Looking in all the wrong places

I imagine that’s a confusing title. In fact, that was intentional. My goal was to catch a few of you assuming that the opposite of a fact is a fiction. Maybe it worked. Maybe you even got a little angry and thought, “good heavens, is Randy suggesting that language isn’t true?

No. That’s not what I’m suggesting. In fact, if you were thinking that, you may have a misconception about what a fact is. According to my dictionary, the word fact means “a piece of information about circumstances that exist or events that occurred; a concept whose truth can be proved”.

As you read that, it should already be clear to you that language doesn’t come anywhere close to fitting that definition. A fact is a piece of information: small, and based on evidence. Facts can be shared. Facts can be taught. Facts can be written. You know how to learn facts.

But language isn’t a fact. So why are you trying to learn it like one?

Language is a skill. It’s an ability. It is the “possession of the qualities required to do something.” You can’t learn a language like a fact, you have to learn it as a skill. And how do you learn a skill?

How do you learn to walk? How do you learn to tie your shoes? How do you learn to kick a ball, run a marathon, tie a necktie, flip an omelet, drive a car, catch a fish, etc.?

I have a feeling you didn’t learn any of those things by reading a book. I’m willing to bet you never had any flashcards for cooking, and you probably didn’t listen to any CDs about knitting.

So how do you learn a skill? Simple: you learn by doing it. You learn the mechanics of a good golf swing by repeating that golf swing over and over. You learn to make a good crêpe by virtue of having made plenty of bad, burned, ugly crepes. A good typist is good because they type a lot.

Traditional learning methods are designed for learning facts, not languages. Yeah, sure, when you spend your time doing flashcards, you are acquiring a skill: the ability to do flashcards. When you spend your time listening to instructional CDs, you are acquiring the skill of patiently listening to boring CDs. When you use LiveMocha or Busuu, you’re acquiring the skill of using those web sites.

But the amount of language acquisition is insignificant in all of those situations, because the one thing you are definitely not doing in any of those situations is using the language.

So if you know that language is a skill, and you know that skills are acquired by repetition and use, why are you still trying to learn a language from a book, a web site, a CD, a computer program, a deck of flash cards? If you want to understand a new language, you have to get accustomed to hearing it. And if you want to learn how to speak a language well, you can only do it by speaking.



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