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What gives advanced English speakers an edge over everyone else? The answers lie in the learning process itself.
New language users typically pursue competency in the first 3-5 years it takes to learn a language. Then, we coast. We learn just enough English needed to achieve our goals.
Advanced learners don’t just pursue competency; they pursue connection.
Nelson Mandela said:
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Language learning, after all, is about more than just talking your mouth off. It’s about deep and authentic human connection, about relationships and making them stronger. Connection trumps competency. Connection is the ultimate sign of language excellence.
So how do we excel at connection? By becoming a lifelong learner of a language, no matter how good you already are at speaking it.
Anyone can become a lifelong learner, whether you’re in school or not, as long as you take learning seriously. Here are 5 powerful habits that all lifelong language learners should possess.
1. Study Body Language
“Research indicates the pitch, volume, and pace of your voice affect what people think you said about FIVE TIMES as much as the actual words you used.” – Deborah Gruenfeld
Body language focuses on visual cues used to express more information and emotion. Body language, however, also reveals what spoken language doesn’t: how you really feel.
Basic and intermediate language learners focus on the literal and exact words in conversation.
In personal or professional interactions, advanced students focus on the literal communication AND the visual. They learn to read the body language of others, and work to improve their own.
“A conversation is so much more than words, a conversation is eyes, smiles, the silences between the words.” – Annika Thor
2. Learn to Enjoy Wordplay
How completely, and how rapidly, do you get jokes, spot puns, and catch lyrical or cultural references? How well do you understand wordplay while reading, conversing, or listening to music?
For advanced English learners, even the subtlest wordplay clicks within seconds, sometimes tenths of a second. Music, movies, and comedy are full of pop culture references, famous quotes, sarcasm, and all kinds of literary devices planted to delight the few members in the audience who are paying close attention.
Beginner and intermediate level users have a tougher time grasping all the puns or even enjoying figurative language. The advanced language learner loves playing with words and numbers, and as a result, they think quicker on their own feet in many aspects.
3. Get Outside Your Comfort Zone
“One good conversation can shift the direction of change forever.” – Linda Lam
Most English speakers are capable of having full-blown conversations in private or in group settings within their inner circle, AKA the Comfort Zone. But what about speaking in front of a class or an office audience? What about impromptu conversations or polarizing debates with friends?
How well can you speak up and express yourself when stuck in a high-pressure situation?
Humans’ language skills tend to be weaker in these fight-or-flight situations, regardless of how articulate we are normally, so the question has to be asked: what are we doing to get better?
A true language expert has to practice a lot in order to learn to clearly express facts, opinions, and stories. It also takes a lot of practice to have the presence of mind to know when to be quiet, listen, and fully understand the other person.
Expanding your language comfort zone takes a lot of time and pain, and unless you’re naturally born this way, you can’t afford not to become natural at it.
Steal lessons on stretching your comfort zone from these masters of language:
- Public speaking lessons revealed in Hasan Minhaj’s The Homecoming King
- Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City
- The Excellence Dividend: Meeting the Tech Tide with Work That Wows and Jobs That Last
4. Embrace Old English
People love quoting Shakespeare, ancient philosophers, and religious texts, but how many of us actually read entire chapters, verses, and books? Let’s be honest, most of us never actually read the entire Shakespeare plays or classic novels that were mandatory for passing English Literature.
It’s not that we were degenerate high school students; it’s because no matter how timeless and important the writing, we don’t appreciate Old English. It’s boring. It’s impossible to make sense of. It’s not how anyone talks any more, so it feels irrelevant. We can’t justify the time and frustration.
But where ordinary English users stop is where advanced learners get started. What we see as pointless, they see as opportunity – an opportunity to understand how our ancestors expressed thoughts and emotions, and viewed the world. An opportunity to understand the roots of language in human history. An opportunity to deeply appreciate older forms of art.
They identify the obstacles that make reading Old English so challenging, and come up with solutions, in order to get better. They stay calm and keep on reading until patterns start forming, one painful sentence after another, until literal and symbolic meanings become clear.
Want to take your language skills to the next level? Become a student of Old English and start reading Beowulf, and keep on reading until it starts to make sense.
5. Learn Basic Sign Language
Why after studying English for 25 years would I still only rate my English at an upper-intermediate level? Easy, not knowing a single sign language sign.
Not having deaf colleagues, friends, or family has always been my excuse to not learn sign language. What do I need it for? Who am I going to use it with? While researching the people, the history, and the stigmas surrounding Deaf culture however, I quickly realized sign language isn’t just for people with hearing impairments.
More than two million people use sign language as their primary means of communication.
It sounds silly, even crazy, to associate sign language ability with spoken language ability. Lifelong learners, however, realize that all forms of primary language – visual, verbal, and written – have equal importance and benefits.
Throughout history and even today, communication and connection have been lopsided between hearing people and deaf people. Deaf people have to learn to read and write in English. They have to learn to read lips, on top of learning sign language. The more hearing people learn basic sign language, the better we’ll all be able to understand one another.
Lifelong learners of language don’t just stop at 5 years. They work on getting better at it nearly their whole life. Many students will realize that mastering English requires a little more dedication than they originally anticipated, but in the end, the authentic human connections that will be forged make it all worth doing.
Author Bio: Raj Shah is a senior manager and lifelong-learning advocate at TakeLessons Live, an EdTech company that offers online courses in several popular subjects.
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