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When Learning a Foreign Language

Metacognitive strategies and practical tips.

Suppose you decided to start learning a new language—let’s say Italian. In the beginning stages of your language-learning journey, the Italian speech you’ll hear will likely sound like a stream of indecipherable (albeit beautiful) syllables.

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Sometimes, you wouldn't even be able to tell where one word ended and the next one began. You’ll watch and listen to the native speakers, enthralled by their ease and fluency, wondering how it would feel to be able to talk like them.

As months go by, you will devotedly memorize new words and dissect complex syntax structures. You will observe, absorb, study and repeat, until one day, you will realize that the string of Italian syllables is no longer indecipherable. Somehow, you have permeated through the curtain of foreign sounds. They ring familiar to your ears now. You comprehend sentences. You recognize grammar rules. You guess the meaning of unknown words by using your existing knowledge. You make inferences and verify their accuracy. You no longer feel the urge to translate long-winded conversations word-for-word. You replace your anxiety with confidence and learn to focus even harder. In short, you begin to use your “seventh sense” of learning (Nisbet & Shucksmith, 1986)—your metacognitive abilities.

Metacognition and foreign language learning

Metacognition refers to thinking about thinking, or the ability to become aware and conscious of our mental processes. It involves knowledge about the self and the world (person), as well as the nature of what we are trying to accomplish (task) and how we will accomplish it (strategy).

Studies have shown that metacognition plays an important role in most aspects of learning, including foreign language learning. For instance, learners with developed metacognitive skills are aware of their learning processes and are thus better able to regulate their learning. They learn more effectively by devising and implementing strategies (e.g. memorization) that are best suited for their tasks (e.g. learning new words) and learning goals (e.g. improving listening comprehension). This, in turn, positively influences not only learning outcomes and test performances, but also the learner’s motivation.

Developing metacognitive skills

How can foreign language learners develop their metacognitive skills? By adapting a mentally active attitude towards the process of language learning. In other words, effective language learners not only rely on a variety of learning strategies such as repetitions, memorizations, grammar drills, and communication, but also “monitor language comprehension and production, make use of prior linguistic and general knowledge, and ask questions for clarification (Chamot, 2005:115).”

Teachers can also play an important role in helping their students hone their metacognitive skills by explicitly teaching them how to reflect on the process of language learning. For instance, teachers could illustrate strategic thinking, explore learning strategies together with their students, and guide them to become more aware of their own thinking processes—with plenty of chances for practice and self-evaluation.

The roads and strategies that lead to foreign language mastery are as diverse and fascinating as the languages themselves. Here are four tips from linguist Dr. Ute Limacher-Riebold (who is fluent in six languages) to help you along the way.

1. Listen

The more you expose yourself to the new language, the sooner you will become familiar with its sounds and structures. Familiarity, in turn, will speed understanding. First, you will recognize separate words, then word sequences, and in time, entire passages of speech. “Learning a new language is like learning a new game,” says Limacher-Riebold. You can learn to play games by learning the rules first, or by observing others play. Either way, listening is key. Moreover, if you like what you hear, it will make the game of language learning more enjoyable.

2. Copy

Copy the sounds of your new language that you hear around you. “Each language has its own music,” says Limacher-Riebold. Repeating the sounds (out loud or in your head) will give you a feel for the language’s music. Memorize not just words, but sentences and even songs to get the rhythm and intonation of the language. Indulge in the way the new music sounds in your performance.

3. Read

Read words, sentences, children’s books, and newspaper articles. Read as far and near as you can, whether out loud to an audience or quietly to yourself. “Seeing the language in print helps you understand word structures,” writes Limacher-Riebold. It also anchors the new sounds and helps them get imprinted in your mind.

4. Talk

Create the need to talk in your new language. Regularly seek opportunities for conversations, brief and long, with old neighbors and new friends. “Start with short sentences. Be prepared to make mistakes. Welcome when someone corrects you,” writes Limacher-Riebold. Follow the example of children and don't wait until you are fluent. You can start enjoying your new language long before your sentences are faultless and your pronunciation sounds near-native.

Many thanks to Dr. Ute Limacher-Riebold for her 4 Tips to Learn a New Language for Adults (here adapted from the original).


Anderson, N. J. (2002). The Role of Metacognition in Second Language Teaching and Learning. ERIC Digest.

Chamot, A. U. (2005). Language learning strategy instruction: Current issues and research. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 25, 112-130.

Goh, C. (2008). Metacognitive instruction for second language listening development: Theory, practice and research implications. RELC Journal, 39(2), 188-213.

Nisbet, J., & Shucksmith, J. (1986). Learning Strategies. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Vandergrift, L. (1999). Facilitating second language listening comprehension: Acquiring successful strategies. ELT Journal, 53(3), 168-176.

Vandergrift, L., Goh, C., Mareschal, C. J., & Tafaghodtari, M. H. (2006). The metacognitive awareness listening questionnaire: Development and validation. Language Learning, 56(3), 431-462.