3 research-backed ways to speed up your language learning


This week I’ve made a few small changes that have completely overhauled my language learning.

At work, I spend most of my time thinking about to how to bring research in linguistics, psychology and neuroscience to language teaching. Meanwhile, my own language learning efforts have been failing miserably.

So last week I set myself a language challenge as personal odyssey to explore how I could draw from research to boost my own efforts in learning Mandarin Chinese. The good news is, it’s worked a treat!

Here are two techniques that have made a real difference to my learning this week:

1. Boost motivation with teamwork

How often do you keep the promises you make to yourself?

Language learning is often a solitary endeavour, which means it can easily slide down your list of priorities. Research at Stanford University shows that people who feel like they’re working as a team (even though they may not physically be working together) are more interested in the task and more likely to perform better.

Get into the team spirit by signing up to a language learning forum like this one.

2. Speed up vocabulary learning with spaced repetition

Spaced repetition is a memorising technique which draws from the “spacing effect”. This effect, first spotted by the father of memory research Hermann Ebbinghaus, means that you are more likely to remember information which is studied a few times over a longer period of time compared to many times within a short space of time.

Because of its efficacy in helping people to memorise large amounts of information, spaced repetition techniques have received a lot of attention in the field of second language vocabulary learning. There are some highly effective online programmes which incorporate automatic spacing to help you optimise your vocabulary learning. Anki and Memrise are well worth checking out.

Finally, here’s one technique I’ll be trying out next week:

3. Set small, attainable goals

Working towards a large goal like “learn language X” can be overwhelming. My language learning targets are often a little on the vague side, a known motivation killer.

Research shows that setting smaller subgoals is highly beneficial to learning. For example, Bandura and Shunk (1982) demonstrated that, over 7 sessions, people who were instructed to complete 6 pages of maths problems per session completed the task faster and more accurately than people who were given 42 pages from the outset.

Reaching a goal (no matter how big or small) gives you a little hit of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure (Schultz 2002). Setting small targets and achieving them regularly boosts your mood and keeps you feeling positive about your language learning.

Do you use any of these techniques in your learning? Do they work for you? Let us know in the comments below!

Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivationJournal of Personality and Social Psychology41(3), 586.

Priyanka B. Carr, Gregory M. Walton (2014) Cues of working together fuel intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 169.

Schultz, W (2002) Getting formal with dopamine and reward, Neuron, 36, 241.



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Struggling to get motivated? How to reach your language learning goals

Join me!

Learning languages is my favourite thing in the world. As an ESL teacher and researcher, it’s my passion, my hobby and my livelihood.

But recently I’ve been struggling to keep on target. I get busy, tired and distracted and before I know it, a week has passed without me doing anything to get closer to my language goals. From reading your blogs I know many of you struggle with the same thing.

How can we keep ourselves on track? By getting some language running partners!

Research at Stanford University shows that people taking on challenging individual tasks can increase their motivation by creating a spirit of teamwork. By working as a team towards our individual language goals, we’ll get a boost in motivation and give ourselves a much better chance of reaching the finishing line. And probably have a lot of fun along the way!

So if you’re in need of a language learning boost, why not set yourself a goal and share it with us? Tell us about your goals in the comments below or post a link back to your own blog.


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Can’t get to a language class? 5 ideas for practicing your pronunciation at home



When studying a language at home, it’s easy forget about pronunciation.

There are plenty of resources out there to help you create structured plans for grammar and vocabulary, but when it comes to studying pronunciation, it can be difficult to know where to start.

If you’d like to improve your pronunciation but you’re not sure how to go about it, try these 5 ideas:

1. Warm up: Speaking a different language requires you to use your mouth muscles in a completely new way. Try saying some tongue twisters in the language you’re learning to get your mouth ready for some pronunciation work. omniglot.com has an excellent list in a wide range of languages.

2. Listen: Find a short audio recording of a native speaker. Record yourself speaking on your phone or computer and compare it to the native speaker’s pronunciation. Note down any problematic sounds and repeat the recording several…

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Teaching grammar: for better or for worse?

