The Psychology of Learning English

Have you ever tried to learn English by taking classes? If so, you probably never advanced beyond the beginner stage. The reason is fairly simple. You can’t become proficient in anything by only taking one or two classes a week. The classes are designed to assist you as you study on your own time, but so many people have trouble managing their time that they don’t practice much and don’t make much progress. As a result they eventually lose heart and quit.

Can you imagine having the goal of playing the violin but you never practice at home? How good would you be if you only picked your violin up once or twice a week? Can you see the parallel? Learning a foreign language is like learning to play an instrument. You have to practice every day. The problem for many people is finding the information that they need or finding somebody to practice with.

There are hundreds of books that teach English.  There are CD’s and videos that teach English, too. With so many ways to learn English, why would anybody need to know how to learn it? But the fact is that most people who study English don’t succeed. They learn basic things like “Good Morning”, “Hello”, and “Thank you”, but they never achieve their goal of fluency or near fluency. Why?

It is my belief that people fail because they aren’t adequately prepared to learn. Learning a language requires a good foundation. When a building is constructed, a great deal of work is done in laying the foundation before anything else is added. In fact, the taller the building will be, the deeper the foundation must be for that building. Have you ever walked by a construction site and seen an area surrounded by a fence where a huge hole had been dug? That hole is planned ahead of time. It is created in order to give that building a good foundation so that when it is finished it will be strong and remain for many years to come.

When a person prepares for a career in medicine or law they prepare for many years. Why? Because the demands of those careers require that much preparation. Who would want to have a doctor who only studied for six months and has only been practicing for a few weeks? Not me.

When it comes to learning a language, the emphasis has usually been placed on the vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation rather than the foundation. All of those things are important, but without the right foundation you are likely to fail.

There is a verse in the bible where Jesus said to count the cost.

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, sits not down first, and counts the cost, whether he has enough to finish it? Lest perhaps, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish. Or what king, going to make war against another king, sits not down first, and consults whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him that comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation, and desires conditions of peace.” (Luke 14:28-32)

This is a valuable life lesson. Before you begin any venture you need to take some time to honestly consider what it will cost you, not only in terms of money but also in terms of time and effort. Learning a language takes time. It requires practice. It might mean that you have to skip watching TV or playing football with your friends. It might mean that you need to stay home to study instead of going to the movies or the beach. If you truly believe that you can study for two hours a day then make the commitment to do so. If it’s only one hour then do that. If it’s 30 minutes then it’s 30 minutes. But once you determine how long you can commit each day, write it down somewhere that you will see it every day to remind you of your commitment to learning. Make that determination right now, because if you don’t you’re going to end up like the man who built the foundation for a tower and ran out of money.

I’ll tell you right now that there will be obstacles placed in your way. That’s just the way life is. Maybe your spouse will lose their job and you will need to work two jobs to pay the bills. Maybe you will get sick or injured and spend some time in the hospital. Maybe you will fall in love and start spending a lot of time with your sweetheart. Maybe you will get a great job that requires you to work 60 hours a week. Make sure that no matter what the circumstances are you will study and practice every day. If you have to study 15 minutes a day instead of an hour then so be it. If you have to miss a day every once in awhile that’s okay, as long as you get back to studying as soon as possible. If you are determined to succeed then you will. If you lack the determination then you won’t. It’s really not much more complicated than that.

Another reason people fail to reach their goals in learning English is they limit themselves to one or two classes a week. You won’t make much progress by doing that. Everybody I know who has learned a foreign language either did it by living in a foreign country or by studying at home every day.

Learning a language isn’t really that difficult. Think about it. A child can learn a language. And they do. Every day hundreds of millions of children around the world are learning a language. True, they learn their native language where they are immersed in the culture where that language is spoken, but the fact is they can learn a language even when their brains aren’t fully developed. Learning isn’t difficult, but it does require time. Those children spend hours a day every day developing their language skills. If you are willing to devote some time every day to learning and practicing you will succeed. In fact, you will learn at a faster pace than a child because your brain is fully developed and you are already familiar with most of the concepts that they are discovering.

