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?


Thanks for the Memrise

“Made it Ma! Top of the world!”

I’m always on the lookout for good language learning tools. And Memrise is my latest *essential* bit of free, online kit. Memrise provides a system for learning by spaced repetition. Essentially you’re asked to translate a term, either from or to your native tongue, and the system waits until it asks you the question again – it could be hours, days, or weeks, depending on how quickly and accurately you answered.

The technique of spaced repetition has been around since the 1930’s, but it seems to have benefited from the app boom of the last few years. There are scads of online and iOS/Android apps that make use of the concept: Anki being another personal favourite.

Memrise, like Anki, just provides the software. The courses themselves – Basic Swedish, Catalan Common Verbs, 15 Giants of Chinese History – are created by users. Anyone can create a list of foreign words, medical terms, or historical facts, that can be plugged in and learnt using spaced repetition.

Memrise uses the idea of greenhouses and gardens – for new shoots (short term memory) and flowering plants (long term) respectively. So far, so slightly twee. You plant new seeds, you water plants before they wither and die, you maintain your gardens, and all the while you clock up points. Utterly worthless, abstract points.

The smartest part of Memrise, though, is its Community. It actually took me a few weeks to stumble across this. This is where the gamification comes in, and it’s probably why Memrise ended up a winner at the 2010 Seedcamp startup event in London.

Via the Community tab you connect to Mempals, and give them High Fives or Thumbs Up. Most importantly, you can see how you’re doing on the leaderboards. This, for me, is where the app went from being fun to addictive. Now I wasn’t just learning, I was trying to rack up enough points to overtake my (new) arch-nemesis, noelmuller. Noel, of course, knows nothing about this. But for a few days I was desperately running through exercises in an attempt to draw ahead of him.

And I did! I made it, all the way to number 1 on the leaderboard! Well, not the *Everyone* leaderboard, just the Cohort version that only shows people who signed up at the same time. But still, I felt a smarmy sense of achievement. Come the next week, and noelmuller (*SHAKES FIST*) had overtaken me again, and now he’s about a hundred thousand points off in the distance, but hey, y’know, I had my moment.

The site has a few small drawbacks. Since the courses are created by users there are often a few errors, but those are generally corrected, sooner or later, and you can always leave a note that there’s an error on a specific phrase. There are user-submitted mnemonics, which are meant to help lodge words in the brain, but I don’t find those incredibly helpful. Perhaps it’s better to come up with your own mnemonics, since the associations need to be personally obvious to be helpful. I also prefer associating physical gestures to help me fix a word in my memory. Yes, it looks dumb, sweeping your arm around the room as you enunciate rummet, but it helps.