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Meta-learning: relearn how to learn with a new language mini-project

Dia duit! That’s Irish for hello – which, despite a million other things, I chose to start dabbling in this week. Unlike other come-and-go language projects of mine, it’s not a former language I’m returning to. In fact, I knew zero Irish before this week (save the welcoming céad míle fáilte of numerous 1990s Eurovision Song Contests!).

It’s not for want of something to do. I already have plenty of core language learning goals for 2019 to keep me occupied. Improving my Icelandic, Norwegian and Polish are already taking a chunk of my time.

So why the extra load?

Well, apart from the kid-in-a-candy-store nature of being a linguaphile, taking a language detour in totally unknown pastures now and again has great utility. Namely, it is a brilliant way to audit and augment your meta-learning skills: learning how you learn.

Stuck in our ways

Human beings like treading comfortable tracks. Because of that, it is all too easy to get stuck in our ways.

Of course, the familiar often works very well for us. Our regular approaches, methods and routine usually serve us grandly in our language learning goals. But knowing how to learn is a skill, just like any other. We can improve it, or we can neglect it and let it get rusty. And getting into that autopilot groove might actually prevent us from ever getting better at how we learn.

Taking a learning diversion can be a fun way to get unstuck and freshen up your daily language grind. The golden rule here is the more unfamiliar, the better. The idea is to audit how you learn; material unrelated to anything you already know will isolate the learning process from background knowledge that may act as a crutch and mask poor learning habits.

In my case, Irish is a real departure from the norm. My background is coloured by Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages, and so a Celtic language is something I can approach with completely fresh eyes, and few chances to rely too comfortably on pre-knowledge.

Unfamiliar material activates your aptitude for exploring your meta-learning skills.

Now, unfamiliar need not mean outside your own sphere of interest. Learning something you have no interest in is never a good idea. Why did I pick Irish? Simple: it’s a beautiful country next to my own, inexpensive to travel to, and I wanted to get to know it a lot better. In the words of Rita Mae Brown:

Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.

Meta-learning lessons

One thing you find when you start on these kinds of language mini-project, is just how far your meta-learning skills have come. Regarding my own experience, you could say that I learnt my first foreign languages ‘the hard way’. That meant hours of book-based grammar study and reading in German and Spanish during the 1990s. That clearly worked well enough, as I did well in the subjects at school, and went on to get a degree and forge a career in languages.

That said, I had no access to wonderful tools like Anki, Duolingo, Learning With Texts and Wiktionary back then, or even on-demand access to foreign language media. Some of these things have become language learning staples to me, in many cases only very recently. I have gradually built them into my study routines for maintaining my main languages.

But how would they perform unleashed onto completely new territory?

The great news is that foreign language mini-projects are an excellent way to test the efficiency of all of your favourite methods.

Blended approach

A key discovery for me is the realisation that no single method works efficiently in isolation. A blended approach, using multiple formats, platforms and schedules maximises how well I learn. What’s more, joining up your learning resources manually is a good way to make learning more active, rather than simple passive reception.

You can turn a more passive resource into an active learning process by reworking its material into another format. For example, with Irish, I chose to use Duolingo as my primary lesson source. After each section, I look up new terms on Wiktionary, then add them to a deck of flashcards in Anki. I get more from this learning by doing than I would from using purely premade material.

Beyond that, there are so many things you can do to make lesson material your own. Look up sentences that contain the new words on Tatoeba, for example. Or listen to native speakers pronounce the words or phrases in different way on Forvo. As you experiment, explore and supplement, you expand your expertise in finding and adapting learning resources to get the most out of them. Meta-learning is understanding how to make new knowledge your own.

A dose of realism

Here’s the rub: chances are, that if you have a rose-tinted view of a particular platform, you might end up with a more realistic evaluation of it.

So it is for me with Duolingo. A fantastic free resource, without a doubt, and I was hugely excited to use it to learn a brand new language, rather than support one I was already learning. But how useful is it as your only resource?

I quickly discovered that without pre-knowledge, some Duolingo courses may need a little supplementing. Duolingo Irish, though a great introduction, is not quite enough as a standalone option for me. A particular issue is a lack of native speaker support for all phrases. In Irish, this is crucial given the very particular spelling system that needs to be learnt.

Also, I found myself craving more information about each word: the gender, the plural form and so on. I realised that my learning style requires more interrogation of new terms than the Duolingo course is happy to provide at first. No black-box thinking for me – I have to take those words apart and see every nut and bolt with my own eyes!

Plugging the gaps

Still, add a bit of support with Wiktionary and Forvo, and the creases are ironed out. I’m benefitting from the superb lesson structure and progression in Duolingo, and filling in the gaps my brain needs filled as I need to.

Without this insight, I’d be going around thinking of a single platform as a one-stop shop. Now that I can spot and patch the elements that need fleshing out, I’m both a better learner, and a better source of advice for friends and family who want to learn languages without the same frustrations.

And Duolingo is even more effective now I know how I work best with it.

Language learning report card

My mini-adventures in Irish have shown me where I am as a language learner. They also confirm that I already have a healthy understanding of how I learn effectively: I instinctively bend materials into a shape that fits my learning process best. That’s a decent report card and a confidence-building boost for any linguist (and we are all prone to occasional self-questioning!).

More than that, though: Irish has given me a chance to assess and experiment with those techniques in a way that does not interfere directly with my core language learning routine. Casual study of something completely different is ideal no-risk ground to do a skills audit without fear of knocking regular study off balance. It’s not that the new language doesn’t matter – it’s just that we are not invested in it enough (yet) to worry about making mistakes in our first steps.

Weird and wonderful world

Beyond that, using a brand new language as a meta-learning exercise can open your eyes to diversity. We so easily come to think of certain patterns or forms in language as normal or given if we never push our limits beyond the known. Exposing yourself to what, at first, seems weird and wonderful, can only promote flexible thinking.

So it is with Irish, a verb-subject-object language, so unlike many other Indo-European subject-verb-object languages commonly studied. I now know that this is far from unusual, sharing the trait with almost a tenth of world languages.

With wonderful projects like #LangJam promoting micro-study of languages, there is no better time to relearn how you learn. So much self-knowledge can come from those few extra minutes in your day. Give something new a try. It’s worth it for the better meta!

 

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