548 - Suggestions about learning a second language

2018-08-22 16:04:27

Suggestions about learning a second language

Many people, who do not speak English or do not speak English well, desire to improve their English; All of my students have asked me, "how can I improve my English?"

There are many books written on the subject, but the vast majority of them are written for teachers of English as a second language. If your level of English is about intermediate or lower you would not understand these books, or not be able to read them at all.

So what do you do to improve your English? You have a few options, but one option you should always include is an English teacher. If possible your English teacher should be a native-English-speaker. Other options are watching TV and movies in English; Listening to radio in English; Reading books and news in English. But you have to actually use, speak, the English you are learning. You have to hear the new sounds and words come out of your mouth. Yes, you can learn to read English and never speak a word of it. Is that your goal? I hope not. Moreover, I know it is not for most learners of English as a second language.


First, let's look at aptitude. What is aptitude? Aptitude is a person's ability to learn something new.

For example, Joe is learning to play the guitar, and Pete has been learning for 6 months. In just 2 months Joe is playing better than Pete, even though Pete practices almost every day. Joe has a higher aptitude than Pete for learning to play the guitar. For Joe playing the guitar simply comes natural. Pete practices daily, and will continue to improve, but it will take him longer. Pete has to work harder, he does not have the natural feeling for playing the guitar.

Learning English, or any second language, is much the same. Every person has a different level of aptitude for learning a new language. If your learning experience seems to be going slow, don't worry about it, it might just be your language learning aptitude is lower, and you might have a higher learning aptitude for something else. Whether your language learning aptitude is high or low does not matter, you will learn, you will improve, if you try.


Why do you want to learn English? What is your motivation? Motivation is the force that makes us want to do something. In this case, it is the reason why we want to learn English. There are two general types of motivation, instrumental and integrative motivations. But that's getting to technical, so let's use the words "internal" and "external". External motivation is the learner's desire is to use the language to improve his/her job situation, such as a different position where they currently work; change to a different company; or to change careers.. In contrast, an internal motivation is when learners may choose to learn a second language because they are interested in the people and culture that uses that language, or they want to learn a new language because it is fun and it enriches their life. In various contexts, both motivations are important. Of course, students can have both types of motivation at the same time. But one will always be stronger than the other.

Learning a new language so you can pass an exam or get a better job, that is external motivation. If you are learning just for the enjoyment of learning a new language, or for talking with friends who also speak the language, that is internal motivation. Both are good.

A study of Chinese students, in China by FJ Noonen in 2005, showed that those who have a strong external motivation are more likely to be unsuccessful in learning the new language. Those who have a strong internal motivation are more likely to be successful at learning the new language. One of the Chinese students said (paraphrased) "If you learn English but cannot speak it fluently, you are like a blind person on the street, you miss many opportunities to experience the beauty of the world. It is like being kept in a dark box. If you speak English well you open up the world, culture, people and life. You feel you have added color and meaning to your life. You are not isolated."

So why are you learning English? Is it so you can pass a particular test? Learning a new language is much more than that. It opens opportunities. It is the key to new opportunities in jobs, travel, and new friends, and much more.


Everyone believes that one must be diligent to learn English well. But in the above mentioned study the author of the study found that diligence really didn't make much of a difference between successful learning and unsuccessful learning. But what is diligence? It is determination; it is effort; that you put into doing something. It cannot be measured. In the study 36 % of the non-successful learners felt they had studied extremely well or very diligently for two years or more but still spoke English poorly. In contrast, 57% of successful learners described themselves as only sometimes diligent or not diligent at all, yet they speak English very well. Why do some very diligent students speak English poorly, while other not-diligent students speak English well? Diligence is a feeling. The successful learners may have felt like they were not as diligent as they actually were, and in contrast, the unsuccessful learners may have over-estimated their level of diligence.

It is not good enough to just study a lot, you must study properly. I suggest that you will improve your new language best when you study in these 2 ways: 1) listen to large amounts of understandable English, 2) take all opportunities to use the new language to talk with others, and 3) support your learning with some grammar learning.

Understandable input

Most language experts have thought, for many years, that language was learned by simply imitating the sounds we hear as children. One researcher, Noam Chomsky, said that language is too complex to be learned simply by imitation. In addition, if children are learning by imitation how do the other researchers explain the mistakes the children make? It appeared that children were making mistakes because they were applying "rules" where they did not belong, producing speech like "you hurted me." A phrase they would never hear in their home and school. Apparently children did not simply imitate speech, but were actively making "rules" in their mind from the input they received to govern their speech. More importantly, they did not receive enough information about language in their home and school to give them all the knowledge they needed to know the things that they knew about language. How could children do this? Chomsky hypothesized that humans are born with a "language acquisition device." This device is a part of the brain designed specifically for language acquisition and is separate from its other parts. He believed all that was needed to get this device to start working, was input, exposure to language.

