Learning a language to learn how to learn anything else

In this post I will explain how learning German has helped me to learn to identify medicinal plants used in the Amazon. These are apparently two unrelated skills but here I want to show how the principles of learning can be relevant in different fields such as botany and languages.

Many believe that with the increasing access to information schools should change their traditional role of transmitting information and instead they should teach students how to learn. By doing so schools will empower students to go on and learn by themselves whatever they are interested in by accessing freely available information.

Learning a language can be very useful to learn how to learn because a lot of the principles that are valid to learn a language can be applied to many other fields. Many of the posts that I have previously written deal with some aspect of learning that can be applied not only to languages but in many other fields. For example, in the last post I explained how the probability that we forget new information is related to its repetition. In another post I explained the difference between knowledge and skills and why this matters. In one of the first posts I explained how motivation is crucial in learning.

Let me give you a practical example, in the last weeks I wanted to learn to recognize the most common medicinal plants growing in the Amazon because I will do some field research in this area. I soon realised that I could apply spaced repetition of flashcards that have the images of the plants on one side and the name of the species on the other, similarly for what I have done to learn new German words.

It was relatively easy to find images of the plant species in internet and then use them on Anki, the software that creates flashcards and shows them just at the right time to avoid forgetting the new information. Furthermore, when I found difficult to learn the Latin name of a species I used striking mental associations as I did in the past to learn new German words.

These methods worked well and after few weeks I am now familiar with many medicinal plant species,  which will be a considerable advantage when conducting field research.

Learning a language is, of course, a long-term investment, but I think that this investment pays off in many different ways. The more you are successful in learning a language the more you are likely to have learned how to learn and the more you will be able to learn new skills in the future when you decide so. From this viewpoint learning a language can be empowering because it can liberate our ability to learn and create new thirst for knowledge.


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