Four Secret Weapons of Practice

Ah, learning, so hardwired into us and yet so difficult! The OED tells us that there are three ways to learn: by study, experience, or being taught. I think there's one thing that they've forgotten. The key ingredient to any new knowledge and skill: practice.

Gets you fit if nothing else.

Gets you fit if nothing else.

I hope that the word "practice" doesn't sound disheartening to you. You're not meant to feel like you are rolling that rock back up the hill endlessly like Sysiphos. To me, effective practice means finding a safe environment to try something you've not tried before and then repeating your new trick until it feels effortless. No doubt this can become more than a bit tedious, but you can cut down on boredom by using a few smart techniques

1) Respect Frustration

Sorry! Hope you didn't think I was going to pretend there's a technique that eliminates irritation. Frustration is an unavoidable part of getting better. If you want to succeed, you need to become very aware of points at which you are frustrated. Perhaps make a little note of what it was that really made you feel stuck. Frustration can be such a killjoy that it's caused more than one great learner to just quit the whole endeavour, and no one really wants that! You have to respect that annoying feeling enough to know when it's not worth fighting against a setback.

No need to abandon the practice session, but you can minimise disappointment by repeating the things you're good at. Just give it a day or two and settle the foundations of what you have learnt, and you will find that problem you were facing before has shifted into perspective while you were away. Take a fresh look at things, perhaps get an expert's view or a new demo to bring back the inspiration, and hopefully you'll be right back on your way. And sometimes, there's nothing but a day off that will help you back onto your tracks.

2) Surprise Yourself

Morning! Time for être in the conditionnel, come on!

Morning! Time for être in the conditionnel, come on!

Mastering a new skill is about becoming so familiar with it that you could do it "in your sleep". I remember our French teacher always talking about how she wants us to be able to rattle down those verb tables even if she wakes us up at 2 in the morning. It's got to get into the head somehow, so make sure that you are really surrounded by your learning material. The easiest way of making this happen in language learning is to write a sentence or two on a sticky note, make 10 copies and stick them everywhere. My favourite places are in the shower (with a plastic wallet), on the bathroom mirror, on the door of your washing machine, in the chocolate drawer and right in the middle of the cork board.

3) Find the Rhythm

The link between music and learning has been explored by researchers and polyglots alike. Music is a very popular teaching tool in kids at primary/nursery school age, but you can also exploit it for your own benefits. If you build a few songs into your learning routine, you'll very soon realise how much more fun it makes it. Don't laugh, but I learnt at least 3 new Russian words from this. You can find examples of musical practice online, for example through Fluency MC or a language hack advocated by Benny Lewis. There are so many advantages to putting music in your learning, for example it makes it more fun, brings you closer to real life use of the target language, helps you remember things through melodies and rhythms and sticks in your head.

4) Get Physical

Movement is another great memory aid because it engages more than one part of your brain. The easiest way you can build this into your learning is to simply sit down with pen and paper (remember my love of the notebook..) and write out those verb tables and vocabulary lists. Maybe write the difficult ones in a different colour, or in capitals. If you want to take it a bit further, why not try and associate the word or sentence with a gesture, like in sign language? It works from "If you're happy and you know it.." to acting out whole bits of dialogue in your book or favourite show.

Get started with really easy exclamations, for example what would you do to illustrate these French expressions:

Au secours!

Je m'écrie! (Je chuchote.)

Je marche.

All of these ideas are designed to help you repeat what it is that you are practising without getting too bored. You may not find that each method works for you, but hopefully you'll have a laugh along the way. It would be great to hear if you guys have found any other ways of building fun repetitions into your learning.

For some other ideas and thoughts, you could these links.

*note use of speechmarks here because I have no clue how that even works