French grammar and the “practice makes perfect” myth

“Practice makes perfect,” so the old saying goes, but it would be more correct to say practice makes permanent.  The quality of your French grammar practice—indeed, practice of anything—is vital because if you’re not careful, you’ll end up making the wrong habits permanent.  In fact, that’s probably what you’re doing every time you open your mouth to speak French.  I’d like to convince you why you should test your French grammar and then practise with good quality French grammar exercises.

Beware of repeating mistakes!
Beware of repeating mistakes!  

Psychological studies have shown that it’s not just how much you practise, but how you practise that makes the difference in your skill level.  As early as 1899, Bryan and Harter[1] established that simply doing something repetitively does not always lead to an improvement of skill, showing that telegraph operators quickly reached skill plateaus.  In 1958, Keller proved that these plateaus were unnecessary, demonstrating that with different and better training methods they could easily be exceeded.  When they practised deliberately, experienced typists and Morse code operators were still able to achieve substantial improvements in their skill level despite performing the very same tasks routinely in their jobs.  Repetition alone doesn’t produce the best results.

More recently, in 1993, cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson went even further.  He published a paper[2] that debunked the idea that people have an innate talent for things and that this is the defining factor in success. His analysis found that innate skills played a far less critical role in the acquisition of expertise than previously thought in many different areas including music, sport and chess.  What did make the difference was deliberate practice over a long period.

You might wonder what relevance this has to learning to speak French?  Learning a language is different to learning to play an instrument after all. Everyone can speak a language, it’s something we pick up instinctively, but only a few people can play the violin.  Whilst this is true for your first language, learning a second language later in life, when the natural language acquisition machinery of the brain has atrophied, is much more akin to learning to play an instrument.  Practising in the right manner becomes much more important.

Ericsson showed that the very best pianists did not move on in their practise when they made mistakes in a piece.  Instead they stopped and practised that phrase until they perfected it. They were at pains to identify their errors and fix them.  Ericsson’s research shows why repetition alone is insufficient for improvement.  Repetition does lead to motor learning, but the problem is that unless one is careful, one ends up repeating—and therefore learning—mistakes.

When speaking French as a foreign language, one of the biggest challenges you face is identifying where you are making mistakes so that you don’t repeat them into permanence.  Since you already speak English, the temptation is to think in English, translate into French in your head, and speak the result.  Often this leads to what are known as transference errors where French grammar differs from English grammar.  I certainly don’t want to discourage you from speaking French at every opportunity.  You need to practise your confidence as well as your grammar and the only way to do that is to speak.

But if you’re serious about improving, French grammar practice and tests are vital so you can find out where you’re making errors, learn how to correct those cases, and then practise the correct forms over and over.  Our online French grammar kwizzes, powered by Kwiziq, will help you not only identify your mistakes but it will then guide you so you can optimise your French grammar practise.

Start by taking our French placement test, which will tell you your level to the CEFR standard.  From there, you’ll be able to drill into more detailed tests at your level.  Our online French grammar quiz is dynamic: the questions change each time, allowing you to practise the underlying patterns.  The system will identify your mistakes and create personalised study plans with links to carefully designed French grammar lessons focusing on the areas where you make mistakes.  This will help you to isolate those errors quickly and genuinely practise until perfect.

Don’t practise your mistakes in French!  Our French grammar activities can help you practise French grammar properly.

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1 William, LB. “Studies on the telegraphic language: The acquisition of a hierarchy …” 1899. <http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/rev/6/4/345/>

2  Ericsson, K Anders, Ralf T Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer. “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.” Psychological review 100.3 (1993): 363.

Author info

Gruff Davies

Despite the very Welsh name, Gruff is actually half French. Nowadays, he's a tech entrepreneur (and some-time novelist) but he used to be a physicist at Imperial College before getting hooked on inventing things. He has a special interest in language learning, speaks five languages to varying degrees of fluency and he often blogs about language learning, science, and technology. As well as co-founding Kwiziq, he is the author the Amazon best-selling SF thriller, The Looking Glass Club and the inventor of the Exertris gaming exercise-bike and Pidgin, a free online tool that makes drawing flow charts and relationship diagrams as quick and easy as describing them in pidgin English.

Comments: 1

Damon

09 February 2017

Hi Gruff,

This is good stuff. My own experience concurs: slowing things down and identifying where they are going wrong, and then addressing those wrongs through properly targeted practice is the way to go. And I like how you use evidence-based studies to make your point. Where you make an unwarranted leap, however, is from the need for deliberate practice addressing weak areas, to the unsupported claim that doing online written grammar quizzes will transfer to significant improvements in spoken French. These online tests lack the full situated context of actual communication with another warm body in real time and space. Furthermore, while written skills may transfer to spoken skills, who has not met a learner whose written skills far surpass their ability to communicate in clear correct English? In short, I agree deliberate practice is necessary, but what is your actual evidence that Kwiziq style grammar exercises actually do constitute an appropriate mode of deliberate careful practice for improving spoken French? Or is your claim only that Kwiziq will improve your written French?

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