Five Truths About Learning English
I first came to China during the first semester of my senior year of high school. Before then I'd never studied Chinese. The summer before I came I bought a set of Chinese tapes to listen to in the car. I thought that doing so would have great results and that I'd learn Chinese very quickly after arriving in China. Of course, after arriving in Beijing I found that it wouldn't be so simple--the tapes I'd been listening to didn’t seem to have helped at all, and after several weeks in Beijing I still couldn't communicate with people. I was quite frustrated. However, after three months of study, I had improved a lot, and had little difficulty with basic communication.
People often ask me to share my experiences with learning Chinese, perhaps in the hope that my experiences can help Chinese students learning English. The problem is that my experiences learning Chinese are very different from the experiences of Chinese students learning English, primarily because I learned Chinese here in China, where there is a natural Chinese-language environment, and most Chinese students don't have such a natural environment when they are learning English. After some thought, though, I came to the conclusion that there are some basic principles of language learning that are applicable to any learner in any environment, so I wrote an article called "How to Learn English". The article was well-received, and you can easily find it by searching online. That article was primarily about the specific things one must do in order to learn a language, while this article approaches language from a more psychological perspective, focusing on the things one must realize in order to learn a language effectively. I think both aspects are equally important.
1. Learning a Language Requires Motivation
When I tried to learn Chinese in the US, I lacked a clear motive--I just felt like I should learn. Once I arrived in China, I had a clear motive: if I didn't learn, I couldn't communicate with people, so I needed to learn.
Without a motive, you won't take action. The clearer the motive, the more it can really excite you, the more likely it is that action will occur.
If you want to learn English, you must find your motive, or else you won't take action. Some people seem to have a natural interest in learning English that can serve as their motive--these people are the lucky ones. But most people don't necessarily have a natural interest in learning English, and they must find something else to serve as their motive. You must find and answer to the question "Why do I want to learn English?" that moves you. There are many possible answers: to find a job, to communicate with more people, to make more money, to make your girlfriend proud, to understand American movies and TV shows, to pass the IELTS or TOEFL, etc. The most important thing is that it moves and excites you, and makes you want to take action. I suggest that you carry a piece of paper around with you with following sentence on it: I want to learn English because...
A motive helps to bring about action.
2. Learning a Language Takes a Lot of Time
When I first came to China I though I could learn Chinese very quickly, but I found out that it actually takes a long time. However, once I realized how much time it would take, I could more effectively plan and focus my study time.
David Allen has said about personal management that, "You have to think about your stuff more than you realize but not as much as you're afraid you might." Actually, learning English is quite similar. If you really want to learn the language, you have to spend a lot of time on it, but you don't have to give up your life just to learn English. As long as you repeatedly do a few simple things, over time you will be successful in your learning.
In "How to Learn English" I mentioned that it takes about 2,000 hours for a Chinese student to learn English. This number seems quite high at first, but if you spread it out over four years of university, it's less than 1.5 hours a day (and most university students already have a basic grasp of English when they enter university).
3. Learning a Language Requires a Positive Attitude
There is a book called "Attitude Determines Everything". The title is certainly hyperbolic, but it does have some truth in it. In fact, a positive attitude is absolutely crucial for learning a language, because your attitude while learning influences two very important things: 1) the amount of time you study, and 2) the quality of your study time.
Now, how does attitude influence study time and quality? It's actually quite simple. If we have a pessimistic attitude and feel stupid every time we make a mistake, then we are more likely to give up. If we have a negative attitude and always complain about having to study then we won't be able to focus and our efficiency will suffer.
When I was learning Chinese, some students in my class weren't able to adjust their attitudes, and this affected their results in the end. Each time they made a mistake in class they were embarrassed, and they often complained about how slowly they were learning. This sort of attitude can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The proper attitude for learning a language is a positive attitude of encouragement, humor, forgiveness, curiosity and confidence. Only this attitude will lead to the best results. If you make a mistake, forgive yourself, and realize that improvement only comes with repeated mistakes.
4. Learning a Language Requires Conscious Study
Some students planning to study abroad feel that learning English in China is too difficult; they plan to just do what they need to pass the IELTS, and then actually learn English once they're abroad. This is a dangerous attitude, because if you really want to learn a language you can't only depend on going abroad. I know many Chinese students who have spent a long time in the US but speak terrible English, and I know many foreigners who have been in China for many years yet speak hardly any Chinese. For both Americans learning Chinese and Chinese learning English, living abroad and "soaking up" the language is not enough. Even if you are in the US, you must still spend time consciously studying English in order to get clear results.
By "consciously study", I mean "repeatedly do a few simple things" like daily reading, reading aloud, and imitation. For more details on what specific things to do, see my article "How to Learn English".
Only through conscious study will we achieve continuous improvement.
5. Learning a Language Isn't So Difficult
So many people in the world have successfully learned English. Why shouldn't you be able to? Look at your friends around you. I'm sure that there are successful English learners among them. Analyze their behavior, or ask them what they have done to learn English. I'm confident you'll find that they 1) have a motive for learning, 2) have spent a significant amount of time learning English, 3) have a positive attitude about learning English, and 4) consciously plan their study time.
What about you? It's really quite simple. Take action today！