Language Learning Tip #18



“I am trying to change some of my language learning habits, and  I have ideas, but somehow I don’t put them into action.”

Idea:  Address problems with strategies not with wishes.

Five steps for creating suitable strategies:

1) Identify areas you want to improve in.  Do this periodically as your needs and abilities change.  Write down things you want to be able to do at this point in your life and skills you want to practice.  Then prioritize them by giving them numbers.  Choose 2 or 3 of them and develop creative strategies to improve in these areas.

2) Identify your strengths and weaknesses as a learner.  What are you good at?  What is difficult for you?  Then focus on ways to strengthen your weak skills by using your strengths. 

For example, if you don’t spell well, identify the reasons.  Maybe two Arabic sounds seem the same to you so you get mixed up with words which have those sounds in them.  This would be a weakness in an aural (listening) skill.  But if you can see the word in your mind or you write the word a number of times, you can use your strength as a visual learner or as a kinesthetic learner to work on your spelling problem.  Or if your weakness is listening comprehension, you cannot improve in that area by making a grammar chart.  However, listening to recorded Arabic at slower speeds could be helpful. 

Look for a connection between the skill you need and the activity you want to spend time on.  If you can not explain the connection between the two, then maybe the connection is not really there.


3) Identify things in your personality that make it hard for you to do what other successful learners do.  Then find a way to compensate.  For example, if you are a shy person who finds it difficult to knock on your neighbor’s door, go visiting with someone else.  Or, if you never know what to talk about with people, before you visit, write a list of topics and questions that you can ask people.


4) Reevaluate your strategies from time to time.  If your strategies are all the same now as they were 3 months ago, you probably are not giving enough attention to this area.  Use your creativity and feed off of the creativity of your classmates and other learners.


5)  Find someone to be accountable to.  You might talk with that person about what you are writing in your language learning journal.  You should discuss what your current strategies are, why you have chosen them, and how you might improve them.  Sometimes another person might just have an idea that will turn a good strategy into a great strategy. 

Language Learning Tip #15


“I am working hard, but I don’t seem to be making the progress that some others are making.”

We continue discussion of the 5th sign from the 5 signs that you may be working hard but not smart. Again, the 5 signs again are:

  1. Too much “brute force” in memorizing
  2. Very long study hours
  3. Lack of planning or system in study
  4. Low risk taking
  5. Mismatch between student’s preferred learning strategy and program expectation


Take ownership of your personal language learning program.

Actually, this idea of taking ownership of your own program goes far beyond the 5th sign. What does “ownership” here mean? I won’t actually define it here. Instead, let’s compare two students, one who is taking ownership of the process and the other who is becoming a slave to it.

  • Student Atries to do everything that is expected of him.
    • He puts in long hours trying to learn all the vocabulary found in his lessons.
    • He puts a lot of emphasis on being correct and eliminating mistakes.
    • He believes that tests over the materials are important for evaluating his progress in the language so he works hard to do as well as he can on them.
    • He feels validated if he scores well and feels cheated if he gets a low score.
    • He gets frustrated with other students who are holding him back by not being as hard-working as he is.
    • He also gets frustrated because he feels he is putting a lot of work into learning aspects of the language that are not really very important to him.
    • The phrase “if only” is becoming common in his speech when he talks about how his studies are going.
    • All this is lowering his motivation to learn the language.


  • Student B picks and chooses from the book the things she wants to learn.
    • She limits how much time she spends doing homework. In fact, she sometimes does only half the assignment.
    • Other times she rushes through the homework (unless it is something that she really thinks is useful).
    • She considers the material secondary to the greater goal of improving her language skills.
    • Her attitude towards tests could be called ambivalent.
    • She sees that they may have value for reviewing material and they are sort of a fun challenge, but she feels it is a waste of her time to put in hours preparing to ‘ace’ them.
    • What she really likes to spend time on are her own language projects that she has designed for herself and practicing with native speakers.
    • She almost, but not quite, sees the formal class requirements as secondary to her language learning goals.
    • Another thing, she rarely even notices how the rest of the class is doing.
    • She tries to be helpful and she pays attention to them out of politeness, but her focus is to catch some information from them and from their interaction with the teacher.
    • If she can make use of what her classmates have learned – that’s a bonus prize.

Questions: Which student has taken ownership of the language learning process? Which one is closer to your own experience? If you find that you have a strong emotional reaction to this comparison, ask yourself ‘Why do I have this reaction to these descriptions?’ Then after you have answered, stop and ask yourself again because there may be a deeper answer that your initial answer overlooks.

