Deliberate Practice and Language Learning: Takeaways from Anders Ericsson’s Peak

As a teacher, I’m interested in helping people become good at things and to help them develop strategies for doing that. So when I listened to a Freakonomics episode (I listen to this podcast a lot – can you tell!?) last summer in which the expert on expertise Anders Ericsson was interviewed about his book Peak, I was intrigued. (Side note: I came for the research on expertise, but I stayed for his lovely Swedish lilt.)

The central concept in Ericsson’s book is deliberate practice, the idea that practicing in a focused, goal-oriented way will, after a lot of time, lead you to become better and/or an expert at whatever you want to learn. What you’re learning is probably something that someone else has learned before (golf, how to play the violin, how to speak Chinese) which means that to maximize your learning, you need a teacher and/or expert in order to become better. Deliberate practice itself usually isn’t fun because it consistently requires that you leave your comfort zone. Practice sessions last as long as you can give your full attention to practicing, whether you work with a teacher or by yourself. According to Ericsson, all of this practice helps to both construct and alter mental representations of the thing you’re trying to learn; the changes in your mental representations are usually based on feedback from either yourself or a teacher. What’s more, those mental representations help you learn to monitor yourself and correct mistakes. And last but not least, deliberate practice is goal-oriented and builds on previously acquired skills. For example, if you already know how to knit, one of your practice sessions might be taking what you know about knitting to learn the purl stitch.

All of this sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? It makes learning seem like it’s just a matter of toiling, focused, uncomfortable practice. Do it enough and you’ll be an amazing violinist, soccer player, Arabic speaker, knitter….. right?

Maybe. Learning anything well does involve a lot of work (I know, not a groundbreaking idea). But learning a foreign language is particularly messy business.

After I read this book, I wanted so badly to write a post that connected language learning with the principles of deliberate practice. (I tried, and ended up with a big mess of notes with no real conclusion and a lot of confusion.) As it turns out, knowing what I know about language learning, I just couldn’t do it. Others have tried, though – see here and here. Not the best application, IMO.

Although we can’t use Ericsson’s whole framework, there are ways in which some of the concepts from deliberate practice do fit with what researchers know about language learning. In the name of writing an easy (or easier)-to-read listicle, I’ll outline a few of those for you here.

  • Getting good at something takes a long time, and that amount of time may vary depending on when you start practicing (as a child vs. as an adult) and what you’re learning to do. Martin Gladwell, using Ericsson’s research for inspiration, claims that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert, though Ericsson himself is reluctant to set a fixed number of hours of practice. Many language teachers, myself included, would argue that you’re really never done learning a language – there’s always something you don’t know. For example, I’ve been learning German since my first German class in 1998, but my students’ questions in class show me that there are still words I don’t know and aspects of grammar that I really need to brush up on. And don’t even get me started on German culture – I’m always learning new things about Germany and the people who speak it. I’m a teacher, but I’m also always learning. In sum, I can get behind Ericsson’s point that becoming a true expert takes a while, but I’d also add that you’re never done learning.
  • Deliberate practice (probably) isn’t fun. You’re constantly stretching your own abilities beyond their current limits. This requires maximum concentration. So you have to have some other reason for learning a language that will motivate you to keep going, even when things are hard. Motivation plays such a huge role in language learning, that it might not even matter what you do as long as you do it, though admittedly some methods can be more effective than others. What kind of practice you engage in also should be connected you want to achieve. Do you want native-like pronunciation and perfect word choice, or do you just want to be able to read books and watch in a foreign language in your spare time? Match your practice method to your goals. Maybe you’ll even find a way to practice that doesn’t feel like drudgery.
  • Teachers and other experts can help you learn – but you also need to work on your own. A teacher, or someone who is more of an expert than you, can give you valuable feedback about what you’re trying to do and whether you’re learning it successfully and how you’re learning it. This is a major reason language classes happen in groups, in person, with a teacher – because interaction and (linguistic) input are great ways to get feedback on whether you’re understandable and how well you can understand.
  • To be an expert, you need to develop expert-level mental representations of what you’re trying to do. For swimmers, this means imagining how it feels in all parts of your body to have a perfect butterfly stroke, what you need to do with your body at all stages of your lap(s). For surgeons, it means knowing where to put your scalpel and having a good idea it’s going to look like when you get there, as well as a plan in case something goes wrong. For language learners, it might mean knowing how it feels to have comprehensible pronunciation, to put sentences together, to envision the person you’re communicating with and how they’ll perceive you. Expert-level mental representations take a long time to establish, and getting those requires working with an expert (or experts) who can help you change how you think of what you’re learning.
  • When you practice, do only that. Turn off your phone, log out of Facebook and e-mail, and eliminate other interruptions. Focus on what you’re doing intensively for however long you can, whether it’s 15 minutes or two hours. But practice regularly, deliberately, purposefully, and often.

