The Real Shortcut to Learning

a stack of old books

At some point most of us find ourselves needing or wanting to learn another language. Thankfully, we live in a world with a surplus of available information. There are countless free and paid learning resources available. We have apps, books, online courses, and everything in between that promise to teach us just about any language we could possibly want to learn. And all of these learning methods promise to teach us more effectively than all the others. Language courses claim to have the latest and greatest instructional methods that guarantee the fastest and easiest way to become fluent.

Sadly, as we can often instinctively tell, most claims of fast and easy fluency are exaggerations at best and sometimes flat-out lies. Many of us are all too familiar with the falsehood of such claims. We’ve signed up for a subscription for some app that promised us the easiest way to fluency or bought a phrasebook that promised to teach all the essential vocabulary we’d need to speak like a native and found out the hard way that such short cuts don’t work. We’ve seen the advertisements and infomercials about language courses that immerse us in a new language so that we can have fun learning naturally without having to study grammar or memorize vocabulary and ended up bored or frustrated.

If you’ve looked into learning a new language, or really anything else, at all, you’ve probably noticed the trend learning systems are following. They’re promising that learning will be easy and fun. We’ve been indoctrinated with the fallacious idea that education is supposed to be entertaining since we were toddlers watching Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer, and developers are using the false doctrine of entertaining education to make a profit. This doctrine is so pervasive that many of even the most conservative and traditional educators promote the idea that learning should be as fun as they can make it.

Replacing real education with cleverly disguised entertainment breeds ignorance and frustration. Having all grown up under the delusion that we need to be constantly entertained, we’ve shortened our attention spans and weakened our ability to sit still and pay attention to something that is not meant to be entertaining. We are shocked at the idea that people living before the subtle takeover of entertainment culture could willingly sit and listen to speeches, lectures, and sermons for hours at a time and read books for pleasure. Now it’s hard enough to find an adult, let alone a child, who could sit alone in a room with his own thoughts for an hour or two without desperately craving some kind of entertainment or media to consume.

In addition to making everything entertaining, language educators are also claiming that they can make learning easy, especially by eliminating the study of grammar. Grammar is often presented as some terrible monster of a subject that no one in their right mind would approach. Many people growing up in the public school system don’t even learn much grammar anymore if they learn any at all. When people are ignorant and fearful of the grammar of their own language, mastering the grammar of a foreign language seems like an insurmountable obstacle. Language instructors then design apps and curriculums that attempt to teach languages with as few technical grammar points as possible.

Language learning techniques that claim to be easy and entertaining sound great. Everyone wants to achieve maximum results with minimal effort, so most of the popular language learning tools and apps strive to provide easy and entertaining courses without dry or difficult material like grammar. Entertainment sells. When consumers get bored with an app, they end their subscription and uninstall it. When learning a language gets dry and difficult, we often become frustrated and discouraged. We lose our steam and want to quit and find something better. And without the motivation of a serious financial investment in a real language class and a report card to keep us committed to our studies, it’s all too easy to cut our loss of a few dollars and move on to something else. In the end, we don’t end up learning much of anything.

We could blame the developers of “easy” and “fun” language learning systems for making exaggerated and inaccurate claims about their grossly inadequate curriculums, but the truth is that they only produce the products that consumers want. They’re only making what sells. The reason educators are producing lazy curriculums is that we the consumers are lazy. Businesses sell what consumers want, and what consumers want is to be entertained. We have lost the discipline and mental fortitude required to make real progress.

Most of us would readily admit that great thinkers and leaders of the past were much more intelligent than we are today. We wouldn’t dare compare ourselves to historical figures like Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Sun Tzu, or Alexander Hamilton. But did any of these men become highly intelligent and successful by learning through entertainment? Absolutely not. Benjamin Franklin did not learn French by subscribing to an app. Napoleon did not become a great strategist with brain teasers and puzzles. King Solomon did not become wise by watching Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. Great thinkers of the past learned by putting in significant effort. They studied. They wrote. They practiced. They memorized. They read all the books they could get their hands on. They weren’t expecting to be entertained. They realized the importance and necessity of applying themselves and working hard even when something was not easy or entertaining.

At some point, studying will get difficult and boring. We’ll have to struggle with difficult words and grammatical concepts from time to time. That’s how we learn. We can’t master a new subject if we’re just looking for novelty all the time. As entertaining as the “fun” teachers are, they might not always be the best for us if they don’t also make us work. The teachers I would have claimed as favorites in school were the ones who were funny and entertaining. I remember them well, and I even remember some of their funny stories, but I don’t remember much of what they taught in their classes. However, I do remember lots of boring things like grammar, multiplication tables, and spelling rules that my strict teachers forced me to memorize day in and day out. I didn’t have fun in their classes, and I hated all the homework. But all the hard work and memorization forced me to learn things that are nearly impossible to forget now.

The real shortcut to learning is to stop looking for shortcuts. Stop demanding constant novelty and entertainment. We master subjects by wrestling with new ideas and concepts, making mistakes, and building on the foundations of what we’ve learned before. To make real progress, we have to stop demanding that everything be fun and easy and develop the discipline and mental fortitude necessary to truly succeed.

The modern mind is like a spoiled child demanding constant entertainment. We need to stop spoiling our brains, stop trying to work around their childish cravings for novelty, and start disciplining them. There is truth to the saying that the mind is a muscle. Like our other muscles, the mind will grow through strenuous activity. Just as we gain strength and muscle mass by challenging our physical limits, so too will we gain mental strength by challenging our intellectual limits. We need to stop looking for shortcuts and falling for sales gimmicks telling us what we want to hear and start disciplining ourselves to work hard toward meaningful progress.

Published by Grammarai Warrior

I am a teacher with a B.A. in English. I'm originally from upstate New York, I currently teach English as a second language in South Korea. I previously taught English on the island of Saipan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

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