Saturday, January 10, 2015

Confessions of a "Fast Learner"

From collection of 85 -eria words
I was always a fast learner. New information comes into my brain quickly and makes connections and linkages that give me insights … at least long enough to take the test, make the grade and then let all or most of it drain away. Over the years, I came to think of my mind as a sponge, soaking up information only to let it flow out almost as fast as it flowed in.

For most of my life, and especially in school, fast learning was enough; I seldom needed the information learned in one class to succeed in the next one, and, if I did, I could always quickly relearn it … and then reforget it.  However, over time I began to wonder why some of my friends and colleagues, who didn’t necessarily display that fast learning thing, seemed to remember more than I did, seemed to be able to recall information they needed to make decisions, understand the workings of things and systems, and even just talk about the movie they saw last month (or even last week, if I’m honest).
None of this caused me any great problems until I decided to study Spanish seriously. For twenty-five years I had been non-seriously attempting Spanish and failing. Adult-ed courses dropped by the wayside like summer flies on a window sill. Spanish books, tapes, CDs, and Internet programs provided me with my own technology timeline leading to nowhere.

I decided there was only one thing I hadn’t tried … language immersion in a Spanish-speaking country. So, I made my reservations and headed off to San Miguel de Allende only to have that illusion pop like a rainbow soap bubble in the sun. Being in a classroom taught by a native Spanish speaker and surrounded by the language in the streets and stores produced no magic. The classroom bored me and the forced efforts to speak without vocabulary to speak with only frustrated me. The streets enchanted me but dropped language into my brain drip by tiny drip without creating a coherence or understanding.

I switched to a tutor who handed me a workbook and led me through charming but largely uncomprehended conversations. I worked the boring workbook. I studied and when I could study no longer, I walked the streets, picking up more disjointed words. I started reading what I could, writing what I could, and endlessly wondering why so very little was sticking … what was wrong with me?

Then, I discovered Google Translate. A more flawed guide to a foreign language you may never find … but it was there 24/7 and it gave me instant feedback. At the time, I did not know how bad it was, I just knew that if I put something into it, it gave me something back, instantly. I started writing sentences in Spanish and putting them into GT. Instantly I could see mistakes … wrong words, wrong pronouns, wrong word order, wrong verb tense … wrong, wrong, wrong!

I fell in love with GT. It didn’t tell me I was stupid … it told me that I didn’t yet have it right and it was infinitely patient while I tried this or that or went off on a Google search to find someone who might have an answer for me. Somewhere in that process, I discovered and fell into a conversation with the developer of that very helpful site. He told me something that changed everything. He said that most students fail to achieve their new language objectives.

OMG!  If most people fail at something … at anything … there is something wrong with the system not the individuals trying to use the system. Maybe it wasn’t me … maybe it was the way I was learning. Maybe school had been one long experience of learning the wrong way. Perhaps … just perhaps ... there might be a better way?

That’s my new quest … and, so far, I’m finding some incredible stuff … stuff I wished I had learned in kindergarten … or at least by grade 2 or 3 … however, at least now I have some new tools to apply to the project of learning Spanish and am developing some confidence that I can reach my objective in that lovely language.

I will be sharing techniques as I learn them and experience how well they work on my own learning project.  Below is the first one and más tarde (more later …. ;-)

FIT: Focused Interval Training* … this is definitely not new but in our over-stimulated, multi-tasking world, it is worth dusting off and applying to anything you want to learn. Plus it’s just about as simple as anything you can possibly do … Set aside a specific length of time for focused learning … 25 minutes, 30 minutes - turning off email, phone and all distractions. Take a 5 minute break afterward. (*also known as The Pomodoro Technique).

There is even an app that helps you do this … 30/30 … here’s a write-up about it ...
Do you ever get lost in a project and wonder where the time went? If so, you should consider downloading 30/30, an app that keeps you on task.
What does it do?
It lets you set up a list of various jobs, each with a designated amount of time to complete them. Start the clock, and when it runs out, it will tell you to move onto the next thing.

Why do we like it?
30/30 helps you focus in a clean, colorful interface that you can control with gestures. Say, hypothetically, you tend to get lost down a YouTube rabbit-hole (not that any of us knows anyone like that). You could say you want to spend 30 minutes looking at videos followed by an hour working on your taxes. It alerts you when its time to move on so you don't waste too much time.

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