How to Be a Good Language Student

I’m interrupting my series about my trip to Pompeii with a post that I feel is important after the long week that I’ve had. Don’t worry though, I’ll be back with the next installment about Pompeii shortly.

There are countless blogs and websites out there telling you how to be a good language teacher. There are also countless articles telling you how to teach yourself a language. However, I have yet to come across an article describing how to be a good language student (it’s entirely possible that one exists but I am completely ignorant to that fact).

We live in a society where speaking English is increasingly important. Many of my students are adults who, for one reason or another, now need to learn English. What never fails to surprise me is the apparent and complete lack of initiative some of them take towards learning a language. It is important for me to understand these problems in order to teach them to the best of my ability. After all, these people are paying for the course and if they fail, no doubt it’s me who will get the blame. However, if you choose to learn a language, you need to take responsibility for your own learning. Do not expect the teacher to be able to teach you everything you need to know in a 60-hour course.

So, you’ve paid for a course and you’re ready to learn, but how should it be done?

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (or CEFR for short) defines six main levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 and three plus levels: A2+, B1+, B2+. Each level has it’s own grammar, vocabulary and lexicon that show what a student at this level should be able to do. Most levels need at least 200 hours of study to obtain. However, if you think all of this should be covered in a course, you would be mistaken. A 200-hour course will likely cost you an arm and a leg. At my school, courses range from 20 to 60 hours, depending on how many students are in a class. Therefore, the other hours need to be made up at home in private study.

I’m going to be writing this post based on my own experiences in my classroom, obviously it could be different in another situation but hopefully the points will be appropriate and adaptable to any language-learning classroom. In my class, we usually use the New English File books with adult learners. These really are fantastic books. I like them so much that I wish there was an Italian-language equivalent They come with a clear format and even have a workbook and CDs students can use at home. This leads me to my first point.

  1. Use your books at home
    Don’t just leave the classroom and put the books on the table until you decide to do your homework at the last minute. The books are filled with vocabulary you need to learn and you need to look at them every day.
  2. Learn vocabulary by heart
    At the back of the NEF files, there is a vocabulary bank with important words all grouped into different topics. Many students do the exercises and then never look at it again. No, you will not just remember the words. You need to make a conscious effort to learn and memorise those words. There are different ways to learn vocabulary, such as flashcards, mnemonics, rhymes, etc. You need to spend a little time finding the best method for you.
  3. Read and listen to what you did in class again at home
    As I said, the NEF books come with CDs that you can use in your computer to listen to and read what you covered in class. This is great for helping you with pronunciation and vocabulary, as well as getting used to sentence structure. There are also interactive activities on the CD to reinforce what is covered in the lesson and a website you can visit for extra activities. Which leads me to…
  4. Take advantage of the Internet
    I will never forget the moment I gave a long list of websites to a low-level adult student and he turned around to me and asked “Can I use just one?” Honestly. I just thought to myself, “Why are you here?” A good teacher will encourage you to use everything at your disposal. The Internet is a fantastic source for all things language-related. There are hundreds of websites, both free and subscription, that are dedicated to helping you learn languages. You need to be doing several hours of study a week. Your teacher will not be able to give you enough homework to cover that, so you need to do it yourself.
  5. Be proactive
    As I said in number 4, there are hundreds of websites out there (see the end of the article for my favourites) all ready and willing to help you learn. But you have to go to them. Sitting at home isn’t going to help you learn. I know modern life is busy and stressful but the only one who will suffer from your lack of commitment is you. Make some time every day to study, even if it’s just a little.
  6. Make mistakes
    I always tell my students that making mistakes is a fundamental part of learning a language. If you are not making mistakes, you are not pushing yourself beyond your limits. If you don’t push yourself beyond your limits, you will never improve. Similarly, don’t apologise when you make a mistake. So many of my students say sorry when I correct a mistake. Who are you apologising to? Stop! I am happy you make mistakes in my classroom. Please continue!
  7. Focus on something other than grammar
    Yes, grammar is important but it is not the be-all and end-all of a language. So many of my adult students get caught up in grammar, trying to compare English rules with Italian rules then ask me why it’s like this in English if it’s like that in Italian. Well, quite simply because they are two different languages. The problem is that when many of them were at school, language lessons consisted of learning grammar rules by rote, translating texts and learning about literature. This is still true to a large extent today. So many of my students are expected to learn about Chaucer and Malory in English when they can barely string a sentence together. The whole system needs a reshuffle but until that happens, I have to calmly explain to my students to forget how they were taught at school and try newer methods. Of course, I explain the grammar rules in my class and we do grammar exercises. But what I want to say is the more you read and listen to a language, the more familiar you become with the sentence structure.
  8. Resist the temptation to translate every single word
    When reading a text, a lot of the lower-level students feel the need to translate every single word they come across. If they stumble upon a word they don’t know, they simply stop and start freaking out. “Read on,” I always encourage them. You do not need to understand every word in a text in order to understand the gist or, indeed, answer comprehension activities about it. The same goes when you are doing exercises or an exam. If you don’t know the answer to a question, simply move on to the next one and then come back to it later. Give your brain some time to process the information without forcing it. You may find that the answer simply comes to you.
  9. Find a friend to speak with
    If you are in a class, you have ready-made comrades in your mission to learn a new language. Use this to your advantage and try to arrange a time when you could all meet up to discuss homework or any problems you’re having. They may be able to help you with something and this would avoid wasting time in class. Even if you are all complete beginners, getting together and actually practising the language is a great way to learn. Another way would be to find a language partner online – someone who wants to learn your first language and set up a language exchange. Make sure any exchanges are 50/50, though!
  10. Do everything in your target language
    When I’m learning a second language, I try to incorporate it as much as possible into my daily life. This could be anything from listening to music (even though there is debate about whether this helps) to watching films, reading articles or even speaking to myself. I speak to myself anyway so why not do it in my target language? However, do not force yourself to do things you don’t enjoy because this will have a negative impact on your language learning. As you go about the house, try to remember the words for things. Keep a notebook handy to jot down any words that you would like to know and look them up later.

