Being a teacher, I’m obsessed with learning: what is it? What makes some people want to learn? What motivates people to learn? What helps people learn more effectively?
By far the biggest problem I see is that many people believe things about learning that just aren’t true. Unfortunately, many of these unnecessary, false beliefs create barriers to learning effectively. For this reason, I’d like to talk about a few of them here, and hopefully dispel some of these myths!
Myth #1: If a student is quiet and just listens to his teacher, s/he will improve.
Another variation of this is “If I just read lots of English books and watch lots of English movies and TV shows, my English will improve.”
The idea is that the key to improving your English is accepting the teacher as the authority and the student as the blank vessel to be filled with knowledge. This is called a “teacher-centered” model: the student accepts the teacher as the expert and submits to him or her.
Does this work?
Sorry guys, but you’re going to have to make some effort if you want to master English. This includes:
- Practicing using the language, either on your own or with others.
- Learning active study methods, like dictation, note-taking, writing or communicating with other native speakers in your spare time.
- Taking an active role in a learning environment by asking questions, discovering new information on your own and challenging yourself.
Myth #2: Learning a language is just a matter of memorizing the rules (grammar) and vocabulary.
A language is composed of rules for how to use it (grammar) and the actual content of the communication (vocabulary). So all you need to do is memorize the rules and the content, and you’re set, right?
But let me explain further.
Sure, there are some fundamental elements of language you ought to memorize. It’s hard to learn a language or use it successfully if you don’t know the different between a verb and a noun. It’s important to memorize the foundations early on, when you start learning a new language.
But beyond that, memorizing just gets in the way. English is much too complex. It’s silly to think you, or anyone, could possibly sit in front of a textbook or dictionary and consciously store all the rules and words in their brains.
This is not only one of the least natural, but also the least effective, ways of trying to learn a language.
- Memorizing takes time away from application; remembering the rules and words and actually using them in real-time are different skills.
- Memorizing weakens your ability to creatively see patterns in context and make quick and useful connections between what you already know and new information. Context learning is much more efficient (and effective) than memorization.
- Memorization weakens comprehension. Okay, so you memorize and “understand” how the continuous tense differs from the simple tense. But do you understand why? When you hear a linguistic joke, can you understand why it’s funny? Can you manipulate the rules creatively yourself to come up with unique and natural expressions on your own? Not if you’re just trying to memorize.
- Memorizing neglects all the nuance of what you’re learning. So you memorized the definition of “eccentric.” Great. But how formal is it? How does it feel to the listener to hear it? Is it more common in written or spoken English? In what situations is it appropriate? Does it have any technical definitions outside of colloquial use? As you can see, there is a lot to remember even just about each word!
As I’ve mentioned before, English is a skill. In order to improve a skill, you need to practice it. How good of a bodybuilder can you be if you just read books about bodybuilding? How good of a singer can you become just by watching videos on vocal training? The information is important, but you can’t get better unless you practice.
Myth #3: If I just memorize the conversations in my textbook, I will be able to have conversations with native speakers.
Ok, so you might be thinking “Sure, I think it’s a waste of time to try to memorize advanced vocabulary and grammar. But my textbook has role plays and dialogues I can memorize! If I just memorize those, then I’ll be able to talk when I go overseas.”
Sigh. I’m sorry but…
While this is a better idea than trying to memorize difficult vocabulary and grammar, it still doesn’t work, because it’s based on a false assumption: it’s based on the assumption that language is static.
Japanese is largely a formalized language. There are set responses and greetings for certain situations.
English is not. English is much looser. Assuming that your own cultural customs will apply in other cultures is another problem (called “language transfer”) that I will talk about in the future. For now, it’s enough to say that English is a very dynamic language; no two people will talk to you the same way. Some people will be formal, others informal. Some people will make very short statements, others will make very long ones. Some people will be polite, others will not. Some people might ask you a question while others will make an imperative request in the same situation.
You need to be ready for a wide variety of responses. You can only do this by actively learning and practicing the language!
The last three are much bigger and more prevalent myths, and it’s really important that we dispel these myths, so please come back again in a couple of weeks and check them out! Look forward to seeing you then.