Opposition to the overuse of metrics in language learning (and in daily life)

By | March 5, 2015

We live in a day and age where recording aspects of our daily life as numbers, and analyzing that data, has become more and more commonplace.

To give a few examples: we measure how many steps we walked, how long we brushed our teeth, how much we drank, how many times we smoked, how long we slept (and the quality of that sleep), and let’s not forget how many people read our blog each day.

These things can be called metrics, and we typically try to use them to help us get motivated or confirm how much progress we made in a certain area.

These metrics can be very helpful. Take the example of someone who is a bit overweight and decides to measure the number of steps they walk daily, establishing a plan where they increase their target distance every week, and track their steps using some sort of application or website. This sort of program is self-reinforcing and can help build confidence and ultimately lead to weight loss and a greater enjoyment of life.

This line of reasoning, which is true to a point, is what many companies are using (either directly or indirectly) to market their products. After all it’s the age of data, the age of statistics and the more we numerify our lives the more we can improve them – or so the story goes.

Of course, there is a dark side to all this metrics-mania. The fundamental danger to this type of approach is that it’s easy to get addicted to daily statistics watching and value the numbers themselves over the end goal. It shouldn’t be forgotten that metrics are just means to an end.

Let’s look at another example of using metrics, this time related to this blog’s theme of Japanese language learning.

Bill wants to learn Japanese and after discovering there are around ~2000 Kanji characters he needs to learn before he can have a chance at reading anything written for adults, he makes a promise to himself to learn 50 characters a week. At first things go smoothly, but after a few weeks Bill finds it hard to learn new Kanji while retaining those he learned in the recent past. To counter his difficulty, he uses several programs such as Kanji flash card apps, and even makes a graph of the number of Kanji he has learned to date and his retention percentage. Bill prints out a graph each week to paste on his bedroom wall, and glances at it every time he enters that room.

He ends up succeeding in his goal to learn all 2000 Kanji, but at the end of it all he feels completely burned out, and to make things worse he realizes he should have spent more time studying grammar and vocabulary, and as a result he still can’t through on entire newspaper article. Bill decides to take a break from studying for a few months and when he does return he realizes he’s forgot over half of the characters he’s learned.

This is an extreme example, but I’ve seen people do similar things (including myself).

The real goal of language learning is not to “pass a class”, “pass a test”, or “learn X characters”, but rather to learn to understand others and communicate with them in that language, and hopefully enjoy oneself while doing so. I feel that any plan to study a foreign language that over relies on metrics is bound to fail in the long term, even if there is a certain degree of satisfaction for meeting target metrics.

Those who have decided to teach themselves a foreign language without a formal class or teacher are more likely to run into this problem. This is because one of the important duties of a language teacher is to provide a variety of materials, well-balanced in several core areas (cultural, pronunciation, reading, writing, listening, conversation, etc.). To be sure, there are those people who are more well-suited for self study, though those people typically have their own strategies for creating a balanced study routine to avoid overspecialization or getting burned out.

Here is something else to think about: Conversation ability, arguably one of the most important and most challenging skills to learn in a foreign language, is also one of the hardest things to measure improvement in. The foreign language classes I took for Spanish had little to none of actual conversation, and I don’t think there are any great metrics to measure how well someone communicated during a conversation. However, those participating in a conversation have a very good idea how well they understood and how well they communicated, and even more importantly what sorts of positive feelings they felt. All these things will act as a form of positive feedback that is based on the most important element – real human experience – as opposed to some numbers which might be meaningless in the long run (* See Note 1 below).

Now I’m not saying to completely stay away from tools like the popular “Anki” (though I’ve never used it myself), but if you do choose to use them, make sure you keep your real goals in sight. And don’t get too addicted to the numbers, no matter how satisfying they seem.

I try to apply this philosophy to other parts of my life as well. I’ve stopped using FitBit, which I obsessively wore and monitored for several weeks. Though I did learn how many thousand steps I tend to walk each day, I quickly forgot that number. The most important thing I learned from wearing FitBit is to be more conscious of when I was talking in my daily routine, and where I could make improvements, like adding a brief walk in the afternoon on some days.

As for checking blog stats frequently, I recommend focusing more on metrics that matter (number of followers and especially thoughtful comments), as opposed to raw “hit counters”, since the latter doesn’t have that much significance.

Above all, always keep in mind that all statistics are only good as their interpretation, and an interpretation’s validity is something that cannot be measured by any number.


1. Regardless of the fact that numerical metrics are not always the best way to measure progress, most classes held at a college or school will have things like tests which try to determine your knowledge about certain area(s) and turn that into a percent, and this has some validity to it. Testing practices will however vary across teachers and schools, though I feel that the older and more mature a classes students are, the more appropriate it is to get away from using hard metrics to measure pass/fail. Other areas, like scientific research (linguistic or otherwise), have no choice but to resort to using some sort of metric to measure input and output variables of a study or research project.


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4 thoughts on “Opposition to the overuse of metrics in language learning (and in daily life)

  1. Cort Caldwell

    Thanks for tacking the less common viewpoint!

    Metrics are the key tangible motivating factor for learning just about any subject. Feedback is the next most common motivator. Even if you get a lot of feedback it will be more anecdotal and biased (eg friends, quality of “evaluator” analytical skills + Japanese skills + motivation).

    I think metrics are key for everyone, even though I am a at the far end of the spectrum and am very motivated by metrics and statistics.

    A learner does not get “burned out” from utilizing a metric when learning 2000 kanji, but instead from non-optimal goal setting, execution… or motivation.

    Looking forward to your next post!

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment. I’m also very into statistics and metrics, which I think is why I started noticing some of their drawbacks lately.

      I agree that metrics can be a major motivating factor for learning, but think saying they are the key motivating factor for learning any subject is going a bit too far.

      Especially as a child or young person, people get into certain things (including the sciences) because of a pure passion and joy when dealing with those things, and their knowledge and career takes off after that. I can guarantee that when a child gets into a subject he or she is not doing so because of metrics.

      Anyway, thanks for reading my blog!

  2. FujikoToyohashi

    Though I did feel a sense of accomplishment when I got a good grade on my japanese tests and exams, I never got this addictive feeling because my teachers always hinted at still greater things to learn. Now that I’m on my own I do use metrics a lot, not only because you get satisfaction from it, but also because it gives the feeling that you are in control of what you do even though you struggle with the Kanji 😉


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