You Can't Learn A Language If All You Do Is Study

I recently saw a comment on a friend's Facebook. He was at a coffee shop and saw an old man seated nearby with a Spanish workbook, a huge Spanish-English dictionary, and one of those giant books of 500 Spanish verbs. He guessed this old man was in his 80s, and he found inspiration in this scene. The Facebook comment was, "I hope I'm still learning languages like this when I'm 80."

Yes, it's inspiring to think that you'll still be passionate about the things you love when you get old. But unfortunately, that doesn't sound like the case with this old man. He wasn't passionate... he was studying. I hope you're not ever learning like him... at any age.

Stop studying

I've already been quite clear in the past about how I hate memorization, study, and all the traditional methods of learning. So, unsurprisingly, I get questions from people all the time, asking me How do you learn if you don't study?

But the real question is, How can you possibly learn when all you do is study?

You may think that's just a clever response, but it's actually a serious question! I can't imagine how anyone could learn anything if all they ever did was study.

Do you think you could spend weeks, months, or years reading books about cars, and driving, and suddenly be able to drive a car? If you've ever actually been behind the wheel, you know that five minutes of driving will teach you more than a lifetime of reading about it.

Do you think an athlete could spend all his time reading about his sport, and suddently become a good player? The guy who's on the practice field — even rarely — will play better than the one with his nose in a book 24/7.

You are what you do

Reading books will make you a great reader. Memorizing conjugations will make you a good memorizer (not a conjugator). Most importantly, spending your language time sitting alone in a coffee shop with books written in English will do very little to improve your ability to speak with others in Spanish.

Language is not a fact. Sitting at a table by yourself, memorizing verbs or nouns or words on some vocabulary list is not the same thing as learning. I keep saying it, because it doesn't stop being true: you are what you do. Learning doesn't happen when you study, it happens when you make learning a part of your lifestyle.

Stop buying books. Stop studying. Get out of the coffee shops, out of the bedrooms, out of the classrooms. Lessons aren't for you, they're for everyone else... a show to prove that you're doing something. Stop thinking about lessons.

Go write on Lang-8. Make a Skype call to someone who speaks the language. Find a foreign restaurant or shop and talk to someone there. When you start using the language, you will learn it.


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  • I totally get the idea here. But is there a place for study - a little bit? A little peak at a grammar book to confirm a hunch? A quick review of a few flashcards (created by you from the stuff you're seeing everyday) between emails or projects at work?Unfortunately most are employing an 80/20 rule backwards. 80% of the time spent studying textbook or in classrooms. 20% of time spent out in the language. This should certainly be reversed and perhaps even increased to 90/10. I guess in my own experience most of the time is spent in the language, using it,having fun with it, ingesting it like aged cheese and fine wine. But I find the 10% study is like taking a look at the instructions when I get a dresser from IKEA that I have to assemble. It saves me a whole lot of time and headache and helps me be more efficient.This should be a good discussion. And that's how we all learn.

  • A peek at a grammar book is not study. I don't think you'd ever find anyone who thinks otherwise.Come on, Aaron, we all know what study is! It's sitting for extended periods of time with your head in books, repeating things to yourself over and over, memorizing, struggling...I've never studied the instruction before putting something together. After completion of building an IKEA shelf, I'd be hard-pressed to quote back to you the instructions I had just followed.Don't try to make reading instructions out to be equivalent to studying. And in any case, neither of those is learning.

  • But how do you know the old man wasn't passionate? He may enjoy, and even have success with, this method of language-learning. It may be only a small part of his learning method. But that doesn't even matter. You say "I you you're not ever learning like him"--as long as you're learning (or, I would argue, "enjoying"--it depends on what your goal is), what does it matter?

  • (obvious typo, sorry: "'I hope you're not ever learning like him'")

  • I think it comes down to what is more fun as well. Sitting reading books, doing flashcards and grammar exercises is incredibly boring for me and doesn't motivate me at all. However, reading a book I'm interested in, watching a film and listening to music are all much more enjoyable and effective.Talking when you don't know much of the language can be frustrating and sometimes stressful, but it's absolutely rewarding when you are understood, and if you speak to someone who is kind enough to correct you, you will learn far quicker than from any book. Also, most of the stuff you learn in the books is incredibly artificial. I hate chapters dedicated to asking for train tickets or buying fruit, etc.

