Accelerate Your Language Learning Thanks To A Great Strategy You Can Learn From Body Builders

Accelerate Your Language Learning

I would like to start this article with a hymn of praise for languages. Oh, how beautiful they are. Their sweet melody. Their hypnotizing rhythm. The ear-caressing flow of perfectly arranged words.

Ok. Joking aside. I’d like to pause again for a moment, just to think why learning a language resembles residing in one of the hell’s circles. You see, Dante was wrong. His vision did include only 9 circles.
There is actually the tenth one. It’s designed for beginners in language learning.

To successfully have a chat in a foreign language, you have to achieve so-called communicative competence. Sounds sexy, I know. But even without reading about it, you know that communicating in a language is damn demanding.

The simplified list of requirements looks like this. You need to quickly recall needed words (between 1k and 2k minimum). You need to know how to pronounce them (Phonology). You need to know where to put them in a sentence (Syntax). You need to know how they change (Morphology).

You need to when to use them depending on circumstances (Pragmatics). At the same time, you need quite a high level of comprehension to understand your interlocutor.

What’s more, if you happen to talk to somebody attractive of the opposite sex, you must remember to:

  • keep it cool
  • block excessive sweating
  • be at least remotely funny

And then there is a phase after each conversation when you have to swallow sadness, pick up the pieces of your self-confidence and convince yourself that language-learning journey IS exciting.

That sucks. We’ve all been there at one point or another. And the progress. Don’t get me started on this one. It’s excruciatingly slow in most cases.

Why?

Let’s take a look at the typical (unorganized) language journey.

Typical Effects Of Learning After A Few Years

 

Just a short notice – I didn’t make this up. These are actual words of one of my students.

“I can talk quite ok when it comes to vocabulary, listening, and pronunciation. I understand many things which I hear on the radio and TV. However, I make tons of mistakes in conversation and can only use a few tenses.”

That’s a bit shortened version. But it should give you some foretaste of the frustration. And all due to the typical classroom teaching language philosophy.

I, The Teacher, Will Correct The Cr*p Out Of Everything You Say

 

The common language-teaching philosophy is to correct or try to correct almost every mistake. That’s the way one-way ticket to becoming a mayor of the Looney Town.

Just try to imagine that you learn English (unless you really do!) and you say something along these lines – “Tim want to become doctor.”

Your tutor looks at you. His face slowly changes. And then the shitstorm ensues.

“First of all, you don’t say want, but wantS. Also, you always should remember that In English, an indefinite article is needed in front of professions. What’s more, you need to work on your pronunciation! You don’t pronounce x and y the right way…. “. And so on.

The chance is that after one lesson of this kind, you don’t remember most of these remarks. How could you? You can’t concentrate equally on talking and processing all the mistakes. Also, you probably haven’t uttered more than 30-40 sentences during one hour. The constant interruptions are not very helpful. At this pace, you’ll become fully conversant in about, well, 3-4 years?

I believe there is a better way to learn and to teach. The body-building champions can give us a great point of reference.

How Body Builders Train

“It all starts with body-part splits. The researchers were surprised to discover that every single one of these bodybuilders used body-part split-routines either five or six days a week. Every. Single. One. Not most of them or almost all of them, but every single one.”

(You can find the original article here)

A small explanation for those of us (including me) who keep their distance from gyms. Body-parts split mean that body-builders train a certain part of the body on a certain day.

You can imitate this process by conducting grammar and vocabulary drills.

Grammar and Vocabulary Grammar Drills

 

The main purpose of doing such grills is to concentrate on one thing and one thing only.
For a limited period of time, you practice just this one part of a language.

It means ignoring (as much as possible) all the other mistakes you make. If you decide to work on some future tense – so be it. Ignore the rest.

You can use this technique to activate and practise your vocabulary at the same time.
Simply prepare the list of, say, 20 words which you would like to practise and include it in your grammar drills.

Where Should You Start?

 

That’s always a very good question. But the answer is relatively simple. You should always choose the part of grammar which is essential for communication and the one that you are the worst at.