Later, researchers began noticing that second language learners also produced language that contained mistakes, yet these mistakes were not arbitrary but governed by "rules." However, these "rules" could neither simply be attributed to the influence of the native language nor the target language. Researchers refer to this system of rules as "interlanguage." This interlanguage is transitional, it changes over time. As learners grow in the language, their interlanguage system becomes more and more similar to the target language. In other words, as they make progress their language becomes more and more correct. This "series of interim systems that a learner constructs in the process of acquiring a second language" is called the "interlanguage continuum" (Rod Ellis 1997).


One theory of learning is called Input Hypothesis, which claims that new language learners make progress through exposure to understandable input. So, just what is understandable input? Understandable input is defined as "understanding input that contains structures at our next 'stage' - structures that are a bit beyond our current level of competence". What that refers to is the new language vocabulary and grammar that are just beyond what we currently know. Think about the equation x + 1, x is your current level of English and +1 is the new words or grammar that are just above your current level. Accordingly, input that is either too simple or complex will not help a learner make progress in spoken English.

In the previously mentioned Chinese study, they were asked the question "On an average day of study, how much time did you spend LISTENING to spoken English?" The non-successful learners (81%) were listening to less than 1 hour, while the successful learners (63%) were listening to 1 hour or more. Then they were asked the question: "How well did you understand MOST of the English you listened to while learning English?" The results for the category "I understood the main message but didn't understand some parts. [comprehensive i + 1 input]" were: successful learners, 85%, unsuccessful learners, 58%. While in the "I understood only some of it with great difficulty" category the successful learners were at 0% and the unsuccessful learners, 36%.

The results are clear. The great majority of successful English language learners in this study 1) listen to English for 1 hour or more and 2) listen to the right kind of input, input where they can understand the main idea but not some parts. Nevertheless, I believe it is safe to claim that exposure to comprehensible input greatly benefits the language learner. On the other hand, 57.58 % of non-successful learners are listening to this same type of input. Why are they still poor speakers? Most likely, the amount of time spent listening to this kind of input is insufficient to achieve a higher level of proficiency, as indicated by the previous question. Finally, 42.42% of non-successful students are not only spending too little time listening, the time they do spend is not of much use because the input is too difficult for them to comprehend.

So, now you understand the importance of understandable input. How, or where, do I get this kind of input? There are numerous websites that offer spoken news stories and fiction stories, some are free and some are subscription. Here are a few:

  • Breaking News English - https://breakingnewsenglish.com. This site is loaded with news stories broken into 6 levels. They include the text as well as recorded audio in different accents and different speaking speeds. They also have many quizes for the stories. I highly recommend this site.
  • Randall's ESL Listening Lab - http://www.esllab.com/index.htm. This website has short passages, grouped by level (easy, medium, and difficult). It has pre-listening warmups and questions to quiz your comprehension. Another highly recommended site.
  • http://learningenglish.voanews.com/ has news stories in 3 levels from beginner to advanced, with audio and text scripts, and some video as well. Highly recommended. I also recommend this site.
  • TV and movies is also a possibility, but for most people the length of the shows and movies is just too long. If you can watch these online, and pause and rewatch short segments, then you can learn much more comprehensively.
  • You can also watch Youtube videos and finally purchase materials and books, which are obviously, expensive.
  • All of these: radio, TV, movies, internet, can be wonderful sources of comprehensible input. However, you must keep in mind your level and what comprehensible input truly is. If you find yourself simply hearing sounds and not comprehending the main idea of the passages, then your listening practice is not helping you as much as it should. You can still engage in these activities, but you need to use more strategies to help you understand what you hear. Perhaps you need to look new vocabulary up in the dictionary or listen to shorter sections of the passage. Or you need to find a source of English that is spoken more slowly.

The bottom line is that if you are not comprehending the main idea of your input, you either need to use more strategies (i.e. dictionary, repetition, shorten length, etc.) to make it comprehensible or find different, simpler sources of input.


Strategies are helpful for comprehending a listening passage. When you are listening, try the following:

Before Listening:

  1. Look at the title of the passage and any pictures.
  2. Ask yourself questions: What do you know about this topic? What do you think this passage will be about? What information do you hope this passage will tell you?

During Listening:

  1. Focus your attention on what is being said.
  2. Listen for the main idea.
  3. Listen for key words and ideas.
  4. Relate what you hear to what you already know.

After listening:

  1. Ask yourself: a) Did the passage match my guess? b) What did I learn from this passage? c) Summarize the main idea of this passage in 1-2 sentences.
  2. Write down any new words you feel are important.


Listening to English will help everything. Listening will build your vocabulary, improve your grammar, and even help your speaking. In fact, there are some who believe that listening to comprehensible input alone is sufficient to develop complete oral proficiency, as mentioned before. However, though that may be possible, I do not think it is likely. On the contrary, I believe that using the target language (English) to communicate with another person greatly helps students acquire the English language.

Once again, referring to the above mentioned Chinese study of English language learners, they were asked "In an average WEEK of study, how much time did you spend using English to communicate with a NATIVE SPEAKER OF ENGLISH (For example: A foreign teacher or friend)". And the results are not surprising: those who spent 1 hour or less per week, 85% of the unsuccessful learners. Those who spent more than 1 hour per week, 61% of the successful learners. So, no surprises there.

