The One Key To Learning A Language

(ESL learners – click on the bolded words to see explanations and notes. Try the exercise at the bottom after! πŸ™‚ )

One of the most common questions my ESL students ask me is this: “I want to improve my English… how should I go about it? Should I watch movies? Read books? Buy a grammar guide? What do you recommend?”

The issue with asking this question is that students seem to have the expectation that there is one correct answer — one secret formula that will give you perfect results, and you must get it exactly right otherwise everything will go wrong and there will be something akin to a lab explosion in your brain.

Learning a language isn’t quite like that.

Any of the suggestions above, and in fact a whole host of others, could and would work equally effectively for learning a language. As with many things in life, learning a language is not “one size fits all”… some might prefer a group class context, others one-on-one skype lessons, yet others language exchanges over a glass of wine. How do you find which one is right for you specifically? The answer to this question is the result of a very complex web of considerations, which I could spend hours researching and writing about, and then you could spend even more hours trying to wade through it, but instead let me offer you a very simple shortcut: try something out, see how you feel with it, and then adjust course accordingly.

There is one key which is the secret to the success and effectiveness of any method that you choose: endurance. In other words, repetition. You won’t learn by just watching one movie, or reading one book, or doing one grammar exercise. You have to stick at it. You have to keep going day by day, even if you don’t always feel like it, because the output you get will be proportional to the input you give. My students virtually each use a different method to study, but the ones that improve the most all have one thing in common: they do whatever it is that they do every day, or at least with a fair amount of regularity. So pick something that you can stick to, something that you can realistically work into your routine.

What I would suggest is that you learn and practice the language in the same way that you want to be able to use it. If your goal is to be able to converse with fellow travelers, you should practice speaking with people about topics such as the weather, places you’ve visited, food you’ve tried, etc. If you want to use English to give good presentations at work, you should study by listening to, creating, and presenting presentations. Seems pretty logical, right? After all, we learn how to swim by swimming, not by doing something else.

That is not to say that you can’t study in other ways. Different methods will still help, in some way, to reach your goal. For example, listening to music and paying attention to the lyrics can still help improve your listening comprehension, even if it is not the same as listening to a lecture. Building on our swimming example, you could equate this to doing pushups and other exercises in order to grow your muscles and be able to swim for longer and faster. Skills are always transferable, and in fact it’s a good idea to use a variety of learning methods so that you don’t get bored. Variety also has a particular benefit when it comes to learning a language — different learning methods will help your brain adapt to the wide variety of contexts that you may encounter the language in.

In a nutshell, that’s my advice for any language fans out there.

Do you have any more tips? Please share them below πŸ™‚

ESL Notes (16 words / expressions)

go about (+ gerund): to go about (doing) something means to start to do it or to figure out how to do it, often something difficult or complex. For example, if you were asked to hire some new workers for your office but you don’t know how to do it, you could ask someone more experienced, “How should I go about looking for a new secretary?” Note that you must use a noun or gerund (-ing form of the verb) after this phrasal verb. (Back to the text)

get it right: to get it right is the same as saying to do it right, it means you have been successful and you’ve achieved the results you want. (Back to the text)

something akin to: this means the same as “something similar to.” (Back to the text)

a host of: this means the same as “a lot of.” (Back to the text)

one-on-one: this means private lessons: one teacher, one student. British English uses “one-to-one”, American and Canadian English use “one-on-one.” (Back to the text)

wade through: if you wade through a text, it means you read the text and the text is difficult, so it may take you a lot of time and effort. (Back to the text)

try out: this means the same thing as “try.” Some verbs have a phrasal verb form with the addition of the preposition “out” without much change in meaning. It makes the verb sound a bit more colloquial and it gives the verb a slight tone of finality, like the action is completed, but this is a very subtle difference. You could remove the out and it would mean practically the same thing. Other such common verbs are “help / help out” and “pick / pick out.” (Back to the text)

adjust course: if you adjust course, it means you make changes based on some observations or experiences. In this case, I suggest that people try some method of learning English, and based on whether they feel good or bad with it, keep doing it or make some changes / try something different (adjust course). (Back to the text)

stick at it: this is a phrasal verb which means you continue to do something that’s difficult or unpleasant. For example, reading a book in English could be difficult for ESL learners, but if you stick at it (=if you continue reading and don’t give up), you could learn a lot of new vocabulary that way and become much better at reading. Note that the “it” is most often used with this phrasal verb. People understand “it” as being whatever you are talking about in the context. (Back to the text)

stick to: this is another phrasal verb, very similar in meaning to “stick at it.” In fact, there are many phrasal verbs that have very similar meanings to each other! This one is often used to talk about plans. If you stick to your original plan, you don’t change it — you do exactly what you had originally planned. It can also mean to continue to do something, just like “stick at it” — but “stick to” doesn’t have the same tone that the thing you are doing is very difficult. You can consider “stick to” to be a more neutral-toned version of “stick at it,” where “stick at it” implies that you continue doing something that’s rather difficult or unpleasant, and “stick to” just means you continue doing something or don’t change your plans. (Back to the text)

