Practice the Basics: The Key to Acquiring a Foreign Language

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?

Marines practicing the basics of the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP)

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.

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  • R B

    Hi Ron, thanks for the great article! I like the idea of repetition, especially when you mentioned it in combination with favourite songs. Not only does it help improving ones feeling for the natural flow of a language, but as it also has an emotional involvement the lyrics might stick in the memory much longer than random sentences.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Ron G.

      Hey RB, thanks for stopping by. Yeah, definitely agree with you on the music. When I sing along with Spanish torch songs, I really try to get into it (in private of course) and I think that helps me feel the music, like you said.

  • Delita Rae Wright

    Hi. I really like what you are teaching here. I am in a spiritual field and discovered this as a great truth of the Bible. The definition of mature is: someone who always does the basics. My mental image is a hardened and polished old man military officer, always dressed immaculately, always on time, always with his job done well. My father, husband and son were all military men so you can see why I see that image. I really like the livelifehappy poster, too. I may borrow it. My thought is that the best in any field, the winners, certainly top athletes and top military men always do the basics. I find the more I rehearse the basics the easier things get and now I want to keep going until I can’t get it wrong. Thanks!

    • Ron G.

      Hi, great to hear your thoughts. I stole the poster myself, so I think it’s up for grabs for anyone. (I’m careful about only using public domain photos on my blog. But if a photo has a website listed, I think it’s fair game, since the photo owner probably appreciates getting their name out there.) Also nice to hear from a fellow military family. My dad, wife, brother, and I were all in the military, so I definitely love to hear from other families with military ties.

  • Delita Rae Wright

    Thanks. Believe I will. Reminds me of when my mother told my son, ‘Don’t marry the one you believe you can live with, marry the one you can’t live without.’ Who knows what we could be if we weren’t so unwilling (impatient) to pay the price with boring preparation.