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I’ve spent the past few weeks reading academic papers about sleep, immediate feedback, goal setting, perfectionism, and more. Today, let me share my findings with you and discuss how science can help you learn English!

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  • Sleep deprivation (n) – the condition of not having had enough sleep or of being prevented from having enough sleep, especially for several days or more.
    • One in three new mothers suffers serious sleep deprivation.
  • Impaired (adj) – damaged in a way that makes something less effective.
    • She suffers from impaired hearing.
  • Attention Span (n) – the length of time that someone can keep their thoughts and interest fixed on something.
    • Young children have quite short attention spans.
  • To consolidate (v) – to become, or cause something to become, stronger, and more certain.
    • The success of their major product consolidated the firm’s position in the market.
  • Perfectionism (n) – The tendency to strive for flawless performance, hindering language learners’ progress.
    • Obsessive perfectionism can be very irritating.
  • To internalise (v) – to accept or absorb an idea, opinion, belief, etc. so that it becomes part of your character.
    • It can take decades before people internalise the values of democracy.
  • Near miss (n) – an attempt to do or achieve something that fails although it almost succeeds.
    • He should have won the match – it was a near miss.
  • Unrealistic (adj) – having a wrong idea of what is likely to happen or of what you can really do; not based on facts.
    • He has unrealistic expectations about the success of his business!

English Learning, Science, and Research!

Last week I released an episode on science and language learning, where I talked about evidence- and research-based advice for English learners.

We talked about “distributed practice”, the importance of context, the need to focus on pronunciation and sounds, and the benefits of immersion. Make sure you go and listen to that episode!

While I was researching, I found so much information that I decided to make another episode (this one you are listening to right now)!

So here are some more science-based tips, tricks, and advice for English learners!

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Sleep More!

Here is a tip that at first might not seem overly related to language learning – take a nap. However, science has shown that napping, and sleep in general, could be a very powerful tool when it comes to learning and studying.

The research suggests that taking a one-hour nap can have a significant positive impact on brain power. This leads to increased cognitive abilities or, in other words, can make a person smarter. When we sleep, our brain processes information and clears out our short-term memory, making space for new learning and allowing us to retain more information.

The study highlights the importance of napping during a specific stage of sleep known as Stage 2 non-REM sleep. This stage is crucial for refreshing our memory capacity and enhancing learning. Napping during this stage can lead to better memory and retention of new knowledge.


Conversely, sleep deprivation has negative effects on our ability to learn and memorize new facts. When we don’t get enough sleep, our ability to think is impaired, and it becomes challenging to absorb and retain information effectively.

For English learners, this research emphasizes the significance of getting adequate sleep is essential for learning and language acquisition. Prioritise rest and consider incorporating short naps to enhance your memory – it is one of the easiest things you can do!

In the context of language learning, a well-rested brain can process new vocabulary, grammar rules, and language patterns more efficiently. Getting enough sleep allows you to consolidate the knowledge gained during your English studies, leading to better language retention and improved fluency.

Furthermore, the study’s implications can be relevant for English learners who are aging. As people get older, they may experience reduced sleep quality and duration, which could impact their learning ability. Understanding the link between reduced sleep and declining learning ability can help in addressing language-learning challenges faced by older adults.

I know from personal experience that sleep deprivation makes study and work so much more difficult. Not sleeping enough affects my motivation, concentration, attention span, and memory. Sleeping more is such a simple way to improve this.

Immediate Feedback

Immediate feedback plays a crucial role in language learning, especially for English learners seeking to improve their language proficiency. Research has shown that timely feedback can significantly impact the learning process and enhance the effectiveness of language acquisition.

In the context of language learning, immediate feedback refers to receiving timely responses to language-related tasks or exercises. This feedback can be in various forms, such as verbal corrections, written suggestions, or online exercises with instant scoring. The goal is to provide learners with real-time information about their language use, allowing them to identify and correct errors immediately. This active engagement with feedback helps learners internalize the correct patterns and reinforce their language skills.

I’ve actually mentioned one study that shows the importance of immediate feedback in the last episode. It was the study of Japanese adults trying to tell the difference between “r” and “l” sounds – they only began improving once immediate feedback was introduced.

