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The Path to Learning a Language

In Language Magazine's January 2022 issue, Bay Collyns argues that whatever the language, the skills are the same

I recently invited a professional to speak to my adult students who are learning English as a second language. They were very excited to have a guest come in and share his view of life and his profession, and to ask questions to gain knowledge and understanding. As I watched my students look, listen, and learn from the presenter, I observed them actively using their English skills. This article addresses how educators and students can reinforce a learning environment at home and at the same time build a bonding scenario between themselves and their new language—it’s very similar to the way teachers build a bonding effect with students.

There is a famous saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” which holds the key to the way many people learn visually. The things we observe enhance our learning process tremendously. Visual memory allows us to create images of objects, places, and events in time. This eventually enables us to remember letters, words, numbers, phrases, and even academic language. Observational learning comes naturally to most individuals. In other words, we watch and learn without even realizing that we are taking in these ideas.

Learning visually makes communications quicker and easier. Images are the simplest way to make sure that the learner has stored required information in their long-term memory. The presenter I mentioned in my introduction had a PowerPoint presentation displaying a few words and pictures as he spoke to the students. This simple tool allowed him to stay on task and helped the students understand some of the topics he would be covering.

Even when I am teaching a daily lesson, I find that placing information in outline form is very effective. Students can quickly see what they will be learning that day, which they find comforting. I also find that when information is shown in video format, it is processed more quickly and retained longer. Please remember to stop the video at select points and check for understanding.

These visual aids are the foundation for better comprehension. Comprehension lays the foundation for analysis, which is a higher thought process.

Memories are made of powerful images that often last a lifetime. Many studies show that students who make visual associations with vocabulary have better recall than those who just try to remember the words. Mind mapping is a visual diagram of mental organization and is a popular way for visual learners to memorize relations and connections to concepts. Visual sequential memory is important because it allows one to recall numbers or words in correct sequence. Individuals who use it often have excellent spelling skills and/or the ability to remember phone numbers or become excellent mathematicians.

Educators at all levels find students are more engaged when they are visually entertained. They enjoy showing what they have learned.

Let’s differentiate between listening and hearing. The difference is a thought process. Listening is interpreting what one is hearing, whereas hearing is simply listening without interpretation.

Listening is so important in our daily lives; it helps us to understand what the other person is saying. Additionally, it helps us connect with other people while making an informed decision. My students realized how important listening was to understanding what was being said in the presentation.

Active versus passive listening—what is it? And why is it so important? Passive listening is when one simply listens without a great deal of thought. We often do this when we are listening to music or taking in a live performance. Active listening is far more engaged. When a learner is actively listening, several things are taking place. The listener is reacting to what they are hearing. One can see this through nonverbal cues such as the listener nodding their head or taking notes. The active listener will ask questions to clear misconceptions, summarize, or paraphrase to ensure an understanding of what they heard.

Question-and-answer sessions are an excellent way to develop this skill when studying with a small group (three to four people). Another technique to develop listening is to teach someone else. Saying concepts out loud helps us to hear the information so we can understand it. These two techniques are most often used in my classroom to help students feel comfortable with their new language.

This skill is important, as higher-level learning involves many lecture classes. When an individual can understand a concept by listening, they can process that information much more quickly.

The Greek philosopher Socrates once said, “No man can lead others who cannot lead himself.” Individuals who are natural leaders instinctively understand this concept, and they apply it to their learning.

First, the learner knows who they are. They develop a great reputation, follow through on their academics, follow their beliefs, and develop a filter that allows them to follow their best self. Next, these learners know what they want. They develop ideas that inspire them, break broad goals into manageable smaller steps, and finally, know why they have these goals. The learner truly understands their choices, sets realistic goals, and follows through on goals that are true to their values.

Students quickly see leadership in their peers and educators. These individuals can encourage us to do and be our best.

When we combine looking, listening, and leadership, we become lifelong learners. Our brains, with their billions of neurons, enhance our thought processes.

Cognition is the ability to exercise mental action or the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experiences, and the sense of feeling. We must remember a person’s age and experience does influence their thoughts. We all know that a two-year-old thinks differently than a 22-year-old.

A student’s brain analyzes what they are doing. This skill is necessary as the learner moves from entry-level recall to developing higher-level tasks such as analyzation. In planning their approach to a topic, they would be well-advised to develop specific goals as to how to divide and digest the information. Learners should be encouraged to monitor their own comprehension of the topic as they absorb the information. What is the best way for anyone to monitor this? Ask questions and clarify any confusing ideas. Finally, students should be encouraged to evaluate what they have learned and modify where they need additional support. These steps help learners see that they have used their time to recall, interpret, analyze, and apply information so that they really know when they have learned a concept.

Students’ use of knowledge has never been confined to the classroom. Students are using their learned skills to understand their world through a variety of experiences. Those experiences can fuel academic learning. Hopefully, you will see the learning through looking, listening, and leadership, as I have in my own students.

Bay Collyns is an adult ESL educator in Florida. She has been published in Kappan Magazine, Equestrians of Color, and Plaid Horse Magazine. She is a guest blogger for Orange Blossom Publishing and Black Girl Spoken. Her leisure time allows her to help children with disabilities improve the quality of their lives by riding horses, in addition to riding herself.

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