Learning English (or any language) Sustainably

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

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 focus on other elements of the listening.

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 these 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 and you won’t develop the skills in what you don’t focus on.

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, you should try to memorize this or 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 just sort of doing it in a sense unconsciously because it's just something you do without really knowing what's going on. Then it's much harder to start to get it under control. Now, of course there is 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.  

It is necessary to focus on the elements that are not working for you.  So, I’ll give 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 in formal language learning t here’s virtually nothing done about it. 

The power of patterns

People do for themselves 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 for listening for patterns, 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. That's what people do, study 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 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 have 13 then we got 30 40 50 60 70 and so forth. These 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.

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