World Snowboarding champion Shaun White falls on his arse a lot.
Most snowboarders do, it’s an occupational hazard.
But Shaun White has a special way of falling on his arse that helped him achieve the highest ever score in the history of the Olympic halfpipe.
Read on to discover the powerful practice technique that helps experts across a variety of fields stay on top of their game. It’s a method you can steal when you practice a language that could help you:
- Speak and understand the language better
- Feel more confident
- Stop worrying about your mistakes (and make fewer)
Deliberate practice: a winning formula to learn just about anything
In the 2010 winter Olympics, White landed a trick called the Front Double Cork 1080. This kind of trick would normally take him years to master, but during his training for the Vancouver Olympics, he nailed it in one day.
Before the Olympics, Red Bull built White his own private half-pipe with a foam pit at the end.
Riders normally build up slowly to tricks like the Front Double Cork 1080, because a fall could be fatal. But the foam pit reduced the impact of the fall, allowing White to practice complex tricks that would have been too dangerous to try directly on the snow.
In his article 3 Rules of High Velocity Learning, author Daniel Coyle describes how the pit gave White the freedom to make mistakes, fix them and try again. Over lots of repetitions, this technique helped him fall on his arse less.
Here’s the winning formula that sped up White’s learning exponentially:
- Try something difficult.
- Screw it up.
- Analyse what went wrong.
- Adapt approach.
Whether he knew it or not, White was doing deliberate practice, a technique which psychologist Anders Ericsson identifies as the key to achieving high levels of performance in any field.
In this article, you’ll learn how deliberate practice works and how it can help you practice a language more effectively. Then, I’ll share 10 practical ways you can apply deliberate practice to your language learning.
At the end, I’ll talk about how I’m integrating these ideas into my own language learning routine this month.
How do pros practice a language?
How do experts become the best at what they do?
Most people put it down to natural talent.
But over three decades of research across fields as diverse as sports, music, ballet, chess and computer programming suggest that, apart from physical differences like height and body-size, expertise isn’t linked to innate differences.
Overwhelmingly, the most important factor that separates the high-achievers from the rest is the way they practice.
Imagine two friends are learning Spanish for their trip to Colombia.
Jill spends her time doing exercises from textbooks and playing on apps like duolingo and memrise. She gets most exercises right and feels at ease while she’s practicing. She’s waiting to accumulate more vocabulary and grammar before having a go at using Spanish in real life.
Jane starts off with a Spanish textbook but quickly moves on to muddling through more realistic materials, like simplified stories and slowly spoken podcasts. She gets herself an online tutor or language exchange partner and tries using the stuff she’s been learning in real conversations. She speaks painfully slowly at first, makes a lot of mistakes and often feels awkward while she’s practicing.
Who will speak better Spanish in Colombia?
Most people instinctively practice like Jill. That’s because many education systems instill the principle that right answers are good and wrong answers are bad. The result: we’d rather practice things we’re likely to get right, because mistakes make us feel like a failure.
But you know that awkward phase where you mess up a lot? That’s where the learning happens.
Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, who studies performance across a wide range of fields from spelling competitions to salespeople, shows that the highest achievers aren’t always the most talented or intelligent.
They’re the snowboarders who fall on their arses and get up again, the kids who focus on spelling the most difficult words, and the language learners who are willing to put up with awkward silences while they try to squeeze a sentence out.
They’re the ones who face the difficult bits head on, make mistakes, learn from them and keep going.
Most polyglots learn languages like Jane. They:
- push themselves to read and listen to things slightly above their level.
- practice speaking, even when it feels awkward.
- spend a lot of time make mistakes and getting corrections.
This kind of practice is very efficient, which explains why they learn to speak languages well in less time.
Why most people practice a language the wrong way
Despite the benefits, most people avoid deliberate practice for a couple of reasons.
1. It feels less efficient (but it’s not)
When you’re getting things right most of the time, it feels like you’re making progress.
But it’s an illusion.
It’s a bit like tidying your room by shoving everything in your cupboard. It feels like you’ve got the job done, but all your shit is still in the cupboard. When you finally get around to sorting it out, it’ll take you twice as long compared to if you’d just done it properly in the first place.
When you mindlessly work through a grammar book or play on apps like duolingo, it feels like you’re making progress because you get ticks or points with every right answer. But those little satisfying dings don’t necessarily help you use the language in real life.
When you face the trickier parts of language learning head on, like speaking or reading texts with words you don’t recognise, it’s a struggle at first, so you feel like you’re not making much progress. But that extra effort will help you use the language much better in real life.
