concrete statue of confucius

Confucius is one of the most influential philosophers and teachers of all time. Today, I want to examine his approach to education and learning, and see if there are any lessons we can all learn from him!

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  • Profound (adj) – felt or experienced very strongly or in an extreme way.
    • His mother’s death when he was aged six had a very profound effect on him.
  • Disillusioned (adj) – disappointed and unhappy because of discovering the truth about something or someone that you liked or respected.
    • All the other teachers are thoroughly disillusioned with their colleague.
  • Multifaceted (adj) – having many different parts or sides.
    • It’s a multifaceted business, offering a range of services.
  • To internalize (v) – to accept or absorb an idea, opinion, belief, etc. so that it becomes part of your character.
    • He had not expected the people so readily to internalize the values of democracy.
  • Noble (adj) – moral in an honest, brave, and kind way.
    • His followers believe they are fighting for a noble cause.
  • Imitation (n) – an occasion when someone or something copies another person or thing.
    • She can do a wonderful imitation of a blackbird’s song.
  • Worthy (adj) – deserving respect, admiration, or support.
    • Every year she makes a large donation to a worthy cause.

Who was Confucius?

Confucius, also known as Kong Qiu or Kongzi, was a Chinese philosopher, teacher, and political figure who lived from 551 to 479 BCE. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in Chinese history and the founder of Confucianism, a philosophical and ethical system that has had a profound impact on Chinese culture and society.

Confucius was born in the state of Lu, in what is now modern-day Qufu, Shandong province in China. His father died when he was young, and he was raised by his mother and older siblings. Despite his humble beginnings, Confucius was a highly intelligent and ambitious young man who aspired to become a great statesman and scholar.

He began his career as a government official in his early twenties, serving in a variety of roles before eventually becoming a magistrate in his hometown of Qufu. After becoming disillusioned with the corrupt and inefficient government of his time, Confucius began to focus on his teaching and writing.


Travelling throughout China, teaching and spreading his philosophy to anyone who would listen, he attracted a large following of students who admired his wisdom and charisma, and many of his teachings were recorded in the Analects, a collection of his sayings and conversations with his disciples.

Confucius believed that society should be based on a strict moral code of conduct, with individuals striving to be virtuous and fulfil their social responsibilities. He emphasized the importance of education, self-improvement, and respect for authority, and his teachings stressed the value of social harmony and the role of the government in promoting the common good.

Despite his influence and popularity, Confucius was never able to achieve his dream of becoming a statesman. He died in 479 BCE, at the age of 72, and was buried in a grand tomb in Qufu. His teachings and legacy, however, have continued to shape Chinese culture and society for over two millennia, and he remains one of the most revered figures in Chinese history.

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What is Confucianism?

Confucianism, the ideas of Confucius, is a complex and multifaceted philosophy. Its teachings are centred on the idea of personal and societal improvement through the cultivation of virtuous behaviour and ethical conduct. Confucianism emphasizes the importance of education as a means of achieving personal and societal improvement, with an emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge and practical experience.

One of the core tenets of Confucianism is the belief in social harmony and the promotion of the common good. Confucian thought emphasizes the importance of respecting others and fulfilling one’s social responsibilities, as well as the role of the government in promoting social harmony and ensuring the well-being of its citizens.

Another important aspect of Confucianism is the emphasis on respect for authority and tradition. Confucian teachings stress the importance of following the customs and traditions of one’s ancestors, as well as the need to respect and obey authority figures. This has helped to shape Chinese society into a hierarchical and orderly system, with a strong emphasis on respecting and following the rules.

Confucius’ Ideas on Education

According to Confucius, learning is a lifelong pursuit that requires dedication and persistence. And some of his teachings can be applied to English learning, or language learning in general!

Confucianism’s focus on practice and repetition is highly relevant to language learning. Learning is viewed as a process of continual improvement, achieved through consistent practice and repetition. This approach is highly applicable to language learning, as it requires consistent practice and repetition to achieve proficiency.

