Learning language

7 billion people in the world, uncounted words to read and listen to. Lots of the words are English – far more than I could hope to slurp up in eighty or ninety years. Far more are in other languages. I’ll return in later posts [EDIT: Hold me to that, please] to the question of which words to pay attention to. The Big Selection Problem, content overload, is one of the more compelling questions for curious minds, ever more so with our increasing access to stories and studies and blogs like mine.

Today is about learning languages. Speaking multiple languages is one way to be smarter – this NYT article says it fights Alzheimer’s and improves children’s ability to sort colored shapes. Cool.

Even if you aren’t a professional block sorter, the research seems to show your brain grows more robust when you learn to switch between different languages. On top of that, multiple language proficiency has become a big ol’ status indicator with real career implications. Plus it is fun and cool. Travel and stuff. Seems like the reasons in favor are overwhelming. 

But it’s hard! It takes time you don’t have, energy you can’t afford, and who’s to say if you could even do it, even if you decided that you wanted to? And don’t you lose the ability to learn language once you get old and start reading blogs?

I took Spanish in high school and did okay. I wanted to keep going with it, but didn’t have people to practice with or any particular goal in mind in terms of fluency. When I went to Norway last year (spring semester ’13), I picked up enough to follow a few conversations, but not hold one myself. I felt bad, but everyone spoke much better English than I spoke Norwegian, and it seemed much more important at the time that we communicate than that I painfully practice my pitiful language skills. In retrospect, it was a huge missed opportunity! Although, if I had my choice, maybe I would pick a language with more than 5 million speakers…

Thankfully, technology.

I started with Duolingo about a month ago, and I’m at level 6 in German. Where that actually places me in my learning, I don’t know – I know a couple hundred words, probably. Still, it’s free and fun and simple and it only takes ten minutes a day, and I have learned words that I certainly did not know before. Learning a whole language will still require tons of time and effort, but it somehow feels manageable – it’s just a quick lesson. Just a bite-sized chunk of time. I can handle that. I can make that a habit. It helps that I have friends registered too, so I can compete with them and reinforce my learning socially.

This will be a recurring theme. Technology makes it easier to put massive hours into learning. Whether it is e-readers or apps or that thing that blocks facebook for you, it’s all getting easier and closer. It’s okay to feel intimidated, right?

I can’t tell yet if I will learn a whole language for free online, but I feel more excited than scared about it.  Language learning seems like a thing that the internet should be able to do. Das Internet ist gut. Lernen ist gut. Zusammen sind sie wunderbar!

Auf Wiedersehen!

P.S. Let me know how you like your posts – quick and topical, like this one was (sort of), or meandering and journally? I am definitely planning on including  tools like Duolingo that you might not have known, which are making the world a more fun place to learn. Let me know what you think! It’s your blog too!

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Learning Habits

I had excellent teachers throughout my K-12. I remember hearing from several of them, at different points in my young learning career, that what mattered about the schoolwork I was engaging in at the time was not the content itself, but the habits I formed by working diligently as I was assigned. While I have since come to disagree with that justification for assigning otherwise meaningless work, the implicit principle still seems valid.

Habits are the key.

In my first post, I started the idea that learning is the way we become who we are. I won’t waste your time with a bunch of baloney speculation on what exactly makes up our identity as individuals – better writers than I have stabbed at it and come closer than I would. Suffice it to say that habits are some significant fraction of our daily actions, and worth shaping. Learning the meta-skill to develop the habits I want on demand is a top-priority long term learning objective. Some habits I am currently working on (I will try to keep you up to date on the interesting ones, fans, if you want. lemmeknowinthecomments.)

The world (read: internet) is full of advice. Advice animals, thought catalog faux-wisdom, the next thing-you-won’t-believe on buzzfeed or Huffpost or Cracked what have you, or the life-changey wisdom we see on TED or Medium or my blog(hah). Some of the insights seem at first to be crap and turn out to be nothing more, some seem actually inspiring or wise or faking it well, but rarely if ever does any of it actually change the way we act.

Instead of just sharing the things I like and ignoring the things I don’t and staying who I am no matter what I see, I want to build myself an effective wisdom-filter. I want to be on the lookout for things that I can actually use, advice that will change my habits. I am trying to grow my spidey-sense that will warn me of wise-sounding but unhelpful advice and other insight, so I can stop wasting my time feeling good but not changing. There are some things that are worth absorbing for their content – knowledge of interesting subjects is inherently worthwhile. But I’ve only got so much time, and there is a lot of internet out there. The most impactful content empowers me to develop good (useful, powerful, smart, time-saving…) habits.