What is better than learning?
My personal motto when it comes to language learning is from a Japanese proverb which I learned when I was in Japan teaching English. It is “narau yori narero” (which can be seen above in Japanese script), and it roughly translates to “Getting used to something is better than learning something”.
But how can this be? How does getting used to something trump learning?
On one hand we need to reframe what it means to “learn”, and by using the frame of “getting used to something”, it adequately describes the process of true learning.
Learning happens when we get used to whatever target information or skill we are aiming to learn.
After all, how many mathematical formulas or history dates have you “learned” in school? How many of them do you still remember without prompting. Even with prompting, I doubt many remember very much unless they were keenly into such-and-such subject and studied it intensely.
The Memory/Fluency Connection
Some will say, “well, this is an issue of memory, then,” and that is true. However, the way languages work is that you need a constant dormant and active memory of vocabulary, their meanings (to some extent), the way they are used, pronunciations, as well as a more ingrained memory of common grammatical structures to be considered fluent.
And so you can study all you want and even memorize a bunch of word lists, grammar structures, etc. But at the end of the day, as any second-language speaker knows, this superficial memorization of the elements of a particular language even isn’t enough.
What’s left that is needed to become fluent in a language is to be able to be used to listening, speaking, reading, and writing in a language. When you can do those four parts of language with ease, you know you are fluent in a language. But you can’t do it just by learning it. Because you will forget it.
Of course to some extent we do forget words or how to say something we want to express, even in our first language. But during those brain-fart or word on the tip-of-the-tongue moments, we would never say that person isn’t fluent in his/her language. Why? Because for the most part they can communicate effectively in that language despite any blunders. And that is the message I want to drive home — learning a language is a skill. Professional athletes might have an “off-day” like the rest of us, but they are still considered damn-good at their sport.
If we can look at language learning in this lens, I think we can tackle the details of language education much more effectively.