How to learn English?
Learning a language is mainly based upon self-struggle. Maybe the only thing to be done by the teachers on
this subject is to advise a method. Because, in a sense, language cannot be taught but learned. So, it’s
suitable that the students are shown ways to increase their capabilities and advised methods that give path to
discoveries, instead of being obliged to memorize piles of information.
In language learning process, a target should be made clear at first. What can be expected from a student
who cannot answer the question “Why are you learning this language?”. This point should not be forgotten:
Language itself is used to reach some certain aims, to make some certain plans real in the real world.
Therefore, one should have a target while s/he study a language.
Under the light of these facts, what must your target be? The decision seems to depend on you.
Success in learning a foreign language is closely related to the student’s knowledge of his/her native
language (But, unfortunately, because of the variety of materials in ELT, English is taught in better ways
than the native language). A student adds the information s/he knows about his/her native language to the
language s/he’s learning at present. Sometimes just the opposite is also possible. A foreign language can
make understanding of the native language easy. The student realizes that his/her native language is another
language among the others and becomes much more aware about the activities s/he carries out about his/her
native language. As Goethe says “One cannot know his/her native language if s/he does not know his/her
Repetitions and using the language are vital in language learning. It’s very easy to learn something if you
really need it. Therefore, “motivation,” which has a main role in learning, should not be ignored.
A language seems to be a pile of infinite rules, but you do not have to know all of them. Once you learn the
basic rules, you start to analyze and realize the other rules with ease. The important thing is to understand
where these rules are applied, not to memorize them, anyway. Using a language sufficiently is more
important than knowing a lot about it.
Learning a language requires talent as well as knowledge; and talent is gained only through practice. You
may know how to drive a car, but you have to have much practice to be a good driver.
Practicing with simple examples is not a good idea. Everybody should try to use the language in complexity
to gain the ability to think and express him/herself fast.
Repititio est mater studiorum. (Repetition is the basis of learning.)
The things you remember are the ones to which you pay attention to. It’s vital to repeat in order not to forget.
The secret in not being able to forget the things of great importance to us is repeating them.
The more you know about something, the easier it is to remember it. The more you know about somebody
you have met recently (i.e., his/her country, father’s name, occupation, school, etc.), the easier it is to
remember his/her name, for instance. Addressing him with his name several times, establishing connections
between his attributes and the others you have known already makes remembering his name easy. Because,
if newly learned information is based upon the old ones, they will not be forgotten with ease.
To learn a new word is similar to meeting a new person. To have information about this new word in detail
(it’s written form, pronunciation, word type, base, affixes, etc.), using it orally and in written form several
times, establishing links between our past and present knowledge can make remembering easy. This fact
must always be on your mind: To remember something, you must recall a clue about that invoke your
Systematic information may easily be acquired. The opportunity to make a comparison among the arranged
sections gives strength to the message and meaning of the text. Only the meaningful things can be
Another obstacle waiting for the students is to digest the unfamiliar information getting familiar with them in
time. It’s the teacher’s duty to arrange this unfamiliar information and present it to the students.
• Knowledge about language can be divided into three main groups:
1. Knowledge of Vocabulary
Words in target language may be divided into two:
a. Words we recognize: They are the ones we understand passively as if we work out their codes while
reading or listening.
b. Words we use: They are the ones we produce actively as if we write a code for them.
(A warning: Communication mustn’t be understood that simple. The network of concepts in the brain is in a
very complex relationship.)
In understanding process, we follow a way that is from sounds and images to meanings. In oral or written
forms, this way is from meanings to sounds and images. Perception is based upon analysis, recall and
memorization. Usage is related to synthesis and reproduction. In language learning, perception must precede
using the language. If the studies are directed to writing in the target language, learning should take place
from a word in the source language to its equivalent in the target language; if directed to reading, this should
happen from a word in the target language to its equivalent in the source language.
Researches about memory have shown that words are memorized by connotations. There is also a close
relationship between recognizing a word in different texts and using it sufficiently. Therefore, to
comprehend the word, it should be put in the middle of a firm network of connotations knitted by
Words in our memory are in a relationship with each other not only in the viewpoint of sound, part of speech
and meaning but also in the viewpoint of “shape”. We link the words alike in our memory. This link also
exists among the words in a text. Coherence, that is the relationship between the concepts, reinforces the
connection of meaning. For that reason, reading on a specific subject systematically, that is to say directed to
a specific aim, increases the knowledge of vocabulary.
Fries, a linguist, divides knowledge of vocabulary into four:
1. Fundamental words necessary for recognition the structure of the language.
2. Words necessary for forming new words.
3. Words necessary for recognition while reading or listening.
4. Words necessary for special.
Essential points that must be focused on in choosing words for memorizing can be summarized as:
4. Suitability for learning
Continuous listening and reading are the best ways to increase the knowledge of vocabulary. In more
contexts you meet a new word the more it is easy to digest it. However, it is possible to make use of some
methods before proceeding into this condense reading phase.
