To kick this off properly, there’s a point that needs to be cleared up. What is meant by an “active learner” is one who takes matters into their own hands, assumes responsibility, and has a realistic approach to the process of language learning.
Keep in mind that “good” is not used in the general sense of the word. Many good learning strategies exist. And no learner is intrinsically better than another. It’s just that the active learner invests more time and effort to figure out what works for them.
Here are some of the characteristics and attitudes of an active (a.k.a good) learner:
Good learners take responsibility
Teachers are not magicians (we wish we were!), and method books are not perfect. It’s a cheap escape to blame your stagnation on an external factor. And even though you may have a right to complain about a bad teacher, a bad method, an old book, or a new app, a practical person knows that won’t get him anywhere. It is your responsibility, and assuming your central role in the process will set you on the right track.
- This trait entails being organized and independent.
- Set your personalized set of realistic goals suitable for your level and pace.
- Use a tracking system of new acquisitions; a notebook, recordings of your own voice, a diary…
- Set a minimum daily time to intake input through music, films, news, and so on.
Good learners think of language as a puzzle
Do take this analogy literally. Instead of studying verbs, new vocabulary, and other elements separately, do your best to see the place of these elements in the big picture and their relation to each other. This could be done by regular and consistent input of linguistic data in the target language. Employ your analytical intelligence more than your memory; deduce the meaning of a word (before you check it in a dictionary, at least).
Now, of course, we all dislike ambiguous concepts. That’s why the next advice has a target parallel to this one.
Good learners take advantage of context, intonation, and body language
In his book “Nonverbal Communication,” Dr. Mehabian came up with a formula to calculate how our brains arrive at meaning. His findings could be summarized as follows: 7% of a message is verbal, 38% vocal, and 55% visual. This means that about 93% of communication is technically non-verbal.
So, when in doubt, trust non-verbal signs and deduce verbal meaning from them. That being said, idioms are the exception to that rule…
Good learners figure out what works for them
One of the main reasons why most public schools fail at teaching foreign languages is because of the difficulty of implementing a personalized approach when you have a whole class to teach. Not to forget that, sadly, these schools’ main goal is to prepare students for an exam, not for life.
Still, all is not lost. In the spirit of the first advice, it is upon you to find out what kind of intelligence is dominant in your marvellous brain and use methods that are based on that intelligence type.
No one put this point better than Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Good learners set realistic goals and constantly (re)evaluate their approach
While it’s not a crime to imagine yourself having a heated debate in the target language on a topic that you have strong opinions about, you might be discouraged when you see the 100-mile road ahead of you. This is why a practical person knows that this is a process and sticks to achievable and manageable weekly (as well as monthly) tasks. These tasks are determined by your proficiency level and your ultimate long-term goal.
Additionally, try not to make the aforementioned tasks heavily grammatical or drown in words. Give extra attention to dividing your attention across all the aspects of a language equally. In the example of French, the French teaching website TV 5 Monde has helped me (as well as my students) learn French gradually. It also has day-to-day life situations at the heart of its short lessons.
Good learners keep their eyes on the prize. They deal with frustration
The process of learning a language is not always exciting. As a realistic person, you should be prepared to manage your less productive days. Frustration gets a bad rep when it actually is a sign that your brain is being challenged and your understanding of a subject is about to be reconstructed.
Here are some strategies to navigate the bumpy terrains of your journey:
- Simply stop! Take a deep breath and evaluate what you’re doing. You need to determine if your source of frustration is the language you’re learning or how you’re learning it. And you’ll see how the latter is generally the case.
- Remind yourself of the long-term goal. Just like with a physical workout, even though you might not particularly enjoy that leg press set, you do it because the end result is worth it.
- Keep in mind that the frustration is temporary and might be strongly linked to a trigger in your daily or personal life.
- Shift your attention to easier tasks temporarily. Of course, the relative difficulty of an aspect is a subjective thing. For some, learning new vocabulary is much simpler than studying verb conjugation. For others, it’s quite the opposite.
- Use a productive distraction. Listen to your favourite French disco song, watch a Russian comedy special, and laugh like you understand every single word. It helps you to actually understand!
Good learners take risks
To use the exercise analogy again (how creative!), we all know that muscle gain is the final step of building strength. But when we exercise, our muscles are, in fact, being torn (to a certain degree). Compare this to the reality that making mistakes is an inescapable part of learning. No one rides a bike without falling, swims without the risk of drowning, and says “Have a good journey!” in French without saying “Bonne journée!” at least once!
Good learners use what they learn
The importance of employing newly learned data lies in the transition of information from short-term memory to long-term memory (acquisition). Permanent acquisition of linguistic abilities begins with memorization, and that is supported by activation through consistent use.
So, stay on the lookout for opportunities to practice and benefit from them. Keep a journal in the target language, chat with a friend and make a special effort to use new expressions that you have learned. Still a bit shy? Talk to yourself!
Good learners dig into the culture of the target language
Your choice of a language to study is based either upon need or upon pure interest in one aspect or another of the target language or the people who speak it. In both cases, being open to processing arbitrary, strange, and beautiful cultural nuances is a must. You must set off by ignoring all stereotypes, individual experiences, and the reputation of native speakers.
Apart from the obvious things like music, films, and books, stories supported by idioms and metaphors provide a colorful range of cultural and historical prints in the language, which could be the most enjoyable part of your linguistic trip.
Take this French expression as an example: “Il est fort comme un turc”. (To be as strong as a Turk).
It dates back to the 15th century, and it clearly represents the strength of the Ottoman Empire as well as the embodiment of Turks as the archnemesis of European states in that era.
Good learners have fun
Make sure to incorporate music, visuals, colours, and activities into your learning routine. Use technology and create practice groups (face-to-face or virtual).
Whatever your hobbies or interests are, you could always include the target language in them. Watch a football match with French commentary, check a recipe online in Spanish, follow Italian Youtubers...
No matter what your goals are, learning a new language could (and should) be fun and easy. As long as your approach is realistic and compatible with your other skills, as long as you’re willing to take risks and learn from your mistakes with a practical attitude, nothing is unattainable.