Holding Hands. Melvin E.

The question of how grammar should be taught (or indeed whether it should be taught at all) is possibly the prickliest in the TEFL world. Belief (or scepticism) about the value of teaching grammar is central to our practice, and a subject close to many teachers’ hearts. Yet it’s surprising how little we actually understand about how grammar teaching affects the learning process. Right this very moment, thousands of linguists are gazing down at their navels asking themselves the following questions: does explicit knowledge of grammatical rules help students to use them in real, spontaneous communication? When students start to use grammar more accurately, is thanks to our teaching, or would they have improved anyway? Is electric shock therapy the only effective means of getting students to use the third person –s? While research is gradually helping us to build up a clearer picture, lack of conclusive evidence means that, for the moment, decisions about how to deal with grammar in the classroom are mostly based on a combination of historical and cultural factors together with teacher intuition about what works best.


The honeymoon period

This uncertainty goes some way to explaining why the relationship between grammar and language teaching has been through more ups and downs than a Hollywood romance. Love’s young dream in the late 1800s, grammar enjoyed a starring role in language lessons thanks to the ‘grammar-translation’ legacy of Ancient Greek and Latin. However, while traditional rote learning of verb tables and grammar rules were ideal when treating languages as an academic subject for translating texts, these methods were entirely unsuitable for modern language students who needed languages for communication (Whong 2011). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the use of grammar-translation in such classes led to generations of disillusioned students trying to learn how to speak a language without ever actually speaking it.

SJSA 2nd Grade. Contributed by Michael 1952.

SJSA 2nd Grade. Contributed by Michael 1952.


On and off

Right through to the second half of the 20th Century, language teaching and grammar-translation enjoyed a comfortable but somewhat ungratifying co-dependency. Fortunately, the out with the old, in with the new spirit of the 1970s led to the demise of many old and inappropriate things including President Nixon, misogyny and the grammar-translation method. The advent of communicative language teaching (CLT), which places the onus on communication instead of booting students out of the classroom for a split infinitive, has revolutionised the way languages are taught.

However, dogmatic varieties which exclude grammar entirely brought up as many problems as they sought to resolve. For a start, the possibility of teaching English without grammar meant that highly qualified teachers began to worry they might be usurped by troupes of gap year travellers who couldn’t tell a preposition from a pinacolada. A second, more legitimate concern came from immersion contexts, such as the French language programs in Canada, where learners who had been educated in communicative contexts for many years continued making grammatical mistakes.

The case for including grammar has since been strengthened by reviews of existing research (e.g. Long 1983; Norris and Ortega 2000) which report results in favour of explicit grammar teaching. However, such conclusions are far from conclusive as many reviews also reveal questionable experimental techniques and a general bias towards explicit grammar teaching in existing research. Naturally, such studies also raise more questions: if teaching grammar does indeed work, how, what and when should we teach it?

Many teachers instinctively feel that ‘Focus on Form’ (Long 1988), where students are first familiarised with the meaning and use of a language feature before grammar is introduced, offers a practical solution to these questions. However, more unbiased research is needed if we are to gain a deeper understanding of its effect on the learning process. For the moment, it looks as if grammar and language teaching are starting to patch things up, although their relationship may remain rocky for a while longer.


Long, Michael (1991). “Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology”. In De Bot, Kees; Ginsberg, Ralph; Kramsch, Claire. Foreign language research in cross-cultural perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp. 39–52.

Norris, J., & Ortega, L. (2000). Effectiveness of L2 instruction: A research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis. Language Learning, 50, 417-528

Whong, M. (2011) Language Teaching: Linguistic Theory in Practice. Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh.


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Never Mind the Bo**ocks – here’s The TEFL Skeptic!

The Steve Brown Blog

Image http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glastonbury_Festival

It’s often struck me that the IATEFL conference is a bit like a big music festival. You’ve got the global stars on the main stage, slightly more alternative acts in the bigger rooms, and then the unsigned bands that nobody has heard of (like me) playing in some faraway tent, mostly to people who are there by accident.

