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How to learn a language
How to learn a language

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3.4 Self

As if there wasn’t already enough to learn, you also have to be in control of yourself. Focus, discipline, motivation, emotions: these factors all govern whether or not you turn up and study in the first place.

The perfect method, a great textbook or the world’s best teacher, are of no help to you if you’re not disciplined enough to study every day or if you feel too anxious to practise speaking with people.

On the other hand, if you remain focused, and work at it day after day, you will struggle not to make progress.

All of this, of course, is easier said than done. Until you have the experience of learning a language, you will be at the mercy of your surroundings, for better or for worse. When you are more experienced, you can learn to create your own conditions to help you learn more effectively, wherever you live in the world.

Box 2 An example

When I learned Spanish, I was living in the UK. I became good friends with a Spanish speaker and decided to take the opportunity to learn Spanish. We were studying at the same university and spent a lot of time together. Without having to study particularly hard, I was able to become fairly fluent in Spanish over the course of a year, simply by speaking it every day. (Luckily, my motivation to learn Spanish turned out to be stronger than my friend’s motivation to learn English.) It was the ideal language learning environment, possibly even better than moving to Spain.

Many years later, I moved to Japan. Japanese was the first Asian language I had learned and it proved to be far harder than I expected. I struggled to make friends who would speak to me in Japanese and my progress in the language was slow at best. In spite of living in the country itself – in theory an ideal language learning environment – I found myself becoming demotivated and losing the will to study by myself. Overcoming this obstacle was one of my biggest language learning challenges. However, the experience of coming through it and successfully learning Japanese gave me the tools necessary for me to now engineer a good language-learning environment wherever I am in the world.

Learning a language is a big task. Comparable to writing a novel, perhaps, it is an undertaking that many people will find it hard to see through due to the amount of time required to stay motivated and stick at it – and that’s assuming you know how to do it in the first place.

Skills such as time management, overcoming the fear of speaking and dealing with negative experiences are not unique to language learning, but they affect is hugely.

You will look at these in more detail in the forthcoming weeks.

Activity 4 Reflecting on previous successful challenges

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Think about the last time you successfully completed a big task, e.g. passing a driving test, submitting your tax return, reading a hard book, perhaps for your studies. How did you control your environment to help you successfully complete the task? Did you struggle with anything? What?


Motivation, self-discipline and focus are perhaps not what you were expecting from a course on learning languages. However, hopefully you can see from these examples how they have the power to make the difference between success and failure, and learning to be in control of your environment is perhaps the ultimate secret weapon!

Laura says:

Too often, people seem to think that, to learn a language, you have to have some secret inner talent that is unobtainable to most ‘normal’ folk. Thinking of language learning in the same way as other goals in life that require persistence and dedication makes it seem more attainable. You don’t have to be a genius to learn a language. You just need perseverance and commitment.

Learning a language means working hard, staying disciplined and being in control of yourself and your environment. The work you did in Week 1 to identify your SMART goals but also to reflect on the potential barriers to your learning and the strategies to address them should enable you to stay focused and motivated.