Principles of Effective Language Study

ONE: Include Three Components in Your Study Plan

There are many ways to think about the process of language learning. For the purpose of planning personal study time, it can be helpful to think about language learning in terms of three interconnected components.  

  • Memory: Learning and storing many bits of linguistic and cultural information in memory. (see: Memory Systems)

To design an effective personal study plan, you will want to give explicit attention to each of these three components. There are a variety of techniques you can use to build skills within each component. Try out the techniques and see which work best for you now and try out new ones as your language skills progress.

TWO: Combine the Three Components and Use Multiple Modes of Expression

As you experiment with these techniques, you will see that many effective language study techniques emphasize one component (memory, comprehension and understanding, or communication), but incorporate activities that also contribute to developing skills in the other components at the same time.

  • You will also see that effective study techniques often combine different modes of comprehension and expression in the same activity: speaking, listening, reading, writing, and signing and comprehending signs for students of American Sign Language.  Visual imagery and physical movement are central to learning a sign language and can also play a role in learning and remembering spoken and written language.
  • Some examples could be: writing a dialogue, then practicing variations on it out loud; watching a television show then writing a short essay in reaction to it; listening to someone talk and writing down or summarizing what they say; reading an article then telling someone what it was about, using vocabulary you learned from the article.
  • By practicing using the language in ways that combine skills and modes of expression, you are enriching your experience with the words and concepts you are learning, storing those experiences in memory, and building the memory pathways that will allow you to retrieve and use that information as needed.

In very simplistic terms, all that linguistic and cultural information is stored in many different locations in your brain.  As you encounter, store and retrieve that information in multiple ways, you create and strengthen the links in your brain among all those various bits of information.  This process is literally making physical changes in your brain. The more information you store and the more robust the pathways that allow you to retrieve and use that information in linguistically and culturally appropriate ways, the higher your level of proficiency in the language.

THREE: Practice Communicating!

It is not uncommon for language learners to learn a lot about a language or to comprehend the language, but not be able to communicate in the language.  This happens when students store many bits of information, but do not practice using the language for communication: 

  • To be able to use the language, you have to put your brain through the process of combining all the information necessary to communicate some meaningful message by speaking or writing in the language.
  • This means practicing producing language on your own and with other users of the language as much as possible. 
  • The more you practice communicating, the more your language proficiency will improve.

In this way, learning a language is more like learning to play a musical instrument, dedicated athletic training, or training in theater or dance.  It is not about just doing some grammar exercises and memorizing individual vocabulary words, rather you need to engage in the activity of communicating over and over again, honing your skills, in order to develop the ability to use the language at a high level of proficiency.