I’ve only scratched the surface on this topic here. Do you have a definition of what ‘taking ownership’ of your personal language means, should mean, or could mean? Please reply if you have comments or questions.

Language Learning Tip #14

A quick review; the following are the 5 signs of working hard but not smart as found in the book “Language Learning Difficulties.” Today we look at #5.

  1. Too much “brute force” in memorizing
  2. Very long study hours
  3. Lack of planning or system in study
  4. Low risk taking
  5. Mismatch between student’s preferred learning strategy and program expectation


“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. The last of the 5 signs that students are working hard but not smart.

5) Mismatch between student’s preferred learning strategy and program expectation.

In some ways, this “mismatch” is unavoidable. Any time you are in a classroom with other people, your preferred learning style may be ignored or neglected. Any time you have a teacher or language helper, that person will not always do what you want to do. If you use a book, it may not match what you want. Even if you just work from a recording of normal Arabic speech, it probably won’t ‘scratch where you itch’. In fact, people regularly talk about things you are not interested in, or use words you don’t know, or speak too fast, or fail to read your mind, or …, or…

Whatever the nature of the mismatch, it can cause frustration for the learner. As I see it, there are only 3 possible remedies for this:

  1. Change the program to something that more closely matches your preferences, OR
  2. Be more flexible, OR
  3. Take ownership of your own learning.

First, I will briefly address the second remedy; be flexible. Many language learning studies have found a high correlation with good language learning and flexible personalities. If you have high walls of stubbornness, self-centeredness, or self-protection, you will limit what you can receive. If you tend to think ‘there is a right way and a wrong way for doing anything,’ you will be constantly frustrated. But we can easily excuse and rationalize our inflexibility.

  • “Well, I’m old and just a little set in my ways.”
  • “I know how I learn, and this just isn’t it.” (May also be a sign of a real learning disability)
  • “I just can’t … “
  • “I feel forced to ____ and I’d rather ____.”
  • “I can’t perform when …”
  • “I don’t see why I need to do this stuff.”

If you find yourself saying these things to yourself or to others, it may be a sign that flexibility is a problem and that you are working hard but not smart.

Language Learning Tip #13


“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

You ask:

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?

Language Learning Tip #12

Problem #6

“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. The first of the 5 signs that students are working hard but not smart.

1) Too much “brute force” in memorizing

We know “brute force” in moving a heavy object is sometimes the quickest way. If you have a heavy box, you bend down, grab it and lift with your legs, right? But what if you have a thousand heavy boxes to move up 5 flights of stairs? What do you do then? It might help to stop and think a bit before you tackle the problem. (Hey! I don’t have time to think! Can’t you see I have a thousand boxes to move up these stairs!)

Usually, your most creative ideas will come to you after you have lugged a few of those boxes up 5 flights of stairs. You soon realize your limitations. But you have resources to draw on. Take inventory of your resources and your strategies. Seriously, sit down with a piece of paper and make notes on what you do to learn Arabic and why you do these things. Then, once you have outlined what you actually do, try to take a brand new look at what you are doing.

  1. Be Creative — You break down the memory problem into pieces and think about the most efficient ways to do learn what you want to learn. You take an inventory of your resources, you experiment, you approach your tasks from new angles. What kinds of things do you remember easily? Bring that type of memory work into play with Arabic.
  2. Research — If you have never done this job before, find out from people who have. Ask successful learners what their days look like. Don’t be afraid to ask them about details like why, how long, what steps, what works for them in specific areas. Also, ask about their weaknesses in memory and learning. This will help you to get a better understanding of their whole approach.
  3. Observe — Especially observe yourself. What are you wasting time with? When does your mind wander? Ask yourself what have you learned quickly and easily and how did that actually happen?
  4. Enjoy — Find something in your work to enjoy. Fatigue and discouragement are kept away by fun activities. Look at your study habits now and ask, “What is one thing I can do to make this more fun?”
  5. Specify — Use the right tools for the specific job. For example, if you want to put something in your long term memory, you cannot use the tool of cramming.

Finally, I would bet that many of you have had or have heard some ideas about language learning and memory that you thought you might try out, but now as you think about it, you realize you have never actually tried them. You have actually kept your old familiar habits because they sort of work for you. They are giving you a measure of success so you are not ready to give them up just yet. This reminds me of the next sign I want to address, which is #4, “Low risk taking.”

(By the way, I know that sign #2 is supposed to come after sign #1. So why am I skipping #’s 2 and 3 and doing sign #4 next? Well, why not? Does doing things out of order bother you? Does it upset your balance? This may be a sign that you are in fact a LOW RISK TAKER!)