You learn a language basically one word or phrase at a time. And when you look at just one word, it seems like you are not really learning much. One word in the pool of 20,000 or so you need to be fluent is just a small little drop in the pond. But, every journey starts with a few steps or a few words.
A language is made of several thousand words, but it is more than just memorizing stacks vocabulary all day. As anyone addicted to SRS will tell you, drilling hundreds of words a day does not make you fluent. It is the combination of all the little pieces of studying you do that make you really fluent and great at a language.
But, it is really easy to make the excuse to skip a day or a review session, because learning just one word or phrase or reviewing a grammar point seems like such a small piece. And it is really, but all those small pieces combine together to make up fluency and consistent, day in and day out practice makes that happen.
Not frothing at the mouth, always reading, speaking, breathing, feeling, eating Japanese, but consistent steady practice. Each little piece piles up to make a heap of language knowledge that you can use to be fluent and speak well. So, it helps to focus on the heap of knowledge sometimes instead of the little pieces you happen to be stumbling over at this moment.
Focus on the Heap
Recently, I’ve begun to feel like languages are like puzzles. Every little piece that you learn interlocks with the other pieces that you have learned about the language. In other words, phrases and grammar points don’t just hang out by themselves they are connected to other phrases, grammar points, and words and together they form the whole picture.
Like a puzzle, you first should work on the border pieces, the parts that are easy to identify and easy to snap together. Once you have the outer frame built, you can start to see the framework. You definitely don’t know what the picture looks like, but at the very least you know your boundaries.
Then, you just have to work your way in, and I think this is where language learners start to diverge. Some learners will work from the frame and add piece by piece as they work towards the center, careful not to miss any pieces along the way. This makes for a clear, almost perfect picture, but is sometimes a little slow and exhausting for some.
There are other language learners that see interesting or easier parts of the picture that they want to put together first like the house in a puzzle that is surrounded by flowers. The flowers are several different shades of one color, so they are a bit difficult to piece together but the house has details, windows, doors and is just cool looking. So you put that together first ignoring the other pieces for now.
Then, I would say there is yet one more style of language learner that just puts together the pieces as she sees the links, sorting things out and putting together whatever fits. In other words, looking to put together all the easy links first, then grouping those together into bigger blocks.
I wouldn’t say any one of these particular methods is bad, each one has its advantages and disadvantages. Some might leave a few holes in your language that you need to patch up later, while others give you a perfect picture, but might take time and hard effort. There are many ways to put a puzzle together.
But, when you are feeling down, plateauing or are too tired to do another round of practice or meet up with your conversation partner, think about the heap. You probably know a lot more than you think you do, and every little bit of practice makes that heap bigger. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and fluency isn’t built in a day either, despite what some people will tell you.
Also, when you are stuck, maybe it is time to go put together the part of the puzzle that looks cool instead of trying to work your way in or vice versa. If you put in consistent, smart work that you regularly evaluate, the puzzle will get filled in eventually.
How do you put together the puzzle of language?
Do you work your way in or go for the more interesting parts? Let me know in the comments below.
Photo by Brad Montgomery