How your brain learns English (and how it doesn't)

I sometimes worry that the lessons I write contain too much information.

"Information" includes anything that can be written as a "rule": grammar rules, explanations of the difference between two words, etc.

It's OK to learn information about English. But it's much, much more effective to become used to English through repeated speaking and listening. Here's why:

Your brain doesn't work like this

Your brain isn't one big container that can be improved just by dumping more information into it.


It works like this

Instead, imagine that your mind has two separate "buckets". 

One part of your mind (the Knowledge section) stores information.

Another separate part of your mind (the Performance section) controls things that you're able to do, like draw a picture, drive a car, or speak a language.

When you learn information about English, it goes into the Knowledge section of your brain. But the parts of your brain are separate. Your knowledge might grow, but that doesn't necessarily improve your ability to use English.


Experience improves performance

You know how to gain Knowledge about English: by reading textbooks and listening to teachers. But how do you improve your Performance?

By listening, speaking, reading, and writing. You improve by doing.

As you listen to natural English, you will naturally start to copy the patterns that you hear, even if you can't quite explain what they mean.

As you speak English, you'll get used to speaking in a certain way. The words will come out more automatically.


Why knowledge still helps

I still write explanations for all of my lessons. Why? Because a little bit of knowledge can be helpful.

When you concentrate hard on something that you've learned, you can temporarily improve your speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

The improvement is only temporary. When you stop concentrating, you'll go back to your old habits. But by hearing and speaking correctly, you can slowly train your Performance brain to continue the new habits.

The important point is to treat information as a tool. Learn some rules, but just a few at a time. Then be sure to practice them until they've become natural to you.


What do you think? Do you agree with my little theory? Are you guilty of paying too much attention to rules and information? Answer in the comments!

  Print this Article