February 20

Your Ears Have It!


​​Have any of you ever heard ​someone say ( apart from me!) that playing basketball (or any sport really) is like learning to improve your speaking of English.

​I am sure you are thinking…huh?? Is he for real?

Hear me out!

Of course, playing a sport is VERY different from learning a language. However, in many ways the principles behind the learning of​ a language are similar to that of learning to play a game.



I am here not talking about ​studying the rules of grammar .​.. which really should only be the province of linguists who study languages. This activity is all about increasing your knowledge, not skills.

Skill learning or acquisition has certain non-negotiable requirements. Ignore them and you will pay the price! One obvious one is use!

Unfortunately, this key ​understanding has nearly been completely buried by the practices commonplace in language classes and in the training of language teachers.

Learning a skill is all about becoming aware of a lack, a difference or a possibility and then learning to incorporate it into what ​we can do. 

In sport, we can see what is required. It is our eyes and our physical sense of touch that we have to focus on. It is “easy” to see whether the ball goes into a basket, goes where we want it to, etc. The issue of strategy is a different and does of course come into it but let's leave that for another post.

In​, for example, basketball, the ​reality is that we can see so much (slam dunks, amazing footwork, ​ball skills, etc). To learn the game, we ​play and practice it and as we ​do that we improve the bits that come to our attention or awareness. It's what we see that is critical. In languages, the issue is ​what we hear. ​To improve, we have to hear what we haven't heard before...something new. This sense is very different to sight and is arguably a more difficult one to work with. 

This is the reason it is said that muscians make good language learners. They also need to develop their hearing senses to a high level if they wish to excel. There may be some truth to that, however its not always the case, that's for sure.

​To make the matter even more interesting, with languages there are different things that we have to focus on with our ears ​if we wish to improve all aspects of speaking. Not just the meaning, but also the tones, the rhythms and the sounds of the language.

In learning to speak a language, of course our eyes do play a role (though ​they do not have to, as in the case of blind people), however, it is our ears which ha​s the primary role of becoming aware of sounds, rhythms, tones etc. Unless we learn to focus our awareness in these areas, our learning will be limited. 

Awareness of our mouth, tongue and other aspects of our vocal apparatus and how ​varying any aspect will affect the sounds we produce, of course, is important ( as is the role of touch in basketball). Without ​deepening and broadening these awarenesses, our improvements will ​inevitably be limited.

​​Awareness is the first step. Without this step, the next step, learning to control, ​cannot happen. It's a little more complex than this, but for now let’s leave it at that, as this ​realisation is so fundamental.

The next step is learning to control what we do so that our awareness starts to guide ​our control and where we go next. In much the same way as it would in ​learning to improve our basketball playing.

​Here is a bit of one of my coaching sessions where I explain what I have written here, in another way. You might find the audio more approachable. 🙂

​If you prefer to watch some graphics whilst you listen to this, you might like to click here​. 🙂

​So, if you want to really improve how you speak, focus more on your listening. To what you hear, to the silences, to the tones, etc. As you learn to hear more, you can then start to work on your control. Learning to work this way will put you on the road to the level of mastery you need or desire.


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