Aiton English

Learning Languages for Life

Month: February 2017

How can I motivate myself to learn a language?


Only joking. Discipline is good, but it may not be enough for most people. Even if you have discipline (and energy), you probably use a lot of it for work / study. But here are 2 magic words to help you keep learning English………..

develop habits

Trust me. I learnt Chinese this way. No discipline, I didn’t like the language, you could even say I hated it. Did I need Chinese? No, not in any way. I was very busy with my job and wife and kid. But by “developing habits” I learnt it. How can you develop habits? The 3 things below should help you…


1 – The magic formula. To develop a habit, you need to keep doing something. This formula will help predict if you will do / keep doing something….


the chances you will do / keep doing  something =  

motivating / +              (enjoyment  / interest)  X  (reward/relevance)

                             demotivating / –          (difficulty) X (time)


so, more enjoyment + more reward / less difficulty and less time = you’re likely to do it / keep doing it

Here’s an example (true for me) with coffee and tea, am I more likely to drink coffee or tea?…..



  +        (I like the taste) X (it wakes me up)    

                                       –           (it’s easy to make and drink) X (it takes 7 minutes)


+        (I like the taste) X (nothing)   

                                     –           (it’s easy to make and drink) X (it takes 7 minutes)

So I’m personally more likely to have a coffee than a tea. But if somebody feels that coffee is bad for them (=bad reward), then they are less likley to drink coffee. If somebody needs to walk 40 minutes to get a coffee and not 10 seconds to the kitchen, they are less likely to have a coffee.

For any language activity, you can ask yourself 4 questions to find out if you’ll keep doing it

  1. Do I like  it? / Is it interesting?
  2. Is it useful for my needs?
  3. Is it easy?
  4. Does it take not much time?

My Chinese example: flashcards. I loved flashcards, they were on my phone, I did them 5 minutes or 120 minutes a day (way more often 5 mins :)) , whatever I felt like. Somebody else had made them. If they were difficult I deleted them.

So I started with developing the habit of flashcards, this helped me get to know and like the Chinese characters (pictures), which then made it easier / more enjoyable to read adapted books, after I built up knowledge from adapted books it made it more enjoyable to listen to songs, then the same for podcasts, movies / television series, writing, and lastly speaking.

Some points…

  • If your answer is “yes” to all 4 questions in the formula, great news, 3 is ok, 2, maybe not so good, 1 not a good idea, 0, oops
  • “Do I like it?” is the most important for longer periods.
  • “Do I need it?” is good for shorter periods
  • If you can “fool” yourself into liking or needing more, please do so
  • “Is it easy” = no……. don’t worry, ask yourself “Can I make it easier?”  (you may need to change your mentality 🙁 )

Example 1: watch a movie with subtitles in your language  or English

Example 2: focus on the words you know, not ones you don’t

Example3: when speaking, you can make it easier by worrying less about mistakes

Example 4: read adapted books

  • “Will it take not much time?” = no, then ask yourself “Can I make it shorter?”

Example 1:  instead of watching a movie, watch a TV Series episode

Example 2: limit youtube video searches about topics to 4 minutes

Example 3: read only the first and last third of a long business article

Example 4: read short stories, not long novels


2 – Create the conditions: lots of things in English, all “close” to you

Sometimes you feel like listening to a podcast. If it is on your phone, and computer, and tablet, you will find it quickly = less time = more likely to do it.

But what if you can’t find the podcasts. Or if suddenly you feel like reading a short story and not a podcast? Or watching a film, or listening to a song, or … . Unfortunately, even if we like something, we do not always feel like doing it. But if you have lots of different things near you, then you can usually find something you feel like doing, and if it’s “near” you, you’ll actually start doing it. For example, on my phone I have Chinese songs, flashcards, podcasts, movies, TV series, books, poetry, cartoons. I can always find something I want to do.

Don’t forget to have earphones near your phone / tablet, so you can listen whenever, wherever you want

Also, is your phone, computer, e-mail, facebook etc all in English? Are all the books around you in English. Are you “making” people around you speak English? This last one is tricky, but by way of example, I’m teaching my daughter Chinese to give myself practice and get someone (in the future) who I can talk with in Chinese.


3 – Always ask yourself, how can I use English, how can I develop this use?

