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Chaos and Focus in Language Learning


Shut up, I’m trying to learn to speak a language,” said no one ever.
Foreign language study is different from learning maths or history. Today, I want to look at two states which – although contradictory – still feature in every language learner’s work. How to use them? How to make the most of them? Let’s find out.

Linear vs non-linear learning

There are times when you just have to start with the basics to move on to bigger things. This kind of process is at work in pretty much everything that’s “learnable” – figure out basic chess rules before playing a game. Learn to scramble eggs before attempting omelettes. Go through basic driving maneuvers before signing up for a racing club. And, sure enough, learn the basic parts of speech / rules of grammar / phrases and salutations before moving on to more complicated language learning stuff.
But at other times – usually a bit later on – learning is no longer so simple. It’s no longer the case that A always leads to B and C later. Your basketball skills rely on fitness, awareness of the rules, teamwork, stamina and imagination – all at once. Your super-hard maths problem tests your knowledge of logic, algebra, but also basic problem-solving, and multiplication. And your evening out with Spanish-speaking colleagues involves grammar, listening, body-language, pronunciation and so much more.
This dual nature of almost everything worth learning – the difference between linear and non-linear learning – is a useful thing to bear in mind. Why? Well, it will affect almost every lesson and learning experience you’ll ever have.

Chaos vs focus: how do you teach yourself your language?

It’s impossible to learn anything in a completely chaotic situation. Without rules, starting points and shared knowledge, you’re getting nowhere.
It’s also impossible to improve on a perfectly focused state. When everything is clear, when all input is 100% understood and taken in – contemplation and reflection may happen, but not learning.
Fortunately, neither of those will ever happen to a language learner. Still, it’s worth to remember the extremes when analyzing the contexts in which a foreign language happens to us. Have a look at three sample scenarios:

  • Seven days in a foreign country – interacting with the people in the area – going out with friends who act as impromptu teachers / interpreters – then back home. (High chaos, low focus)
  • Twice a week – a language class in a private language school – 10 students, different backgrounds – one teacher, a native speaker of the language – one coursebook and syllabus to follow. (Average focus, average chaos)
  • Once a week – a one-to-one session with a tutor – own room for learning – individual attention – materials chosen to fit learning goals – progress checked and next lessons planned together with tutor. (High focus, low chaos)

It’s getting focused in here: how to supply what is needed

This is a very simple question, and one that could really help any language study: “Do I need more chaos or focus?”
Focus helps. It is needed to remember better, to understand the complex grammar, to read and write, to take part in a conversation without sounding awkward. It is the capacity to take things one at a time, and move forward. Focus calms you down, so you say what you want to say – and remember the right words at the right time.
Chaos helps as well, though! It improves your confidence in many situations. It ensures that you can always change the topic, adapt to things others say, and improvise. It gets your brain used to thinking about more than just one word – one sentence at a time. Chaos is what helps your creativity and enables you to enjoy the brilliant nature of every place you visit.
Clearly, you need both. How to get them?

3 simple keys to focus and chaos

People, points of view, information.
Get more of those in, and chaos increases. Things become more interesting. New ideas enter the conversation. A dull discussion becomes a heated one. New accents, new vocabulary, having to explain what you mean again – all this is good, productive chaos in every language lesson.
If you want more focus, go for less. Choose to speak to fewer people at a time. Take a look at one point of view after another. Break that immense wordlist down into smaller chunks. This brings focus: in isolation, in manageable contexts, your language becomes clearer and your responses don’t have to deal with too much input.
These changes are very simple to make, and easy to justify. Bear those in mind, and use them to vary the way your foreign language study works!

To read more about chaos in language learning, download this paper. (PDF)
To read more about focus, check out Leo’s book.

(Photo credit: Ben Palmer via Compfight)

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