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Advice on Language Learning & Teaching

Updated on December 14, 2017

Why this topic?

I was an English teacher for more than 7 years and a language learner for more than twenty years. I've travelled to 7 different countries and can communicate in French and Chinese with minimal trouble. My friends and students always ask me "How do you learn languages so quickly?", so I decided to create a hub to share with everyone my style of language learning/teaching. It can actually be applied to learning any language. I hope you enjoy reading this. It's quite long, so take your time and please don't hesitate to comment, voice your disagreements and ask questions.

Learning language is not only a skill, but there is a science to it!

Sitting at your desk, staring at your notebook, textbook or computer is not an effective way to study language (or anything). When studying like that, your mind is not actively using the information that you are studying, and practical learning does not take place. To learn a language in the most effective way, you have to connect the language you are learning to different parts of the brain (a method called "Brain-based learning"). There is a science to learning language, and I want to share my style of learning language with you!

I think I can. I know I can. I know I can think about it.

When learning a language it is especially important to think positively and spend time thinking in the language (or about the subject) you are learning! If you don't like or enjoy what you are learning, your already on the road to forgetting it. Find ways to make teaching or learning enjoyable.

You must have heard or read articles about the "power of the mind" and the law of attraction; I believe that they are true. If you tell yourself you are getting better, you will improve; and, if you tell yourself you can't do it, then you won't like learning whatever you are studying, and your progress will be minimal.

Tell yourself that you love what you are learning, and eventually it will become true. The more fun you have learning the language, the easier it will be to learn!

Also, you need to spend time thinking about what you're learning. Let's say you're trying to learn Chinese. When you're doing things every day, think about what you're doing in Chinese (don't worry about grammar)! When I started learning Chinese, I put reminders for myself around my apartment to think in Chinese and eventually it became a habit (and I improved very quickly). So, instead of thinking to yourself "I just want to sleep a little longer" in the morning, say to yourself "wo xiang duo shui yi hui'r" instead. It goes without saying that if you spend a lot of time thinking about things you are learning, you'll be more likely to remember the things you spent time thinking about!

Journal Writing/Blogging

Writing in a journal can help in many areas of your study and life. It is a great way to improve your writing skills (especially if you are writing in the language you are studying) and it can improve your ability to remember what you have learned. If you're writing in English for example, it lets you see your own grammar clearly, express your ideas, and use a non-oral method to communicate.

Make a habit of correcting your own mistakes. Reading your journal/blog entries out loud will also help you to pick out the "awkward" sentences and connect the knowledge you are learning to the speech center of your brain. If you are really serious about improving quickly, re-copy the corrected and perfected journal/post and read it out loud two or three times. This is how I studied for (and Aced) my French final when I was an undergraduate student. If you are not sure about your mistakes, that is when you ask another person to have a look and give you suggestions.

I've been keeping a journal for more than 8 years, and it's been interesting to go back and read through my language learning stages (most of the time I wrote in English, but I wrote in French and Chinese when I was feeling extra motivated). It's also helped me remember the details of the months and years that have past, and I like being able to see and track how I've "evolved" as a person over the years.

Journal Writing

Which answer best describes your feeling about journal/diary writing?

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Close-reading, casual reading, or reading of any kind can teach you something!

In language learning, reading a story in that language allows you to create a picture in your mind that will connect different parts of your brain to the language you are learning.

At first, find books that are not too difficult and DO NOT stop every time you find a new word. Guess what the word means, continue reading, and then look the word up when you finish the page or chapter. If you guessed right, you will be happy and proud of yourself. If you guessed wrong, then you'll be disappointed or frustrated (or experience some other negative emotion). Either way, you're connecting this word to an emotion, and you're much more likely to remember it correctly in the future.

Reading is also a good way to see the language as it is used by native speakers of that language, and it creates a basis for you to go by when making sentences of your own in that language. In fact, that is one of the things I do in class to help my students remember sentence structures. I'll show them a sentence or paragraph and then ask them to change some of the adjectives, nouns, verbs, etc., and make different sentences with the same structure.

Reading makes our vocabularies bigger, and the more you read the faster you get at it. This is especially useful for English learners preparing for tests like TOFEL, IELTS, the GRE and the SAT...

Note Taking

Whether studying a language on your own or in a class, you have to write things down. In your textbook (if it belongs to you), in you notebook or even on flashcards. Writing something down increases the chance that you will remember it. With a language, this is essential.

I used to tell my students that teachers can tell who is actually there to learn by seeing who has paper and a writing utensil out when class begins. It's true, and serious language teachers pay attention to this.

If you hear or read something that you can understand, but don't know how to say, WRITE IT DOWN! You'll be more likely to remember how to say it in the future.

If you're a perfectionist, or really trying to learn the language quickly, writing your notes a second time will allow you to remember what you learn more strongly and it will make your notebook neater, making it easier to study when/if exams come around.


Not only do reading and note-taking help to increase your vocabulary in language learning (including your own), but there are other very useful methods to vocabulary building.

I suggest that you designate a notebook specifically for vocabulary words, separate from your class notes and take an active approach to learning new vocabulary words. This is especially helpful with learning English. The average non-native English speaker has a vocabulary between 2,500-9,000 words. If you learn an extra 10 words a day (on top of course work), 5 days a week, you'll learn more than 200 extra words per month. Learning 15 words a day will bring that up to 300 plus.

