How Would Ted Williams Learn a New Language?

Ted Williams was arguably baseball’s greatest hitter. How did he become a great hitter? Let’s see what Mr. Williams himself had to say about it: “And then to practice, practice, practice. I said I hit until the blisters bled, and I did, it was something I forced myself to do to build up those hard, tough calluses. I doubt you’d see as many calluses today. Most players hit with those golf gloves, to begin with, but more important, they don’t take as much batting practice—as much extra batting practice, and that’s how you learn…You see it even it the Little Leagues. With all the regimentation they get, and all the emphasis on playing games instead of practicing, a kid isn’t afforded the time he needs in the batting cage (1986 Williams and Underwood, The Science of Hitting).

It wasn’t only in baseball that Ted Williams saw the necessity of practice: “Look at Snead and Hogan and those other golfers, they’re out there hitting practice balls forever. I’m lucky if I can get fifteen practice swings a day. If I could get an hour’s batting practice every day I could hit .450.” (1986 Williams and Underwood).

Who did Ted Williams admire as a hitter? He considered Rogers Hornsby to be the closest thing to a complete hitter that ever lived. What did Hornsby have to say about hitting? “A great hitter isn’t born, he’s made. He’s made out of practice, fault correction, and confidence” (1986 Williams and Underwood). Williams and Hornsby used to have hitting contests after practice.

What has all this got to do with learning a new language? Everything! A language is not a subject you learn about; it’s a skill you acquire. If you want to learn about language, study linguistics. If you want to learn how to speak a language, practice it. Little Leaguers playing games instead of practicing is akin to language learners engaging in conversation before they have practiced enough to be ready for it. To know that you have to practice a language is the first step. To know what to practice is the next step. There is no more efficient way to acquire a language than to practice the small phrases within the authentic sentences of native speakers.

Ted Williams once said of another player, “He practiced as much and as hard as anybody on our club but he didn’t practice the right way” (1986 Williams and Underwood). To practice a language the right way, you must repeat each small phrase of a sentence until you can say it with the fluency of a native speaker. Imitating a native speaker is best in the beginning. Then work through all the phrases until the end of the sentence, and then to the end of the book, article or whatever text you are using. Then continue to do the same thing with the same texts for the rest of your life and add more and more texts as your skill improves. When a text becomes too simple for you, discard it. But don’t underestimate the value of reviewing relatively simple texts even after you are fully fluent in the language.

Why do I turn to Ted Williams for advice on language learning? Ted Williams excelled at a skill that is, in his words, “the single most difficult thing to do in sport.” (1986 Williams and Underwood). Fluency in a new language is such a difficult skill to acquire that most of us don’t even know anyone who has succeeded at it. We all hear such common refrains as, “I took French in high school but I don’t remember a thing.” Adults who can speak the foreign language they “took” in high school are far and few between because this skill requires consistent, correct practice and most people just don’t have the determination to practice “until the blisters bleed.” That internal desire, that cannot be instilled by anyone but the student himself or herself, is what makes speaking a new language a rare and wonderful accomplishment.

by John DePonte

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