Language Learning Is Not A Race (You Can't Rush It)

I often see learning advice based on lists, flashcards, progress meters. In fact, some of the most well-known and popular study methods are based on this kind of progress-based incentive. And frankly, it drives me crazy. These methods encourage bad learning habits!

Learning a foreign language is not a race. This is very important to keep in mind, because all of these record-keeping and progress-tracking learning tools have an tendency to rush your study. And web sites like this one can project a time-to-success which makes you feel hurried if you're not getting it after six months. But it's not a race.

Motivation good, measurement bad

Don't get me wrong. If flashcards are the thing that gets you to study, rather than not study, then by all means, use them. If a desire to finish the lesson book is the thing that gets you to study another chapter rather than playing with your X-Box, then do it. And if a rising line on a progress report is the evidence you need to feel confident that you're learning and improving, then don't let me stop you from looking at such things.

But while you may find these things motivational, remember also that they are meaningless. You can't take your test scores with you to a conversation. You can't show an Italian your successfully completed stack of flashcards and expect that to help you communicate. You can't fly into Russia and show the taxi driver your progress chart. You can't order a meal in Spain by pointing out how far back the bookmark is in the lesson book.

Worse, these learning methods can often provide the wrong kind of motivation because rather than motivating you to learn, and to use new words, these methods of progress measurement only motivate you to read faster, or memorize more vocabulary. They encourage you to pay less attention to meaning and more attention to page number. You can actually enter a conversation with a false sense of confidence and find that you don't know a fraction of what you think you know!

It's too easy to do a half-hearted job of studying when you're more motivated by finishing than you are by understanding. If it's completion of a chapter or a book or a lesson or a set of flashcards that you're focused on, then you're already doomed to struggle.

Better to know a little than to think you know a lot

When it comes to learning a new language, there are only two possible states: either you can speak and understand, or you can not. There is no award for getting "most of what was said". Correctly using 50% of the words in your food order means you still go hungry.

It's better to know fewer words but use and understand all of them correctly than it is to know a lot of words but misuse and misunderstand them. In fact, having a solid understanding of the phrase "what does that mean?" allows me to have conversations using tons of vocabulary I don't know, rather than centering my communication around the vocabulary in chapter nine of whatever book I'm reading.

No matter how good the book is, real-life conversations never match the exercises you learned from. The best thing you can learn is the essential information like directions, numbers, colors, etc., and to develop a confidence in your ability to ask what something means, and to get answers you understand.

Don't cheat yourself. It's not a race. You can do more with a 100% comprehension of half the vocabulary, than you'll ever do with 50% comprehension of all of it.

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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • 'Learning a foreign language is not a race'
    Fabulous. On the subject of learning languages, this is one of the best posts I've read recently.
    In some language blogs, there is too much emphasis placed on learning languages: fast, now, today, in xxx months...
    We each learn at our own pace, in our own way.
    Bottom line: if we continue to learn, then we are ahead of the game. It's only if we quit that we fall behind. Simple.
    I do disagree with this point though:
    ''There is no award for getting “most of what was said”. Correctly using 50% of the words in your food order means you still go hungry.'
    I know what you are trying to say... but... due to misunderstandings, I've eaten some odd foods in Thailand (and there are mighty strange foods out here ;-) And it's mostly due to the locals filling in their misunderstandings of my order with... whatever.
    So I never went hungry... I always got something out of it.
    Ditto with the language. You need to make those mistakes before you move that other inch forward.
    So eat that slug and just get on with it. Something like that anyway...

  • Thanks for the comments!
    Yes, that choice of words actually stuck with me after I'd written this, and I've tried to think of a better way to make the point, but adding clarification and elaborating seemed to steal from the impression intended by the phrase. :)
    In the end, I justify it from my own point of view, as I have somewhat of a sensitive digestive track, and certain (rather common) foods will leave me with a rather unpleasant condition that is particularly inconvenient in countries with less-modern restroom offerings. :)
    Being unable to understand the word onions, for instance, or being unable to specify that they should be excluded from my meal could mean receiving a meal that I would be better of not having eaten at all!
    Still, to your point, I do agree. In life it seems that you do end up learning more from your mistakes than you do from your successes... and I like how you translated that toward a misplaced food order!

  • Interesting post :). I guess I am one of the people who need some scale (as in some kind of goals along the way) to motivate themselves or rather to remember themselves sometimes of what they are aiming at. I once read "discipline is remembering what you want". When it comes to my italian studies I set myself some rough goals what I would like to achieve in a certain time frame. This is partly due to the fact that I have personal reasons why I want to be able to use it "as soon as possible". ;) I put a bit of pressure on myself on purpose here. I agree however that running after certain abstract progress scales does not necessarily help. Therefore I defined my aims not in terms of abstract figures but in terms of pracitcal abilities. (Instead of doing x flashcards until date x I want to be able to e.g. order dinner in Italian until date x).
    When it comes to Swedish however I am more chilled out: it does not make much difference to me whether I reach a certain level in one month or half a year, so I just make sure I progress continuously at whatever pace.
    Best regards!

  • There is some merit to keeping a log of what you've learned. Not to quantify your progress (I agree with you about the futility of that), but to serve as encouragement for when you hit a plateau. When you are in a slump you can look back and say, "Look how far I've come!"
    I make sure I write my progress notes in narrative form so that it becomes a story, rather than a specific word list or grammatical rules. For added practice I write in my target language. The proof that I am improving is that the quality of my entries improves over time.

  • I completely agree, and that's one of the key things I was driving at with this post: either you're *using* the language or you're collecting stats. The stats (flashcards, chapters, frequency lists) are basically worthless. Ordering dinner, however, is useful! Understanding the weather forecast, or some other news item is quite good. And learning to sing Puccini is outstanding. :)

  • One really good way of keeping such a "narrative form" to track your progress is to write at Lang-8. Often. As time goes by, you can look back and take note of how many corrections you once had and how few you have now!

  • Language learning is not a race, but not because you shouldn't do it as efficiently (read: quickly) as possible, but because you can't run a race against yourself.
    Quantifications of what you've learned—including rough quantifications such as your reduction in corrections on Lang-8, as you mention below—are motivating. Thus, I don't think "motivation good, measurement bad" is right. It's more like "measurements can be motivating".
    Measurements can also be damaging when you set goals that you can't reach and those measurements show that you're not reaching those goals. Setting goals is good, but you've gotta be ready to adjust them when your initial goal proves to be too much.

  • I definitely agree with learning as fast as possible. After all, why drag it out? I only want to encourage people to motivate themselves without becoming unproductive.
    When you race through vocabulary lists or other learning statistics, you don't really learn anything. Remember... memorization is NOT learning. No Italian will ever approach me in the street and ask me "Excuse me, do you know the Italian word for restroom?" Nope. He's going just just go ahead and use that word in a sentence, and it's up to me to understand it. :)

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