Personally, I recommend doing such drills 6 times per week. No, you can’t unwind on the seventh day. On the seventh day, you should put all the pieces together and actually have a conversation with someone. Unless, of course, you have a conversational partner handy. In this case, talk as much as possible.

Benefits

 

If you have done it before, I don’t have to convince you. For all the non-believers:

Secondly, to be a tad more mature, the said method allows you to significantly decrease the cognition burden on your working memory. You simply can’t process, analyze and correct all the mistakes you make. This method allows you to eliminate mistakes one by one.

It helps you join together and strengthen the elements that you already know, and build toward a higher level. It is like the big jigsaw puzzle when you can start plugging the missing pieces into the picture more and more quickly.

Language teachers can also use it. Instead of correcting all kinds of mistakes of your students, concentrate on one or two of them. Such approach will accelerate your students’ progress rate.

Results

 

I’ve experienced it for the first time with my German. I was doing drill after drill. And I felt like my progress wasn’t that great. And suddenly one day BOOM! Magic happened. Language fairy sprinkled some magic dust all over me and I started speaking with such confidence that I felt as if somebody else was speaking.

And I wish you the same! Let the language fairy be with you!

10 comments

  • *raises hand*

    So can I focus on a different aspect of grammar a day. Like present tense for one day, then past tense for another day and so on until say, Sunday when I can get a native speaker and go all in? NGL, that sounds simple and easy. Would forty five minutes a day be enough? Thank you for this!

    • Bartosz Czekala

      45 minutes would be definitely enough. Assuming of course that you practise in some practical way, like e.g. speaking to yourself ! 🙂
      You can focus on different aspects of grammar a day. However, I’d rather advise to practise one aspect for 2-3 days until you can use it relatively confidently.
      as always the best way is to experiment with it a bit. Just to see what works for you. Good luck! 🙂

  • I want to start using this method, but I am not sure how to create drills. I don’t have a tutor, just a husband, and he can be a bit cranky about correcting thing despite being very motivated for me to learn. Do you have any advice on creating drills, or maybe a source for them? Thanks!

  • I agree with the principle of this, but for two reasons (if I understand correctly) I disagree with the analogy.

    First, the logic is incomplete in the reasoning: just because all bodybuilders do something, does not make that thing essential or beneficial. It’s possible that all bodybuilders drink green tea, but that doesn’t make green tea essential to bodybuilding. Even if green tea was essential, it may represent only 0.1% of the final gains. To judge the effectiveness of isolation exercises (“body-part splits”) it is also necessary to consider people who do them and *don’t* become bodybuilders. Many people start in a gym, do a few bicep curls, and give up due to lack of progress. These people don’t become bodybuilders, they don’t make the sample of research like this, but unfortunately they represent the majority of people wasting their time in gyms across the world. I would equally like to see a successful bodybuilder who has *never* done a squat, a deadlift, a bench press, or a military press.

    In fact, the article implies this first point: “That’s not to say that whole-body training doesn’t have some very useful applications. For instance, it’s often the right choice for beginners. However, the key message here is that body-part splits are the preferred training program for all competitive bodybuilders.”

    Second, it’s possible to focus on one thing, while still doing a complete exercise. For example, it’s possible to train the deadlift while only focussing on lifting the weight before raising your hips. That’s an important point, because if you raise your hips first, your back has to do a lot more lever work, and you’re much more likely to injure yourself. (Equally there are variations of the deadlift that keep the hips raised at all times.) Likewise, it’s possible to focus on one language skill while still using complete sentences. While I was first learning Polish I really struggled with noun cases, but I found that learning declension rule is isolation didn’t help. For example, Polish has a rule that the direct object of a negative sentence (“I don’t have a” … vs “I have a”) takes the genitive. For example the word “house”, or “dom” in Polish. Learning (for example) that negative sentences take the genitive and that the genitive of “dom” is “domu” didn’t help me communicate. However, learning “mam dom” (I have a house) and “nie mam domu”, helped reinforce both the genitive form of “dom”, and also that negative sentences take the genitive. I made a lot of flashcards of this form, with sentences that serve as examples of rules. What I found is that the carry-over was weaker than I expected. For example, the verb “to need” in Polish (“potrzebować”) also takes the genitive case for the direct object, but that I struggled to remember this until I rehearsed phrases such as “potrzebuję domu” (“I need a house”). However, it’s possible to ignore other mistakes. For example, I might study the my flashcard for “I need a house” and say “Ja potrzebować domu” (a bit like saying “I to need a house” in English), but if all I’m concerned about is using the genitive form, I’ve reinforced a useful example in my head. When i come back to the card later, I can correct the verb and I’ll probably get the noun correct without a second thought.

