A lesson in self-directed language learning

I never get tired of watching how my children learn what they need to learn. Mostly this process ticks along quietly. When they’re interested in something, they deep dive into it— they read, they talk, they watch documentaries, and they weave the knowledge together from many sources. The learning is a natural result of their curiosity and it happens easily.

Other times, they set about purposefully to acquire a skill that can’t be picked up in quite the same way. E learned to play the tinwhistle during the last lockdown by practising for hours a day with his tutorial book and YouTube videos. Maybe if E had been born into a family of Irish musicians, he would have picked this up naturally, but as it was, it took a lot of discipline. But, where there’s intrinsic motivation there is often incredible amounts of discipline.

So, right now, D is learning languages, and his motivation and discipline are also impressive. He is learning German, Chinese and Russian, and also trying to keep up with Catalan and Spanish, which he learned when we lived in Barcelona. He started the three new languages over a month ago, and according to the various apps he’s using, he hasn’t missed a day’s learning yet.

It’s pretty joyful to watch him learn. I can’t imagine anything more different from my own linear language learning in school. There were some lame textbooks that did try to convey the sense that these were real life languages that real people spoke. But I think that was lost on most of the class.

Unlike most of my class at school, D’s main motivation is not to pass exams. He is learning because this feels important to him. His main motivation is his curiosity about the cultures of these countries. Acquiring the language is a way for him to access a whole new culture and be part of it. And so, the language and the culture are entirely enmeshed, and as he increases his knowledge of each language, I can feel his delight that he is inching closer to something tangible. For D, learning a language without this cultural context would be nonsense.

For his Russian, he uses an app and a text book. The book is possibly the most complicated book I’ve ever seen for language learning, but perhaps that’s because I have only studied languages which use the same alphabet as English. He does his app lessons every day, then every few days, he works through some pages of the book. I help him with this because it really does take two people to decipher this darn book. We’ve done the first chapter several times now because he’s so thorough and won’t move on until he’s nailed it. I would have skipped merrily on to the next lesson by now.

So here is the wonderful thing about self-directed learning. Because it is fuelled by curiosity, it tends to make all sorts of interesting twists and turns. It is impossible for someone else to direct this process in the same intuitive and complete way as the learner does. Why? Because it involves new thoughts building on older thoughts, intricate connections with other bits of knowledge that were acquired previously, the triggering of a new idea, an association with a memory… You would need real-time access to a map of someone’s mind to figure out their best route, and you’d probably still get it wrong.

There was a complicated paragraph about grammar in the book that took a few reads to understand. D has never had any interest in studying English grammar, because he has never felt he needed to. So, whilst he has learned many terms simply by bumping into them in life, others are foreign to him. And so, I found us having an impromptu grammar lesson at D’s request to fill in some of the blanks. At one point we were puzzling over a long sentence about transliteration and phonetic transcription. That took us a while. Later, after one of the words he had to spell out was the pianist, Chostakovitch, we were inspired to have his music on in the background as we worked. Then D was so distressed by my appalling Russian accent that he looked for a video of someone speaking Russian. He came across a BBC interview with Gorbachev that he’d watched recently. We ended up watching most of it just because it was fascinating. And it definitely improved my Russian accent. And so, in the course of an hour of Russian, we also dipped into English grammar, classical music and politics.

I’m also enjoying how it all overlaps. D has started to watch a Chinese TV show that has been dubbed into Spanish, so that he can learn about China and its media whilst also improving his Spanish. He is also pondering if he should learn German through Spanish rather than English for the same reason. He watches a Catalan political satire show so that he can improve his Catalan, whilst also keeping up with the region’s complicated politics.

Learning Russian and Chinese has also spilled over into his writing. Like many children who don’t go to school, D is not particularly interested in handwriting. He would like to write better but finds it boring and slow. Typing is much faster. He is now delighted that he has finally found a way to practise pen control that he thinks he’ll enjoy. Russian cursive! When we’ve finally slogged through the current chapter, we move onto writing. We’ve had some fun looking up Russian cursive online and finding the most incomprehensible examples imaginable. If he can master that then I suspect he’s right that his English handwriting will benefit. He has also spent some time practising his Chinese characters and we have a few carefully crafted signs around the house saying friendly things like ‘Welcome’. Encouraged by his progress in the language, he has also picked up once more the English translation of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Over the last year he had been diligently working his way through this part-historical, part-fictional account of the feudal times of the Han dynasty. Written in the 14th century, it has 120 chapters. I find it mind-boggling that someone who says he finds it hard to focus on a novel has chosen this as his bedtime reading. It does neatly illustrate the point that if I was attempting to direct his learning, he would certainly not be happily reading The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Besides the writing skills and grammar, he has also found his English vocabulary expanding from his Spanish learning. His Spanish is quite fluent but missing a lot of vocabulary, and every now and again he comes across a word he doesn’t know in either language that he is happy to look up. He sees this as an added and unexpected benefit.

What else has come up in the course of all of this? As always, when one person in the house engages with something new, it rubs off on all of us. So we are all picking up various facts about Russia, China and Germany, and the odd word or two as we go. Their dad (who is Argentinian) is watching La Casa de Papel in Spanish, and that has brought the Italian song “Bella Ciao” into our lives. We’ve learned all the words in Italian, and now D has just translated it into Spanish. We’ve followed some traditional Catalan recipes in an attempt to taste some things we’re missing. So, we’ve brought the smells and tastes of panellets and xuxos into the house. We’ve talked about the media and politics in all these countries. We’ve considered where we would go if we were able to travel. That’s taken us to look up places on Google maps and check out houses for sale in obscure places.

So, there we have it. Self-directed learning in action. Sometimes it’s quiet, and sometimes it’s like this, fast-flowing, intense, joyful and all-encompassing. It can be dizzying to watch and challenging to figure out what is needed by us, if anything at all. But, above all, for the person who is directing their own journey, and who is moved along entirely by their own desire and curiosity, it is an exploration of what is meaningful to them. And there is definitely a lesson in there for us all.

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