Language Learning and Weight Lifting

I have had the taxing experience of working out at the GYM, stopping for several years and then working out again. In fact, this cycle has repeated itself several times. The second time round, while in college, I noticed that when my bench press had gotten back to the same level as it did before I had stopped, try as I might, I couldn’t continue lifting more weight. I wondered what was wrong with me.

I was chatting with a guy from my church during this time and found out that he was studying strength and endurance training at the same university. I took advantage of the situation and described my problem to him. Before I finished explaining everything he kind of rolled his eyes and said, “And then you couldn’t lift any more?” Apparently this is a fairly typical problem. He told me to lift about 30% to 50% more weight than I was used to, with the help of a spotter, but only about four or five times, instead of ten. After doing that for a couple of weeks I could go back to exercising the way I was and then I would be able to get up to the next level. I tried it and it worked.

I really think this principle applies to language learning. Apparently, I needed to “fool” my muscles into thinking that they needed to grow more. Doing the same thing over and over again only made them grow to a certain point; after that my muscles just got tired. The change in my routine and lifting a lot more weight made my body react and grow bigger chest muscles. We can do something similar with language learning.

Do you feel caught between the beginner and intermediate stage of your target language? Perhaps you can read a whole lot and understand what is being said but you can’t talk? Maybe you can talk and understand but feel very embarrassed writing anything more than emails. The first thing you need is a role model. Pick an actor or a writer in your target language who you really like and copy him/her as best you can. Exaggerate your pronunciation to sound just like that person! You may sound silly to your own ears but that doesn’t matter. Pay attention to when your role model pauses, breathes, how emphasis is made, how to sound sad or mad etc. Language is more than grammar and word lists.

The next thing you need to do is find a place where you can interact with native speakers of your target language who know little to none of your native language (or any other language you know). This can be done online, in clubs, parks, etc. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t live in a country where the language is not commonly spoken! When you’ve done this…talk! Do your best to have fun and really interact with these people. Make friends. After you talk to them, evaluate how well you spoke. This sudden jolt will help your mind realize that it actually has to remember all of those grammar and pronunciation rules and words. If you don’t use your language in a meaningful way then it is unlikely you will ever get very good.

This is especially true if you are working on becoming fluent in a foreign language for the first time. The language sounds funny to you. I remember when my wife was learning Portuguese and exclaimed in frustration, “This sounds like monkey gibberish!” She wasn’t trying to be rude. It’s hard for beginners to really fathom that people can use such funny sounds (as are found in any foreign language) to communicate in a comparable way as one communicates in one’s own language. When you were a baby, you experimented with making just about every sound that the human mouth can make. Eventually, your brain sorted out what sounds, and sound combinations, counted as communication and which ones did not. That is why interacting with native speakers is so important. After a month of regularly interacting with friends who only speak your target language it will become hard for your mind to associate those sounds with “monkey gibberish.”

If you are listening to recordings (like Chinesepod) to learn a language then start listening to the next level or even two levels up. You won’t understand everything, obviously, but that’s not the point. The point is to acquire different listening skills that your present “newbie” or “elementary” levels couldn’t teach you.

So if you have been stuck in the same spot for a while, change things up. Try something more difficult for a while. You’ll be pleased with the results.


5 Responses

  1. This is certainly an interesting metaphor…I’m sort of resorting to this in my Portuguese studies at I’ve enrolled myself in several different courses, each at a different level, so it’s definitely challenging, but very manageable as well. I can proudly say that my understanding of Portuguese can no longer be associated with “monkey gibberish,” although my Portuguese oral skills are another story entirely.

    How long did it take you to master your Portuguese? Did you do this after you had mastered Spanish?

  2. Jeff: That’s a good question. I think I was conversational in Portuguese after month and fluent in about a year. I also learned Portuguese after I was pretty fluent in Spanish. Although there are those who like it, I find that studying more than one new foreign language at once isn’t really effective. But that’s just me. After learning about four languages, Ziad Fazah started studying three at once. I don’t think there is just one correct way to learn a foreign language.

  3. It’s a nice metaphor, but more precise expansion of it into language learning would be one big challenge that seems far beyond your level but gives you the push you need, e.g. reading Harry Potter or giving a presentation when you are still only Pre-Intermediate. Unfortunately, the metaphor also extends into sport injuries and/ or fatigue- after reading Norwegian Wood in the original Japanese I was so exhausted by the experience and ecstatic that I’d achieved what for me was the equivalent of the marathon that I haven’t studied Japanese once in the last 2 years, despite still living there…

    TEFLtastic blog-

  4. “Do you feel caught between the beginner and intermediate stage of your target language?”

    Oh yes, this is me alright!! However, after having just spent a rather embarassing month or so in Russia, I have resolved to renew my Russian language learning activities and reach the dizzy heights of good intermediate within a couple of years. In this way, the next time I go back, I won’t be suffering from ‘smart dog syndrome’ – understands every word he hears, but can’t utter much more than the odd grunt.

    Very nice blog, BTW. Please take a look at mine…

  5. I agree with you here 100% I recently wrote a pose called the Art of motivation maintence wich touches on some of the same things you’re talking about here.

    When we come to a stand still with any skill there are a few things that are almost always the culprit.

    1. Not focusing on the areas we need to improve
    2. Not challenging ourselves for growth
    3. Not being consistant enough to reap any benefit.

    The learner is often not aware of what it is they are doing wrong.

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