Some of the venues even have themes – the room with all the Learning Technologies SIG events is a bit like the dance stage, where all the techno-heads go to get turned on by people like Gavin Dudeney and Nicky Hockly. The Consultants-E are like Daft Punk – they started out as some kind of dance-oriented outfit, and over the years they have somehow managed to stay ahead of a very fast-moving game. As their genre has become more accepted as part of the establishment, they are now firmly at the…

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Seeing is believing

eye rf

If you’ve ever done pronunciation drilling with your hand cupped behind your ear like a demented kids TV presenter (all together now!) you’re probably of the opinion that exaggerating audio cues helps students to discriminate the sounds of a second language. But did you know that students can improve their chances of learning sounds by simply looking at a speaker’s face?

Research on how language learners use visual cues in the perception and production of sounds supports what auditory and visual sciences have known for some time: what you see has a strong impact on what you hear. This relationship is niftily illustrated through the “McGurk effect”, not the latest McDonald’s menu, but a rather compelling example of how the human sensory experience is interlinked.

More recently, with the help of fMRI scans (which basically involve sending people down a tube into a giant washing machine and having a nosy around at changes in cerebral blood flow) neuroscientists have found that the auditory cortex is active while watching silent speech (Calvert et al. 1997). In other words, the part of the brain that usually deals with sound is affected by visual information, which helps native English speakers to identify sounds in face-to-face communication. The good news is, it seems that visual cues can be interpreted by non-native speakers too.

Studies suggest that audiovisual training, in which students are shown a video of the speaker’s face, is more effective than listening practice alone in helping students to differentiate sounds (e.g. Hazan et al. 2005). Unsurprisingly, this technique has been shown to be most effective in sounds where the difference in mouth position is highly visible, such as b and v (a saving grace for Spanish students and their English bowel problems). However, audiovisual training has also produced positive results for problem areas with more subtle physical differences, for example in the differentiation of l and r for Japanese students. What’s more, these studies show a positive impact on pronunciation, indicating that increased attention to native speakers’ mouth movements enables students to reproduce the sounds more effectively themselves.

Most teachers agree that out of the big four (speaking, listening, reading and writing), it’s listening which causes students a real pain in the auricle. Given that the majority of real world listening takes place face-to-face, excluding visual components a priori is at odds with what we know about natural speech processing. In light of studies which point to the advantages of visual training, it’s time to question the dominance of audio-only files in the classroom.

  • Do you do any exercises which draw students’ attention to the speaker’s mouth?
  • How do you think this research could be applied in classrooms which don’t have video technology?
  • Can you think of any practical ways to help students to pay attention to visual cues?

Calvert, G., Bullmore, E., Brammer, M., Campbell, R., Williams, S., McGuire, P., Woodruff, P., Iversen, S and David, A. (1997) Activation of Auditory Cortex During Silent Lipreading. Science 25: 276

Hazan, V., Sennema, A., Midori, I., Faulkner, A. (2005) Effect of audiovisual perceptual training on the perception and production of consonants by Japanese learners of English. Speech Communication 47: 360



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ELTons award ceremony

ELT professionals from around the globe gathered together in London last Thursday to celebrate the 11th annual ELTon awards, organised by the British Council to recognise and encourage innovation in English language teaching. Although tefl research didn’t win the prestigious Macmillan award, it was nonetheless an honour to have been nominated, and to rub shoulders with ELT royalty for an evening. Congratulations to the winner Y.L. Teresa Ting for ‘CLIL-Biology Towards IGCSE: Content and Language Integrated Learning towards International Science standards’, a  clever content based learning tool for ESL biology teachers; looking forward to seeing it in print!  Watch ths year’s ceremony and red carpet interviews at http://englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/eltons or visit http://www.britishcouncil.org/press/eltons-2013-winners for more information about this year’s winners.

