April 18

How Do Talented People Learn Languages?

How talented people learn another language

Learn another languageMany people wonder what it is that separates a so called talented language learner from one that isn’t. There are a number of factors to be sure. One of the important differences relates to how learners approach the issue of feedback.

A key reason many language learners make slow progress is that they don’t understand the critical role of feedback in learning.  They expect to get feedback from their teachers or other well intended people.  When they don’t get the feedback they are looking for, they go back and study more and think that will solve the problem. It usually will not because they have not understood the role of feedback in learning.

The importance of feedback in learning cannot be over-rated. Feedback is what happens when recognize that something has changed (or not changed) as a result of something you did or said ( or didn’t do or say!). As soon as you recognize there has been that change there is feedback. If you don’t recognize the change that may have happened, there really has been no feedback for you.

It is impossible to learn without feedback. Feedback is what tells you that what you are doing is working or is not. We always get feedback to what we say or don’t say, do or don’t do, whether we see it or we don’t.

We use feedback to drive a car. How else could we negotiate the mountain roads and not go off the edge! We use feedback when we cook. How else do we know how much to salt our food, as a cook or as a diner?  We use feedback to adjust what we say as we say it, as we watch how people react to what we say. If we see a puzzled expression, a bored expression, an amazed expression we will respond (usually!)  differently in each case. In all these cases, we do not need to look to others to determine our reaction. We make our own conclusions and react accordingly.

We use feedback all the time. Feedback only works to guide us if we are attentive and pay attention to not only the reactions we get, but also to what we do to get that reaction. This is one of the mechanisms that we used to learn our first language. We were not taught. We used what we had to work out what we needed to from the environment, both the inner and the outer. Sometimes our carers put in some guiding words. Many times not. We just learnt our first language by listening to others and to ourselves.

Once we are attentive we can notice what we did to get the feedback we did. Noticing is a skill that too little attention is placed on. We all assume that it just happens. We all notice things, however we mainly only notice what we put our attention on. So to become an effective language learner, it  is necessary to place our attention on more things than we normally do, and to learn from what we notice.

Many language learners believe that feedback from a teacher or someone, else is essential for effective language learning. Maybe you don’t believe that, but I have seen so many language learners not only ask for teacher feedback but by their actions, I can tell they aren’t using feedback to guide their learning.  The way that feedback can guide your learning is by acknowledging that you have the capacity to improve what you do by becoming more sensitive and more attentive to what you do, say, hear and see.

Don’t get me wrong, teachers can have a critical role for those who want to learn another language As a teacher and as a student I have seen the positive influence and effect that a teacher can have.  However, if you want to be a really good language learner you must get past the point of believing that the teacher is the only person from whom you can get feedback.

Everyone uses their own feedback in learning to varying extents but many times it is incidental to everything else that happens. To recognize that you have the ability to consciously provide yourself feedback in every aspect of your learning, is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself as a language learner. You do this by becoming more attentive to what you do and noticing what happens as a result. Once you learn to do this consistently, you will be on your way to becoming a talented language learner.



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  • How do you objectively measure progress in a language?  Surely that is the essence of feedback.  I have searched for tools to achieve this, but all I see and read is the importance of feedback and not the means to measure it.

  • That is a good question Prylett. Many learners regard the teacher as the person as the main source of feedback. If the teacher informs them that something is wrong, they then go about and fix it. If this stays the main source of feedback, then the learner will get stuck. And many, many do!
    What many language learners don’t learn to focus on is the feedback they can get themselves through their own efforts. If they don’t recognise that and learn to focus on it, then the process of learning another language will come to a sorry end.
    I only wanted to deal with the first step here to make clear that this issue is critical. Without this step continuing progress is not going to be achievable. Next time round I will deal with the measuring progress issue you have raised.
    Many thanks for the question and observation. I am sure that others would have been others thinking similar thoughts

  • Good morning Andrew,
    Thanks for sending me this article. I quite agree with you, but we have to bear in mind that the teacher prepares his learners in class to avoid certain mistakes so that the day of the exam, he or she does well. This is why the learner is waiting or rather longing for this feedback. the teacher and his learner are, hence; related within limited circumdtances and aiming a precide objective which is  getting a good mark and passing successfully the exam. I think we don’t have to blame any one but try to see how to remedy this situationd and get benefit of this close relation. You remind me of a teacher from  Norway who took his small learners out in the forest, made them hike, fixe their tents…etc and of course he taught them the lesson of that day, ie learning in a  real life situations. I come back to your point again of personal feedback, let me list the example of the Algerians mainly in Oran town where old illeterate people speak Spanish fluently without having learnt it at all. they managed to do so because their daily contact with the Spanidh helped them and because they had to do so if they wanted to get a job for instance. They managed to do so because they were in a daily heart and mental struggle of how to improve their acquisition of that language   There should be a stimulus to get the response which is the feedback. My learners for instance sing and understand some English songs without even learning them because they interprete their feelings. Who doesn’t know Eminem?

  • Thank you for your observations Aicha. They are great observations and add a new light to the discussion. 

    Teachers most certainly have a role to play.  Their role most certainly is to help the learner improve their language (and hence minimise the mistakes they may be making). The question then becomes, what is the best feedback that a teacher can provide so that the learner not only improves their language but also, at the same time, becomes a better learner?  This question is an important one and one which I will handle at another time as the answer is too long to fit here. The answer however is some way connected to the next point you raise.

    The other issue you raised is about the old illiterate Algerians who learnt Spanish without “learning” it. Maybe you mean, “did not study it”.  ( correct me if I am wrong please).  I would suggest that they learnt Spanish in much the same way as we learnt our first language. Something we can all do, if we do not get in our own way. Something your students may be in part using when they sing Eminem songs. This is something we can all learn from and I would suggest we even apply this way of learning to the classroom once we better understand the dynamics.

    This way to learn another language would become possible for all, not just a few.

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