Eat the whole whale – one bite at a time

6 June 2013

  Image by eGuide Travel

Everyone is eager to get as much as they can for the lowest price. And for things like bargains on clothing or cars or computers, that’s fine.


But there aren’t any bargains on developing a skill like language. For that you have to pay the full price. However, you can’t ‘eat the whole whale’ at a single sitting and suddenly become proficient; you need to take it one bite at a time over an extended period.


10,000 hours to ‘overnight success’

In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell writes about success. He talks about how the cultural legacy you grow up in, where and when you’re born, and the way you spend your time determine the level of success you can achieve at something.


We have no control over where and when we were born or the cultural legacy we grew up in. So that leaves us with only one thing we can control – the way we spend our time.


Researchers, he said, have agreed on a critical minimum level necessary to become an expert at something – 10,000 hours.


One of the examples Gladwell gives in the book is how the Beatles became world-class musicians. When they were just starting out, they honed their musical skills while performing in nightclubs in Hamburg, Germany, where they had to play for about eight hours every night. That required stamina, discipline and the need to expand their musical repertoire. The thousands of hours they spent performing in Hamburg helped to turn them from just another rock band from Liverpool to – well, the Beatles!


You can’t cram English

A common practice among school students is to prepare for exams by taking cram courses.


Unfortunately, even if they are able to achieve good test results, they’ll have to be re-trained when they continue with higher education or enter the workforce, because they haven’t learned deeply – they’ve just memorized a bunch of stuff to pass a test, and they’ll forget most of it.


Cramming might work if all you need to learn are easy-to-follow steps in a simple procedure that you only have to do a few times.


But cramming doesn’t work for language proficiency. It’s like playing a musical instrument or a sport. You can’t just take a cram course on playing the clarinet and suddenly turn into a master jazz musician. And you can’t take a cram course on golf and wake up the next day with the ability of a Tiger Woods.


You have to practice.


10,000 hours of English!?

No one really wants to think about spending 10,000 hours studying English. And even if you had the luxury of time to spend the next 3 years studying 8 hours a day to reach the 10,000-hour mark, you’d probably go crazy trying it. (But that does explain how students who spend 3 or 4 years living and studying in an English-speaking country become so fluent.)


So what realistic solution is there for working people to develop English proficiency?


A quote from ‘happiness guru’, Gretchen Rubin, shows how we can succeed at ‘eating the whole whale’ – by taking one small bite at a time over a long period.


She said, We tend to overestimate what we can do in a short period, and underestimate what we can do over a long period, provided we work slowly and consistently.


She then mentions 19th-century writer, Anthony Trollope, who wrote dozens of books in his lifetime on top of working a full-time job as a postal surveyor clerk. He did it ‘bite-by-bite’ – by getting up early each day to write and writing while he travelled by train for his work.


Unglamorous frequency

Gretchen finishes the quote with these words: Over the long run, the unglamorous habit of frequency fosters both productivity and creativity.


She’s so right.


Spending time to become proficient in English (or any skill) can be frustrating and unglamorous. Those 10,000 hours seem to take forever!


An investment in English proficiency of, say, a 30-hour course is a good start. But if you don’t keep studying, it’s like putting only 10 cents in the stock market and hoping for great wealth. If, however, you frequently invest small bits of time in the pursuit, over time you can become a very fluent speaker and writer.


How do you carve out 'bites' of time for English?

It’s hard to build any habit, especially the habit of building your language proficiency. A good start might be to follow Trollope’s example and use your time traveling to and from work to read or write or listen to English programmes.


Here’s an article from the ‘Mind Tools’ website with some ideas on how to build a good habit. And I’ll give you another example in next week’s post.


What do you do to build your language proficiency? Share your language learning tips in the comments, or email them to me at






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