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ELTons 2013


I’m delighted to announce that teflresearch.com has been shortlisted for the Macmillan Education Award for Innovative Writing in the British Council ELTons 2013. The proposed book considers adult second language research in light of its implications for the classroom:

Ever wondered how three year olds who spend most of the day with their fingers up their noses come to be little linguistic Einsteins, yet CEOs who turnover millions of euros in minutes recoil in horror at the present perfect continuous? A dynamic and ever-growing domain, the field of adult second language research harbours a wealth of knowledge with no real means of reaching the people who can put it to the best use – teachers. The Linguistic Genius of Babies: What Does it Mean for Grown Ups? provides a light-hearted introduction to the key issues surrounding second language acquisition, encouraging critical thinking and offering ideas for classroom activities. Because teachers don’t have time to run home, pop the kettle on and settle down with a copy of applied psycholinguistics – they’re too busy coaxing businessmen out from underneath the desk.

The winners will be announced at the awards ceremony in London on the 22nd of May. Thank you all for your support so far, and I’ll keep you posted about the results!



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Angry words


“What if instead of tabbing over to the web browser in search of some nugget of gossip or news, or opening up a mindless game such as Angry Birds, we could instead scratch the itch by engaging in a meaningful activity, such as learning a foreign language?”

A man named Harry walks into a café. Eliza Doolittle, who is working in the restaurant as a waitress, greets him in her dire cockney accent, “Ari”. He orders a slice of cake with layers of sponge, cream and forest fruit: a “gateaux”. When Elisa brings over his order, Ari looks at the gateaux, and says “thank you”.

Ari-gatou – you’ve just learned how to say thank you in Japanese through mnemonics: memorisation strategies inspired by the ancient Greeks and endorsed by memory champions as the most effective way to quickly remember large amounts of information.  Memory virtuoso Joshua Foer reports on the benefits of using these techniques for  learning  vocabulary in his article “How I learned a language in 22 hours”, after setting himself the challenge of learning Lingala for his field trip to the Congo. Joshua worked on his vocabulary using memrise, a slick on-line game which draws from mnemonics to optimise memory power. It may come as no surprise that the US memory champion cruised through his vocabulary sets. But before practising these techniques, Joshua, along with many other “memory athletes”, described himself as having only an average memory. In the words of British memory champion, and co-creator of memrise Ed Cooke, “anybody can do this”. So worry not if you can’t remember where you put your keys, or your car, you can never put a name to a face and you once left your child at the supermarket: mnemonics might just work for you.

Learning vocabulary is an enormous undertaking. In their native language, college-educated English speakers are estimated to possess a whopping 60, 00 word vocabulary (Pinker 1994). Children between the ages of one and six act as “lexical vacuum cleaners”, picking up around 9 to 10 words per day (Pinker 1994; Bloom 2000). If you’ve ever set yourself this familiar target for learning a foreign language, you’ll realise what a cognitive challenge this is. Yet children do it with finesse, without dictionaries, word lists or fancy apps.  The difference between adult and child vocabulary development recalls the age-old nature vs. nurture schism which has been causing bloodthirsty brawls between meek and mild academics and sending hungover undergraduates to sleep for centuries. The nativist camp (e.g. Pinker; Markman) argue that babies are born with an innate ability to learn vocabulary which fades as the maturation process kicks in, leaving adults at a cognitive disadvantage. Alternatively, empiricists (e.g. Snow; Bates; Tomasello) emphasise social and contextual differences: adults often receive less (and different) exposure to the second language, cognition may be biased towards first language settings and adult inhibitions may hinder vocabulary development. Putting aside linguistic fisticuffs about how our brains are wired, all approaches agree that learning vocabulary is a formidable challenge: any techniques which assist in memorisation are a welcome addition to the language learner’s tool box.

