In this chapter we will look at how you learn your language, starting from the core principle, then moving on to the three ways you learn: discover, practice, and drill. Subsequent chapters will look at grammar, vocabulary, and the four skills.
If you take nothing else from this book, understand this: you acquire your language when you use it. This idea comes from a book by linguist Stephen Krashen. Krashen’s insight gives rise to the single most important principle in language learning. You will see it repeated throughout this guide:
Principle: Use the language in order to learn it
The best way for you to learn a language is by engaging with it meaningfully, achieving comprehension of real information. To do that you need a large amount of input that is both comprehensible and interesting to you. That can mean reading texts, listening to podcasts, watching videos, writing stories, finding native speakers to practise with, or anything else that takes your fancy. Languages are learned when you encounter grammar and vocabulary and are prompted to recall their meaning or produce it in context.
Learning does not happen after completing textbook exercises, memorising a word or rule, or repeating after a teacher. Language is a skill you must practice and refine. In many ways, it is more like learning to ride a bike or play an instrument than learning facts or rules. Without seeing how it all goes together you will not learn to use the language, nor will anything you learn through exercises stick. Later, speaking and writing in a low-pressure environment will further solidify your knowledge and let you practice the skills essential to use your language.
Discover, practice, drill
Discover, practice, and drill are the three fundamental ways you come to apprehend some aspect of your language. All three are embodied by the three core resources I recommended earlier. This section will discuss what they are, then talk about how to do them well.
In many ways, discovery is the simplest aspect of learning a language. This his where you seek and discover or are informed about some aspect of your language. This can be through your beginner course, looking up words in a dictionary, watching YouTube videos, or reading about a rule on someone’s blog, for example.
The counterpart to discovery would be absorption, where you subconsciously apprehend words and forms just by being exposed to your language. This is how you learned a lot of your native language.
Your course should be full of avenues for you to discover aspects of your language. The key thing I want you to take away from this section is how powerful discovery is. Just being made aware of a word’s definition or a grammatical form and how it works makes your eventual apprehension of it much faster than trying to understand it by pure exposure.
A great way to passively pick up grammar and vocabulary is by simply noticing. That means noticing words and constructions you have had explained to you before and recalling their function and meaning while using content. As you engage with your content, previously unknown forms gradually will become clear to you.
Keep an eye out for new unknown forms or words as you read. Noticing something, becoming curious, searching for a word, and learning its meaning is a very powerful way to learn. Looking things up every time is usually not practical. Instead, try to be aware so that you can spot common forms, eventually looking them up once you encounter them enough that you have an idea of how they are used.
As discussed in the above section on comprehensible input, just discovering a new word or form will not make you learn it. For that you need practice.
Practising is the act of using your language for your goal in an integrated fashion. Practice blends and hones the skills and knowledge you already have with less focus on gaining new knowledge. There are two key forms of practice, input and output, and they help you apprehend words and forms in different ways.
Any activity can involve one or the other, but will often be both at once. You can compare reading or writing, which only involve one form, to conversation practice, which requires both input and output.
By being exposed to forms and words repeatedly in context, you will eventually come to remember them and understand how they are used. Using input well can be done by using the above principle Use the language in order to learn it. The best input is comprehensible and interesting to you.
Output often features less prominently in beginner methods. This is for a good reason—it is difficult to benefit from output when you know very little of the language.
There are two key ways output can benefit you:
Recalling and using a word or form is a very good way of solidifying it in your memory
Output enables other learners or native speakers to give you feedback—this is a very important aspect of reaching a high level
Beware: output has a hidden danger. While it solidifies words and forms in your mind, there is no guarantee the output you create is native-like. This can mean you accidentally solidify ways of speaking that don’t sound natural to a native speaker. Avoiding this will be discussed in the chapter Mistakes.
Despite its potential pitfalls, output is an incredibly important part of your language learning method, especially as you approach the intermediate stage. A great activity, conversation practice, will be covered later here.
Drilling is the act of trying to improve a specific component of language by doing an activity that focuses only on that, without worrying as much about how it fits in the broader language.
Drilling works by reducing your cognitive load, which is essentially the number of things you have to hold in your working memory. This lets you dedicate all of your brain power to learning one thing, where normally you would be distracted by all the other elements of your language and struggle to pick it up as fast. Drills are ideal for isolating and improving on an individual weakness. Exercises such as practising pronunciation, textbook activities, and flashcards all count as drills. In the beginner stage, you don’t need to worry too much about picking the perfect drill—flashcards get you most of the way there. Later, we will look at a larger set of drills you could do here.
Drills don’t have to be simple rote-learning activities. In fact, some drills are far superior to others. When you do a drill exercise, you should assess if it is truly helping you.
A good drill exercise:
uses real language as much as possible, such as the content you use
simulates the part of the real-life situation you are looking to improve in
is relevant to the weaknesses currently preventing you from achieving your goals
focuses on building skills or knowledge crucial to understanding
A bad drill would:
be irrelevant to the content you are using
be irrelevant to your goals or weaknesses
focus on aspects of the language that you will come to acquire through input anyway and that do not prevent you from understanding your content
I recommend you avoid drilling too much. A lot of the skills learners choose to drill will be developed naturally over time with input.
In the next chapters we will cover how to approach grammar, vocabulary, and the four skills.