Types of exercises: Interactive and Solo

Drills and playing time make the superstar
Drills and playing time make the superstar

To succeed at learning languages on your own, you must balance interactive and solo exercises.  I define “interactive” exercises as those that include another person, especially conversing with a native speaker, and “solo” exercises that do not include another person.  If we keep a balance between these two, we will progress quickly as each method builds up the other.

Compare learning a language to training for a sport, where you practice and you scrimmage.  In practice, you work on the fundamentals to ensure that they come naturally.  You train your reflexes to react in a particular way in a given situation.  Practice includes drills.  They can be boring sometimes, but the greats become so because of drills, like Michael Jordan‘s hundreds of free-throws after practice.  When you’re practicing drills, you don’t know how well you’ve mastered skills until you put them to the test, however.

Scrimmages test your skills.  By entering a real-life game situation, you see how your body remembers and applies the skills learned in drilling.  Scrimmages bring constant unexpected elements.  For example, you may have drilled jump-shots, but what about when a guy taller than you keeps getting in your way?  Only by bringing in unknown variables will you see how good your skills actually are.  Moreover, scrimmages bring up situations that reveal weaknesses you may have neglected.  If scrimmage reveals that you never got to take a jump shot because your dribbling was lousy, you know what to practice next time.

Greatness at language-learning requires solo preparation through drills, as well as constant interactions with others.  You have to learn the fundamentals through drills.  The most important aspect is learning vocabulary, but spending time on grammar helps, too.  But you need to enter into conversations; those are our scrimmages.  Just like in basketball, it puts your knowledge to the test in “real time” and reveals weaknesses so you can practice during your solo time.

Here are examples of solo language exercises:

  • Anki (online) or other (paper) flashcards;
  • Reading a grammar book and dong exercises;
  • Computer applications (eg, Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Livemocha);
  • Listening to a podcast or watching a movie;
  • Reading an article.

Here are examples of interactive exercises:

  • Instant message with a native speaker (eg, Skype or italki);
  • Video chat with a native speaker (eg, Skype);
  • Meet up locally with speakers of your language;
  • Daily interactions in the country of the language.

Interactive exercises determine success.  Language-learning usually trains you to speak with native speakers (unless you’re learning a language just to read it), and interactive exercises are the closest to the real thing–if not actually the real thing.  While you need interactive exercises, you can learn languages without solo exercises.  Bilingual people have been learning languages exclusively through person-to-person interaction for millennia.  North Africans learned Arabic without solo exercise when the Arabs arrived; Phoenicians learned Greek without grammar exercises.  We should note, though, that scholars in ancient Babylonia (ca. 2000 BCE) were writing and referring to bilingual dictionaries so they could read Sumerian texts.  Acquiring a high level in a language will likely include solo work, but progress requires interactive work.

Recently, some standard language-learning software includes interactive exercises, but I count interactivity as useful only when it brings in the randomness that scrimmages do.  For example, Rosetta Stone has included classes with an on-line teacher in its language package.  However, the curriculum follows the software fairly closely, so the learner does not encounter the randomness of actual conversation.  In contrast, italki offers the choice to learn from either untrained native speakers or trained teachers.  With the italki service, you can enjoy the controlled environment of a teacher who helps you practice your skills and the random environment of an average native speaker.  Teachers use as much as possible constructions that you know in order not to overwhelm you; native speakers employ the structures that come to mind first and most naturally to him or her.  Both are helpful, but the untrained speaker provides the true test.

I’ve found that I learn the most when my solo work undergirds my interactive study, and my interactive study feeds my solo work.  I study grammar and vocabulary on my own.  Then I have an easier time in conversation.  As I talk, I write down new words and phrases in context.  Then I study those during my solo time.  Soon I master my favorite and most common topics of conversation.  If I do solo work without interaction, I don’t know if I’m progressing.  If I interact without solo work, I progress, but slowly.  With both, I make constant, quick progress.

What are good interactive exercises have you used, my dear readers?  How do you balance solo and interactive exercises?

(Photo credit: photo by Vedia on Flickr.)

One thought on “Types of exercises: Interactive and Solo

  1. I totally agree – solo study and interactive study act in synergy. Solo study (and, to some extent, attending formal classes) gives you the ‘boxes’ (the structures, the systems, the patterns), while interaction allows you to fill them and build connections between them.


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