The best way to learn something is when there is clear relevance and usefulness to you.
The mere act of “wanting” to know something seems to help quite a lot. If you want to cultivate this effect, approach unfamiliar words and forms with a sense of curiosity.
Prime your mind by genuinely trying to figure out how a word or form affects the meaning of the sentence before you look it up.
It also helps if you encounter words multiple times, giving the word a sense of familiarity and importance.
Learning is a subconscious process
It is primarily subconscious processes that mark something as important and enable us to remember something.
Learning something that has no obvious relevance to your life, you haven’t needed to use, and has no relation to anything else you know can be hard. First learning something completely new constitutes a mental “hurdle”.
That is, learning basically requires pure memorisation. This type of memorisation is very, very difficult to do relative to other methods. There is a high degree of mental “resistance”—meaning it seems hard to get it to stick in your memory.
There are several ways to can reduce this mental hurdle:
• Context — Use phrases and content to link words to others, showing you how they are used in context
• Logical connections — Words often share roots or affixes in common with other words you know which you can use as prompt to help you remember
• Mnemonics — Read the section on mnemonics for useful techniques to create other logical connections
• Personal connection — Try to create a connection to the word so that it becomes personally meaningful to you
• Curiosity — Stay curious and interested in the words and forms you encounter
Top-down and bottom-up processing
When trying to understand something, the human brain uses two broad processes: top-down and bottom-up.
Top-down processing involves using context to make deductions about what some content is about. Bottom-up processing involves understanding the pieces to build up to a coherent whole. Using both helps you learn new words and constructions from context.
For example: while watching a video you encounter a new word. You might note that the speaker appears to be indicating an apple in their hand. In this case, top-down processing involves picking up that the word means “apple” naturally.
Bottom-up processing is any word or form you already know that helps you understand the sentence.
Pausing a video to try to recall the function of a form you just heard is a good example of bottom-up processing being practised and applied to learn effectively.
When engaging with content, both processes work in tandem to help you apprehend meaning in real time.
Knowing this lets you take advantage of it. Before you start something, make sure you understand the context and have formed expectations surrounding what the resource is going to show you.
One common method of doing this is beginning a text by skim reading or starting a TV episode with a plot summary.