Choosing What to Study

In this chapter I am aiming to give you a framework to decide what activities to do. You may notice you already do a lot of what is here. The purpose is to help you understand what is happening beneath the hood and use that knowledge to do it better.

Goals and weaknesses

Two fundamental factors weigh on your choice of what to study:

  1. Your goals

  2. Your weaknesses

Your goals

The best activities for study either closely simulate or match your goals. For example, if you are learning a language for its literature, reading a book is a perfect exercise. If your goal is to have conversations, your focus should be on listening and speaking activities.

Your weaknesses

A weakness is anything that prevents you successfully completing your goal. Based on your experience engaging with your goals, try to decide what is most holding you back. For example, if you can read but struggle to watch TV shows without subtitles, you may need to work on your aural comprehension.

If you’re not sure, it’s a good bet your vocabulary is holding you back at least somewhat. A fluent speaker of English knows over 10,000 words, and you’re probably not there yet.

Once you’ve identified a weakness, choose resources and do activities that let you improve that aspect or skill you are lacking in. For example, you may choose podcasts because you struggle to understand spoken language, or you may pick some written content that interests you to help you learn words.

What do I need to know?

To help you think about your weaknesses, here is a list of things you can aim to improve. This list is not comprehensive. What is most important will depend on your goals and target language.

Potential weaknesses to focus on

Core component or skill Aspect
Grammar Function of verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs
Word order
Other grammar (language-dependent)
Vocabulary Number of words known
Prepositions and other particles
Common phrases
Reading Orthography
Characters (for languages like Chinese or Japanese)
Listening Sound perception
Distinguishing words
Speed of comprehension
Speaking Phonetics
Fluidity and pace
Writing Spelling
Writing speed

Now we will look at the kinds of exercises you can do plus how to think about which ones to choose.

Direct practice

It is often best to directly practise the thing you want to get better at. For example, if you want to improve at conversation, then talk with native speakers. If you find your main goal too difficult, you can do similar tasks, such as listening to podcasts or speaking aloud in a mirror, if necessary.

You may often find yourself doing other forms of practice that are not your goal. There can be good reasons for this:

  • You may not be able to practise your goal

  • You may want some variety in your learning

  • You may need something a bit easier in order to improve on your weaknesses—For example, you may read because you are frequently missing grammatical forms in conversation

This type of indirect practice can be useful; however, it is usually slower at helping you achieve your goals. As much as possible, your practice should be direct.

Learners often substitute direct practice with a related task when they shouldn’t. Those who want to communicate will pass time drilling grammar, vocabulary, or reading news. These tasks have their place, but will not result in progress without a lot of direct practice.

Practise then drill

Earlier in this guide we covered two essential components of a good method: practice and drill. These often do not sit as separate activities, but in fact should be used in tandem. I want you to keep this in mind when it comes to choosing activities.

Skills gained during drills do not easily transfer to other situations. Just because you spend lots of time drilling grammar, that does not mean you will find yourself effortlessly employing it when you next speak. This gives rise to the next principle:

Principle: Practise then drill
In order to improve, it is best to practise then drill the weaknesses you identify are holding you back. Follow up by attempting to practise your goal again, consciously employing the new knowledge you have gained from your drills.

Real-world skill at language (or any task) is a complex melding of its constituent skills that involves novel scenarios and unpredictability that drills can struggle to simulate. This is why basic workbook grammar exercises are not a recommended drill. You’ll get very good at doing tests, but what portion of that will easily transfer to your speaking? Not so much.

Balance drill and practice. Both will help you improve, but each has strengths and weaknesses that play off each other. Excessive study without practice will not translate into skills that help you achieve your goals. Excessive practice without study could cause you to develop fossilised errors (this often occurs with people who speak a lot) or cause your rate of improvement to stagnate.

Principle: 80 percent of your results come from 20 percent of your study
Otherwise known as the Pareto Principle, this principle is applied to basically every field out there and has its origins in management theory. This principle is not a fundamental law, but the observation that the fastest progress can be made by focusing on a certain subset of issues that are having the largest impact on performance.
Applying it to language learning, the principle states that for any domain of your target language, fixing the biggest 20% of your issues will achieve 80% of the impact you can get in that domain. Similarly, 20% of your study time is probably achieving 80% of your results. Some activities you are doing are probably having a minimal impact, while some smaller gaps in your knowledge are probably having an outsized impact on your ability to communicate. Think about what activities seem to give you the biggest improvements and re-assess your study routine.

