Are Language Exercises a Good Language Learning Strategy?

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 driver’s seat, NOT the exercise in the driver’s seat.

language learning exercisesLet 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 mainstay in language learning