In Stephen Covey’s famous book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People he gives advice for people in many aspects of their lives: advice for managers, for business people and for people generally. His advice can also be applied to language learners, and here’s how.

Habit 1: Be Proactive

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Language Learners - Be Proactive

If you wait for things to happen to you, they will, but you have no control over them. However, by being proactive and taking initiatives, and by pursuing your goals, it is more likely that good things are going to happen. Certainly I found in language learning as long as I was a passive learner in school, with a teacher teaching me, as long as I waited for the teacher or the textbook to teach me, I didn’t achieve fluency.

Once I took control of my learning, I did much better. This happened with my first foreign language, French, and again in my second one, Mandarin Chinese. Once I went out to find things in the language that interested me: movies, newspapers, books tapes and, in those days before the Internet, this meant books with vocabulary lists behind each chapter, I started to feel constant improvement.

Taking the initiative in terms of what I wanted to learn about, what aspects of the language I needed to work on, was decisive in making me a successful language learner.

This meant going beyond the program that the teacher offered in the classroom. Many teachers don’t like this. They don’t want the students to get ahead of them. This is misguided because the language isn’t just chapter one, chapter two, and chapter three.

The language is basically a whole package and we learn different parts of it again and again and again. Therefore, for the student to go out and find things of interest to him or her, and then go back and do what the teacher is doing in class, all of this is good. You have to take the initiative, you have to take responsibility and take advantage of whatever learning opportunities are available.

There are people who say that there are no bad learners, only a bad teacher. I don’t believe that at all. I think whether you are in a classroom, or  studying on your own, the good learners are the ones who take the initiative, who are motivated to take charge of their learning. They are the ones who are going to be successful.

We have ample evidence of this in our school system in Canada, and in language schools generally. Only a small percentage of  learners improve significantly. These same learners would probably improve if they learned on their own. What matters is whether they are motivated. The important point is not the number of hours in a classroom, but rather the extent to which the learner is prepared to be proactive and take charge of his or her own learning.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Language Learners - Begin With the End in Mind

This habit is very important. I’ll give you an example. I had a meeting with about 50 Chinese immigrants, here in Vancouver, who were complaining about the difficulty they had in speaking English. They claimed that they could read, perhaps didn’t understand quite as well when they were listening, but their biggest obstacle or difficulty was speaking. My question to them was: What is your vision of what you would like to be able to do in English? What do you want to be able to do in English when suddenly confronted with an English-speaking person, a fellow citizen here in Vancouver?

I should point out that these were housewives, wives of wealthy Chinese immigrants, who don’t have much interaction with Canadian society. Yet, living here, they are inevitably confronted, from time to time, with the need to speak English. They fear these moments and struggle. So I asked them what their goal was in learning English. They had no clear idea. They didn’t have a vision of themselves speaking English.  

I said if I had emigrated to another country, because I’m an adult and I can communicate as an adult in my own language, my goal would be to communicate as an adult in the new language. I would want to communicate on a wide range of subjects, without struggling or seeming foolish.

This has always been my goal when learning a new language. I think it is important to have a clear idea of your goal. If you have a clear idea of that goal and you work towards it, you have a good chance of achieving it. If you don’t have a clear idea of your goal. If you think you’re just going to learn some words,  and try to learn some grammar rules, and somehow get by when you suddenly need to, the chances are that you won’t.

If you don’t know where the top of the mountain is and you can’t visualize yourself reaching it, you probably won’t make it to the top.

Try to visualize your goal, and work as hard as you can to achieve it. Start with the end in mind.

Habit 3: Put First Things First

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Language Learners - Put First Things First

The third of Stephen Covey’s habits is what he calls ‘Put First Things First’. Now, this is advice to a manager and it means if you want your people to perform well you, yourself, have to be proactive and a model they can follow. You have to do the things that matter and do them “now”.

Covey calls his second habit – Begin With the End in Mind – the idea of where you want to get to. The third habit is the physical action; how you make it happen, getting started and doing it. This means resisting distraction, setting priorities and doing what you have to do to achieve your goal. So it is with language learning. You have this vision of what you want to be, what level you want to achieve, now you just need to do it.

