The First 20 Hours

I recently ran across The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!
. In the last few years, with books like Outliers: The Story of Success
, we’ve gotten fixated on things like 10,000 hours to perfection. But what if you just want to be good enough? If you have a job and have a life, the odds of scratching up 10,000 hours to become a virtuoso is problematic, especially if your area to perfect and your career aren’t in perfect alignment. Kauffman points to research that’s a little more hopeful: If you want to get started speaking a language, playing an instrument, programming computers or whatever, 20 hours is enough of an investment to start to know your way around and decide how much more deeply you want to go and whether you want to keep at the whole field of endeavor or just work on areas of particular import to you. If you’re learning guitar, you might want to learn (the inevitable) Stairway to Heaven, or maybe Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. But nobody would plan to play both after six months, at least not outside the basement rec room. That said, you might learn enough to make a fool of yourself at a party in fairly short order. Likewise, 20 hours of sketching won’t make you Picasso, but you may well learn enough to do a respectable portrait.

With respect to language learning, the 20 hour time line strikes me as interesting. It is said that they did about 20 hours of recording over two days to create the 8 hour Michel Thomas courses (closer to 15 if you actually use the pause button per the instructions). A level of Pimsleur is also 15 hours. Assuming half an hour a day, you’re up to lesson 40 (one week from the end of the passive phase in many courses) with Assimil. In other words, if you want to learn your language with Pimsleur or Michel Thomas, you’re going to need to invest another 5 hours in something else to put together and activate what you’ve learned. With Assimil, you need to stick with it to the end of the passive phase. After that, you can decide, but before then, if you’re not convinced this new learning project is going to work out for you, don’t worry about wasting your time because you’ll never find 10,000 hours to learn anyway. Find yourself another five to ten hours and that language might start to make sense after all.

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Learning Like a Child – Japanese

I’ve written in the past about learning like a child and the problems that exist with taking this approach with adults. That said, I recently discovered upon something novel and worth having a look at if you’re learning Japanese. The book in question is Real Japanese: Learn to speak the same way Japanese kids do! (Japanese Edition)
. What it offers, in a nutshell, is everything the author’s daughter said between the ages of 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 with explanations of the grammar or how the structure used foreshadows grammar yet to be learned. As a result, you can make sense of the Japanese language in the same way as a child, but using your adult brain to take things in more quickly and systematically. If you’re interested in how Japanese works or how children make sense of language, this is a fun book to look through.

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Learning to Read Chinese Characters – Another Resource

This weekend, browsing in Barnes and Noble, I ran across Traditional Chinese Characters: Learn & Remember 2,193 Character Meanings by Alan Hoenig. There’s a simplified version as well. In both cases, the introduction acknowledges a debt to Heisig’s Learning the Kanji, and the debt is pretty profound. That means if you like Heisig’s approach, these make for excellent books. The thing I like about Hoenig is that he feels a little more streamlined than Heisig. You spend less time memorizing stories and the focus is more on how the elements of the character fit together. If you want to start knocking off characters for reading recognition quickly, this is great as long as you start putting it to use before you start forgetting the associations (as they aren’t as strong as Heisig’s, but also might not take as long to assimilate).

One really nice thing about these books, a production of EZChinesey.com, is that you can find out if they’re right for you before you buy. Go to the website and you can download a PDF of the pages covering the first 100 characters or so. If you find it working for you, buy the book from Amazon. If you don’t, all you’ve invested is a little of your time. I ordered my copy today.

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Saving Aramaic

Recently, a friend forwarded this article on efforts to save Aramaic. Now I see that NPR has done a story too (mentioned on this HTLAL thread). However, if you want to learn a little Aramaic yourself, it’s not too late. There’s a blog which teach snippets in short posts. Just keep going through the archives and you’ll find everything from how to make short sentences to key Biblical quotes: LearnAramaic.blogspot.com.

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Writing for computers, writing for people

Of late, I’ve been taking a computer class on C, and doing a little side-study of Go and C++. Most people know about the importance of writing your code so that the computer can understand it. But it’s also important to write your code in a way that your fellow humans can understand it. By the comments you insert and the way you format your code, you can either create a nightmare of gibberish that does only the last thing it was doing when you compile it or a structure on which others can build or from which they can take pieces to create new things. Just as literature has allusions and quotes at the chapter heads, a coder often makes use of others’ ideas in new ways. But for that to happen, the code has to be written in such a way that you can see what’s going on it.

This is also something that crops up in our use of ordinary language. When we “transcribe” a speech, we don’t usually capture all the “umms” and “ers”. And if it’s a transcription of a speech or something else being put out for public consumption, only the cruel scribe will leave in all the “likes” and “y’knows” or punctuate unfinished sentences to suggest that the speaker lost his train of thought and had to start over, as opposed to elucidating or rephrasing for clarity. In short, the system we use for talking to each other also needs polishing up for someone else to understand it.

In learning a language, one of the toughest elements is getting the hang of the way people actually use the language, as opposed to the way they claim to use it. And one of the toughest things for someone who learns the spoken language is to get the hang of what you do and don’t write down and what you need to rephrase. So whether you’re learning a human language or a computer language, always be on the alert not just for the rules, but also for the conventions that help people know that they’re on the same page.

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Learning by doing

There’s no question that some people learn better by sight (visual learners) or by hearing (audial). But at some point, learning requires that you practice the skills you want to use. I wrote earlier about the value of typing in programs so you get used to physically typing the key combinations that may be unfamiliar but that you need to get right for your programs to work. Lately, I’ve been finding the same thing with Egyptian: I’d gone a few weeks into my course and I stalled. Now, for two weeks, I’ve been methodically copying out all the exercises, looking up the recommended steps for writing simplified versions of characters as I go. It’s another form of “act as if…” If you go through the motions of being a scribe, you become one. So as you work on your language, or anything else, make sure your practice makes you work through the mechanics of what you’re learning – how it comes together – and then your thinking and your automatic memory can work together all the better.

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More Assimilating

Some time ago, I did an experiment to see just how much I could learn with an Assimil course when learning with ease, as the books are titled. It turned out I could pick up a fair amount of Alsatian, at least for passive use. Now there’s a group experiment at HTLAL. If you’d like to see how a variety of people do with Assimil courses for different languages, you can read the log here.

Last time, I wrote about Python. But then something came up in the middle. I signed up for CS50x, a Harvard computer science course through edx.org. The course is mainly using C, with a bit of PHP and JavaScript to come. It’s been years since I waded through a C course, but the little bit I picked up is not entirely forgotten. So I’ve adopted the method of the Teach Yourself Python the Hard Way, by taking pains to physically type in all the programs as they come up in the outside text for the course. And again, the things you get in the habit of typing come much faster than those which are read, then cut and pasted.

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