An alternative approach to study a foreign language


I studied the German language for many years and any professor I had used the same teaching method: first, you learn the theory and then you move on to practice. Only one professor, the least traditionalist but also the most likeable, encouraged me and my companions to use exactly the opposite method. What he used to tell us was, “Start from the end.”

I guarantee you that this method has completely changed my approach to language. In this article, I would like to explain why, strange and different as it may seem, it works.

One of the most useless and illogical things they taught us in our first years of school is to tackle a subject to study from the beginning. Now some might rightly argue that that’s where it starts, by definition! But let me explain, with a simple example, what I am referring to and you will discover a different and probably much more effective approach to the study than you can imagine. Take, for example, a young student studying German. If the young student has been well educated by his teacher, he knows that he must study and learn the theory well before the exercises. The young student will then carefully follow the explanation in class, perhaps noting the grammar rules. He will then start studying at home dedicating as much time as necessary to the theoretical information in order to assimilate it well, perhaps even using the notes taken in class. After (finally) learning and understanding what he needs to know he will then be ready to devote himself to the exercises.

There’s nothing wrong so far, at least on the surface. In reality, studying in this way the necessary time is frighteningly long, a lot of discipline and concentration is required and, above all, it is a method that will no longer be sustainable when the young student enters the real world, the world of work, the one in which the time to update and study is very limited but precious and indispensable.

So, what does it mean to start from the end? Going back to the young German student, starting from the end means, in his case, starting the exercises directly.

Starting with the exercises, basically, two things can happen:

1. the student is able to carry them out: by carrying out the exercises he also memorizes the theoretical information or, if necessary, he can deepen it later and it will be much easier to do it because he will already know what they refer to.

2. the student is not able to perform the exercises. At this point, he has a real and concrete need to know the theory and then be able to put into practice the theoretical information to solve the exercises.

Our mind, and therefore our attention, is continually stimulated by different stimuli and thoughts. Unfortunately, we are not able to pay attention to all these stimuli at the same time. Our mind is selective, it makes choices, erases some information and focuses on others.

Have you ever had to read or study something, for example, and no matter how hard you tried, there was no way to stay focused? Probably, yes…

We all naturally tend to focus our attention on what we think is most useful and convenient for us at that time. We have some kind of opportunistic radar that can hunt down important information. This radar is what allows us to stay focused or, vice versa is responsible for our lack of concentration (although it would be more correct to say “focus on the wrong things”).

The good news is that we program the radar, it doesn’t act on its own. The radar is programmed by our needs.

Therefore, before starting to study, it is good to create a real and concrete need to assimilate the information to be studied. What? You already know one way: starting with the exercises.

If there are no exercises to do, create a list of real questions about the language you are studying. Once you have drawn up a detailed list, go through the questions and try to answer them. Every time you come up with a question whose answer you ignore, go find the information you need about the texts you have available and memorize it. Only when you are able to answer the question in question do you move on to the next one, and so on.

To conclude, I would like to present to you the eight tips that my German teacher had listed to remain more concentrated while studying and had repeatedly urged us to rewrite them on papers and hang them everywhere in our room. Although I am no longer living in Italy, where my professor teaches, I still have a picture of those tips and I always follow them when it comes to studying a foreign language. His tips are the following:

1. Dilute in time. Compressing everything there is to learn in a long, nerve-wracking ten-hour study session will not yield great results. Rather, it is better to divide the bundle of pages to study into smaller portions to be distributed over the weeks.

2. Not until the wee hours. A night spent on the books risks damaging the mnemonic and processing skills for the next 4 days. It is better to organize yourself beforehand and set a fixed daytime schedule to study: the brain will easily get used to this routine, which will facilitate concentration.

3. Drop the marker. Rereading the same paragraph several times and highlighting key passages is a technique used by many. But not necessarily winning: some experts consider it counterproductive because it risks focusing attention on irrelevant information. The green light instead to diagrams, schemes, drawings to synthesize key concepts.

4. Set a goal. It does not have to be as ambitious as learning the entire grammar of a foreign language. It can be a specific skill, such as learning how to conjugate French verbs: achieving it will increase your self-esteem and make things easier. As you pursue your goal, remember: if you can’t explain it clearly enough, you don’t understand it well enough.

5. Study as if you had to teach. If you imagine that you have to teach the concepts studied, the key rules are stored more effectively. When it is called to teach, in fact, the brain encodes and organizes information more clearly and coherently.

6. Practice all the time. It may be obvious, but practice is never enough. Test yourself all the time. Making mistakes will help you focus on your weaknesses and motivate you to find the right answers.

7. Choose a specific corner for the study. Select a quiet, tidy and well-lit place that has everything you need to work: when you reach it, your brain will understand, for an automatic conditioning effect (priming), that it is time to concentrate and dedicate yourself to learning.

8. Leave your smartphone in another room. Being constantly connected and responding to chat and social network notifications won’t make learning any easier, so move your phone away from your desk or turn it off.

When you and your language exchange friends study, do you always start with theory? Have you ever tried to do the exercises first and then study the rules? Let us know in the comments.

Written by: Martina Sassi, Staff Writer

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