Learning

You probably weren’t wondering what I’ve been doing these past fifteen days instead of updating my blog, but I’m going to tell you anyway: I’ve been learning.

I mean, in a sense, I’m always learning. I have a voracious appetite for knowledge and I am uncommonly good at retaining knowledge – a trick I manage by thinking carefully about everything I read, hear, and experience, and which carries the side effect that I tend toward what most people would call “overthinking” about most topics.

But specifically, in the last two weeks I’ve really ramped up my study habits. I’ve forgone several TV shows (I still don’t know who was voted off American Idol last week) in favor of watching hours of video lectures, completing math and computer programming assignments, and creating and practicing Georgian using digital flashcards in Anki, a flash card program that uses spaced repetition.

I’m taking four online classes: Design and Analysis of Algorithms, Model Thinking, Natural Language Processing, and Game Theory. The platform is called Coursera and it’s the best online learning platform I’ve ever personally experienced. The courses last about five weeks a piece, and while they give no credits, the material so far has been highly rewarding in and of itself. I took my newfound understanding of linear regressions to Language Log and suddenly I understood all of Mark Liberman’s posts – posts which previously I would have skipped immediately upon seeing a scatter plot.

It’s also nice to practice some of my rustier skills. Programming, for one – I’ve put together two functional programs in C++ in the last month, which is more programming than I’ve done in the entire last decade. (I was a computer science major until 2001, by the way). I have also been doing a bunch of algebra, some analytic geometry, some statistics, some probability – I even remembered the formula for continuously compounded interest (of course, “pert” is like the best mnemonic out there, so that’s unsurprising). All this reminds me that I used to be a math guy, and a computer guy, and it also gives me hope that, with all the new learning resources and super cool IDEs these days, I could easily catch up to modern technologies and start developing useful and/or interesting applications. (Ten years ago, all this was harder – more technical stuff, more command line, more coping with windows API nonsense; now everything’s moving towards being user-friendly and programming tools are more powerful and more freely available.)

I’ve also been taking the JavaScript class over at codecademy, although I’m behind because they’re buggy and I’m waiting for them to fix all their issues before I try to complete any more units. One of the units I spent many hours on mysteriously disappeared, for example; this irritated me. Anyway the concept is good and I’ll check back after my Coursera courses are done and maybe pick it back up at that point. I’m also considering the Rails tutorials at Code School, although I’ve been warned against Rails by a friend whose opinion I trust; I’m also considering picking up some tutorials for Java and the Netbeans Java development tools.

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My Georgian has reached a tipping point. Well, maybe it has; my new class on modeling suggests that language learning may not have tipping points and this may just be a case of exponential growth; in any case it feels like a tipping point, or maybe I should say it has reached critical mass.

Meanwhile my ability to construct a sentence has apparently taken a nosedive.

The story of my learning Georgian is long and full of false starts. I was assured by various folks that if I just chilled in Georgia, the Georgian language would seep inexorably into my brain without any real effort on my part. Still, I bought a book, made flashcards, and looked for a teacher to teach me Georgian. At first I had an advantage – I was one of two members of my group who actually learned the Georgian alphabet before coming here, along with a few key phrases (“where is the bathroom”; “I want beer”) – and in my first few months it was clear that my vocabulary was better than most other volunteers’. But as time went on, I learned nothing new, and after a month or two my communication ability was actually significantly worse than that of other volunteers, who lived in villages and host families and used Georgian to communicate.

I studied slowly and intermittently. Things came up and I gave up. I was on the expat plateau. I could get a cab, order food at a restaurant, get medication, and satisfy most of my basic material needs using Georgian. I stagnated for a year.

Eventually, the shame became unbearable. Having worse Georgian than friends who have been here for a few months was bad enough, without Georgian friends and acquaintances calling me out for not speaking more Georgian. Shame is a strong motivator for me.

There isn’t really a strong body of material for an English speaker to learn Georgian. There are a few grammar books – a few that are even good enough – but none of them are really of high quality. None are really accessible, clear, and fun to use. None of them are particularly well structured for the learner.

Also, books don’t provide structure in the way that a formal class does. No deadlines, no one to shame you if you fall behind, no one to answer questions or clarify things. I don’t know if I personally know any Georgians with a good enough grasp of both Georgian grammar and teaching methodology to be a good teacher for me, and any potential candidates (for instance, Georgian friends who happen to be teachers) tend to discourage me by laughing at me constantly. Shame is a good motivator and a good demotivator; I think if my host mother hadn’t laughed at every single attempt I made to speak Georgian I’d probably be fluent by now. Or not.

So I did some research. My research turned up two techniques for language learning: sentence mining and spaced repetition. Short version: spaced repetition is the most efficient technique out there for putting information into your long-term memory; sentence mining is the most efficient form of information that you can feed into the spaced repetition system if you want to learn to use language proficiently.

So basically I go through my Basic Georgian book, I read a chapter until I understand everything in it, then I take every full sentence in the chapter, translate it, and feed it into one Anki deck. I also take all the vocabulary and feed it into another Anki deck. Anki looks at the deck and decides which cards to show me based on an algorithm and shows them to me. I identify whether I understand the word or sentence and assign an approximate difficulty rating. Anki then uses my response to plan when to show me that card again. So if I see the word “ბინა” I know it’s an apartment, so I push “Easy” and then Anki files the card away for later review, later meaning in a few days, weeks, or months depending on how many times I’ve viewed this particular card. If I see the word “სამზარეულო” and it takes me a while to come up with “kitchen” I press “hard” and it shows me the card again maybe tomorrow.

Going through this process has two main effects, both beneficial to my learning process. The first is that it enhances my vocabulary drastically and quickly. Because I’m also using full sentences for about half my reviews, it’s also enhancing my overall ability to recognize and produce longer Georgian utterances, like phrases and sentences. I’m getting better at word order, recognizing word types, etc.

The second is that it tells me when I’m ready to learn new things. If I enter a hundred new cards, then on day one, I’m likely to give a lot of “hard” ratings, which means I’ll see a lot of cards again on day two. When I’ve learned the material, I start entering “easy” ratings and the program doesn’t show me much the next day – it waits a week or so to review. So if I open my deck manager and see that I’ve only got a total of like fifteen cards to review, I know it’s time to start making more. This is awesome because basically I begin my study by reviewing a few cards, most of which are now easy, and this whets my appetite for more Georgian and spurs me to push further in my textbook.

So not only is the spaced repetition/sentence mining technique super effective as a study method, it’s also effective as a self-motivator – something I’ve never quite been able to get a handle on before.

Today as I was studying I was finally able to envision the entire verb system – the tenses and moods and subject/object markers and weird names like aorist and ergative and screeve – and, even though I don’t yet have mastery, I can clearly see the path to mastery. I think within another month I’ll actually have the whole grammatical system down.

Of course, once I know the grammar, it’s on to the next hurdle – speaking practice. Fortunately there’s plenty of opportunity for that!

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2 Responses to Learning

  1. Mach says:

    Neal, I’ve read that memorizing poems is very good for learning the language the poem is written in. I’m sure there is sufficient information throughout the Internet about the topic.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I’ve also found it is worth listening to as much as you can: radio, television, music, and try to understand whatever you can. Even if you don’t understand most of the words, practice identifying parts of speech, grammatical case, etc. That way you at least have a sense for what most of the words contribute to the sentence. It really does wonders for listening comprehension.

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