Language Study vs Language Learning

The differences between language study and language learning

*I’ll probably end up using the word ‘language’ and ‘English’ interchangeably, because I currently teach English in Japan. This is part of my series of posts tied together in what may or may not become an Essay about English education in Japan.

*Another problem I found while trying to make comparisons between study and learning is the interchangeability of the two words. When learning a language, you can use self-study methods that are appropriate for learning a language for example. Either I will need to find different terminology to separate the two concepts or simply be more deliberate and selective with my words.

*This post became a bit longer than I expected, sorry.

When one is studying a language they are learning the most correct or most common patterns seen in a language. They study the shape and form of the words and sentences. Maybe they study the sounds, looking at how words are pronounced in association with each other.

Learning a language on the other hand is more like acquiring a skill. Skills are learned through trial and error. Making mistakes is often a faster way of learning a language than studying the perfect forms. Learning a language isn’t memorizing a language, it’s about understanding how to use it in a meaningful way. Real fluency isn’t something that can be taught, only practiced and acquired.

Of course I’m deliberately separating the two to help understand the difference. Often both study and learning for acquisition can be done at the same time. The important thing is practicing what one studies in a meaningful way.

Linguists study a language, but they don’t necessarily need to learn how to use it.

I found a nice bicycle analogy on this one blog ( One can be told how to ride a bike, or study and research how to ride a bike, but unless you get on that bike, wobble around a bit, maybe fall a few times; you won’t really know how to ride a bike. Language is the same.
There are also some good comparisons of language to other subjects in the blog. I think language is closer to something like music or art, instead of math or science. But often in language study grammar structures are treated like math equations and there always needs to be a direct logical explanation for why something is correct in English.

I’m just going to include a few quotes from the blog that match my views on the subject and then add my own thoughts afterwards. It’ll help me kind of sort my thoughts out better. And there’s no reason to do all of the thinking on my own if someone has done the work for me.

“Most students fail at learning a language. The major reason for this is that they are taught to study a language as opposed to learning a language Most students are given instructions/rules on the language instead of learning the language directly and then inferring the rules.”I believe this is part of the theory behind acquisition based learning or learning for understanding. Lots of input; and then understanding comes naturally. The other focus on understanding based learning is on less output until the learner naturally produces output on their own. Output comes after understanding.

Right now I’m learning French, German, and Chinese using a kind of mixed approach. I’m using a word frequency list, looking at the rules for important words, usually using Google to find an easy to follow source for each word. I’m writing down sentences using those words, but my focus is on how the word is used, rather than the full rules behind the word. I do write the rules down once, because it helps my understanding, but the idea behind the way I’m doing is that once I start seeing how the word is used, then I don’t need to refer to the rules anymore, I simply use the word. Once I get the idea behind how to make basic sentences following the examples, then I make sentences on my own. I start to think in those languages while I’m writing.

I limit my word frequency lists to 100 words. For some languages just those 100 words are enough to understand about 50% of written content, meaning you can look at a page, have a good idea of the basic structure and then fill in what you don’t know either by context or using a dictionary. German is really interesting because the top 10 words make up about 27% of written words, and the top 20 words make up about 35% of written words. Learning 20 words and being able to look at a page and understand 1/3 of the words on there sounds like a pretty good deal.

The only real weakness to this method I’m using is that I don’t really speak the language with any native speakers. I only talk to myself, and refer to audio or video when I want to improve my pronunciation. (Learning how to talk to yourself while learning a language is an important skill as well.) However, I feel like if I were to actually interact with native speakers of a language, what I have been studying and practicing will catch up rather quickly because I’ve created a solid frame of reference.

The strength is that I can begin to read most documents in these languages because it is based on word frequency. I simply fill in vocab only when needed to better understand something. With the idea being that further exposure to new vocab will also be based on frequency, meaning the most important vocab will be remembered faster, compared to less used words.

The difficult part is taking this kind of approach that I’m using for myself for self-taught language learning, and using it to teach a language. I think the challenge of doing that would be quite high because I’m not sure that this method would really work for everyone, it’s simply what I’ve become comfortable with.

