As I’ve detailed before, I’m a big fan of self-education of all stripes. I think the world is just a much cooler place if we view it as something to explore and discover. So, whether you’re an academic geek like me, or you just want to learn a practical skill for work or a hobby, it’s valuable to know how to learn things on your own.
Unfortunately, most of us spend our childhoods in school and then move on to more school when we’re older. This isn’t bad– I loved classes!– but the emphasis on classroom education can obscure the freedom we should embrace when we decide to learn things on our own. We become so entrenched in classroom learning methods that we forget that when we learn on our own, we are the ones who are in control. And when we realize that, self-education can really take off.
Here are some suggestions for maximizing self-education in your life. These tips aren’t unique to language learning– you could use them to pick up carpentry, literary criticism, gourmet cooking, whatever you want 🙂
Resources, Resources, Resources!
You need resources to learn anything. It doesn’t make sense to try to learn an entire subject or skill from one book, even if that’s the way ordinary classes try to teach (Khatzumoto gets into this subject in this time management article). With language learning, you’ll want to collect textbooks that look interesting, native reading material, favorite TV shows, and lots and lots of music. Don’t worry about choosing any particular learning method or tool.
Essentially, you can build an “immersion” environment for any skill you want to learn or anything that interests you. It’s best when you can easily switch between resources with very little downtime– that means amassing a lot of resources right at the beginning. You can do this cheaply, too. I abuse second-hand bookstores, Amazon third-party sellers, and online resources. Nevertheless, it’s fun to buy nice, shiny new things every once in a while, and it keeps you motivated!
Last summer, I wanted to teach myself calculus, so I borrowed college textbooks off people and looked up resources like Khan Academy and other video lectures. Unfortunately, I found Khan Academy to be boring, and the textbooks were a little too in-depth for me. I tweaked what I wanted (a conceptual overview of calculus), and eventually ran across a really great books that provided a broad overview of the subject. I combined that book with some MIT lectures from YouTube, and I reached my goal. Right now, I’m toying with the idea of learning to code, but the popular resource, Codecademy, just doesn’t do it for me. I’ve tried it several times and… meh. So, I’m ransacking my brother’s books on various programming languages while I’m at my parents’, and we’ll see where this leads 🙂
Remember that boredom and frustration are the enemy. If anything starts to feel just a little bit tedious, switch materials or take a break. With self-education, you need to remember that you are always the one in control. If you don’t like something, you can change it. You have to change it, because motivation is everything. If you start to resent your fragile, new project, then it’s out the window, because there are no outside forces keeping you focused. This isn’t school– in fact, it’s more fun than school– so don’t treat it like school.
Choose materials that tap into your personality and interests.
Here’s another beautiful thing about self-education– you can tailor your learning to your individuality.
If you’re a couch potato who never liked school, tests, or academics, that’s great! Learn a foreign language through TV, movies, and radio. Learn a new subject by trying out the plethora of online learning games and creative courses that are out there. If you love people, practice your target language by speaking. Check out the huge number of blogs that promote language learning through socialization and conversation. If you want to pick up a non-linguistic skill, try learning through mentorship or with a study group. If you’re a hyper-introvert like me, then feel free to relax with textbooks and the internet.
Schools use curricula designed for a particular kind of student– someone who is capable of performing fine on multiple choice tests and sitting still in a classroom. I was that kind of student, and guess what? That particular learning style is still very limiting. Open up to new kinds of learning and new kinds of experiences. Don’t limit yourself in thinking that “learning” always looks the same from person to person.
Read others’ experiences, and then move on.
Advice is wonderful. In fact, I suppose I’m writing advice right now. When you’re at the beginning of your self-education journey, you need all the advice you can take. Read interviews with famous people in the subject/skill you’re learning. Read blogs and newspaper articles. Read tons of books. And then, slow it down to trickle, because you’re going to have to forge your own path.
As you can tell from my blog posts, I really like the language learning advice from All Japanese All The Time. But as you also might notice, I don’t really use Khatzumoto’s method exactly as it’s prescribed on his site. Khatzumoto promotes heavy immersion, excluding all other languages to the greatest extent possible. SRS is the cornerstone of his method, and he’s not fond of the canned language used in textbooks written for foreigners. I like to immerse, but I also like textbooks. Sometimes I take extended breaks from immersion and only use textbooks. I haven’t seriously used an SRS in quite a while. I adapted the advice from AJATT to fit me and my preferences, and I recommend you do the same with any of your projects. You have to get out there are try stuff. Experiment! And believe me, as someone who likes books, sometimes I wish I could learn everything through reading only.Sadly, this isn’t quite the case (although you can learn a heck of a lot), and eventually, I have to try some stuff out to see if it works. I spent years reading novel-writing advice online and in books before I finally grabbed a pen and started experimenting with fiction myself.
Make goals and tweak them– decide how much you want to learn.
I think this is where the classroom mentality really trips us up. When I start a project, I often think, “I’m going to learn all of this subject!” That ambition-fueled adrenaline rush feels fantastic at the beginning of a new undertaking.
Turns out, a lot of the time, all I wanted was a taste, an overview, or just some of the basics. However, when I reached the point at which I was no longer interested, I felt guilty for quitting. For not becoming a master at something. This goes for languages, too– oh, the self-flagellation!
Sure, you can start out thinking that you want to master this skill/language/subject, but keep in mind that you’re allowed to change your goals. Dabbling in a lot of things gives you the chance to try something out, and you never know when it’ll be something you want to delve into further.
Back to math, I thought I wanted to emulate a rigorous, university-level calculus course, when it turned out that I was happy just learning about concepts and then moving on. I can always go back to math if I want to know more. With languages, it was so freeing when I figured out the magic of setting three and four month goals (enough to get a good feel for the language) and reevaluating my commitment to the language after that. It’s okay to try something out for fun! Set goals– these keep you motivated, after all– but be ready to change them up when you have more knowledge under your belt in a week or a month.
And don’t feel guilty for letting something go if you decide you want a break or if you’re just no longer interested. After all, we can’t devote our time to every single thing, and sometimes activities need to be dropped. Triage!
What are you learning?
To wrap up my ramble about self-education, learning can be anything you want it to be. Be open-minded about your goals and the tools you’ll use to reach them, and self-education can be an absolute joy.
Leave a comment if you’re currently teaching yourself something! Whether it’s language-related or not, I’m always up for new project ideas for myself.