As writer Sonia Simone puts it: “don’t take shortcuts, they take too long.”
2. You have to analyse your mistakes
At work, when your boss says “let’s go through some feedback” it’s often a euphemism for “let’s talk about how you screwed up”.
The “feedback” stage in deliberate practice is no different: it’s a detailed analysis of what you did wrong. And because you’re human, you’ll probably find it quite uncomfortable.
When you write something in a foreign language, you might cringe when you look back and see the mistakes you made. When you practice speaking, it doesn’t feel great when your tutor or speaking partner points out your mistakes. And if you ever manage to pluck up the courage to record yourself speaking, it’s pretty mortifying to listen back to yourself.
But if you want to get the benefits of deliberate practice, it’s time to change the way you think about mistakes. Mistakes aren’t something embarrassing to avoid: they’re a key component of the learning process.
The more you make, the better you get.
10 ways to practice a language like a pro
1. Learn by doing (and making mistakes)
Deliberate practice doesn’t mean you should stop learning from books and apps altogether. It means that you should focus on putting what you learn into practice immediately so you can identify your weaknesses and learn from your mistakes.
Let’s imagine you want to master the past tense in Spanish. Here’s how you can do it with deliberate practice:
- Learn grammar point: Learn how to use the past tense in your textbook/website/app.
- Practice using it: Write a paragraph about something in the past (e.g. what you did yesterday).
- Get feedback: Get corrections from a native speaker. You can post your paragraph to websites like italki or lang8 to get free feedback from native speakers.
- Adapt: Look at the mistakes you made and learn the correct way to say it.
- Repeat: Write another paragraph using the past tense (make it more interesting by using a new theme, for example, your last holiday) Try to reuse the words/grammar you got wrong so you can practice using them the right way.
You can do this technique with speaking, too. Try recording yourself talking about what you did yesterday and listen back to it – you’ll often notice your own mistakes that you didn’t pick up on while you were concentrating on speaking. Alternatively, if you have a conversation tutor/language exchange partner, you could talk about what you did yesterday, or any other theme that helps you practice what you’ve been studying recently, and ask them to correct you when you make mistakes.
2. Help people correct you
Imagine you’re talking to someone who isn’t a native speaker of your language and they make a mistake. How would you feel about correcting them?
Sometimes non-native speakers don’t like correcting us because they’re worried we might get offended or think they’re rude. Help them feel more comfortable by asking them to correct you and thanking them when they do so.
Another handy phrase to learn in your target language is “do you say it like that?” This helps you get immediate feedback when you’re not sure about what you just said. It also shows the person you’re speaking to that you want to learn, so they’ll feel more comfortable correcting you.
To get the benefits of deliberate practice, it’s important to repeat your corrections until you get them right. There are two ways to do this:
If your speaking partner points out your mistake, don’t just say “gracias/merci/danke…”. Reformulate the sentence aloud and ask them if you said it right this time.
If you notice that you often mistakes with certain grammar points or vocabulary, make a note of them and practice them as much as possible in your writing and speaking.
4. Break it down into components
When experts do deliberate practice, they break the skill down and practice the parts which cause them the most problems. Here are a couple of examples for languages:
- Instead of thinking “I want to improve my Spanish pronunciation”, work out which individual sounds you find difficult, track down some tutorials and practice them until you can do it. If you’re not sure where to find tutorials like this, the Mimic Method is a great place to start.
- Instead of thinking “I want to improve my Italian grammar”, identify the elements you have the most trouble with and practice making sentences with them until it becomes automatic.
5. Focus on the awkward bits
When you learn a language, it’s tempting to brush the awkward parts under the carpet. Just the phrase “German adjective declension”, makes me want to look in the other direction and start whistling. But if you face these awkward bits head on and practice using them, you’ll look back one day and wonder what all the fuss was about.
6. Stick with it
Sometimes the only thing that differentiates people who master a skill from those who don’t is the amount of time they’re willing to stick with it. When it comes to languages, people often decide they can’t understand a grammar point or pronounce a word even though they’ve only tried a few times.
Some things will probably take longer to learn than you think, but it’s worth sticking with them. You’ll be so glad you did when you can finally say them right.
7. Take responsibility for your own learning
Don’t wait for a teacher or book to tell you what you need to work on. Take some time to review your own learning and to notice gaps in your knowledge. For example, after you practice using the language, ask yourself questions like:
- which vocabulary was I missing?
