How one can become a good foreign-language learner

The Jakarta Post ,  Jakarta   |  Sun, 06/06/1999 7:16 AM  |  Life

YOGYAKARTA (JP): Recall how many times that you, as learners of English as a foreign language, asked your English teacher this question: What’s thebest way to learn English? And recall how you got answers ranging from a shrug of your teacher’s shoulders to a 10-minute course of English grammar.

It’s high time that a reasonable answer was given to the question. A goodlanguage learner is one who is aware, and manipulates this awareness, that he is learning a foreign language. This awareness entails the proposition that a good language learner uses the right strategies in the process of learning English. Learners who learn not only the language properly but also how to learn it make them successful language learners. This means that a good language learner knows and makes use of learning strategies.

Learning strategies are observable actions done by students, consciously or subconsciously, when participating in formal classroom interaction. In the inventory of educational theories, learning strategies involve learners’ cognitive, affective, and psychomotoric actions. Repeating what the teacher says, writing notes in a book and talking to oneself are examples of learners’ cognitive actions. Laughing genuinely, looking satisfied or confused, showing enthusiasm or boredom, smiling or complaining are examples of learners’ actions which can be grouped as affective. Hand raising, head shaking or nodding, body turning, standing and walking around are examples of psychomotoric actions.

Research shows that successful language learners use a wide variety of learning strategies. Of these successful learners, adults tend to use more and higher frequencies of learning strategies than children. Students in foreign language classes tend to use more strategies than students in first-language classes.

It is probably your turn now to shrug your shoulders and complain: What does all this have to do with me? Well, below are some hints you might consider to take for more successful language learning. These strategies are by no means exhaustive; they are used to complement other strategies you already know.

The first strategy is centering your learning. One way to center your learning is by overviewing and linking the material you are going to study with material you have learned before. This way, you will be able to selectwhich part or parts of the material you really need to pay attention to andwhich parts you may ignore. Another way is by delaying speech production and spending your time learning to listen well, not many people can resist the urge to speak, in order to concentrate on listening.

Listening well pays well. Many people have the wrong idea that listening is a passive activity. On the contrary, listening with concentration requires the active work of the brain. Listening well strengthens the cognitive process of concept building, prepares the brain better to ensure language production and opens the ears wide for communicative feedback. So much is the importance of the listening strategy. An extreme case is illustrated by this old saying: Nature gives us two ears but one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.

The second strategy consists of arranging and planning your learning. Oneimportant skill in this strategy is finding out all about language learning. I once took a French course which used the direct aural-oral approach and because I had knowledge of this theory, I did somewhat better than the other participants. What you are doing at this moment is another example of this skill. Knowing the theory that learning a language needs practice, to give another example, makes a learner more prepared, more willing, and more enthusiastic to practice a lesson.

Another important skill in this strategy is for you to schedule and organize you learning activities. Included in this strategy is how you use and keep your notes and materials, arrange your room and space, and adjust lighting and temperature. It is good to review the notes as soon as you arrive at home for just five minutes, not less and not more before doing anything else. This kills two birds with one stone. On the one hand, you are practicing this strategy. On the other, you are strengthening what you have learned. Reviewing material right after you come home has a far reaching effect in the retention of lesson material.

One last skill in this strategy is seeking practice opportunities. In my initial stage of learning English, I used every possible medium in every possible spare moment to chart the English consonants and vowels: wrap paper, the ground sand, the blackboard, spare pages in my exercise book, dinner tissue paper, you name it. Believe it or not, I did weird things such as talking to myself, counting things in English, reading license numbers of passing cars, and so on.

The third strategy is evaluating your learning. Two skills can be practiced in this strategy: self-monitoring and self-evaluating. Self-monitoring may be in the form of learning from errors, either yours or others’. Many have underestimates the rewards one may obtain from learning from errors. Errors are part of life and it is partly by learning from errors that we live. “”He who makes no mistakes makes nothing,”” so says an English proverb, and “”What is the use of making mistakes if you don’t make use of them?”” A theory famous among modern foreign-language educators goes thus: You cannot learn without goofing. Believe it or not, once you overcome your fear of making mistakes, you will feel more yourself and, lo,you learn faster.

The other skill in this strategy, self-evaluation, consists of one’s assessment of one’s own progress. Such self-evaluation may be in the form of simple questions such as “”Am I reading faster today?””, “”Did I understandthe lesson better today?””, “”How much have I learned of the 10 words I planned to learn when I set out this morning?””, and others. Evaluating one’s own learning makes one better prepared for tomorrow’s learning activities.

The fourth strategy is lowering anxiety. Strange but true, learning a foreign language involves a lot of feelings, and a good language learner isone who is aware of and able to control them. Just recall how you feel whenyou take an English test, face an interview, give a presentation, or simplysit in a group discussion. You may experience feelings ranging from excitement to fear or frustration. Whenever you feel bored, afraid or frustrated, be sure that you take time to control your emotions. There are a number of actions one can take to lower one’s anxiety in doing this. Progressive relaxation (muscle and body), deep breathing, music, and laughter are among these actions that are easy to do.

Another skill in this strategy is encouraging yourself that you can do it. Making positive statements is another action which gives you encouragement. When entering the testing room, for example, just whisper toyourself that the test will be a fun activity for you; that you will enjoy it, and that you will be able to pass it. Then, a good language learner is one who takes risks, and does so wisely. Life, in many aspects, is about risk taking. One who never dares to take risks is bound to lose good chances for success.

All these things done, we are left with one step: rewarding ourselves. From time to time we need to reward ourselves for work well done. It is allup to you what you want to do to make you feel appreciated. I would forget things and give myself a good four hours’ sleep when I feel that I deserve a reward after doing something fruitful.

Finally, the fifth strategy is taking your emotional temperature. The first skill in this strategy consists of “”listening”” to your body. You needto take the appropriate responses to worry, fear, anger, tiredness, and other physical conditions you may have at particular moments. Another skillis writing language diaries. Try this one, if you have never done it, and find how soothing it feels to “”talk”” to yourself, complain to yourself of how unfair the world has been treating you, or tell yourself what needs to be done. If this does not do you good, try the third skill: discussing yourfeelings with others. You have everybody around you, and it is a great catharsis to talk to these people about your problems.

The anonymous saying at the beginning of this article is what wise teachers will say when you ask them: What’s the best way to learning English? Arnold of Rugby has this to add, “”I became increasingly convinced that it is not knowledge, but the means of gaining knowledge, which I have to teach.”” The teacher is one thing, of course. However, it is especially you yourself who will be able to answer your questions.

The writer is a senior lecturer at the English Educational Department, Teachers’ Training Institute, Yogyakarta.

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