Tag Archives: learning


It’s all connected

Finally—after rather a long break in which all I really did was keep the vocabulary warmed up—I seem to have resumed the Norwegian-learning. Still the same technique: interact on Twitter in Norwegian, and learn whatever vocabulary and grammar I find I need in doing that. One or two people have made startlingly positive and very encouraging comments to the effect that I’ve been learning quickly.

I’ve never felt I was learning it from scratch, though. For a start, I learnt German at school; Norwegian is another Germanic language, so there are lots of connections. If you know that eigentlich and wichtig in German mean  actually and important for example, it’s not so difficult to remember that egentlig and viktig in Norwegian mean really and important. In fact it’s a pretty fair bet (so far) that if changing –ig at the end of a Norwegian word produces something similar to a German one ending in -ich, the meaning will be roughly the same. Changing –lig to English –ly often works, too: for example nemlig means namely among other things. It’s all about connections.

These connections come up all the time. For example, it puzzled me for ages why Norwegian uses the word og for and. It’s clearly nothing like and or its German equivalent und. Neither is it like the French or Latin word et. It seems to be out on a limb, apart from being a bit like och which I happen to know is the Swedish version.

Except . . . well there’s og and there’s òg. They’re closely connected in meaning:  òg is an emphatic word for also. (The usual word for also is også.) Also isn’t so far from and. Maybe there’s a clue here . . .

I haven’t learnt Dutch, but I can understand odd snippets by relating them to German. Often the key is to replace a k with ch. So when yesterday I was looking at the Dutch word ook in a tweet, I found myself wondering whether it was equivalent to German auch and meant also. It does. And then suddenly og made perfect sense. Of course it’s nothing like and or und, because that’s not where it goes. It belongs with the German for also. Norwegian og = Swedish och = German auch. Suddenly it fits nicely into a pattern.

I visualise this as a sort of network with branches and interconnections. I hadn’t been able to see the connection because I’d wanted to attach og to the wrong branch. When I found the right one, the connection was obvious.

Staying connected

When I learn a new word—unless it’s a short one with no obvious connections to anything else—I try to learn not just the word, but its connections to other words too. This is a bit different from how we mostly learnt at school, where in most cases a new word was simply a new word which came as a single unit of information.

Take for example bemerkelsesverdig, which came up a few months ago. I learnt this group together:

  • å merke: to mark, notice
  • å bemerke: to remark
  • -else: ending used to make a noun from a verb
  • ei bemerkning: a remark (I had to learn this to avoid thinking it would be en bemerkelse)
  • verdig: worthy
  • bemerkelsesverdig: remarkable, noteworthy
  • I should also have learnt verd(-et), “(the) worth”, but didn’t think of it at the time.
  • I noted, but didn’t put on my vocabulary list, that be- at the start of Norwegian verbs seems to do pretty much the same thing that it does with English ones.

This has several advantages:

  • Learning all the bits of a word (morphemes) means you’re half way to learning lots of other words too which use the same bits.
  • You mostly don’t end up learning long obscure words before short frequently-used ones. A long obscure word is likely to be made up of several short frequently-used ones, which you learn straight away.
  • You start to get a feel for how Norwegian words work.
  • Sometimes you pick up little bits of grammar from seeing how the words are made.
  • The words fit into a logical pattern, which makes them easier to remember.
  • At least for me, the connections are interesting in themselves. Information you’re interested in is much easier to remember than things you feel neutral about.

Thinking back to when I first learnt a foreign language, I remember being encouraged to make connections between words. Guessing was not just allowed but encouraged. What does the unfamiliar word look as if it might mean? What English word might it be similar to? Have a guess! The guess might be right or wrong, of course . . . so you have to check. If you were right, a theory forms about how the language works. If you were wrong, you learn that the theory behind your guess didn’t work. Either way, you’ve learnt something.

I love these connections. They’re one of the things I most love about languages.


German was one thing. There was however another subject at school, which I absolutely hated: history. The school version had two basic problems.

