Improve Language Learning by Playing

“The majority of men meet with failure because of their lack of persistence in creating new plans to take the place of those which fail.”
by ~Napoleon Hill~

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Most people like to play, kids especially, even though there might be a few who might think it too frivilous! (Must be a very serious person! 🙂 ). However I am not sure what these people would make on Albert Einstein’s view on it –

“Play is the highest form of research”

Better understanding play and its relationship to language learning is something that I believe could significantly help you to improve how you go about learning languages. By doing this and implementing some of what you learned, you could get far better results than what you have been experiencing.

I recently came across an article* from the Australian National University talking about the Canberra Longitudinal Child Language Project which will follow a group of children from nine months to five years old to see what can be learned from their play and behaviour. (A similar but well established program that has produced some really interesting results is the University of Wisconsconsin Infant Learning Centre)

Before I go on to look at play, the main subject of this post, I want to divert a little and reflect a little on the following quote from the same article, as it is really very instructive about language learning at so many levels

“Very young children usually cannot remember a few words that you tell them, but they can somehow master complex grammar.”

This sentence somehow encapsulates everything that is wrong with many if not most current language learning methods, and points us in a completely different direction.

– Firstly, infants don’t employ memory as most understand it or use it in the learning or teaching languages. This should alert us to the fact that there is something very different going on. Young children don’t remember things on command, so why do we expect children in school or adults to be successful at doing it? They are far more sophisticated than that. Furthermore, why do we expect that skill to be helpful in the learning of languages?

– It is of course clear that infants do remember what they learn. Why not explore what they do and see if what they do can be applied to later years.

– Put another way the quoted sentence appears to suggest that infants learn in some unknown way. The vast majority of people would readily accept that. However, there is a lot that we already do know about how children learn their first language.

Children learn from what is in their world of awareness and what they can engage in, not what adults bring to the table. Occasionally the two coincide, but most of the time infants are working on matters that interest them and engage them. We have little access to all that, apart from by observation. At times of course parents or their guardians can try to affect what children occupy their time with. That success is limited, as parents will know, as children tend to have a mind of their own.

It is generally recognised that the play they engage in take takes a critical role in their learning.

Language learning playThe play that we can see appears to revolve around exploring, amongst other things:

  • what their body can do
  • their physical environment, including the toys they are given
  • gravity ( how things fall, including themselves!)
  • sounds they can make…….

In all this the infant is in charge of:

  • what they do
  • when they do it
  • for how long they do it
  • in what order they do it and
  • how they do it

We can assume that these decisions are not random ones, but ones that are made knowingly by the child. One driver we can ascribe to this process, is the level to which the child is engaged in the process. Engagement is what play is all about. We can observe this by looking at the times we “play” with our hobbies, interests and even jobs! We follow what captures our interest and our attention for as long as it does just that. We don’t usually take kindly usually to being told what to do. We want to determine that for ourselves.

Play stops being play as soon as we are driven:

  • by feeling or knowing we have to get the job done in a certain time,
  • by having pressure exerted on us to do something a certain way and
  • by having to do something we are not interested in

We gradually abrogate the responsibilities young children live with and exercise all the time as we grow up, with this process speeding up once we go to school. Our teachers and parents start to determine many if not all of these matters. We eventually stop being in charge of deciding these critical matters.  It is no wonder so many of us lose the ability to know we can learn.  No wonder Albert Einstein said,

“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my formal education”

In language learning, many believe that if they do what the teacher tells them they will learn a new language. It’s usually the ones who wake up to the fallacy of this who will go on and be successful in their learning. They understand that there is a lot more that needs to be done than follow the teacher’s or book’s instructions.

A key to being successful is that the learner has to take over ownership of their learning. In the same way as infants have ownership of their play. They decide when, what, how long etc. This might not be so easy for people fed a diet of “follow me and do what I say” or who feel under pressure to perform.

So if you want to improve your learning, “playing” is what you need to do. How can an adult use the characteristics of play to improve their learning. Key elements are:

  • the learner is in charge
  • the learner finds the process rewarding in its own right
  • the learner is absorbed in the process
  • the learner’s skills progress
  • the learner continues playing because of the above

We will stop playing a game when these elements are not met.

Adults typically can ignore all these markers, believing hard work and grit can get them to the promised land. I will suggest that very few language learners get there just by that.  If you are not progressing as well as you would want, you need to start looking at other ways of learning and becoming more sensitive to your own reactions to what you are doing.

* http://cmbe-cpms.anu.edu.au/whats-on/research-stories/learning-language-child’s-play