Why do some smart people learn more slowly

There are a number of important principles of human learning that largely follow from how the brain works. The previous chapter should make it clear that this way of working is generally extremely beneficial and useful for us.

I consciously refrain from going into motivation, concentration, interest, discipline and similar soft terms. These properties are highly individual and can usually be traced back very easily to the basic principles described here. Those who are motivated and / or disciplined learn more and more often. Those who are unable to concentrate wander with their thoughts and occupy the limited storage space in working memory. This does not mean that you cannot trigger chemical processes in the brain that influence learning with rewards or punishment, for example, but the principles of learning remain the same.

The most important learning principles:

  1. Language learning is like sport

  2. Learn slowly, forget quickly

  3. We learn what we are concerned with

  4. From the simple to the complex

  5. Practice creates masters

Language learning is like sport

Some people believe that learning a language consists of memorizing some vocabulary and grammar rules and then putting the vocabulary together into sentences according to the rules of grammar. At the latest, the section “Structure of Languages” should have convinced everyone that this is not the way to go. Natural languages ​​are not strictly logical. Those who prefer it logical have to resort to a planned language like Lojban [Loj].

But it is not easy to cope with even very few grammar rules, as anyone who tries to speak fluently with the BiBaBo grammar will confirm. It is not enough to know the rules, you have to know them.

The grammar expert is in a similar role to the commentator in a martial arts tournament. He can name the punches and kicks and give wise advice, but as soon as he goes to fight himself he will be beaten up. A hundred books on boxing are the worst possible preparation for a fight. You have to train, or in the case of languages: practice!

If the above example seems a bit too martial for you, you might prefer to think of playing the piano. Of course, it is easy to learn which key produces which tone, but it is still a long way from being able to play the piano. It takes practice, a lot of practice. One does not speak of it for nothing Language of music.

Of course, it also depends on how you learn. Pressing the same key over and over is a very bad method.

Learn slowly, forget quickly

As soon as you start to learn a foreign language, you quickly have an experience: It's only going slowly. This experience is pretty universal and isn't just made by students. Studies on competitive athletes, workers and musicians [Spitzer] also clearly show that people learn slowly. Complex skills can only be acquired through long practice.

The “Brain and Processing” section makes it clear why this is so. If we concentrate on what is important first, there is no room for details. Only when we have learned what is important can we deal with more. Otherwise the details will fly around incoherently in your mind and will likely be forgotten.

Slow learning offers a number of advantages:

  1. Important things are learned quickly because we gradually move from the rough to the details. This strategy is particularly useful in life-threatening situations. This allows us to use our limited processing capacity to make quick decisions.

  2. It prevents wrong details from being saved permanently, because at the beginning we make a lot of mistakes with the details. If we learn the details slowly, mistakes can be corrected and we achieve a high level of perfection in the long run.

  3. The abstraction that is so important to us is simplified. Precisely because we deal with the important things first, we can form thought models more easily.

  4. We can more easily classify new information into existing information because we first have to catalog the little important information. We'll just attach the details later.

The section on the brain makes it clear why only important things get stuck at first and the rest is quickly forgotten. Our brain decides what is important fully automatically. This is very convenient, even if the result does not always meet our expectations. Some people have found that the holes in the jeans of the person sitting next to them are better remembered than the vocabulary they actually wanted to learn ;-) We don't speak of for nothing Memory lapses :-)

The “Forget” section tells you which things are best remembered.

We learn what we are concerned with

This finding is trivial, but it has far-reaching implications. Above all we only learn what we are concerned with ([Spitzer] p.143, p.155). Examples:

  1. If you watch football on television, you don't learn to play football.

  2. To learn to drive, you have to drive.

  3. In a martial arts tournament, someone who has trained martial arts will be more successful than someone who has only learned technical terms.

This simple rule has a number of consequences for language learning:

  1. In order to learn to speak a language, one must speak that language.

  2. If you want to learn to read, you have to read.

  3. Those who watch Korean TV with English subtitles learn to read English subtitles [Mitterer].

  4. If you look up vocabulary in a book, you primarily learn to turn the pages.

  5. Anyone who is busy copying vocabulary from the blackboard during a language course is mainly learning to copy. (There is a study on this, but I no longer know by whom.)

  6. Quite a few who use a multimedia course acquire astonishing dexterity with the mouse :-)

The demands on the brain in language processing are high. One region takes over the storage of vocabulary, in another whole sentences are processed and the whole thing has to be coordinated consciously depending on the situation. This means that someone who only learns vocabulary has problems with sentence formation, someone who only learns sentences by heart has difficulty reacting flexibly when new sentences have to be formed (I don't know of any study that proves this, but it does corresponds to the experiences of numerous language students). So it is very important to practice speaking freely in different situations. This demands all brain regions that are involved in language processing.

Anyone who attends, uses or even conducts a language course should ask themselves what they are actually doing and whether these activities serve language learning.

Some time ago I worked through practice lessons for a German course for beginners because a friend told me that she couldn't learn with this course. Amazingly, I struggled with it even though I am a native German speaker. The explanation is simple: the exercises only marginally had something to do with language, but a lot to do with guesswork.

From the simple to the complex

Integral calculus before the basic arithmetic operations? A classical composition before the simple scale? Nobody would think of learning or teaching like that. We first learn the simple and then the complex. The results of modern brain research indicate that there is no other way [Spitzer].

We learn best when we are challenged, that is, there is an optimal learning window between too heavy and too easyin which we should learn.

  1. Things that are too difficult for us are not remembered.

    It's easy to spot when someone says something like I cannot classify that, That goes beyond my mental horizon, Can it be easier? or similar.

