Five Truths About Learning English
I first came to China during the first semester of my senior
year of high school. Before then I'd never
studied Chinese. The summer before I came I
bought a set of Chinese tapes to listen to in the car. I thought
that doing so would have great results and that I'd learn Chinese
very quickly after arriving in China. Of course,
after arriving in Beijing I found that it wouldn't be so
simple--the tapes I'd been listening to didn’t seem to have helped
at all, and after several weeks in Beijing I still couldn't
communicate with people. I was quite frustrated.
However, after three months of study, I had
improved a lot, and had little difficulty with basic
People often ask me to share my experiences with learning
Chinese, perhaps in the hope that my experiences can help Chinese
students learning English. The problem is that my experiences
learning Chinese are very different from the experiences of Chinese
students learning English, primarily because I learned Chinese here
in China, where there is a natural Chinese-language environment,
and most Chinese students don't have such a natural environment
when they are learning English. After some
thought, though, I came to the conclusion that there are some basic
principles of language learning that are applicable to any learner
in any environment, so I wrote an article called "How to Learn
English". The article was well-received, and you can easily find it
by searching online. That article was primarily about the specific
things one must do in order to learn a language, while this article
approaches language from a more psychological perspective, focusing
on the things one must realize in order to learn a language
effectively. I think both aspects are equally
1. Learning a Language Requires Motivation
When I tried to learn Chinese in the US, I lacked a clear
motive--I just felt like I should learn. Once I arrived in China, I
had a clear motive: if I didn't learn, I couldn't communicate with
people, so I needed to learn.
Without a motive, you won't take action. The
clearer the motive, the more it can really excite you, the more
likely it is that action will occur.
If you want to learn English, you must find your motive, or
else you won't take action. Some people seem to
have a natural interest in learning English that can serve as their
motive--these people are the lucky ones. But most people don't
necessarily have a natural interest in learning English, and they
must find something else to serve as their motive. You must find
and answer to the question "Why do I want to learn English?" that
moves you. There are many possible answers: to find a job, to
communicate with more people, to make more money, to make your
girlfriend proud, to understand American movies and TV shows, to
pass the IELTS or TOEFL, etc. The most important thing is that it
moves and excites you, and makes you want to take action.
I suggest that you carry a piece of paper around
with you with following sentence on it: I want to learn English
A motive helps to bring about action.
2. Learning a Language Takes a Lot of Time
When I first came to China I though I could learn Chinese very
quickly, but I found out that it actually takes a long time.
However, once I realized how much time it would take, I could more
effectively plan and focus my study time.
David Allen has said about personal management that, "You have
to think about your stuff more than you realize but not as much as
you're afraid you might." Actually, learning English is quite
similar. If you really want to learn the language, you have to
spend a lot of time on it, but you don't have to give up your life
just to learn English. As long as you repeatedly
do a few simple things, over time you will be successful in your
In "How to Learn English" I mentioned that it takes about
2,000 hours for a Chinese student to learn English.
This number seems quite high at first, but if you
spread it out over four years of university, it's less than 1.5
hours a day (and most university students already have a basic
grasp of English when they enter university).
3. Learning a Language Requires a Positive
There is a book called "Attitude Determines Everything". The
title is certainly hyperbolic, but it does have some truth in it.
In fact, a positive attitude is absolutely crucial for learning a
language, because your attitude while learning influences two very
important things: 1) the amount of time you study, and 2) the
quality of your study time.
Now, how does attitude influence study time and quality?
It's actually quite simple. If
we have a pessimistic attitude and feel stupid every time we make a
mistake, then we are more likely to give up. If
we have a negative attitude and always complain about having to
study then we won't be able to focus and our efficiency will
When I was learning Chinese, some students in my class weren't
able to adjust their attitudes, and this affected their results in
the end. Each time they made a mistake in class they were
embarrassed, and they often complained about how slowly they were
learning. This sort of attitude can easily become a self-fulfilling
The proper attitude for learning a language is a positive
attitude of encouragement, humor, forgiveness, curiosity and
confidence. Only this attitude will lead to the best results.
If you make a mistake, forgive yourself, and
realize that improvement only comes with repeated mistakes.
4. Learning a Language Requires Conscious Study
Some students planning to study abroad feel that learning
English in China is too difficult; they plan to just do what they
need to pass the IELTS, and then actually learn English once
they're abroad. This is a dangerous attitude,
because if you really want to learn a language you can't only
depend on going abroad. I know many Chinese students who have spent
a long time in the US but speak terrible English, and I know many
foreigners who have been in China for many years yet speak hardly
any Chinese. For both Americans learning Chinese
and Chinese learning English, living abroad and "soaking up" the
language is not enough. Even if you are in the
US, you must still spend time consciously studying English in order
to get clear results.
By "consciously study", I mean "repeatedly do a few simple
things" like daily reading, reading aloud, and imitation. For more
details on what specific things to do, see my article "How to Learn
Only through conscious study will we achieve continuous
5. Learning a Language Isn't So Difficult
So many people in the world have successfully learned English.
Why shouldn't you be able to? Look at your
friends around you. I'm sure that there are
successful English learners among them. Analyze
their behavior, or ask them what they have done to learn English.
I'm confident you'll find that they 1) have a
motive for learning, 2) have spent a significant amount of time
learning English, 3) have a positive attitude about learning
English, and 4) consciously plan their study time.
What about you? It's really quite simple. Take action