Do you remember your first conversation in a foreign language with a native speaker? With a real native speaker? Let me tell you about my first experience, which helped me learn why language training is important.
It was the mid-90s. The English language was slowly making its way into schools, replacing the Russian language that was hated by students. It was often taught by young teachers who had just graduated. In my elementary school, a friendly red-haired Canadian also started working.
He only taught the older classes, but one day our regular teacher told us that she had invited him to join us for one of the lessons. We learned that each of us would have the opportunity to ask him a question. Of course, we could prepare our questions in advance.
As a result, we spent the following days not only brainstorming what we could ask him but also focusing on how to construct sentences correctly in English.
When to say “town” and when “city”?
The lesson passed quite quickly. Everyone attempted to ask a short question. I don’t remember exactly what I asked back then. I think it’s because I was more focused on not embarrassing myself and asking the question correctly. We weren’t really concerned about learning something about our Canadian guest. We just wanted to make a good impression.
Did the lesson help me with my English? In a way, yes, because I learned how to distinguish between the words “town” and “city”. One of my classmates wasn’t sure if we should use the word “city” for our town. The Canadian teacher asked him, “Is there a McDonald’s here? If yes, then it’s a ‘city’. If not, then use the word ‘town’.” I still remember that advice, and it works quite well in practice.
But even though I learned how to differentiate “town” from “city,” I didn’t make much progress beyond that.
In high school, I had lessons with another Canadian. His name was Josh. He looked quite quirky, and that’s probably why we immediately liked him. His goatee stood out the most. He also wore a peculiar beret and used to eat sandwiches with bananas and peanut butter.
Since Josh wasn’t much older than us, we spent a lot of time with him, even outside of school. Our conversations ceased to be a collection of pre-prepared questions. English stopped being an end in itself. It became a tool for communication. The goal was no longer to construct correct sentences but to exchange thoughts, talk about our interests and plans. Unconsciously, each of us stopped trying to speak English. We simply spoke in that language, which allowed us to constantly practice it.
Not long ago, I came across intriguing words from Vince Antonucci that made me look at these two experiences from a slightly different perspective.
“Are you trying or training a language?”
Antonucci explains the difference between trying and training:
“Training is doing today what you can do so that you can do tomorrow what you can’t do today.”
If I said to you, “I’ll give you a million złoty if you have a conversation in Chinese tomorrow evening.” The high reward may tempt you, and you would reply, “Okay, I’ll try.” And that’s exactly what you would do… you would try. You’re not entirely sure if you can do it, but you leave it up to chance… It might work, it might not.
But if I told you that you have six months to prepare? You wouldn’t just try. You would spend the entire six months training your skills.
When it comes to language learning, success comes from continuous practice, repetition, and using the structures we already know in entirely new arrangements and configurations.
Why is that? Our brain needs time to automate the entire process and strengthen the neural connections that allow us to understand the language, think in the foreign language, and speak without hesitation. It cannot be done in a few days. That’s why repeatability and constant use of what we have already learned are so important here.
Stop trying. Start training the language!
Here are some tips to help you transition from “trying” to “training”:
1. Focus on communication. Let the language be your tool, not the end goal itself. When you have the opportunity to converse with someone, concentrate on learning something about your conversation partner rather than worrying about making mistakes.
2. Organize your time so that your contact with the language is not sporadic and random. Consistency is key to effective language learning.
3. Give yourself time. Your brain works intensively while you sleep, using that time to organize information. Make sure to get enough rest and sleep to support your language learning process.
So, are you trying or training?
Article originally published at sekretypoliglotow.pl in Polish. You can find it here.