The Number One Mistake in Language Learning

There are lots of things language learners do or don’t do that block the joy and success of their language-learning. But the single biggest and most widespread mistake I observe is this:

Spending too much time learning about the language and not enough time in the language.

Or, put in other terms, spending too much time studying the language itself, instead of interacting with interesting content or sympathetic speakers in the language.

This is probably a mistake, too.

This is probably a mistake, too.

This mistake usually manifests itself as studying textbooks or using language learning programs or apps that don’t convey meaningful information about something other than the language. Although autodidacts (self-teachers) may need to use sources of explicit information about the language to help them understand actual content, the priority should be to find and consume content that is already comprehensible or near-comprehensible.

Almost every major theory of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) emphasizes the central role of input, i.e., content in the target language that is intended to communicate meaning, in developing a mental representation of a language. Several influential researchers (Krashen, VanPatten, Wong, Leeser,…) go so far as to say that input, subconsciously processed by the brain, is the only way to develop a mental representation of the language. Either way, spending a majority of one’s language learning time on explicit study is, at best, an inefficient way to make progress. Again, feel free to look up a word or grammar point to help you understand what you read and hear, or to help yourself formulate a sentence in a situation that gives you time to edit. But don’t think of this as the way you are learning the language.

Let me put it starkly:

If you are a language learner and are relying on studying or ‘practicing’ the elements of a language–vocab, endings, word order, etc.–to make progress, you have no research-informed reason to think that you will acquire the language.

I’ll throw in a version for teachers:

If you are a teacher and are relying on your students’ studying or ‘practicing’ the elements of a language–vocab, endings, word order, etc.–to make progress, you have no research-informed reason to think that your students will acquire the language.

What’s the take-home point?

If you are a language learner, you need to (a) find, (b) store conveniently, and (c) consume large amounts of content in your target language.

If you are a language teacher, you need to help your students do (a), (b), and (c). In the early stages, you probably need to do (a) and (b) for them.

This is actually an exciting thing, because there’s so much sweet content out there for you or your students to enjoy!

I’ll continue to provide tips on this site for finding, storing, and consuming interesting, comprehensible content. In the meantime, check out the Savvy Language Learner infographic for an overview of tips related to content and content-consuming habits. And go find a story to read, a video to watch, or a song to listen to in your target language!

See also Tricks and Triggers for Opportunistic Language LearningWhy Your Reading Habit WorksDo What You Feel Like, What Is Your Favorite Thing To Do?, The Multilingual Reading Countdown, and The Inescapable Case for Extensive Reading.

Posted in Learning, Teaching and tagged , , , .

8 Comments

  1. Pingback: How I was WRONG about “practicing” a language. | Magister P.

  2. I am a pretty good guinea pig for proving that what you are saying is true – I have spent several thousand hours learning about several languages and only the ones I received extensive input in stuck. I taught myself German without any live instructor – just textbooks – but I really wanted to learn it and can read it moderately well. French and Spanish I had conventional college instruction but went on to read on my own. It is the continued interest that has helped me the most to “figure out” original content in those languages. But that is still not quite the “acquisition” that you are referring to. But I also never expected to “speak” another language but just to “read” it. Because I met that limited objective in 3 languages, it has been frustrating to find that I can’t meet that objective as easily in original Latin (i.e. written by native speakers). Really appreciate the efforts to put Latin on youtube. The latin wikipedia is interesting. It would be good to know of some other sources of latin input that meets the “extensive and understandable input”criterion.

  3. “Explicit study of a language, at best, is an inefficient way to make progress, and, in many theories of SLA, plays a minor or even no role in acquiring the language.”

    Total utter bullshit.

    Read about lexical adquisition in and out of context; also read about the lexical approach and the neglected importance of vocabulary. Almost all research shows that the productivity while using explicit study (well done) its much higher than any implicit learning form. So do not lie the learners.

    It is true that the content should be fun, but using a few minutes to remember a few words a day is incredibly productive and helpful. Something, by the way, that every super-poliglot will recommend.

    • Dear Pablo,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I’ll try to address what I understand to be your main concerns. Please let me know if I’ve misunderstood your comments or if you would like further information about anything I mention!

      I’m guessing your assessment of the sentence you quoted applies only to the first half of the sentence (“Explicit study…progress”), as the second half is not a claim about language learning, simply an observation about SLA theories that can be verified by checking out summaries of SLA theories from the last 40-50 years.

      I have no problem with anyone’s “using a few minutes to remember a few words a day.” My bold-faced statement of the problem refers to spending “too much time” on explicit study while neglecting the consumption of actual content in the target language.

