Does practice make perfect English?


in Beyond the Basics

Practice (verb) – to do an activity, often regularly, in order to improve a skill or prepare for a test. “I need more practice” may be the most frequent statement I receive from English learners. How concerned should they be about practice?

Practice makes perfect … sometimes

What’s the truth about practice? If you do something often enough – especially if someone tells you when you’re right or wrong – will you eventually be able to get it right all the time? Or at least most of the time?

Well, yes, that works for some things. It works for learning mathematical operations:

  • 2×2=4, 2×3=6, 2×4=8, etc.

It works for learning the periodic table in chemistry:

  • H=hydrogen, Li=lithium, Na=sodium, etc.

It works for learning the presidents of the United States:

  • George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, etc.

It works when I want to learn a new song. It worked when I wanted to become a better baseball or basketball player. It works, in fact, for many things. But does it work for language learning?

It might work if  language learning was the result of memorizing as many vocabulary words as possible.  And memorizing rules for putting the words together to make long, short, simple, complex, formal, and informal sentences.  And then practicing – using the rules to make sentences with the words until you get them right – especially if someone, like a teacher, helps by telling you when you’re right and when you’re wrong. But that’s not the way language works.

Using a language doesn’t depend on finding words and rules in our memory and using them to make sentences. Language is more complex than that. And the way our brains process language is significantly different than that. Some time ago I wrote a brief article – part science, part fantasy – called Inside the brain, that illustrates how our brains might process language.

A practice that works

Practice, the verb, has only limited benefit for English learners. Practice, the noun, in contrast, can make a significant difference in your English ability. Practice, the noun, refers to something you do often or a particular way of doing something. And there is an effective, efficient practice that will lead to better English – better reading, better listening, better speaking, and better writing.

The practice that works is what one researcher calls “natural experience with the language.” We acquire, or pick up, language, he writes, “as a by-product [result] of reading or listening that is done simply for pleasure.” In other words, the most important practice English learners can develop is the practice of reading and listening for pleasure. It is the one practice that we know works.

Conversation as practice

Most students who tell me they “need more practice” are talking about speaking, about finding more opportunities for conversation. Speaking itself might not make your English better. But participating in conversations can help. Here’s how.

Conversation will help most if you listen more than you speak. Remember, new language comes from input – what you hear and what you read. Conversation can be an important source of input.

When you converse with other English users, especially if they are native speakers, make it a real conversation. Talk about everyday subjects – family, daily activities, where they live, what they do at work, and things like that. You’ll pick up a lot of good English and you’ll learn how we talk about common subjects. Whatever you do, don’t ask them to correct your mistakes.

In addition to helping you pick up more English, conversation with another English user, at your current level of ability, provides other important benefits. It helps you become more comfortable and increases your confidence. Perhaps most importantly, it helps you begin to think of yourself as a successful English-user.

Final thoughts

More input, not more practice, is the key to better English. From time to time students write to tell me that reading and listening have prepared them to successfully use English without practicing the way we usually think of it. One recently wrote: [As a result of reading and listening] “when I’m in a face-to-face conversation with a native English speaker, words come out of my mouth automatically, and I don’t need to stop to think about which one I should say any more!” This is exactly what we would expect. The practice of reading and listening for pleasure have prepared him to use English with confidence.

Warren Ediger

Related reading: Speaking success | If I wanted to speak better English

References:  Krashen, Explorations in Second Language Acquisition; Truscott, Unconscious Second Language Acquisition: Alive and Well.

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J. Henrique July 28, 2011

Another good post Mr. Ediger, I’ve been impressed with your advices.

Jody July 31, 2011

Jody dittos J. Henrique’s response. Bravo.

valdemar August 1, 2011

Thank you )

Warren Ediger August 1, 2011

Henrique, Jody, Valdemar – Thanks!

evandro cardoso August 2, 2011

i think that, the only way to get fluency is by practicing.I mean reading,listening to,speaking and writing as much as possible

Warren Ediger August 2, 2011

Evandro – Thanks for your comment! The research on language development clearly points to reading and listening as the primary way language ability is developed. There are benefits to speaking and writing – as I discussed in this article and in previous articles on writing – but they are minor compared to the benefits of reading and listening. This article, for example, summarizes some of the benefits of pleasure reading.

Eric L. August 5, 2011

Dear Warren,

I do agree with you. You can improve your English more by listenning and reading than forcing yourself talking all the time…. First of all, that must be a pleasure. I recently spent two months in Ireland to do an intership and when I came back home, we have decided to keep practising our English by talking it at meals !!!… To be honest, I’m convinced that we make plenty of mistakes but never mind. We try to get on without asking ourselves too manys questions !!!… Actually, I do think that learning English must be a BIG GAME !!!!…. So, we have to enjoy !!!!!

Eric 43 years old (Bordeaux/FRANCE).

Saeed August 7, 2011

Dear Warren

So isn’t it really neccessary to have some notes to review or somthing like that? If it isn’t, we will have not a lot to do for learning English and we should just stay in touch with your website.

Warren Ediger August 8, 2011

Saeed – Staying in touch with this web site will help, but the most important thing to understand is that most of our language ability comes from what we call comprehensible input, not from studying English in the traditional way. Natural experience with interesting, understandable English is the way to acquire, or pick up, more English (look again at the section above called “A practice that works). Also, take a look at The power of reading and listening.

adrian August 8, 2011

Dear Warren,
As you know I’ve been following Stephen Krashen’s method for some years. Now, I am in Australia spending some time with my brother Erick and, because of that, living into a 24/7 English environment. The fist week was a little bit strange for me. There are many differences between the American and the Ausie pronunciation. When I realized that, I decided to listen and be responsive for a while. The amazing thing is just after 10 days I could manage those differences and I’ve been experiencing great conversations here. IMO, this is the merit of Krashen’s work and yours: both teach us how to embrace our English studies in a manner to enjoy life! Thank you for this great post!
from Australia,

Warren Ediger August 9, 2011

Readers who are not familiar with the story of Adrian’s English journey can find it here: part 1 and part 2. Adrian never worried about practicing, only reading and listening, yet his English was very fluent the first time he used it, when he and I met two years ago.

Since acquiring English, Adrian who is a Brazilian law professor, used the same method to improve his Spanish so he could teach for a year at a Spanish university.

Ed. August 16, 2011

Brilliant article Warren, thanks [for writing] it to us. This was one of my favorite I had bookmarked.

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