Learning and Need

As someone who finds random topics fascinating, I am always challenged to get good at what I want to learn.  Having spent years studying Japanese, and being admittedly not comfortable with spoken casual Japanese, I wonder how to get better at this. Same thing goes for programming, photography, etc.

This has left me pondering on this topic:  How do we get good at our given skills?

Over the years I have found I have been most successful at learning things that solved more problems for me than the act of learning the given skill created. This has some profound implications.  How often have we learned subjects in school, only to learn enough to get us through the exam, and shortly thereafter forget all or most of what we spent so much time studying?  The skills were often not immediately useful, and often they weren’t even useful long term.  Yes granted that a lot of these concepts are all around us every day, but most often the details are looked after by those who make their living taking care of those details.  Example, the engineer who does the math to figure out how much a load bearing beam can handle when engineering a structure.

Whereas often a lot of rote-learning requires a lot of time for artificial memorization, or artificial problem solving.  I have found when the problems become real, and need to be solved, everything seams to magically click.  Moreover the pesky ‘whys’ we always troubled over in school become immediately obvious. If the learning is creating more trouble than it is solving, often the learner becomes burned out and the effort ceases.  Another good intention left unfinished.

What I propose as a solution to this is that we spend more time figuring out the problems we need to solve when we set out on learning, so that we can better match what we are learning to what it can do for us.  Fair example with computer programming, there are great movements to make coding part of computer literacy programs. Without specific problems that coding solves, this will be remain an obscure skill that only few master.  Rather we should teach people how algorithms and computing code can take a very tedious labor intensive repetitive task and set the machine loose on it.  This leaves us with more time to focus on other tasks, skills, hobby’s where our limited time can be better spent.

I know there are exception cases where people learn despite the fact that learning was harder than the problem it solved.  It would be a good conversation point on how these people persevered despite the circumstances.

How has learning made your life easier.  Or how has learning made your life harder?

-Chris

3 Things I Learned From Blogging Everyday for 1 Week

I took the last week off to take some time to review how I will be using this blog going forward.  I have taken a look at the stats to see what has been working and what hasn’t been working.

I set out to have a blog where there would be regular updates.  That first week of consistently updating taught me a lot of things that I will be using for this blog going forward.

First: Readers enjoy certain kinds of content over others

That first week the two most popular categories of posts were about Japan, whether it was language or moving there, and the other was photo focused posts.  I do think both of these things speak to what we want as people when we visit other’s blogs.  We want to read about adventure, and see pictures of adventure.  Its like watching tv shows about fabulous homes.  We like to consider the alternatives to what we are currently living.  Whether those alternatives are better or worse, will of course depend on what you as a person value.

Next: Photo posts get better reactions than long wordy essay posts

I know this post specifically ignores this.  But I do think a lot of our experience is visually driven.  That is why science shows with eccentric hosts do a lot better than sitting in a classroom reading about things from a teacher who needs to prepare 4 other lessons for the day.  I do think there is going to be a huge demand for things like SciShow, Crash Course, Vsauce, and the like on Youtube.  These shows do well because they respect the human attention span.  Photos and (short) videos respect that people don’t want to commit half an hour to an hour for you to explain something.

Third: You have only a moment to capture someone’s attention, then its gone.

I mainly announced blog posts through Twitter and Facebook right now. It is where my friends are, and where I can find people I already have some kind of rapport with. It is a lot harder to find strangers to share ideas and start conversation with. What I learned that first week is that you need to speak to what sits close to home for people, and quick.

I know I don’t like when someone takes a long time to get to the point.  I want to know what I need to know as soon as I can, without all the extra noise that comes with the package.

So here are the challenges I want to tackle as a blogger:

1. Be informative, and provide something valuable.

2. Try and provide that value with the least amount of noise as possible.

3. Leave the more wordy stuff to ebooks and mediums that people come to expecting to spend more time developing ideas and information.

Of course this plan will see some changes as this site develops and finds its niche subject. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts about challenges you face with sharing your ideas and thoughts with others, and how to do it in a way that they can follow, and not be bored, feel free to leave them in the comments below, or tweet me @ctriff on Twitter.

P.S. Feel free to subscribe to my blog.  If you are a wordpress member just click the +follow link up top.  If you wish to get updates via email to this blog, there is a link on the side navigation for you to do that as well.  Feel free to let me know in the comments if you use RSS feeds and I can look into getting that setup as well.