    I’ve spent quite a lot of time doing free weights and I’ve done almost no isolation exercises, yet I’ve experienced some considerable strength gains. (I have mostly followed programmes along the lines of The New Rules of Lifting.) However, I’m still an amateur at lifting like I consider myself an amateur at languages, and I certainly won’t use my own body as a counterexample to professional bodybuilders. However, there’s another group of highly-trained individuals who spend almost all their time training compound exercises: olympic gymnasts. Olympic gymnasts do not spend their time doing bicep curls, and yet they have biceps most eternal beginner gym-goers would kill for. Even at an amateur level, street workout practitioners achieve impressive physiques without ever isolating muscles.

    So I think that grammar drills can be useful, but they can be done without losing the context of a full sentence, much like by changing your grip while doing pull-ups you can emphasise certain muscles without losing the goal of lifting your body off the floor. My experience is that this context makes a lot of different. It reminds me of a quote that I will probably now badly paraphrase: “People see 2 + 2 = 4, and think that as they understand ‘2’ and ‘4’ that they understand addition, but they forget that they must also understand ‘+'”.

    • You make some excellent points Ash but to be honest I think there might be some misunderstnding about what “drills” mean.
      And if there is any, this is certainly my fault since I haven’t made it clear enough! 🙂
      Drills, the way I see it, are not just mindless repeating of declensions or conjugations. They should always be done using context.
      The example you gave is a very good one! If I wanted to practise negative sentences in Polish, my drills would look, more less, like this:
      Nie mam kota ponieważ nie lubię zwierząt
      Nie mam domu ponieważ nie mam pieniędzy.

      I hope that clarifies thins at least a tiny bit! Thank you once again for your input!
      Definitely one of the most insightful comments I have ever receeved on my website!

  • A shorter way to make a correction without missing a point: the teacher says “Tim wantS to become A doctor”. He/She doesn’t have to explain the reason behind it at that moment. With enough corrections like this I think the student will eventually remeber the right way to say similar constructions.

    Wonderful article, by the way!

    • Unfortunately, the research shows that this way of correcting is one of the least effective ones.
      What’s more, you are assuming that the student knows why he is being corrected every time. Very often it’s not the case! 🙂

      Thank you very much for your comment! Much appreciated 🙂

  • I forgot to add an important part to this method: the teacher says it the right way and then asks the student to repeat it and doesn’t move on until the student says it right. At least that’s how my korean teacher works with us and I really like this way. The student doesn’t need to know right away what’s wrong, but with enough repetitions one begins to find a pattern (at least that is what happens with me).

    • I stand by what I said – it can work but it’s far from being effective. Research shows that people who can articulate a rule show dramatically better overall scores in all kinds of tests than the ones who can’t.

      As for the types of feedback, the two types that were the most successful at eliciting repair appeared to be:

      elicitation, which caused students to correct their errors 46%
      metalinguistic feedback, which resulted in a repair rate of 45%.

      There is a clear difference with the repair rate following recasts (the type of feedback you mentioned) , which was only 18%
      Example: (elicitation)
      Student: Yesterday I go to the cinema.
      Teacher: Yesterday I…?

      Example: (metalinguistic feedback)
      Student: Yesterday I go to the cinema.
      Teacher: You should use past tense. )

      Hope that clears it up! 🙂

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