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8 habits of successful language learners

Have you ever noticed the way some people are able to learn languages effortlessly, getting to fluency faster with pen & paper than others do with a bag-full of textbooks and a phone-full of learning apps?

Everything about their learning seems effortless, and every new word and expression they learn is used with utmost confidence.

What is it about these individuals that sets them apart?

Every language learner strives for this effortlessly cool way of learning, where study ceases to be a chore, and language usage becomes commonday.

While it may seem like these individuals were born with a natural linguistic talent, it actually all comes down to a few simple habits these super-learners integrate into their daily life.

Here’s a list, along with my tips on implementing these habits in your daily life and becoming the confident speaker you want to be.

1. They review before learning, even if it means that they won’t have time or energy to learn more

Effective language learners know that what you don’t review—you forget forever, and forgetting means that all that time you’ve spent learning the new word of expression has been put to waste.

That is why you should always prioritize review above learning, and start every study session by going over your past notes and flashcards.

That way, if halfway through you realize that you’re just too exhausted to make the progress you hoped for, you’ve at least made sure you don’t regress by activating all the connections already in your brain!

Tip #1: Never learn something new before you review what you know already.

2. They study a little bit every day and don’t mistake the illusion of progress for actual improvement

Effective language learners understand that binge-learning is but an illusion of progress.

When you try to learn long lists of vocabulary all at once, or leaf through a textbook chapter after chapter without giving the necessary thought to the information within, your brain starts a tally addictively going up with every leaf.

The problem is, that mental counter represents the number of words and lessons you’ve seen, not the information you can actually use, or even remember on the next morning.

Bing learning is extremely motivating at the beginning, but consistently leads to burnout when the rational part of your brain finally realizes that all this euphoria was in fact unjustified.

Tip #2: Study in small chunks every day, even if for just 5 or 10 minutes.

3. They have a clear goal and use the language for something they already enjoy

Effective learners realize that you can’t learn a language without motivation that comes from the prospect of using in the context we’re passionate about.

I love horses and I’m always up for a trail ride, wherever my life takes me. So, I try to include equestrian themes throughout my learning. Sarah, one of our LinguaLift users, enjoys Japanese crocheting, and she’s making rapid progress by spotting words and grammar points from our lessons in crocheting magazines she got while on a holiday in Tokyo.

Tip #3: Use the language in context of the topics you’re passionate about, and activities you enjoy.

Learn Japanese with LinguaLift

4. They follow latest neuroscience research, and make use of what it tells us about our brains

Effective learners approach using the language as art, but learning the language as hard science.

Although the scientific community is still debating some aspects of memory and linguistics, that is no reason to resort to superstition and alchemy.

Many processes that occur in the brain of a language learner are well understood, yet largely neglected in our educational system. As a self-learner, you’re in a unique position to capitalize on all the latest findings, and make use of cutting-edge algorithms to boost your language abilities.

Tip #4: Get an understanding of current research on memory, and utilize scientifically proven learning tools to learn more effectively.

How to build a new language learning habit in 3 simple steps

5. They don’t have a closet full of unopened textbooks, or a phone full of learning apps

Effective language learners know that there’s no silver bullet to language learning, so they don’t waste time searching for it. They choose an effective method quickly, and stick to it until there is a real need to change.

One mistake I myself fall victim to again and again is going on a shopping spree for learning resources, only to realize that I’m spending more time scavenging for new ways to learn than actually learning.

It’s good to choose a methodology that works for you, but it’s even more important to do so fast and get back to learning.

Tip #5: Spend a week researching different learning methods, select one or two that suit you best, and stick to them until you’ve read them cover to cover or identify a clear need to supplement them with another resource.

6. They strike a balance between consuming the language and using it to convey their own thoughts

Effective learners value output as much of input, and make sure to write or say a word out loud for every word they read or listen to.

Countless are examples of language learners who spend all their time cramming vocabulary, only to find themselves at a loss of words when thrown into a real-life conversation. Indeed, that’s exactly what happens to most who go through the current K-12 curriculum.

Countless are also examples of those who dedicate every minute to speaking to friends and blogging in the target language. Such students are often remarkably fluent in their specific topic of interest, or when they speak to their usual interlocutors, but can struggle to produce a single coherent sentence outside of that context.

No matter your ultimate goal, it is crucial to learn languages in a balanced way. Reading and listening to native material on a diverse range of topics will enrich your own expressiveness. Using new words and expressions you’ve picked up from others will cement them in your memory.

Tip #6: Dedicate as much time to speaking and writing, as to reading and listening, and try to regularly wander into topics outside your comfort zone.

Learn Russian with LinguaLift

7. They fail often, and celebrate their mistakes as an opportunity to get better

Effective learners value mistakes and misunderstandings as opportunity to learn and improve.

Everyone remembers Henry Ford’s Model T. But what preceded it was a very imperfect Model A. Ford’s mechanics gathered real-world insight into all its deficiencies and fixed them one at a time on before coming up with the icon of the automotive history.

The only way to improve is to start using new expressions right after you learn them, make mistakes, and use them to improve your abilities.

It’s not a failure to use the wrong grammar, or make a blatant spelling mistake. The only true failure is when you don’t learn from the mess-up or use it as an excuse to give up.

Tip #7: Don’t look at mistakes at failure, but rather an immediate opportunity to improve your language abilities.

8. They are always attentive and try to imitate the way native speakers use the language

Effective learners mimic what expressions native speakers use in a given context, how they pronounce them, and what gestures they choose to reinforce their message.

Textbooks and dictionaries are great at teaching you what’s grammatically correct, but they can’t guide you to speak naturally in day-to-day situations. An expression that would give you full marks on a test, and pass every spell check, may sound absolutely jarring in the real world.

The best way to learn the language as it is actually spoken is to put yourself in context with native speakers, and listen carefully to what they say! Then note down the natural sentence patterns you hear and given them a yourself.

Next time you’re queuing up for a matcha latte, stop trying to imagine the conversation you’ll have with the barista, and instead listen to the conversations she’s having with other clients! 

Tip #8: Always be attentive to what native speakers say in any given situation and note down the sentence patterns they use.

With consistent application, following even a few of these steps will help you work out an effective learning routine and instill habits that will naturally, may I say almost effortlessly, result in rapid progress towards fluency.

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