Just play the game

You can try and teach everybody to play a new game by having them read the rulebook. But that doesn’t help much.¬†Even with the simplest of games, it is hard to take in all the rules at once. When we listen to the fifth rule, odds are that we have forgotten the first one and have to start over.

Instead, it is more effective to have people play the game and learn the rules as we go along. Once we start playing, the rules appear one at a time and in the right context. This makes it far easier to understand them all.

The most effective way to learn the rules is to merely start. It is daunting to start without knowing all the rules, but it is often the easiest way forward.

Start all over

You are the top player of your football league. Your dribbling is so good, that you can practically dance around defenders and score individual goals. Nobody can stop you. So you move to the next league.

The defenders are now tougher, and you cannot get past them easily. When you try your usual tricks, they fail. So you need to unlearn them, learn how to pass and involve your teammates more. At some point, you get so good at this that you can score whenever you want to. That is when you move to the next level.

At this advanced level, defenders are keen at anticipating your passes, and they shut down your team’s play. You need to unlearn again, and learn something new – to combine dribbling, passing and clever movement across the field.

And then, you need to factor for injuries. At some point, you inevitably get injured. As you recover, your game needs to change to prevent such an injury and still sustain your level. Once again, a whole bunch of unlearning and learning.

The path to mastery isn’t a straight line from beginning to end. Instead, it is made of several circular loops of learning, unlearning and learning again.

The key to learning a new language

We are taught to understand communication as ‘using the right words’.

Our language courses insist on correct grammar, spelling and pronunciation. For every spelling or gramatical error, we are penalized in the classroom and in the examination.

However, on living in Germany and learning German, I have learnt that communication is less about using the right words and more about getting the right response.

When I tell the waiter I don’t want an egg in my ramen, does she understand? When I ask for the toothbrush aisle, am I pointed in the right direction? When I tell my client that their deadline is unrealisitic, do they follow? In all these cases, I receive instant feedback. The person either responds correctly or has a blank look on their face. When I see that blank look (or egg yolk swimming in my ramen), I try again.

Doing this repeatedly is a far more effective means to learn German than to bury oneself in books and grammatical rules. Besides, this is the method used by the undisputed champions of language learning – children. My German grammar is still not perfect. I would probably fail an examination that tested its level of correctness. But that hasn’t gotten in the way of my being able to work, present, negotiate and persuade in the langauge.

The way we were taught language in school is problematic. Only too often, I meet people who have learnt a language in school for years, but can’t use any of it. The classroom approach penalizes mistakes so much that we are conditioned to not use a new language until we are perfect. But language, like currency, is less about perfection and more about utility.

Communication isn’t about using the right words. It is about getting the right response. Sure, those two things are related, but the subtle difference between the two compounds into the large difference between a fluent speaker and a flustered student of a flawed method.