Language learning takes a lot of time. You need to spend time on it every day and to stay with it. When I am learning a language, I will spend time with that language every day, or as close to every day as I can. I do this for months at a time. Whenever I have the opportunity, I engage with the language. I always have my mp3 player or my iPhone with me with audio and texts from LingQ. I can listen and read wherever I am: in the car, doing the dishes. If I’m sitting in a waiting room somewhere, I can read. I can save words and phrases on LingQ. I also set aside time for reading and working on LingQ at home, even if it is only 30 minutes or so. I make sure I put in the effort necessary to achieve my goal, my vision.

I’m always with my language because I know in order to achieve results I need to spend the time. I don’t have to be talking to someone on Skype, although that can be a great way to practice. I don’t have to be in the country where the language is spoken, although that would be a wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in the language. There are so many opportunities to connect with the language right here and now. I need to put first things first. I need to put in the time to achieve my goal.

Habit 4: Think Win-Win

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Language Learners - Win-Win

Covey’s fourth habit, which managers need to develop, is to always seek win-win solutions. In negotiations, win-win means that I’m not going to try to impose something on you that’s only going to benefit me and not benefit you. If I can come up with something that benefits you and benefits me, we both win. That’s far more likely to be a successful negotiation, a successful business relationship, or even a successful discussion. How does it apply to language learning?

I meet so many people who are constantly negative about themselves when it comes to language learning. They say, I can’t do this. I can’t do that. I’ve been trying to understand, I don’t understand. I keep forgetting my words. When I go to speak, I’m tongue-tied. There’s no end to complaints that people have about their own performance in the language they are learning.

The fact is that language learning takes time. You are moving from the comfort of your own language, where you understand everything and you can express yourself as an adult, and now you’re trying to start all over again in another language.

It takes time and things remain foggy and uncertain for a long time. My own experience is that if I look something up in a dictionary, I forget the meaning as soon as I close the dictionary. That’s why I don’t use traditional dictionaries. It’s just a waste of time. In fact, that’s why I created LingQ, so I don’t have to rely on my memory to learn words.  

There are a lot of frustrating things in language learning. You have to realize that going in. Once you accept that, then all of the time you spend with the language, speaking it, listening to it, and reading it, and however much you felt that you didn’t meet your expectations, it’s a win. You have to accept that all the time you spend with the language is taking you to your goal, to your big win.  

So if you have struggled through a text and you still don’t understand it, or you can read it but then when you go to listen to it, you don’t understand, don’t let it frustrate you. You say to yourself “great, I did that”. I had enough willpower, staying power, to spend that half hour or that hour and I’m going to do the same thing again tomorrow, and every time I do that I’m gaining on the language.

I’ve experienced this so many times. It seems that for months and months I just can’t seem to understand some parts of the new language when I listen. I may have reached a level where I can read, listen and actually hear the words. I can even tell where one word ends and the next word begins, but sometimes I still can’t understand very well. But I know that eventually I will. I am winning just by staying with it.

Remember that all the time you spend with the language is a win. You can’t help but improve.

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Language Learners - Seek First to Understand, then to Be understood

We should always listen before talking. Hear what people have to say. If we understand what they have to say, we can respond much better. Well, the same is true in language learning, that’s why my approach to is so heavily input-based.

Comprehension is my first goal. I want to understand. I want to understand the language and even to some extent the culture. I want to understand what people have to say, to feel confident that in any conversation there won’t be any big surprises. I don’t want to find myself constantly saying “I beg your pardon”.

With good comprehension, what you have to say is going to make more sense. It’s going to be a response to what people have said. It’s not just going to be trotting out a few sentences that you feel confident in uttering, and then being lost when your counterpart answers you.

This relates a bit to the habit of Win-Win. In other words, an engagement that focuses on your personal interaction with the language will not be stressful. You are connecting with the language, interpreting what you hear the way you want. You may not understand it all perfectly, but it is just you and the language.