Depending on what level you are at in language learning, when writing the definition to vocabulary words, be sure to write the definitions in the language you are learning and only include your native language if absolutely necessary. People learn their mother tongue by daily use and reading about the words in their own language. If you want to understand words like a native speaker, you need to learn them like the native speaker does. Don't forget to write down one or two example sentences from the dictionary. Practice reading these sentences aloud. Close your eyes and picture the event in your head (imagine using the example sentences in real life). When it becomes natural for you, that's when you should move on to the next word.

I like using my imagination, and this is how I learn vocabulary words in any language. When I first began my Chinese-learning endeavor in college (in Wyoming, USA), one day my professor talked about the Mandarin expressions for turn left, turn right, turn around and go forward. In my head, I was in China taking a taxi telling the driver to do these things. A couple years later, I went to China and found myself in a taxi telling the driver to do these things! In the taxi, I specifically remembered thinking about these phrases in class and while studying Chinese on my own, and I had no problem getting where I needed to go. This same situation has happened to me in France, Belgium and Switzerland as well.

Keeping another notebook for jotting down useful sentences is also a great idea. Remember to read them out loud and visualize them in your head. You are connecting them to the speech and experience centers of your brain and you'll be more likely to remember them!

Grammar is Fun!

Have you ever found that when you study and learn elements of a language's grammar that you can answer questions about it on an exam correctly, but, when you are speaking the language in the real world, sometimes the grammar comes out wrong? This phenomenon is more common than you might think! Especially with languages like English, Spanish, French, and etc., students know the grammar, but they can't use it! It's all stored in the knowledge part of their brain!

My best advice for this is to try to connect the grammar you are learning to the speech center of the brain. This is where grammar exercises become extremely useful. Once you are sure that your answers are correct, copy the sentences down in correct grammar, read them aloud in a clear voice (and be sure to look away from the paper when you can). Stand up, walk around, and try to find different places to finish and read grammar exercises. When you're using the language in real-life situations, it won't necessarily be at a table or desk.

I already mentioned that journal writing and reading help with improving your ability to use grammar correctly, but you can also change the way you think about grammar to make it more interesting and enjoyable to learn (positive thinking!). Tell yourself "Grammar is fun!", and eventually you'll start to believe it. It took me a while, but I have come to look at grammar (in any language) as interesting, fun, and as a means to being more creative.

If you're looking for more interesting ways to use English grammar, my favorite book about grammar is "Rhetorical Grammar" by Martha J. Kolln and Loretta Gray. I also really love "The Only Grammar Book You'll Ever Need" by Susan Thurman, she has a very humorous way of teaching grammar.

Watch, Listen & Imitate

Watch movies and TV shows in the language you are learning. Listen to songs and programs on the radio and to native-speakers speaking the language first hand. Even if you don't understand everything you hear and see, you will still be learning! It's possible to understand the content of a movie even if you know only 25% of the words that you hear! If you do this often, your listening comprehension will improve day by day, and it's entertaining!

If you enjoy what you're learning, then you'll learn it faster and be able to remember a lot more!

When using movies to learn a language, I usually pick one that can bring out many different emotions throughout the movie. If available, I'll watch it one time dubbed in English (as a basis for understanding) before diving into the original language of the movie. Usually that's not an option; so, first I'll watch it 5 times (usually within a week or two) with English subtitles. Remember, throughout the process, it is okay to stop, rewind, and listen again. Don't forget that your purpose for watching this movie is to learn the language from it, so have a notebook by your side! After watching it 5 times with English subtitles, I will watch the movie 5 more times with subtitles in the movie's original language. This is where going back and listening again will prove the most helpful. Also, this is the stage in which I bring out my dictionary and write the most notes down in my notebook. You have now seen the movie ten times (or eleven). The last stage is watching the movie 5 more times without subtitles. You'll be surprised by how much you have learned by this stage, and by the 15th time, you should be able to understand the whole movie without subtitles and probably even be able to say all of the lines in the movie.

Repeat the expressions you hear in the same way you heard them. Pay attention to the way they are stressed, and imitate them as closely as you can.

Learning songs is also a great way to help you learn a language. This is because songs connect different parts of the brain to the language (and are enjoyable to learn). I do this, but my advice here is to read the lyrics without the music, paying special attention to the sentence structure and meaning. Sing the song with the music as well as without the music. But most importantly, have fun with it!

Speak, Speak, Speak, and ASK QUESTIONS!

You've heard the expressions, "Practice makes perfect" and "There's no such thing as a stupid question." With language learning, they are absolutely true. Any practice you get will improve your ability to use the language naturally, and any questions you ask will help you understand the language better. One of the first sentences you should learn in a language is "How do you say (word or phrase) in (language)?"

When speaking a foreign language, don't be afraid to make mistakes! If you say something wrong, you'll know by the look on people's faces. If they don't know what you are trying to say, that's when the "How do you say..." question becomes very useful. Make friends who speak the language you are learning. Try to speak with them as often as possible in their language, and ask questions. Actually, I like to use questions about language as a conversation starter. It works every time!


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