How Quickly Can You Learn a New Subject?

One of my biggest regrets in life is not being able to speak another language fluently (I’m not counting the few random Welsh nouns I can remember from school). I have tried to pick up Spanish and German at various points, but found it incredibly difficult. Increasingly so as I get older. One of my proudest achievements, on the other hand, is *explanabrag* learning to play music at such a young age, and being in a position now where I can pick up a brand-new instrument very quickly. This disparity got me thinking. How quickly can you learn an entirely new subject and are there tried and tested methods to help?

          Wait, how many hours?

Many of you will be familiar with the hugely popular 10,000 hours theory set out by Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers. On the surface this seems to be obvious. 10,000 hours is long time, and should be enough time to pick up any skill or know a good deal about a certain subject. My degree programme for instance called for a total of roughly 3,000 hours of study.

But Gladwell’s theory came in for criticismfor being overly simple. All our brains and bodies are different, and as a result we learn different subjects at different speeds. Music, for me, seems easy when compared to languages. Richard Simcott, a renowned Polyglot, on the other hand could have the opposite problem.

So, if the 10,000-hour rule is not a hard and fast one, are there ways we can improve our chances and the speed at which we pick up a new subject?

          Dont We Need No Education?

In a conversation with fellow polyglot, Steve Kaufmann, Simcott explains the benefits that classrooms provide. Kaufmann on the other hand leans more towards a self-taught ‘autodidactic’ learning method. I’ll just point out that Simcott can speak over 50 languages, and Kaufmann a paltry (sorry, Steve) 16 and let you make your own minds up as to which method is more effective.

One of the most interesting points that Simcott makes is the diversity of techniques multiple language speakers use to acquire new languages. But, this does not answer the question of whether there are tried and tested methods that will work for anyone.

          Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Well, it turns out there may be. It’s a method outlined by renowned Nobel winning physicist and world’s greatest dinner party guest, Richard Feynman. And it can be done in four ‘easy’ steps.

  1. Explain it to a child: Write out the information you are trying to learn clearly and simply so that a child could understand, making sure your gloss any technical language fully to make sure you understand it yourself.
  2. Review the things you couldn’t explain: If you struggle to define any terms or find certain things are difficult to commit to memory, spend time focusing on these points.
  3. Simplify: With your explanation down on paper, simplify it into logical sequence of points to make sure you understand how the component parts stick together
  4. Bore your friends: If you can explain the subject matter to another person, and they understand what you are talking about, then great! If not review the pint they are having trouble with and try again.

Get Help

Being an autodidact would be awesome, but many of us simply don’t have the time and/or patience for 10,000 hours of study. Using the Feynman method will improve your chances of retaining knowledge, but by far the best was to learn a new subject is from an expert. Luckily, these days there are courses on any subject you could hope to learn run by some of the most prestigious institutions around such as these Oxford Summer Courses. So, what are you waiting for? Comienza a apretar…. hold on?


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