Let’s start with a question: what does it mean to learn something? No, really, think about it. When you say, “I learned this,” what do you mean? Actually, it can mean different things. All learning depends on three things: theory, memory and practice. You need to understand ideas and concepts—theory. You need to remember ideas and how to do things—memory. And, you need to use things in real life—practice. When you learn something, you need a balance between these three things, and you need the right balance. If you don’t get the balance right, you’ll find it difficult to learn. You’ll waste time and energy, and probably get worse results than you could have. Let’s talk about this balance in more detail.
1. Balanced English Learning
When you learn different things, you need different amounts of theory, memorisation, and practice. For example, think about learning to ride a bike. Do you need theory, or memorisation? Not really! No one learns to ride a bike by reading books. You get on a bike, and you try. You fall off; you try again. It’s almost 100 per cent practice. Let’s take a very different example: aeronautical engineering, meaning designing aeroplanes and rockets. OK, I’ll be honest: I don’t know, because I’m not an aeronautical engineer, but I’m guessing that it’s a lot of theory and memorisation, and less practice, because when you’re designing a plane or a rocket, you should get it right first time.
So, what’s the point? When you learn different things, you need a different balance of these three areas—theory, memorisation and practice. What about learning English? Here’s my suggestion. It’s not meant to be something precise. This isn’t statistics.
What does this mean for you? Many English learners have problems because they get this balance wrong, and they get it wrong in similar ways. What are the biggest problems English learners have here?
One: they focus too much on theory.
Two: they try to use theory and memorisation to replace practice.
Three: they leave memorisation to luck.
Four: they don’t practice enough, or effectively.
These mistakes lead to all the common English-learner complaints: “I’ve been studying for years but I can’t speak fluently!”, “I learn vocabulary, but I can’t remember it!”, and so on.
Let’s see what you can do about these problems, and how you can make your English learning more effective in balanced English learning.
2. Practice Before Theory
In this section, we’re going to talk about the first two problems: focusing too much on theory, and using theory and memorisation to replace practice. Actually, this isn’t English learners’ fault. Many people learn English—and other languages—in a theory-heavy way at school or university. Then, they think this is what language learning means: sitting in a classroom, doing grammar exercises, and so on. Theory is part of English learning. Going to a language class might be useful. Doing English grammar exercises can be helpful in the right situation. But, here’s the key point: practice comes first. Practice should come before theory. Using a language is a practical skill. It’s more like riding a bike than aeronautical engineering. You can’t replace practice by studying theory. You can’t learn to speak by doing exercises from a book. You can’t learn to write essays by reading other people’s essays.
Here’s a question: do you have problems speaking fluently, because you’re translating whole sentences in your head? Yes? If you do, that’s a sign that you’ve studied English in a way which depends too much on theory and not enough on practice. If you do this, you end up trying to ‘calculate’ sentences in your head. That’s really hard! It’s like doing complex maths at high speed. Of course you can’t speak fluently if you’re doing this. Again, theoretical study is not useless! But, you have to put practice first. If you want to learn to speak, you have to speak. If you want to learn to write, you have to write. Theoretical study should support your practice. What does that mean?
Let’s take something which for many people is the biggest symbol of boring English lessons—grammar exercises. Grammar exercises can be extremely useful! But, you should only do them only when you really need them. For example, imagine you’re speaking English regularly, but you’re not good at using the present perfect. You know something about it, and you hear other people use it, and you know that you can’t use it well when you speak. That’s the right moment to take your grammar book and read about the present perfect and do some exercises.
More generally, you should only study theory—like grammar rules or vocabulary exercises—when you already know what you need. Don’t take your grammar book, or your vocabulary book, and start at unit one and say, “I’m going to study this whole book!” Have you ever done that? I have. It doesn’t work. You won’t finish the book. You probably won’t even finish the first three units. It’s boring and it doesn’t help you. Get a good grammar book. Get a good vocabulary book. Get books on writing, or IELTS, or whatever you need. Then, take what you need when you need it. If you don’t know what something is, then you don’t need it yet. If you aren’t sure whether you need something or not, then you don’t need it yet.
By the way, I’m not making this stuff up. It comes directly from my own experiences. As you might know, I live in Greece. My Greek is not that good. I haven’t really studied formally. At one point, I realised that I didn’t know how to form the past tense. I knew some past verbs, but I couldn’t make past forms which I hadn’t seen before.
Obviously, using past forms is very helpful. In any conversation, you’ll probably need a past verb at some point. So, I found some grammar notes, did some exercises, and I learned how to make past forms. It wasn’t boring or difficult, because I felt I needed it. And, it helped me immediately, so I remembered most of what I studied.
Here’s a summary: put practice first. When you feel you need something theoretical, like a grammar point or vocabulary on a certain topic, then go and study it. You need to feel that you need it, because otherwise it probably won’t stay in your head. The same is true with memorising things. There’s no point memorising something unless you know you need it. Don’t learn a big list of vocabulary which you’ll probably never use. Go out and practise, talk to people, write something, find out what you can’t say and which ideas you can’t express, and then learn those words.
Let’s move on and talk more about memorisation in balanced English learning.
Remember the problem that we said many English learners have with memorisation? Too many English learners leave memorisation to luck. Memorisation isn’t enough by itself to learn a language. But, it is an important part.
For example, take a topic which many English learners find difficult: preposition use. Should I use ‘at’ or ‘on’? What’s the difference between ‘to’ and ‘for’? Why do I need to use ‘on’ here? Often, leaners approach this like other grammar topics, where you start by learning rules. But, there aren’t really rules, or at least, not so many useful ones. Learning to use English prepositions is more about memorising lots and lots and lots of information. You have to memorise specific word combinations and phrases.
