Try googling “best way to lose fat” — you’ll inevitably get pages of results listing different super foods, “simple” diets and exercise plans “that really work”. Each will promise better results in a shorter time. Apart from the obviously bogus strategies (the grapefruit diet?!) all those approaches are probably right to some extent. That is to say, there will be at least one person who would benefit from them.
Doesn’t that remind you of different approaches to language learning?
I remember preparing for a maths test at school. All 30 of us in the class passed. How? We did share class time, but ultimately each of us prepared in a different way, choosing a revision method that worked best for our preferences.
If you were (un?)fortunate enough to have been put through the 10+ years of standardised education, you would have had a lot of time to develop strategies for learning within that particular system. Or, if not to learn, you developed strategies to please your teachers and pass the tests.
When acquiring skills as adults, we don’t have the luxury of so much time to spare. Based on my personal experience, the older I get, the number of things I want to master seems to be growing exponentially.
With so much to learn and so little time, it’s no longer only the question of choosing what to learn. We have to start investing time and effort into optimizing the ways in which we learn.
How we fall for “foolproof” fads
Coming back to the diet articles (stop thinking about that triple chocolate muffin!), if you look at them closely, they are all variations of four simple pieces of advice: exercise, eat healthily, drink more water and sleep more. However, because such a straightforward answer to the dieting question looks too simple to be believable, it tends to be embellished with extra specifics, such as precise quantities of foods and exact numbers of reps.
In our desire to accomplish our dream goals, we want to find one foolproof strategy for realising them. Our despair of achieving them pushes us to seek authoritative answers—hence the successful click-bait of articles offering the “true”, “ultimate” and “tested” solutions. However, the number of ways to achieve any goal will always equal the number of people who try it. While the broad direction of progress stays the same, the nitty-gritty of the path will be different for each individual. Let me rephrase:
There are as many ways to achieve a goal as there are people.
It’s the same for every skill you want to learn. From cooking to computing, there will be an endless number of courses and approaches to try. Having a variety of choices is good — it makes it easier to find a method that suits your personal style. Yet, just as we can identify the basic factors involved in weight loss, there is a core approach for each skill you want to gain.
In fact, I’d even go as far to say there is a component that underlies gaining any skill . It’s the approach to learning, the way we practise.
Down with talent, in comes deliberate practice
Now, bear with me. This article is not a roundabout way of selling you another “magic” approach to changing your life. There is plenty of science to support what I am about to say and, just for you, I’ve done my reading.
First things first: talent. The only application of the notion of “talent” is to serve as an excuse for our laziness. We say we can’t achieve something because we are not talented enough.
As Anders Ericsson points out in his book Peak, we often mistake years of hard work for talent. While in certain disciplines people can have some natural advantages—think of the height of basketball players— in most fields such natural assets can be outmatched through effort and the development of skills.
”A major difference between the deliberate-practice approach and the traditional approach to learning lies with the emphasis placed on skills versus knowledge — what you can do versus what you know. Deliberate practice is all about the skills.” — Anders Ericsson, Peak
Yes. Deliberate practice is all about gaining skills, and skills are only acquired through effort. So here is the first uncomfortable truth: to acquire a new skill you need to apply effort. There is no way around it. I told you there wouldn’t be any magic spells here.
That doesn’t mean that merely putting in effort will guarantee progress, however. The crux of the matter lies in knowing where to direct our efforts in order to maximise the gain.
“Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t.” — Angela Duckworth, Grit
Rules of deliberate practice
“Even the most accomplished of experts start out as unserious beginners.” — Anders Ericsson, Peak
Maintaining high-levels of practice, and witnessing constant improvement can turn us into experts. But how to keep up the pace? Just as with improving our diet, there are four simple components to take care of.
This is not an empty word—you really need to be ready to exert effort and be prepared to overcome hardships.
At the toughest of moments, when you feel stuck, reminding yourself of the reason you’re doing this should be enough to stop you from quitting. Always keep your long-term goal in sight.
Consistency + deliberation = an expert learner
“If you stop believing that you can reach a goal, either because you’ve regressed or you’ve plateaued, don’t quit. Make an agreement with yourself that you will do what it takes to get back to where you were or to get beyond the plateau, and then you can quit. You probably won’t.”— Anders Ericsson, Peak
This is also why you need motivation. Deliberate practice requires repetition.
As a language learner you hopefully already have a habit of revising and practising pronunciation until it is perfect. With deliberate practice you will put the ultimate concentration into every repetition, and keep practising your skill until you reach the desired level.
The tasks or practice you engage in should build on your existing knowledge, and take you a step further. Deciding on the right exercise requires a high level of self-awareness and an honest self-assessment. You will have to identify the skills you lack and set yourself exercises that are challenging, but not overwhelming.
In terms of language practice, once you’ve learned a few pieces of vocabulary, try to form sentences. If you have problems setting the right level for your training session, you should consult a mentor, which leads us to the fourth component of deliberate practice:
You need regular feedback on your work. Consult someone with a higher level of skill than yourself, and ask them to correct your work and provide tips on how to improve. Ideally, the feedback you get should be immediate, so you can introduce corrections promptly to quickly override the memory of the mistakes you had made.
Again, to put it into the context of language learning: speaking sentences aloud to yourself will not show you whether a native speaker would understand you. Speaking to a teacher, however, will quickly allow you to address flaws in your phrasing and pronunciation.