Another study that I found highlighted the importance of immediate feedback in artificial grammar learning (AGL) tasks. In this research, participants were given a task to sort groups of made-up words according to some hidden rules. The participants were divided into two groups, with both groups being provided with visual feedback after each classification. However, one group received instant feedback, while the other group experienced a one-second delay in receiving feedback.

The study’s outcomes revealed that both groups successfully learned the artificial grammar. Nevertheless, while both groups learned the word rules, but the group that received immediate feedback improved much more than the delayed group. Getting feedback right away seems to be really helpful for learning faster and better.

The researchers also looked at the brain activity of the learners. They noticed that the group with delayed feedback had higher brain activity related to attention and thinking. It seems they had to work harder to understand the feedback with the delay. On the other hand, the group with immediate feedback processed the information more easily, leading to better results.

As learners kept practicing, they became less dependent on positive feedback over time. It’s like they grew more confident in their English skills and didn’t need as much encouragement. However, both groups consistently responded to corrective feedback when they made mistakes, no matter their level of English.

The implications of this research for English learners are clear. To optimize language learning, you should actively seek immediate feedback on your language usage. Engaging in activities that provide instant corrections, such as language exercises with automatic scoring or practicing with a language partner who can provide real-time feedback, can greatly benefit learners.

By receiving immediate feedback, you can identify and correct errors promptly, reinforcing correct language patterns and solidifying your understanding of English grammar and vocabulary.

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SMART Goal Setting

Humans are often bad at setting goals. I ask people all the time what their learning goals are and often the response is to become fluent or reach an advanced level. This is not a good goal. Why?

It is not specific. What does it actually mean to be fluent? Does it mean conversationally, in terms of writing, reading, or something else?

It is not measurable. How can you measure your progress and keep track of your study, if you are aiming for such a large, vague and generic goal?

It is not achievable – the goal of being fluent is vague and really difficult to achieve.

It is probably not relevant to your real purposes of learning English.

And there is no time limits or schedule in this learning goal.

In other words, our goals should fit the SMART goal setting approach. Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.

I actually recorded an episode on New Year’s Resolutions back in January which contained some useful information and studies that I think is worth reiterating to all of you.

The psychologist Richard Wiseman conducted a study on New Year’s resolutions and found that only 12% of people successfully kept their resolutions, indicating a high failure rate. The reasons for New Year’s resolution failure include setting unrealistic goals, lack of progress tracking, forgetting about the goals, and having too many resolutions at once.

Wiseman highlights the importance of framing resolutions as “approach goals” (starting something new) rather than “avoidance goals” (stopping something) for better success. Additionally, the research shows that people are 22% more successful when they break their resolutions into small, measurable goals.

Here are 10 recommendations from Richard Wiseman on how to make effective New Year’s resolutions:

  1. Make ONE goal and dedicate all effort and energy to achieve it.
  2. Take time to carefully think about the goal, plan it out, and drink a cup of tea.
  3. Choose a NEW goal instead of repeating old ones that have failed before.
  4. Create a unique goal that is relevant to personal goals and desires.
  5. Break the goal into smaller, measurable steps with specific time frames.
  6. Share the goal with others to gain support and accountability.
  7. Focus on the benefits of achieving the goal to stay motivated.
  8. Reward oneself for achieving smaller steps towards the goal.
  9. Keep track of progress by writing it down in a journal or spreadsheet.
  10. View setbacks as temporary and don’t give up on the goal.

In that New Year’s Resolution article in January, I also recommended a few examples of good goals.

  1. Read a specific number of English Books: Set a target number of books to read in a specific time frame, based on your level and lifestyle.
  2. Start an English Journal: Commit to writing in English regularly, choosing topics based on goals and level.
  3. Use New Words: Learn and use a specific number of new words each week in various contexts.
  4. Join the Thinking in English Conversation Club: Engage in conversation with other English learners to practice speaking skills.
  5. Do Something in English Every Day for 10 Minutes: Set aside a specific time daily for an English activity, such as reading, writing, or practicing conversations.