Learn more about prepositions with this lesson from Oxford Online English: English Prepositions – To, In, At
Why do you say ‘it depends on’ and not ‘it depends of’? There’s no good reason. You just need to remember: ‘depend’ plus ‘on’. Many other topics are like this. They depend more on memory than theory. If you can’t remember the information, then you can’t use the language correctly. At this point, you’ll start thinking in your language. Then you’re translating, which means you’re calculating sentences again, which you know doesn’t give you good results. So, memorisation is necessary.
Here’s another point about memorisation: it’s measurable. A question: imagine you try to learn ten new words. How many will you remember next week? How many will you remember next month? How many will you remember in a year? What do you think? Say a number.
When I ask most students these questions, they almost all say that they’ll remember zero words in a year. If that’s true for you, then why learn these new words? There’s no point learning something if you’re just going to forget it again. Also, that’s not really learning!
So, what’s the solution? The first part you already know: put practice first. You won’t remember anything if you’re not using it. Practice needs to come first. Don’t try to memorise things you don’t need, just like you shouldn’t study theory unless you need it right now.
The second part: make a system for memorisation. If you’ve watched many of our other videos, you might already know what I’m going to talk about. “Is he going to tell us to use Anki again?” Yes, yes I am. If you don’t know, Anki is a very powerful digital flashcard app. It lets you practice with questions and answers on your laptop or phone or tablet, and it’s designed to help you memorise large amounts of information. Again, I’m not getting paid by Anki or anything like that. I’m telling you this because I know it works from my experience.
I’ll tell you: I lived in China and I studied Chinese, including writing. Learning to write in Chinese involves a huge amount of memorisation. To write at a basic level, you need to know around one to two thousand characters. I spent three years in China, and at the end I took a C1-level exam, which is equivalent to around band 7 or 7.5 in IELTS. That meant I had to write essays and other things in Chinese. So, I went from basically zero to C1 level in three years, and Anki helped a lot.
You don’t have to use Anki. There are other flashcard apps. You don’t have to use a flashcard app. There are other ways to memorise things. But, you should have a system, and you should ask yourself how well that system works.
Think about the question you saw before: if you try to memorise ten things today, how many will you remember in a year? It won’t be ten. Nothing’s perfect! And, that’s fine. But, it shouldn’t be zero either. Whatever you do to memorise things, it should work. The information should stay in your head. If it doesn’t work, then do something different! Or, don’t do it at all. There’s no point memorising something if you’re going to forget it again. Spend your time on something better. Don’t leave memorisation to luck. You don’t have to! There are tools you can use. Also, even if you’re lazy, you should do this. In fact, especially if you’re lazy, you should do this. Why? Because being systematic about memorisation will save you a lot of time, effort and stress in the long term.
Many English learners get demotivated because they go in circles, studying the same things over and over and over again; learning and forgetting and learning and forgetting and learning and forgetting… Everyone’s motivation is limited. If this is you, you’ll give up eventually. You’ll waste a lot of time and money and energy. So, be systematic about memorisation. Measure your results! Save your time, save your money, and save your energy.
But, remember: memorisation isn’t everything. The most important thing is practice. Let’s talk about that!
You know this already: practice is the most important part of learning English, especially in balanced English learning. Here are some questions many English learners have about practising: “How do I find someone to practise with?” “Can I practise by myself?” In this section, we’ll talk about effective practice.
I’ll start by answering these questions. You might not like my answers!
First: how do you find someone to practise with? I don’t know. You have to solve that problem. You can make friends with English speakers, do a language exchange, join a conversation group, pay for a language school, or pay for a private teacher. I don’t know what’s possible for you. You have to find your own solution here. I’m not trying to be unkind; it’s just reality. But, I’ll say this: learning to do anything will cost you time or money, or both. If you have more time than money, then use your time. Look for English speakers or English-speaking groups near where you live. Or, start your own! If you have more money than time, then pay for a teacher or a class.
What about the second question: can you practise effectively by yourself? No, not really. Why not? Because effective practice needs feedback. To be clear, practising by yourself can be useful, but only if you’re also practising with other people and getting feedback regularly. If you’re only practising by yourself, it won’t work.
So, what should you do to practise effectively?
One: practise as much as possible.
Two: practise as widely as possible. Talk to many people, about many different things. Write different kinds of texts, on as many different topics as you can.
Three: make sure you have feedback. Feedback doesn’t have to be formal. It doesn’t have to come from a teacher, although sometimes that might be necessary. Feedback can be simple. For example, if you say something to someone, and they go like this, that’s feedback! It tells you that what you said wasn’t clear.
Four: practise accurately. Accept that you will make mistakes, but don’t be happy about it. Try to speak and write as accurately as you can. Work on your mistakes and your weaknesses continually.
Five: practise repetitively. Practise repetitively? Why? Repetition is boring. OK, I know. But, it’s effective!
Many English learners ask “How can I stop translating in my head?” Well, I’ll tell you the answer right now! It’s not complicated. When people ask me this question, I ask them a question back. Actually, I have a simple conversation with them: “Hello! How are you? Where are you from?” Let’s try it now: hello! How are you? Where are you from? Do you have to translate in your head to answer those questions? Most people say that they don’t. Why not? It’s because you’ve answered these questions hundreds of times. You can answer automatically. You don’t have to think, and you don’t have to translate from your language.
That’s the solution right there. If you don’t want to translate in your head, then you have to respond automatically. To do that, you have to practise and repeat the same things many, many times.
So, when you practise, don’t talk about a topic once, talk about it many times. Don’t practise answering a question once; repeat your answer over and over again. Don’t write an essay once. Get feedback, and then write an improved version. Build repetition into your practice, and you’ll get better results.
Hopefully you now have an idea of how to use balanced English learning to improve the way you study English. Thanks for watching!