  • Having bought train tickets, I can tell you from experience that you only need to know approximately 3 words... You're right, a whole chapter dedicated to that is extremely artificial.

  • If he was so passionate, how did he get to 80 years old before learning his first foreign language?

  • Huh? We know it's his first foreign language? Maybe you know something more from the facebook conversation, but even so, what's wrong with developing a new interest at any stage of life?

  • Oh! Not so fast, Wendy... you're changing the argument.We know it's his first language because, having already learned a foreign language, he would not return to those methods.

  • That's a giant logical leap. YOU might not return to those methods. Others will, others have. Claiming that using traditional materials is the "wrong" way to learn a language is just as nonsensical as claiming it's the "right" way.

  • I dunno know... I think there's a place for a little study in with the real world use. I don't think it has to be an either/or choice.Certainly real usage is going to take you farther than anything else could, but getting to grips with something so foreign as Turkish (at least it was for me) before trying to utter a word of it helped me a lot. That doesn't mean all I did or have been doing is studying. Other passive things helped, like listening to music, looking up the lyrics and translating them with google translate, even if the translations were less than perfect. Then the more active singing the songs to myself, which very much involved memorization - rote memorization at that. But I looked at that as more pronunciation practice rather than anything else.When you went through the Colloquial Polish book, I guess I can see how you could have looked at it as reading a manual and not studying. But you had Russian under your belt, which no doubt served as a very stable foundation to be able to get through the book in such a short period of time. I'm not so sure you wouldn't have looked at that as studying, without that foundation. It would have taken much longer, but I still think you would have learned something.On an unrelated note, I recently noticed some odd hunting behavior with my dog (a fox terrier mix) and decided to investigate and search for more information, in English. Would you consider that reading a manual, or studying? In either answer, I learned something new about my dog's behavior.Anyway, I guess my point is that you can learn, whether you call it studying or simply reading up on something. The trick is in using that knowledge either contemporaneously or later.

  • Language is a skill, not a fact. It is acquired through experience, not study. No matter what advantage you may feel you gained through memorization and study, you didn't acquire the language until you started using it.

  • By comparison, reading about your dog is learning a FACT, not a skill. Completely different.

  • Okay. Your clarification helps. I think I was reading "study" to mean any sort of more academic work: grammar books, flashcards, etc.But . . . I think there may be a time and a place for the down and dirty act of sitting down and studying. I think learning styles may play into this as well. Also, there are an awful lot of pretty amazing language learners who seem to have study as part of their program. Dr. Arguelles youtube interview shares his methods which include 15-30 minute chunks of time in grammar books. As I have been following Benny's progress in Dutch, his goal is of course to be with people, but he seems to reference "studying" as prep work for those times. Of course what this means, I am not exactly sure.Anyway, I agree with you. I just am not able to say absolutely that study is always bad. Or that some people don't enjoy and even find great success by studying traditionally. You can get input from just about any source. Some are just more efficient than others. A 2011 Honda Accord and a a beat up 70's era pick up will both get you to Kansas City. One will just get you there quicker and more efficiently.

  • I think that's a false equivalence. I don't believe study is a "beat up Honda accord"... A better comparison might be to say that if you want to get to Kansas City, you'll get there much faster by taking an automobile than you will by sitting in a library reading books about the theory of travel...Many will argue that study has its place, but I can't help feeling that the "place" it has is one which has more to do with satisfying their own intraversion than it does with learning to speak a foreign language. In this regard, I'll refer to Benny's repeated soapbox about "waiting until you're ready"... when people study a lot, they begin to feel more confident. But in most cases, that's a false confidence, as their first experience in a speaking situation quickly reveals how unprepared they really are.I can't help pointing to the obvious: if you want to learn to speak, why not start by speaking? If you want to learn to read, why not start by reading? If you want to sing, start by singing. Etc. I knew more about throwing a football after doing it one time than I have ever learned from my combined lifetime experience reading about it.

