Does Practice Make Perfect?
System 1 and System 2 in Language Learning
Everyone has heard the phrase- “Practice makes perfect.” Coaches, piano teachers and professors all love it, but their pupils often shrug their shoulders in disbelief… After all, they’ve all practiced and none of them is perfect! So does this catchy expression hold any weight?
This question is especially relevant to language learners, who yearn for improvement and can easily get frustrated when progress is slow.
How does practicing help language learners? Are all forms of practice equally useful?
Before we can answer these important questions, let’s dive into the human brain and learn a little more about how we learn.
Two Types of Processing
Leading psychologists and pedagogists separate the cognitive processing of information into two categories: System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is the automatic or instinctive way of processing information, and System 2 is the analytical and well-reasoned approach. Although distinct, both systems play equally essential roles in language learning.
If you’re trying to learn a language but feel like you’re going against the grain, perhaps you’re not sufficiently leveraging these two types of processing.
Let’s learn a little more about the dual processing model, and point out a few System 1 and System 2 examples. This will help you understand how learning a language is more than just flash cards.
System 1: Fast and Furious
System 1 processing is all about the facts. Short, one to five word pieces of information are its bread and butter. This system relies on repetition to make processing automatic, which results in quick, easy-to-process outputs.
System 1 doesn’t want to “think” too much about anything. It triggers gut feeling responses: the answer is either the first thing on your mind or it isn’t. Without a perception of voluntary control, this type of processing reminds you that “violets are blue” anytime you hear the phrase, “Roses are red.”
As mentioned, System 1 processing relies heavily on repetition. Through repetitive exposure to a stimulus, the brain builds neurological pathways that lead to an automatic response.
It’s similar to how athletes build muscle memory. The key to success is to get in as many repetitions as possible. This will increase your chances of successful recall and will allow your brain to easily access this information from your long-term memory.
The greater the frequency of repetitions, the higher the automaticity. Repetition is the very essence of successful System 1 processing.
When automaticity is achieved, learners don’t have to “think as hard” to achieve recall. The particular information sought after is ready, the response is accessed quickly, and the amount of mental exertion is minimal.
For any performance-based task, System 1 is at work.
Aside from language learning, there are many real life situations where we have to act quickly and can’t afford to wait for System 2 processing to work out our next steps. These everyday examples prove that it is possible to learn and acquire new skills and show the importance of time and consistency.
Take, for example, driving a car.
Inexperienced drivers, like young teenagers, feel a great deal of stress when performing tasks behind the wheel, such as merging onto a freeway, parallel parking, or changing lanes. But for experienced drivers, these tasks become quite simple.
An experienced driver’s brain defaults to neurological pathways that can mentally take them from the right lane to the left lane in an instant. In a matter of seconds, without deliberate consciousness, the brain quickly says to check the mirrors, signal, look over the shoulder, and proceed gradually to the next lane if the coast is clear. Driving becomes so automatic that the driver can weave in and out of full awareness and get lost in thought about something else.
Typing on a keyboard is another example.
When a student starts learning how to type, knowing where the “Q” and the “L” keys are located is just as easy as finding Waldo in a busy crowd. However, repetition quickly shortens this process to where the user can find any given key without a thought.
An insightful observation from this example is that muscle memory is often quicker than conceptual awareness. For example, most experienced typists would be able to type a letter faster than finding its location visually.
The same is true of language–System 1 causes words to form in our mouth before we are aware of choosing to say them.
Language Learning with System 1
Students leverage System 1 processing frequently as they learn a language. This is often displayed when they’re learning and trying to improve grammar.
As children develop their native-speaking abilities, they unknowingly practice right and wrong grammar techniques. Though they don’t know the actual grammar rule, they learn that “I am” sounds better than “I is.”
However, when learning a second language, people lack that innate “feeling” for what sounds right and wrong since they haven’t been listening to and practicing the language all their life.
So how can a foreign language learner pick up in months what native speakers take years to acquire? The secret is to save time by increasing focus and consistency. We’ll address this later on when discussing System 2.
System 1 processing also enables automatic verbal response.
If someone asks you what the capital of Colombia is and you automatically respond, “Bogota,” then your response came through System 1 processing. You might not know anything else about Bogota, or even Columbia for that matter, but you do have that particular fact stored in your brain (probably from a high school geography class).
The same goes for conversational and language abilities. If someone bids farewell saying, “Have a good one!” and, without thinking, you reply, “Thanks, you too!” then you just employed an automatic verbal response.
You’ve observed and practiced this particular scenario so many times that certain words you hear will trigger an automatic response.