Moreover, Confucianism promotes the idea of learning by doing. It emphasizes the importance of hands-on experience, as opposed to simply memorizing information. This approach is highly applicable to language learning, as it requires practical experience and application to achieve mastery. Confucianism encourages language learners to engage in conversation, read and write in the target language, and immerse themselves in the language as much as possible.

Confucianism also emphasizes the importance of social harmony and respect for others. In language learning, this means being respectful and open-minded towards people who speak different languages and have different cultural backgrounds. Confucianism promotes the idea of embracing diversity and learning from others, which is highly relevant to language learning.

Next, I want to take a look at a few famous quotes attributed to Confucius and discuss how they can be a motivational and inspirational tool for all of us!

Famous Confucian Quotes

“Isn’t it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned? Isn’t it also great when friends visit from distant places?”


The first quote attributed to Confucius that I think could prove useful to English learners is “Isn’t it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned? Isn’t it also great when friends visit from distant places?”

Studying and practicing a language can be a challenging and time-consuming task, but it is also an opportunity for personal growth and development. By taking pleasure in the learning process and finding joy in the progress that is made, you can stay motivated and engaged in your studies.

I personally have found great joy in using the language I have learned (Japanese and Chinese) to make friends and communicate with people from “distant places.” It is one of the best parts of language learning.

Just as it is wonderful to have friends visit from distant places, it is also beneficial for language learners to connect with others who speak the language they are learning. This can be done through language exchange programs, conversation partners, or simply by engaging in social activities with other learners. Building a community of fellow language learners can provide support, motivation, and opportunities for practice and improvement.

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”


Confucius suggests that there are different levels of learning and understanding. Simply hearing information may not be enough to fully comprehend it, but seeing something can help to cement it in your memory. However, the most effective way to truly understand something is to engage with it actively and “do” it oneself.

This is highly relevant to language learners, who often face the challenge of mastering new vocabulary, grammar rules, and pronunciation. While listening to a language, watching videos or reading texts can be helpful for memorizing and understanding new concepts, it is only through active practice that learners can truly internalize and use the language.

Therefore, this quote always reminds me that practicing and using the language actively is essential for gaining a deeper understanding and mastery of it. By engaging with the language through activities such as speaking, writing, and listening to authentic materials, learners can move beyond passive learning and truly begin to comprehend and use the language in practical situations.


“A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it is committing another mistake.”


Making mistakes is a natural and necessary part of the learning process. What sets successful learners apart is their ability to identify and correct those mistakes, rather than ignoring or repeating them.

This quote is particularly relevant for those of you listening who may feel discouraged by your mistakes, or who may be hesitant to correct them for fear of appearing foolish or making further errors. It is important to recognize that correcting mistakes is an essential step towards improvement and success in language learning.

By taking the time to identify and correct mistakes, English learners can improve their language skills and gain confidence in their abilities. This may involve seeking feedback from others, practicing speaking and writing regularly, and being willing to learn from one’s mistakes.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”


Confucius believes there 3 different routes to wisdom.

The first method, reflection, is described as the “noblest” way to learn wisdom. This involves taking the time to think critically and deeply about a subject or experience, and analysing it from different perspectives. In the context of language learning, reflection may involve analysing one’s own language use, identifying areas for improvement, and setting goals for future learning.

The second method, imitation, is described as the “easiest” way to learn wisdom. This involves observing and emulating the behaviour or language use of others. In language learning, imitation may involve listening to and repeating native speakers, or studying examples of well-written texts in order to improve one’s own writing skills.

Finally, the third method, experience, is described as the “bitterest” way to learn wisdom. This involves learning through trial and error, and often involves making mistakes and facing challenges. For those of you listening, experience may involve practicing speaking and writing skills in real-life situations, or learning from mistakes made during language use.

You can all benefit from incorporating all three methods into your learning process, whether it be through self-reflection, observing and emulating native speakers, or practicing language use in real-life situations.


“When you see a worthy person, endeavour to emulate him. When you see an unworthy person, then examine your inner self.”


The first part of the quote (“When you see a worthy person, endeavour to emulate him”) encourages you to seek out and observe people who you admire and who you consider to be “worthy.” By emulating the behaviour, language use, or work ethic of these people, you can strive to improve their own skills and become more like the people you admire.