  • I like the whole "simulated fluency" approach, where you'll act out everything as if you are a native speaker. For example, joining a social network, only listening to foreign music, writing emails in your target language, reading foreign books or news etc. I find that most fun, and of course you have that emotion attached to everything, making words and phrases a whole lot easier to remember.

  • "Simulated fluency"Hah! Love the term! It's an excellent way of reframing "immersion" as something more meaningful to the learner.When I look back on all the things I did wrong when learning Russian or Spanish, they were all based on study. I learned just as much Italian last year as I had learned in Russian or Spanish before, but I did it in much less time, simply because I didn't waste all that energy on studying.

  • There is a lot of similarity for me learning Swedish (since I moved here permanently around 9 months ago) to the process of practising the clarinet. Playing music for me is fluent, in a natural flow, an extension of myself because I trained and then continued to learn over the past 20 years or so by physically DOING it. There is no point reading a book on breathing, embouchure, tone production... there is no point describing in theory what a perfect fifth sounds like - you've got to hear it!
    And language learning does rely on a lot of probably my best asset - good listening with finely attuned ears! I do have a certain checklist of things I have to learn in order to pass my distance course so hitting the books is unavoidable. However, if I take a break and a walk around the village I often find I bump into a neighbour and have a chat... and in that conversation I learn lots language wise... and perhaps a little gossip ;)
    Keep up the great blog.
    Regards from Christina in Sweden

  • Immersion, that's the word I was looking for :/

  • Absolutely! Music is an excellent comparison to language. There are so many characteristics in common: intonation, rhythm, phrasing, etc. And just like language, music is a skill. It must be acquired through repetition and use. Thanks for the comments!

  • I like your term better.

  • Hi Randy, I've been reading your blog for a short while but this is my first comment. You make a good point--when I first moved to Germany (2.5 years ago), my German colleague told me "my English really started to improve when I stopped worrying about mistakes and just started talking." He was right of course, but it took me ages to realize it because I was scared of making mistakes and spent all my time with grammar books. (In my defense, I really LIKE grammar!) After some trial and error in my German-learning adventure, I am convinced that the post you linked to, "Learning as a Lifestyle", is some of the best advice a language-learning could get. I'm now learning Norwegian much faster than I learned German :)

  • Just added this post as "Further Reading" in Week 10 of The Ten Week Journey.

  • I presume that's a compliment. Thanks!I suppose I should find out what this Ten Week journey is all about...

  • Very true. There is also the point that conjugating on the fly (or speaking at all!) uses a different part of the brain. Neuroscientists have shown that, while these skills are all closely linked, a different part of the brain handles the written word than the spoken. Language is not a "sigle muscle" but a collection of them :)

  • Yes. A complement and I'm actually pointing those on the journey to lots of your posts throughout the email series. You do good work man.

  • Absolutely!

  • Wow, I'm honored! Thanks a lot!

  • i liked it .. and it touches me .. specially i spend 4 years learning German but in right words it was 4 years just learning grammar & vocab,which not enough at all ,, as i felt suddenly bored even more when i tried to contact native person to exchange with ,found that i have spend 4 years from my life and didn't improved .. and stopped even to read anything in German (( u know ) ) i think i forget all vocabularies no

  • i liked it .. and it touches me .. specially i spend 4 years learning German but in right words it was 4 years just learning grammar & vocab,which not enough at all ,, as i felt suddenly bored even more when i tried to contact native person to exchange with ,found that i have spend 4 years from my life and didn't improved .. and stopped even to read anything in German (( u know ) ) i think i forget all vocabularies no

  • how did u know it's hi first .. disagree in this point ??

  • "Reading books will make you a great reader. Memorizing conjugations will make you a good memorizer (not a conjugator)." And practicing debating skills makes one a master debater.

  • Wendy, unless the old guy is a linguist studying Spanish academically, he would be better off getting himself some 80 year old spanish-speaking tail to hang out with for a few months.

