How much structure do you need in language learning?

I speak to people about language learning a lot, and occassionally I manage to talk someone into giving it a shot. I always put enormous stress on the joy of it all – let your curiosity lead you! If a textbook is boring for you than do something else! And yet, time after time, people get stuck grinding on Duolingo or trying to memorise every word they come across as though they have heard nothing I have said.

I sound bitter: I’m not, but I am slowly realising just how big of a hurdle our psychological need for a particular kind of structure, nurtured by our language education and education system at large, is for most people at the beginning of their language journeys. Our experience of schooling makes it tempting to think that there are clearly demarcated stages that we need to surpass before we can start the next, like chapters in a textbook, and that we haven’t learnt a word or a grammatical point unless we can easily reproduce it.

What that ends up meaning is that people end up bound up in the grammar of it all or in memorisation at the expense of allowing themselves get caught up in the flow of the language. Being able to recognise (not reproduce) a few major verbs and pronouns, the basic sentence structure, and any frequently occurring unique grammatical features is typically enough to set you on the path to engaging with the language; and engaging with the language in the form of ‘comprehensible input’ – that is to say any listening or reading material that you can understand, albeit imperfectly, whether through knowing the words or through other context up to and including translation – is always going to be the major way you learn.

I don’t mean to imply through my concern that we can’t make our studies more efficient by adding structure, or even regular study of any grammatical points for which you feel you need clarification. It is rather to say that curiosity has to come first, especially for those of us who don’t have a pressing need for our target language and who haven’t undertaken that kind of self-motivated study before. Curiosity is not a distraction, it is both our major motivator and it is how we learn, and for that reason input should be the bulk of your learning time. It will always be easier to remember a word and understand it in context if you have seen it come up in diverse and interesting contexts, than it would be if you have seen it repeatedly on a list or a flashcard that has no context at all. (Flashcards with context can have their place, as long as you aren’t bored out of your mind as I tend to be!)

I also don’t mean to imply that your comprehensible input can’t benefit from its own kind of structure. Focusing on particular kinds of input for a while and then deliberately switching it up as you notice that your needs (and perhaps your interests) change is a great way to spur progress and continued motivation.

It remains for me to illustrate these points with a couple of examples from my own language-learning career. When I started learning Hindi as my first second language, I had a textbook and I religiously went through it, at first refusing to move on until I was able to complete the tests at the end of each chapter. However I was fortunate that I was drawn to learning through watching Hindi movies, and that ultimately I was too impatient to do the exercises before pushing forward, and on reflection I think that led to actually a pretty good balance of unstructured input, structured learning, and curiosity-driven progress.

With Russian, the next language into which I put significant time and effort, the case was different. I had learnt the importance of input, but in my rejection of school-like structure I went a little too far and rejected structured/gradu, and sank a lot of time into input that was almost completely incomprehensible to me, leaving me with few footholds in the language. Pretty silly on reflection but I think not all that uncommon.

With Romanian, by far my best language, I read read read, listen listen listen, and when I need to know a grammatical point or I need more context around a word, I look it up; when I feel that progress is slowing down with a particular type of content I switch to another; and when I feel that my speaking and writing skills are dragging too far behind my comprehension, I warm them up with practice. I structure my learning around my needs and I’m very happy with it!


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