work into: If you work something into your routine, you make it fit into your routine, you find a way to include it in your routine, or you find a place for it in your routine. (Back to the text)

converse: many ESL learners think the verb form of “a conversation” is “to conversate,” but it’s actually to converse. When you converse with someone, you have a conversation with them. (Back to the text)

that is not to say that: this is an expression which means “I don’t mean that…” or “this doesn’t mean that….” (Back to the text)

equate this to: if people equate A to B, it means they think A and B are the same. Equate is the transitive verb for of “equals”. You can say “A equals B”, but you cannot put people’s opinions in that sentence unless you say “People think that A equals B.” Another way to say this last example is “People equate A to B.” (Back to the text)

pushups: this is a physical exercise, best described by the image below. (Back to the text)

in a nutshell: this means “to summarize” or “in summary.” It’s used to give the main idea of something in few words. (Back to the text)


Want to start using these words and make sure you don’t forget them? Try this exercise! Think about these questions (discuss them with someone) or write down your answers, using the word or expression in your discussion or answer.

  • How would you go about hiring a personal assistant? How would you go about renovating your house? Selling your car at the highest price possible? Choosing a title for the movie of your life? Are there any things you don’t know how to go about?
  • Do you know anybody who seems to get everything right? What is something that you feel you have gotten right? Do you often feel like you get things right?
  • Is your native language akin to English? What languages are akin to your language?
  • Can you think of something for which there are a host of reasons? For example, why someone you know didn’t get a job, why a relationship failed, why you chose to live in the city you live in, etc. Give some of the reasons.
  • What are some benefits of learning in a one-on-one context? Are there any drawbacks to one-on-one lessons? Do you prefer one-on-one classes, or group classes?
  • What book have you read that was extremely difficult to read, or that you imagine would be extremely difficult to read? How long did it take you to wade through it?
  • Have you tried out any new restaurants recently? What foreign foods have you tried out so far?
  • If you start taking a course and then realize that it’s not quite what you pictured, do you stop learning, or do you stick at it until the end? What would make you want to stick at something even though it’s difficult or unpleasant?
  • If you’re on vacation in a new city and plan a weekend of sightseeing, but then it starts to rain, do you stick to your plans or do you change them?
  • Do you find it difficult to stick to a workout program?
  • If you wanted to start learning a new foreign language, how would you work studying into your schedule?
  • Do you enjoy conversing with strangers? Where do you usually converse with new people?
  • Do you find that many people equate lust to love? How about money to happiness? Why do you think some people equate these things? Do you agree?
  • How many pushups could you do?
  • How would you describe your job position? Use the words “in a nutshell.” Similarly, how was last year for you? How would you describe your time studying in school?

Feel free to try writing some more sentences, or a text, of your own to practice some more.

Thank you for reading! These ESL notes, links and exercises each take several hours to make, so if you found this useful, the kindest thing you can do is to like the post, leave a comment, or share with anyone who needs it. Have questions about any other words? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to reply!

5 Comments Add yours

  1. llorenzo87 says:

    I couldn’t agree more! What I told my friends is that there’s no shortcuts, unless you are not gifted. What’s worked for me so far, is reading, watching videos, listening to audiobooks, obviously speaking and last but not least writing what I’ve just learned. I actually can’t just skip one of those methods since all of them are connected in my opinion. That’s an amount of work to do and it takes time, efforts and consistency , no excuses! Although taking advantage of our interests and looking for content in the goal language it makes the journey way easier. I am also using the same method to learn Spanish and it’s working in the same way. Since my focus is 100% on self-development I found that your Blog can fit perfectly my needs. I’m glad to follow you.


    1. sadamyova says:

      Thank you kindly!! πŸ™‚ and yes, I totally agree! Language is made up of all four skills, learning a language thus requires us to practice all four of them, whatever our motivations may be. I even find that there is quite a big overlap, that is, it’s very hard to be a master at speaking without knowing how to listen well and vice versa. Would you agree?
      Thank you for your kind words, they made my day!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. llorenzo87 says:

    I haven’t seen it in that way before, you’re absolutely right! It’s like a closed cycle where you need to harness what you’have listened in order to master your speaking skill and viceversa. That, however, ring a bell for me! Can I get more from what I’m hearing? Since I was only focused on the comprehension part, I didn’t improve pronunciation and rithm. Many thanks, that was really ispiring !


  3. stanleyyeung says:

    Great practical tips! I think that very often the best method is the one which we feel works best for us, but sometimes we are just too preoccupied with things like getting through tests that we forget to ask ourselves what it is that we are learning. I also think that even for gifted individuals, they’ll need guidance in order to study better and more efficiently because language isn’t a subject like Math or Science where there’s a lot of memorisation, but also you’ll need to put into practice what you’ve learnt and keep exercising it. There’s also plenty of creativity involved and I think it makes all the challenges worthwhile!


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