I recently started reading Scott H. Young’s excellent new book Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career. Though the book is about metalearning in general, it’s loaded with principles that are extremely relevant for language learning. One particularly important concept Scott highlights is directness:
“Learn by doing the thing you want to become good at. Don’t trade it off for other tasks just because those are more convenient and comfortable.”
Or as James Clear (the author of Atomic Habits) puts it in the book’s Foreword:
“Directness is the practice of learning by directly doing the thing you want to learn. Basically, it’s improvement through active practice rather than through passive learning . . . Passive learning creates knowledge. Active practice creates skill.”
Learning something directly seems obvious, but in practice, very few people do. Why? Directness often requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone and into uncertainty and ambiguity.
This is certainly the case for most language learners. Whether studying in a traditional classroom or using modern apps, the vast majority of time is spent passively acquiring knowledge instead of actively acquiring skill. One thinks they are “learning a foreign language,” when in fact, they’re learning about the language in their native language. Instead of immersing oneself in authentic content and practicing communicating with native speakers, time is spent memorizing and procrastinating.
The truth is that you can’t reach fluency in a language unless you actually use it. While a little grammar or vocab study can be a helpful supplement, there is no substitute for hearing, speaking, reading, and writing the language. Take an honest look at how you really spend your time each week. How many minutes or hours are directly, actively practicing the language, and how many are spent in passive pseudo-study?