To effectively practice a skill without a teacher, it helps to keep in mind three Fs: Focus. Feedback. Fix it. —Anders Ericsson, Peak
Time and the 10k hour rule
Fair enough, you may say, but I don’t have all that time to practice to develop the skills I want—why bother trying?
Maybe you have heard of “the 10,000 hour rule”. In short, it is a popular notion that to achieve mastery in any field, you need to invest 10k hours into practice. The concept has been presented and popularised in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Even though the message the author wanted to convey is not that simple, that’s how it is remembered and is still perpetuated.
Based on what we said before, the flaw in the 10k hour rule is obvious. It’s not the number of hours or effort that we put in, but the quality of practice that allows us to make progress. I’m looking at you, all LinguaLift students who excuse their lack of studies with being busy!
Anders Ericsson, author of the book Peak, notes that expert performers (in any field) limit their practice sessions to an hour maximum, and the amount of daily practice to five hours. And that’s if the skill you’re working on is a part of your job! If you’re learning as a hobby, there‘s no shame in devoting much less time to deliberate practice.
By virtue of its intensity and the focus it requires, deliberate practice is tiring. After a day of school or office work, you will inevitably get tired very quickly. There’s no need to force yourself to study more — a tired mind will not process or absorb information effectively. Ericsson notes that expert performers nap after draining practice sessions. So, if you feel like hitting the pillow after the vocab review, perhaps you’ll be doing the right thing!
Loneliness and the sweet spot
You know that feeling when you learned a few conversational phrases and had a few successful exchanges on HelloTalk? It feels so good to always know what to say and feel comfortable with your language! You may in fact feel so comfortable that you find yourself repeating the same conversations with different people, and counting the time spent on it as your daily language practice.
Don’t fool yourself. When actions become automatic, it signifies you have mastered a skill—repeating the action won’t teach you anything new.
Ericsson refers to a famous piece of research in his book about violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music. Students at the music school were asked to sum up the number of hours they spent on different forms of practice: solo practice, concert practice, and practice with a teacher. The most talented students, those described as having the best chance of becoming orchestra musicians, spent the most time practising alone.
In contrast, those considered less talented, and seen by their mentors as future music teachers, not only spent less time practising, but also devoted most of their practice time to playing with other musicians.
In a language class you might spend 30 minutes listening to others reading through a dialogue, 90% of which you already understand. Practising on your own you’d spent half of that time focusing on the missing 10% that you find challenging. This is deliberate practice.
At its core, deliberate practice is a lonely pursuit. While you may collect a group of like-minded individuals for support and encouragement, still much of your improvement will depend on practice you do on your own. — Anders Ericsson, Peak
Deliberate practice vs. flow
Now, you might also be familiar with the term “flow”. Flow is a state of deep focus, enjoyment and a level of involvement in an activity so complete that it makes us oblivious of time. It’s like when you spend a whole afternoon fixing your bike, or when you lose all track of time playing tennis, for example. There is a level of overlap between flow and deliberate practice. But it doesn’t mean the two are the same—one crucial difference lies in the level of enjoyment.
The relationship between deliberate practice and flow puzzled Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She noticed that if we have enough motivation, working towards our goals should be pleasurable. Yet, at the same time, improvement involves exposing our flaws, and constantly finding shortcomings in our skills can be daunting. We have been conditioned to think about failure in negative terms, but most successful learners embrace it as a necessary step to improvement. If you don’t fail, it means you remain in the same place—in your comfort zone— and that’s not where progress happens.
To illustrate this point, let’s use a gym metaphor. If you want to train your muscles, you can lift weights according to your capacity until you reach exhaustion point. Reaching your limit is not a failure! And regardless of how strong you are, there will always be a weight too heavy for you to lift.
By reaching your limits each time, you’re just gradually moving the boundary of your maximum capacity.
Polishing your skills requires effort, and exposing yourself to the feedback of experts can make you feel vulnerable. Understanding this finally made me realise why I always felt stressed before my drumming classes: I knew there was a 90% chance of hearing criticism. And as a perfectionist, I don’t like to have my flaws pointed out.
Allow yourself the freedom to be imperfect and understand that the teacher’s aim is not to put you down, but help you grow.
So, where does the flow come in? You will experience flow as a state where you are using your existing knowledge and having fun with the new skill you acquired through those hours of practice. You are in the flow when you play through a song you have been learning, when you spend hours absorbed in painting a landscape or when you talk about your favourite films in Korean. In a sense, all our goals are variations in reaching the state of flow.
“When you quit something that you had initially wanted to do, it’s because the reasons to stop eventually came to outweigh the reasons to continue. Thus, to maintain your motivation you can either strengthen the reasons to keep going or weaken the reasons to quit.” — Anders Ericsson, Peak
It’s important to allow yourself to get into a state of flow when you reach a part of your goal. By demonstrating to yourself how far you have come and how much pleasure you derive from the activity you are working to master, you will gain an extra motivational kick. Flow reminds you of what the deliberate practice has been about and shows that more is possible.
Ready to reach your peak?
There are no more excuses. If you truly want to improve, the steps are clear.
Whatever skill you’re working on, no teacher or app can do it for you. A network of like-minded individuals and mentors will provide necessary support, but you can’t outsource your own progress.
Start working on it, for flow’s sake!