I think I can apply some aspects of what I have been doing for myself to a classroom setting. That is: very short exposure to the rules; minimal study for basic understanding; input, partial-output possibly based on mimicking the structures, followed by lots and lots of application, either by reading material, listening to audio, speaking practice, or creative writing exercises, that means finding material or having something worth practicing as motivation for the language. In schools students likely don’t have a choice in whether they learn a language. In Japan, English is part of compulsory education. That doesn’t mean they can’t have a choice in how they study or what extra materials they can use.

I think this basic structure is likely used in a lot of language classes but that the balance is a bit off. More focus is put on memorizing the rules and structures, but there is very little put into genuine input (i.e. input that isn’t awkward textbook style sentence structures) and even less effort put into genuine output (meaning output that is based on understanding and student choice). Students have less freedom to experiment and play with the language. They have less freedom to enjoy the language. I think that is a very important distinction between language study and language learning. I don’t think everyone can be happy while studying (I’m one of the weird ones) but I think more people can enjoy learning a new skill.

I don’t know if I can really change much on my own, try as I might. Students are expected to study hard to pass the tests. Whether they learn anything is by sheer coincidence, or through their own effort to have fun and try to understand what they are studying.

This blogger appeared to have success using a self study method different from what I’ve been trying out, but with the same idea, to understand and absorb.

“After a few weeks, I came up with the idea of using a bidirectional translation technique as a tool for learning a language. The main goal of translating a given text from German into Italian was to understand what I was learning, and the main goal of translating it back from Italian into German was to absorb it.

I started applying this technique on the dialogues and then longer texts of the Italian course according to a precise time schedule, and after 1 and a half years I began to speak with Germans during my holidays in Sardinia. I had never spoken German before. It was a breakthrough, much like the feeling of finally being able to ride a bike without knowing how.

In those 18 months, I didn’t study any grammar rule, didn’t learn anything by heart, used no list and didn’t do any exercise. It was all incredibly natural and consistent.”

While I may not always be a fan of over-translation for learning a language, I think this idea of reverse translation helps keep the focus on the target language rather than changing all of the meaning and thought process into your own native language. The focus on finding interesting source material, and enjoying the process with a short-term objective in mind really helped his process.

Let’s think about this in a different way. Let’s consider how we learn our first language. When trying to teach a language or making the focus on studying for tests, we often overlook how children naturally acquire the rules of a language, specifically when they are very young. Why do we treat our second language (or third or fourth) so differently from the first? Why are we so focused on the rules of the language instead of just letting the language ‘happen’.

I’ve been told that part of the problem is just how Japanese people see education in general, not just English. Everything must have a very clear and precise answer, and there is very little room for critical thinking or independent thought in the classroom.

Students answer questions when asked, but very few are willing to make mistakes, sometimes out of fear of being ridiculed for making them (which is also something that is seen as normal in the classrooms here, it would seem.) It’s a very harsh form of peer-correction, not that peer-correction in itself is necessarily bad, but in combination with all the other factors leads to a lot of silent students.

Students are very rarely allowed to ask questions or try to give opinions or express a different way of understanding while the teacher is talking, except for possibly a final “Any questions?” moment at the end of talking. I’m not saying that they should just say whatever they are thinking whenever they want, but raising their hand to ask a question is rarely ever done.

They also don’t do enough presentations or essays or projects which may also be part of the problem. They are not taught how to develop these essential critical thinking skills.

I think an important part of learning a language is to be able to think critically about the language in order to better understand the language. One must also be willing to make mistakes in that language and then learn from those mistakes. Finally, learning how to self-assess and self-study effectively is just as important as being able to learn in the classroom.

I think I could still focus on this comparison a bit more, but for now I’m out of ideas.

Next time I think I’ll look into ways to improve the ability to use the language both inside the classroom and outside of it.

If you still want to know more about this topic a quick Google search of “language study vs language learning” brings up some good results. And if you don’t trust just Googling something, here are some interesting links related to the subject.  – Learning a second language like our first  – An MIT study about adults learning language as well as children – Studying will never help you learn a language

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