You can find the most appropriate method for you trying the ones about memorizing words below:
a. Try to use the newly learned word not only in one sentence but also in a context formed by several
sentences. You may use some new words together and even write a short story with them. So, the number of
links in your “network of connotations” will be increased. This network of connotations is very important in
improving the talent of communication.
People think with the help of frames of concepts. For instance, there is a mental frame of Lincoln in an
American’s mind, and inside the frame are full of information piles. As an example, pronoun “he” is used
when he’s mentioned for that he’s male, he was the sixteenth president, he was assassinated and killed, etc.
These piles of information differ accordingly with experiences. The frames in a new student’s mind are not
full at the beginning. Then, as the experiences increase, the frames get filled. These frames are not in an
order as one after the other, but they are in a complex network. This complex network, formed by the frames
of concepts in relationships, plays a great role in comprehending the multi-directional and delicate meanings
b. Record the words and their meanings on a cassette and listen to them.
c. Write the difficult words in another color so that it draws your attention.
d. One of the biggest problems of vocabulary is memorizing the abstract words. Therefore, start with the
e. Make use of the words borrowed from the target language. (e.g. system, method, information etc.). But be
careful with the change of meaning on some words.
f. Try to remember the words with the resemblance of the sounds with your native language.
g. Memorize the words dividing them into classes. (e. g. colors, fruits, vegetables, etc.)
h. The connotations increase if you memorize the words that are similar in written forms together. (e.g.
stationary - stationery)
i. You can use some mnemonics while memorizing words. E.g. in the above-mentioned example,
“stationary” is an adjective. The only difference between the two words is on the last third letter. The one
with this last third letter “a” is the adjective. (That is “stationary”)
j. Words starting with the same letters (or sounds) can be memorized together (e.g. when, which, who,
where, what, etc.)
k. Remembering becomes easy if a relationship is established between the word and its physical attributes
such as color, sound, smell, etc. (E.g. fruits)
l. Some other relationships such as the words and their functions are also useful. (E.g. furniture that is used
for sitting, sleeping, etc.)
m. Memorizing the words with their pronunciation makes remembering easy.
n. Words with the same roots can be memorized together. (E.g. white, whiten, whitish)
o. Connections between the words and the texts can be established.
p. Practicing on texts with some words excluded, guessing the words not written or written partly are also
good study for learning the words in context.
The elements causing connotations between words can be ordered as:
a. Synonyms (e.g. flower = blossom)
b. Antonyms (e.g. wet X dry)
c. Classifying as sub-groups (plant > rose)
d. Classifying as upper-groups (spinach < vegetable)
Or: Some other links may be organized between a word against two words.
giving X receiving = taking
old X new = young
good X bad = poor
Elements helpful for guessing the meanings from the context are:
a. Title: Calls up the words related to the subject since it determines the subject
b. Repetition: It is easy to guess the meaning of the word that is repeated in different sentences.
c. Logical correlation: To guess the meaning of a word you can look for logical correlations such as the
cause and result relations of the word with the other words.
g. Synonym and antonyms
h. Summary: The summary of a text may have clues about meanings of words since it’s a repetition in a
a. Repeat a word carefully after hearing it.
b. Record your own voice on a cassette and compare it with a native speaker.
c. Try to say a sound first on its own, then in words or even in tongue twisters.
d. Make a list of “difficult” words for you and study them more carefully.
e. Choose a dictionary and try to get familiar with its transcription system.
a. Decide on which areas are you successful at, such as changing the tenses of sentences, filling in the
blanks, translations, answering the questions, writing a composition etc.
b. Use the tenses not in different sentences but in the same one.
c. Make sure if you are good at oral or written exercises.
d. Decide if an exercise is more useful with rules given beforehand or after.
e. You can notice the exceptions if you put every new grammar rule into an empty grammar table in an
orderly fashion. Do not forget to add extra information for unclear points while repeating.
One learns to understand and speak the target language imitating and listening to a native speaker. Listening
to the target language not only improves your reasoning but also helps your pronunciation and speaking.
Choose the listening material according to your aim. If you have started recently you may improve your
memory by listening to the cassettes of a text and your pronunciation by repeating what you listen to. Further
on, you may increase your perception, grammar and vocabulary by listening to cassettes of conferences,
stories and interviews.
The obstacles while listening to something in the target language are:
a. Not being able to remember the long texts
b. Fast speaking of native speakers
c. Unknown vocabulary
The biggest mistake of a student while listening is that s/he tries to understand each and every word. On the
other hand, as it is the same in our own language, we usually understand someone not according to what s/he
says but according to his/her intention. (That’s why we listen to him/her as nothing happened when s/he says
something wrong not on purpose). Once we understand his/her intention we do not pay much attention to
every word s/he says. Hence, we hear what we hope to hear in a sense. Because, we face with familiar
structures and expressions continuously. (Even the ones we are surprised at are within a limit of familiarity,
but when this limit is exceeded we react. For instance, we laugh when we hear a child talking like an adult,
or an adult talking like a child.) Perception requires choosing the “important”; but if we try to concentrate on
every word we hear we cannot talk about perception because of the weight-load of the mind. We need time
to get used not to pay attention to the extra information.