Overall, I wanted to emphasise the importance of setting realistic, measurable, and time-based goals to increase the chances of success!

Stop Aiming for Perfection

Over a year ago I released an episode about perfectionism and why it is bad for language learners. I’m sure many of you have listened to it already, but if not make sure you search for it and listen.

Perfectionism is something the holds back people from actually using and practicing their language. It is also an unachievable goal – you are never going to be perfect at anything… because there is always a way to be better and improve.

In that episode last year, I talked about a few different studies and anecdotal stories. One was from the psychoanalyst Josh Cohen, who told a story about one of his former students who ruined their academic career out of a need for perfection.

Another study I mentioned last year was from the Journal of Language Teaching and Research which demonstrated “how perfectionistic tendencies in language learners are associated with low academic achievement and poor performance in language skills.”

In other words, perfectionists are bad learners.

One study I found while researching today’s episode looked at mistakes. According to the study, making mistakes during learning can actually improve memory for the right information, but only if the error is close to the correct answer.

The study suggests that “near miss” errors act as steppingstones to remembering the correct answer, while wild guesses that are far from the correct answer are bad for learning. For example, using the wrong form of verb can help you remember the correct form… but using the completely wrong word will make it harder for you to learn.

The research involved 32 young adults who had to guess the English meaning of certain Spanish words. It turns out that they were better at remembering correct translations for words that resembled English words with similar meanings.

On the other hand, participants had more difficulty recalling the meaning for words that looked similar to English words but had different meanings. When they were completely guessing, they struggled to remember. But when they almost got the answer correct, it helped them to remember.

In other words, they learned better when they made a near-miss mistakes. In fact, they learned better with near-miss mistakes than if they made no mistakes at all!

What does this mean for language learners?

The key takeaway for language learners is that making mistakes, particularly “near-miss” errors, is an integral part of the learning process. Instead of fearing mistakes, embrace them as opportunities for growth and improvement.

When learners make errors that are close to the correct answers, it can enhance their learning experience and help them retain the right information more effectively. So, learners should not be afraid to make mistakes but rather view them as valuable learning opportunities that contribute to their language development.

However, you should also avoid making wild guesses in quizzes and tests. If you take a practice test, and don’t know answer at all, it will not help you learn. But if you are close to the correct answer, those mistakes will really help you learn.

Have Fun!

And finally, have fun! There are countless studies out there that prove enjoying yourself and having fun while learning is one of the most effective ways to study.


When you have fun your brain releases dopamine, a substance that can improve memory at that time.

A study in the Educational Psychologist Journal showed how taking part in games encourages you to take risks, and that having fun increases motivation. And another study shows that fun and games can also improve attention!

Try to study and learn English in a way that is enjoyable for you. This could be playing games or taking part in challenges, or anything you consider to be enjoyable.

Fun makes things engaging, gives you motivation, improves your memory, and increases you attention span – so try to find a way of learning that is fun for you!


Final Thought

Today I have tried to highlight some more evidence-based techniques and methods to help you improve your studying.

Sleeping more will increase your ability to remember and use English words and allow you to learn at higher level of efficiency.

Incorporating immediate feedback into your study routine, maybe through online tools or private tutoring, is shown to be really beneficial.

Making near-miss mistakes, and avoiding wild guesses, will also help you to learn.

Set realistic and SMART goals.

And try to have fun at the same time!

Hopefully some of these tips and tricks will be useful and help you to move forward in your studying!

What do you think? What advice do you have for other English Learners?

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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!

2 thoughts on “254. More Science Based Tips for English Learners!! (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. It has been days that I am listening to this episode and the first one you released about science and english learning (252 th one). Thank you for all the issues and the tips you mentioned above. You are ” amazing” in just one word, Tom! Because you are not only providing an online language training service but also giving a comprehensive approach about how to do that. This approach is scientific based-fed by philosophy as well-, considers the daily challenges of your listeners and gives advice in a smart, sincere and realistic way. On top of that, I listen to other English learning podcasts, check other websites or online teaching sources. However, I realize that there is no other language source that serves as you have intended to do. I am just honestly and objectively saying that, you are serving the best english training project in this sector!

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