  • It seemed not to be about anything remotely interesting or edifying. Most of the time it was about people killing each other or perpetrating other acts of inhumanity, mostly for rather silly reasons. (I’d hoped it would be about things like the history of science, or how archaeology works.) This made it incredibly depressing. There was enough cruelty in the world already, without having to hear about previous centuries of it as well.
  • I found it next to impossible to remember the information. It was a mass of names which all sounded the same, and dates which may just as well have been random numbers. There was no logic to it; no pattern of connections.

The second of those is the relevant one: I couldn’t absorb history because I couldn’t make the connections.

Not everyone might instinctively make such connections when learning a language, though. I was actively encouraged to do so. But I can imagine someone thinking entirely differently when they begin: “Don’t guess, because you might be wrong.  Look it up first, or ask the teacher. If you’re wrong, you’ll be setting yourself back by learning the wrong meaning. Since it’s a completely different language from your own, you must put thoughts of your own language out of your head. If you try to make connections they’ll just get in the way and mislead you.” That seems logical on the surface: if you’re going to learn something, you want to learn it right. But it takes away what I think is the most important tool for remembering things: connecting them to other things. It also, I think, stops you freely applying your intelligence to what you’re learning.


And so today I found myself wondering about these two opposite approaches, and about whether they might be reflected in how easy or difficult someone finds it to learn a language. Do different people gravitate towards one or the other approach, and find it easy or difficult as a result, or is it simply a matter of some people finding some types of information easier to connect together than other types? Or are some people able to remember random-seeming information without needing a pattern, even? I don’t know, but I find it an interesting question. As for me, I’ll continue making all the connections I can.

Creative cycles

If you read this regularly, or read back a few pages, you’ll know that I’ve recently come back to blogging here after quite a long break, and that there’s been a mini-flurry of posts. You can read them below!


A while ago, an online artist friend wrote in her blog that she’d decided to try to draw something every day, to practise her art skills. I was immediately attracted to the idea of trying to write something every day, maybe for this blog, as a similar useful discipline. But then I hadn’t the energy for it and the idea foundered.

Then I re-read her post the other week, and was encouraged to have a go. My flurry of posts ensued.
I believe in encouraging the encourager, so I mentioned to her that she’d encouraged me to start writing again. Her reply was along the lines: “Well actually… Yes, I really ought to get back to doing that.. I’m not doing it at the moment”.

Another online friend, a clarinettist, had had good intentions of practising every day. She wrote in her blog about feeling discouraged at not managing to do it. (She also wrote very encouragingly about being encouraged by me! Thank you.) And as you know if you’ve read below, my violin practice lapsed over Christmas…

How many of your New Year resolutions took the form “I will [insert idealistic ambition of personal perfection] every day”? Did they succeed?

I very much doubt that they did, but I’m not sure this is a bad thing. Reflecting on my own situatiion and the experiences of my fellow bloggers, I found myself thinking about the idea of creative cycles.

Learning, rest and cycles

I think any creative activity is in fact a learning process. Musical performance is included in this, by the way, because you have to create your particular style of playing. You’re always trying to develop and move forwards…

But learning is hard work for the brain. It doesn’t like concentrating hard on one thing indefinitely; after working at something new, it likes time to assimilate what has been learnt. If you play an instrument, imagine this scenario: one day, you go to a long rehearsal, or you do some intense practice at home. You work hard at it. When you stop, you’re definitely ready for a rest… Next day, when you practise some more, you don’t want to work on the same piece again, so you practise something else. Or you do try to play the same music, but seem to be having an “off day”. Or, more likely than not, you have a day off from playing, but the music you were practising is still going through your head. You find yourself unconsciously whistling tunes from it as you do other things. A few days later, you play the music again. You find it has improved a lot–while you weren’t working on it. Your practice told your brain what was required to play. Afterwards–most likely while you were asleep, if the suggestions of recent research are right–your brain set about “reprogramming” itself to achieve what you’d fed into it.

It does seem that most of the improvement happens between practice periods, not during them. That’s one reason why it’s a bad idea to force yourself to practise the same thing for hours on end, expecting it to become perfect as you practise. When your brain says you need to stop, you need to stop.

