Getting a Good Mental Workout at a Language Club

August 12, 2016

I am increasingly convinced that our mind grows (i.e. learning occurs) the same way muscles do: through cycles of activation and recovery. The more intense the activation and profound the recovery, the greater the rate of growth.

If you go to a language club and, as I sometimes do, only "half-communicate" with the people there, that is like putting in a halfhearted effort at the gym and spending most of your time wandering about, looking in the mirror, and reading fitness magazines. Sure, it's better than nothing, but the anabolic effect is perhaps one tenth that of a serious workout.

What does "half-communicate" mean? Your mind is wandering, you're not really paying attention, you can't seem to find anything of interest to discuss, you have urges to play around on your smartphone and check Facebook...

Yesterday I went to Spanish club, and only two of us came, both non-native speakers. My level was somewhat higher than the other person's, and our conversation got off to a slow start.

Many people mistakenly believe that if a native speaker is not present, there's little point in attending a language club. After all, "who will correct our errors?" That's like saying, "why go to the gym if there are no trainers around?"

The point is not to be taught something, but to give your mind a thorough workout by activating it as intensely as possible. You don't need native or more advanced speakers to do that, though they are helpful in other ways. In fact, sometimes speaking to a less proficient language learner can cause you to communicate in a more dominant way, activating more of the brain.

Yesterday was such a day. After fishing around for some shared topics of interest, we finally found one and became engrossed in discussion. I could feel my brain engaging more and more until I lost track of what was going on around me.

I found I was somehow able to access vocabulary that I hadn't used in years. I checked key terms in my electronic dictionary. My speech became more fluid and natural, and I felt like I was starting to approach my former level of fluency. This stage lasted for about an hour before we called it a night and went home.

Using the skill acquisition terminology from my book, I would call this "Deep Performing."

An engaged brain probably makes 10x the progress as an underengaged brain. Thus, we need to think more about how to fully activate our brain and about full mental recovery and less about the external attributes of language learning — what course to buy, what dictionary or podcast to download, how much to study, etc.

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(c) 2016-2017 Richard DeLong.