Published: Nov 24, 2022 | By: Lucas Weaver
No matter your age, three keys to language learning will make the process seem easier and help you make more progress than you thought possible.
To improve your language skills quickly and effectively, you need to make sure your learning sessions emphasize the following:
Making mistakes and receiving corrections
Increasing stress levels during learning sessions
Learning a language as an adult is clearly more complicated than when you’re a child, so you’ll need to make the extra effort in the right areas if you genuinely want to improve your language skills.
You’ll need to take advantage of the latest research in neuroscience to help you tap into a state of neuroplasticity, which will allow you to learn new skills and keep them.
Without spending too much time diving into the neuroscience in this post, let’s look at the three most straightforward principles at the core of what we know about using neuroplasticity to improve your language skills.
When learning a new skill, a “repetition” means one completed action of doing something in a session over and over again.
Like playing music scales, “repetition” generally means doing the same thing repeatedly. When you practice or rehearse often, the neurons you need for that skill will get more active, which will help you learn and remember things, such as the placement of notes on a piano or vocabulary words when speaking a new language.
Since learning requires activating neurons repeatedly, you should do as many repetitions as you can safely do in a single learning session. Repetition in language class may seem boring or like a waste of time. Still, it is one of the most essential keys to learning a language effectively.
Take a moment to think about the things you consider yourself quite good at. How many times did you have to perform that skill over and over again until you became good?
Sometimes we underestimate the effort required in learning a new language. Still, it will take sustained, consistent effort to reach fluency.
Generating repetitions isn’t just about doing the same thing repeatedly in the same boring way. The key is adjusting the situation, the constraints, the required speed, and other variables, which will allow you to master the skill you’re pursuing.
Doing repetitions is absolutely necessary when learning a language.
Think back to what you may have learned in an English class or any language course book or audio program. Most of the time, the only thing students are told to do is “listen and repeat.” So, it shouldn’t be surprising that many students only do that and don’t know what else to do to “succeed.”
But repeating what we hear in class isn’t enough to truly learn a new language. We need to take the step past conceptually understanding something and move to knowing how to do it.
If we want to learn as much as possible, we need to aim for a practice where we are aware and engaged. We need to generate repetitions of us trying to use the grammar and words we are taught. Then we must make mistakes through these repetitions (more on that below).
When you actively repeat something and pay attention to what you are doing, it is easier to reach a point where you are happy with the results. If we want to learn as much as possible, we must aim for this mindful, engaged practice. And we need to stop doing things over and over without thinking. A recent study on babies at the University of Maryland in the US found that “it’s not always helpful, for example, to just repeat the word “ball” repeatedly”. Instead, a mother should repeat the word in different sentences. Hence, the child (as a new language learner) gets used to hearing it in different situations.
Doing repetitions makes it sound like all we do is repeat something. It doesn’t make us think about what we need to do to ensure that repeating something works. So we shouldn’t think that repeating something mindlessly over and over will help us learn or remember it. Instead, we should use active language learning methods that encourage us to take an involved role in our learning process, looking for differences, patterns, and subtleties in anything new we learn.
When someone learns something new, it is hard for them to do it perfectly on their first try (unless you’re Tiger Woods). Learning a new language works the same way.
Children often make mistakes during the critical period of learning their mother tongue. However, they get better over time because the mistakes help them identify the areas of the language where they still need to learn.
At which point you receive corrections can depend on many things, like if you are learning and teaching yourself simultaneously.
For example, what if you are learning new words and you say them wrong, but you can’t correct them because you don’t even know they’re wrong?
In this case, having a teacher to correct your mistakes is essential.
However, suppose you don’t have a teacher. In that case, you can also make mistakes by putting yourself into situations requiring you to use words you don’t know. This is one of the reasons why immersion is such an effective way of language learning.
If you try going to a restaurant in a foreign country and ordering in a language you don’t know, you will run into words you can’t say. You’ll also hear words that you don’t understand.
When this happens, tiny little alarm bells go off in your brain. It’s like your brain is saying, “Uh oh! We don’t know these words! We need to learn more.”
These alarm bells are the acetylcholine increasing in your brain, marking the areas of your brain that need change and improvement.
When you move to a foreign country, you’ll run into situations all the time that make you realize you don’t know enough words. These situations make you feel stressed, but this stress is good and leads to increased learning (more on that later).
It’s great to make mistakes when learning a language because, as we said earlier, making mistakes activates more of the neural circuits required for the skills we’re trying to improve.
When neural networks are turned on, you become more focused and aware, making learning more accessible.
I’ve found it’s often helpful for students when I compare it with something they may already be familiar with, such as physical fitness.
The process of getting stronger and building muscle through weight training is relatively simple.
When you’re in the gym, you need to lift heavier weights than you’re comfortable lifting. Your muscles become strained by lifting these weights enough times until you’re near the point that you can’t lift them many more times.
In the process of weight lifting, you’re physically tearing your muscles by fatiguing them. Your muscles then send a message to your brain saying, “Hey! We’re not strong enough to lift these weights! We need you to build more muscle tissue!”
Your brain then gets to work redirecting protein to the torn muscle tissue and activating protein synthesis to repair the muscles, and in the process, repairing them stronger than they were before.
The same process occurs in your brain during and after language learning. When you make mistakes during your learning session, you send that same message to your brain “Hey! We can’t speak this language!”
