Learning something new

I’m quite a fan of taking up new hobbies.  The last few years have seen me dabbling in tai chi, meditation, flotation tanks, the Japanese dance art of butoh and running, but recently I took up a musical instrument – the thinking man’s violin, the ukelele.

I did once have a go at a musical instrument before.  I was 13 and decided to go to Ray’s School of Guitar.  Armed with my steel-stringed guitar bought largely for the engraved hummingbirds it had up the side, I got as far as doing a public performance of “Leaving on a jet Plane” at the local Police Youth Club before deciding that I was perhaps better suited to listening to music than making it.

However, a strange virtual twist of fate saw an ad for ukelele classes find its way into my email.  Taking this as a heavenly sign, I thought I’d have a crack at it.

Now what on earth could this possibly have to do with teaching or learning languages?  Quite simply, it’s about the importance of practice and repetition.  I sit and repeat my chords and strumming to varied effect until my fingers are calloused, my knuckles bleeding and the neighbours covering their ears, not so much from the sound of my playing as the obscenities issuing from from my mouth as I mess up the “down-up down tap change chord tap down down” sequence for the nth time.  If I just went to classes, then it would take approximately 12 years for me to learn a single song.

How does this relate to language learning?  We tend to practise a lot when we learn something new and as we get the basic skills, this practice tends to lessen.  Now with the ukelele, I’m getting all the parts that I’ll need to do everything within the first couple of months, but this just doesn’t happen with language.  We keep the tricky bits till later on when the students are lazier/more comfortable and don’t feel the need to practice so much but it’s precisely things like 3rd conditionals and modals for speculation in the past that require this physical manipulation and agility that really will only come with practice.

So what’s the answer?  Chuck away the syllabus and introduce the harder stuff earlier on? Do a lot more drilling in higher level classes?  Encourage students to learn something new and draw parallels with their language learning experience? 

I’m inclined to say yes to all of the above but right now I need to practise my transition from G to Bm7b5.  Get out your ear plugs….

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