How To Learn Anything

Teach An Old Dog New Tricks?

The other night, I decided to go out for a walk. I recently moved to new part of town, and decided to go and check things out. The sun has been setting later and later recently, and I had gotten off a little earlier than normal from work, so I figured I’d just go wandering about and see if anything interesting happened.

The first thing I noticed was this big park on the other side of my apartment building. Bunch of kids playing, lots of toys based on animals. Big gorillas, zebras, elephants that were made into slides and other playground equipment. I stopped to watch, as there were a few benches, and there was this huge grass area adjacent to the playground, so it was a pretty good spot to chill for a bit.

One thing about kids is when they play, they really play. They don’t play, but at the same time worry about their homework or whether or not their shoes really match the rest of their outfit, and if not will anybody notice. They seem to be pre set for a couple things, which seem to be completely opposite, at first glance.

On the one hand, they are pre wired to be automatic learning machines. The amount of things a kid learns between the age of two and ten is simply staggering. If you tried to learn the same amount of information in the same amount of time, you’d be a nervous wreck. They learn an entire language, complete with tens of thousands of new vocabulary words, in about five years. Any that has attempted to learn a foreign language as an adult would be lucky to retain five new words a week.

But on the other hand, they completely forget everything they are “supposed” to learn when it’s time to play. When they see a cool slide or a gorilla swing set, proper subject-verb agreement is the furthest thing from their minds. You’d think that as adults, the extra stress and worry we put into learning new things would help. But it doesn’t seem to. It seems to have the opposite effect.

They say that a kids learning capacity is different simply because they are a kid. That learning a language is easy for kids, but hard for adults, due to some pre wired brain structure due to millions of years of evolution. Some window of opportunity that once is closed, is closed for good. While that’s interesting from an objective biological point of view, it doesn’t sound too promising from a human potential point of view.

This is observable in other animals. Birds will “imprint” to their “mother” within a certain time frame, and they can be tricked into “imprinting” on an imposter if done at the right time. Certain birds learn to sing, but only between two weeks and two months old, and only if they hear another one of their kind singing. If they aren’t exposed to another one of their kind singing during that critical time period, they’ll never learn to sing properly. (Of course when I say, “sing properly” I mean sing well enough to attract a mate.) As for myself, I can only sing properly after sufficient alcohol, and a high-end voice synthesizer, but I digress.

The Jesuits used to say, (and probably still do) that if you give them a child when he is born, he will be a soldier for Christ for life by the time he’s seven. What this really means is that kids can be taught any number of beliefs when they are young, and can take a lifetime of effort to “unlearn” them. It takes a significantly life altering event, to cause an appreciable change in religious beliefs in most people. Not too many people who grow up in strong fundamentalist Christian households decide later in life to worship Zeus.

If I had my druthers, I’d like to conduct a language learning experiment. They say kids can learn languages much better than adults. Two, three, even four languages are a snap for kids so long as they are exposed to them early enough. It is assumed there is some kind of genetic “switch” that makes it harder to learn as adults, but I’m not so sure. Enter my experiment.

Take a bunch of adults, and separate them in three different groups. The first group has to learn the new language the regular way. After they finish their day job, they go to their once or twice a week at some local junior college, and then study the language whenever they have free time. Weekends, during commercials, whenever. These people are only exposed to the target language when they are in class, or they are listening to language tapes, or when (if) they bravely seek out native speakers of their target language.

The second group gets a free pass from work for a year. They are told they still have the obligations as an adult, they have to cook for themselves and maintain their household, but they get a stipend that will allow them to study on their own, along with the use of whatever material they think will help them. They of course, are only exposed to their target language when they organize their environment accordingly. Language tapes, private tutors, whatever they can afford. But when they go shopping, or watch TV, everything is in English.

The third group, I think, would be the most interesting. They are surrounded only by their target language. They never hear English (which in this case is assumed to be their native tongue.) They are surrounded by helpful speakers of the target language who buy and cook all their food (and whatever they want provided they know how to say it), drive them everywhere they want to go (provided they know how to say it), and give them massive amounts of happy praise, including generous physical, non-sexual touching and caressing (like quick back massages and what-not) whenever they speak the target language correctly. They never criticize for mistakes; only give continued encouragement to keep you going. Their only job is to learn the target language, and follow their “keepers” around whenever they go out to buy food and take care of normal, everyday housekeeping matters. And plenty of time for playing, so long as it’s in the target language (video games and what-not).

I think these “experiments” would show that there is a lot more to the change in environment, from child to adult, which makes learning harder rather than some genetic switch that makes it mentally impossible.

Obviously, as adults, unless you are super rich, you can’t really afford to learn things as described in group number three. But you’ll notice some similar advice given by various gurus who teach learning to be successful in any endeavor as an adult.

Surround yourself with people that are already proficient in what you want to learn. Give yourself rewards for every little success, no matter how small. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, and go easy on yourself when you make the “mistakes” that are absolutely necessary for growth and improvement. And give yourself time to play. The only real difference in being an adult rather than a kid is you’ve got to nurture yourself. Try it and what happens.


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