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5 Tips for Accelerated Learning

I spent all of last year in Berlin, where I focused on learning the German language. After years learning different programming languages like Java, C#, Javascript and Ruby (not to mention all the tools, frameworks and libraries) and several years training and teaching I figured I could “eat my own dog food” and apply what I learnt about learning to a real language.

Enter to Learn stone sign

Stone sign: Enter to Learn. Image take from flikr under the Creative Commons licence.

Since that year, I talked to numerous people impressed that I can speak fluent German after living in Berlin. They often ask me, how did I found my experience. This post is a good summary of what I found myself repeating. Firstly, if you really, really want to learn German, Berlin is probably not the best place since there are so many foreigners living there and the level of spoken English is ridiculously high. You can easily fall into hanging out with the English-speaking crowd, enjoy the city, and fail to pick up more than rudimentary German.

Although I have very specific tips for learning the German language, this is more focused on what helped me learn the most that I think applies to any subject.

1. Find different teachers

At the start of the year, I spent the first three months doing an immersive language course at the Goethe Institute. Over the two classes, I experienced four different teachers, each with their own style and emphasis on what is important to learn. Although I wished that I had spent less time with one of the teachers, I found their point of view was sometimes useful. Each teacher focused on different aspects and it made my learning all that richer.

Over the rest of the year, I found other avenues to teach me, guide me and give the feedback I needed to grow. If I had stuck with a single teacher, I would have missed out on a number of other valuable perspectives.

2. Have a goal, and keep focused on it

Unlike many European people, I was never bilingual as a child. Moving to England from Australia, I came to appreciate how useful a second language was by meeting many other bilingual people. Although I learned Japanese in school, I believe it is more important to have the ability to use it.As they say:

Use it, or lose it.

A whole year to learn a language was a once in a lifetime opportunity and my goal was to be fluent by the end of the year. I had a whole bunch of other personal reasons to learn German, but figured many things came into alignment and I would make the most of this opportunity.

I reminded myself throughout the year about my goal, and why it was important to me, and it helped me keep focus on the learning. It helped me in particular when the going got tough, and it will get tough!

3. Celebrate progress

After a year passed by, I met with some of my colleagues again who were impressed that I could now speak with them fluently in their native tongue. Although it’s easy to celebrate that final result, there were many times along the way that I wanted to give up because it was hard, and I felt frustrated that I felt like I wasn’t learning as fast I wanted to.

I was sharing a flat with a German, who knew that I was wanting to speak fluent German. Although he could speak English very well, he spoke only to me in German even if it would have been easier for him to communicate in English. I remember coming home one day, exasperatedly asking, “Can we just speak in English?!” His answer, “Nein!” (No, in German).

Although there were bad days, there were also good days and I made sure to sit back and acknowledge these small milestones, such as watching my first film in German with subtitles (and understanding most of it), completing my first German novel, and going to the Town Hall to register myself without speaking a word of English!

Each small step moves you towards your final goal, and celebrating progress will help you overcome the learning hurdles you experience along the way.

4. Vary your learning activities

One problem with a long-term learning goal, is that you will get bored and distracted. At the start of my year, I was naturally doing a lot of grammatical textbook exercises which was useful for the classroom. However I couldn’t see myself continuing to do just these exercises for the rest of the year. I wanted other ways to learn but would help me keep engaged. Therefore I combined learning German with other activities that I enjoyed, such as meeting with people (the German Stammtisch the language school organised was a good one), watching movies and reading books I liked in German (thanks library!), meeting with a tandem partner, and listening to the radio.

A friend gave me the book, “111 Orte in Berlin, die man gesehen haben muss” which roughly translates to, “111 must see places in Berlin.” The book has two pages for each place, one with a short description and the other with a picture and was perfect for dipping in and out. I could read about a place I wanted to visit, and because I lived in Berlin, could go and see what it was talking about. At the same time, it helped me deepen my vocabulary and help me experience the unique experiences Berlin had of offer.

Later in the year, I spent some time traveling around in Germany, where I did a number of tours in German. Each of these experiences kept the learning alive for me and I never grew bored about “learning German” because I was doing it at the same time as I was doing other activities I was enjoying.

5. Accept you’ll never be perfect

Early on in my career, I discovered the idea of the Beginner’s Mind (Shoshin). For me, part of this accepts that I do not, and cannot know everything and that means there are new things to learn. In learning German, I found that my vocabulary will never be as rich as it is in English because there are situations I have never found myself in.

A good example of this was talking to a friend of mine when we first worked in a German-speaking office. She told me this story:

Although I studied German at school and was very fluent, I was shocked the first time that I was running a project kickoff for a German-speaking client. Not only was I learning new German words for the domain (transportation) but I was also learning new German words for technology terms I had taken for granted.

Our experiences shape who we are, and we cannot possibly be experts at everything, and that’s perfectly fine. I found it was more productive to focus on getting better than worrying about how close to mastery I was.

Conclusion

After years of coaching, teaching and training technology, I have many techniques that I consider useful as learning strategies. I found last year was a great opportunity to try applying some of them to a completely different skill and see how far I could go. Happily, it seemed to have worked.

I hope you found this article useful and that you will find these tips above useful. In summary, try to:

  1. Find different teachers
  2. Have a goal, and keep focused on it
  3. Celebrate progress
  4. Vary your learning activities
  5. Accept you’ll never be perfect

What other learning strategies do you find work for you?

1 Comment

  1. Nice article. Related to your point 5, in learning languages I have stopped using the word fluency as I think it is rather hard to define and tends to discourage. I prefer to just consider whether I am functional in the language in different situations and to focus on increasing my confidence and ability across a range of situations. Even when speaking my native language, there are situations in which I could not really be considered fluent, for example when listening to doctors discussing a complex medical diagnosis.

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