The Language Course Paradox

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Or: There is no way around quantity: loads of exposure and practice if you want to develop skills or knowledge.

I have a big issue with school learning of the type I observe and read about and experienced myself. I love learning, but learning takes time. Time, I feel, is something schoolkids don’t always seem to be getting.

When you are introduced to a new concept or a new skill, you don’t look at it, learn about it, and then know or can. You have to start and keep practicing (with skills) or go deeper, read more etc. (with abstract knowledge).

I know people who stop practicing the minute they get it right – once. To give an example: You go to dancing lessons and learn a new figure. You struggle to get it right. Your teacher shows you again and again, and after a while your feet and brain match; you have understood what you are supposed to do. So you say, okay, got it. Let’s move on. No.

This is the moment, where you have to go on with the same thing. You have to continue practicing over and over again until you reach the moment where you have internalized what you have been practising. Until you feel that it would take a very long time of not doing ‘it’ any more before you forget. Otherwise you will – quickly – forget.

You cannot do this during your dancing lesson, there is not enough time. You need to practice with your dancing partner outside your time-limited 90 minute or so lesson.

Your one hour tennis training will also not be enough. You get some tips, your trainer shows you how to do things, tries to show you what you are doing wrong, how to do it better …. and then you have to go out, with a ball-machine or a training partner, and practice over and over again.

When I started playing tennis, I bought a device for practicing on my own: a ball attached to a base by a string. Later, we got a ball machine in our club and I was a regular user. I watched videos on the internet by professional trainers (it’s amazing – and great – how many professional teachers, trainers and coaches share their knowledge on the internet – for free). I looked at slow motion videos of professional players, read books, and enjoyed all of it.

Many of my tennis playing friends only play. And some are happy with doing just that and only that. But I have also seen many frustrated people who have been playing for years and don’t understand why they are not getting better.

But playing is trying out and using what you practiced before. It is performing, not learning. When you practice a piece of music, you play the parts you still get wrong again and again. When you go on stage, you hope you will get through the song without any glitches. When you speak a language, you use what you have learned, what is already in your mind. You perform. (I wouldn’t claim that you learn nothing in either of the settings, you do, but I would carefully claim that what you learn or gain is more experiential; something to mull over when you go practising again.)

I love the challenge of learning something new and doing whatever it takes to get there – ‘there’ being a place where I feel fairly sufficiently capable of doing and understanding whatever it is I am trying to do and understand.

Sometimes I have the feeling that learners believe taking a course is enough. They believe because they are going to a training session once a week, or a dancing lesson, or a language course, they will learn.

No, that one course is not enough, it’s a start, the trigger, the place where you get ideas and knowledge that then needs to be supplemented by whatever helps you in gaining what you want to gain, be it retrievable knowledge or skills. In school this was called ‘homework’. And if it was good homework, you got tasks or material with which you could deepen the knowledge or skills you learned about in your school lesson. If it was not so good, it was maybe too much or not appropriately linked to what you had done in class.

Every once in a while, I have the feeling that a new member in my class actually did more on their own before they enrolled in a course. It is as if the learning process had gotten delegated to the course, the teacher, this once-a-week meeting. “I’m taking a course therefore I learn”. But in fact, they don’t. At best they keep the level they had when joining, but sometimes they feel that they are stagnating. This is what I call the ‘Language Course Paradox’.

The above observation does not apply to advanced classes where the goal is to use your language and enjoy dealing with new topics, discussing issues, communicating and exchanging ideas, thoughts and feelings. Here we develop our language (also our native languages) as we go along and actively use what we have, building on our foundation, adding new things, words or other language and topic related knowledge.These are constant learning processes based on meaningful communication and contents of interest.

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