You might catch yourself relying too heavily on System 1 such as when a waiter says, “Enjoy your food!” or someone shouts, “Happy Birthday!” And what is your typical reply?
“Thanks, you too!”
More than likely, the waiter isn’t going to sit down to enjoy a meal, and it’s likely not your friend’s birthday. These mental errors occur when our brain turns to System 1 when it should probably be utilizing System 2.
System 2: Slow and Steady
So if System 1 is the hare, then System 2 is the tortoise. System 2 is slower, less automatic, and more thoughtful. But the process extends further than just producing a memorized fact.
The second system of processing is important for many different functions, including analysis, creative problem solving, and application. When you encounter a cognitive task and want to rapidly spit out an answer but can’t, your brain transitions to System 2 to solve the problem.
Using the pre-developed knowledge stored by System 1 and the information given in the problem, all resources work together within System 2 to produce an answer.
System 2 is crucial for analysis. Unlike its short-tempered brother (System 1), this system takes time to assess facts, locate significance, and make connections between pieces of information. This is where you do your best “thinking.”
With this system, you are able to process information critically in a way that is more complex and offers deeper insights. System 1 concludes that “violets are blue,” but System 2 could lead to understanding the different attributes of violets, such as shape, growing patterns, seasonality, pollination, and relationship with other plantlife.
When our brain kicks into System 2 mode of processing, we are enabled to perform tasks that require creative problem solving. We can tie up loose ends and organize information. System 2 might not be as instinctive, but its results are more detailed, wide-reaching, and personal.
System 2 is where learners find themselves applying previously memorized facts to a variety of situations. Application is one of the most important ways to build skill and proficiency, so System 2 plays a huge role in helping someone progress toward learning a language.
Linguistically, System 2 won’t give you the automatic, quick and short word or phrase that fits best with the situation. But it will allow you to respond in a meaningful way.
System 2 in Language Learning
When language learners rely on System 2 in their endeavors, they become creators in the language. This is done as they utilize stored facts about vocab and grammar, which they previously acquired, to form complex sentences and paragraphs.
This system enables the sharing of genuine comments and engage in meaningful conversation. System 2 processing is key to developing language proficiency, which coincides with the ability to properly navigate new and unexpected linguistic situations.
For example, you find yourself sitting on the bus after a long day at work. As you look around, you make eye contact with another passenger and strike up conversation.
Turns out this man is from a different country. He came to the city to work for a company whose headquarters are near where you live. Not knowing anything about the company, you ask some questions about the industry and discuss the implications of this business on the local economy. Then you chat about this man’s native country and some of the similarities and differences between here and there.
Okay, so that conversation seemed cool and nice but nothing crazy, right? When we break it down, we see examples of both System 1 and System 2.
Questions like, “Where are you from?” and, “Where do you work?” resulted in the man relying on System 1 to answer. He has, guaranteed, answered these questions before. His answers are “pre-learned.”
But as you asked follow-up questions, System 2 took over. Because both you and he have achieved a high level of proficiency in the language, you are able to elaborate on advanced topics. You can analyze and predict the effect of his company on the local economy as well as compare and contrast your home countries.
Operating at a high level, System 2 doesn’t back down when the answer isn’t immediately obvious. It uses previously gained knowledge and experience to search for and assign meaning and eventually come to a conclusion.
The Power of Two
One of the most important language learning strategies is recognizing and troubleshooting our mistakes. It is through our errors that we can understand where we are in comparison to where we need to be.
Understanding the difference between System 1 and System 2 processing is key to correctly identify the root cause of our errors. Did our brain have a solid base of relevant facts but then organize and relate them incorrectly? Or did the facts come in clean but get tossed around unfairly and inaccurately?
Language learners find that even a stellar System 2 can’t produce meaningful and accurate results if System 1 is off.
If your instincts tell you that “you” and “is” should go together, then no matter how sharp your System 2 application skills may be, you are likely to make grammatical mistakes (“you is very nice”) anytime you are talking about someone else.
Errors might also come from not having a functional System 2 processing ability. It requires practice and comprehension to effectively take facts and apply them.
When you recognize your errors, you will be better equipped to adjust and move forward. If you’re having problems with System 1, consider more accurate study and repetition to solidify those new and improved facts. If System 2 lets you down, try approaching the problem again in a different way.
Yes, consistent practice is essential to language learning. Additionally, understanding how the brain works can open doors for effective learning and improvement. System 1 and System 2 processing are both very important in language learning, and there are things that language learners can do to strengthen the speed and accuracy of both to improve their language skills.