For many years now I’ve been delivering lesson plans to hundreds of students; sometimes in a classroom situation and sometimes one-on-one private tutoring. However, no matter what nationality or background the student, or how long they have been learning English, I always find a repeating problem: a lack of practice.
It seems obvious doesn’t it? The more you practice anything, the better you become at it? If only it were that easy right? Well, over the many years of teaching, I have discovered that this lack of self-motivation really depends on the individual and their own study ethics and level of self-discipline. Let’s face it, learning a new language is HARD. Nobody wants to spend their free time with their head in an English book, after spending an entire week trying to make the rent in a part-time job. It’s exhausting.
However, what separates the successful student from others, is a willingness to … dare I say … enjoy the process of learning English. “What!?” I hear you say … “is he serious?”
I’ve taught all kinds of students; with all sorts of different challenges. But no matter the student, over time one thing has stood out to me: the students who find a way to enjoy English, begin to excel. I recall a student who was not an avid reader when he arrived at Australian Pacific College, yet within only a few months he was reading entire novels.
So how is this possible?
The answer is two-fold, and lies in the self-motivation of the student and the approach of the teacher. If a person learns how to enjoy reading, then once they have found their reason (be that: the story, plot or characters) then that self-motivation becomes a natural process, rather than a forced obligation. Learners need to find something they first enjoy about English, to then commit to further study and practice. Now I know what you’re thinking: I NEVER enjoyed English. I’m an Engineer and have a mathematics brain. I don’t even like reading. I’ve heard this argument a LOT, and if we consider how some people are more left-brain thinkers, while others are more right-brain thinkers, then it seems like a reasonable rebuttal. But I believe it’s more about our own attitudes towards learning, rather than our seemingly inherent incapacity to grasp a skill. The question a student should consider when struggling to learn English, is … What have I got to lose? After all, English is the lingua franca of business, travel and international relations throughout the world. The relative ease with which English can be learned (compared with other languages, such as Chinese) and its persuasive cultural significance, means that English will continue to dominate the world stage for many years to come. And for many, English is synonymous with greater social, academic and job opportunities and a better lifestyle. And it’s not surprising when you consider that English is the third most spoken language in the world, with approx. 360 million native English speakers, and around a half a billion people who speak English as a second language.
That’s all fine and well, but the popularity of English isn’t helping you learn it, right? Right. Nevertheless, those numbers give me hope – because, if so many people are learning to speak English then it means they have all faced the difficult challenges associated with English and have persevered. And notice that I said: difficult challenges, and just like any personal challenge (exercise, diet, understanding technology, relationships, etc), it takes a lot of hard work and endurance. I believe one of the main reasons students become disillusioned during the learning stage is a fear of failure. We all react to failure differently; some take a breath in and knuckle down, whilst others hang their heads in defeat. No matter your English level or ability, it’s important to remember an important rule: don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Perhaps you can take a black pen now and write that in huge capital letters across your notebook, because it’s the one thing I would like you to remember. It seems obvious, but fear is the biggest killer of motivation. For those of you who are terrified of failing, you must do everything in your power to face and conquer your fear of failure – because this will hold you back: the more you fail, the less you will attempt to learn. We avoid things that cause us pain or humiliation. It’s natural to recoil from things we struggle with, but the problem with our comfort zones (you know … Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, etc) is that they are a distraction from what we should really be doing, they slow us down, and we avoid our responsibilities. So, it’s OK to be afraid, but it’s not OK to give up.
I have often come across students who see English as some fearsome creature with sharp claws and fire pouring from its mouth—but English is nothing to be frightened of. Like any language it has its rules and devices, structures and ambiguities. I’ve even heard English refereed to as an organism: something constantly evolving and changing. This is true. It is also something to embrace and experiment with; for words are but grains of sand in an ocean of language; ready for the word-smith to build his or her castle from. Learning a language takes patience, self-discipline and a drive to conquer your fears and excuses. I always tell my students: “Procrastinate later!” Don’t put something off that can be done today, because the faster you face those fears, the quicker you will find yourself finishing your exams, gaining your academic grades and expanding your spoken English – new skills to take you to the next stage in your life.
Ask yourself: What are my passions? Decide if you can incorporate English into the things you love. If you don’t feel ready to write essays, how about writing a handwritten letter to a friend overseas, or a postcard? If you’re an Architect, perhaps you can start to read about design in the 21st century, and its theories and methods. If your passion is football, can you write an article about your sports hero? If you dig deep enough you will find that English language relates to all interests; simply because it is the way we can communicate our ideas, dreams, values and interests. And remember … man never made it to the moon in one giant leap, he took small steps, just as you will take small steps, daily, always striving forward with your eyes on the horizon. Do this and you will reach your destination – I can promise you.
– Jonathan Byron