Learning styles are like fine wines – there’s one for every taste, occasion or whim. And this week, I had the chance to return to a mode and pace that enthusiastic, independent learners sometimes miss out on.
On Wednesday, I started Scottish Gaelic classes at the University of Edinburgh. Gaelic is one of Scotland’s three official languages, and an introduction was long overdue (although I’ve picked up plenty of Doric!). Judging by the first class, it will be a really fun and rewarding experience. But as a language enthusiast, learning with others represented a gear-shift to a different pace, too.
Instead of the familiar, accelerated pace of lone language cramming, it was the measured, slow-but-sure approach of learning in a large class.
Now, I deliberately avoided learning any Gaelic beforehand, as I believe it is important to have the shared experience of learning with my classmates. And a second rule: I will also resist any extracurricular extras in Gaelic, to make sure I follow the plan. (Not wanting to look like a swot may also lie partly behind these decisions!)
But changing gear shed some light on the great benefits of a more restrained, gradual, cumulative learning approach. And we can replicate those benefits as lone learners outside the classroom, too.
Language learning, fast and slow
If you are a language learning enthusiast, you are probably well acquainted with what we might call the ‘classic polyglot mode‘. Course books, target language media and authentic texts are joyful things to soak up, to savour, to devour. It really is a kind of accelerated input method as we race through, learning at breakneck speed.
Now, this is an absolutely valid method (and the one I find myself most naturally slipping into as a perennial dabbler). What’s more, accelerated learning has strong evidence to back it up as an effective choice in a jungle of learning styles and approaches. For instance, in one study of maths students, subjects performed better on tests after an intensive course, as opposed to a longer pathway. Meanwhile, extreme learners like Tim Ferriss have almost turned rapid language learning into a sport.
Learning fast can be fun, exhilarating and yield great results under the right conditions.
Turning down the temperature
The other method is probably the one most familiar to us from our school days. Mixed ability groups work through carefully planned material, week by week. Here, the teacher controls the pace. Due to the mixed abilities within a large group, it can be a more pedestrian approach, to be sure. Characteristically, it features repeated exposure to a small set of material at a time.
Here, the key advantages are expert modelling by the teacher, and heavily repeated input.
Compared to accelerated, individual learning styles, the restrained, intensely focused classroom situation gives learners ample time to perfect a skill before moving on. In this semi-immersive environment, especially if the teacher uses a lot of target language, exposure to learning material is very high.
Conversely, as rapid crammers, the repeat-practise-learn cycle is reversed. When we move through a language quickly, we agree a sort of contract with ourselves, promising to drill the material in situ, on location, when we ultimately throw ourselves into a target language environment. In the classroom, it is practise, practise, practise before we consider it learnt.
To make a building analogy, accelerated learning builds high, and reinforces later. The traditional classroom secures each storey to the max before moving on.
The benefits of repetitive modelling
As eager as we might be to dial up the speed, there is plenty of research supporting the effectiveness of prolonged, repeated modelling. For example, using neuroimaging techniques, it is possible to see mental pathways strengthening through repetitive work, as this study demonstrates. Repetition “induces neuroplasticity” – it actually changes your brain.
Functionally, that means that new skills stick. This EFL classroom study notes that students “benefited from the opportunity to recycle communicative content as they repeated complex tasks“.
Additionally, there are further advantageous effects replicating the sentence modelling of mass sentence techniques. Children in this classroom study actively produced particular sentence structures more readily after repetitive exposure. This “sentence frame” effect gradually builds a library of mental models a speaker can confidently draw upon at a snap.
Common sense, perhaps. But a reminder that language learning is a marathon, not a sprint.
Building slow learning into your fast routine
Of course, there is no need to wind down all of your learning to a snail’s pace, or put a brake on the things you love. But there are ways to introduce a little slow into your routine. Slow learning does have a nice ring to it, admittedly. A little like slow food, it is all about considering the object of interest as something wholesome, worth taking time over.
So here are a few ideas for grafting this ethos onto your more usual accelerated route.
If you have regular conversation sessions with a tutor on iTalki, try selecting a very narrow topic for just a part of that lesson. Use a mind-mapping technique like the brain dump to collate a pool of vocabulary, and talk, talk, talk it out with your tutor for 5-10 minutes.
For added effect, arrange with your tutor to return to the same topic over the course of consecutive sessions. Discounting boredom, you should become really good at speaking about it whenever the occasion arises!
Peer teaching / sharing
Teaching others is a wonderful way to recycle and revise material, not least because it also slows you down and allows you to repeat familiar material out loud. ‘Teaching’ need not mean anything formal – simply sharing your latest words and phrases with (hopefully, vaguely interested) family or friends will do.
Setting your pace
Alternatively, you can take your foot off the pedal by carefully planning your learning with productivity tools like Evernote or Wunderlist. If you feel you are rushing through a course book too quickly, devise a learning plan that allocates a whole week (or more) to a single chapter. And, importantly: don’t deviate. I find calendarised plans and tick lists some of the simplest but most effective tools for pacing my learning.
Recycling beginners’ resources
Finally, spare a thought for your old, forgotten resources. Revisit them regularly, and revel in your improving abilities. You probably know the material so well now that you can do the exercises in your sleep!
Learning styles : a best of both worlds approach
Becoming a classroom student again taught me the common sense I had long forgotten: the more you practise, the better you get. Never fear, you can of course still steam through your languages at a rate of knots. Gradual and fast ‘n’ furious learning styles are not mutually exclusive. And there is no greater joy for the polyglot than consuming courses!
But, now and again, give your brain the time to form new pathways through good old repetition and rote.
It is built to do so.