Here’s a little known fact about me…
Many years ago I used to practise martial arts.
It was when I lived in Argentina, and I practised quite intensively with a Sensei for a while.
It was great fun and I learned a lot, I also got in really good shape, in spite of all the bife de chorizo and red wine I would put away every night.
Now, whenever I went to practise martial arts at the school, we would always spend the first 15 minutes doing the same warm up routine.
That warmup routine was always exactly the same, with no variation whatsoever.
My teacher told me about one student of his who would come for lessons every day and complain about this 15 minutes spent doing the exact same thing every day.
“It’s a waste of time!” he said. “When are we going to learn some new stuff?”
Turns out he wanted to learn the throws and the kicks and all the stuff you see in the movies.
Of course, there was something special about the warmup routine that this student didn’t see.
You see, the warmup routine was carefully designed to practise the fundamental movements of the martial art: the kicks, the punches, the footwork, the defences.
Because this particular martial art (like most martial arts I guess!) is entirely built up over a relatively small number of simple moves.
These simple moves form the entire foundation of the art, and anything else – anything that might look fancy, like a spinning kick – is just built on top of those basic movements.
Good teachers, therefore, have the students practise the basic movements for years and years on end – 5, 10 years or more…
In fact it never ends, because they know that anything else you come to learn later will depend entirely on whether or not you’ve got the basics together.
So if you don’t have the fundamentals down, you don’t move on.
In fact, moving on before you’ve mastered the fundamentals would set you back, because you’d be learning new things in the wrong way. (Probably while thinking you’re getting them right.)
I think there are a lot of skills in life that work like this.
Take music for example. The foundation of any musical instrument is your technique and your scales and arpeggios. Musicians practise these things every day, and never stop.
We're used to being told to master the basics, and that’s why, I think, when it comes to language learning people have a bias towards trying to get everything right from the beginning… especially grammar.
But what if you can't master the basics from the beginning?
Take grammar for example…
The so-called “rules” of grammar are not actually rules at all.
What do you think came first: The grammar rule, or people just talking?
Grammar rules are things that have been created by educators to try and describe how the grammar of a language works. The hope is that by attempting to explain how grammar works, it's easier to teach.
But, of course, language is a lot more complicated than that.
Grammar is sometimes predictable.
But, just as often, grammar doesn't behave anything like it should.
Think about it… why else do we spend so much time learning irregular verbs or the exceptions to the rules?
Real language exists in a whole ecosystem of people, culture, society, social trends, and so much more.
So being good at grammar doesn’t mean being able to organise your verbs in the right way on paper in a grammar test…
Truly knowing your grammar means understanding how grammar changes in all kinds of different contexts, from person to person… in any number of situations.
How else do you explain to an English learner why that footballer in the post-match interview said: “The boys done good”?
Am I making sense here?
What I’m trying to say here, is this:
There is no such thing as mastering any part of a language, unless you've had enough “life experience” in that language to be ready to master it.
So that's why quantity is your friend in language learning, not quality.
That’s right, you’re going to learn far more by being eclectic in your study, trying things out before you’re ready, and studying widely.
Every time you try something new, you get a little bit more information, which fills in your holistic view of the language bit by bit. And then gradually, over time, you can begin to master the various elements of the language, such as – God forbid – your verb conjugations.
For most things in life, we do the opposite – we take a quality over quantity approach. Like in our martial arts example, where you focus relentlessly on the basics until you master them.
But when it comes to language learning, quantity over quality rules the day.
And this is precisely why extensive reading is such a powerful activity, I think. It’s all about the quantity. As you get exposed to more and more information through reading, you develop your global understanding of the language. And your accuracy across the board gradually improves.
And, of course, when it comes to this, I practice what I preach!
Let me give you an example of what I mean…
And one of my mantras in these programmes is that I don’t ask you to “master the grammar before you move on”.
No – I ask you to “move on before you master the grammar”.
You see, since my Uncovered courses are built around the story, your main job on the course is to make it through the story itself.
However much you study the lessons that are in the course… it almost doesn't matter to me, because my priority is to make you keep reading the story, and progressing through the course.
Because I know that whether or not you have mastered all the grammar from the lessons, it's by continuing on through the story that you will truly learn and master the grammar.
That's the quantity over quality approach in action.
So you see, we practice what we preach around here!
Now I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two very important caveats to this rule of language learning.
When you become more advanced in a language, this approach actually reverses and you need to focus more on quality. This is because at higher levels, you need to refine your use of language, and for that you need quality. Simply studying more and more stops working so well.
When it comes to pronunciation, you can totally and utterly ignore this rule!
You can and must do everything you can to get your pronunciation right from the very beginning. The reason is that it's not particularly hard to learn good pronunciation. It's pretty much a finite set of physical actions that you need to master… just like a martial art.
And you're going to have a very hard time speaking fluently later on if you can't form the basic sounds of the language. Not to mention having to un-learn dodgy pronunciation in the future… trust me, you don't want to go there.
So until next time, just remember, when it comes to language learning, do yourself a favour, and pursue quantity, not quality.
Let me know in the comments below whether you agree with all this “quantity over quality” stuff…