The number one mistake adult people make when it comes to learning

Apr 27, 2016 | 2 comments

Do you ever feel like you know a lot about something, but when you put it into practice, it somehow doesn't work? You can explain how to use each and every one of the English tenses; but when you try to tell a story, you struggle to put all the verbs into the correct forms. Filling in those gaps in a grammar exercise is no-brainer for you, but when you talk to someone, your English doesn't sound and feel completely natural. You do well in tests, but when you’re supposed to talk to a real person, you panic.


Do you ever feel like you know a lot about something, but when you put it into practice, it somehow doesn’t work?

You can explain how to use each and every one of the English tenses; but when you try to tell a story, you struggle to put all the verbs into the correct forms.

Filling in those gaps in a grammar exercise is no-brainer for you, but when you talk to someone, your English doesn’t sound and feel completely natural.

You do well in tests, but when you’re supposed to talk to a real person, you panic.


This problem is pretty common.

If you’re like most people, your reaction to this frustrating stage of learning is either to give up, or to sit down, open a book and learn, learn, learn.

Before I began to understand a little bit of how human mind works, my approach used to be the same: sometimes I gave up; and sometimes, when I wanted to get better really badly, I would torture myself by hours and hours of drills and exercises.

“Practice makes perfect” was my mantra.


Well, now I know I got it all wrong. Firstly, there is no such thing as “perfect”. It’s just an illusion that steals all the joy out of the learning process, and feeds that dangerous “never good enough” feeling inside of us. So screw being perfect!

Let’s just say practice makes better.

And secondly, there’s a problem with the term “practice”: I used to believe that I needed to do more exercises, take more courses, write more essays, and things like that, and then, after an appropriate amount of hours spent practicing, one day – voila – I will be good enough to actually talk to people.

But it doesn’t work that way. This kind of practice is just one small part of what you should be doing if you want to master a language (or anything else). The rest can only be found, metaphorically speaking, outside of your study room. The scary truth is that you have to close your dictionaries and textbooks, and take the language out there into the real world, BEFORE you are ready.

Without this kind of practice, you can’t get better.

It may sound like something everyone knows, but not many people do it. One of the reasons is obvious: unlike children, we adults would do anything not to look stupid in front of other people. Therefore, using the language you are not confident in, in public, takes a lot more courage than studying on your own and waiting until you are ‘good enough’.


But what we do when we try really hard to learn something is actually slowing the learning process down. No matter what your parents and teachers told you about learning, you have to take breaks often, you have to have fun, and you have to close your books and go outside in order to learn more effectively.

And most importantly, you have to use what you’re learning, even if you suck at it. In the real world, no one will give you a bad mark or laugh at you; people are kinder than you expect (and mostly they’re too busy thinking about their own insecurities anyway).


Why does it work this way?

There’s real science behind why we need real-life practice in order to master a language. But you don’t need a degree in neuroscience to understand it – knowing just a little bit about how your brain works can make a real difference in the way you learn and help you get better results faster.

Let me explain that bit and see for yourself.


So, our minds operate in two fundamentally different modes: one mode is focused, and the other is relaxed. There are different terms scientists use to describe it, but I will go with Barbara Oakley, who talks about this concept in her book, A Mind of Numbers, and use the terms diffuse and focused modes of thinking.

I know that it all sounds a bit esoteric, so let’s use an analogy:

When you look at this picture, you can recognize the points – you can see them clearly, right? Yet, the picture doesn’t make much sense.

focused learning


That’s the focused mode. We use it when we fully concentrate on something, like learning new words from a vocabulary list, or filling in a grammar exercise.

In this mode, we use connections that already exist in our brain to figure things out.


Let’s go back to the picture. When you look at it from distance and see the whole image, you recognize that in fact, it’s a portrait of Jimi Hendrix.


This represents the diffuse mode.

You can see the big picture, but the details aren’t so clear. They don’t have to be, because our mind can presume many things and make sense of the whole picture, the general meaning of it.


We are in the diffuse mode most of the time – when our minds wander, when we relax, or when we do things that don’t require our fully focused attention – things like talking to someone (you don’t examine every word you say), reading for fun (again, you don’t pay attention to all the details like syntax and word choice, you just process the general idea), walking in the park, exercising, or daydreaming.

In this mode, we sort out our thoughts, make sense of unfamiliar things, and we get new, original ideas.


We are always either in the focused or in the diffuse mode – we never have access to both modes at the same time. By switching between the two modes, we learn, or, in other words, our brains create new connections.


Now, what would happen if you tried to understand the pointillist painting (like the Jimmy Hendrix portrait) by looking at individual dots, one at a time, and never seeing it from distance?

