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The three elements of successful language learning

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

Most language learning is all about developing language skills and knowledge. Students learn how to speak, listen, read and write. They learn grammar rules, collocations and phrasal verbs. If they are lucky, they also learn some study skills such as creating a study plan or how to review efficiently.

The question is: Is this enough to help people learn a language successfully? My belief is that no, this is not enough.

I believe that there are three key elements required for successful language learning and in this post I am going to explain them in turn.

Skills and Knowledge This is what most language learning is - building up your skills and understanding over time. Skills and Knowledge includes all the core skills mentioned above but also things like:

  • understanding the structure of the exam you are working towards

  • knowing what register is appropriate in which context

  • developing familiarity with the culture for the language you are learning

  • being able to use functional language for apologising, interrupting and so on

As this should be familiar to you, I will move on to explaining about the other two elements.

Support I am always amazed when people tell me they are preparing for IELTS by themselves. Or that they are learning a language without any assistance or input from another person. Doing this makes language learning a lonely, difficult process. I firmly believe that we need the support of other people on our language learning journey, whatever our chosen destination. There are many kinds of support available to you:

  • your friends and family

  • other language learners

  • language exchange partners

  • language teachers

  • online groups and forums

  • online courses

If you cannot afford lessons at the moment, look for a language exchange partner. Although you will not get the same level of feedback, you can at least practice your speaking with a native speaker! If you are working for an exam, I believe you really must have a support network that includes more than one from the list above. For exam candidates, investing in the support of an experienced teacher is really essential. How else will you know if your writing is good enough, for example? Who else will help you improve your pronunciation? Getting support is not a waste of money. Getting support is an investment in your future success. Mindset The final element you need is the right mindset towards your learning. There are three parts to having the right mindset:

Attitude Firstly, you need to learn how to focus on solutions rather than dwell on problems. It is too easy to think that learning a language is 'impossible' or that it's 'too hard' or that 'I make too many mistakes'. However, thinking like this limits your opportunities for growth and learning. Look for solutions instead by asking yourself questions like:

  • How could I make this feel more possible?

  • How could I simplify this for myself?

  • How could I improve my accuracy?

Questions like this open the mind up to possibilities it hasn't yet considered. Belief Too many language learners suffer from a severe lack of self-belief. They think they are useless, stupid and incapable of speaking well. Holding these beliefs is a real limitation on what is possible. If you believe you are stupid and incapable of speaking well, you are going to take or avoid action based on those beliefs. For example, you might avoid speaking in meetings or in class because you believe what you say will sound stupid and that other people will laugh at you.

Remember, our beliefs aren't actually facts. They are simply the information we are choosing to feed to ourselves at this moment. It is absolutely possible to change your beliefs for something more positive (though it can help to have support doing this!)


Speaking in a second language isn't easy, especially at work or in an interview. For this reason, you need to have courage. Courage doesn't mean being fearless. It means being able to take action despite feeling afraid! It means consistently challenging doubts and fears and seeking to move beyond them, rather than allowing the fear to limit what you do. When you can combine Skills and Knowledge with the right Mindset in a Supportive environment, you are creating the best opportunity for you to succeed at learning your second language. Watch a video about this!

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