With time your understanding improves, just by listening and reading. This should all be powerful win. By having a learning strategy that focuses on understanding, there is a greater likelihood that you will have a sense of win and achievement.

If, on the other hand, you look at language learning as a performance in front of others, you might start second guessing yourself. “Oh, I didn’t speak as well as I would have liked”. “I wasn’t able to express my thoughts”. “I struggled to find words”. If this is taking place in front of others, possibly native speakers of the language who are judging me, this can make language learning stressful.

We need not be in a hurry to speak, but should seek first to understand.

Habit 6: Synergize

Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood - Synergize

The sixth habit that Covey proposed was to ‘Synergize’. He refers to combining the strengths of different people through teamwork in order to become more powerful than we can be on our own. In language learning, the synergy comes from combining the different language skills or tasks, in order to progress more quickly in all of them.

Reading, for example, is not just about reading. It’s a wonderful way to learn about a culture, but even more important, it’s a wonderful way to accumulate words. If you accumulate words, you have more confidence when you’re speaking.

When we read we often sub-vocalize, so reading can even be a way to work on our pronunciation. As we sub-vocalize, we become aware that there are words we don’t know how to pronounce. This makes us more attentive when we listen. Nowadays on LingQ, we can even listen to the text to speech pronunciation of words and phrases if we are not sure how to pronounce them.

To me, one of the greatest benefits of speaking is that I become aware of my gaps, the things I wasn’t able to do in the language. If I speak with a tutor at LingQ, I get a report with the words and phrases that caused me difficulty. I can read them and review them, so the speaking ties back into the reading and listening.

Writing is a great way to prepare for speaking, since you have more time to think about what you want to express. I tend to write the way I speak, and speak the way I write. In other words I avoid a too casual form of speech, or a more formal style of writing. This way writing and speaking can reinforce each other.

Regardless of when you start speaking and writing, your output activities will improve your comprehension, and your comprehension ability is at the base of your ability to speak and write. There is a powerful synergy or interaction between all of the language skills.

Habit 7: Sharpening the Saw

Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood - Sharpening the Saw

The final habit in Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is what he called ‘Sharpening the Saw’. In other words, if you’re a manager, you need to make sure you have good skills and good values. He stresses values in his book, such as generosity and respect, but also the need to develop the skills needed for success. Managers need to make sure they are up on modern technology, and if they are professionals in some field, they need to constantly take courses to stay up to date.

In the case of language learning, there are a number of ways in which you can sharpen your saw. To start with, success in language learning requires a solid vocabulary. This is easily acquired through listening and reading, and a good vocabulary is going to help you in every language situation.

The regular review of grammar can also be helpful, if it is not overdone. Even if the rules of grammar are hard to remember and apply, it can be useful to glance at them from time to time to remind yourself of the patterns of the language.

While I spend more of my learning time listening and reading and eventually speaking, I do occasionally review the grammar. I prefer to use grammar books that are heavy on examples of patterns, as opposed to explanations and drills or exercises. I believe this improves my ability to notice what is happening in the language. The brain has trouble dealing with theoretical explanations, but it’s very good at recognizing patterns and creating connections that relate to patterns. Seeing patterns in a grammar book can make us more attentive to the same patterns when we listen and read. Thus we are “sharpening our saw.”

With Covey’s image of “sharpening the saw”, he meant for us to do things that are not urgent, but which prepare us for the future. In other words, rather than being concerned about the next engagement with the language, we should be confident that we are doing things that are preparing us, improving us for the future. In other words, as we read, listen or review grammar, we should feel satisfaction that we are doing things that are important, but not urgent. We shouldn’t expect immediate results.

In fact I take a “sharpening-the-saw” approach to all of my language learning activities. I don’t  get discouraged when I feel I’m not making as much progress as I would like. I know that all of my learning activities are improving my skills and the benefits will flow later on.


So there it is, how Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has application for us in our language learning. I hope this encourages you to put the necessary effort into learning so that you will reach your language goals.

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