The Biggest Mistake in Learning a Language: Studying

Study Study by Lethaargic

Think studying for hours is the best way to learn a language? Guess again.

Tons of people every year decide they want to learn to speak a second language and every year they inevitably decide to do the one thing that will guarantee that they’ll never be successful – they study that language. I’ll pause for a second to allow for shocked gasps….

I know it seems counter-intuitive – particularly in a culture that forces everyone to spend at least the first 18 years of their lives constantly studying things – but the only way you can do more harm to your goal of fluently speaking a language than studying it is to never start learning at all. Thankfully, there is an easy way to reach fluency and it doesn’t involve countless hours slaving over a textbook, slamming your forehead into mile long vocab lists or parroting back sentences off of a CD.

What is it? We’ll get to that shortly. First, I want you to meet Maria.

Maria’s English Exasperation

Maria was a student I had as an ESL teacher a while back. To be polite I’ve changed her name, but Maria held a very high position in the Venezuelan branch of a large international corporation and had been studying English for years. The problem was, she still couldn’t speak it.

Maria had spent four years studying English at a university in Venezuela, one year at an English school in Scotland and another six months on top of all of that at a language school in Houston. Add in all of her self study with textbooks and the like and Maria had spent a lot of time studying English.

When she finally arrived at the language school I was teaching at, she was honestly a little bitter. She felt like no matter what she did she could never learn English. Coming to our school was her very last attempt – if Maria couldn’t make it work here, she was ready to give up entirely. In fact, she almost gave up before that when she saw the score she got on her placement test – 10%.

So, what did Maria have to show for her years and years of studying English? Well, she had a fantastic command of the grammar – but only explicitly. If you asked Maria to tell you the first-person-conditional-future-perfect-progressive form of ‘fly’, she’d reply with ‘If I will have been flying.’ Fantastic. If you asked her what she did yesterday, she might say, ‘Yesterday I go at restaurant in 4th street and have eat a dinner.’ Not so fantastic.

All those years spent studying meant she had a huge vocabulary and knew tons of grammar, but had never practiced actually using any of it. She could tell you want the subjunctive form was, but couldn’t make small talk. She knew the definitions of words like equivocate and transliteration, but had serious trouble ordering a latte. Obviously, this caused her lots of frustration.

So what made all of those years of language study practically useless to Maria? She, and I assume all of the teachers she had studied under previously, had been treating English as if it were a set of facts to be memorized. They forgot that speaking a language is a skill. See, language is like juggling.

Language = Juggling

Bear with me here.

Imagine, for a moment, that you have to individuals with the same goal; to be world class jugglers. Person A does exactly what Maria did. He gets every book he possibly can on juggling, he watches tons of videos on juggling, he enrolls in a prestigious juggling college and attends hundreds of lectures on the finer points of juggling physics, gravitational theory and detailed breakdowns of advanced juggling techniques.

Person B doesn’t bother with any of that. He grabs two oranges off the kitchen counter, and starts trying to juggle. Of course, for the first few weeks a lot of fruit finds itself bouncing on the floor or off the surprised head of Person B. He keeps at it though, and does his best to juggle every day, even if only for a minute or two.

After one year, who would you bet is a better juggler – Person A who did more reading than juggling, or Person B who never read a thing and juggled all the time?

Learning a language is no different. If you want to speak a language you practice speaking a language. You don’t wait until you’ve learned some grammar, or developed a ‘big enough’ vocabulary whatever that is, you start speaking from day one.

How did things turn out for Maria?

The very first day, after I saw her placement test and she related her history of frustration, I threw her grammar book right out the window. Not literally of course, the school frowns on the defenestration of school materials, but we spent the next two weeks talking. Just talking. Any topic I could come up with, we discussed. We read the newspapers and talked about the articles. We watched videos on my phone and chatted about them. For 4 hours a day, for two weeks straight, we talked endlessly. Every time she would make a mistake in her speech I would correct her and write down the proper sentence in her notebook.

By the end of those two weeks, Maria had made more progress in her ability to speak English than she had made in a decade’s worth of study.

Go Practice

If your goal is to speak another language fluently, stop studying and go speak! Don’t worry about making mistakes or not knowing enough words, just practice, practice, practice. I promise you it will do more to help you meet your goals than anything else you can do.

Has anyone else found themselves in a situation like Maria’s? Do you completely disagree and think that language study is the key to fluency? Let us know what you think in the comments!

Photo Credit: Lethaargic

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com