Language structures and the best way to learn

“What’s today?” I ask.

They just stare at me.

“Whatja do for homework?”

They keep staring.

“Ah, come on. It’s Speech Day!”

Every four weeks, I have my students come up in front of class and give a speech. Sometimes, the speeches get interesting. Others are pretty lame.

The deciding factor, more often than not, is how much structure I give the students to work with, especially for the younger students.

For example, I can ask them to tell me about their favorite animal, and that might work okay. But it’s much better if I give them a set structure to follow, something like this:

  • Start – “I will tell you about my favorite animal.”
  • What does it look like? – “My favorite animal has…”
  • What does it eat? – “It eats…”
  • What does it do? – “It…”
  • End – “Can you guess what my favorite animal is? It’s a _________. Thank you for listening.”

This looks pretty boring at first, but from what I’ve seen, it seems to actually get more creative results. Even if students just only to these five sentences, they still seem to inject more of their personality into them than if they had to come up with everything on their own.

The students are able to be more creative because they’re not having to pour energy into thinking about the structure of the speech. The structure’s already given.

And this doesn’t just apply to kids.

I use the same approach when I’m trying to learn new things to say in Korean. Words are okay, but if I can’t use them in context, they’re not much use. Instead, I try to learn phrases, like, “Where can I find…”

I use the same approach when I’m thinking and communicating in English too. I don’t think in terms of words. I think in terms of phrases. Even with those last two sentences (for instance, “I don’t think in terms of…”) are primarily structures. In my mind, the first part is all one piece. I just add the ending.

I used the same approach for school. After a while, I realized that most philosophy papers could follow a similar pattern:

  • Intro explaining what I’m going to talk about
  • Summary of one philosopher’s position
  • Summary of another philosopher’s position
  • Comparison of the different positions
  • Conclusion explaining what I’ve just talked about

If you were to look through my old papers, you would notice they all follow this pattern. I even saved a special document that had this basic outline already set up, including five different headers.

Now, I’m definitely not going to say my papers were the most creative on campus. But I do think I was able to jump into the meat of writing faster than other students. I already had a starting point. I could focus on the content instead of the structure.

Set the structure and then create within it.

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