The Fundamental Theorem of Language Learning

The Awesome Power of a Good Framework

Whether we intend it or not, we all have assumptions about how to learn a foreign language. Sometimes, luckily, our set of assumptions can work in our favor. Sometimes, however, we are going around with ideas that are highly defective - meaning our ideas about how to learn a language are just plain off-base.

Naturally, there's a range of accuracy that can, and does, exist, among us learners.

We can call this set of assumptions about how to learn a language a 'framework.' And having a framework that corresponds very well, or rather, extremely well, with the reality of how we actually do learn can determine just how efficiently we go about this very large task of tackling a foreign language.

If you understand the fundamental theorem of language learning, which I am about to present to you here, you will be armed with an awesome tool can take years off your learning process in the long term.

The Fundamental Theorem of Foreign Language Learning

There are two important parts of the fundamental theorem and I will present them both here. The first part is the theorem itself. As powerful as it is, it can actually be communicated quite consicely. The second part, which is closely related, we can call 'the essential caveat' and it is equally, if not more important than the theorem itself, as far as helping us direct our energies properly.

But don't be turned away by our technical terms such as 'theorem' or 'caveat'. Go ahead and read and I think you'll have a good handle on it.

'The fundamental theorem of foreign language learning' goes as follows:

A language is a system. It is a highly complex system. The end goal of a language learner is to gain mastery over that system. The most effective activities that a learner can do towards this end are to engage directly with this system, in all its complexity, and in its natural state.

And then we have 'the essential caveat to the fundamental theorem of language learning' which states the following:

When dealing directly with language in its natual state, due to cognitive limitations on the learner, essential targets of learning are made inaccessible to him/her.

Because of such limitations on the learner, it is often necessary to be involved in learning activities which only simulate language in its natural state, or for the learner to engage in learning activities with language that has been abstracted from its natural state.

The effectiveness of such learning activities, with all other things held equal (such as the degree of motivation for the learner to engage in that learning activity), can be judged by evaluating how faithfully the activity simulates the complexities of engaging with language in its natural state.

How you Should (and Should Not) Spend Your Time

The real power from the fundamental theorem comes from its ability to steer you to the most effective activities - the ones that will give you the biggest bang for your buck in terms of helping you progress and meet your goals. In short, once you are familiar with the principle and gain experience in applying it, you should know very well those things you should do and those you should not waste time with.

For example, you can make some pretty quick generalizations based on this framework:

Now some of these conclusions may already be evident to you, even without knowing the theorem. But still, it's power becomes yet more apparent when you have to make finer distinctions, or when you recognize how to make significant improvements to activities you are already doing, by adjusting this or that in conformity with the theorem.

The scope of this article, however, is to introduce you to the theorem, and not to begin to explore its huge range of applications in any sort of depth. That very whorthwhile exercise can be reserved for other articles.

Meanwhile, once you continue to digest the fundamental theorem of language learning, sooner or later you will begin to feel its power and see its positive effect on your learning and rate of progress.