Thanks again for reading this post, and talk to you soon.

-Chris

What I Discovered about Japanese Speaking: Part 3

You have faithfully consulted your dictionary.  You wrote a list, made some flashcards, practiced them on the bus.  You now are ready to use that amazing word you found in your dictionary search.  The moment comes, and you drop the word like a proud champion.  One of three things happens:

Your listener stops and looks at you funny

What happened?  Just like English there are many words that we have, that can be used in situations, but your average speaker will not use them. If you are going to use a dictionary try and look for one that indicates whether a word is a common word or not.  If yours doesn’t indicate this, you have know way of knowing if the word you use is one of those rare literary words.  Another resource you could use is Google.  Google it and see what sites use the words, and under which contexts.

Another thing that could happen when you use the word is:

Your listener begins to laugh

Often words may mean what you intend to say, but only very figuratively.  Much like English sometimes words aren’t used simply because they sound funny, or are innuendos that sound funny to native speakers.  Once again consult Google to see how the word is used and under what context.

The last thing that could happen:

Your listener understands you and the conversation continues

You were lucky enough to find a word and use it in the right context.  What you should be doing in this situation is jotting a note somewhere about the word you used, under which context, and that it worked out fine.  Keep using the word and see if you have continued success with it.

The tool you can use to make notes about the words you know or don’t know is really simple: A small coil notepad.  Having one of these around will leave you well-equipped to make notes on things you observe about the language you are learning, when you are learning them.  You will be learning so many things, that you may not be able to recall all the juicy points later.  Having you quick notes to refer to will save you a world of hassle.  My last tip, make this note brief enough so that you can continue your conversation, but detailed enough so that you know what it means later.

Have any of you had situations like described above when you were learning Japanese, or any language for that matter.  Let me know in the comments below, tweet me @ctriff, or message me on google+.

Reflection on a video from code.org

CNN recently reported on a video featuring Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and quite a few others.  The article included a link to a youtube video wherein several everyday people talk about how they came to learn how to code.  It includes a few celebrities that one would be surprised to learn that they were interested in coding.

I was lucky enough to have access to a coding course when I was in high school.  It was a rather neat experience learning how to do complex things with the computers and write software.  It wasn’t something that I pursued while I was in University, but it is something that I continue to be interested in.

I do feel that with the increasing prevalence of technology, learning how to make it do new and interesting things is going to be an important skill.  I don’t think that everyone should learn how to code, as everyone who is passionate about their field feels that the world would be a better place if everyone knew a bit about their subject. What I do think is important that we teach everyone, is the basic skills of learning and problem solving that can enable them to learn and contribute in whatever walk of life they choose.  Too often you talk to people who have gone through school, and all they have come away with is what they think they don’t have the skills or natural talent to do.

Too often I am told by people that they can’t learn Japanese because they didn’t even do well in English, their native language, in school. This is tragic in my opinion, because doing poorly on some essays and reading comprehension exercises should not equate to being poor at language. Rather what should be taught is the strategies used to to learn how to be a more effective essayist, or how to negotiate meaning from highly symbolic literature. People can then translate these skills over to other areas of their life.

Back to the benefits of teaching kids to code, I definitely think that it could be part of applied learning of math for many kids. I do think kids should at least be introduced to basic coding, so that if they choose to continue the study, they have an informed decision when making that choice. As well I feel courses should be offered at all levels of education for coding so that students can learn about coding more in depth if they chose.  I know once I become more comfortable with coding, I would love to work part-time with a school teaching students how to code.  I do have the credentials to do this, and I think it would be neat if a local school took a chance to teach coding through mobile development.  There are so many resources out there that schools could use to teach Android, iOS and desktop application development.

What do you think?  Do you that every child should at least take a brief section in school on coding?  Do you feel this is where the new sectors of employment are going to be for us in the economies where manufacturing has taken a smaller role?  Let me know what you think in the comments below, tweet me @ctriff, or message me on google+.

What I Discovered about Japanese Speaking Part 2

ImageYesterday I talked a bit about some of the frustrations language learners can have when learning a language    From finally letting go of trying to understand everything, to ending the worry of not knowing every word before you speak and just speak using a strategy of using simple sentences to describe complex subjects when you don’t know complex vocabulary.

