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 #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?