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Rethink your language learning with two simple questions

This post is inspired by Adrian Underhill and his talk from last week’s OXDOSA conference. If you want to get to the source, visit one of Adrian’s blogs here.

The pros and cons of goals

A person who walks into a language school with a goal is almost always going to do better than a person who just “wanted to give it a go.” Goals will motivate you, and serve as yardsticks along your way. They also make learning easier and more fun. Instead of having one big mission which can overwhelm you, and why not have several smaller targets which can be reached and celebrated more often?
Having said that, I should stress that there are several problems with that type of approach. If learning was nothing but a series of goals, there would be very little to get excited about. I still see that sometimes in exam classes: lots of focus, tons of motivation, but very little enjoyment. It’s almost as if the certificate – or a good grade, or another level in your language portfolio – was the only reason for all this hard work!

Question one: what did I do?

Let’s start with goals, then. Most foreign languages can be somehow related to what a speaker can do with them. There are several useful frameworks which can help you find your way around what’s possible in a language (see an example here).
The first question that will help you re-focus your language learning is very simple. “What did I do?” refers to these goals. Was that a good or bad result? Did this conversation sound manageable? What was I able to achieve with this email? Did I pronounce the new words naturally?
Ask this question often, and demand lots of answers – from yourself, your teachers, classmates and friends. This will help you understand where you are in relation to your goals in language, both big and small.

Question two: what did I do to do that?

There is, however, a more important question, and this is where Adrian Underhill comes in. His talk last Saturday was directed to English teachers, but the question is relevant to all language learners (and possibly to all learners in general).
“What did I do to do that?” does not focus on the final outcome, but on the process that led to it. The question deals with the thinking and actions that led to your brilliant email writing – and not with how brilliant the email was. It focuses on the reasons behind you mixing up the tenses – on what is going on in your head when you mix them up – and does not try to criticize or eliminate the mix-up.
Ask that question when you succeed and when you fail. Ask it when you manage to remember a really hard word and when you make a really simple mistake. Ask it when you manage to understand a complicated dialogue, and when it takes you forever to get through a simple reading text.
“What did I do to do that?” is much more subjective than the previous question. It’s also a harder one to answer: it will make you explore the way your memory, senses and muscles work when you speak or learn a language.
It is worth asking. Ask yourself, your friends, native speakers and teachers. Get used to the fact that language goals can be achieved, or missed, in a myriad ways!

What is the one question that helps you learn better, folks? Let us know down below.


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