Are you grokking English yet?


in In Your Head


I’ve always been amused by this odd-looking, odd-sounding little verb.

When I saw it again a few days ago, I suddenly thought, “This is something English learners need to do!” Are you grokking English? If not, you should be!

Before I get into that, though, let me tell you a little about grok.

The story of grok

Writer Robert Heinlein invented the word grok for his book Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). The book tells the story of a boy from Earth who was raised by Martians on Mars and later returned to Earth as a young man. In the book grok literally means to drink, but it’s also used as a metaphor. When it is, it has the idea of “becoming one with (something).”

Today you’ll find grok frequently used by geeks, or computer people. The Jargon File, which describes itself as a hacker’s dictionary, says that if you say you have grokked something, you have not simply learned it in a detached, or disconnected, way but in such a way that it becomes part of you, part of your identity. One of the results of grokking, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the experience of enjoyment.

Grokking for English learners

We learn a lot of things in a detached, or disconnected way. The periodic table in chemistry. The formula for the area of a circle. Facts about things or people. It’s the way those things are learned.

Unfortunately, many language learners try to learn a new language in the same way. It is not enough to memorize pieces of a language, such as grammar rules, vocabulary, etc. That’s learning a language in a detached way. Keeping it on the outside. Treating it as an alien.

If you want to say that you have grokked a language, you need to enter into the world of the language and let it become a part of you.

How to grok

Grokking is not difficult. Let me suggest two ways to get started:

First, read and listen to books, or other things, that are so interesting that you get deeply involved with them. So interesting that you can’t put them down. So interesting that you forget the time. When you do, you acquire more new language. Barriers that might stop, or slow down, the acquisition process disappear. It’s one of the best ways to make it easier for your brain to acquire more language.

Second, begin to think about yourself as a member of the English Literacy Club*, as a real English-user, even if you aren’t as fluent as you hope to be some day. Don’t think of English as something that is alien to you. Use your imagination. Think of yourself as an English insider, not an outsider. This can have a powerful positive effect on your ability to acquire more English and improve your fluency.

More and more of my students are grokking English. Yusmary is –  she says she’s becoming addicted to reading and feels like something is missing if she doesn’t have a good book to read. Bryan just started –  a few days ago, he told me he’s discovering that reading is the “most amazing and effective way” to improve his English and he’s beginning to feel like it’s his language. Adrian is – every time I talk to him, I hear about what he’s reading and how excited he is. More importantly, while I’m sharing their excitement, I’m hearing the difference in their English.

As the geeks say, “Grok in fullness!”

Warren Ediger

* This idea comes from Frank Smith in Joining the Literacy Club.

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Abdul Aziz May 22, 2010

Grokking English is everybody’s dream. I think that every english learner should take this a goal that he will acheive it. I congratulate everyone who becomes grokking English . Simply because he’s /she’s reached the wanted destination. I hope that every english learner will be aware of this path.
Thanks. M.r Warren for this beneficial article.
Your student

Warren Ediger May 22, 2010

Thanks for your comments, Abdul. I’d be delighted if all English learners would understand the importance – and the benefits – of acquiring English naturally rather than try to learn it mechanically, or in a detached way. Reading and listening, of course, are the keys.

Since I wrote this article a few days ago, one of my students told me how his thinking has changed and how he has “embraced” English and is beginning to think of it as his language rather than a subject to study in school.

Grok may be a funny little word, but it reminds us of some important truths about acquiring language.

Hannah Lee May 22, 2010

Grok? Grokking English!
This word should make everyone want to grok English!

When I first saw “most recent articles” section of your website, I thought you made a typo. Then I realized that it wasn’t a typo. It was another fun idea (which you incoporated with English language acquirement, as you always do) that you decided to share with us.

I personally found this article not only informative but also very true. I think that we, as English learners, must find ourselves in positions of “English insiders” and view English as something familiar in order to hear, speak, and use English fluently.

In Korea, everyone is scared of English. Yes, scared! English is something that we have to “memorize” and “study”. It is impossible to acquire English while enjoying it and having fun with it. This is how most Koreans view English language acquirement and this is why so many of us have hard times improving it.

Since I moved to Canada, I’ve been developing good English skills as I began to “grok” English. English has been part of my life. I’ve been reading in English, understanding in English, and thinking in English. Just like I was a Canadian. As a result, I speak English more comfortably and fluently than I did ever before. And the funny part is that this happened with no memorization or studying till midnight. No stress was involved in my process of improvement.

I was given a very good opportunity in which I could grok English. But even if I was in Korea, I am still positive that I could grok English, now that I know how this process works. No matter where they live, anyone can find English books, English articles, English movies, English music, English anything!

I think that we should all be doing what Yusmary, Bryan, and Adrian is doing. Let’s all grok English in fullness!

Warren Ediger May 23, 2010

No typo! Just trying to help English learners think outside of the box, to think differently about acquiring English. Thanks, Hannah!

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