Don’t Study the Basics, Learn By Grazing

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If you really want to learn something, don’t worry about learning the basics first. Just go about gathering knowledge wherever you find it, doing things you like to do. Instead of trying to build a house of knowledge, one brick at a time, starting from the foundation, try to learn by “grazing”, following whatever attracts your interest. You will find that apparently aimless “grazing” will take you over increasingly familiar ground, and your grasp of the subject will naturally deepen.

At school we are taught that we need to learn things in a certain order, according to the curriculum, so that we can pass our tests. Learning is divided up into short spurts of activity, with the class subject changing every 30-40 minutes. The teacher decides what we are going to learn and at what pace. We are usually dissuaded from going ahead of the teacher to  pursue things that interest us. We don’t have the luxury of staying with a subject of interest for a whole morning, let alone weeks at a time.

Not only does this structured approach often destroy the pleasure of discovery and learning that so many school kids start with, but it conditions many people, throughout their lives, to view learning as a lineal process, rather than the disorderly creative meandering journey  that it is.

If you are an adult learner, you may be better off abandoning these habits and learning to “graze”. Let’s look at language learning as but one example.

1. The basic rules and structures of a language are often hard to grasp, unless you already have some background.

You need a lot of exposure to the language, aimed only at understanding and experiencing the language, in order that these basic rules can start to make sense. You need some points of reference for these explanations and rules to be meaningful. As the Sufi proverb says, “ you can only learn what you already know.”

2. The basic rules are inherently boring and hard to remember.

The brain has an easier time getting used to patterns, through frequent exposure in different settings, rather than remembering isolated facts and rules. Being confronted with tables of verb tenses, or complicated rules, or lists of words, can often discourage us, because we find them so difficult to remember, despite repeated efforts to do so.

3. “Grazing” , just reading and listening to things of interest, is inherently more satisfying for your brain, than cramming grammar rules.

According to neuroscience, the brain needs novelty and repetition in order to learn. “Grazing”, or covering a variety of language content, at varying levels of difficulty, using different sources, is an ideal way to stimulate the brain with new experiences, and yet go over the same ground many times. You explore new areas, and then listen and read up in areas that you have already covered. This kind of activity gives your brain novelty and repetition. As you understand more and more of the new language, you have a feeling of achievement. This is most gratifying, unlike the feeling of frustration that you get from yet another vain attempt to memorize grammar rules.

4. The Internet is the ideal “grazing” ground. You can find material at all levels of difficulty, in a variety of languages, on the Internet.

This ranges from, podcasts for beginners, blogs and language teaching websites, to more advanced material from newspapers, radio stations and TV stations. There are online dictionaries, grammar summaries, and dedicated language learning communities to help you. Just google and you will find them.

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5.Your “grazing” can include the occasional review of the basics, when you feel like doing so or are curious to know something.

“Grazing” the basics, whether by occasionally browsing through simple grammar books, or looking up certain grammar rules via google, can be a useful activity. You will find that it becomes more and more useful, as you acquire a sense for the language through your main “grazing” activity with content of interest.

* * *

To become an effective life long learner, it may be necessary to throw off some of the habits acquired as school kids in the classroom.

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