The Secret Ingredient to Language Learning

Yesterday my teacher said that my way of learning grammar was unique.  She even did an impression of me;  quietly reading a grammar explanation, frowning, nodding… and then producing well-formed sentences.  Most people are not like that, she said.

Well, I’m glad to be able to do that.  I’ve been studying grammar all my life and I know my way around some verbs.  Romance languages taught me about grammatical agreement, tense, voice, and mood.  Chinese has taught me about shifting focus away from the actor of a sentence using grammar; putting it instead on an object. So the places where Tagalog is “difficult” reminds me a lot of work that I have done before.  I can read a grammatical explanation off the page and then start producing.

Here’s the deal though; grammatical analysis is NOT the language learning superpower.  It’s handy, absolutely, and it’s impressive to bystanders, but it’s not the secret ingredient.

The secret ingredient is practice.  Even though I can produce well-formed sentences from a first reading of an explanation, I still have to practice the forms in real conversation.  I still have to make mistakes and work thorough doubts and get confused.  Does everybody hear this?  I’m going to make mistakes.  That’s how I’ll get to fluency, just like everyone else.

I can know the mechanics and physics of how a bicycle works; I can do all the math and analyze the process, but I won’t know how to ride a bike until I physically put myself on the bike and pedal.  The process necessarily involves wobbling and falling.

I do have very high expectations for myself this summer; I expect to learn a lot about Tagalog, academically.  Whether or not I become a proficient speaker, though, will depend on my willingness to practice and make mistakes.  Just like everybody else.  From a proficiency standpoint, I’m in the same position as someone who can’t tell an adjective from an adverb.  Practice is still everything.

I keep remembering back when I finished my study abroad in France, and I left disappointed in my level of French.  But then a year later after 9 months back in Seattle, I realized I had a new command of vowels and an ease with complex structures that I had gained without any intentional effort on my part.

People like to believe that they have direct control over their learning, that working hard will produce a direct improvement over time.  But we have to remember, we’re not filing language into our brains; we’re giving language to our brains to file.  The good news is that it’s instinctual, and it goes faster than we think.  The bad news that we’re not really in control of the schedule, and we do like to feel in-control.

The best we can do is practice our faces off with real communication, as much as possible, on a daily basis.  Get plenty of sleep, hand have healthy blood circulation so the brain can install the new language.  And to try to be joyful about language learning, as our memories hold on to emotion.

Reading grammar off the page?  It’s not the secret ingredient.  It’s still a pretty cool trick, though.

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