Why language learning is like being a plate spinner
When we talk about the process of language learning with our learners, we often refer to the concept of a plate spinner. We use this metaphor because we think it captures very well the process of language learning.
The problem with the ‘house metaphor’
Some think of the process as building a house (laying a solid foundation, adding brick upon brick, adding new floors on top of each other). The problem with this notion, is that it assumes that you need a solid and sturdy foundation before you can add any more on to it (to prevent it from coming crashing down).
And what this usually means, in practical terms for language learners, is a sense that they must remember everything they have learnt so far, in order to move onto something new. “I don’t dare to start a new chapter, because I cannot immediately recall everything I learnt in the previous chapter.” This, we believe, is not a useful language learning strategy. The learner will develop unnecessary anxieties relating to short-term memory failure, and an impossible ambition to be able to recall every single word in the new language vocabulary (often without any context). A bit like a computer.
The Plate Spinner
Instead, a much more constructive analogy is that of a plate spinner. The plates can represent the different language skills (speaking, reading, listening, writing, grammatical knowledge), and the spinner is the learner.
The goal is to spin all the plates as evenly as possible, at the same time. Of course, sometimes a plate spinner may focus on one or two particular plates, which results in another plate beginning to slow down and wobble.
But the plate spinner turns their attention to that plate, gives it a little bit of a spin to stabilise it, and things are ok again. And it is ok for plates to be a bit wobbly sometimes. It may just be because you have focused hard on something else for a while.
All you have to do is to identify the plate (speaking, listening, or whatever it may be), give it a bit of a spin, and just keep on going. As long as all the plates are spinning in some shape or form, then things are going just fine.