For example, a child not only has to learn how to say “water”, they also have to learn what water is. You as an adult already know about water. You know that most of the earth is covered by water. You know that there is salt water and fresh water. You know that water comes in the form of a gas, a solid, and a liquid. All you need to know is how to say “water” in another language, and then practice saying it.

“But what about immersion?” you ask. Yes, children are immersed in the right environment for learning a language, but with the tools that I direct you to you will be able to simulate immersion to a certain extent. In the modern world communication and technology make learning so much easier than it was even ten years ago, and drastically different from twenty or thirty years ago before most people ever heard of the Internet.

Another important thing to remember is that learning a language isn’t like learning about history or geography or some other subject you might have taken in school. It’s more like learning to play an instrument. You have to practice, and by practicing I mean speaking or conversing. By saying words, phrases, and sentences repeatedly you create neural pathways in your brain that help you to remember. By listening to a person speaking in the language you are learning you train your ear to hear those words, phrases, and expressions. “But I don’t have anybody to practice with!” you might say. Well the resources in this website will help you to simulate conversations. Again, this is one of the marvels of modern technology. So now you have no excuse.

You will achieve your goal of speaking English by conditioning your brain to think in English. Instead of saying “I’m hungry” in your native language you say it in English.  By saying in English things that you say every day in your native language, you will train your brain to think in the language you want to speak.

How long will it take you to go from beginner to fluency? I can’t answer that. It depends on the individual. First of all, let’s define “fluency”. To me, if you’re fluent in a language you can have conversations without constantly stopping to think of words or saying “I don’t understand”. It doesn’t mean that you can speak the language like a native speaker or that you never make mistakes. (Even native speakers make mistakes.) Nor does it mean that you know most of the words or rules for grammar in that language. (There are between 170,000 and 1,000,000 words in the English language, depending on who’s figures you believe. Most native speakers don’t know more than 30,000.) It just means that you can speak the language well enough to understand what people are saying and effectively communicate with them.

Some people claim that they learned a language in six months, but most people need 2-4 years. Usually it’s best to go by hours rather than years. About 1,000 hours of study and practice should have you approaching fluency. (This is assuming that your study time is well planned and free from distractions. Some people waste much of their study time talking in their native language or surfing the web. To achieve your goal you need about 1,000 hours of high quality study time that produces good results.) If you study one hour a day that’s 365 hours a year so you would hit 1,000 hours in about 33 months. Two hours a day would obviously cut that time in half. Naturally the more time you devote each day to learning the less time it will take. The important thing is to get started and never quit.

(Personally I believe that the claims that you can go from beginner fo fluency in a few months is mostly hype. I’m sure that some people have accomplished that, but most people aren’t able to study and practice 40 hours a week, which would be required to accomplish that. Stay grounded and accept the fact that becoming fluent in a language takes years, not months.)

Learning another language is a skill that you can use for the rest of your life. How many of us have spent countless hours learning how to do something that we no longer do? Think about it. Did you play the clarinet in high school? Did you play video games when you were growing up? Did you learn how to play a sport? How many of those things will you be able to do as you get older? Probably very few, but you will always be able to use your language skills.

And finally, you learn faster when you are relaxed. Enjoy the learning experience. Don’t get upset when you forget a word or make a mistake. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Learn to laugh at yourself. You’re going to make mistakes – lots of mistakes. The more you learn the more mistakes you will make. That’s all a part of the process. There’s no shame in falling down. The shame is when you fall down and you don’t get back up. There’s no excuse for quitting.

I have four simple keys to become fluent in English.

1. Determination – Study every day. Don’t let anything stop you from pursuing your goal of fluency.
2. Planning – Plan your study time just like you would plan your wedding or your education for a career. If you fail to plan you are planning to fail.
3. Practice – Don’t just read and memorize. Practice speaking with a language partner.
4. Evaluation – Constantly keep track of the progress you’re making. This will help you to stay positive and let you know what areas you can improve in.

At this point I am tempted to say “good luck”, but I know that success in learning a language has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with effort. So I will just say “good studying!”.

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