Monday, September 03, 2007

How we learn

I'm reading a (rather old) book on NLP and stumbled across a nice summary of the four stages of learning:

1) Unconscious incompetence - you don't even know what you don't know
2) Conscious incompetence - you're learning, but you realize you've got a ways to go
3) Conscious competence - you know what you're doing, but you really have to think about it
4) Unconscious competence - you don't know what you're doing, you just do it automatically

If you're looking for a way to spend an afternoon, try to tie your shoes one step at a time. When that doesn't work, see if you can do it in one automaticized fit of tying your shoes, or if thinking about the process has temporarily disabled your shoe-tying abilities.

This is the name of the game, of course, for language learning. If you handed me a text in, say, Swahili, I would be literally clueless about what it said. In time, with study of the language, I might recognize some word endings and beginnings. Maybe, knowing about the phonetic system, I'd be able to pick out some Arabic borrowings. But I'd still be in rough shape. Later, I'd be able to function in the language, but still with a sense of terror that somebody might start speaking to me too quickly. Finally, with enough practice, I'd use the language the same way I use French: there would be lacunae in my knowledge, but I'd use that large slice of the language I did know with reasonable ease and competence.

The hard part for language learners is finding the quickest way from steps 1 to 4. The harder part is accepting that they're there. All the time, I see adds about "downloading a language to your brain" or "learning the natural way" or "start speaking tomorrow." The methods involved all may have their utility, and they may all get you to your goals in due course, but there's no such thing as learning a language - or anything else - fully formed and ready to go.

What's really important for language learning, though, is unlearning and relearning. This means going from step 4 back to step 2 with the simplifications, generalizations and misunderstandings that popped up in your earlier learning, then, once you've mastered being totally flummoxed by something you thought you knew, relearning it the right way until the right way comes naturally.

I think the unlearning and relearning part comes in for inadequate attention. The truth is that a natural method - one that replicated how we learn our native language - would have this, because as small children, we get by with all sorts of things that the grammar school teachers are left to sort out later. It would be too much to learn it all at once; we'd never get to talking at all. We should be prepared for this in our second (and third and fourth and so on...) language learning as well, because we often waste time and discourage ourselves by trying to get things right that we aren't really ready to get right because we don't have enough of a feel for the language yet for the exceptions to the rules to have a logic of their own.

All of this is by way of saying that if you're having trouble learning a language well, learn it poorly. Ignore the foolishness about having your language forever messed up if you don't learn it right the first time. If that were true, no one would ever get past mama and dada, because they'd be afraid of ruining their chances with their native tongue the first time they tried to actually conjugate a verb or put the components of a sentence in the proper order.

There are a lot of ways to structure your learning. Some people like to talk right away. Others like to wait. Some like to read and write first. Some prefer to talk, even if they'll be baffled the first time they encounter the new language in its own writing system. One thing applies to every method, though. Sooner or later - sooner, if you're honest with yourself - you're going to find yourself saying, "Well, I'll be... I never realized that." That means that for that one problem at least, you're on your way to conscious competence. It also means that you've learned enough that you're ready to start unlearning. And that means, strangely enough, that you'll probably reach full competence just about the time that you've forgotten more than you ever knew to begin with. :)

So learn, read, talk, listen, speak - do whatever it takes to keep yourself exposed to and learning your language. Because until you've been at it long enough to have mistakes to unlearn, you've got a long ways to go.



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