- what did I make mistakes with?
This way, you’ll know what to focus on in future.
8. Accept that you’re going to feel like an idiot
When you go back and focus on your mistakes, you’ll probably feel like an idiot. It’s normal, particularly when it comes to things like speaking and listening to recordings of yourself. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. The secret is to accept the fact that you feel like an idiot and practice the language anyway.
9. Aim to make more mistakes (not fewer)
Remember: each mistake is a little sign that you just learnt something. To make progress, set yourself the goal of making more mistakes, not fewer. Paradoxically, this approach will help you make fewer mistakes in the long run, as the feedback after each mistake will help you get it right next time.
10. Get motivated
Deliberate practice requires a lot of effort, so it can be tricky to get motivated. Here are a couple of tips:
1. Build up the habit gradually
Let’s imagine you want to do 30 minutes of deliberate practice a day. If you try to do it through willpower alone, you might run out of steam after the first few days. The key is to build up the language learning habit gradually. Start with something that’s impossible to say no to, like 1 minute per day, then increase by one minute each day over the course of a month until you get to 30. Habits built up over time are much easier to stick to.
4. Use the 2 minute rule
Once you’re in the habit, you may still have days when you don’t feel like doing deliberate practice. On these days, try setting yourself the goal of working for 2 minutes. You’ll probably find that after 2 minutes, you’re happy to carry on by force of inertia. Even if you decide to stop after 2 minutes, the fact that you didn’t skip your study session completely will make it easier to get back into it the following day.
All work and no play makes language learning really dull
So we’ve established that deliberate practice is good: it will probably help you speak a language better and faster.
My problem is, it doesn’t fit in very well with my life philosophy.
It’s the kind of thing people write about on those blogs that tell you that putting butter in your coffee (?!) will make you richer, thinner and better in bed.
The pressure to be the best at everything doesn’t motivate me, it makes me want to hide under the covers. Sure, I want to speak a language well, but I want to enjoy learning it too. Because of it’s not fun, what’s the point?
How to practice a language with work and play
All deliberate practice and no fun probably wouldn’t be a great way to learn anyway. Firstly, if it makes you feel tense, it could slow you down, because stress gets in the way of learning.
Secondly, there’s a ton of research which shows that reading (and listening) for pleasure is a very effective way to learn a language.
While deliberate practice is about decomposing the skills and practicing the details, play, in the form of reading and listening to, or watching things you enjoy is essential. It helps you put all the pieces together and interact with the language as a whole.
And it keeps you happy and motivated.
If you’ve been learning for a while, your play activities could be things like comic books, magazines, podcasts, films and TV series.
If you’re new to the language, there are still plenty of ways to inject fun into your learning. Here’s a list of 32 fun ways to learn a language – you’ll find activities in there that work for lower levels too.
My language learning plans for September
I’m currently on a French mission: I’m taking the DALF exam in November and I’m aiming to study for around 2-3 hours a day.
Last month, I decided to spend around half that time on deliberate practice, so I set myself the goal of doing the following activities each day (Monday to Friday):
- 25 mins grammar (learn rules + practice using them in writing/speaking)
- 25 mins pronunciation (record myself speaking + work on tricky sounds)
- 25 mins writing (practice writing + get feedback from native speakers on italki)
This turned out to be way too much: the idea of tackling that mammoth task each day was intimidating, so I ended up not bothering most of the time. I did reach my target of 2-3 hours of French most days, but it was almost always play activities like reading Tintin or watching Netflix.
So this month I’ve decided to concentrate on gradually building the habit of deliberate practice. On September 1st, I studied the 3 parts (grammar, pronunciation and writing) for 1 minute each. Since then, I’ve been adding on 1 minute per day and hopefully by the end of September I’ll be back up to my goal of around 25 mins.
I’d also like to integrate more deliberate practice into my lessons with my online conversation tutors.
Here’s my plan:
- Prepare conversation questions with the new words and grammar I’ve learned, so I can practice using them in conversation during the lessons.
- Note down the things that my tutor often corrects me on and make an effort to practice them after class. For example, I make lots of mistakes with those pesky prepositions so I’m going to push myself to use them more in my speaking and writing tasks.
But I haven’t forgotten about playtime either! I’ve got a couple of audiobooks I’d like to finish and I’m planning on vegging out in front of a few French TV programmes/films.
What do you think?
Can deliberate practice help you learn a language? Which suggestions from this article can you use in your own language learning routine? Let me know in the comments below!