In the massive, perplexing, and unclear world of language learning, one of the most difficult challenges the language enthusiast has to overcome is figuring out what to focus their attention on.
There are so many different possible exercises we could do that it confounds our abilities to assess what we truly require to take our language to the next level. Here’s an incomplete list off the top of my head of things we could do next:
Listen to a podcast. Slowed down? Heard before or new? Difficulty level?
Watch a movie. Subtitles? In what language? Difficulty level? Straight through or focus on a single scene?
Read. With or without a translation? Out loud or in my head? For speed or comprehension?
Write. Work on spelling? Grammar? Simple phrases or large pieces?
Grammar exercises? Nouns? Verbs? Tenses? The subjunctive mood? gerunds in the future continuous?
Vocabulary. Flashcards? Reading? Listening?
Here’s the kicker.
It doesn’t matter. Much.
Before we ever get to this particular choice, we’re making a mistake that’s suffocating our progress and holding us back from speaking (or otherwise communicating) in our target language as skillfully as possible, in the shortest time necessary.
And it can be summed up in 4 words: “I already know that.”
When we start learning a new language we are quickly introduced to simple phrases that we encounter every day: Hello. How are you? I’m fine. What are you doing? Where do you live? And various simple nouns like sun, shirt, shoes, and cake.
Generally, we move past this stage fairly quickly and dive into more complex stuff, looking at all the things we can’t yet say and feeling both frustrated and overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.
And we do this, because we quickly become capable of recognizing all these simple words and phrases when we encounter them.
But note that crucial word – recognize.
If you have spent any time working on a 2nd or additional language, you’re well aware that our ability to recognize things is always light-years ahead of our ability to recall and utilize them.
But unfortunately, our minds trick us into thinking that we know something by our ability to recognize it, not to reproduce it ourselves.
For instance, when I was still living in Canada I spent a lot of time with a good friend from Brazil and I figured it would be fun to learn Portuguese. So I spent 3 intense days working on vocabulary – as most of the grammar I was able to understand thanks to French, and by day three I could read a Portuguese newspaper with acceptable comprehension and listen to a podcast without being totally lost.
Sounds amazing right? Well it’s not. With 100s of loan words from French and English, similar grammars, and a tiny bit of self application I achieved an extraordinary amount of recognition skill. I could teach someone with a similar language background to do the exact same feat with minimal hassle.
But I couldn’t speak. Or write. Or actually use the language in any substantial way. That’s why I don’t list Portuguese as a language I know in my resume or even on this site – even though I was able to read job ads in Portuguese and apply for jobs. With no translators or dictionaries.
At that time I equated recognition with knowledge. And if I already “knew” it that meant that I didn’t need to practice it.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong!
Want a simple way to assess your language skill? Test your ability to produce it – not understand it. This can mean orally or written.
And start with simple things. Construct simple sentences about wanting things, going places, and doing things in as many variations as you can come up with.
I gave the ball to John. I gave John’s ball to the dog. John gave me his ball. John’s dog gave him my ball. Her ball was given to John by me. The last 2 aren’t grammatically beautiful, but that’s not the object of the exercise here.
Seriously, come up with 100 variations of these simple ideas. Chances are, you’ll run into a ton of gaps in your ability to construct them. Even though I bet that if you saw any of them, you’d understand. You’d think you “know” them.
This is on big reason the “hard” stuff is hard. Because we can’t actually do the easy stuff that the hard stuff is built upon. We think we can, but that’s because almost every course and exercise we encounter in the classroom and online are based on recognition, not recollection and production.
On the other hand, once we are quick and accurate with the “simple” things, those things we thought were hard become simple, little additions.
This all goes back to a philosophy I find is central to my life and transcends language learning: “If you don’t know how to use what you’ve got, getting more isn’t going to help.” Almost everybody wants more money before they even learn the basics of personal finance, and thus are part of the 90% of people that spends roughly 100% of what they earn, never being able to afford those big, dreamy things they’ve always wanted such as vacations and unicorns.
Language is the same. Have a 500 word vocabulary. Great. Not only can you probably construct about 10 billion sentences with that, but you can probably communicate 30-40% of the content that you’d be able to if you knew 5,000 words.
My language system is designed not just to explode your vocabulary, but to make that vocabulary accessible at a moment’s notice.
That’s key. You’ve got to be able to use what you already have, otherwise you need a new approach. Doing this will prime your brain for what’s to come next. You’ll absorb the structure and the flow of the language and begin to develop that all-important intuition that native speakers get by birthright and outsiders almost never develop.
To do this we must be proactive. Most of us are probably used to having language information poured into our heads. That won’t cut it. We have to apply ourselves mentally, dig in, and get to work.
Create, create some more, and get a native speaker to correct your work. Then keep on creating. It’s not something you’ll find in a book.
The answers are already in your own mind.
Use what you have. Master what you have. And the rest will come.