A few days I had an insight into the way I learn things. There are basically two approaches one can take: Start with something basic and master it before moving on, or get an overview of the entire subject and fill in the fine points later.
I’m the latter type. I need to see the big picture before all the details make sense.
In computer animation and in website design, a wireframe is a bare-bones framework used for roughing in a project. It serves as proof-of-concept: Does this look right? Does it do what I want it to do?
A lot of the excitement and joy of learning comes from seeing a subject in context, the way it’s used in the real world. When it’s working, it’s like a magazine: A little bit of information on various aspects of a topic, with some good photography and a message from the editor to give it a personal touch. I find it a lot easier to read a magazine than a textbook. It’s also easier to grasp what’s going on, access the articles in whatever order I want, and most significantly, relate one aspect of the topic to another.
An example: I have a 2002 issue of the magazine Sky and Telescope open on the dining room table right now. I first became interested in astronomy in the early 1960s, in the days of the Mercury space program. (Having a dad who worked on communications satellites didn’t hurt, either.) It was only last year that I got serious about wanting to know more, and all of a sudden I was inundated by terminology. “Collimation.” “Open cluster.” “Dobsonian.” Even words that I had heard before, like “terminator,” have specific but not-so-obvious meanings in astronomy (the terminator is the line where the moon changes from light to dark).
I find that this kind of skimming over a subject in a relaxed manner, picking up ideas here and there, is a much less stressful way of learning something. The scattering of new material across a landscape of established ideas makes it easier for me to hang onto new things because I can relate them to things I already knew, and when they come up in a magazine or in a lecture, I recognize them and learn more about them.
If only I could come up with something similar for language learning. I’ve tried for many years to become fluent in a number of foreign tongues, but the data stored in my brain doesn’t seem to be anchored to anything in particular. I can read French reasonably well, but the thought of having an actual conversation with a real person scares me silly. It might be time to tear down the scaffolding acquired in French class in an anglophone school in Quebec over 50 years ago, and build something that actually works for me. D’accord, faisons-le!