This is a kind of a dry topic, but it is a very important concept to understand if you are someone who is trying to master a second language. If you have ever been in a language class, or tried to learn a new language on your own in your spare time, you know how horrible the process is. You study and study and study and make almost no progress. You try again. You study and study more. You buy books and CDs and DVDs. You join more classes. You watch TV in the language you want to learn. You buy new pens and notebooks. Special notebooks. Special pens.
But you feel like you don’t know anything. All your efforts so far, all your special stationary supplies are a waste. The sit on your desk and you feel like they are mocking you, like they are laughing at you.
You have failed.
You have not failed. You have actually made some progress, even if you don’t know it. Even if you don’t feel it. You have, in fact, learned something. In your brain. Deep in your brain there is the vocabulary that you have studied. It lies deep in your head, but it cannot come to the front of your brain, and out of your mouth yet. It needs to be revisited. It needs to be reviewed. It needs to be forced a little more. It needs to be polished up.
Researchers have shown us that in order for a foreign word to become natural for us to use it requires seven or eight reviews. It needs seven or eight contextual uses so that it becomes natural for you, and then you will recognize it as having been learnt.
Learning language is not like anything else, and the closest proximity we can find is the study of music. Music needs practice and rehearsal. Endless practice and rehearsal until it sounds natural and spontaneous. We hear the “voice” of great pianists and guitarists. They are smooth and seamless. It is because they practice like crazy. Of course there are the very unique few who can learn language or music instantly, but for the rest of the peons like me and you, we have to plod along, endlessly, relentlessly. We have to be like a dog with a bone.
Like a dog with a bone.
This is the year of the dog. Language study is the bone.
That parallel just fell into this article. How cool is that?
So, learning language is incremental, and unromantic. It needs time and persistence. Knowing that is a powerful thing, and it is liberating too. If anyone says, “You studied language for so long, why don’t you speak it yet?” The only answer is, “I am still practicing.”
Those are the same words spoken by martial arts masters in Japan. They never claim mastery, even though to the outsider they are completely flawless. They are “in the midsts of learning”. Surely we can take that to heart in our own study, whatever it is we are trying to learn.
Language learning is not fun. We need the building blocks of language–vocabulary. And lots of it. We have our students write out vocabulary lists. They make vocabulary cards. We drill the vocabulary. We quiz them. We review and review and review and review.
Then…. we can build some sentences. And that is the fun part. We can choose simple grammatical structures and drop in a verb, drop in a noun, drop in an adjective. Instantly we are using language, playing with language, and reviewing it. We can learn a more complex pattern, something with prepositions. Drop in a verb, a noun, an adjective, and jump it around. The kids can see how easy, and fun it can be.
It’s fun because they master something. It’s fun because they really KNOW something. And what they have played with in a variety of forms gets reviewed. Soon it gets to seven or eight times of usage and they can keep that part of language in their minds. Forever.
Then review it all one more time.
Then get out the vocabulary worksheets, the cards, and do it all over again.