When you do the right thing and it doesn’t seem to work


in Beyond the Basics, In Your Head

Of all the students I’ve worked with, one group always seems to do better than the rest even though they all do the same thing. Sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it – but it’s true. Make sure you’re in the right group.

There’s an echo here

There’s an echo here at Successful English, and it sounds something like this: when we receive comprehensible input, our brains acquire, or pick up, new language. That’s the secret for success with English, or any other language. The more understandable English you read or listen to, the more your English will improve.

Anyone can do what needs to be done to improve their English. You can do it on your own. Without a teacher. And you can do it for the rest of your life.

Doing the right thing without success

Why is it, then, that one student can receive comprehensible English and get better while another doesn’t? Is it possible to do the right thing and still fail? Language research says “yes.”

Our brains have a wonderful ability to process what we read or hear and to acquire, or pick up, new language. It’s automatic. And we aren’t usually aware of it when it happens or even after it happens. It is possible, however, to interrupt or even stop the process. The problem is what we call the affective filter.

Language research tells us there are three things that can keep understandable input from being processed by your brain. If you’re anxious, if you have low self-esteem, or if you don’t consider yourself to be a potential member of the group that speaks a language, the filter is turned on. And when it’s on, the filter interrupts the flow of usable language to your brain. You can do the right thing and still not benefit from it.

What can I do about it?

There are several steps you can take to ensure that nothing interrupts your language acquisition process:

The first is to change the way you think about yourself and the process of acquiring more English. I’ve written several articles – What comes first?Don’t worry, be happy, An English lesson from a tennis coach, and It’s not broken! – that will help you.

The second is to make good choices of things to read and listen to. A number of years ago, an American professor from the University of Chicago introduced a helpful idea – he called it flow. Flow is a mental condition in which you are completely involved in what you are doing. It’s related to what I wrote about in A word every language learner should know. Choose things to read or listen to – fiction or non-fiction – that will take you away from where you are and what you’ve been doing, that will allow you to escape your everyday world and experience flow.

Finally, read and listen for yourself and your own enjoyment. Don’t turn reading and listening for better English into a job. Trust the natural mental process you were born with. Let your brain do what it was designed to do and don’t get in its way.

Final thoughts

In my experience, the most successful English students have been those who take a playful approach to reading and listening for better English. They are almost childlike in their ability to enjoy what they’re doing, to explore and satisfy their curiosity. Why don’t you join them?

Warren Ediger

References: Flow (psychology) Wikipedia; Krashen (2003) Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use; Cskiszentmihalyi (1997) Finding Flow.

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Ferdie June 23, 2011

Hi Warren,

Thanks for this wonderful post. I started studying English on my own in October, 2008. So, I have been reading and listening to a lot of easy input for almost three years now. I also try to speak English whenever I can. But I think my problem is when i tell a story to someone about something that happens in my regular day such as going to work, ect. I sometimes get stuck. I could not express myself very well. Can you please tell me how I get rid of this problem.

Thank you.

Warren Ediger June 23, 2011

Ferdie – The best thing is to continue to do a lot of listening, and reading, especially of things that include conversations or discussion of everyday life and activities. Audio books are very good for this. The ESL Podcast is another good source. You might also consider getting the two “A Day in the Life of…” packages from the ESL Podcast. The California Distance Learning Project, which you can find on this page, would also be good.

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