reliance on dictionaries so you educate yourself to use your senses more – this way you learn to allow the context and the situation to educate you.
None of this might be easy for you, and might require you to go outside of the realm of language learning so you can become more comfortable with uncertainty and less fearful of being wrong when you have a guess, but the rewards will come as you become more comfortable with yourself and letting your senses, feelings and intellect to guide your learning. One of the rewards that may well come if you take all this on is that your intuitive powers can develop. The development of your powers of intuition is I would suggest another key to becoming a better language learner.
It is worth your while doing what you can to improve your language learning ability, so that not only do you get better outcomes but you also will end up enjoying the process. Wouldn’t all that be great!