May 29

Practice Makes Perfect

Does “practice make perfect” or “does practice make improvement”?

I think both can be true but really we will get much further and not get disillusioned if we aim for progress rather than perfection.  That way we can keep progressing until we get to perfection!

Did you know that when a Shuttle rocket blasts off into outer space it uses millions of gallons of fuel and nearly all of it is expended on take off? One of the more common reasons why so many language learners never “get out of the atmosphere so they can effortlessly sail through space” is that they don’t use the language they are learning enough.

A critical criterion for effective language learning is “practice”. I don’t think there would be much disagreement about this. However my experience, having taught hundreds and hundreds of language learners, is that most of them do not take this on board and then they wonder why their language is not progressing as fast as they hoped.  Clearly, there is much more to language learning than practice, but it is a vital part. Equally, there is a lot more to the kind practice we do, hence the quotation marks.

I have talked in another post about one aspect to language practice, possibly best suited to the lower levels. In this one, I want to further develop the issue of what kind of practice is effective.

What is Good Practice?

The common adage of “practice makes perfect” I believe hides the reality that not all practice will get you where you want to go.  You can go away and practice saying sentences, practice doing grammar exercises, practice your memory skills on vocabulary etc.  However, the truth of the matter is that these kinds of practice will, in most cases, never get you where most language learners want to go – to fluent use of the target language.

best way to learn a languageLanguage learning has similarities to other kinds of skill based learning however there are also differences. One of the key ones being that you can practice hammering a nail in and that WILL lead to improvement. But there are some kinds of practice in language learning, as mentioned above, that will not lead to increased proficiency for most people. What I wish to point out here is the importance of establishing whether all your hours of practice is bringing you the desired results.

By far the best kind of practice is to use the language.  Nothing can really replace that. In actual usage, we integrate the skill into who we are, into our emotions, our thoughts, our beliefs, etc.  With many conventional kinds of practice, drilling or repetition, only very superficial intellectual skills, if that, are called on.  Not surprising then that it is difficult to integrate that practice into spontaneous language use.

In a classroom setting, the best kinds of instruction use real live language based on what is happening in the class. In our personal life, seeking out chances to use language is essential. Of course, reading and listening resources are much easier to find in most places. Speaking the language is the most important skill to use in terms of language development, and that is where most language learners have difficulties in finding sufficient opportunities to practice.  One reason for that, for some people, is because they have a reluctance to use language that does not appear to be fluent. They do not want to appear foolish.

Don’t be put off. Do what you can with what you have.

This is a significant reason that stops many. If this is stopping or slowing you down, I would suggest that you do whatever it takes to get on top of this. One way is to consider what you would do if a loved one was in danger… a lot I am sure.  Same with this …if learning the language is important enough for you, you will do whatever it takes.  So see if you can build up the importance of the language you are learning for your life.

Learning a language in a second language environment (learning Spanish in Spain) should be much easier than in a foreign language setting  (learning Spanish in Japan). However, there are people who struggle as much as in second language settings as those who do in foreign language settings! That relates in part to the difficulty some people experience in establishing relationships with the “locals”.

Nowadays with the advent of high-speed internet, it is becoming increasingly easy to interact with people worldwide by Skype or through dedicated sites devoted to facilitating conversations for people who are learning languages.  These can be great, especially for people in foreign language settings. However, I have met quite a few people who use them also in second language settings. Do what it takes!

Keep in mind though that most people need untold hours of usage to get their skills up. So, no matter what you do, devoting one hour a week is not going to do the trick! That is why loving what you do and who you talk to is so important because that way you will want to do more and more of it. So really developing relationships where both people enjoy the conversations are the best types of relationships to try for. So be attentive to who you talk to and consciously look for “hooks” that you can use to the benefit of both of you.

Learn to develop your conversational skills (I have written about an easy way to do this here) so you can practice in the best possible way.  Then that saying of “practice makes perfect” may well yet come to pass. You might not have needed great conversational skills before but to learn a second language as an adult they can certainly help a lot!

“Practice isn’t the thing you do when you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” 

― Malcolm Gladwell

Whatever you do… Enjoy it!              

And for the ones of you who would prefer to listen to this post…. (a few adjustments have recently been made to the text above)



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  • Your message is on the money in terms of what students need to do to overcome one of the main obstacles preventing them from becoming proficient language learners – practice and type of practice.  You suggest that there are better ways to practice than others.  There are.  You suggest that the classes should be designed so that the students have more real conversation in their classes.  They should.  However, even the best class design is still only one hour a week (conversation school type).  Clearly, as you yourself suggest, not enough fuel there to get students to become stellar speakers (to borrow your metaphor).

    However, the real fuel that is going to get students to become stellar speakers is in the type of practice they do at home – as you suggest.  Do students just suddenly become able to speak English naturally in class?  What should they be doing in class so that they can?  What kind of practice should they be doing at home so that they can become better speakers, so that they gain the ability to talk about their lives and real situations?  Are the conventional exercises, saying sentences, grammar exercises and vocabulary practice, not to be used outside of class as they aren’t actual speaking practice?

    There are a lot of questions raised by the suggestion that we should be practicing more and doing more ‘real’ speaking but few answered.  I would love to hear, as I’m sure the students would as well, more specifically what they should be doing.

  • Jeff, Thanks for your comments and questions you raised here. They made me think some more about this area. Of course posts of this nature/length can never hope to cover all that needs to be covered. So in the confines of this comment stream, I will talk a little more about 2 questions you raise.

     1. The problem that happens in many classes is that most methodology revolves around the understanding that there is teaching and then there is practice. This is an artificial division that creates the problems we have. It is possible to combine the two and make the “use” a part of the teaching. This approach transforms classrooms into places where learners learn to improve their language through their use of it.

     2. There are ways that learners can bring their language “practice” to life at home.  They can significantly improve their learning by doing this. One example might be, when you are practicing the tenses in English in the confines of your house, say:
    “I am now in my bedroom. I am going to go to the kitchen, to make my lunch…..
    “I am going to the kitchen to make my lunch…… 
    “I was in the bedroom.” etc, etc

    Of course, it is important to be in the right place when you are saying these sentences. This kind of “practice” brings the language to life.

    The book I have been working on (and nearly finished! yay!) will address this area in more detail, but as it is primarily written for language learners, it will not go into the teaching side. Though of course teachers will be able to take a lot out of it and apply it to their teaching.

  • Thank you for taking the time to reply to my message.  I look forward to hearing more specific techniques that get the students practicing more effectively so that more of them become better speakers.

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