Your brain then responds by strengthening those active neural connections during the learning session, improving your knowledge and skills for the next time you come back and try to use those neurons.
This is why you shouldn’t worry or feel self-conscious about making mistakes. Making mistakes is not only part of language learning, but as we said at the beginning of this post, it’s one of the three most essential keys!
Therefore you should welcome making mistakes. They will show you where you still need to learn and which parts of your language skills to focus on.
When it comes to learning English, whether you’re learning English online or in a classroom, you need to be able to make mistakes and get corrections from your teacher.
Some English teachers focus too much on getting their students comfortable and confident with speaking too soon. This can be counterproductive because if you get used to speaking English correctly, it can be easier to fix in the future.
Comfort and confidence are undoubtedly important aspects we focus heavily on in our courses. Still, they shouldn’t come at the expense of fluency.
The most effective way to make mistakes and get corrections when trying to improve your language skills is by getting an experienced teacher. Not only will they recognize your mistakes, but they’ll also be able to lead you into mistakes by giving you topics to speak about that will require the grammar you need to improve or asking questions that require more advanced vocabulary to answer.
A teacher will often use more than one teaching method in one lesson. For example:
Stress might not be the enemy all the time. Researchers have found that positive stress can strengthen the immune system, improve memory and learning, and help people make better decisions.
When we start to feel stressed or agitated during a learning session, we feel the increase in acetylcholine in our brain. This chemical marks the neural connections in our brains that need strengthening after the learning session.
It’s a bad sign if you feel too comfortable in your English classes. Ideally, you should feel moderately stressed and tired after the lessons.
Moderate stress levels have been shown to increase concentration and performance, help people achieve tasks, and increase overall attention levels.
Mild and extreme stress hurt learning efforts, but tapping into the power of moderate stress during learning sessions will help you learn more quickly and efficiently.
There are a few practical ways to increase stress levels before and during learning sessions.
Listening to music you don’t know on your computer before taking an online English class can help you learn better. The unfamiliar music can make you feel uncomfortable, and a bit more stressed, making you pay more attention to what’s being taught in your classes.
Increasing the speed of your activity in your lessons can also increase stress levels. The key here is not to increase your speed so fast that you enter into extreme stress. However, increasing the speed of your repetitions above that of your _comfortable _pace will improve your focus and concentration, contributing to more effective language learning.
There are two main kinds of stress: distress and eustress, which can be considered harmful and productive, respectively. Eustress can increase motivation, focus, and energy, make you feel excited, help you do better at work, and make better decisions. It is usually only effective for a short time, however.
Distress, commonly just called “stress,” on the other hand, can cause worry or anxiety and is often beyond our ability to deal with.
This can lower our performance and lead to mental and physical problems, which can be short-term or long-term. Therefore, finding the best methods to increase eustress for yourself and prevent distress as much as possible is essential.
Having the right attitude is one of the easiest and most effective ways to deal with stress. Researchers from Harvard and Yale experimented on two groups of stressed-out investment bankers not too long ago.
The first group watched a video about how stress can make people sick. The second group watched a video about how pressure helps the body and brain. What went wrong? When the second group thought that stress was good for them, they were more productive and had more energy.
This group also said they felt less tired and had fewer stress-related headaches and backaches. The actual results of this study are: Thinking of stress as “good” or as a way to improve your performance can help you.
When you first decide to learn a new language, you are filled with excitement, anticipation, and sometimes almost a sense of wonder.
But what do you do after hitting the books, working the modules, and repeating yourself repeatedly to get past the growing boredom of grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary to ensure you continue to learn the language effectively?
The trick is to figure out why you want to learn a language, stick to a regular schedule, and apply these proven methods in the language class that suits you the most.
It can be tough to stay consistent in your language learning efforts. Keeping your motivation and regular schedule takes more discipline than most people have.
Suppose you’re a low-intensity language learner or just learning for fun. In that case, my best advice is to schedule a dedicated time in your week for your language learning and never skip it. Once you make your learning time an option, it will be much more challenging to stick to it.
However, if you have serious goals or plans for your language learning, it’s best to engage in some structured learning or course. As we’ve covered here in this post, the three most important aspects of language learning are generating repetitions, making mistakes and receiving corrections, and increasing your stress level during your session.
Of those three, only generating repetitions is reasonably easy to do on your own. You can use various tools, from software apps, flashcards, or practicing in the mirror, to generate repetitions of learning new words or practicing your speaking.
However, the other two are almost impossible to do on your own. You can’t correct your own mistakes, and most of the time, you won’t even recognize your own mistakes. A teacher or language buddy who can correct you will be valuable in this area.
When it comes to increasing stress levels, it’s tough to put stress on yourself in a learning environment. There are some things you can do. You can set a timer when you’re doing flashcards, or you can do timed self-tests. But your brain will have more trouble accepting self-imposed stress than with stress introduced from someone else.
If you think about it, there’s always a tiny amount of stress that comes from not being in control, no matter what. So just the slight element of a teacher having control of the activity you’re doing will already elevate your stress levels to a small degree.
To make the most of your language learning experience, consider taking an online language course from the Weaver School. Our courses take advantage of these three keys and the latest neuroscience regarding adult language learning.
Our language teachers and courses specialize in helping you increase your language skills in as little time as possible, helping you save valuable time and get maximum results.
Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.