Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Dance of Learning

by AJ

Listen To This Podcast Article

When learning any difficult skill, there is a dance that goes on.

We do not learn in a regular, linear, methodical way. Learning occurs in spurts. Sudden jumps in skill are interspersed with plateaus in which nothing much seems to happen.

Of course, we generally love the sudden improvements, and become very frustrated during the plateaus. Its easy to understand why. We were working hard. We were making fast progress. Then suddenly, all progress seems to stop.

We keep working. We keep listening and reading. We keep reviewing. We might even increase the time and energy we devote to language learning. Yet nothing much seems to happen.

At such times, its easy to panic. We start having crazy thoughts like, "I'm never going to learn English", "I'm not learning anymore", "this is impossible". If we indulge these feelings, we may start to lose our motivation. We become frustrated and depressed, and convince ourselves that we will never again make good progress.

During such times, its important to realize that this phenomenon is universal. It applies to learning ANY skill-- not just language learning. Athletes experience the same cycles of rapid progress and plateaus. At times, their strength, skill, and endurance improve quickly. At other times, they train intensely yet make only a little bit of progress. Athletes must deal with the same frustrations that language learners face.

What we must realize is that the plateaus are natural and necessary. In fact, many psychologists believe that the plateaus are where the real learning is taking place. While you seem to be making no progress, your brain is in fact processing all the new information, creating new neural networks, linking pieces of information together, and learning how to access and use it.

Your speech may not seem to be improving- but inside your brain, dramatic changes are happening. Once these changes are complete you "suddenly" make rapid progress again. In other words, what you do during the plateaus determines how much and how fast you improve during the learning jumps.

This relates to another common experience that most researchers and language learners recognize-- understanding is usually more advanced than speaking. For example, you may hear and understand a word many times before you are actually able to use it correctly in speech. Many learners complain about this. They are frustrated that they understand words or phrases but struggle to use them.

But native English speakers are no different. Various research shows that with native speakers, listening/understanding ability is usually about one year ahead of speaking/writing ability.

In other words, all the progress you are making right now, by listening and reading and reviewing, won't show up in your speech until next year! With speech, we generally have a long plateau. There is a long delay between learning new English and actually using it in conversation.

There is not much you can do about this. With intense practice, you can shorten the plateaus. But the best attitude is to accept them. Realize that they are useful. Realize that while you may feel you are not improving, in fact your brain is working hard. And most importantly, realize that the work you are doing right now won't actually show results for weeks, months, or even a year.

In this way, we must develop the attitude of professional athletes. We must realize that the benefits of training are delayed. You don't run 10 miles one day and expect to be faster and stronger the next day. It takes time for the body to adapt, change, and grow.

The same is true of the brain.

So..... even when you feel nothing is happening- keep listening, keep reading, and keep up your motivation. Enjoy yourself. Read and listen to interesting content. Focus more on communication and fascinating content than on obsessing about your progress.

If you continue to listen and read repetitively and consistently- your progress is automatically guaranteed.

So relax and enjoy the ride!

Get Learning Guides For Each Podcast.

100 Real English conversations a year, with study guides, for only $9.99/month!