Become better at monitoring your learning

“I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”
by ~Carl Jung~

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What is monitoring?

One of the essential keys to improving your language skills is the practice of monitoring your language use as you are using the language. Learning something new and practicing it in controlled settings (such as in class or in your study) is all well and good. That is where a lot of your attention is on your understanding of the language itself and on what you can produce. However, learning continues best through the monitoring of your own performance and improving on it as you use it in real life.

It is important to distinguish monitoring from judging. Monitoring is just the process of noting and seeing what you do and don’t do. Judging is more akin to determining whether you are doing well or not. Typically judgements lead to emotional involvement in the result, whereas monitoring does not tend to. By all means though do celebrate success and use what you see in your performance to motivate you to keep going.

You monitor your performance when you devote a bit of your attention to what you do, keeping some of you awareness not just on the meaning but also on how you express it. Then you use this awareness of your expression to educate you. For example, you said one thing but you know that to say it right, it needs to be said another way. So you may resolve, the next time you need to say a similar thing, to get it “right”.

So the next time, if you are attentive and monitoring yourself real well, you catch yourself about to say the same thing as you did last time. But this time you adjust what you say to what know is right.  I am sure many of you have already experienced this, where just before you are going to say something, you adjust what you are going to say. 

Examples of monitoring

Just consider learning to drive a car. Improvements to the skill in driving only happen if you adjust what you do as you do the practice. In the beginning the instructor has a role to instruct, but a good instructor will say less and less the more skilled you are.  They will encourage the learner to be more and more attentive to what they do and to adjust how they drive according to the conditions. Sometimes the awareness comes right after you have done something, sometimes just as you do it and sometimes just before you are going to do it, thereby allowing you to adjust what you are going to do.

In essence, learning a language is not that much different. One scenario may be – by using the new language, we become aware of something new, something that before had escaped our attention. This may be either in our use or in what we hear or see. This could be a turn of phrase that somebody used to express their dismay about the service they received, or a different sound in a words which we were familiar with but this time, there seems to be an extra sound in the middle, or it could be any number of things. As a result we decide to pay closer attention, or may at some point decide to alter something that we say or do to take into account of what it is that we noticed. 

An essential part of the learning process is the need to monitor what we say and do. This way we can become aware that there is some element of our practice that seems at variance with what we know for ourselves or what we hear around us. It may even be something that does not really make sense to us anymore for some reason. Once we notice the anomalies, we set ourselves on the road to improvement.

Noticing something, it needs to be said, does not always lead to adjustment. We need to take action at some point for an improvement to occur. Doing it once is not enough. It requires that we keep noticing, and keep taking action. We need to automate a new found skill, and may times that does take time. Over time we will notice that less and less energy can be devoted to making this a permanent part of our performance. Eventually the change becomes completely habituated.

Many times, in learning a new language, making one improvement, opens the door to other observations, maybe on the same learning, that before we were not ready to make. So this improvement may well be just be another step towards our goal of native like proficiency.

When you are not performing as want, you may go and re-examine  the area, to see what may be the issue. Or you just may decide to do more controlled practice exercises to hone your performance. This may highlight new areas that need to be dealt with

Organic learning vs the other kind!

One of them may come from the fact that what you have learned has not been built what you already know. An example of that may be to say learn the meaning of mitochondria but not really having the language to be able to to use it in any meaningful way. Sometimes we may need to have bits of knowledge that just simply hang out there, especially when we live in the place where the target language is spoken. However when a lot of what we have learned is like this, then we setting ourselves up for trouble. Typically people who learn like this have much more difficulty in gaining confidence in their skills

The opposite to this kind of learning is what I would call organic learning. This is when what you learn springs from and is built on what you already know. This way the language you build has a solidness and more readily builds confidence.

Another roadblock is learning something but not activating it within the language you have. Say for instance, learning a new word, but never making the effort, mental or otherwise to see work out how to use it. This typically happens with people who use excessively use bilingual dictionaries. They “learn” what a new word means and then go on to the next thing without taking time to process the new word.

If the learning is not organic (this does not need to be in real life – it can happen in a class with a skilled teacher) but rather bits are learned here, and bits are learned there then the learnings are not coherent but piecemeal. Hard to make that work for you.

Learning done in any way can be activated by careful monitoring of your own performance. The required keen alertness and a certain frame of mind can have learners self correct. I have provided here a short video clip of a learner having their previous learning activated. You will see the teacher does not not teach anything new nor does he provide the student with the correct answer. The student is encouraged to reflect on their own performance and improve it as best as they can. I will reflect more on this below.

This correction is teacher induced, but this same kind of self correction is what an attentive learner is capable of and indeed needs to do if improvements are going to keep continuing

For many I have seen that they somehow hope that by doing more practice and more “formal” learning, they will improve. Of course this needs to happen.  However if they ignore activating what they have previous learned, their progress will be limited. Successful learners continually continually monitor what they do, and keep improving their performance.

Learning to speak a language means that we need to activate our learning, ideally through speaking it, eventually without any input or help. If this is not done, the learning predominantly remains at the level of understandings and ideas, not something that transforms the learner.

Knowing vs doing

What I have consistently seen in my teaching and coaching practice is that learners actually know a lot more than they produce. These understandings, knowledge and yes, even skills they have (no matter at what level) need to be utilised and brought into the light. One of the teacher’s role is to monitor the learners’ performance, and provide feedback as necessary. The best kind of feedback a teacher can provide is to stimulate the learners’ own monitoring.

For you the learner, you need to pay more attention to what you say and what you hear (staying with the speaking realm for now).  It means monitoring what you say, working to activate in your speech what you are learning or have learned.

An analogy might be, for example, learning that as a parent you decided it is a good idea to limit the times you say “no” to your young child. Even though you decide to do that, when your child acts up, you find that you are still saying “no” far too many times. That is even though you may decide it is not good to do, you still continue to do what you don’t want to do.

Or another may be knowing it makes sense to put things away after using it, but somehow it “never” happens. These are examples of knowing, but not doing. In learning to speak languages, there are similar issues. Clearly there is a lot more involved, however the principles remain the same. Knowing and doing are 2 separate states, you could say. Monitoring what you are doing, and ultimately controlling what you say, is what can bring your performance closer to what you know.

In learning a language, it is best to have the doing happening at virtually the same time as the knowing, not giving a chance for a disconnect to develop. This way you can minimise the disconnect and not be walking around thinking, “I know this, but somehow I keep forgetting to say it”.

Let’s now consider 4 different cases of states of knowing something:

I am going to use the term “an item” below to describe some piece of learning, be it pronunciation, use of tone, structure, etc 

  1. There are times when you, the learner knows exactly what needs to be done, but you just “forget” “the item”.
  2. There are times when you are not clear about the need to use “the item”, but when given the opportunity can work it out for yourself.
  3. There are times when you are confused about “the item”, but with a little work and help (from becoming more attentive to what you hear, reading some text  or input from teacher) you can figure it out for yourself.
  4. And there are times, when you have to go back and do some work on “the item” as clearly you are missing a lot. This is where, (not in 1,2 or 3) some relearning  is useful.

The adept learner (and teacher) seeks to recognise where they are at. There is no point rushing to 4. when clearly all you need to do is to become more attentive, reflect and give yourself a moment to self correct. (In the case of the teacher, to stop the learner by some means – a hand gesture, a look, etc – to do the same.)

There are very clear differences in the kind of work that needs to be done at the 4 “levels”

By putting more of your attention to monitoring what you say and learning to distinguish where you are at with regards to these 4 states of knowing, you will be much better able to further your progress. 

Enjoy the journey!