With suitable real-life examples.
Do you remember what it’s like to learn something from scratch? I’m not talking about a learning curve such as switching from Windows to Mac, but instead, something you’ve started from zero, nothing, nowhere, completely lost.
I’ve studied engineering, and one thing I’ve loved about this domain is that we learn “how to learn.” I apply this knowledge to virtually everything I do in life.
My objective here is to dissect the process of learning from scratch to give you a concrete guide to start tonight. To get a better picture of the method, I’ll share the story when I’ve learned how to speak a third language.
Analogy: Learning Process versus a Steam Machine
I wish I could have been like Trinity in The Matrix movies to fly a helicopter just by downloading software with a cable plugged into my brain. But no. However, the human learning process can be compared to a steam machine.
The purpose of a steam machine is to perform mechanical work. First (1), it must be designed to accomplish a goal. (2) To start the engine, it takes energy (steam pressure). (3) To function over a reasonable period, it must continuously receive power and have regular maintenances.
Imagine for one second that you are the engineer who takes care of our steam machine. Tomorrow, its mission changes: it has to perform a different task. You stepped back for a while, and you draw some concepts on a whiteboard. Your conclusion is to add a solar-powered component. Since it’s quite a switch, you put everything in a simple plan: timeline, budget and next steps. Then, you execute your plan. You become a fan of NASA’s motto: “Failure is not an option.”
That’s the same process to learn from scratch. Let’s have a closer look.
A simple plan is the best starting point
I’ve always dreamed of going to Latin America. I feel a majestic emotion towards this part of Earth. An amalgam of rainforests, deserts, cities, altitude, small villages, people in colourful clothes, the Machu Picchu, the Easter Island, la Tierra del Fuego…
That’s why I wanted to learn Spanish.
My mother tongue is French Canadian; my second is English. This new project brought me back to square one. In short, I had no knowledge, no experience and, above all, no confidence.
Has that ever happened to you? You walk into a place and hear what other humans say, but you don’t know what it means? You try to communicate, and you can’t? On these occasions, I feel trapped in my own body. In order words, I feel like shit. Do you?
I’ve enrolled myself in the YMCA language school with a teacher from Latin America. French and Spanish are similar due to their Latin origin, so I thought it would be “easier” for me. However, the only vocabulary I had in my pocket was “Una cerveza por favor.” (one beer, please.) I’ve studied Spanish for over a year and a half, two classes per week, after work.
It was worse than learning English since I am not exposed to Spanish every day. (Welcome to Canada! — All the country is English, except for a few French places, like Quebec.) Therefore, I have to make that extra effort.
The journey can be resumed as taking the time to understand each lesson, doing homework carefully, summarizing the concepts, writing small texts, getting feedback, learning from mistakes, asking questions. And, more importantly, taking my ego out of the equation and not giving up.
One day, I finally bought my plane ticket. I’ve lived with a family in Peru for one month. When I walked to Machu Picchu, talking with the Spanish guide, I remembered every effort I’ve put in this project. It was a fantastic achievement for me.
Here is how I’ve made my simple plan to learn from scratch a third language. For visual clarity, I’ve mapped it with our analogy to the cute little steam machine. (Remember: you are the engineer.)
The hardest part is convincing your boss (your brain) that the solar-powered steam project is worth it (learn Spanish and visit Latin America). The business case is that the company (you) will benefit from the new component since it will improve the customer’s satisfaction (being able to travel to a country and talk to local people in their language).
A simple plan in 3 easy steps:
1 — Build the new solar-powered component.
Make time in your schedule after work for a new project. Sit down. Start with Spanish lesson 101.
2 — Both engines must work in parallel until the tests successfully pass.
Work hard. Buy your plane ticket.
3 — Replace the steam component with the solar-powered new one. Start the machine. Continuously improve the mechanics.
Walk to Machu Picchu. Feel the power of this spiritual place. Have a chat with Peruvians to absorb a glimpse of their great and rich culture.
The steam machine is a success, and your boss asks why you didn’t do it earlier.