Language learning: Be doers of the language, not just hearers

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 

James 1:22-24

I was reminded of this verse this morning when doing my morning Bible study. It is sound wisdom and critical to closely pursuing Christ. It got me thinking, though, of life applications and, of course, language learning applications. How can a learner be a “doer” of the language and not just a “hearer” of the language? 

When John was studying German and Polish, he would make flashcards with words on them – a common memorization technique. He would write a German word on one side and a Polish word on the other. Then he would have me flash the card and he would tell me the word in the other language. (Side note, I have NO idea why he had me do this. He could have said “fsohdoshf” and I would have said “sure, correct”. I possess no skills in German or Polish). By doing this he was trying to activate his memory of both languages. This is one way of being a doer of a language – or, languages in this case. 

So, how else can we be doers of the language?

Look in the “mirror” often 

My memory is sketchy at best. Add in the fact I have a 4 month old who blesses us with the rare full night of sleep and my cognitive functions are fairly minimal right now. So there’s so many times where I hear/learn something and think “oh, yeah, I’ll remember that!” only to forget it probably five minutes later. No matter how important that information is, it goes into the black abyss, never to be seen again. Now if that’s what happens to important information, what would happen to trivial information like vocabulary on the weather? That’s why keeping notes on vocabulary for language learning is essential. 

I remember when I was living in France, I would set out to learn and use one new word a day. I would study the language on Duolingo and find a new word to learn, its pronunciation, practice it in my head and set off on my day. However, by lunch time I could hardly recall the word or how to say it. I had relied on my memory. It was like I had looked in the mirror and forgotten my own face. I quickly learnt that if I was going to be successful in learning French, I had to write the word down, keep a recording on how to pronounce it and repeat, repeat, repeat!  

Not just hearers

What is the point in learning a vocabulary if you have no intentions of using it. If you are learning new words, go out of your way to use it in day-to-day conversations. So often we practice vocabulary exercises, learn the new words and how to pronounce them (all the good teachy stuff) then we do a “freer speaking” activity in which we should use said language. 

This is great, but then the minute we leave the classroom, the language gets checked at the door. The more you incorporate different vocabulary into your daily conversations the more diverse your vocabulary will become. 

Look intently

When learning a language, context and motivation are keys to success. I’ve harped on this multiple times, but learning in context versus singularity is so important. What does the word mean, not only in this situation, but across multiple situations? How do you use it in a sentence – is it a verb or a noun? These factors help you master the language and show you understand the flexibility of the language. 

Secondly, motivation is your “why” you are learning. If you are learning English because you want to travel to an English-speaking country, then don’t study vocabulary related to stock exchange or medical vocabulary. Conversely if you are studying English because you need it for business, don’t learn vocabulary related to how to describe a movie. 

Be intentional in your study of the language, not only is it more useful but you’ll be far more engaged and interested in it because you will see and understand the importance.

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