Strangely, my learning strategy to learn German is heavily influenced by a book about economics and a book written by a martial art champion.

In “The economic naturalist” author Robert Frank explains that while he could not learn Spanish and German after years of classes at school, he could learn to speak Nepali in thirteen weeks by approaching language learning with a sort of “less-is-more” strategy. His Nepali teacher explained to him only one type of sentence and then asked him to utter sentences with that same structure until the rule was somehow internalized. In other words, once he could make the sentences without thinking about the grammar rule. Only at that stage, the teacher would have explained another type of sentence and the student would have started the same kind of exercise with the new sentence.

The second book is “the art of learning”. The author was a chess champion during his childhood and become a martial art champion in adulthood. In the book, he explains how he applied the same learning principles to excel in both disciplines.

One of his main points it is what he calls “making smaller circles”. This is somehow very similar to the less-is-more approach explained by Robert Frank in “the economic naturalist” and it consists of learning the basis of a discipline extremely well instead than learning a bit of everything. He describes this approach to learning also as going “from the micro to the macro”.

While there are many different approaches to learning new skills, such as languages, chess and martial arts, here I want to focus on the choice between learning in-depth few things (less-is-more approach) or learning many things but less in-depth (more-is-better approach). One may say that the two are not mutually exclusive and that one should aim to learn in-depth a lot of things. I argue that if two people spend the same amount of time to learn the same skill and one choose the less-is-more approach and the other one follow the more-is-better approach the skills acquired by the two individuals at the end of the week would be very different.

The language schools’ approach

The problem I found with language schools is that they mostly follow the more-is-better approach. In other words, in language schools the teacher usually explains a grammar rule, then students make few exercises to apply the rule, and then other rules are taught and so on. According to this approach, the teacher explains the rule but he/she does not dedicate enough time to practice the implementation of the rule until it becomes embedded in the mind of the students. The final result is often a collection of grammar rules in the students’ heads and the inability to put them in practice.

The less-is-more approach

The less-is-more approach to language learning would rather focus on learning very well one (or very few) rules at the time and to practice it as much as possible until one feels that it is not anymore necessary to think to apply the rule. This approach is ultimately more focused on the practice than on the theoretical knowledge of grammar because the student dedicates more time to practice fewer grammar rules. For example, when learning a language like German, where sentences have a different structure than English, an English speaker should focus more on learning the new word order in the sentences rather than worrying from the beginning to use correctly declinations, plurals, and genre. In other words, one should choose what the priorities are.

Unfortunately, when a student starts to study a language, especially through traditional classroom teaching and language schools, he/she does not consciously choose between these two learning strategies.

I think that in the traditional language school approach there are no clear priorities so one ends up learning a bit of everything but not well. To wrap up, I think is useful to be conscious of the difference between the two approaches in order to make a more conscious choice.

I invite any reader to comment on the two learning strategies that I have discussed in this post. What works better for you?

In the next post I will explain how I use an improvisation game from improvisation theatre to learn a language with a less-is-more strategy.

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