Sat, 15 May 2004

Language learners should first take a long look at themselves

Simon Marcus Gower, Jakarta

"How can I learn English?" -- is a quite common question but the only true answer to a question such as this is probably uncompromising and thus uncommon. For the only truthful answer to a simple yet complex question such as this is - "Well, it all depends on you. It all depends on what kind of learner you are and what level of the language you want to achieve".

Of course, there are typical learning experiences and standard study strategies that have been generally theorized and applied. But the subtleties of human character and mind mean that each of us will be likely to have our own needs, wants, desires, skills, talents and capabilities that will impinge upon and shape how we learn.

The best an educator can do, then, is to guide the learner towards appropriate learning strategies and skills but the key factor in this learning equation, the principal role-player in the act of learning is the student him or herself. It, therefore, becomes both useful -- if not essential -- that the learner exercises a high degree of self-awareness, so that he or she can maximize learning potential and target realistic and sufficient learning objectives.

But how does a learner attain this high degree of self- awareness? In short, it is essential that learners ask and answer questions about themselves. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy -- "Ask not what your teacher can do for you but what you can do for yourself." This does not mean eliminating the teacher or teachers from the learning formula; but it does mean that learners are well acquainted with who they are and how they can interact and grow with their teachers.

So what are these questions? What queries of self must a language learner ask to move towards better self-awareness and clarity of goals? Some are obvious but easily overlooked. Taking a few moments to think of them will help make the learning process more efficient. A reasonable first question would be --

o Why are you learning the language? This may seem an almost ridiculously simple question but a clear awareness and understanding of why you are learning, and what you want to use that learning for, is always useful. For example, if a learner simply needs to be able to welcome English speaking guests conversationally and deal with their basic inquiries, there would be little sense in this learner pursuing an in-depth, structurally analytical knowledge of the language that would allow him/ her to read detailed texts. Much of such learning would be left redundant in application. To what use the language is going to be put, then, is the essence of the question here.

o What learning strategies will you be most comfortable with? For example, do you seek deep book or dictionary study that may enhance reading and writing skills? Or, would you favor speaking activities that primarily aim to improve your conversational skills. Along with this question comes the follow-up -- Are you at ease with study generally? Learning and study programs can be both intellectually and emotionally draining. How well equipped are you for these challenges?

o What level of exposure to the language do you have? There is little doubt that the greater your exposure, the better are your conditions for "picking up" the language. Giving yourself opportunities for exposure to the language will help your improvement. This means taking your learning beyond designated study time and outside of the classroom setting.

o How well do you deal with mistakes? If you really hate making mistakes then language learning will be tough. Learning from mistakes is an essential element of learning here. The ability to accept mistakes and learn from them is very helpful. So mistakes should be expected and accepted.

o Hand-in-hand with accepting mistakes goes being corrected, so a follow-up question here is -- How well can you accept being corrected? If it annoys you, then you need to relax. Correction of mistakes is as much a part of learning as the mistakes themselves. Indeed without correction much learning may be lost.

o How good is your ear for languages? Being able to listen for different sounds and begin to reproduce them will help you achieve greater accuracy and more natural rhythm and intonation in you pronunciation. Here Indonesian learners are quite fortunate as many English sounds are to be found in the pronunciation of Indonesian.

o Similarly, how good is your memory for new words and how well can you pick-up two or three words together or a phrase in the language? Retention of new words goes a long way in the process of internalizing and using with ease and fluency that which has been learnt. This does not mean you should, like a machine, memorize word lists, but a good memory is a useful tool.

o Do you feel you need more time before you speak? If this is so, it suggests that you are being analytical in processing the language. Whilst this analysis is good, it is important to get beyond it to attain more natural use of the language that is unrestrained by your linguistic thought processes. Over analysis of the language will encumber your communicative competence.

o Do you have a reasonable knowledge of language and how languages work generally? This kind of knowledge makes it easier to grapple with linguistic/ grammatical differences. This means if you appreciate the structural form of your first language addressing the forms of the second language will not be such a leap.

o How flexible and appreciative of change are you? This is probably the most all-encompassing of questions? Without flexibility, a desire for change of and addition to, one's thought parameters and an appreciation, even love, of new learning and experiences language learning may become an uphill task. Learning a new language should create opportunities, promote understanding and broaden one's horizons.

The above are just some rhetorical questions that are worthy of contemplation to guide the learning experience. There will undoubtedly be others that come to mind. This is good and right -- the more thoughtful and thought provoked one is in planning the challenging task of learning, the greater are the chances of success in meeting one's goals in the most efficient way.

So perhaps we can suggest that there is a "best way of learning a language" and that is -- your way. To find your way asking questions of yourself is hugely important. Others, such as teachers and fellow learners, can help you search to find it but ultimately you must discover it for yourself. This, then, is true learning.

The writer is executive principal, High/Scope Indonesia School. Opinions expressed above are personal.