Language is Not Knowledge

The text below is a slightly amended transcribed version of the clip above. With subheadings included to improve readability.

​Hi there.

Introduction

This is the fourth in the series of videos where I have been looking at the myth of why most people consider that it is not possible for an adult to learn a second language to native-like proficiency. There are four legs that hold up this myth.

The first ​one I looked at was translation and why excessive use of it actually undermines the ability to learn a new language and especially to get to the higher levels.

The second ​factor I talked about in the following week was about the issue of passion and why without having a real passion in the learning that you're doing, achieving these levels is not really possible.

Anyway, if you want to listen more into more depth about th​ese factors and the myth itself, just ​click on the links above.

Language is not Knowledge

So, what I want to talk about today is the third ​ factor and this is to do with the fact that even though we understand that language is a skill, in fact, most practices that people ​use and ​they've been taught at school right through school and University is all about seeing language as knowledge.

This is such an important factor that it really deserves its own spot really and we needs to be looked at very, very carefully because it's easy to skim past and say “Oh, yeah, yeah, I know that.”  But the the implications of fully understanding what is a skill and what you have to do to actually learn languages as a skill is something that has not really fully permeated into our learning and teaching cultures.

​You may be wondering about what I actually mean here. So I'll give you a few examples. The first one is memorization. Now, I suspect that most language learners learning any language would have used this practice. Basically, how this works is you take a piece of language, like a word or a phrase or maybe a grammar rule.  Then you try to commit it to memory. I'm sure you all know of memorization is. This practice rests on the notion that language is a piece of knowledge that you can memorize, that you can take and put  it into your brain and then use later as a skill.
   
Now, I ask you, in what practical skill can you think of where we do this. I mention practical skills here because they are the best ones to talk about because it's easy to see the parallels, and the principles are identical. So, in what practical skill, for example, cooking, basketball, weaving, piano playing or whatever has anybody sat down and worked at memorizing some aspect of it.

What guitar player will try to memorize the chords? "This is how I hold my fingers and I've got to memorize it." They don't do that. What they do do is they do the thing. They play the chords and playing the chords is a physical skill. It goes into a kind of memory without a doubt, but it's not memorization. Basically by doing it you learn these things and that that's the critical difference between memorization and learning something through doing it.

Another example is repetition. You may repeat something because you want to memorize it.  Now again, a basketball player will repeat shooting baskets, time and time again. But the difference is that they're trying to achieve something and they see by doing it, whether they've achieved it or not. By doing that, they then adjust what they did for the next time and try to make it a little bit better. So, everything is based on what you can do. It is not based on some bit of memory that you're trying to put it in your brain somehow.

Language is a Skill

As language is a skill, you can't access these random bits of information stored in the brain. It's why people get stuck, because you're trying to access these random bits of memory with no connection to anything else. They just planted them in the brain. They are just sitting there and of course when you try to speak or try to use the language, these bits don't jump back.

This is one of the reasons why so many people say, “I’ve learned all these words. I've learnt all this I learnt all that but I can't seem to be able to use it.” Fundamentally, the reason for that is because they learned it the wrong way.

So, another example of ways skill is not being used is how many people go and study the grammar rules. They go through a book, look at the grammar rules and try to understand it and then you do some exercises on it. All of this again is to do with kind of memory. It's a little bit different because what they do is also based on understanding.  But understanding is not a skill. Sorry, understanding is a skill. But understanding of itself is not a language skill. And it is language skills we are talking about here.

So that's why when you even though, for example, you know a grammar rule and then you can do all these exercises on it, it doesn't actually mean you're going to be able to use it when you need it. This is because you've learned something not as a skill, you've learned it as a piece of knowledge and understanding that you put into your brain, in a different part of the brain to where it needs to be for its use.  

There are some people who can take all this, what they've been taught in school or how they've learnt it in this way and transform it back into a skill. Now what these people do is if they've actually unconsciously worked out a process of transforming what they have learned this way into a skill. Because no one ever gets taught this, most people never work it out and as a consequence most of them get stuck.

Now, the interesting thing is that even the ones who get to a high level through doing this process will never achieve native-like levels. This is because it requires something else at the higher levels then doing this. The skill development they need to have mastered. they haven't actually completely mastered.

Psychological Impacts

Another big problem that comes out of learning language as knowledge that by working at language in this way, they actually end up feeling disempowered by the whole process and losing what passion they had. This is because the person who is learning knows that.  “I've done all this work and still I can't speak well”.

What this does is it basically cuts your legs off as it were. It actually disempowers you, it takes away your passion, it takes away your gut urge to learn the language because you feel, “I can't do it. There's something wrong with me. I haven't got the genes. I haven't let you know that aptitude.” Well, you do have it. It's just that you've been going about it in the wrong way and that's why you've got stuck. So, by now you may be wondering. Well, what can I do? If I don't do all these things well,

The Alternatives

You know obviously, in such a short time as we have here, I can't go into the nuts and bolts of it.  What I can do is to talk about a few fundamental principles. The first one is that skills are built from the bottom up. So with any skills you can think about, it's like a layering of skill levels. You can't get to the higher levels without properly mastering the lower ones.

Make sure that whenever you learn something you build on what you can already do, not on what you know. This is because when you start building on things that you know but don't don you're actually creating new problems for yourself. It's going to lead you down paths you don't want to be on. So, always come back to this whole notion of, “What can I actually do? What can I actually say properly or fluently or confidently?” And then build on that. If you stick to this, that one principle, that will get you a long way.

Also, as you go up to the higher levels and you want to widen and deepen your your language skills, make sure that you're building them on a firm structure. If you go about deepening and widening your language skills, and there are faulty layers of skills underneath, basically, what that's going to do is create some problems. It is going to embed the problems even deeper and they will be more difficult to unpack.

You can certainly fix the skills at any stage. But the higher you go, you have to go deeper and deeper to fix these issues up.

Another important thing in working with language is a skill is that it is up to you really to start to notice where you're struggling. Where are the problems, where are the issues you have? And so this whole focus now has to be of raising your awareness, of becoming more sensitive to things, of becoming more perceptive, about what's going on with your language and how people react to you and how you sound compared to others. So the things you notice becomes food for you. It will tell you what you need to do next. Rather than go to a book and think, what do I need to learn? Focus on what you are not doing, ore on what you need to do, and then work on that skill.

That brings me to another key point. That is it is really important to notice, to learn to notice you're making improvements. So, for example, I'm working on this particular language bit of language.  For example, the articles.

“Before, I really was not doing them that well and now I'm doing them better and better all the time. I'm getting a better and better understanding of how they work and actually am using them at the right point in time.”

If you can notice that, it will give you confidence in yourself and it will give you some feeling for yourself about “I can do this!” Your skills will start rising.  So, noticing what's going wrong and noticing what you've done and noticing how you've improved is critical when you go onto the path of improving your language as a skill.

Of course, there's a lot more that can be said here but I hope you now have a sense of why this particular leg of this myth ( the one which says that language can be learned like knowledge), the third one, is such an important one. One that has to be chopped down. Why it has to be gotten rid of from your arsenal of learning. Because, if you don’t, it will keep undermining you. It'll keep giving you problems down the road forever more as long as you keep learning language in that way.

I do I hope this talk has been a value to you and I look forward to talking to you again next week about the fourth and final leg of what's been holding up this myth. Thank you for listening.

It's been Andrew Weiler here.

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