Today I’d like to talk about something that I was taught as a student of music that I think could be relevant for language learners. It’s something a teacher told one of my teacher’s who in turn, passed the knowledge down to me.
It’s all about raising the ceiling and raising the floor.
So what do I mean by this?
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that your language ability is a room. The ceiling is the highest potential you’re capable of when the situation happens to be just right and everything is fresh in your mind. The floor, on the other hand, is the worst you may do if things don’t turn out the way you planned, let’s say, for example, the person you are speaking with has an accent you don’t understand or they don’t reply in the way you might have expected, or the environment you’re in is noisy and you have trouble hearing the other person clearly, leaving you at a loss.
When it comes to deciding just what you’ll study, you have two options. You can raise the ceiling or you can raise the floor.
Defining the Ceiling and the Floor in Language Learning
When you look at your language ability as having a ceiling and a floor, the ceiling height is determined by how well you can access the material you already know in a language (your active knowledge in the language) and the floor is determined by your total knowledge in a language (this includes things you know both actively and passively).
Active knowledge in a language is that which you are able to use when speaking or writing without any reference. It includes the words and grammar rules that you can actively recall. Your passive knowledge in a language, however, are the words and grammar rules that you’ll recognize upon hearing or seeing, but may not have come up with on your own when speaking or writing. If you’ve ever had an experience where you found yourself saying “oh yeah, that’s what that word is” or “that’s right, I forgot that’s how to conjugate that verb in that tense”, that’s your passive knowledge at work.
How to Raise the Ceiling
The ceiling, or your active knowledge in a language, is raised by reviewing and further instilling the material you’ve already learnt in your target language. I wrote a post last month covering how to work on the things you already know in a language, but I’d like to touch on it a bit more today. So how do you raise the ceiling?
Give the Material You’ve Learnt a New Context // If you’ve primarily worked with one or two sources to learn your target language, throw a completely different method into the mix. So let’s say, for example, that you’re learning Korean and that your focus has been on working through vocabulary on Anki, studying with Flashcards, and listening to audio lessons on KoreanClass101. For a quick change, try watching a free television show on Hulu or Drama Fever with the subtitles while taking notes on phrases you think will be useful or by jumping onto HelloTalk to chat with fellow Korean speakers. The more places you see vocabulary or grammar patterns pop up, the more likely you are to remember them. Giving your target language a new context can do a lot to help you retain some of what you’ve learnt elsewhere.
Speak Your Target Language // One of the best ways to maintain your knowledge of a language active is to speak it. The improvisation required as part of a conversation will not only help you keep your vocabulary active, but it might also do the double duty of raising both the ceiling and the floor (if the person you’re speaking with helps you out with any corrections). Don’t play your conversations safe, though! To really maximize this language learning tool, make a point of using new words or phrases appropriate to the conversation. It will help them transition over from your passive knowledge into your active knowledge.
Start Reading in Your Target Language // Another way to keep your target language fresh is by reading material in the language. There is a lot to choose from here – you can check out graded readers, translations into your target language, kids books, comics, articles, short stories and even books originally written in your target language. An important thing to keep in mind, especially if you’re not a huge fan of reading, is not to force yourself to read something you wouldn’t read in your native language. If you have no interest in biographies or the news, but you enjoy gossip columns and comics, steer clear of the former and indulge in the reading material you enjoy in your target language. The Language Reading Challenge I’m currently hosting is a great way to get started with this method!
Turn the Subtitles Off When Watching Film or TV // Even if you don’t understand everything that goes on in the film, you’ll find you pick up quite a bit more watching film and tv without subtitles. When we watch tv with the subtitles on, we tend to focus on what’s written and block out part of what we’re hearing.
Start Free-Writing in Your Target Language // One way you can help keep your vocabulary active is by free-writing in your target language. This can take the form of journaling, letters, short stories, poems, etc. It doesn’t really matter and no one else has to see what you write (unless you want them to, of course). Free-writing is a nicely balanced challenge – you have a bit more time to think about the words that you want to use than in a conversation, but you also don’t want to spend too much time thinking about which words you want to use because you’ll lose the flow of writing (and maybe even your train of thought).
Translation // This is another tool that you can use to raise both the ceiling and the floor because even if you can freely translate a good portion of the text, there’s a really significant chance that you’ll need to look a couple things up.
Listen to the Radio, Podcasts, or Songs in Your Target Language // If you need to reference a transcription or a translation of the audio, try listening to it alone at least once, first. After you take a look at the transcription or translation, listen to it again without reading along to see just how much your comprehension has increased. Finally, if you have the time and energy to do it a third time, you can listen while reading along.
How to Raise the Floor
Pickup a Coursebook in Your Target Language // But first, make sure it contains material that is above your level. There are a ton of fantastic coursebooks available in most languages and they often cover a wide range of vocabulary and grammar. The coursebook that I personally enjoy is Assimil.
Use Dual Language Readers // When you’re not quite ready to dive into reading material entirely in your target language, dual language readers can be a really great asset. I personally prefer side-by-side dual language readers because I cannot see the translation just below what I’m reading and I therefore try a little harder to figure it out on my own before jumping over to the next page for the translation, but you can use whatever you’re comfortable with.
Watch TV Shows or Movies in Your Target Language with Subtitles // I have picked up quite a few useful expressions watching film and tv in my target language, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t been watching with the subtitles on. When I watch foreign films without subtitles, I’m so concentrated on catching the things I do understand that I often totally miss new material. Subtitles, however, give me that extra little bit of help that increases the odds I’ll pick up a few new things.
Take Notes // Whenever you’re working with a resource, whether it is a textbook, a course, a teacher, or a podcast, take notes. There are studies that have shown we retain information better when we write it out by hand, and I’ve found it to be true in my own experience.
Learn the Words to Your Favorite Songs and Then Find Out What They Mean // It’s one thing to look up the lyrics to your favorite songs in your target language, but it’s another to spend the time translating them. In addition to being a fun way to learn your target language (and improve your accent), song lyrics often tend to include creative and more colloquial language than sources like textbooks, so listening to popular music can be a fun way to pick up new words.
Spend Some Time with Flashcards // Flashcards are a great way to study new vocabulary and my personal favorite. A few years back I wasn’t a huge fan, but now that I use Memrise and Anki, studying flashcards has become a much more efficient part of my learning routine.
Do you need to raise the floor or the ceiling?
If you find yourself constantly tripping over things that you “should” remember or that “you know you know”, then it’s likely time for you to raise the ceiling. On the other hand, if you find that you have a pretty good recollection of the material you’ve worked on and you’re feeling you’ve hit a bit of a plateau, you might need to raise the floor.
In a perfect world, the floor and ceiling would meet. In reality, we’ll never really be able to actively remember every bit of information we’ve learnt. And that’s totally okay. As long as you have clear goals in mind and you’re taking the steps you need to in order to keep moving in the right direction, that’s really all that matters.
There will be days where we’re frustrated with our progress, but there will also be days where things go smoothly and it makes everything worth whatever frustration we may have felt.
An important thing I’d like to point out before I close out this article is that self-evaluation is an important step to figuring out how you’re going to go about your studies. Having the ability to look at what your doing and take note of whether it’s working for you or not is critical to your progress. If you find a certain study technique isn’t working for you, stop spending time on it and look for a way that works better for you. If you find other techniques are helping you make huge strides in your learning, see if there’s a way you can spend more time on them!
There are, of course, plenty more ways to either raise the floor or ceiling (or to do a little of both at the same time), so I’d love to hear about the ways that you improve your active and passive knowledge in your target languages! Leave me a note in the comments below!
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.