“I am working hard, but I don’t seem to be making the progress that some others are making.”
You need to keep working hard but you can probably work more efficiently if you take more risks. Another one of the 5 signs that students are working hard but not smart is: Low Risk-Taking
How can low risk-taking be not smart?!
Isn’t it unwise in life to take risks?
Why should language learning be different?
To answer that, let me give you some examples of low-risk behavior in language learning:
- I study silently because I feel silly talking to myself.
- I study alone because I don’t like others to hear my mistakes.
- I stay home because I don’t want to feel awkward knocking on a neighbor’s door.
- I don’t bring any Arabic materials with me on a visit because no one asked me to.
- I look up words in my dictionary even after a native speaker has explained the meaning to me because I don’t trust that I really understood the word unless I see a translation.
- I don’t record my local friends because I feel it is intrusive.
- I don’t do my own language projects because I am afraid I will not have time to study for tests.
- I don’t imitate the methods that more successful students use because those methods seem strange to me.
- I avoid speaking in Arabic in some settings because I feel anxious and nervous.
- I often find myself pretending that I understand something because I am too embarrassed to ask them to repeat it again.
- I let other things crowd out my study and practice time because I feel those things give me more psychological satisfaction. (I feel more competent when I do those other things.)
- I study calmly.
- I reassure myself by asserting that most of my language-learning problems are because of factors outside of my control.
Each one of these behaviors is motivated by a desire to lower risk – psychological risk. There is a lot of research that shows that language learning is very threatening psychologically. My experience in the field confirms this to me over and over. However, language learners consistently discount this “threat.” It seems too silly that we as mature adults would feel threatened by trying to learn another language. Some in the language teaching profession go to great lengths to try to minimize the feelings of threat that students are exposed to. They seek to provide “a secure nest” for learners. They teach instructors to speak “in soothing tones.” They paint the walls in relaxing shades and play soft music in the background. They assign each student an alter ego, a fake name and personality, so that every silly mistake is made by that “personality” and not by the learner himself. The list goes on and on.
My view is that while those things can be helpful, it is more strategic to encourage the students to take risks and to challenge them. This approach has some negative consequences, but it is more realistic. However, ultimately, it is you – the learner – who must take the risks that will enable you to move forward at a maximum pace.
One practical thing. The first low-risk behavior I mentioned above is studying silently. Change this one thing over the course of the next month and see what happens. If you are learning to play the keyboard, do you unplug it and practice silently? Do you remove the strings from your child’s violin before he practices? Do you learn a sport by merely visualizing yourself doing it? Do you learn to paint portraits by waving your brushes in the air? Then how in the world do you think you can improve speaking by studying silently?