Efficient. Effective.

While the two terms are often used interchangeably, there is actually an important, highly under-appreciated difference between being “efficient” and being “effective”. And this is perhaps more true in foreign language learning than any other endeavor!

“Effectiveness is doing the things that get you closer to your goals. Efficiency is performing a given task (whether important or not) in the most economical manner possible. Being efficient without regard to effectiveness is the default mode of the universe.”

Tim Ferriss

The 4-Hour Workweek

Obviously it is preferable to be both efficient and effective in language learning. But what is the current situation in language classrooms and materials? A quick look around reveals that despite a fair amount of efficiency, only a very small percentage of learners, teachers or materials could be called effective. Consider the performance of 1,500 French language students in New Brunswick. After 12 years of daily French instruction, only 0.68 percent (that’s not a typo) could meet the province’s intermediate proficiency requirements! (Thanks go to Steve Kaufmann for turning me onto this revealing study). I have seen the same results among nearly all English learners in Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan, and foreign language students in the states.

Yet despite all the evidence, people continue to pump time, effort and money into foreign language programs, cram schools, textbooks, and now, online programs that just repackage old methods in new media. It is time that people face up to the facts: traditional, formal language instruction is not effective for the vast majority of learners no matter how efficient or hard-working they may be.

The Effective Language Learner’s Formula

The good news is that there are effective (and simple!) language learning methods, it’s just that very few people actually use them. Here’s the tried and trued formula that is reiterated again and again by the vast majority of successful language learners:

1) Maximize Input

Get as much meaningful and interesting input as possible. “Meaningful” here means that is just an itsy-bitsy bit above your level of comprehension. And the more interesting the material, the more likely you are to continue listening or reading (and repeating the process again and again and again.) For Japanese specific input, see my series Learn Japanese With ______.

2) Use narrow listening & reading

“Narrow” here means that you listen to or read a variety of articles on the same topic. This allows for sufficient repetition without boring yourself to tears. If you have access to native speakers of the language, you can conduct a simple interview with a few different people. Chances are they will all use a similar set of vocabulary again and again since the context is constrained by the questions you ask. See my post Use “Narrow Listening” & “Narrow Reading” to Get Repetition Without the Boredom for more about this approach.

3) Get a private tutor

Unlike days of old, it no longer matters where you live in the world to learn a foreign language. Countless language sites provide one-on-one tutoring services or you can just chat for free via Skype. I recommend iTalki, but there are many other options to choose from. Also, most cities have volunteer English tutoring programs in which you can make potential conversation partners in your target language. If you are a university student, volunteer to tutor foreign exchange students learning English.

You’ll notice that nowhere in this formula does it require sitting in a classroom or forcing oneself through a bland textbook. All you need is quality language input, which is now widely available for free (or at least very cheaply) online and can be carried around using a portable media player.

Common Missteps

But one last thing. To make this formula effective, the adult learner must put aside a few counter-productive tendencies:

The Desire to Know Everything Right Now

To be an effective language learner, you must get used to dealing with lots of ambiguity and uncertainty. I think this is why many, though certainly not all, travelers and expats have more success in language learning. By traveling to or living in a foreign land, they get used to (and sometimes learn to enjoy) not understanding the surrounding environment or language.

The Desire to be Perfect

Perfectionists make poor language learners for 2 reasons. First, they refuse to speak or write anything that they don’t think is perfect. While you should indeed wait to speak until you have received sufficient input (the “silent period” as its called by linguists), you need to start talking long before you have mastered the language. Speaking with a native speaker shows you where the holes are in your L2 cheese, and the buzz from communicating ideas, feelings and menu choices in a foreign language can give you the extra fuel you need to keep learning. Second, perfectionists have such an aversion to making mistakes that doing so greatly increases their anxiety and decreases their motivation to continue learning (what Stephen Krashen refers to as “raising the affective filter”).

The Desire to Think One’s Way Through the Language

Most adults spend too much time thinking about the language. This includes translating back and forth between the L1 and L2, trying to remember and apply grammar rules or vocabulary, and self-correcting mistakes (Stephen Krashen refers to this is as the “Monitor Hypothesis”). Children, on the other hand, do not not consciously monitor their first language, nor could they even if they wanted to. And despite the lack of advanced cognitive abilities, they all master their first language. Why? Because you don’t have to explain how a car works to know how to drive!

Take Action!

  • Buy a smartphone or MP3 player if you don’t have one. I personally recommend the Apple iPod touch as it allows you to easily listen to podcasts, use apps like Skype, download dictionary apps, etc.
  • Find online content you find interesting. With well over 100,000 free audio and video podcasts, iTunes or the Apple Podcasts app is a good place to start.
  • Read The 4-Hour Workweek to learn more about being both effective and efficient in all aspects of life, and learn how to generate much more of all three life currencies: time, money, and mobility.

Pin It on Pinterest