Learning strategies for the guitar and ENglish

Learning Strategies: Why learning the guitar is like learning a language

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode that examines the similarities between learning the guitar and learning a language.

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Hello and welcome to English with Stephen. Usually in this podcast, I talk about ways to learn English. This time is a little bit different. I want to talk about ways to learn other things. I believe that the way you learn maths, how to drive or climb a mountain, can all offer ideas for how to learn English.

Learning is learning. There are differences in the details, but the generalities are remarkably similar.

And something I have been learning over the last few months is how to play the guitar. I thought that today I would talk about some of the things that are similar to learning a language and learning to play the guitar. As I tell you my story, I’d like you to think about a time when you were successful at learning something. What lessons can you take from that experience to improve your chances of learning English?

All of that, after this.

Before we start, I’d like to give a shout out to my music teacher Patrick Cardoso. He is a really helpful and insightful guitar teacher. Our classes are in Portuguese, but he speaks English pretty well and if you are looking for a guitar teacher, I would highly recommend him. Alternatively, if you just want some inspiration, you can find him playing the guitar on Instagram as Patrick_Acarodoso. I will also post a link to his Instagram account on my site EnglishwithStephen.com.

And now, let’s look at some of the parallels between learning the guitar and learning English.

  1. Constant practice

I try to do something every day. Even if it is only for 10 minutes. I am convinced that this works for everything, including English. This is the reason I try to keep these episodes around the 10-minute mark.

I could practise the guitar for an hour on Friday afternoon, and then not pick it up again until the following Friday. However, it would probably take me half an hour to remember what I had done the previous week. If I do something every day, it stays fresh in my mind.

  1. No need to master a skill

I don’t need to be perfect at something before I move on. I can come back to it later and often I am better than when I left because of the practice I have been doing of other aspects of my playing.

The same applies to English. You don’t have to master grammar before going onto vocabulary. Learning vocabulary will help your grammar. You don’t need to learn everything about the past simple before looking at the present perfect. Language, like playing the guitar, is a mix of skills that all interact with and support each other.

  1. One thing affects another

Learning scales helps my chords and vice versa. Working on my rhythm helps me when picking individual notes.

The same is true with English. There is a tendency to focus on what we are good at. If we are able to listen well, we want to listen more because we get this sense of achievement. However, working on your vocabulary will have the effect not only of knowing more words, but also improving your listening and all the other skills you need to improve in English.

  1. A little theory goes a long way

The theory of music is kind of like grammar. I have a lot to learn about the theory of music. But I don’t need to know too much to be able to play a blues riff. The more I play, the more I will understand music theory. The more you use English, the more you will understand English grammar. Even if you do not explicitly know grammar, you will implicitly know what is right. I haven’t spent a lot of time studying the theory of music, and you shouldn’t spend too much time studying grammar.

  1. Praise, but not too much

My teacher is ready to tell me I am doing well, and this is important. But at the same time, he doesn’t tell me I am doing well when it is obvious that I have made a mistake. If you have a teacher who is always telling you how brilliant you are, he is probably doing you a disservice. What you need is a teacher who gives you positive feedback.

  1. Nothing is too advanced

My teacher asked for a few ideas of songs I would like to play. I had no idea what was easy or difficult, so I just came up with a few songs that fancied playing. One of them was John Lennon’s “A Working Class Hero”. It is hard. But I had shown an interest in it. And so we worked on it. I still haven’t mastered it. But the skills I learned doing that helped me with other songs.

  1. Celebrate success

You have no idea how happy I was the first time I played Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”. I got the youtube video and played along with it and I was just ecstatic. I know it is a simple tune, but it was the first time I had played a real song at the right rhythm and with no mistakes. I told everyone what I had done and it encouraged me to keep improving for the next few weeks. Celebrate your successes and use them to keep your motivation high.

  1. Self-directed learning

While my teacher is the guide and offers valuable insights and tips, he is happy to receive ideas from me about what I would like to do next. I have also been able to find ideas, tips and songs online to help me improve.

Your teacher is not God. Your teacher does not know everything about you. Your teacher cannot learn FOR you. You have to take responsibility for your learning and decide what direction you want to go in. Then, your teacher can help you reach your goals.

  1. Set realistic goals

I am never going to be the second coming of Jimi Hendrix. Eric Clapton doesn’t need to worry about competition. BB King would be turning in his grave if he heard me murdering his songs. But that is ok.

My goal is not to be the best guitarist ever. I just want to be able to enjoy playing music in my own way. Talk about playing music. Maybe play a few blues jam sessions with friends. Once I can do that, who knows what my next set of goals might look like.

This is true for learning English. Can you really expect to be speaking perfect English with a James Bond accent? Maybe, but probably not. Set yourself realistic goals that you know you can meet if you work hard.

  1. You are never too old

I have had more than one person accuse me of going through a mid-life crisis. That might be true, but I don’t really think so. I was a little nervous thinking that I wouldn’t be able to play the guitar because I am too old. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to move my fingers quickly enough.

I admit that I should have done this when I was younger. But that is only because I have missed out on so many years of playing the guitar. I can do this, I know I can. If I don’t end up playing on stage with Roger Waters it is only because I haven’t had the time to practise.

The best time to learn the guitar, or learn English, was 20 years ago. The second best time is now!

Ok, so that is all from me for today. I have to practise playing Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Don’t forget to check out my teacher’s Instagram page. His name is Patrick Cardoso, but I will also post a link on my site EnglishwithStephen.com. If you go to my site will also post a few videos of songs I have been trying to learn.

Thanks for listening and keep on rocking and learning!

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