How is Language Learning like a Sport?
Language learning has a lot more parallels with playing a team sport than you might initially think.
1. Practice makes perfect
Using what you have learned during a structured practice lesson can help you remember vocabulary and grammar structures. Recycling vocabulary and grammar you already learned previously helps to strengthen neural pathways making it easier and easier to find the information needed to accomplish tasks.
2. Muscle Memory
Has anyone ever told you language learning is like riding a bike? Once you learn to balance without training wheels, you know how to ride a bike forever. This makes use of muscle memory, which we use when speaking too. Speaking in a new language requires us to use our facial muscles differently than in our native language. If you've ever done pronunciation drills you know it's a good work out for your face! Practicing the mouth shape and muscle movements needed is like learning to do reps in the gym. The movement may feel unnatural at first, but you want to learn to do it right!
3. Observing others can up your game
When you observe players with more experience, you can learn new techniques and try them later when you are practicing on your own. In the same way, when you are learning a language, you can observe patterns of language, recurring grammar structures and vocabulary and then use it later when you practice. Maybe you have native speakers near you that you can observe... or maybe you have to rely on watching youtubers or tv series, but either way you can learn a lot from watching a pro.
4. You'll do better with a coach
Having a coach can make all the difference. This person doesn't need to be a teacher. It can be a friend who has more experience than you with the language you are learning, a language exchange partner, a coworker, or a native speaker in your community. The coach can teach you new skills. They are mostly there to encourage you when you are having difficulties and to celebrate with you when you have victories!
5. You'll also do better if you have a group of peers to practice with
In team sports it's pretty hard to practice solo. The main objective of learning a new language is communication, and that means you need people to communicate with! Language learners do really well when they work with other learners. They can learn from more expert speakers, struggle with those who have the same level, and help those who aren't as strong. In addition, language acquisition research says that learners co-construct the grammar of the new language as they progress...so communicating with others is key!
6. You need a strategy to make it to your goals
When you play any team sport, you've got to have a toolbox of strategies to score. When you learn a new language, you have to build a toolbox of strategies to communicate. The goal in a conversation might be to communicate key information, how will you do that with your level? Do you need to act somethings out? Do you need to draw words you don't remember? Can you use an online dictionary to help you? Can you effectively use circumlocution (explaining the concept so your conversation partner(s) understand you?
7. But you should also be tolerant of not catching everything thrown your way
Sometimes you don't hear a teammate calling your name. Sometimes you don't see an opponent coming up behind you. Sometimes you miss an opening. That's frustrating...but it's not the end of the world. In language learning you have to be forgiving with yourself and remember you can't hit the mark every time. Sometimes you aren't going to get every part of an interaction. Aim for a realistic percentage and then as you progress, be more demanding.
8. Compare your performance to...your past performance (and not to native speakers or other learners)
Compare your performance to your own past performances. That is to say, don't compare yourself to an expert if you aren't an expert. Be more interested in knowing if you have progressed from what you were able to do last week, last month, last year...
9. Get some good rest
You've got to let your body rest...and your mind needs it too. Getting a good night's sleep (or a good nap!) can help your brain to assimilate information. If you are stressed, anxious or upset it is harder to concentrate and harder to learn.
10. Recognize that losing is part of the game
You can't always be on top! Sometimes it's just not your day. Or maybe you attempted to beat a challenge that was beyond you. Regroup. Talk with your teammates. Check in with your coach. Try a different challenge that's closer to where you are at... and then later try again!
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