When you’re learning a new language, you’re probably constantly trying to improve. You learn new vocabulary, study more complicated grammar, and read harder texts.
But as you chase improvement, do you ever stop to go over the basics?
The Fighters’ Secret
I was the captain of my high school’s wrestling team, and as an adult I’ve trained in several martial arts studios and boxing gyms. Now, I’m not that great a fighter, but one thing I can say is that in all the different places I’ve trained at, I’ve been exposed to pro MMA fighters, pro boxers, Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts, and national kickboxing champions. And more importantly, I’ve seen how the top guys actually train and prepare for fights.
Here’s something that might surprise you:
The best fighters drill the basics over and over again.
Wrestlers run through sprawl drills, kickboxers shadow-box the basic combos, jiu-jitsu practitioners do their shrimping drills. Maybe they’ll do those basic techniques as a warmup, but the point is, they do it.
When I joined a boxing gym and was going through the circuit, one of my stops was at a heavy bag. The coach told me to just jab the bag for the entire round: three straight minutes. He told me to maintain my form and also, no matter how tired I got, to keep my hands up.
At first it seemed like a silly drill, an exercise in futility. The jab is one of the most basic skills in boxing. But as I got more and more fatigued as the round went on, I realized that maintaining my form was becoming harder and harder. The “simple” act of throwing a jab over and over again became more and more difficult.
But the jab did indeed become second nature, and when I got to sparring, I had no trouble maintaining my jab form and executing the punch properly because I had practiced it literally thousands of time before.
Practice until you can’t get it wrong
So what do sports have to do with language learning?
Well, they’re not as different as you might think. They’re both skills, which means they can both be learned, acquired, and–unfortunately–lost.
When you’re studying a language and getting exposed to the harder stuff, make sure you always make time to drill the basics:
- Say the greetings until they’re second nature.
- Say simple, useful sentences with familiar grammatical constructions, such as I have, I want, he wants, she went, etc.
- Speak using the most common vocabulary words.
- Read easy texts.
- Listen to songs that you know by heart.
If you do this, you’ll get plenty of benefits.
First, you’ll be reviewing old material, which will help you store language in your long-term memory.
Second, you’ll improve your speaking. Speaking taxes the muscles of your mouth and diaphragm, which requires a degree of neuromuscular coordination. Repeating words and sentences you know well will help those muscles stay “sharp” and you won’t trip up on your words.
Finally, you’ll develop a “sixth sense” about the language. It’s hard to explain, but when you repeat the basics over and over again, it’s like you’re putting knowledge directly into your subconscious. That’s why you’re able to speak to your friends effortlessly in your native language, without having to think about grammar and vocab. Your native language comes to you like second nature. Why does this happen? Well, I’m not 100% sure (no one is), but one reason seems to be that exposure to language–even the basics–encourages physical changes in your brain, in the form of new neural pathways. Another seems to be that with practice of the basics you activate a less logical, more intuitive region of your brain that “reacts” rather than “thinks”–not unlike feeling irrational, instantaneous fear or anger.
The bottom line is, when you practice the basics over and over again, you’re teaching your brain to “do,” not “think,” and you’re putting language at the tip of your tongue rather than burying it away in storage.