I hope you find these tips useful to help you in your language learning. I haven’t included the most obvious tip which is “Do your homework”, even though many of my students fail in this. I’m now going to give you a short list of websites that I recommend to all my students when they start a course. There are, of course, many others but these are the ones I have experience with.

www.duolingo.com – This is by far my favourite language-learning site. It’s completely free and the various levels keep your interest and really encourage you to progress in a language. The app is also absolutely fantastic.

www.memrise.com – This is a great website for memorising vocabulary. The various levels and flower gardens keep your interest and motivate you to keep up with your learning. There’s also an app for on-the-go learning.

www.quizlet.com – This is a vocabulary site and app to help you memorise vocabulary and then test your knowledge. You can create your own lists or simply learn lists that other users have already submitted.

www.italki.com – This app encourages language learners to reach out and contact other learners for language exchanges. You can also keep a language diary where other users will correct your entries. It is a huge community but be sure to help others as well. Be careful about who contacts you – italki have it clearly written in the rules that it is not a dating site but some people still try their luck. If someone is bothering you, simply block them or report them.

www.fi3m.com – This is the brainchild of Irish polyglot Benny Lewis. He really wants to encourage people to learn languages and the support from the community is great. It’s full of great tips about how to learn languages.

www.flo-joe.com – This is a website directly targeted at those sitting the Cambridge exams (KET, PET, FCE, CAE, CPE) as well as IELTS. It has great exercises as well as practice papersĀ for each exam.

So that’s it. Those are my tips on how to be a good language student. Do you have any others that you think should be on the list? Or do you have any other resources that you swear by? Let me know in the comments!

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3 thoughts on “How to Be a Good Language Student

  1. Well said! You can lead a horse to water etc etc. BTW if you stumble across that elusive, magic wand that helps students to reach B1 level in 6 weeks from a standing start let me know. Apparently it exists somewhere – probably sharing space with the unicorns, the leprechauns and the Tooth Fairy šŸ˜‰

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