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  • Writer's pictureIan Gibbs

Language Learning Law 3: Practice Is More Important Than Theory

I passed my driving test in 1982.

Those were the good old days of learning to drive.

You found someone with a car who’d accept ready money for putting their personal safety at risk.

You’d get in, fasten your safety belt and off you’d go.

Nervous, jittery and extremely wobbly around corners, but that was what learning to drive was in those days.

Nowadays it’s different.

We have this ‘theory’ thing which as far as I’m concerned has taken all the adventure out of the learning-to-drive business.

You have to sit in a classroom for months before you ever get a chance to sit in the driving seat.

I bring this up because learning to drive and learning to speak a foreign language are very similar.

They both involve theory and they both involve practice.

It’s important to point this out.

One key reason so many of us fail at learning a new language is we spend far too much time on the theory and nowhere near enough time practising.

We pass hours and hours with our noses stuck into our ‘teach yourself’ manuals.

We study vocabulary and grammar.

We learn to conjugate irregular verbs ad nauseam.

Then one day we decide to go for our first linguistic drive.

We find a real person to talk to.

We think of all the options for what we are going to say.

We open our mouth and… stall.


We get it wrong.

We get lost for words.

Our pronunciation goes pear-shaped.

We feel embarrassed, incompetent and our natural response is to withdraw.

The result is a total linguistic breakdown.

We deduce our problem is due to a lack of study and return to our books to brush up on our theory.

This is a mistake.

Our inability to hold the simplest of conversations in a new language isn’t due to a lack of theory.

It’s due to a lack of practice.

If, when we stalled our car for the first time, we’d said ‘Oh, bother, I need to go back and study my urban velocity limits’ your instructor would think you were a bit mental.

Jittery driving is what you have to go through before you can become a capable driver.

So it is with speaking a new language.

You have to accept that having embarrassingly pathetic conversations doesn’t mean you’re failing.

It means you’re succeeding in passing through that painful period where your brain can’t work as fast as your mouth would like it to.

I’m pointing this out because most of us want to learn a new language in order to communicate, and the best way to learn to communicate is to practise doing just that – communicate: to have real conversations with real people.

If you’re of a gregarious disposition, you won’t have a problem with this.

There are extroverts amongst us who happily launch themselves into staggered conversation with anyone they can find.

I’ve seen them happily waving their arms about and laughing at their own linguistic inadequacies.

But I’m not like that, and in all likelihood, neither are you.

You probably feel rather uncomfortable about talking to an unfamiliar person in an unfamiliar language.

Your tendency is to shy away from it until you’ve studied a bit more – studied enough for that strange and unfamiliar language to feel not so strange and unfamiliar any more.

I’m sorry to break the bad news but it’s never going to happen.

The single most productive thing you can do to learn a new language is to start communicating – from day one if you dare.

That is how we really learn a language – by social interaction, not by studying from books.

It’s how kids learn.

It’s how the experts learn.

And if you want to make some serious progress then it’s how you are going to learn, too.

Seven years after I left school with no ability to converse in Spanish whatsoever I moved to Barcelona.

I never attended Spanish classes.

I never did an on-line course.

Nevertheless, for the first few years, I shared a flat with three girls – Núria, Cristina and Maria – none of whom spoke much English.

I had no other option than to start practising from day one.

The result?

I was able to have real conversations within just a few weeks and I was fairly fluent (although not grammatically accurate) after just twelve months.

And all because I put practice in front of theory.

So if you want to learn how to communicate in your new chosen language ASAP, start getting used to the idea you’re going to be conversing in your chosen language with other people sooner than you thought.

It’s not going to be easy.

It’s not going to be comfortable.

But if you go about it the right way, it is going to be fun, exhilarating and a damn sight more productive than just keeping to the theory.

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