While many of my takeaways from this book intrigue me, my training in applied linguistics suggests to me that deliberate practice and all its glories may into be totally applicable to language learning, for a few reasons. First, many more things than talent contribute to language learning: motivation, personality, number of other languages you’ve learned, relationship between your first language and the one(s) you’re trying to learn, and your anxiety level, to name a few. Furthermore, learning a language – much like learning anything else – is not a linear process. Deliberate practice doesn’t really acknowledge that, as sexy as it sounds to be able to get gradually better at something in every session, as Ericsson suggests.

What’s really going to help you be a better language learner, then, if not all of the principles of deliberate practice apply to language learning? Well, we know that feedback is really useful in language learning, and not just the kind of feedback in which a teacher corrects your adjective endings or a pronunciation of a particular word. Communicating with another person involves a lot of different kinds of feedback – when a person asks for clarification about something you said, that’s feedback. When you answer someone’s question in a way they expect you to, you’re giving them feedback. It’s also important to understand that a LOT of things contribute to language learning–not just how much and how you practice, but personality factors, gender, age, motivation and other attitudinal factors, the setting where you learn, and the amount of exposure/access you have to the language matter, too, to name a few. You might not have the golden combination of characteristics and settings you need to become an expert language user, but almost no one does. Learn to work with your circumstances and try to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

So, while aspects of this framework might work for language learning, I have two big issues with deliberate practice: 1) In Ericsson’s original article, he talks about the ‘acquisition’ of expertise, as if it’s something you get and never use. Some language teachers take issue with this term (I do, for sure) because when it comes to language learning, we all know that we forget words and concepts all the time. ‘Knowing’ a word is a temporary phenomenon if you never use it. 2) Deliberate practice and the goal of becoming perfect at something goes against my own teaching philosophy. I’ll write more about perfection in a future post, but for now let me say that in most situations, it doesn’t matter if you’re perfect. What trumps perfect grammar and pronunciation is being able to communicate your point as best as you can with the linguistic tools that you have. Mistakes aren’t necessarily bad – in fact, they’re a natural part of the learning process and they don’t always need to be corrected. They’re really only a problem when they impede communication. Sometimes they can even be funny! (I won’t link anything here, but a simple Google sesh for “funny languages mistakes” should get you where you want to go.)

Try as I might, I can’t imagine all of the principles of deliberate practice applying to the complex processes involved in language learning. There are probably good reasons that this idea hasn’t caught on in language learning since Ericsson started writing about it in 1993, and I’ve only touched on a few here. Learning anything is a pretty messy process!

What do you think? If you’re a teacher, have you tried helping your students use some aspects of deliberate practice? If you’re a student, have you tried this out? Have you used these ideas for something not related to language learning? Leave a comment below!

PS – A few meta-studies (read: a study of studies) attempted to debunk Ericsson’s claim that deliberate practice accounts for performance in sports performance. Check it out here. And here’s another one that looks at deliberate practice in sports, education, games, music, and professions – a real smörgåsbord of things where deliberate practice may or may not matter as much as we thought!

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