  2. Too easy is boring.

    This is a particular obstacle to language learning because it takes a lot of repetition to achieve the speed necessary to hold a conversation. And working through a lesson over and over again is boring.

    Typical ways out are to edit different texts of the optimal level of difficulty or to incorporate only a small part of the new into new lessons. A good teacher can work with varied exercises. Unfortunately, most language courses are not structured in this way and the relevant material is usually only available for popular foreign languages.

The optimal learning window depends on the prior knowledge of the individual and that is an important reason why learning is so highly individual.

A Japanese woman who learns Korean brings the grammar with her, because the Korean and the Japanese are largely identical. A German, on the other hand, has a much harder time. He must first learn the rules for simple sentences. It is clear that a Korean course for Japanese can start on a completely different level than one for Germans.

This means that language courses have to be tailored to the prior knowledge of the learner. It would be nonsense, for example, to torture immigrants from all over the world in one country with the same language course because they have completely different prior knowledge.

It should also be remembered that language students prefer different learning techniques at different levels. Vocabulary trainers are a great help for beginners, while advanced learners can also expand their vocabulary through television, films or books.

An interesting aspect beyond language learning is that a society also has something like an intellectual horizon. Those who go too far with their thoughts are often not understood and are hastily condemned as crazy. We should not forget that many of the artists and scientists we are proud of today were little appreciated during their lifetime.

Excursus: Beyond the spiritual horizon

It happens that some things simply do not want to be in the head because they are much too difficult. They lie far beyond the spiritual horizon and, like the real horizon, they cannot be reached so quickly. Sometimes they are so far away that it would take us several lives to get there, but often we can speed up the journey with a few simple tricks:

  1. Deepen what you have learned so far (ok, this is not an easy trick). Things that we are not yet very good at always take up a large part of our working memory. What we master well is outsourced from consciousness and we get space to think again.

  2. Learn more elsewhere. Sometimes this creates an access bridge to the real problem, because to understand things are necessary that we did not yet know.

  3. Take a break and do something else. Thoughts have a tendency to go in circles, probably because we remember our own trains of thought and those memories are particularly fresh. We keep repeating the same thoughts and mistakes and therefore cannot break new ground. A break breaks this cycle and we are fresh again.

  4. Sleep on it for one or more nights. It is best to memorize the problem beforehand. The brain continues to work even during sleep. Why shouldn't we take advantage of that? Many great researchers have worked like this.

  5. Explain to someone else. When we explain something, we are forced to rethink unreflective thought patterns. Often we discover mistakes that have blocked the way.

  6. Have someone explain it to you. Many an obstacle can easily be avoided from a different perspective.

  7. Looking for inspiration. It's something very personal. I don't know if there is a recipe for it.

Practice creates masters. No pain no gain. The vernacular has always known it. Thorndike examined it around 1930 [Funke] and modern research confirms it [Spitzer]. Talent only plays a subordinate role.

We encounter a particular problem in language learning because speaking and understanding means high-speed processing for the brain. Every language student knows this: You have now learned hard, have theoretically mastered the basic vocabulary and would like to talk to native speakers. As soon as the conversation begins, one is busy deciphering the sentences of the interlocutors and when one finally has a suitable answer or a comment, the others are already two topics further.

There is a huge difference between being able to reproduce vocabulary and sentences in a test and being able to take part in a conversation. The latter requires a lot more practice. Or to put it another way: It is easy to learn a hundred words or more in one day, so you cannot use them in conversation or keep them for longer.

This is a problem for many students. In school lessons there is usually not enough time to get to the level of everyday suitability. The students think they have not learned anything. Then they take a language course and find that their skills improve dramatically. The language course was immediately highly praised. Much better than school! one hears then, but that is a mistake. Without the previous school knowledge, the course would not have been as effective. The school material should always be viewed as the basis for further learning. (No, I am not a teacher.)

However, practice is not a passive process in which knowledge is instilled through repetition, but an active one. The student builds his own mental model in his head, tests the quality through experiments and gradually improves it. Failure creates frustration, success creates feelings of reward. Therefore, successful attempts are repeated more often and failures are omitted. So people actually learn from their mistakes, but also from their successes.

It follows that an exercise needs feedback on its success, and as quickly as possible. A teacher or trainer is not absolutely necessary for this. In most cases it is very easy for a person to judge whether they have done something right. Anyone who tries their foreign language skills on a native speaker and only receives uncomprehending looks knows that something is wrong. If there is no feedback, mistakes can creep in through practice. Even completely healthy children can develop speech defects that later have to be painstakingly trained. Language students often have pronunciation errors because they lack the listening comprehension to assess their own pronunciation. Conscious, attentive exercise can significantly improve performance. Athletes, for example, perform mental training in which they slowly go through their movements in their heads and thus become conscious.

Another important aspect of exercising is the difference between massive and distributed exercise. Basically, it is better to practice spread out over a longer period of time than to practice massively in one day. The brain uses its resources very sparingly and only stores in long-term memory that which is needed over a longer period of time. It is of little help to repeat a few vocabulary frequently in one day. The brain cannot be convinced that these words will still be needed in a month's time. However, if the vocabulary is repeated at longer intervals, things are very different. These vocabulary are obviously needed all the time!

In fact, most of your time should be spent repeating what you have already learned. Good time-controlled vocabulary trainers do this automatically. However, not all repetition is the same as repetition. Anyone who reads new texts with old vocabulary or uses their language skills in a conversation also repeats, and in most cases this is much more exciting than a vocabulary trainer.

The reference to the distributed practice should not be understood as an invitation to practice little, but rather to skillfully distribute a lot of practice. It is no accident that professional musicians or athletes practice a lot. A high level can only be reached with a lot of practice.