The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Language Learning – Part 1

Cover of 7 Habits of Highly Effective PeopleA couple of days ago, I’ve started reading “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. It’s completely different from what I had expected.

I thought the book was about hacks and tricks to perform daily tasks more efficiently. Turns out it’s a complete philosophy which starts with your character and integrity, how you set your life priorities, and how you relate to others. There is a lot of wisdom in it.

And I realize that the wise lessons apply to language learning as well. So here are the 7 habits of highly effective language learners:

Habit 1: Be Proactive

Effective language learning starts and ends with you, the learner. You can’t blame a teacher or a certain textbook for not being effective. You need to really want to learn the language, and figure out a way to make it work. If the teacher is no good, find one that is good. If the textbook isn’t supportive, find other materials that work for you.

My secondary school curriculum included French. I studied it for three or four years, but never took a real interest. It was just a subject I needed to pass and I have treated it as such, which means that my French is pretty much useless.

I’ve later taken a real interest in Spanish and Mandarin, paid for my lessons and done all kinds of things to expose myself to the language. The speed at which I’ve been able to learn these two languages was amazing.

Whether you’re planning to learn Chinese or another language, this is a very good post about taking responsibility for your own learning on Hacking Chinese.

Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind

Anything humans create, is created twice: once on the drawing board, and once in reality. You first get a clear idea of what you want and what it’s going to take. Then, you get to work.

Let’s say you want to learn Russian. You could just rush out and buy a textbook or sign up for a course. This usually turns out to be a disappointment. It takes a lot of time and effort before you see the first results. And you wouldn’t even have a clear picture of what you want to achieve.

But if you decide that you want to eventually achieve CEFR C1 level in Russian, you will be able to figure out roughly how many hours of study it’s going to take. You could do some research into different ways in which people are learning Russian as well.

And then you’d come up with a plan that includes a timeline and a money budget. Depending on your situation, you could try to learn fast and spend more, or learn slower but on a tight budget. Whatever your choices are, you commit to a plan. That gives you a road map to be successful.

Maybe you decide to learn full-time in Moscow for two months to kick things off. Since you’ve learned that that will speed up the process. Or you choose the slower route because you can’t afford to take that much time off. No matter what decision flows from your planning, since you’ve committed to a plan, you won’t get disappointed so soon over how much time and money it takes to achieve your end goal.

By the way, there’s an excellent series on planning your language learning over at the Everyday Language Learner.

Habit 3: Put first things first.

Focus on what you can do now, not what you would like to achieve in future, which is out of your reach today. By moving step by step, you will expand your abilities and eventually you can get to where you want to be.

I’ll give you an example.

At times, people tell me they want to learn “Business Chinese”. When I ask about their current level, they tell me they don’t speak a word yet.

Business Chinese courses are popular in Singapore. They are all about using Mandarin in business situations. They focus on specific vocabulary, including words such as contract, distributor, intellectual property and skills like presenting and negotiating in Mandarin.

As much as you want to learn Mandarin for business purposes, signing up for an advanced Business Mandarin course without basic knowledge is only going to bring frustration. All business starts with saying “hello” and introducing yourself anyway. And those things are covered in a basic Mandarin course.

If you are an absolute newbie to Chinese language, you cannot successfully take a business Chinese course. What you can do, is take a basic Chinese course first, and get your level up high enough to join a Business Chinese course later on.

Effective language learning starts with your own attitude

These first three habits are all about your own goals, focus and attitude. You need to have the focus from within before you can go out into the world and work together with others.

Habits 4-6 are about working together with other people. I’m still reading that section – once I’m done I’ll write a part 2 post!

About Guus Goorts

Guus has traveled widely and has lived in The Netherlands, Ghana, Belgium and Singapore. In descending order of fluency, he speaks Dutch, English, Mandarin, German and some rudiments of Spanish, French and Italian. Guus lives in Singapore with his wife and two young children. He settled in Singapore in early 2006 from his native country The Netherlands. After working in a job for corporate training, he founded Yago Languages, Singapore's guide to language learning.