Today I will continue with some more tips.  First one is:

Learn using a task you do every day

The idea behind this is that you have some tasks you need to do everyday without fail.  For me when I was in Japan it was getting up and ordering coffee and breakfast. I got real good at ordering coffee and asking for the specific number of milk and sugars I wanted.  As well I could say I would like the order for take out or eat-in.  The reason why this became easy was it was the same language I needed to use every day, and the Japanese I heard was the same every day.  Which leads me to my second point:

You must practice doing a target task consistently to remember it

If you have to do the same thing all the time, you will become familiar with the words used when doing that thing.  The people speaking to you will use the same general vocabulary, and you will use the same general responses.  This will make you very comfortable speaking the language, and moreover will help solidify the basic grammar and vocabulary for more complex subjects later.  Which brings me to my last point:

Break your learning goals down into smaller tasks

Instead of trying to “learn Japanese” break this down into “learn how to ask and give directions in Japanese”.  If you can modularize your learning, you can break it down into chunks that can be achieved in smaller timeframes.  Moreover when you see positive results from achieving these smaller goals, it will give you more confidence to tackle the next level of difficulty in your study.

This is the same as endurance running.  It is unwise to set out and run a marathon your first run.  Instead to keep committed and motivated most runners learn to run a much shorter distance, and start slowly building up their distance over time. Runners who try to add too much new distance too soon, find themselves out of running with an injury.  This is a perfect metaphor for learning Japanese, or any subject for that matter:

Ramp up the difficulty, but slowly to avoid frustration (or in the case of running, injury)

Any new skill takes time and practice to get good at. It is hard to keep motivated when we measure our ability against the big goal of mastery of the whole subject. Through breaking down the large goal into its smaller component goals, it is easier to focus our time, energy, and motivation into the smaller more immediately achievable tasks. This way it is easier to stay motivated and less frustrated with our progress.

I will have more tips on language learning in this series of posts.  If you have any comments or suggestions on what you have found helpful with learning a language, or any other subject for that matter feel free to leave a comment below or tweet it to me @ctriff on twitter.

What I Discovered about Japanese Speaking

Karaoke bar in Takao, Japan

Karaoke bar in Motohachiojimachi

This post is going to be specific to those who want to learn to communicate using spoken language, and the tips here may not be appropriate for those learning to translate or write formal documents.

Well, I have a confession to make. I’ve always been better at reading Japanese than I have been speaking Japanese. Books and written language are patient. They will let you take your time to consult a dictionary and look up Kanji. Written also doesn’t particularly care if you respond at all to it. But here I was in Japan, being confronted by spoken Japanese, spoken by real people, expecting real responses right now.

It made me nervous. As I mentioned in the previous post, people have a tendency to speak consistently all the time to most people. Us non-native Japanese did not grow up speaking and hearing Japanese, so there are a lot of sounds and colloquialisms that are alien to our ears. Not to mention the heaps of vocabulary that is still unfamiliar to us.

There is also another challenge facing learners. Most course study revolves around the study of books and written tests. Of course there are oral components, but these often make up a smaller ratio of the work done in many courses. When we are in real situations, we may hear a lot of words that our eyes may know, but our ears do not.

So how do we deal with this challenges. Well the first and most important step is this:

It is fine to not understand everything!

Many language learners will get frustrated with their abilities because they want to understand everything they hear. When we don’t, it is easy to feel that it is a futile battle learning a language. But really, it is okay to not understand everything. One of the first phrases you should learn in any language is “I’m sorry could you repeat that?” or “Could you say that again slowly?”. This should be followed by “I don’t understand”.

Next important thing that a language learner needs to come to grips with:

Your language will not be perfect all the time.

This is particularly important for those who have learned in a classroom situation. Yes it is important in some situations to use the correct language, grammar, and politeness. But for the average person, they will be in casual situations, and the people they will be speaking to will not be using that language that was learned in the classroom.

Which leads to my last important point for today:

Stop worrying, just speak

If you think too much about the correct grammar, correct uses of words, etc.. it will increase your anxiety when speaking. Stop worrying about translating what your thinking. The best thing you can learn to do in a foreign language, is get good at describing complex ideas using longer simple sentences. For example if you don’t know a word like “library”, you can instead say “I went to the place with lots of books”. Using this strategy will enable you to take part in far more conversations.

I still have a lot more to say about what I discovered about learning Japanese when I was in Japan, but that will be the subject of future posts.

Feel free to leave a comment below about what you have found helpful when faced with learning a foreign language, and tips you have about overcoming speaking anxiety.