Language Learning Activities

I hope that by now you have a good understanding of what a good exercise looks like for you. In this section we will look at some possible activities for you to do. While you are getting ideas, I want you to keep in mind the principle Practise then drill. Find activities that closely simulate your goal, then choose drills that address your weaknesses.

All activities fall into one of three categories:

  1. Meaning-focused

  2. Language-focused

  3. Fluency-focused

Each falls into a niche that helps you apprehend your language.

How much you do of each is up to you, though the nature of meaning-focused language learning activities means they will likely take most of your time.

Next we will look at what these categories are and some activities for you to consider doing. You don’t have to do every activity; in fact, people commonly get away with doing only a few.

Meaning-focused activities

Large amounts of natural language are required to learn a language, so the learner should be seeking out and engaging with large amounts of input. The goal is simply to expose yourself to as much of the language as possible and generally understand what is happening. It will be helpful to become comfortable with an incomplete understanding of what you read or hear.

Meaning-focused activities

Activity Description
Extensive reading Already mentioned earlier. Reading as much as possible and on a wide range of subjects. The goal is to be exposed to as much vocabulary as possible while still understanding what you read, even if not fully.
Narrow reading Staying within a specific topic area when reading can help you encounter many of the same words over and over to improve your vocabulary retention. It can also help you target the kind of vocabulary you learn. You can achieve this by following the same topic in the news or reading about a specialist area of knowledge you already know about.
Conversation practice Already mentioned earlier. Talking and listening to native speakers in real conversation is highly beneficial.
Reading while listening Helps you get used to sounds while reading, as well as improving comprehension over simply listening.
Listening to audio This works like extensive and narrow reading, but by listening to podcasts or radio. This can be harder since listening is a more difficult skill to master.
Read and write Try reading and then writing a short article about a topic. If you want to mix it up, you don’t have to read, but can instead watch or listen and write.

Language-focused activities

This is when you utilise some smaller piece of content to attempt focused improvement at a specific component or skill, such as a grammar concept, vocabulary, natural phrases, or aural comprehension. This is the closest to a typical desk study session. Resources used for language-focused learning are often more difficult than those you would use for meaning-focused learning.

Language-focused activities

Activity Description
Intensive reading Drilling with content. This means carefully reading a specific text with the objective of learning a new piece of language. Your goal is to understand the text by repeatedly reading it and consciously choosing what you will focus on.
Memorising sentences or words using flashcards This technique is well covered in the sections on flashcards.
Writing new forms and words down Self-explanatory. Many people find the act of writing to be helpful for memorisation.
Translating between languages If you have a dual-language text, you might try to translate your native into your target language, then compare your translation to the actual text.
Delayed copying Using a rather small text (approx. 200 words), read it first to understand it, then follow up by going through, trying to remember the first four or five words and writing them on a piece of paper without referring back to the text. You can gradually increase the number of words. This helps you hold longer and longer phrases in your head.
Writing practice Write something and send it to a native to be corrected. Optionally, write a follow-up text integrating what you have learned.

Fluency-focused activities

These are exercises aimed at helping you improve the speed and ease at which you can use language you already know, focusing on the four skills. If you use content, you will generally use it for some specific component and focus only on that. Typical fluency-focused activities involve pronunciation.

Fluency-focused activities

Activity Description
Listening for sounds Focusing on sounds rather than meaning to hear how words sound in connected speech.
Shadowing Listening to dialogues with text and trying to mimic the speakers as closely as possible. After a few repetitions you can try to speak over top of them. Helps work on intonation and pronunciation.
Repeated writing Writing, getting it checked and corrected, looking at it carefully, putting it away, and then writing it again from memory.
Repeated speaking Record yourself speaking a text and play it back, listen and compare to a native.

Key tip: Make sure you get some variety
Try to do study involving at least one activity from each of the three categories. In addition, it will help to include a little bit of each of the four skills. A bit of everything will allow each skill to build on the other. For example, reading a lot will help your speaking, but even speaking every now and then will aid your reading by making words and concepts more salient in your mind.

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