Willy Renandya & Mintra Puripunyavanich
You may be wondering why only a small number of students are successful in learning English while the majority are unable to move beyond a survival level of proficiency. Do these successful students have a special talent? Are they language-smart people?
The answer is no. They are normal students and they were not born with a special talent to learn a foreign language. They may however have accidentally unlocked the secrets to success in language learning and use these to accelerate the acquisition of the language and achieve a higher level of proficiency.
These students speak English quite effortlessly with hardly any noticeable mistakes in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. In fact, the words they use in speech and writing flow smoothly like a river. They are what ELT experts refer to as ‘competent users of the language’.
In the ELT professional literature, these secrets are often referred to as effective language learning strategies. These are strategies that researchers have found to be particularly useful in places where English is learned as a foreign language such as Thailand and Vietnam.
We describe below six of the most effective strategies that can speed up the process of language learning and increase students’ ability to understand and produce the language.
NO FUN, NO GAIN
Many believe that language learning is hard work and unenjoyable. No pain, no gain, they would say. But this is simply not true. Highly proficient students tell us a different story; they find that learning English is fun and enjoyable. So if you are not having fun learning English, you may be doing the wrong thing. You may be ‘studying’ but not ‘learning’ English.
As a result of your hard work studying English, you may do well on the English test in school, but you may actually not have the ability to use English for meaningful and purposeful communication. For more information about the idea behind ‘no fun, no gain’, click on the link here.
A MOVIE A DAY KEEPS YOUR ENGLISH BLUES AWAY
Students who acquire a high level of proficiency have a lot of fun learning English by watching English movies. They watch movies that they like and are easy to understand. When the language in the movie is a little hard to understand, they would first watch with the subtitles (either in their own language or in English) and they would then watch it again without the subtitles.
The key thing here is that they spend time every day watching their favourite movies. After watching movies for a period time, they begin to notice that people in the movies often use and re-use the same/similar phrases and sentences to express their thoughts and feelings.
Gradually these language forms become rooted in their long-term memory. Soon after, they begin to use these common expressions in their speech and writing e.g., What’s the matter with you? Let’s get together again soon. You must be joking. It’s time to go now. Can I get you something to eat? Etc.
These sentences are known as fixed or formulaic expressions in the professional literature. Research shows that more than 50% of the language that we use in speaking are fixed phrases or formulaic expressions. Research also tells us clearly that competent users of English have accumulated hundreds if not thousands of these fixed expressions that enable them to use the language naturally and fluently.
BOOKS ARE YOUR BEST FRIENDS
Successful learners of English find joy in reading English books. They read every day. They make it a point to spend 15-20 minutes each day reading comprehensible and enjoyable books. Most of them say that they enjoy reading fiction books such as adventures, thrillers and love stories, but some of them enjoy reading non-fiction e.g., biographies and other information books.
What is interesting is that when they read a fascinating book with a captivating story line, they find that they can’t stop reading until they get to the end of the story. Research shows that students who read highly interesting books become hooked onto reading and gradually develop a higher and more sophisticated literacy skills. Their reading skills develop and soon after their writing skills also improve a great deal.
SHADOWING IS THE GREATEST LANGUAGE TEACHER
When you read a good book or watch a movie regularly, your comprehension skills improve over time. But language learning is more than just comprehension; you also need to practice your oral skills in order to improve on your ability to say words correctly and smoothly.
Polyglots, people who speak many different languages fluently, do shadowing regularly. Successful learners of English, too, do shadowing to help them improve on their listening and speaking fluency.
Shadowing is very easy to do. Play an audio or video text, and as you listen or view the text, read/speak along at the same time or immediately after with or without the transcript.
When you do this regularly, you will soon find that you can speak the language with ease and accuracy. Remember that you will reap the language learning benefits after you have done shadowing daily for a longer period of time, e.g., 6 months.
IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO
You need a partner to do the tango dance; you can’t do it alone! You can watch a move alone, you can read a book alone and you can do shadowing practice alone too. But if you want to improve your speaking (and writing) skills, you will need a partner or someone to practice with. You can do this with your classmates, or friends or other people from another country.
Research tells us that successful learners actively seek opportunities to speak with other people, to try out their newly acquired language and to see if they can express their thoughts, ideas and feelings clearly to other people and if other people can understand them without much difficulty.
One key benefit of interacting with other people is that it provides an excellent opportunity to receive feedback from others, especially the kind of feedback that helps students fine-tune and expand their language skills.
IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT MATTER
When we watch a good movie or read an interesting book, we tend to pay more attention to the contents rather than the language. Because of this, little things to do with the language tend to escape our attention.
For example, it is not uncommon to hear students say ‘the news are making me worried’ instead of ‘The news is making me worried’, ‘He has returned to Singapore yesterday’ instead of ‘He returned to Singapore yesterday’, ‘They can to go swimming’ instead of ‘They can go swimming’.
ELT scholars believe that in order to learn English well, we need to make conscious efforts to pay attention to these little things. Indeed, some language acquisition experts go so far as to suggest that no learning is possible without noticing.
When we start paying attention, we soon begin to notice that the word ‘maybe’ is more often used in speech while ‘perhaps’ is used in writing and we say ‘light rain’ instead ‘mild/soft rain’, ‘deeply grateful’ instead of ‘highly grateful’.
Finally, we believe language learning does not have to be hard and painful. We also believe that the secrets we have shared here can help you learn English with greater ease and enjoyment and more importantly, help you achieve a much higher level of proficiency.
Nunan, D., & Richards, J. C. (Eds.). (2015). Language learning beyond the classroom. New York: Routledge.
Renandya, W.A. (2013). Essential Factors Affecting EFL Learning Outcomes. English Teaching, 68(4), 23-41. Free download.