Learning Tips

From Jonathan Gardner's Korean Notebook
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Learning to Learn

Before you spend a great deal of time studying anything, I suggest you ponder for a few moments on the art of learning. That is, learn to learn before you spend much time learning.

My Rules of Learning

There is a great deal of myth out there about how people learn, much of which is promulgated by people who really don't know what they're talking about. This includes pretty much everyone in psychology and the education industry, and it even includes myself. So before we begin, let's learn rule #1:

Rule #1: You can learn!

Some people sell themselves short and say, "I can never do that." That's simply not true. We are all fundamentally the same.

In languages, a good way to help you understand your potential is to point to any 3 year-old kid that speaks the language and say, "That is a 3-year-old baby that speaks that language. Certainly you, someone much older and wiser, can do the same!"

Rule #2: Only you know how you learn best.

The ultimate rule is that you have to figure out for yourself how you learn best. No one can tell you that, since they are not you. So from the beginning, you are going to apply experiments on yourself to see which way suits you best.

Rule #3: Keep the goal in mind.

In anything you do, you have to have a clear picture of what you want and where you are. Only then can you map out what you intend to change yourself so that you have what you want.

In learning, you have to understand what it is you are really after. For me, when I learned Korean, I wanted to be able to communicate effectively. That means I could understand what they were thinking and I could express my thoughts. This is different than mastering endless vocabulary lists or learning a bunch of obscure and useless phrases.

Set a clear goal, keep it in mind, and do a lot of circumspection to determine where you are in relation to that goal.

A great way to keep a goal in mind is to write it down. Put it up someplace prominent so you see it and especially others see it. This will help you remember what you ultimate goal is.

Rule #4: Different things require different ways of learning.

There are different ways to learn things, and different things require different methods of learning. I am going to introduce a variety of learning methods below, and you will have to adapt them to your particular needs.

Rule #5: Learn to love learning.

There is a very real joy when you learn and master something. If you learn to connect the activity of learning with this joy of success, then you'll find you won't ever want to stop learning.

How can you learn to love learning? After you have learned something, particularly something that was hard for you to learn, celebrate! Tell your friends and family about the thing you learned, not to gloat, but to let them know that you are happy.

Compare yourself with others in a positive way. For instance, don't say, "Ah, I can never be as smart as so-and-so." This will breed contempt to learning and growing. Instead, say, "They got to be where they are by studying and practice and I can do the same." As you learn something, you'll find joy in seeing yourself grow to become like those you admire.

Also, try to keep happy while studying. Keep a positive attitude, try to see the good that is happening, and approach difficulty with the idea that you can and will improve over time.

Rule #6: Patience, patience, patience.

Sometimes we want things right away, and we refuse to pay the price in time to get it. Many things in life simply take time to achieve.

There are two kinds of time we must spend. One is the time we spend studying, and the other is the time we spend not studying. I propose that you only need about 15-45 minutes daily of study, and days and weeks of non-studying to master something.

Think of it like a bank account. There is the time you spend in effort which is like money you've deposited. But there is also the time you spend doing nothing, which is interest accumulated. The interest you accumulate in your bank account is generally small, but in the learning world, the interest rate is quite high, and so after depositing only small amounts of time a day, you will see huge increases if you simply wait and let your brain sort things out for you.

Methods of Learning

Here are a variety of ways of learning.


The easiest way to learn is to experience things for yourself. If someone yells, 뜨거워!, and you get burned, you are going to have that experience etched in your memory and your reflexes. Next time someone yells that, you'll react appropriately.

Unfortunately, experience takes a long time. If you're a missionary, you don't have much time to build up experience. Anything that you can do to speed up the process will make things go much quicker.

I can't recommend anything other than experience for mastering the skill of listening. Make sure that your ears are turned on 100% whenever you are immersed in Korean.

I also can't recommend anything other than experience for mastering the skill of reading. Read lots of Korean everyday, even if it makes no sense at all. Eventually, your brain will find the patterns and you will start to understand it all.

Come to think of it, I can't recommend anything other than experience for speaking and writing. As you try to express your thoughts, you will quickly learn what expressions work and which ones don't.


Another great way to learn is to do something again and again. When you are learning how to pronounce Korean, practice is the best way, by far.

You may have heard the phrase, "Practice makes perfect." This phrase is wrong. It should say, "Perfect practice makes perfect." In other words, if you are practicing the wrong thing, you will learn the wrong thing. Make sure that while you are practicing you have someone, even yourself, carefully monitoring you to ensure that you are doing it correctly. If you make a lot of mistakes, slow down.


A lot has been written about how to memorize things quickly. Most of this is bunk, except repetition. This is how you use repetition to memorize something.

  1. Repeat the thing you need to do until you no longer have to think about it at all. If your mind is wandering while you are repeating it, and you are repeating it correctly, do it a few more times because you have successfully memorized it.
  2. After a short period---hours or a single day, do #1 again until you reach the same point where you have memorized it.
  3. Keep doing the above daily until you don't have to remember it anymore. You just start and repeat it thoughtlessly without mistake. It should feel totally natural. Congratulations, it is now in your long-term memory.
  4. Refresh your memory regularly. This means revisiting what you memorized from time to time. At first, do it every couple of days, then weeks, then months, and then years. If you don't refresh your memory, you will forget it.

There are some people who put hard limits and numbers to the above. I don't work that way. You probably don't either. I have identified the memorization point as key, not any number of times of doing something.

Memorization is great, but it is hard and time consuming and boring. Not only that, but it doesn't yield great results. People really don't care how much you've memorized. And memorizing phrases and such won't help you to really communicate.

However, in the beginning, memorization is going to be very useful. If you want to hand out a Book of Mormon, you're going to have to know how to say key phrases like, "I want to give this to you." Without this, you will fail, miserably.

Theory / Science

I love understanding the why's and wherefore's and such. However, this understanding doesn't really help with a lot of goals. Sometimes it really does, however.

The scientific method is a great way to discover theories and to prove that other people's theories are correct or incorrect. It is a rather simple process that goes like this:

  1. Invent or understand a theory. This theory should take into account everything you're seen, heard, and otherwise observed.
  2. Propose an experiment that would prove that theory wrong.
  3. Try out the experiment, or observe carefully until you see that event occur.
  4. Evaluate what you've seen, and go back to step 1.

Note that no one, not I, not a native Korean speaker, and not the top professors of the Korean language, really understand what is happening. We have great theories and ideas, but there are always cases that seem to contradict what we understand.

However, having really good theories do help you form correct ideas and put together astounding expressions. If you understand a lot of mostly correct theories, you can get to whatever goal you want to get at.

A note on language theories: Languages are, inevitably, a hodge-podge of other languages. Each generation takes what it inherited and modifies it in fairly significant ways. New words, new expressions come in, and old words and old expressions disappear. English is notorious for having so many different languages at its roots, each of which have their rules applied in special cases. ("mouse"->"mice", "deer"->"deer", etc... come about because those words come from different languages with different rules on pluralization.) Korean is not immune from this! As you will see, Korean is a hodge-podge of native Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Latin, English, and many, many more languages.

So theories are nice, theories are good, theories are essential, but they only go so far.

Have fun!

Above all, enjoy learning something new. Of all the activities in life that I enjoy, I enjoy learning the most.

Learning isn't about teachers and books and deadlines and such.

It's about discovering something about you and the world around you that you get to keep forever and ever. What you know makes you different from everyone else in this world. You are special because of what you have learned for yourself.

Get excited when you learn something new or master an old skill or discover something that only you know!

See Also