Language Learning Is Not A Race (You Can't Rush It)

avatarMille Larsen
4 mins read

I often see learning advice based on lists, flashcards, progress meters. In fact, some of the most well-known and popular study methods are based on this kind of progress-based incentive. And frankly, it drives me crazy. These methods encourage bad learning habits!

Learning a foreign language is not a race. This is very important to keep in mind, because all of these record-keeping and progress-tracking learning tools have an tendency to rush your study. And web sites like this one can project a time-to-success which makes you feel hurried if you're not getting it after six months. But it's not a race.

Motivation good, measurement bad

Don't get me wrong. If flashcards are the thing that gets you to study, rather than not study, then by all means, use them. If a desire to finish the lesson book is the thing that gets you to study another chapter rather than playing with your X-Box, then do it. And if a rising line on a progress report is the evidence you need to feel confident that you're learning and improving, then don't let me stop you from looking at such things.

But while you may find these things motivational, remember also that they are meaningless. You can't take your test scores with you to a conversation. You can't show an Italian your successfully completed stack of flashcards and expect that to help you communicate. You can't fly into Russia and show the taxi driver your progress chart. You can't order a meal in Spain by pointing out how far back the bookmark is in the lesson book.

Worse, these learning methods can often provide the wrong kind of motivation because rather than motivating you to learn, and to use new words, these methods of progress measurement only motivate you to read faster, or memorize more vocabulary. They encourage you to pay less attention to meaning and more attention to page number. You can actually enter a conversation with a false sense of confidence and find that you don't know a fraction of what you think you know!

It's too easy to do a half-hearted job of studying when you're more motivated by finishing than you are by understanding. If it's completion of a chapter or a book or a lesson or a set of flashcards that you're focused on, then you're already doomed to struggle.

Better to know a little than to think you know a lot

When it comes to learning a new language, there are only two possible states: either you can speak and understand, or you can not. There is no award for getting "most of what was said". Correctly using 50% of the words in your food order means you still go hungry.

It's better to know fewer words but use and understand all of them correctly than it is to know a lot of words but misuse and misunderstand them. In fact, having a solid understanding of the phrase "what does that mean?" allows me to have conversations using tons of vocabulary I don't know, rather than centering my communication around the vocabulary in chapter nine of whatever book I'm reading.

No matter how good the book is, real-life conversations never match the exercises you learned from. The best thing you can learn is the essential information like directions, numbers, colors, etc., and to develop a confidence in your ability to ask what something means, and to get answers you understand.

Don't cheat yourself. It's not a race. You can do more with a 100% comprehension of half the vocabulary, than you'll ever do with 50% comprehension of all of it.