The upward spiral of language learning

By | February 13, 2019

The other day I had a revelation about the difference between studying a foreign language by choice (using classes, textbooks, etc.), and being forced to learn it in an immersive environment (like at home or on the job)––in the former you always have the option to quit, whereas in the latter you don’t, or it’s very difficult to do (and may require things like moving or leaving a country).

If you spend enough time learning a foreign language academically you’ll eventually pick up sufficient information about grammar, vocabulary, and other important areas, at least to a level of functional fluency. But the major assumption is that you stay the course and don’t give up. Hence, one of the primary goals of both a student and a teacher should be to maintain motivation when studying a language.

This leads me to the main topic of this article: how the process of foreign language learning can be thought of as a spiral, or––to avoid the negative connotation spirals can have––an upward spiral.

First let me describe this using a counter example: learning in a straight line, that is linearly or serially. A linear learning process could look something like this:

  1. Learn fundamental Japanese grammar
  2. Learn hiragana and katakana
  3. Learn the first few 500 kanji
  4. Learn to pronounce all the words you have already learned to read
  5. Read an 200-page novel, which will use all the knowledge you’ve learned so far (and looking up words should not be required)

In the above study plan, the intention is that you should finish one numbered item before going onto the next. For example, once you master fundamental grammar, you then move on to hiragana/katakana and stop studying grammar.

While some of you may have language goals similar to the above, I seriously doubt you do them one at a time (if you do, make sure you keep reading).

One of the nice things about the above linear list is the sense of accomplishment when you are “done” with something. But there are a few issues with this approach that make serial learning plans difficult in practice.

First of all, just because you have learned something, doesn’t mean you won’t forget it and have a need to refer back to something later (excepting the rare few of us with a perfect memory). Secondly, even if we don’t forget, because of the complexities of languages there are often simplifications involved. When learning something like grammar, for example, there is probably more to the story and you’ll have to come back to it later. The famous (and frustrating) dichotomy between the “wa” and “ga” particles is one good example of something that can take people years to master, even with high-quality learning materials.

The other main problem with the linear or serial approach is that to use language in any realistic context you need to combine a bunch of skills: grammar, pronunciation, alphabet knowledge, cultural knowledge, vocabulary, etc. While it may be theoretically possible to plan on reading something advanced after a lot of preparatory work (like in the study plan above), you’re likely to lose interest and motivation before you get there. There are a few exceptions, for example learning to handwrite characters can be delayed in some cases, though I don’t recommend completely ignoring it. (And if you have to live using that language you’ll need to learn to write anyway).

Effective language learning is done in bits in pieces, learning a little of this, a little of that, and then putting those things together. Grammar is at the central point of much of this––it connects tightly to reading, writing, listening, and speaking––but it’s not realistic to take a year to master grammar before moving on. As you learn grammar little by little, you can also memorize set phrases so you can actually use those, and the satisfaction from that will help boost your motivation. Similarly, it’s good to learn the basics of pronunciation so you don’t butcher things too badly, even though a great deal of listening practice will eventually inform your pronunciation (and maybe your grammar too).

I like the metaphor of a spiral since you are gradually approaching some goal (fluency), but not via a linear, straightforward path. With enough time (wisely) spent you will always get there, but you won’t always feel like you are making progress.

I think of it like building a holistic foundation of language, which includes not just explicit study and knowledge, but things you implicitly pick up over time that help build an intuition of sorts.

With this mindset, it is difficult to have any specific linguistic milestones that are too meaningful, though things like the JLPT can help you stay motivated. It’s more important to be aware that you may feel like your learning rate is slowing down or plateauing, but don’t let it frustrate you. As long as you are putting in the time and balancing your time across various areas (grammar, pronunciation, reading, listening, etc.), I think you will be slowly, but surely growing your foundation. Probably the best milestones or indicators you can have are actually using language with a native speaker and being able to communicate (or at least understand what someone said or wrote enough to gain valuable information, or enjoy yourself if it is intended for entertainment). Whatever study plan you use, you need to make sure it plans for a gradual transition to using materials made for native speakers (instead of getting stuck in textbook land).

I should be honest about the fact that I didn’t completely think up this spiral metaphor on my own. Quite a long time ago (probably over a decade) I read an essay somewhere about the concept of the spiral, though I think it might have been in the context of storytelling instead of language learning. While the details of that article faded from my memory, the concept of the spiral has grown over time within me.

In fact, I think the spiral metaphor can be applied to other areas of study, for example Aikido, which I have been struggling to get a grasp on over the last two years. For a while I wanted to learn the techniques in order, mastering one then moving onto another, but the nature of the class is that students are exposed to a large number of techniques of various difficulties. When I realized that it’s not the techniques themselves, but the foundation (the ability to control body and mind, the ability to observe and emulate others movements, etc.) that is important, I was able to train with much less stress. I think this is another place where the learning process can be seen as a spiral.

(Note: featured image of a spiral staircase from Pexels)

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