Language Is A Skill, Not A Fact

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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  • Nice post Randy, and i'm sure that's a truth. I learned English and French speaking it. But, In the beginning, I think that we should utilize those methods, to understand how a language works.I'm learning Dutch now, and i really have no idea how to start the speaking without have a really hard study of the grammar and the word order.So tell me, what do you think it would be really useful in the beginning since we have no basis at all?

  • Hear hear!
    CDs about knitting sounds ludicrous - it's amazing people can't transfer this concept to languages. Most of the content out there for learning language serves the purpose of busying people. They get the feeling they are doing something, so it MUST be good. Anyone who potty-mouths all that time they've invested doesn't realize that some day they "will" be ready...
    I'm glad to see another voice of reason in the blogosphere encouraging people to actually use languages in more natural contexts. I'm amazed at all the noise saying otherwise.
    My retort to most people who don't get why they can't use a language despite years of study is: "Speak it, you moron!!"

  • My opinion, and I think perhaps Randy will agree here because I've asked a similar question to yours previously, is that studying the language is as important as speaking it, but you should still speak it as you are learning. If you have a Dutch girlfriend and you only know how to say a few phrases in the beginning, use them whenever appropriate and use more as you gain more knowledge from studying. Speak as soon as you can, even if you can't say something with correct grammar or with the correct vocabulary. In French, until I knew the word Lunettes, I would say fenêtres de visage :P

  • Great post Randy. "You learn what you do." Love that.I think it is interesting that people of years gone by, in the age before mass marketing and computers or even the printing press, would learn multiple languages over the course of their lives... Did they have a portable mp3 player or iPad (or even a dictionary...) to tote around? Nada.

  • Thanks! Yes, we've really become dependent on these tools, often at the cost of actual results. Travelers used to find their way without Google maps, communicate without cell phones, and learn languages without Rosetta Stone. I think people today are so addicted to the idea of finding a tool that they forget what it's for.

  • Exactly. It's busy work to "feel" like you're learning, and really doesn't have much to do with actual learning. I think all the noise to the contrary is just an extension of the advertising propaganda from people who stand to make money by selling the products in question.Your last sentence made me spit coffee. In public. Well said.

  • I'm going to give really detailed advice to this very question in January with my next language, so stay tuned!For now, I can suggest you start by spending some time with YouTube.

  • I agree with this, I personally learn best by doing. I've tried learning Spanish through CDs and I've gone to College to learn to read and write it. But I found the time when I picked it up the most was when my Spanish speaking colleague joined the team at work. She was often liaising with our foreign clients and I came to learn a lot more that way than with my CDs.But at the same time our company deals with a lot of foreign clients from various parts of the world and we don't always have the time or resources to hire a specific language speaker. Instead we often use a translation agency to translate our important documents. They are translated by language professionals to ensure accuracy. The last thing I would want is to be confusing the clients with my poor attempts to liaise with them in their native language. Instead, I keep learning foreign languages as a hobby and only practise when on holiday.

  • Haha how did you know fenêtres and visage before lunettes? lol but i liked =] Il faut être criatif pour parler des langues

  • You nailed it! Btw - I think that language teaching industry takes advantage of those folks who actually don't need to learn that particular language or this; they just make it sound too appealing to resist purchasing another nice looking book or piece of software.
    The typical hype about "these days you just need to learn (a particular language) because that country's market grows rapidly etc" make people believe that they really need to learn that language even though they might not have real motivation to learn it and real application of the language!
    I'm not talking about genuine language learners who pursue their goals and use the 2nd or 3rd language in their lives; I'm talking about industries making money out of people's fears of not being able to keep up with the rest of the world unless they speak a certain language. So they go and sit behind the desk for 5 years not being genuinely motivated and ending up not using the language anyway!

  • I believe the language learning industry takes advantage of a lot of people: those, as you said, who probably don't need to learn or don't want to; those who do want to learn, but don't know where to start; and those who haven't decided for themselves, and are easily manipulated by suggestion.It's interesting how nobody knows anyone who has learned a language in a week (in fact a lot of people argue with Benny over 3 months!) yet in spite of such confidence that language learning takes time, so many people still continue to fall for marketing messages like "learn in 10 days!"

