Something all learning pro’s should do

Learn a language.

I don’t mean a programming language (although the theory probably still holds). I mean a bone fide foreign language like French, German, Japanese or Mandarin.

By going outside of your comfort zone, you stimulate your brain into new realms. But more importantly, you experience once again what it’s like to be a novice learner.

Now YOU are the one on a steep learning curve.

It’s daunting. It’s awkward. And it’s humbling.

Language learning books.

As a teenager I developed a fascination for the German language. I think it stemmed from my love of history and my desire to understand what the enemy soldiers were saying in the movies.

Over the years I dabbled by doing a class, listening to tapes, buying an English-German dictionary and reading a few language books.

However it wasn’t until recently when I planned to revisit Germany that I made a conscious effort to give it another red hot go. I didn’t want to be one of those tourists who’s first words are inevitably: “Do you speak English?”

No, I wanted to understand – and be understood – auf Deutsch. At least enough to get by.

And I did all right. But in no uncertain terms I reminded myself of what works and what doesn’t in the learning process.

All those fundamental pedagogical principles that had faded into the background came flooding back with avengeance…

Instructivism and formal learning

When you’re a novice in a domain, the guidance of an expert is golden.

For example, the teacher at the front of a language classroom already knows the grammar, vocabulary, phrases, habits and customs that you need to know. He or she is in a prime position to provide you with a programmed sequence of knowledge.

In my opinion, there is no other way of getting up to speed so quickly.

Constructivism, connectivism and informal learning

While instructivism and formal learning are valuable, they comprise only one piece of the puzzle. Anything else you can access is invaluable – whether it be a copy of Der Spiegel, an episode of Inspector Rex, or a Twitter buddy in Berlin.

The motivated learner who extends the learning process beyond the formal curriculum is destined for mastery.

Skills development

You can learn about a language until the Friesian cows come home, but to acquire the skill you have to actually do it. From simply saying new words aloud, through role plays, to full-blown conversation cafes, the objective is to practise.

Make mistakes, improve your pronunciation, get the vocab front of mind.

OTJ, PBL and job aids

Developing a skill is a waste of time if you never apply it in the real world. At some stage you need to immerse yourself in the environment (in my case, Germany) and actively participate (eg order food, buy train tickets, ask for directions). In doing so, you continue to learn.

When you are in the moment, job aids – especially mobile job aids – become indispensable. I gave Google Translate a beating!

Use it or lose it

Repetition is key. I’m not referring to rote learning, but rather to the continual application of the knowledge.

When I was overseas, I must have looked up the same words six or seven times each; they weren’t very common.

On the other hand, other words were everywhere. I only needed to look those up once; they were naturally reinforced thereafter.

Now that I’m back in Oz, I know that I’ll lose much of my German unless I find ways to keep up the reading, writing, listening and conversing.

Someone holding a small globe of the world.

Of course, I realise I’m not telling you – a fellow learning professional – anything you don’t already know. But honestly, when was the last time you consciously used the concepts and principles I have just mentioned to inform your work?

During the daily grind it’s easy to slip into production mode and put your brain into hibernation. As a profession, we need to shock ourselves out of that state.

It’s time to put some skin back in the game, so why not learn a language?

Wer wagt, gewinnt!

9 thoughts on “Something all learning pro’s should do

  1. Great advice Ryan. I love languages and am so looking forward to the day when I can speak another language fluently, although for me it will probably be Spanish. Not just for the reasons you mention, which are all spot on, but because being monolingual is something I have never been proud of and I want to experience thinking in another language, I did French all the way through school and it does come back to some extent when I need it so I hope I can reach greater linguistic heights. Thanks for an interesting post.

  2. Guten Tag, Ryan. Ich bin eine Amerikanerin, und ich lerne Deutsch. I am also an instructional designer, as well as a training and development manager. I found your article insightful and it hit home. I’d love to reach out to you regarding both German and Instructional Design!

  3. A post after my own heart! Great insight and advice. How are we connected? (btw my #1 StrengthsFinder strength is connectedness)
    love of languages (BA in Foreign Languages), learning/teaching (currently I teach teachers online how to be ESL teachers), and Germany (study abroad 2 trimesters way back when, and lived in Berlin for 3 years), common topic of presentation (10th grade Speech class, How To speech, How to Learn a Foreign Language)!
    Thoroughly enjoyed your post.
    Oh, and my maiden name was Ryan. :0)

  4. Glad to meet a kindred spirit, Janie. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Great blog, Ryan, glad I found it!

    So what e-learning tools do you recommend?

    A recent trip to Indo showed me how useful flash card apps are…I could say 100 useful phrases within a couple of weeks!

    However, mastering a language (or musical instrument, martial art or other high-order skill) takes on average about 10,000 hours. Tools like the lingo apps above accelerate the process but don’t think you’ll be beating Goethe at his own game anytime soon ;)

    Deutsch ist übrigens sauschwer. Lern doch Indonesisch…ist VIEL einfacher und für einen Australier auch nützlicher nehm ich jetzt mal an.



  6. Great question, Guido. There are so many resources available on the web now, it’s hard to know where to begin. (For a good range, see Jane Hart’s “Learn a Language online” at:

    I found flash cards useful for memorising vocabulary. Reading German language newspapers and websites was also fruitful, as was reading Germans’ tweets — they use the “real” lingo! And because it’s all online, it’s easy to translate when necessary.

    Personally, my challenge with language learning isn’t so much the reading as the listening. So I converted a set of audio CD’s to MP3’s and transferred them to my iPhone. This ended up being a great idea because, as I didn’t get through them all before I went to Germany, I spent down-time at the airport, on the train etc listening to the tutorials. That kept the learning process alive.

    As I mentioned in the post, using Google Translate while out and about was invaluable because I learned the new words in context. Even now when I see a string of German I often remember where I first saw it.

    An app I wish I had at the time is Word Lens, which translates text when you point your iPhone’s camera to it!

    I think your estimate of 10,000 hours is about right. If you can do that in the right environment, all the better. And I take your point about Indonesian – the only thing I know how to say is Selamat Datang :o)

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