Deliberate Practice for Language Learning: Finding Your Focus

There is a myth in language learning that suggests that the fastest gains in ability will come to those who spend the longest amount of time studying per day.

Dive into online language learning forums, and you’ll see people discussing, debating, and promoting the merits of studying for two to three hours a day, or more.

This myth has a single, major flaw; it assumes that improvement in language learning is based solely on quantity of practice without considering quality of that practice.

Think about it:

Do you think your ability to learn and acquire new information is just as high at the end of a two-hour long study session as it would be at the very beginning of that session?

The answer is no. You’re a human being, and human beings get fatigued when expending effort. Studying a language is an effortful activity, so it’s inevitable that the more time you spend in a single session, the more tired — and less focused — you will be at the end.

And if you listen to psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, researcher of the learning method known as Deliberate Practice, focus is a necessary ingredient for improving your performance in any given skill.

The Importance of Focus in Deliberate Practice

At this point in the article series, we’ve discussed the first three key concepts in deliberate practice: finding a tutor, getting out of your comfort zone, and setting proper goals for skill development.

None of the above will work to benefit your learning, however, if you’re not completely focused when working to improve your skills.

Research shows that people who focus on a skill while they are in the midst of performing it tend to improve more, and faster, over time. As Ericsson writes in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise:

“This is the recipe for maximum improvement from your practice. Even in those sports such as bodybuilding or long-distance running, where much of the practice consists of seemingly mindless, repetitive actions, paying attention [to] performing those actions the right way will lead to greater improvement. Researchers who have studied long distance runners have found that amateurs tend to daydream or think about more pleasant subjects to take their minds off of the pain and strain of their running, while elite long-distance runners remain attuned to their bodies so that they can find the optimal pace and make adjustments to maintain the best pace throughout the whole race.” (Peak, 153, emphasis added)

Like Ericsson suggests here,  if you think that improvement is going to come when you’re attention is unfocused or divided among other things, it’s not likely that you’re going to ever advance to the higher level of skills in your language learning.

But how, exactly does focus help us reach the higher echelons of performance? What does it do for you that makes you better?

Let’s take a look.

What Focus Helps You Achieve

According to Deliberate Practice research, one of the main goals of deliberate practice is to form what are referred to as “effective mental representations”. In Ericsson’s words:

“One could define a mental representation as a conceptual structure designed to sidestep the usual restrictions that short term memory places on mental processing” (61)

In the case of expertise, mental representations are built over time as a reference for expert performance. Effective mental representations create an kind of “expert intuition”—they help a typist know when he or she has hit an incorrect key, help a chess player recognize a classic defense, and help a language learner know when a noun has been declined with the correct case.

The better your representations are, the less mental energy you need to expend in order to perform correctly at a high level.

In the above example, a highly-advanced speaker of German doesn’t run through “der-die-das” tables in her head every time she needs to say “the book is on the table” (das Buch ist auf dem Tisch), she just does it, as if by reflex. Things that take lots of mental acrobatics for beginner learners—like verb conjugations, declensions, and tones—are an afterthought for expert learners, all thanks to effective mental representations.

So, now we know what mental representations are, where does focus come in?

Focus (i.e. attention, concentration) is what helps us refine our mental representations. If we pay attention while performing a skill, we will notice all sorts of small details that indicate whether or not we are performing that skill correctly. With that information, we can then work to eliminate any performance errors.

For example, speaking a language in an unfocused way could result in all sorts of errors (in pronunciation, grammar, intonation, etc.) that never get corrected without outside feedback. And even when you do get feedback, if you’re not focused on avoiding those same errors again in the future, you won’t improve.

Focused language speaking means that you’re present and paying attention to exactly how you are uttering your target language. You’ve presumably spent enough time with the language to know what it should sound like when spoken by natives, so you’re spending all of your speaking time focused on your own speech, making sure it sounds as native-like as you can manage.

So, when you’re working on your language skills, you need to optimize your learning so that you can be as focused as possible during each and every session.

Let’s look at how that’s done.

How to Plan Your Learning Around Your Focus

By now, we’ve established that:

  • Learning and focus are dependent on each other (If focus is high, learning is high, and vice versa).
  • Focus decreases over time as effort is expended

Since studying a language necessitates a certain expenditure of effort, this means that the best study sessions will be as long as you can maintain 100% focus for.

Says Ericsson:

“Focus and concentration are crucial, […] so shorter training sessions with clearer goals are the best way to develop skills faster. Is it better to train at 100 percent effort for less time than at 70 percent effort for a longer period. (Peak, 154). 

So, essentially, if you want to deliberately practice your language skills to the best of your ability, you’re going to have to organize your sessions around the length of your attention span.

Now, everyone has different attention spans. Some of us can sit and study and focus for around an hour at a time. Others for more like fifteen to thirty minutes.

The goal is to find the length of your ideal attention span — that is, the amount of time you can spend completely focused on your language practice.

Start out by working with your teacher or tutor for thirty minute sessions. Pay particular attention to how alert and aware you feel throughout each session, and make changes accordingly. If you feel like you can handle more than thirty minutes at 100% focus, bump your session length by ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Through practice and experimentation, you’ll find what works for you.

How to Stop Your Mind Wandering During Deliberate Practice

Other than shortening or lengthening your practice sessions to coincide with your attention span, there are a few more ways that you can ensure that you’re 100% tuned in during language practice:

Get Enough Sleep – Your ability to remain alert and aware will fluctuate depending on how much sleep you’re getting. Ideal sleep length varies from person to person, but if you can, try to stick to the recommended 8-9 hours per night.

Avoid Distractions – Focus is easily interrupted, so try to set up your usual practice space to be as distraction-free as possible. Put your phone away, or on silent. If you’re on your computer, close all extra browser tabs or instant messaging apps.

Take Post-study Naps – In addition to getting enough sleep nightly, taking a nap after a rigorous study session has been shown to be beneficial to the learning process. In particular, research has found that naps of up to 90 minutes can help tremendously in the brain’s ability to consolidate new fact-based memories.

Learn in Time Blocks – Once you’ve determined the ideal length of your full-focus study sessions, don’t extend them, even if you want to do more learning. Instead, plan another study session for the same length of time either earlier or later in the day. This allows you more learning time overall, without risking focus.

Conclusion

If you want to learn as effectively as possible, the myth that “quantity is quality” is a dangerous one. While it may seem intuitive to think that longer study sessions will lead to the quickest improvement, this does not take into account the fact that we tend to lose focus with time, particularly as fatigue and boredom set in.

The research-backed truth of the matter is that focus is quality, meaning that the most effective learning sessions will be the ones in which you maintain maximum focus. To put this into practice, you’ll need to take steps to optimize your learning sessions with your attention span in mind, and take measures to get enough sleep, avoid distractions, and divide up your learning appropriately.

Once you do this, you’ll have the setup necessary to tune into your “mental representations” of what it feels like to speak your target language fluently and accurately. With greater focus—and more deliberate practice— you’ll be able to modify and monitor these representations, making them more sophisticated and accurate as your expertise increases.

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