Slow Learning

Dilatory Autodidact TY SwedishLast week I finished a protracted slog through the pages and exercises of Teach Yourself: Swedish.

“That took a while,” I thought, as I marked the textbook completed on Goodreads. (Yeah okay, logging textbooks on Goodreads, you got me. TBH if they were printed with an ISBN I’d probably have a Goodreads shelf of takeaway menus.)

In fact it took more than “a while”. The start date was March 2012. Back when we lived in Amsterdam. 3.5 apartment moves and five years ago.

FIVE FRIGGING YEARS. (Nothing against the book, it’s fine. Serviceable. Okay.)

I’ve always been a sucker for the stoic will-to-mastery of autodidacticism. Or rather for the *idea* of it.

Self-motivated, me-powered learning! It’s a daydream, one of those poisonous momentum-sapping ones where the fantasy gives a watered-down version of the satisfaction you’d get from the actual achievement, hobbling any real progress. Because that’s the only languge exercise book I think I’ve ever finished.

And language apps are handy, since they’re always pinging at you from your handset. Addictive when they get the gamification right. IMO yer Memrises and Duolingos are lacking, pedagogically speaking: TBH I’ve found them best for building vocabulary,  but the grammar doesn’t stick.

When it comes to educating humans, nothing beats another human.

Deploying that slowly-absorbed book-learning, that app-jacked rote learning, in conversations with Real People. Or signing up for lessons, group or one-on-one, where it’s harder to skim over exercises, or worse, let them slide. For, say, five years.

In truth, it’s a mix of inputs that is best. Practice in the wild is always critical, courses are great. TV, radio, films, books and podcasts too, though they’re best absorbed with some attention, even if intermittent.

The apps and lonely exercise books of the self-learner have their place too, whether it’s by providing new vocabulary and grammar to test out, or explaining the why behind language you might already be using.

But ivory tower learning in solitude just makes the whole process needlessly hard. It’s like training for MMA with shadow boxing only – how much training would you feel was enough before you ever stepped into a cage?



Reading Quality, Attention and Speed


This weekend, a couple of lifelong bookworm friends expressed deep surprise at the number of books (nine) that I’d got through while on a two-week holiday – and given that the list included Moby Dick and The Luminaries, their surprise was slathered in a liberal coating of incredulity.

I protested that Melville, Catton and Knausgård were counterbalanced with slighter volumes from Le Carré, Egan (…Goon Squad) and deWitt (The Sisters Brothers). Jeez, there was even a comic in there: Image Comics’ superbly creepy Revival: Vol 1. Each of the slimmer tones was done with in 24 hours, whereas M. Dick and The Lum’n’ries each soaked up four days.

There was still a suspicion that maybe I hadn’t really been reading, that maybe I hadn’t taken so much in. But I’d tried to read Moby D. before – this was the first time it hadn’t bludgeoned me into bored submission. Attacking it in a sustained push was the only way to maintain my interest, especially through those long chapters on the history of fishing or the biology of whales (Melville, dude, it’s not a fish).

And this was on a holiday with the luxury of 6+ hours per day devoted to reading. No kids in tow, no cities to explore, nothing better to do but lie on the beach / on a rock / in bed and read. Part of m’learned reader-friends’ disbelief perhaps stems from their being parents to 1x toddler and 1x newborn. I’m guessing it’s been a while since they’ve had time to read more than two pages in a row.

The quality of our reading is so context dependent. After the holiday, I picked up A Tale of Two Cities. I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Dickens, have always found him ruthlessly entertaining. But AToTC? Sweet Moses, it was like taking Valium after eating an entire roast turkey. Dull, dull, dull. Pages turned at a glacial rate. At one point I began to fear that I’d still be reading the book on my death bed.

Context is important. And multi-tasking is bullshit. Reading with a TV on in the background is impossible. Texting while driving is worse than driving drunk. Playing Angry Birds while making sweet, sweet love will in 99% of cases result in relationship termination.

Earlier this year a slew of speed-reading apps seemed to hit all o’ the app stores, most based on the slightly silly idea of flashing up one word at a time. While it’s possible to parse sentences passing by like this, the concept seems problematic at best. It requires intense and unbroken concentration on the words zipping by – “unbroken concentration” hardly being synonymous with smartphone use. Furthermore, every word is shorn of any context beyond the sentence fragments that remain in one’s working memory. It’s impossible to go back to the top of a paragraph, say, to reinforce the initial point being illustrated, or to clarify an earlier statement in light of what followed. Comprehension plummets.

While this kind of enforced speed reading – speed reading with one’s mental hand held steady – might just about work for short news articles, it seems sorely limited for anything else. Rather, it seems like a pointless answer to a question that wasn’t worth asking.

Of course, this is what my friends were driving at – if I read so many books in such a short space of time, was I really taking them in? But like I say, with acres of time devoted to that reading, it was probably some of my best quality reading in months. I wasn’t skimming every third word. And I didn’t even have to use a specialist word strobe app…