Too often people do develop good passive habits, like listening and reading, but not active ones (speaking and writing). Here are some active habits you can develop. Remember, don’t “push” yourself too much, instead, follow the points I made above. Start with something that you like more (even if not much), and find easy / won’ take too much time / is connected with your “needs”

  • send messages (sms, video or facebook etc) in English (choose a friend that wants to / doesn’t mind = more interesting)
  • talk with a friend / colleague / partner in English (start with “short” time periods at a time that you both feel like – e.g. for ten minutes at lunch)
  • make some videos (start a youtube channel, send your teacher skype videos)
  • start a blog / vlog in English (again, start with shorter posts / videos)
  • sign up at and write some posts
  • sign up at and meet tourists in your city
  • repeat phrases as you watch movies / listen to podcasts
  • sing along to songs
  • take notes in English
  • translate in your mind what other people say (again, do this for short periods when it is convenient)
  • talk to yourself / the walls in English
  • teach someone English
  • join a conversation club
  • read out loud


If you don’t like something, don’t feel like doing something, or don’t need something, always come back later and try again.


For further reading I recommend a site by a guy called “Katsumoto”, who learnt Japanese in 18 months. His site is here for more reading. Might be difficult though, as it is for native speakers.

Can reading books in English help improve my English?

“I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, and falls on the other.” – MacBeth(Act I, Scene VII).

Reading books in English will……

  1.  improve your ability to read in English
  2.  help you learn / remember words that you see in the books


if you read Shakespeare, like the line from MacBeth above, it is  probably going to be hard, have strange words, and will be language you won’t use for speaking……… so it’s not that useful for English, unless your priority / short-term goal is to read Shakespeare:)  If your priority is not just to improve reading of Shakespeare, but improve reading and even speaking, keep the following in mind

  • listening will help more with speaking than reading books

Children learn to speak without reading, because speaking is using combinations of sounds. If you listen you hear these combinations, it is easier for your brain to re-use them for speaking. If you’re not watching TV series, online videos or movies in English, think about developing this habit before developing the habit of reading books.

  • books about your “profession” are better for speaking about your profession

If you work and need to improve English for your work, then you need specific business English. Books that aren’t about your area will not have this specific English. So if your FIRST goal is to improve your specific business English, read books connected with this FIRST. When you’re happy with that, start with “general” books.

  • choose a book that is interesting

It can be a book for children, a detective, a silly book, a strange book, a normal book. Japanese manga even!!! It is important for you to find it interesting. The more interesting it is, the more often you read, and the more deeply things go into your mind.

  • develop a habit of reading for pleasure / enjoyment

One type of reading is “intensive”. This is when you want to understand all the details, so you need to know almost all the words. This is ok for short texts like articles, but not possible when you start reading books. With books, develop the habit of “reading quickly for the general idea” (extensive reading). I know it may be difficult at first, but the advice below should help……..

  • you can miss parts!

You do not need to understand every word! Be happy at first with the general idea. If you look up all the words you do not know, it will become annoying and you will stop. So try not to use a dictionary. If you do not understand a word, guess from the context. If you do not understand a sentence, keep reading the next one. If you do not understand a paragraph, keep reading the next one. Even a page, miss a page if you want!

If you go through 20 pages in 60 minutes, you will “see” a lot more English than if you go through 2 pages in 60 minuntes, even if you miss 20%-50%. Looking up words takes a lot of time!! !  If you see a word three times and are really interested, then use a dictionary. If you want to stop reading the book after 20 pages, stop. Choose another one that is easier / more interesting.  You can come back to the first book later.

The more you read in this way, the better you get at reading, the more vocabulary you see, the more vocabulary you learn, and, in the end….you will miss less and less

  • it can be difficult at first, keep it easy

If it’s difficult, it’s bad. Because you are less likely to do it. Even if you have motivation now, you’ll lose it. So, if you want difficult, read a short article in magazines or newspapers with a specific topic. But with books, the following are easier and therefore generally better

– shorter books(or with short chapters)

–  easier language (start with adapted books if you need to)

–  familiar stories (if you have an idea of what the book is about, if you’ve read it in your language, if you’ve seen a movie, or if you’ve read about “the first half of the book” on wikipedia, it will make it easier for you. If you haven’t, then think about reading a summary of the book on wikipedia [but not all] or watching a bit of the movie)

– more dialogue, less descriptions (dialogue is easier to follow)

– author with an easier style

– more modern authors (I recently looked at Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer”. It had a lot of words I had never seen before, they were specific to that time, and place, not useful for now.)

– mini-dictionary at the back / at the bottom of the page can help, so can translation into your language on every second page. This is ok at first, but it does stop you increasing your ability to read quickly for the general idea.


Remember, focus on developing the habit by minimizing negatives (time, difficulty) and maximizing positives (interest, relevance)




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