The 90/10 Rule

 In Strategies

At the beginning of every semester I usually present this rule, so that my students have a little bit of truth about the subject they are about to take.

I was always fascinated about how to learn faster and more efficiently. As a matter of fact, I’m not completely sure about how to do this for other areas of specialty. However, as far as learning foreign languages is concerned, I believe I am starting to understand it much better.

I always tell students who are trying to become bilingual that they need to keep in mind the 90/10 rule to fully understand that taking a course involves a commitment on their part, just like for any other subjects they seriously choose.

“BECOMING BILINGUAL INVOLVES A COMMITMENT”

I put in bold the words bilingual a commitment because one is connected to the other. It is important to have fun learning a language. It is also essential to devote time, effort and focus, so that you persevere until the end. Do not underestimate down times. They are going to show up sooner or later. Therefore, your level of commitment will make all the difference on whether you decide to give up or to keep going until you cross the finish line.

The following percentages refer to such commitment by the student and specifically to the process of learning any foreign language.

90% OF LEARNING PROCESS10% OF LEARNING PROCESS
Outside the classroom In the classroom
AbroadCountry of origin
StudentTeacher
MonolingualsBilinguals
  1.  Outside the classroom vs. in the classroom

I admit that people learn foreign languages in different ways. And that each person might apply several tailored strategies. In my case I have learned more outside the classroom than within it. And this is a lot to say for someone who makes a living as a teacher…

To put it in simple words, I believe that in the classroom one can see the spark, but, in order to start the real fire of knowledge, it is necessary to take such knowledge and apply it outside as much and as frequently as we can.

This also holds true in my personal experience with both, adolescents and adults learning foreign languages. Their learning process is faster, more intense and long-lasting when the knowledge acquired in the classroom is explored, used and maximized in the real world.

  1. Abroad vs. country of origin

It’s the speed of light vs. the speed of sound. How fast and how far do you want to go?

Would you like to retire and keep saying that “you´re no good at languages? Or would you rather say that you just took a fun two-month intensive Spanish course in Costa Rica and as a result you´re now bilingual?

The principle is simple: the more you do it, the better you get at it. Swimmers swim better when they do it every day.  Do you imagine Michael Phelps winning gold medals without ever getting into the water because he has hydrophobia?

“THE MORE YOU DO IT, THE BETTER YOU GET AT IT”

Of course not. paradoxically some people expect to magically learn a foreign language by just attending a class once a week. A class that, sometimes, is taught in their native language…

  1. Student vs. teacher

The way I see things, the teacher is not the supreme source of knowledge from which all students must drink.  Even more so now in the 21st century. More and more frequently teachers are asked to teach subjects that they have never taught, prepared or learned before and unfortunately this includes sometimes foreign languages.

A school might not be able to afford a foreign language teacher so the principal asks the Math teacher –who spent a week in Cancun speaking English everyday–to teach Spanish, French or German.

But even if the teacher was an excellent near-native professional: motivating, interesting, engaging, it will account for only a small part of the learning process.

In the same way that nobody can exercise for us so that we stay fit, the best teacher can´t study for the student. Students must study on their own and outside the classroom.

“NOBODY CAN EXERCISE FOR US, SO THAT WE STAY FIT”

The role of a teacher is to instigate curiosity, motivate, mentor and advise students in their learning process.  If students don’t learn a foreign language it is not mainly due to the fact that “their teacher was bad”, but rather that he or she didn’t manage to awake that inner curiosity that all human beings possess in abundance and/or the student was not receptive or ready to incorporate such teachings.

  1. Monolinguals vs. bilinguals

With this I challenge my students to become bilingual. It is in a way like starting a business: only 15% (I would say 10% ?) will remain in business 5 years from the moment they open their doors.

Becoming bilingual is the same way, only a minority of students in each classroom will attain bilingualism. And this is normal because it takes time, motivation, energy, money, setting up priorities and, of course, commitment.

Only a small portion (I would dare to say 5-10%) will be able to address me some years later in the language they were learning a few years back.

One aspect that I love about teaching is that I learn a lot from and with my students. I discover new facts, curiosities, culture, expressions and words in almost every class. However, in the end, their learning depends mainly on their engagement level, at least in the age range of the students I work with.

Continuing with the analogy of knowledge as water “You can take horses to the river, but you can’t make them drink”. Meaning that nobody can force anyone to learn something they don’t want to or are not ready to learn for various reasons.

Keeping the parallelism with the title for this post, here I leave you a video explaining the 80/20 Pareto’s principle, which can be applied to many aspects of our lives.

This of course can be equally applied to learning a foreign language faster, more efficiently and in a long-lasting manner.

See you soon Happilinguals!

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