      We may be working with different ideas about what constitutes efficiency. I’m mainly interested in what activities and habits, minute for minute, are most likely to lead to long-term acquisition of a language. If I have an hour a day to spend improving my proficiency in a language, I want to spend as much as possible consuming actual messages delivered in that language. Again, this post doesn’t say anything against your recommendation to spend a few of those minutes on explicit study. But let’s say I were to spend all 60 minutes on explicit lexical study. Let’s even say that I could learn the definitions of 60 words–one per minute–during that time, and retain those definitions while learning an additional 60 words every day, which is not likely. I would still have missed out on all the following benefits of reading or listening:

      -acquisition of collocations
      -acquisition of colligations
      -acquisition of lexical semantics
      -acquisition of syntax
      -acquisition of morphology
      -acquisition of intuition about register
      -acquisition of discourse structures
      -incidental acquisition of lexical items that actually occur in content I care about

      –to say nothing, of course, about cultural or other content-related benefits.

      To evaluate “efficiency,” compare the benefits of memorizing 60 words to those of reading 9000-12000 words in context during the same time period (reading at the minimum target rate of 150-200 words per minute recommended by the Extensive Reading Foundation: http://erfoundation.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ERF_Guide.pdf, p. 1). Or compare ten words learned by rote in ten minutes to 1500-2000 read in context, with many potentially acquired incidentally, during the same time period. Yet again, feel free to spend some time on explicit study, and that time may even enhance the time you spend actually encountering the language in context–especially if you have trouble finding ideal content–but if you spend a high percentage of your time on explicit study, you shouldn’t expect gains as pronounced as those you can expect from Extensive Reading or Listening, or even from interaction with a sympathetic native speaker.

      ~~~~~

      The lexical approach, as I’m sure you know, is not mainly about explicit study of vocabulary, at least not in the way most people think of vocabulary study. For anyone who is interested, here is a summary of “activities consistent with the lexical approach” (not all of which actually have to do with acquisition of a language; some have to do with developing non-linguistic abilities to deal with unknown language) quoted from the COERLL website:
      _____________________________________
      Lexis in Language Teaching and Learning

      The language activities consistent with the lexical approach must be directed toward naturally occurring language and toward raising learners’ awareness of the lexical nature of language. Activities of this nature include the following:

      -intensive and extensive listening and reading in the target language
      -first and second language comparisons and translation
      -repetition and recycling of activities to keep words and expressions that have been learned active
      -guessing the meaning of vocabulary items from context
      -noticing and recording language patterns and collocations
      -working with dictionaries and other reference tools
      -working with language corpuses to research word partnerships, preposition usage, style, and so on
      (https://coerll.utexas.edu/methods/modules/vocabulary/02/lexical.php)
      _____________________________________

      Note that a consistent lexical approach requires a massive amount of highly technical planning (based on analysis of corpora, documented collocations and colligations, carefully curated content sequences, etc.) by an instructor or course designer. A learner can certainly find or create vocabulary lists to study, but is highly unlikely to have the resources or expertise to create a lexis-based course of study that would actually result in the benefits that a lexical approach claims.

      ~~~~~

      I’m interested to learn where you’ve heard that “almost all research shows that the productivity while using explicit study (well done) is much higher than any implicit learning form.” Not only does this not align with what I’ve seen published, but a recent analysis (Han & Finneran 2013) of positions held on this issue by various SLA researchers notes that the “non-interface position,” which holds that explicit study or teaching of a language cannot positively affect the acquisition of a language, seems to be the majority position, with the “weak-interface position” and “strong-interface position” apparently gaining some ground in the last few years. (The authors themselves call for a “more nuanced approach” to the interface debate, suspecting that some aspects of language are not susceptible to explicit study/teaching while others are, and that this may vary depending on the learner’s stage of acquisition. For the full analysis, including a list of several prominent researchers who hold the non-interface position, see https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/16588173/HanFinneran_2013.pdf)

    • Dear Heejeong, good question! By “find…content in your target language,” I mean getting your hands on stories, videos, articles, recordings, etc. in the language you are learning, instead of just textbooks and language learning apps. By “store conveniently,” I mean keeping those stories, videos, etc., in a place where you can get to them quickly and easily. You can find some examples of convenient content storage in the post “Tricks and Triggers for Opportunistic Language Learning.”

  4. Excellent article. Having learned 15 languages, I am convinced that together with strong motivation, the availability of compelling and interesting content is crucial ,in the struggle to acquire fluency in another language. We need to spend time with the language, reading it, listening to it, and eventually using it. The amount of time we need to spend reading about the language, studying grammatical explanations or doing exercise and drills, is relatively small. It is also to me, and to many people, much less interesting than engaging with meaningful content.

    • Dear Steve, I’m with you all the way! The mismatch between interest level and difficulty level is among the greatest obstacles to language learners–often, what’s easy enough isn’t interesting, and what’s interesting is too hard. It’s exciting whenever we find something compelling at the right level.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, and thanks for your many contributions to the language learning world.

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