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