  • There's reason you can't study and learn by doing at same time when it comes to music. In fact, that is how I became fluent in guitar to the point that even though I only play 20 hours a year now I can still play rings around most people. I used to study the techniques and songs of people, usually people I wanted to sound like (Steve Vai, Green Day, Billy Talent,The Animals... I know, none of these match) and would utilize what I'd learned in my playing, trying to emulate them as close as possible. I spent so much time with my nose buried in guitar mags reading about technique and theory that if I wasn't playing guitar then I had a book in my hand about it. It was to the point that I would read mags while playing guitar. Despite the fact I now pretty much have forgotten all the songs I used to know, but I can still play whatever I want on the fly, or make up my own songs easily or learn a new song (which I'll end up forgetting after no one wants to hear it anymore.) I'm certain studying has it's place and can be used effectively in union with application and chances are neither are nearly as effective alone. Without studying, there's no way I would be as fluent at guitar like I was, and I'd probably would have lost my ability to play fluently at all by now. Also, the opposite is true too.

  • Sorry KM, but you lost me at "even though I only play 20 hours a year now I can still play rings around most people."
    Aside from the obvious arrogance steeped in this statement I would argue that it is also very unlikely to be true.
    I am a classically trained musician and experienced music teacher (trained at post-graduate level) and experience tells me this (in simple terms): if you don't use it, you lose it. In fact, you mention twice about forgetting music you have learned (and perhaps will learn in future) which highlights this point beautifully.
    As mere mortals we do need to practise and dedicate ourselves to the regular stretching of our musical muscles if we are even to maintain our level and, with more work, improve on it.
    This was the analogy I was thinking of in regards to language learning.
    Of course I have studied (and will continue to study) music through technical analysis, techniques, listening to a wide variety of influences. These are indeed vital at a higher level of musicianship. However, it is the practical application of this knowledge (and experience) that is crucial.

  • That looks like a Russian statue in the picture above, then again I bet any bronze or bonshish looking statue may look RUSSIAN. They have them all over the place.. See the Russian Language

  • One has to decide, for oneself,  just what passion is and how to measure it. To
    decide that the gentleman is not passionate seems an arbitrary act. Talk like
    that is the kind of thing which makes some people afraid to admit that they
    enjoy the majesty of the forest and the beauty of  wild life.Yes it is true that you did not master German in all its
    dimensions, but the time spent was used studying and that is an achievement. You
    can finish the process by going somewhere they speak German and that will be
    the final step. You have my praise for the dedication and diligence you showed
    learning German. That is true passion which took you through those four years.Should someone decide the nature and quality of passion for
    someone else? Is it some commodity on a Wal-Mart shelf, or perhaps something
    which the individual has to decide for herself? 

  • Randy, I think your observation is a good one. If he had already learned another language before this, almost certainly he would not do that method again, having learned a better way. Whenever friends of mine have decided to learn a language, they did what seemed to make sense to them. They bought a dictionary, figuring they'd study the words. That being said, when I studied Spanish for the first time, I got a book called Spanish Made Simple (and later bought the same titles in Italian and German) which helped to lay out the grammar and beginning vocabulary. But no language I ever learned began to really take off and fly until I started listening to the radio and reading newspapers (in the pre-internet era) and I still do this now.

  • Language is not a skill; language is a composition of facts, even if in flux. On the other hand, speaking and understanding a language are skills. There are multiple ways of obtaining those facts required to proceed with practicing those corresponding skills. One of those is studying, even in the way you lament although I have never once experienced a struggle in studying. Perhaps that is the great difference between us. Nonetheless, as someone who has learned languages, I can assure you that this scene is not proof that the old man has never learned a foreign language before. I always begin in this mode (and joyfully).

  • It's interesting. I am in the middle of the 4th year of a 5 year mechanical engineering programme and for the past 2 years I feel like I'm so overwhelmed with studying (for exams) that I don't have time to actually learn. I actually felt this way in the last years of high school. But back then I simply slacked and read the things I liked, which I can't do now. It's like our entire education system is "keeping us on track" to prevent us from learning everything we can!
    Anyway, I've been reading through your blog for the past few days and I really enjoy it. I started learning german a week ago and I found some good advice here, which I will try to follow. Most of all I'll mke sure not to study!
    It also inspired me to learn more languages and to be more open to communication in general.
    I hope everything fares well for you.
    Cheers from Portugal

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