You wouldn’t have any chance to make sense out of it.


That’s why learning from textbooks and vocabulary lists alone doesn’t work. The brain needs to switch from one mode to the other to create the connections.

Also, when you study grammar rules and phrases out of context, you are always too close. You see the linguistic structures in details, and you think you understand them, but you can’t connect the dots, and your theoretical knowledge seems to betray you when you are forced to zoom out and use it.


Why aren't you fluent yet? You may be trying too hard.Click To Tweet


Solution? You have to step back and look at the bigger picture more often:

  • Take a break and do something completely different, and/or
  • Stop looking at the language so closely and observe it in its “natural habitat”, see the whole living creature, not just details. And not just observe it, but interact with it as often as you can.


Of course, grammar rules, new words, and phrases are crucial. They are the points in the painting, and without them, there would be no picture. You need both modes: You need details, but you also need to zoom out and look at the language through wide angle lenses. And you have to do it often.



What does it mean to zoom in and out while learning a language?

Examples of focused mode activities:

  • drilling consonant and vowel sounds
  • doing grammar exercises
  • learning vocabulary from vocabulary lists


Examples of diffuse mode activities:

  • drinking in a bar (and talking, of course!) with native speakers
  • hanging out on social media
  • listening to podcasts
  • reading blogs
  • journaling
  • watching movies and TV shows


Now, be careful here and make sure most of your diffuse mode activities aren’t passive. You can’t find your voice just by listening to others. Like in your creative life, you have to create more than you consume (here, creating = speaking and writing).

That’s what I meant by interacting with the language creature.


Anyhow, you can see that traditional classes are based almost exclusively on the focused mode activities, and that’s the problem. They show you all the details, but never the whole picture. That’s why you can’t really use what you think you understand well.

But now that you know it, you can take your learning into your own hands and incorporate “zoomed out” activities into your learning; and not just sometimes, but a majority of time.

Remember: Learn a little, use it a lot. Do not learn a lot and never use it.

Also, if you happen to be a teacher or an online course creator, do your students a favor and make sure they can also see the big picture, not just the details: encourage them to experiment, help them use what they’ve learnt in real-life environments, and remind them to take breaks and have fun.


How do you access the modes?

Luckily, we aren’t dependent on waiting for the focused mode to knock at our door. It doesn’t work this way. We can plan it.

In fact, the more we plan, the more advantage we can take out of switching between the two modes.

You can only be in the focused mode for 20 – 25 minutes (or less!), so planning a 90 minutes intensive grammar drill is waste of time. You won’t learn more in more time.

Instead, learn in shorter, digestible chunks. When creating your study plan, do not include just focused activities, but also more relaxed ones – activities that keep you in touch with your target language, but not in an “academic” way:

Close the book and forget about learning. Take your new knowledge outside (I mean, online). Talk to people, use what you’ve learnt, put yourself out there.

Nowadays it’s easier than ever, no matter where you live.


Also, I cannot stress this enough – make sure you really use the language, don’t just consume it passively.


Shift between focused learning, diffused learning, and take a lot of breaks!

Go for a walk. Exercise. Stare out of a window. Turn the laptop off for a while. Or even, you know, check out that Instagram feed.

It may sound counter intuitive, but you will actually learn things faster.

Provided that the breaks are planned and you stick to that plan. An unplanned visit of Instagram can result into an hour of procrastination, but when you plan it and really go back to your work after 10 minutes, it will even help you focus, understand, and remember what you’re learning better.


To summarize how focused and diffuse modes can help us learn a language more effectively, here are the key tips:

  • plan your learning
  • when designing your study plan, make sure that most of your study time is filled up with real-life assignments: learn a little, use it a lot
  • learn in short chunks, max 25 minutes of focused activities
  • if you need to learn longer, take a 5-10 minutes break every 20-25 minutes
  • eliminate all distractions during this focused time
  • don’t force your brain to concentrate longer than 25 minutes without taking a break, it doesn’t help you understand and learn
  • a break doesn’t have to always mean leaving what you’re trying to learn; switching to a more “relaxed” activity (like speaking, free writing) works too
  • make sure most of the time you’re looking at the bigger picture – you’re in touch with the real language – and then also make sure most your learning activities require you to take action (create more than you consume)
  • when you are “zoomed out”, details aren’t so important (-> don’t let perfectionism prevent you from using the language, even if you risk making mistakes!)


What do you think? What can you do right now to see the bigger picture of what you are trying to learn?


Title image: Feminine Stock

Jimi Hendrix image:”Jimi Hendrix – Pointilism” (CC BY 2.0) by J Wynia