The second part of the quote (“When you see an unworthy person, then examine your inner self”) encourages learners to examine their inner selves when they encounter people who they consider to be “unworthy.” This means reflecting on your own behaviour and values in comparison to the behaviour and values of the person they are observing. In doing so, English learners can identify areas for self-improvement and work towards becoming better versions of themselves.

By seeking out and emulating native speakers or proficient English speakers, learners like you can develop language skills more effectively. Similarly, by examining your own language use and reflecting on areas for improvement, you can work towards becoming more proficient and fluent in English.

“The essence of knowledge is, having it, to apply it; not having it, to confess your ignorance.”


As a language learner, the quote “The essence of knowledge is, having it, to apply it; not having it, to confess your ignorance” can serve as an important reminder of the value of practical application and humility in the pursuit of knowledge.

In terms of practical application, it’s not enough to simply possess knowledge – it must also be used in order to truly understand and benefit from it. This applies to language learning as well – it’s not enough to memorize vocabulary or grammar rules, but rather to actively use them in conversation, writing, and other contexts.

At the same time, the quote highlights the importance of recognizing one’s own limitations and being willing to admit when we don’t know something. This humility allows us to continue learning and growing, rather than becoming complacent or stagnant in our knowledge.

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”


Progress can be made even if it’s slow, as long as you doesn’t give up completely. I know that many of you may feel frustrated with your progress or overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge you need to acquire to become fluent. Confucius tells us that even small steps can eventually lead to success.

Learning a new language is not easy, and it takes time and effort. This quote encourages you to keep going, even if you encounter difficulties or setbacks.

As language learners, we can take this quote as a reminder to stay committed to our goals and not to give up, even if our progress seems slow. We can appreciate the small steps we take and trust that they will eventually add up to significant progress. With perseverance and hard work, we can achieve our language learning objectives.

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Controversies in Confucianism and Language Learning?

While Confucianism has had a profound impact on Chinese culture and society, its teachings have also been the subject of controversy and debate. One of the main controversies surrounding Confucianism is its emphasis on tradition and authority, which some critics argue can stifle creativity and innovation. Others argue that Confucian teachings can promote social conformity and discourage individuality, which can limit personal freedom and expression.

Some critics argue that Confucian teachings reinforce social inequality and privilege, and can limit opportunities for individuals who are not born into privileged families. Additionally, Confucian teachings can be seen as reinforcing gender roles and stereotypes, which can be seen as limiting opportunities for women.

When it comes to language learning, Confucian teachings can be both helpful and hindering. On the one hand, Confucianism emphasizes the importance of education and the pursuit of knowledge, which can encourage individuals to study and learn a new language. On the other hand, Confucian teachings can also reinforce the importance of following traditional methods and learning from authority figures, which may not always be the best approach to language learning.

As with all philosophies and philosophers from the past, it is best to approach their ideas and wisdoms with a critical perspective!


Final Thought

Despite being an ancient philosopher, many of Confucius’ teachings and ideas could be useful, maybe even motivational, for English learners! For Confucius, learning is a lifelong pursuit that requires dedication and persistence.

From his teachings, we can learn that even if progress is slow, it is still progress; that you need to learn from your mistakes; and that we learn best through experience and doing!

While some Confucian teachings are controversial today, his ideas can be useful and beneficial for language learners.

What do you think? Are you a fan of Confucius’ philosophy? What philosopher or philosophy should we look at next?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

One thought on “223. English Learning and Confucius: What Can We Learn From the Great Teacher and Philosophy? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. Good mornimg Tom, sometimes I think you are a genious who can switch from a topic to another topic in a such easily manner. Maibe are you a contemporary philosopher? Are you a modern Confucius?
    Your articles are such complete and profound that I am beginning to believe it…. 😁
    A law teacher of mine, a lot of years ago, used to explain to his classes the ancient chinese employees selection method, which has its origin in Confucius philosophy. The low level of government employees were selected through a Memory competition (they had to memorise Confucius’ poems), whereas the public servants high level were selected with a poetry race. It means that in Cunfucius philosophy creativity Is the most important skill to a public manager.

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