Unforced errors – language learning and table tennis

What can an innocuous game of table tennis teach you about your language learning journey? A proper hammering the other day made me reflect on how understanding your bad habits can lead to big improvements in your language learning results.

Language learning and table tennis

Language learning and table tennis

Rubbish at table tennis

Yesterday I was playing a game of table tennis – the first in many years. I didn’t do as well as I had expected. I lost every game.

I enjoy watching regular tennis – enough to know that, basically, what you want to be doing is hitting the ball to the side of the court which is most difficult for your opponent to return. The same goes in table tennis, I guess. So that’s what I was doing trying to do in this game.

So there I was, trying to land these perfect cross-table shots, but what I saw happening was the ball flying off the end of the table, into the net, anywhere but where It should have been. I tried to hit my shots more accurately, but it didn’t really work.

The number of games lost kept growing, and I grew increasingly fed up. However, towards the end, my game improved dramatically as I changed my focus in one small but important way.

Unforced errors

As I grew frustrated at all the points I was losing, I started looking at how I was losing these points. Was it because my opponent was too good? Not really. She only played very simple shots. I began to realise that most points I was losing were the result of an unforced error (making a mistake despite having full control over your shot). In my efforts to play killer offence, I was actually damaging my game.

That’s why my opponent was winning. All she had to do was play the ball back to me and wait for me to make the mistake!

Turning it around

Getting the basics right

Getting the basics right

I accepted my weakness – that I couldn’t, in practice, pull off the kind of shots I wanted to. I started to think: Okay, now I’m going to stop trying for these fancy offensive shots. Instead, I’m simply going to focus on defence – eliminate my own errors and see what happens.

So, on every point I simply focused on returning the ball to the opponent’s side of the table. No topspin, no backhand slice, just getting the ball back to the other side. Getting the basics right.

As you’d expect, the points started rolling in. Ok, I still lost, but it was now a matter of 19-21 rather than the rather harsh 6-21 from earlier games.

Getting the basics right

Language learning basics

Language learning basics

I started to think whether this strategy was applicable elsewhere. At first it seemed far-fetched to link it to language learning, but then I started reflecting on those times that I don’t make the progress I want. It’s almost always down to a failure to attend to the basics and manage myself properly! It’s not having the discipline to do the minimum 1 hour per day, or to revise again those new Chinese characters I learnt the other day because I still haven’t quite got them!

The difference between success and failure not in language learning for so many people is largely a question of discipline and self-control – dedicating time to the basics everyday even though you’re tired after work and it’d be much more fun to go for a beer or stick on a DVD.

So what is the language learning equivalent of my unforced errors in table tennis?

  • it’s not setting aside a minimum amount of study time everyday
  • it’s not generating momentum through regular, ongoing study
  • it’s not getting distracted by tangential Internet junk (should you really be reading this blog right now!?!)
  • it’s not allowing time for the language to develop inside you and becoming impatient
  • it’s not developing a large enough vocabulary to be able to convey basic meaning
  • it’s not seeking out opportunities to speak with native speakers on a regular basis
  • it’s failing to notice the structure of the language and ways that it’s used in practice
  • it’s not giving yourself enough exposure to the language (written or spoken) in order to have the opportunities to notice

As ever, none of this is rocket science, nor is it particularly sexy, but it is what will bring you that crucial 80% of gains on an ongoing basis.

That’s why, for me, 7 languages down the line, I’m not searching for a fancy new method or the latest smartphone app, I’m still focused on getting the basics right. On playing good defence – is the metaphor working?? 🙂

It’s doing whatever it takes to get that hour of studying in everyday, gaining momentum and not letting it stop!

Is there something crucial that you know you should be doing more of everyday, but just don’t manage to?

Leave a comment and let me know!

Photo credits: FirstSecondThird

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

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