by Andrew Weiler

January 25, 2012

Language Practice

language practiceEveryone knows the importance of language practice for language learners.  However, there is not much discussion about what actually is good practice.  I have seen practice that is next to useless and practice that brings amazing improvements.  So sometimes the reason why people don’t progress as they would like is that they not only may be not getting sufficient practice but maybe they just haven’t learnt how to practice effectively.

I will bring up three different observations about language and learning that have implications on how practice needs to be approached:

1.   Language is inherently a creative activity.

Repetition seems to be one of the common tools that people use to practice.  Repetition, as is usually practiced, may have a limited role, especially with regards to some aspects of pronunciation.  However, the thing to remember is that language is fluid and creative.  So learning language by repetition, as is commonly understood, is counter-intuitive.  Respecting this fluidity and creativity is important and should not be under-rated. These two features of language lead us to the next point, which might appear to be the same issue but in fact, they are quite different. There are ways to practice repetition that it is more in line with this understanding of learning… something that I will call “mindful repetition” 

I just came across that looked at the value of repetition in the learning of our mother tongue. Researchers found that infants learn best when new words are repeated in different contexts, in different meaning packed sentences, of the kinds I use below. Not with mindless repetition.

2.   Through language, we express our thoughts and feelings.

Language is so connected to who we are that it is difficult to separate ourselves from the language we use.  We speak what we think or feel and the connection between words and our experience (including actions at times) is instantaneous. So we need to be mindful that wherever possible the practice that we do needs to honour this connection.  If it does not, then we are practicing in a way that does not call on the faculties that we use when we are actually using the language in real life.

This could be a reason why so many students feel tongue-tied in real life situations even when they have put in ample hours of practice.

No doubt some of you may be thinking, okay so what kinds of practice respect the nature of real language.  I will give 2 examples:

a. Practicing grammar, for example, the continuous present tense. You could try walking around your house doing different things and talking about what you are doing as you are doing these things. ( I am walking to the kitchen, now I am opening the cupboard, I am putting on the oven…..)

b. Learning new vocabulary. Instead of trying to remember words as you usually do, try putting a new word into 3 different sentences that relate to your personal experience.  The closer you make it your life the better.  


– the pen is on the table

– my blue pen is on the table

– the blue pen my mother gave me for my birthday is on my bedside table

Which sentence do you think asks you to engage yourself in the language, calling on your memory and your feelings. If you are still not sure whether you have remembered the word in question, instead of repeating the sentences, make up 3 more!

The more you engage yourself at every level in your practice, the more likely it is that you will learn what you are practicing AND be able to use it when needed.

3.   Improvement is an inherent requirement of practice

This might seem to be obvious, as to why practice if there is no improvement.  However, just think of the people you might know who practice a lot but and don’t seem to improve much; whilst others you might know seem to extract rich rewards from their practice (namely they seem to learn quickly). 

So what else do people do when they “practice” that transforms the experience into a learning experience? This is a question that is not easy to answer.  Follow the two suggestions above and you will start getting better value out of your practice and be on the way to doing those practices that WILL lead to noticeable improvements.

Without measurable improvement, your language practice can be just going over what is already known or doing something which results in no real change. Thus, a key to improvement is to set up criteria by which YOU can measure whether you are improving.  That is why repeating the sounds or sentences from a recording (for example) will not necessarily help unless you can identify:

a. What is different between what you hear the other say and what you hear yourself say.  If there is no difference, there is no need to practice! If there is a difference, then your goal is to reduce the difference until there is no difference.

b. What needs to change in your mouth for that sound to change – may be a slight muscle change in the mouth or even further afield, the placement of the tongue, the breath etc. Once you can identify the change needed then you can, for eg,  repeat the same change in another word which has the same sound.  Of course, this is not where the learning stops, but I hope this gives you an idea of how it’s possible to improve on the kind of practice you do.

There are of course other factors which will improve the quality of your language practice, however, the ones just mentioned will positively transform your results if you implement the suggestions made.

About the author 

Andrew Weiler

Andrew is passionate about doing what is necessary to enable language learners to not only improve BUT to keep improving.

  • It’s quite interesting what i’ve just read above because through practice you can make perfect as the French say:” c’est à force de forger quand devient forgeron” For example: at sport & even at the high level in rugby , the players conduct several combinations in tows, threes…through repetition till they can practise them authomatically  and even without thinking during the matches… Larbi

    • It’s interesting what you say Larbi about the rugby. Thanks for that observation. I suspect though that there are many players who do this kind of practice but only VERY few make it to the top. So there must be something else happening ( maybe as part of the practice, maybe not) with the few players who make it to the top. With languages, it is clear that just repetitive practice will not work for the vast majority of people.

      Application to real life situations is important for both areas and it is what the “players” do there that will enable them to rise to the top, or not.

  • Interesting and useful points in your post. Without disagreeing with you, my thought about pronunciation is that very often the learners can’t hear the difference between what the ‘other’ says and what they say themselves. My own experience is that it took me about a year to hear the difference between the Vietnamese tr and ch even though they are as different to the Vietnamese as R and L are to English speakers.  I didn’t realise how off the mark I was. It was only that I had a persistent teacher that I worked through this. Without that teacher I wouldn’t have worked on the difference because I couldn’t hear that there was a problem.  So just because learners can’t hear any difference between themselves and the tape, I don’t think that means that there’s nothing to practice, just that they can’t really practice on their own.

  • A great observation Marmi about how our own perceptive powers can sometimes mislead us. Getting outside help from a professional can help here, but there is no guarantee that a teacher will know how to help.  You were lucky enough to have someone who cared enough AND was able to help. It clearly helped of course that you cared as well!
    Without outside help the path to native like pronunciation can be more difficult, without a doubt.  There are a number of attitudes and ways of working that can help in this: – 
    # to have a deep seated desire to get there, balanced by a relaxed demeanour which provides a space for differences to appear,
    # to have an attitude of accepting that improvements can be made, even if the opposite appears to be true,
    # to be on the lookout for those small differences that separate the native speaker from an “immigrant” and
    # to have listening skills that keep improving

  • It interesting that not much attention is paid to this topic of language practice, the assumption being a lot of the time is that as long as I practice, I will learn. Clearly, this is not the case and that is why some people may put in a lot of hours for not much reward. The issue may well be what they are doing, NOT that they are in some way defective!

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