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How analysis and critical thinking will make you a better language learner

I’ve often thought about what distinguishes successful language learners from people who learn a language less successfully.

I think one of the key factors is how much you are able to analyse and think critically as you are learning the language.

You might find that you do a lot of reading or listening to a language, but when you come to speak or write in the language, you are not able to produce the same structures and vocabulary.

One of the reasons for this is that you may not have ever really thought about the language or allowed yourself to internalise it, rather, you just let it ‘wash over you‘, so when you come to produce it yourself, you find it has gone..

These are skills that you can think about in all areas of your language learning: reading, listening, speaking and writing, to stop this problem from happening.


Let’s talk about analysis first. Here are some of the things you can be thinking about:

  • Have I seen this expression before? Do I know some of the characters?
  • Is this a completely new word? Is it worth me writing down?
  •  Is this word being used in a different way to what I’ve seen before? Do I need to look it up again?
  •  Is this a character that has more than one pronunciation?
  •  Is this something that Chinese expresses completely differently to English?
  •  Is the word order different to English? What is different about it?
  •  Is this a set phrase that I just need to learn as it is?
  •  Do I remember of the tones of this word, or did I get them wrong?
  •  Is this something I wanted to know how to say and now I’ve found my answer?
  •  Did you think it was said a different way in Chinese, and now you’ve learnt the ‘right way’?

It is important to pay attention to what you are listening to or reading, rather than just flicking through a book, or sticking on a CD and going to do something else.

The more you can observe, make connections, prove your assumptions correct or incorrect and pick up new vocabulary and ways of expressing things, the more quickly you’re going to learn. It’s really about taking an active part in the learning process, and this is especially important with reading and listening.

Learning to be self-critical

Being self-critical doesn’t mean agonising over your every mistake or being so afraid to get things wrong that you don’t want to speak the language.

Making mistakes is a completely normal part of the learning process. It’s okay to make mistakes, but it’s even better if you can spot them, analyse them and learn from them. It’s really the most powerful engine for improvement there is.

In other words, you don’t want to get hung up about making mistakes, but you should expect them and see them as a good thing, because the trial and error process will actually help you to learn quicker.

Here are some things you can think about to spot your mistakes and correct them:

  • Am I saying this word in the correct tones? Do I need to look it up again later?
  • What sounds to I struggle to pronounce in Chinese?
  • Is the tone of the character going to be different here?
  • Am I just using the English word order in this sentence? Would Chinese really say it like this?
  • Do I really know how to use this word?
  • Do I need to find out to use it by looking at example sentences on
  • Do I know this English word in Chinese? Do I need to look it up?
  • Do I know some of the parts of this character already?
  • Am I getting this character confused with another one?     and so on.

Try to think about these issues as you continue to learn Chinese or other languages. If you don’t feel certain that you’re getting things right, then there could be a mistake in there somewhere.

You’re not always going to have a teacher or somebody around you who can give you feedback, so if you can learn to be analytical and reflective on your own, then you’ll get even further!