  • You assume that the only way to "use" a language is to speak it. However, learning to read in a new language is also a way of using that language. I have no desire to travel to France, but being able to read French newspapers, magazines, and literature is using the language in a way that enriches my life. Being able to read the Old Testament in the original Hebrew is using the language and brings insights simply not available in a translation. Please don't denigrate reading a book in another language. This is also a skill learned only by doing it.

  • Did you actually read anything I wrote? Or did you just read the title and then rush to the bottom to write a defensive comment?

  • As you've brought up flashcards again, I take it you won't mind if I discuss the topic.Practicing medicine is also a skill. It also, as it happens, require much memorization. It is quite a useful thing to see several symptoms, remember a flashcard you've memorized with just such symptoms listed, and make a diagnosis.I agree flashcards make little sense in learning some things. Some information is hard to convey via writing: swinging a golf club, for example. But some things are easy to convey in writing: How do you say cranberry in Spanish? So it's far from clear that the analogy you've made is convincing. You might say that "medicine" is a fact, or something similar, and language is not, and therein lies the difference. But I don't think that distinction stands. There is, indeed, a fact of the matter when it comes to which word Spanish speakers use to refer to cranberries, a right, and a wrong.I'll reiterate again that no flashcard proponent, nor proponent of the other techniques you mention, is (to my knowledge), proposing that practice of the actual language is not a crucial exercise in gaining fluency. At most, they're recommending a supplement. I've said, on this very blog, that to learn to speak a language you need to practice speaking it. But it's far from clear that flashcards are a useless addition to the arsenal, your personal say-so notwithstanding.

  • I think if you were to go tell a doctor that he can learn "medicine" from flashcards, you'd get a reaction even decidedly contrary than mine!One diagnosis is one fact. And for the purpose of recognizing a set of symptoms, that's probably a reasonable study — though still far inferior to practical knowledge and experience.But your argument does not translate to language. Unlike the specific task of recognizing symptoms, language is a two-way experience, and flashcards are a hindrance to that.The argument you propose is flawed. Your own eloquent wording notwithstanding.

  • Again, nobody is proposing relying solely on flashcards -- whether it comes to medicine or language. Thus, I wouldn't "tell a doctor he can learn 'medicine' from flashcards." But I do believe, were I to propose to a doctor that flashcards would be a good way to memorize necessary information for use during diagnosis, he would agree with me.See, e.g., https://www.flashcardmachine..."... the purpose of recognizing a set of symptoms, that's probably a reasonable study — though still far inferior to practical knowledge and experience."It's possible, but I'm not convinced. And I'm not arguing that flashcards are better than "practical knowledge and experience" (I think that depends on what one's aim is, for one thing). I just don't think any of your arguments thus far establish that claim."But your argument does not translate to language. Unlike the specific task of recognizing symptoms, language is a two-way experience, and flashcards are a hindrance to that."Perhaps, but nor does your analogy with a golf club swing. Nor do I see anything about language "being a two-way experience" that necessitates flashcards being a hindrance. Surely we won't disagree that between two people with identical skills in a language but for the size of vocabulary, the one with the better vocabulary is less hampered? E.g., an acquaintance and I were listening to friends talk in Spanish the other day, discussing a kind of animal raised entirely on "bellotas." My acquaintance, who is a native Spanish speaker, didn't know what they were talking about. I, because I'd once made a flashcard of the term and learned it, knew they were talking about acorns. It's hard to see how using a flashcard to know that term hindered anything.My thanks regarding the complement about my eloquence.

  • Nice picture of the Arch at St. Louis :)I agree that language is a skill and should be practiced as one, but there is also an element of necessary knowledge (like having a recipe book for cooking or knitting patterns for knitting) that requires some study (through input, learning vocabulary, or just listening to people around you).

  • hi Randy!..................thats jst fantastic.keep doing.

  • Thanks!

  • Your examples (cookbook, knitting patterns) aren't very good, because language isn't a paint-by-numbers experience.But yes, there is data needed, and the best way to acquire that data is through exposure.

  • Well, there's also the issue of how subjective language can be as well, the same word can have different meanings depending on the dialect of the speaker, such as the difference in meaning between American and British English for the word "bum" :DCheers,
    Andrew

  • Both of which are covered in, e.g., the Oxford Spanish Dictionary: https://www.wordreference.co...

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