Are Language Exercises a Good Language Learning Strategy?

“The only real valuable thing is intuition.”
by ~Albert Einstein~

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There is almost a universal belief amongst language learners which goes something like ” if I do language learning exercises in grammar, comprehension, vocabulary etc then my “Chinese” (put in here any language you are studying) will improve”.  Just look at all the textbooks and online exercises out there and you will see what I mean.  Is there any truth to the belief that doing language exercises is a language strategy designed to bring you the results you want?

Well the answer is both yes and no.  There certainly is some truth to this but I fear, that in the main, the answer is no.  Some of you may well be shocked by this but before you abandon reading this article and run for a cuppa of coffee to soothe your jangled nerves, read a bit further.  You will see that the next few minutes may well save you a lot of time and reduce your frustration in your language learning.

For language learning to be successful it has to be more than an intellectual exercise. It is more than an exercise in filling in the dots.  It is more than trying to remember vocabulary.  It is more than pin the tail on the donkey.  For you to power along, you must be fully engaged in what you are learning so that you are in the drivers seat, NOT the exercise in the drivers seat.

Let me give you an example. I can go through an exercise which tests whether I know 4 basic tenses in English (I am cooking some…. I will cook some….. I cooked…. i have cooked some…).  After doing a bunch of exercises I can come to the belief that “ I know these tenses and how to use them”.  Then what happens is when you go to speak or write something, what you knew seems to go out the window! How many of you have found that? 

Why is that?  Well a fundamental reason is that you weren’t in the driver’s seat when you were doing these exercises. You were doing the exercise.  You were figuring out the tenses and how they are used. With this kind of language learning strategy you are adding to your store of knowledge. Knowledge does not always transfer into skill. So you can study how to drive a car, but will that enable you to drive a car?

If on the other hand you are interested in how you can be clear when you are, for example, talking about the past so that people are clear it is in the past and not the future.  Or how you can sound the same as a native speaker when you are talking about the past.  So with this kind of learning you have a goal that you are trying to achieve.  This kind of learning integrates your learning into who you are.

These two approaches might sound similar to you, but the reality is that they are a world apart.  With one you are driving what you will learn and why you are learning it.  With the other you are doing it because you think it is a good idea, because you were told to do it or because you don’t quite know what else to do and so you revert to how you were taught.

Sometimes people who follow the latter kind of practice can pick up things and actually integrate what they are learning into their use but usually this is ad hoc, it happens because of an accidental combination of factors, not something that is designed and can be replicated. The language learners who end up meeting their desires in learning a language are the ones who have worked out how to make the strategies they use in language learning valuable and outcome driven, the outcomes based on usage criteria not on the answers in the back of a book.

Language learning exercises may have some value however, used judiciously, but it is best not to regard them as a main stay in language learning

  • It has taken me a while to respond to this Franny! Apologies!!

    As you say, knowledge can help, but of itself is not enough. One key is interacting with people, but there are many people who do that but still don’t progress to the level you clearly have. So there is more to it than just practice.

    There are many reasons why this can be so. One reason is, how important is it for the learner to understand “exactly” what they are hearing and to be able to “exactly” convey what they want to say. A “close enough is good enough” attitude may appear to work in the native language ( “MAY appear” is the operative phrase”) however it will severely limit one’s capacity to learn another language. In your case, I would suggest that this is not your modus operandi!

  • Michael

    From my
    experience I’d like to say that in order to develop good English
    speaking skills learners must have adequate regular long-term practice
    in listening comprehension and speaking in English on a wide range of
    topics of daily communication. That’s the main factor that should not be
    disregarded and other things (such as grammar learning, translation
    activities or native language use in learning English) should not be
    wrongly blamed as the main
    cause of learners’ poor English speaking skills. Of course learners’
    English speaking skills also depend on their English phonetics, grammar
    and vocabulary skills and on reading practice.

    In my opinion self-practice of English should go hand in hand
    with regular long-term oral communication of learners with native
    English speakers on every topic of practical communication.
    It would be quite helpful for language
    learners to select ready made English materials with natural wording with
    different levels of difficulty on every topic of communication to
    practise English. Language materials can be found in
    phrase books, conversation books, on the Internet, on audio and video
    aids, etc. for all levels from basic to advanced high levels. Language
    learning materials can include helpful thematic dialogues, ready made
    questions and talking points on a wide range of daily life topics and
    issues, practically
    useful texts on each topic for potential practical use of learners,
    thematic sentences with colloquial set phrases and expressions (idioms),
    extensive thematic reading material, etc.

    Multiple reading
    and listening to samples of such conversational materials followed by
    retelling or reproduction or imitation of dialogues and narrative
    texts/stories based on one’s needs can result in substantial improvement
    of one’s language skills.

    • I agree with you completely Michael about the importance of listening comprehension. In fact I have said a number of times that the level of your new language skills will in large part be determined by your listening skills. The trouble is that sometimes people’s listening skills degrade. Listening practice is not of itself usually enough for these people, that is why I wrote a number of posts on what can be done just about that.

      There are many reasons why so many people struggle to learn another language. For one person a key reason may well be just their listening skills. For another it may be that, as well as the way they approach their language study, or possibly just the way they approach their language study. For another it may be that they believe, because of their experiences in schools, that they have no ability to learn languages. There are many reasons why the success rates are poor as they are.

      I have turned my attention to many of the reasons, each of them being factors for some. Possibly the 2 key factors are how engaged we are in what are doing (http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/engagement-the-missing-key/ )and how we are attempting to learn….and on that there are numerous posts!