A successful communication depends on understanding the person you are speaking to by reasoning with the
help of his/her sayings. Besides, talent of communication improves not only with being expertized in
language but also with the increase of experiences in society. It is hard to keep the sentences in mind in a
foreign language. So, it is suitable to classify them briefly in order to remember them.
Repeating what you listen both reinforces the memory and helps you comprehend the logic of that language
listening to something to talk about it later helps you concentrate on that subject. Gestures and mimes also
make understanding easy. Body movements, facial expressions, instant changes in breathing, stress and
duration of pauses are “beyond language” clues of that kind.
Speaking about a subject requires some conditions.
b. A correct grammar
c. Correct pronunciation
d. Suitable words
Mistakes in speaking tend to increase since you have to express yourself faster than in writing. Other
conditions are not usually so distinct because meaning is important. Few mistakes of the speaker are
accepted because examining each sentence of his/her is too hard for the one s/he is speaking to. The
important thing is to notice the repeated mistakes. There is a “tolerance of mistakes” in each language.
Knowing the limit of this assures you speak in a more comfortable way.
Social English (How do you do, see you around, etc.) is also necessary for a fluent and sufficient speaking.
Memory plays a great role in dialogs. Responding the one you are speaking to depends on using the memory
adequately. Answering a question of someone relies on comprehending the intention of him/her and
guessing his/her allusions.
The importance of knowledge of vocabulary is unquestionable in fluent speaking. But, it is wiser to reach the
level of talking about what you mean briefly instead of trying to memorize every word you meet. Because
language is for communication. A parrot repeats words but it cannot speak.
Do not look up each word you meet in a text, so be careful while choosing the texts you will read. Look up
the words you do not understand after reading the text several times. Do not lose time with the ones you are
able to guess. Increase the number of pages and the level of texts as days pass. Choose texts on your favorite
subjects. Do not forget to study the magazines and newspapers as well as books. Pictured materials are more
comprehensive with the clues they contain. “Who,” “where,” “how,” questions are very useful to perceive
the flow of the events and the gist of the text. If you do not understand some words do not give up. Go on
reading. Some ambiguity prevails in our native language as well, but we do not give up reading hoping the
text will be clearer after a while. This is the same for a foreign language.
Dialogs are easy to remember since they contain real communication among people and are social units.
Therefore, they are more important than written texts; and the best way is to stay in the country in which the
target language is spoken.
Writing helps us make established to expressions we learn In the target language more lively and remember
them. Keeping a diary, writing a short story, summarizing the daily news can contribute to us in acquiring a
writing habit. Writing about your ideas of a book you have read, extracting some passages, taking notes on
some aphorisms may be beneficial.
Though it seems as an outdated method, translation is a helpful element that helps students improve their
basic skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking). Especially, students can acquire conscience about
language through the knowledge of Text-linguistics which studies the elements of a text. Besides, students
will have a general information about the subjects they translate. While making a literal translation a method
mentioned below may be used. First you read the text several times. You can talk about the ambiguous
points in consultation with others. The unknown words are looked up in a dictionary. Then, with the help of
a Thesaurus you find these words in the target language that draws the border of the semantic field of the
one in the source language. After learning this frame of concept of the word you can find the exact word in
an English to English dictionary (if you are making a translation into English). Using a dictionary that gives
details about the conceptual fields of a word and its usage is very helpful. (e.g. Collins Cobuild Dictionary.)
You choose the best word with the aid of your intuition. Then, you may check which verbs, objects, adverbs,
etc. to use with the word in a dictionary such as BBI Combinatory dictionary of English.
Translating on technical fields is also attractive for students; and in that way they can memorize the
terminology of a specific field.
Practice is essential
Language should not be a pile of rules but a skill. The points mentioned below may be some of the exercises
in the target language.
a. Grammar exercises
Students generally accept a rule as it is and do not try to use it in a different way. The rules should be used as
flexible as possible.
b. Vocabulary exercises
When you hear a word try to use it with different objects (E.g. to finish, to finish a school, to finish a work,
c. Exercises on suffixes, affixes and prefixes
If you know the suffixes, affixes and prefixes in forming words you may memorize words very easily (E.g.
reader, rider, teacher, etc.)
d. Speaking exercises
The easiest way to practice is to make repetitions silently, because there is no need for a specific place, time
and book. For instance, you can try to say the names of things around, or translate the dialogs during
e. You can make use of word games, puzzles, etc.
The ability of understanding and using a language is improved not only by learning the meanings of words
but also with social experiences, different relations initiated with several people and with continuous
studying. As your ability is improved you start to think in the target language. Meanwhile, understanding the
jokes and dreaming in the target language are proofs of your progress.
While learning a foreign language a successful student does not claim that he does not know anything about
that language. On the contrary, s/he tries to save time finding the similarities and differences between the
two languages in the fields of vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. With constant practice he tries to
acquire a firm thinking and an effective communication ability.
Do not forget: “PractIce makes perfect”
M. Murat ERGUVAN
Head of English Department
SOURCE: Alan, Yusuf (1994). Lisan ve İnsan. İzmir: T.Ö.V Yayınları