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Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Repeating is normally a part of a language learning program. Some learners don't repeat enough.  We tend to get to the level of awareness, then we get tired of what we are practicing.  Awareness is the level where we can recognize the phrase or pattern or word sequence.  But to get to the point of really knowing (commanding automatically) that bit of language, the learner must push on to the level of overlearning.

When you learn something, then go on to the next something, you usually have trouble recalling that first something on demand.  You learn one thing (or get correction on it), then go on to the other, stringing it out instead of building it up.  You have to struggle, or practice some more each time you need that item you learned only to the level of awareness.

Accelerate Progress
Overlearning takes you past the point of awareness, beyond recognition, into the thoughtless automatic recall necessary for fluent speech.  When you string out your practice, you will find yourself dangling over a precipice on a shoestring!  You want, rather, to build up your skill and control of a narrower range of really useful and flexible phrases and patterns.

It is better to learn well a smaller range of materials or structures than to learn poorly a wider range that you have to struggle with every time you try to recall something.  It helps to accelerate progress for the learner to practice a lot through repetition, then go use that same bit a lot in real usage situations. What you use sticks with you.

Meaning Beyond English!
One limiting factor here is the compelling feeling that meaning equals English.  The learner feels she just doesn't know what it means until it is down with an English equivalent!

But other words and phrases mean what they mean in the other language, not English.  Words mean the way they are used, not the way they might happen to be translated into another language.

Yes, Virginia.  There really is meaning outside of English!  Here again, practice in real-life situations give you the best feel for word meanings.  English explanations may distract.

Too Many Words
Another problem is the urgent feeling that you "need more words."  But this is no problem.  The words are all still going to be there whenever you need them!  What you really need is some structural frames to hang the words on, commonly called sentences and phrases.

One learner complained to me about his "conversationalist."  He gave the learner so many new words that he took five pages of notes in a one-hour session!  If it is conversation practice, you shouldn't even be taking notes.

You can never learn that many words.  What good is it to write them down?  They will still be in the language later when you need them!  If your conversant keeps using new words, you are under no obligation to learn them, write them down or even acknowledge them.

You are the learner.  You determine your needs. You practice what will help you, not what might please your conversant.  This represents independence, a basic principle of "barefoot" language learning, which I call trekking.

So put on your boots, and trek purposefully along the route of independent learning and involvement in the community.  (Do keep in mind that if you are involved in an institute or school program, under teachers directing activities, you do want to be cooperative.)

The Swamp of Grammatical Analysis
This same learner showed me 15 pages of notes on the use of the form of nga in his language.  That's interesting for a linguist but a learner does not need 15 pages of analytical explanations of English equivalents.  The learner needs to learn to use them in the proper situation.

A learner can get bogged down in the swamp of superfluous analysis.  Simple practice on correct usages will be more usable.  Explanations have their place, and some learners actually like all that titillating excitement of grammatical explanations! But explanations will not produce speech.

A learner needs practice, not words, production, not analysis.  Use critical phrases and sentence patterns over and over.  Test them, try them, stretch them, to the utmost of social utility.

The necessary words will be reinforced by the foundational sentence patterns as you use them in a variety of situations.  The grammatical patterns will begin to make sense as you see what they actually do for you when you talk with people in communication events.

Save Money and Memory
Overlearn then overuse!  This way you get more for your money.  You save your memory and learn the natural way.

You can enhance your natural learning by certain simple, easy and proven basic drill techniques.  Hear, repeat, produce, then use in new sentences.

Work with your helper to practice.  Overlearn by practicing even after you feel comfortable with it.  Then use that segment in every natural situation you can.

Also related:
[TXT] Principles and Techniques of Language Learning
[TXT] Quick Guide to Language Learning
[TXT] Real-Life Learning The Principle of Association

Related on the Internet:
Overlearning – Wikipedia
Practical Overlearning
What is Overlearning?


Originally published in the "Techniques" series in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, October 1993
This version first posted 9 June 2001
Republished as "Overlearning the Language" in The Missionary MEMO newsletter, 2nd Quarter 2006
Last edited 27 September 2012

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1993, 2001
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.
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