I think something similar might apply over longer timescales. Maybe we shouldn’t expect to keep our self-promise to do a particular activity every day–or even every week. Maybe it’s not even desirable that we should. (Or maybe our needs in this respect vary from person to person.) Each activity needs rest periods. A particularly long, intense period of one activity might need to be followed by a particularly long and complete rest from it. This might actually be healthy and not a failure on our part at all; it might be the success of recognising the way of working that enables us to give the best results.

Solo musicians whom I’ve met generally say that they like to learn the notes for a piece, then put it aside for several months before coming back to it. Then they’re ready to work on getting it ready for public performance. Slogging away for ever isn’t necessarily the best approach. In fact I’m pretty sure that for any creative activity it’s entirely the wrong one. (On a smaller timescale: I wrote the bulk of this post a week or so ago. Then I left it, and now that I’ve come back to edit it, the process feels a lot easier than it did then.)

I’m interested in a lot of different things–that’s probably obvious from my blog posts. But with most of them I’m never happy unless I involve myself in them in some depth. I’ll buy a textbook on a subject and study it. I’ll try to find out what the “professional” approach to it is. I’m interested in music, mathematics, computer programming, writing, and so on. Well, I can’t do all of those at once in the sort of depth I want to. Typically I’ll immerse myself in one of them for several months. Then I come to a natural point where it feels like time to do something else. I take a break from the activity I’ve immersed in, and immerse myself in the next one. So each activity happens in cycles, interspersed with the others.

The most important activities never quite go away, though. For example, there’s no time in the last twenty years when I’ve not been playing regularly in at least one orchestra. But there have been times when I was working hard at improving my violin technique, and others when I simply did what was required to prepare for the next concert. Those times haven’t been ones of musical inactivity, though: I’ve had the sense of using and consolidating the technique that was previously worked on. A period of learning followed by a period of consolidation.

So that’s how it seems to work for me. If you’re involved in any creative activity, do you have a similar experience of it going in cycles? I’d love to hear from you.

Violin surprise

As I mentioned, I’ve not had as much energy for things lately. That has particularly included violin practice. I didn’t play at all between Dec 20th (my last concert before Christmas) and Jan 3rd (the day before what should have been my first rehearsal of 2009).

So when orchestra rehearsals started up again last week, I was expecting my playing to be rather rusty, and to have quite a lot of work to do to get myself going again. But something interesting had happened. Certain aspects of my technique–in particular, “bow contact” and string crossings–appeared to have significantly improved during the break, without me having done anything other than not practice.

Let me explain the history of my playing. When I began, around the age of 9, I was basically self-taught. This is not a good idea: lots of things have to be got right from the beginning in order to avoid problems later on. When I joined the school orchestra at 12 or 13, I started having lessons. Then at university I was able to have really good lessons, with a teacher who could show me how to set about undoing my numerous bad playing habits. And for the next “few” years I worked on doing that, with the help of various violinists from the past such as Carl Flesch (via his pair of books The Art of Violin Playing).

At the beginning of last year I had a few more lessons, with a view to taking a proper performance qualification (a diploma in violin performance). Plans for that were overtaken by events and I never took the exam, but I now had had some new aspects of technique to work on and continued doing so until June. Then came my father’s death, and several months of not really feeling like playing. The enthusiasm is just beginning to come back now.

My task before the lapse was to try to replace some old playing habits with new ones. Any player will tell you that if they don’t play for a while, when they start up again they feel as though their bodies have “forgotten” how to play. For example, you send instructions to your fingers and they don’t respond properly. What seems so have happened in my case, though, is that the break has helped my body to forget the old aspects of my playing which I was trying to get rid of anyway, and what has come back is the new version which I was working towards. It was a very nice surprise, and completely unexpected. It’s as though working on my new playing style is a move vivid memory than using the old one. It really has become a lot easier to play in the way I was aiming for.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone else who’d had a similar experience of several weeks’ non-playing helping them to improve.