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What really matters in language learning?

We are all wonderfully individual in all of our own little ways. We arenot the same size,
nor quite the same shape. The colour of our hair,skin and eyes, even the shape of our fi
ngers not to mention ourfinger prints, and many other small details vary from individual
toindividual, regardless of national group. We like different clothes andhave different p
ersonalities.
This shows up when you learn English. Some of you read well butfeel you have trouble
understanding the spoken language, especiallyif it is spoken quickly. Some of you under
stand all right but are notconfident in your writing. Some of you have good phrasing but
poorpronunciation, or think you do. Some pronounce well but makemistakes when spea
king, or think you do.
Are there things that are common to all learners? Are there thingsthat everyone needs to
work on? What really matters in languagelearning? I am referring only to people who
want to achieve fluencyin a language, not to those who only want to have a few phrases
fortheir next vacation.
In my view there are a few things that really matter when we learn anew language. First
of all, there is vocabulary. We all need to learnwords, many words. We get to know new
words gradually. Seeing aword once, or studying it on a list, is not enough. We need to
become familiar with new words, to know how they are used withother words in phrase
s. We achieve this by coming across thewords we are learning in a variety of contexts.
Gradually we start tofeel comfortable with the meaning of these words and start puttingt
hese new words together in phrases in order to express ourselves.
Next we need to develop a sense for the language, without worryingabout the parts of sp
eech or grammar explanations. This can only beachieved through a lot of exposure to th
e language. A lot of listeningand reading will give us a feeling for the rhythm of the ne
wlanguage.
If we know a lot of words, and I mean really know them, and if wehave a sense for the r
hythm of the language, then we will understandbetter and better when we listen and whe
n we read. And as we getbetter we will want to listen and read more, because we enjoy
doingso.
If we enjoy the language, and continue listening and reading, we willeventually be able t
o speak and write. At first we will be hesitantand timid. But our confidence will continu
e to grow and we will learnto speak and write well.
If we speak well, our pronunciation will be all right. It will be as goodas it needs to be. I
do not know anyone who speaks a foreignlanguage well for whom pronunciation is a pr
oblem. Some peoplepronounce a foreign language better than others, but mostly it does
not matter. Pronunciation is an area where we can all be a littledifferent, just like our per
sonalities and the clothes we wear.