My students already know this though, as I have mentioned to them the importance of actually practicing speaking English during the days they are not with me in lessons. The problem with most students is that they either

  1. do not have opportunities to communicate with a native English speaker or
  2. do not have the confidence to do so.

I will address these issues later.

First, here are a couple points about speaking practice: First point - with comprehensible input, meaning can often be understood without paying attention to the grammar. In other words, speaking can help students notice a gap between what they say and what they hear; therefore they recognize that some of their grammar is not correct. And the second point - speaking practice provides learners with an incentive to formulate their thoughts into words and opportunities to test what they have learned. They can use what they have learned to see if it leads to successful communication or if it brings a negative response. And finally, learners often think about their own output, giving them something to discuss which can lead to potential solutions.

Who will I speak with?

My students are fortunate to have a native English speaking teacher, yet how many of them take advantage of this opportunity? Very few. Some have English-speaking family members, relatives or friends, yet they default back to their native language because it is more comfortable. Reading out loud also helps. Yes, we all have a busy schedule, but if we take just a few minutes away from the tv a few times a week to practice speaking the students level of proficiency will increase dramatically. This can be done by phone, or skype, or in person. The real question is: how important is it to you?


  • Do not be afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes are normal.
  • Realize you will not always be understood. When you are not understood, you may use the following strategies: repeat yourself
  • use gestures (hand movements and body language)
  • say the same thing in a different way
  • use examples
  • give definitions or synonyms for words
  • Realize you will not always understand what the other person is saying. When you do not understand, you may use the following strategies:
    • Make guesses about what is being said.
    • Check these guesses by asking questions.
    • Check your understanding by restating what you think the person means. (i.e. Do you mean . . . ?)

Notice the first item above? Often we are afraid to use our new language because we are afraid we will make a mistake and look like a fool. In English we call this "losing face". This is a very big and real problem for new language learners.

Once again referring to the Chinese study, we find that 52% of the students who were non-successful learners were afraid of losing face, they were afraid they would look foolish. Compare that to 88% of the successful students who used English no matter if they looked foolish or not. The results strongly suggest that if you want to speak English well, you must overcome your fear of losing face and begin speaking English with others.

Learn grammar

For many years, decades in fact, grammar has been the focus of learning English. Many students can quote just about every grammar rule without error, but ask them a simple question and they are dumbfounded for a simple answer. Schools that teach grammar fail to teach conversation skills. Often even the teachers cannot converse in the language they are teaching. Thus it is all the more important to study with a native speaker.

Grammar learning should focus on two points: 1) making input understandable and 2) developing awareness so that the learner can notice the grammar.

First, a little knowledge of grammar can make input a lot more understandable. Second, when learners are concerned only with communicating their meaning, they often do not need to be grammatically accurate in order to accomplish their goals. For example, in English, subject-verb agreement is unnecessary to understand the meaning of the sentence. Thus, because a student can subconsciously ignore the grammar, he may not learn to speak accurately. This means that a student, though he may speak fluently, continues to make the same mistakes over and over again even though he has heard the correct way to say them a thousand times.

Some scholars believe that when students learn about grammar, this knowledge can help them "notice" (pay attention to) not only the meaning of the words/sentences/phrases, but also its grammatical form. Even though they might not yet speak the form correctly; if they are aware of the correct form, they can then "notice" it in the input. Eventually, after "noticing" a grammatical feature enough, they will use it correctly.

If your goal is to improve your spoken English, you can spend less time memorizing grammar rules, and should spend more time practicing speaking. Make listening and using English the focus of your study.

I recommend studying grammar for the following reasons: 1) to make input understandable and 2) to help the learner understand what they hear and read, as well as their own speaking. This may help them to eventually internalize these grammatical rules rather than storing them up in their short-term memory where they will be quickly forgotten after the test; 3) to learn how to write properly in English.

Tips for Grammar Study

  • Study grammar to help you understand what you hear and read.
  • Study grammar to help you notice grammatical features in what you hear and read.
  • Do not be frustrated that you cannot apply the grammar rules you learn to your normal speaking. This is perfectly normal. Continue to notice these problem areas in your understanding.


There is no magic formula for learning a new language, no shortcuts or tricks. Some websites claim you can learn to be fluent in 2 weeks, or 4 weeks, etc, but don't believe them. All they do is list all the cognate forms between the two languages. And what I have written is certainly not the be-all and end-all, but what I have learned in my own experiences. So, here are a few suggestions summarized from this paper:

  • Move beyond a motivation that simply desires to pass a test to one that views language as a key that unlocks opportunities.
  • Listen to understandable input on a daily basis.
  • Overcome fear of losing face. Find and take advantage of opportunities to use English to communicate with both native and proficient nonnative speakers.
  • Study grammar in a way that supports the purpose of language, which is communication, not as an end in itself.

Do not fear losing face. Fear poor English skills! Do not complain about your environment! Do the best you can in the environment you are in! Stand up and study English with the right attitude in the right way!

Reference for Chinese study information:
F.J. Noonan, "How to improve your spoken English", no publication date