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  • Writer's pictureMark J.E. Walker

First things first - learn to learn

If you, like me, are on a lifelong quest to uncover the most effective way to learn and teach languages then read on.

From black art to science

Would it not be more effective to show students the best learning methods before even starting with the subject matter? Surely, if you really knew how to learn, coupled with more specific advice on how to learn a language, then classes and courses would be much more effective and take you on a direct route to your goal. You would know how the natural learning mechanisms in your brain can be capitalised on, as well as how language learning should be focused to harness the power of these mechanisms. Language learning would no longer be a black art, but a science. Your return on the time invested would be optimum, time wasted on non-productive or even counter-productive activities kept to an absolute minimum.

I often have the impression that language courses simply throw the material at the students with the hope that at least some of it will stick. We have blind faith in the language course creator and therefore leave the students alone to figure out for themselves the best way to process and retain the material. This leaves quite a lot to chance. It's like trying to fill the bath with water without first making sure you have put in the plug. It's clear enough that opening the taps and "covering" material is not the same thing as retaining and learning. To learn a language short term familiarity is not enough, you need long term retention, a deeper kind of learning so that you can spiral up towards greater fluency, complexity and accuracy.

Memory is the residue of thought - Daniel T. Willingham

Very briefly, here are a few general principles of learning taken from cognitive psychology that I have seen to be highly effective as both language teacher and language learner. My main sources of inspiration have been the works of Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel and Daniel T. Willingham, as well as nearly 30 years of teaching and learning languages.

Whatever you habitually do grows stronger. This is true for practically all aspects of our lives. Put simply, if you want to remember things better, try practising remembering them. Every time you try to remember a concept or word the memory becomes stronger, retrieval gets faster. Every time you walk the path the impression gets deeper. This is why free speaking practise on familiar topics is such a good way to reinforce the internal language network. Practicing remembering, recalling and retrieving builds stronger networks and more complex new memories.

Language learning example: Use of flashcards to learn vocabulary / tests / free speaking activities

For anyone interested in the relationship between spacing, forgetting and remembering I would recommend having a look at Hermann Ebbinghaus who dedicated his life to solving the this puzzle. Basically, if you want to remember you must first start to forget, let the memory fade then bring it back before it's gone forever. Effort and reward go together. Every time you bring a memory back from the depths of forgetfulness the subsequent time to forget gets put back longer and longer until you remember forever.

Language learning example: spaced retrieval software / Leitner Box / frequent revision

This is one of my favourite learning principles. Basically interleaving means mixing it up, mixing activities, mixing types. Mixing forces the mind to a higher level of understanding. We don't learn in a lineal fashion but recursively. In mathematics mixing the problem types encourages the students to know which method to use for which problem, not just how to do each individual problem type in isolation. Interleaving fosters the application of knowledge. For language learning, being exposed to the unpredictability of authentic language prepares us to cope with this very unpredictability. True understanding of language is in the space between concepts, how concepts relate to each other, not the concepts themselves.

Language learning example: Extensive/long reading. When you read extensively in a foreign language you become more and more aware of nuances of language. With every new contrast you build a deeper understanding. A further example is listening to a wide variety of speakers which makes subsequent speakers increasingly easier to understand. It seems that our minds work better by analysing the similarities and differences between multiple examples or traces, then applying this understanding to the next example that we encounter.

You don't know if you really know something until you try to use it, so it makes sense to take something new and put it to use, connecting it to things you already know, strengthening the network. Try to use the new item in conversation, in writing or by teaching it to someone else. Elaboration creates deeper layers of processing and conceptualisation. It also lets you know what you know, not what you think you know. As I try to write this post it becomes clear to me what I really know, and more importantly, what I don't.

Language learning example: A simple example of the elaboration process is the creation of your own personalised example sentences with the new word or structure. Take ownership of the material, elaborate and create.

This is a powerful process in which you try to think up the solution to the unknown all by yourself. When you have a go based on what you already know and make a hypothesis, you guess, you imagine, you prepare a void for the right answer to occupy. This is the heart of the trial and error learning (heuristics) that young people do with technology for example. "What if I push this button?" If you find the answer through experimentation, doubting and questioning, the learning is powerful.

Language learning example: Take a moment to guess the meaning of words or expressions before looking in a dictionary for the translation. Give yourself time. Make hypothesis about structures before looking up the rule. Good learners are good guessers.

Being able to measure progress is critical not only to further improvement but also to motivation. You need to be able to measure what you know in some way to avoid the illusion of progress (or lack of progress). You need some sort of feedback in the shortest possible timescale.

Language learning example: Using language to get things done or communicate ideas. The reaction from the other person gives you valuable feedback on how successfully you are communicating. Simply testing yourself to see if you remember vocabulary is another. In the classroom formative assessment, if correctly focused, is a powerful calibration tool.

I am very fond of the Willingham quote above "memory is the residue of thought". By thinking back and reflecting on what you have learned, you consolidate the memory. Remembering creates a new memory. Meta-awareness and self-reflection guide your learning, give you direction and aid motivation. Reflection puts you in charge of your own learning. 

Language learning example: Keep a language learning log where you reflect on what you have learned, what is working and what is not.

I hope some of these ideas can help towards finding a more effective approach to learning. In short, it seems that successful language learning is the purposeful and active building of a rich independent network of associations for the new language. The more we understand how to build this network the better.

Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts on this topic

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