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Language learning is more like karate than math

1 Mar 2011
Become a language ninja! Photo by Joey Gannon.

In school, languages are taught kind of like mathematics, but with letters and words instead of numbers. But learning a language is not like learning math!

Language learning uses entirely different brain functions and requires completely different processes to learn.

In fact, learning a language has more in common with learning karate than studying mathematics!

Read more to find out why!


Calculus is a great example of a conscious skill.

A lot of background information is required to understand what you are doing and why. A complex set of steps must be performed to compute a derivative, for example. You must understand each step, then remember and execute each properly. It is a logical task that is performed consciously.

But when we speak or understand a language, we aren't doing any conscious mental mathematics. It is an unconscious skill. We hear a sound and immediately perceive meaning. We think a thought and immediately produce a sentence to express it.

More like karate!

For a number of years (mostly in high school), I practiced karate. I never got terribly good at it, but it was fun and good exercise.

Learning a language is a lot like training in karate.

You watch the instructor's movements. You can understand what they are doing on a logical level. First, the foot moves like that, then the hand comes out like that, etc.

But when you try to do it, your movements are sloppy and imprecise. Even if you memorize every detail of what the instructor does or pass a written test on it, you wouldn't be able to do it correctly. No amount of conscious knowledge will allow you to perform just like the instructor.

In the same way, no amount of conscious knowledge about grammar will allow you to speak a language!

However, as you train over a longer period of time, you are able to mimic the instructor more and more precisely. It's not because you understand the movements better (although, you probably do!), but rather, it's because your brain is naturally designed to learn physical movements by doing them. It is an unconscious process that happens automatically!

The human brain is also naturally designed to learn languages! By simply communicating in the language in some way, your brain will slowly (and automatically!) develop an ability in that language.

This communication could be speaking, reading, writing or listening. It doesn't matter! But it's best if the content is something you enjoy and it must be something you can understand.

Like training in any sport, you need to do it regularly -- practicing 20 minutes a day is better than 3 hours once a week.

Once you've practiced karate for a while, you can simply decide to perform a particular technique and your body will comply -- completely unconsciously! Just like speaking or understanding a language.


Of course, learning a language isn't exactly like training in karate. :-)

While some conscious knowledge about the language can be helpful - just don't expect it to allow you to use a language proficiently! This conscious knowledge should be a minor part of your study, not the main attraction.

Your main activity should be communicating (either actively or passively) in the language, thereby regularly training the language learning part of your brain.

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