The site memrise takes advantage of mnemonics by linking new vocabulary items to images, rhymes or anything memorable about the word. Learners are encouraged to visualise the details: “the stranger the imagery, the more markedly memorable it is” – think Eliza Doolittle with a blackforest gateaux in hand. To help adults overcome their fear of vocabulary lists, creators Ed Cooke and Princeton neuroscience PhD Greg Detr drew from principles of social gaming to make studying “so fun, so secure, so well directed and so mischievously effortless that it’s more like a game – something you’d want to do instead of watching TV”. What’s more, with a smartphone these games are completely mobile: time spent stuck in traffic refining your road-rage vocab could be put towards more useful linguistic prowess. In the supermarket, instead of deliberating whether to move to a shorter queue (or take out the granny at the front with a tin of beans), you could be serenely buffing up on how to order a cocktail in Spanish.

Designed to be played in short bursts, the game is based on time-honoured principles of human cognition: studies show that the most effective way to commit something to memory is through “spaced repetition”, where information is encountered in short repeated sessions spaced out over a relatively long period of time. True to form, Joshua learned the 1000 most common words in Lingala in short 5 minute bursts, totalling 22 hours over a space of 10 weeks. Amazingly, upon arriving in the Congo, Joshua was able to converse with the natives in a simple exchange about family and friends. Not a bad result from playing the linguistic equivalent to angry birds for a few minutes a day. Admittedly, when it came to communicating more complex information, he was lost for words. So can mnemonics help you learn a language in 22 hours? Probably not. But they can do wonders for your word power.

  • Do you use any mnemonic techniques in your teaching?
  • Can you think of any activities to encourage students to use mnemonics, either in the classroom or at home?





Bates, E., Bretherton, I., Beeghly-Smith, M., McNew, S. (1982) Social bases of language development: A reassessment. In Reese, W., and Lipsitt, L. P. (Eds) Advances in Child Development and Behaviour (16) 

Bloom, P. (2000) How children learn the meaning of words, MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Markman, E (1991) Categorization and Naming in Children, MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Pinker, S. (1994) The language instinct Penguin Books: London

Snow, C.E. (1999) Social perspectives on the emergence of language. In B. MacWhinney (Ed.), The emergence of language (pp.257-276). Lawrence Erlbaum: Mahwah, New Jersey

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Oxford, R. L., Scarcella, R. C., (1994) Second language vocabulary learning among adults: State of the art in vocabulary instruction. System 2:22 (231–243)


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Time for research?

teachers and reasearch

“What is the place of research-based theory in the knowledge base underlying ELT?”

A recent Guardian article addresses an oft-overlooked concern of the ELT profession: the lack of interaction between academic research and teaching practice. In tefl heaven (where celestial teachers write CCQs on their lesson plans, check instructions and keep reflective diaries) researchers would investigate issues directly relevant to the classroom. And teachers would have time to read it.

Teaching business English, lunch often involves scoffing down a sandwich in the lift then spending the next hour across the desk from a finance bigwig, stealthily removing crumbs from your suit jacket every time he looks down to do a gap fill. Teaching kids, lunch often involves stealing stray cola bottles from next class’s pass the parcel game in-between mopping up little Phillipo’s wee and turning the classroom into a magical castle. It’s no wonder teachers are loath to wade through empirical research independently.

Let’s go back to tefl heaven for a moment and imagine a place where business men no longer request lunch time lessons and little Phillipo has better bladder control. Even if teachers had more time to engage with academic research, would it really benefit their teaching? Isn’t it all just a load of intellectual thumb twiddling anyway?

The Guardian article recognises that teachers fail to see the value of research which is all too often based on the personal agenda of academics instead of addressing real classroom concerns. While the field would certainly benefit from coaxing more academics out of the ivory tower and into the classroom (better not tell them about the crumbs and the wee) there is already a significant body of research with clear practical implications for teachers. The key issue, then, is how to make the jump from journal to classroom.

The article calls for employers to set aside time and funding as part of the job description to permit teachers to study professional literature and attend conferences. Another option would be to provide in-house training aimed at making research more accessible to teachers. Encouraging teachers to critically assess empirical research would allow them to make informed decisions about their own teaching. Academic research could be an extremely valuable resource if only it addressed practical classroom concerns and if only teachers had the time and opportunities to engage with it. Tefl gods, if you’re listening, please give us a sign.



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