July 11

Language Learning Practice Revitalised

A little understood language learning strategy

Every language learner I believe understands the importance of practice. However, just what constitutes language practice that will lead to improvement is an issue that is not so readily agreed understood. Many readers will, I am confident, be able to relate to times when practice did not result in improvement. So what kind of strategy does?

I recently came across some very interesting research that looked into the kind of practice common to the best pianists. In an interesting article titled “It’s Not How Much; It’s How,” (Journal of Research in Music Education in 2009), Professor Robert Duke and his colleagues undertook some research on a number of advanced piano students. They ranked the participants by the quality of their performance. The researchers found there was no relationship between the quality of performance and how much practice the students had undertaken. Instead, they found that “the most notable differences between the practice sessions of the top-ranked pianists and the remaining participants … are related to their handling of errors.”

language learning practiceThey found that the best pianists addressed their mistakes immediately. They identified the exact location and the source of each error, then rehearsed that section repeatedly until it was corrected. Only when that was done would the best students proceed to the rest of the piece. “It was not the case that the top-ranked pianists made fewer errors at the beginning of their practice sessions than did the other pianists,” Rather “when errors occurred, the top-ranked pianists seemed much better able to correct them in ways that precluded their recurrence.”

So clearly in the case of language learners, exactly the same kind of practice as recommended is not possible many times in real life conversation. Even if it is not, what can we learn from these observations? The first thing is the importance of identifying mistakes. If mistakes are not identified, then how is progress possible? Second, identifying them is not really enough. We have to do something about them. Without this progress is not going to be really possible.  

One thing that I have seen many language learners do is to practice with exercises from books, online, CDs etc. I will suggest that this kind of practice can be ineffective depending on what prompted it and upon how it is done. If it is not driven by your understanding and your mistakes, but instead by the ideas of what the author thinks you should be working on then the results may end up being poor. And if at its heart, the practice is not designed to root out mistakes you know you make, then its effectiveness will be suspect.

Pianists can hear their mistakes because they know what the music they are playing should sound like. One of the biggest issues that hold language learners back is that they don’t know if they are making mistakes.

Application in Language Learning

Many do not focus on this problem when they are using the new language. There is actually a skill here that needs to be developed. It has nothing to do with judging and everything to do with noticing. Once you can notice something you have said or written does not conform to the standard, then – taking the idea from the research on board – work with it till it conforms to standard usage.  

This might seem like a small thing but taking on just one language “bit” to repair in this manner can make all the difference in the long term, as you are setting up a new dynamic in your learning.  Clearly, the rest of the language you have learned needs to be maintained, but by eliminating one mistake (in usage!) you have set your path on a new destination. You are in fact establishing a new language learning strategy.

Of course, you need to repeat this time and time again before this strategy will really take hold. But once it does, your results will change and you will enter a period of vastly improved learning.

The main thing always is to enjoy or be totally engaged in the process!

And for the ones who would like to listen to all this…




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  • I am very interested in reading further on this. Actually, I tried accessing the link you included but it only displays the abstract. To view the rest of the article requires payment. How did you access the article – from another site? If so, please let me know so I can read a bit more about this.

  • So in other words, it’s not that practice MAKES perfect, its practicing what you need to be perfect. I agree. Finding much more real and natural language sources to listen to and read on a regular basis, along with languages exchanges so you can work on what you NEED to work on. Thanks for the post.

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