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How to be an independent learner

Learning tips

How to be an independent learner

Have you ever sat through a class, been bored out of your mind, and not remembered anything that was covered? Here's how to kick your learning into high gear.

Have you ever sat through a class, been bored out of your mind, and not remembered anything that was covered?

I have, many times!

It can be a combination of a dry topic, how the topic is being taught, how the other students in the class are participating, the stuffiness in the room, and even how you are feeling at that particular time.

The number of times I fell asleep in my maths lectures at uni was uncountable. A stuffy room, a droning voice, no audience participation and nothing exciting happening – the perfect environment for a tired student to get some sleep.

It was impossible to actually learn anything in that class.

So I had to become an independent learner, if I wanted to pass my exams!

Work out your learning style

I learn very much by summarising, drawing diagrams, writing and reading. That would make me quite a visual learner.

Talking-head video lessons or live lectures are useless. Even something new learned in a conversation or explained verbally in a language class simply does not stick in my brain.

Pure memoriastion is also problematic, so I have to use mnemonics. Putting a grammar or maths rule to a rhythm or a song, seeing a picture to explain the meaning of a Japanese character, linking words and concepts together with a funny ‘movie’ in my mind all help me to remember.

However, many polyglots learn a language best by speaking and listening. Their conversation partner corrects their pronunciation and grammar, and they can remember easily.

How do you learn best?

Find something fun

I love game-based language apps, or something that shows me visually how much I have remembered. Even better is when a friend competes with me.

Lex:tra DE is an old spaced repetition flash card app (SRS) that covers the most used 4000 words in German. Its progress bars are motivating, but I don’t think it’s available these days. Cornelsen has release a set of books instead.

Duolingo and [LingoDeer] cover a number of languages. I’m finding they are really helping me drill the gender of German articles.

There are similar language game apps and websites available for many languages. I have a bunch of Japanese language apps that I enjoy using.

I also enjoy watching movies in my target language, or series that are subtitled in the target language, and reading translated versions of my favourite books.

What do you enjoy that you could move into your target language?

Do a little every day

If you only work on your target language or skill in a class, once or twice a week, you won’t easily remember or improve.

When I started learning clarinet, I only played in my lesson and in the band. Practicing at home? No way! When I got put into a small performance group, I had to get better so as not to stand out as the ‘bad’ one. Just ten minutes a day, and often not the piece I was learning, was enough to improve my tone and technique.

It’s the same for learning a language. Running through flash cards or reading a couple of pages of a novel (while on the toilet) every day is better than one marathon session or class each week.

Drop by Twitch streams where people are chatting in your target language and join in.

What little things can you do each day?

Become curious

I’m often told I’m too curious. I’ll disappear down the rabbit hole of the internet, following up tidbits of information that are interesting, that then lead to linked tidbits. Then a few hours can disappear!

But curiosity hasn’t killed me yet!

In fact, wanting to know why something is the way it is helps me understand the concepts and remember the information. When you are curious, you naturally want to learn more.

I’m particularly fascinated by how the politeness levels change the grammar in Japanese, and the dialects in German.

What are you curious about? What fascinates you about the language you are learning?

Increase your speed

To keep up with my insatiable curiosity, I had to develop speed reading and skimming skills. I skim first to get the gist of an article, and decide whether it’s worth reading properly.

If it’s a non-fiction book, I look over the table of contents, and often read the first paragraph or two of each chapter.

It’s not difficult to learn how to speed read, it just requires 20 minutes and a little practice.

Be critical

After being told by many doctors and people that my chronic illnesses were imaginary, I had to research on my own. Many online sources and local naturopaths offered miracle cures – pills and diets that would fix me quickly. After trying a few of these cures (which didn’t work), I had to broaden my information sources and learn to be more critical.

We are told in school to search for a range of sources of information and evaluate them carefully, looking for bias and trustworthiness. But it’s also important in our every day lives, especially when we are learning something on our own.

If someone says that the Pimsleur language tapes will make you fluent – what is their bias (an affiliate perhaps)? Find a few other opinions. Personally, I find Pimsleur useful as an intensive introduction, covering basic phrases and pronunciation. They certainly don’t get me anywhere near fluency.

For getting my ears used to the pronunciation, I find free short podcasts about things I’m interested in work better, as the speech is more natural.

How good are you at seeing possible bias?

What else makes you an independent learner?

Do you have any other skills or techniques that you find important when learning independently, outside of a class?