Drilling is pretty popular in Japan. There are even some well-paid lecturers that preach a very drill focused approach for learning a language. And it seems to work or at the very least is incredibly popular.
And in the old days, language drills were king. Language learning wasn’t seen as anything different than another subject. You simply memorize all the facts and regurgitate them when needed like history class or science. It was taught pretty much the same way as anything else.
It makes sense right? It’s just another subject, so why not treat it like that.
And there are numerous self study books that emphasize that. Do drills and more drills and you will finally get it. Or if you are studying by yourself, you might think that is what you do because you did it in school.
But, modern English teaching textbooks, don’t mention drills. They tend to shy away from them in favor of more natural use of the language. In my CELTA training, generally speaking, I was taught that drilling should be limited to practicing words and phrases that are difficult to say quickly. So it is more of an emphasis on pronunciation and intonation then the actual use of the language.
Although drilling is sometimes a great tactic for lazy teachers, or teachers that have to teach specifically to a test that requires regurgitation. I found myself in that predicament once with a large group of public servants that had to take a standard test ‘to increase their English proficiency.’
By proficiency in the language, they meant that the employees could translate set phrases they were given before the test and fill in missing words to other phrases they practiced. At no time were they required to produce something or read a passage for comprehension. It was a cruel joke; what happens when drilling and standardized testing goes too far. But, it doesn’t always have to be that extreme.
These days, in progressive classrooms, a lot of teachers are using Tasked Based Learning or TBL for short. TBL involves giving an example of task to a student, checking comprehension of that task, then asking them to perform the task. For example, your task could be writing a postcard to your friend. First, the teacher shows a postcard for you to read and asks you questions about it to check your comprehension. Then, the teacher points out some key phrases to use and sets you loose on writing your on postcards. It’s very real world and something students can really get into because they understand how it fits in.
But is drilling really that bad? Should you abandon it completely? After all, it is used a lot in Japan, so it can’t be that bad can it? Well, it really depends on what you use it for. It definitely isn’t a cure all for language learning, and it shouldn’t dominate your studies, but it does have certain very specific roles. Let’s go over the good and the bad.
Drilling, in its purest form at least, is not really teaching you how to use it. You are simply memorizing information, which can later be used as a kind of mental dictionary or reference tool to help you make sentences in the future. You can think of it as carrying around a little guide with you wherever you go. But just as you can’t learn to golf well simply by reading golf magazines, you can’t learn to speak Japanese well without actually using it and making some mistakes.
Drilling tends to be pretty repetitious and boring. Too much drilling can be simply soul crushing and lead you to hate learning a language. Language learning really comes down to motivation. That will probably always be your biggest challenge to your language learning, not kanji or complicated Japanese grammar rules, it simply be your motivation to keep going which could get smacked down by needless drilling.
Drilling emphasizes the use of patterns – how to say X. But often times it doesn’t give you much context. Do I use this phrase in every day conversation or is less common than that? Would I use it with my friends? A good grammar book might tell you those things, but its hard to actually learn context without using it or reading it in a real situation. You will have a hard time getting a grasp on the appropriateness of a particular phrase without actually using it and seeing how it works.
In the classroom, a teacher would ask questions to help you understand the context and appropriateness. For example, when would you use this phrase? Is it formal? Is it a happy expression? Are you excited? But, if you are doing self-study you might skip over that or end up misunderstanding the context.
Speaking drills can provide some raw practice for students to build confidence and this could lead to them speaking more. Drills can sometimes act as that push your mom gave you when you were too afraid to jump in the pool. Once you were in the pool, you were fine, but the mental barrier of being on dry land and submerged might be pretty steep for some. Speaking drills as mindless as they might be at times can provide a stress-free jump into the water and give students a feeling that they can speak more than they previously thought they could, because most students can speak better, than they think they can.
Drilling can be good for Japanese kanji. By repeated drilling you train you muscle memory to quickly write kanji without you having to consciously think of every stroke. This is handy for taking speedy notes, something you will need for the test, or for meetings if you plan on working in a Japanese company. This is a huge weakness for me. I can read kanji fairly quick, but write them embarrassingly slow, which leads to me jotting things down in hiragana. That makes for difficult reading later. If you have the time, drilling the writing of whole words (not just one single kanji, but a real word) can be pretty helpful.
It has also been proven that repeatedly listening or reading to the same material can lead to increased comprehension with similar material. So if you read a book a few times (3 to 4 times) that will translate to you being able to read a book with a similar topic faster. I’ve noticed this reading the Harry Potter series and other books. Once you get used to particular style, you get used to patterns and vocabulary which makes reading material with the same style easier and easier.
Drilling can be used in certain situations to a great effect, but can’t be the only thing. You really need to keep your studies balanced or you will be walking around with a huge ‘mental guide’ in your head, but won’t be able to use it very fast. Remember that drilling is best for small chunks of the language that will be repeated. For instance, drilling kanji can come in handy because you won’t have to think your way through writing each stroke, you can just ‘tell’ your hand to do it.
Vocabulary over-drilling is a serious problem. Tools like Memrise and Anki can be extremely powerful. They provide feedback with numbers and metrics where you can see that you are making progress, and you are. But realize that you only building up your mental dictionary, not real world use with the vocabulary. I know a few folks on Memrise that must spend hours a day acquiring points. It can be addictive, but it isn’t the only learning you need to be doing.
In order to master a language you need to have lots of exposure to massive amounts of information so that you can form, test, and reform your feel for the language until you have hammered it out. Taking a multi-pronged approach to studying, by doing some reading, listening, chatting with natives, and vocabulary drilling, can help you be the most successful. Try to balance it out as much as you can.
Do you drill?
What kind of drilling do you do? Is it effective? Are you preparing for the December test? If so, don’t miss Month 9 of the JLPT Guide.
Photo by Samuel M Livingston