Scott Young is a writer and blogger who undertakes interesting and ambitious self-education projects.
From attempting to learn MIT's four-year computer science curriculum in twelve months to learning four languages in a single year, Scott's learning achievements are impressive.
In this conversation, I chat with Scott about his experience of learning languages, some of the key principles of effective learning and his new book – Ultralearning.
A Little About Scott Young
- Scott first started writing his blog as a student, when he published posts about how to study
- After graduating, Scott moved on to writing about how to learn skills that are useful in all areas of life… and he's been doing it ever since!
- Scott is well-known for his “MIT Challenge” where he learned the entire 4-year MIT Computer Science curriculum in just 12 months!
- He's no stranger to language learning either. In 2014, Scott undertook a “Year without English” project. During this challenge, Scott and a friend travelled to 4 different countries (Spain, Brazil, China and South Korea) and tried to learn the local languages. They had only one important rule… no English allowed!
- Scott's new book, Ultralearning, is the culmination of his 10+ years of experimenting with effective learning principles
What Is Ultralearning?
According to Scott, there are two aspects to ultralearning…
- The first is that an ultralearning project is centred on self-directed learning. Unlike traditional learning in classrooms or courses, with ultralearning you have control over the whole process.
- The second aspect of an ultralearning project is that it takes an aggressive approach. Ultralearning projects are ambitious and intense, meaning they can often seem more scary, or difficult than normal learning. Nonetheless, Scott believes the results of such projects more than justify what you put into them.
Ultralearning Applied To Languages
- Scott and Olly both agree that learning a new language successfully requires something more than just learning information
- In the conversation, Scott explains that skills that are not on the “curriculum” are often essential in helping you to achieve your learning goals. For example, when Scott was doing his “Year without English” challenge, one skill that was essential to his learning when he didn't have enough words to get by in the local language was being able to use an online dictionary or translator to look up the words he needed quickly in the middle of conversations.
- In Scott's opinion, when approach language learning from the perspective of “what am I trying to accomplish with the language?” you achieve far more than when you just treat it as an academic subject.
The Principle Of Directness
- In Scott's book, he talks about something called The Principle of Directness. This means always starting by thinking about how you're going to use what you want to learn and spend at least some of your learning time in that usage situation.
- This is NOT how we're normally taught to think about learning. Instead, we're taught to think about learning in terms of content.
- Scott explains that the principle of directness is important because research shows that we're very bad at transferring what we learn. “Transfer” is the ability to apply the thing you're learning outside of the setting in which you've learnt it. In the case of language learning, an example of this might be the way people often struggle to speak a language in the real world in spite of hours of classes or textbook study.
- This problem of transfer exists because knowledge is not just stored in our brains like a file stored on a computer. We have to train ourselves to find the information we need when we need it. Scott says that “the ability to retrieve the right information in the right situations is much of the difficulty of remembering”.
- In Scott's view, the correct way to approach learning is not: “this is good”, “this is bad”. That's too simplistic. Instead, the correct way to approach learning is to think about what you're trying to accomplish and focus on the specific things that will help you get there
The Principle Of Meta-learning
- The first thing Scott does when starting any new learning project is to “draw a map” for himself. This means getting an understanding of the thing he's trying to learn and how others have been successful at learning it.
- The first part of meta-learning is research – you want to be aware of the resources and methods people use to learn the thing you're planning to learn. If you're going to spend 100's of hours learning a language, you should spend a least a weekend doing some research before you start!
- The second part of meta-learning is to figure out what are the key cognitive activities involved in learning the skill you want to learn. In other words, figure out what is involved in doing the new skill well. For example, with language learning – these chunks might be pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary as well as the connective skill that allows you to apply them in combination in the real world. The more you learn, the better you'll get at identifying what these key cognitive activities are.
Scott's Language Learning Story
- When Scott was in university, he had the opportunity to go to France on exchange for a year.
- At the time, he knew very little French and would be taking all of his classes during the exchange in English. In addition, most of the other exchange students and new friends he made also spoke English, so he ended up speaking in English the majority of the time
- By the end of the year, he managed to get to a low conversational level in French, but it was a real struggle for him. He says he probably spent about 90% of his time speaking in English during the exchange year.
- When he began his “Year Without English” challenge a few years later, he decided to take a very different approach. He decided that he would speak and live ONLY in the target language from Day 1 – using no English at all!
- Using this approach, Scott became completely comfortable “living in Spanish” after a month or two. He wasn't fluent, but he was able to communicate and do all of the things he wanted to do.
- His experiences taught him that when learning a language, your starting point is very important. If you speak in English with people when you first meet them (as Scott did when learning French), it can be hard to switch your relationship into another language later. On the other hand, if you start the relationship in your target language, it's more likely to continue in that language, even if your language skills are relatively poor at first!
The Challenge Of Maintaining Languages You've Learned
- Often, people assume that once you learn something you should know it forever. But that's not really how the brain works.
- After Scott did his language-learning challenges, he set up a very deliberate plan to maintain the languages he had learned.
- He did this by continuing to have a speaking session each week in each of his languages for a year after he learned them. Then, for a second year, he continued to have 1 speaking session per language per month. This helped him solidify what he'd learned so it didn't fade away.
Other Aspects Of Ultraleanring That Are Relevant To Language Learning
- Scott says that it's important to recognise that “our intuitions about what's effective and what works in our learning are often very different from the reality”.
- For example, when it comes to retrieving learned information, studies have found that people who learn by reading, then closing the book and trying to recall what they've read perform better on tests of retrieval than people who simply re-read what they've been learning.
- This “recall” approach is equally applicable in language learning as in any other subject.
- Flashcards are one possible way to incorporate recall drills into your learning. In language learning, seeing a phrase in English or in your target language and having to translate it is a recall task.
Directness vs. Drills In Learning
- There's a difference between directness and drills in learning, though Scott feels both can be relevant in different situations.
- He says that drills can be an important part of learning. In language learning, these drills often take the form of flashcards or textbook exercises.
- The point of drills? If the task is too difficult, you need to break it down into pieces and working on simpler tasks first.
- In Scott's view, although drills are useful and important, if you rely too much on them and ignore the principle of directness in your learning, you'll be missing out on what allows you to actually learn to apply and use your new knowledge
Scott's Experience Learning Chinese Characters
- Scott never learned to write in Chinese and to this day he struggles to write even basic Chinese sentences with pen and paper. However, he's able to read Chinese characters very well. He uses this point to highlight the idea of focusing on what you want to accomplish in your learning. In Scott's case, learning to read characters was important but being able to write in Chinese was not.
- Scott started learning to read Chinese characters by using flashcards. Next, he used graded readers to practice reading simple Chinese texts with a limited number of characters
- From there he moved on to reading books using the Chinese dictionary app, Pleco, before finally moving on to paper books in Chinese.
- He believes that native-level reading materials are far too difficult when you're just starting a new language. You have to find a way to build up to them using simpler material first.
Scott's New Book – Ultarlearning
Scott's new book is about changing your attitude towards how you can learn.
The book is for anyone who wants to learn new skills and is interested in discovering effective techniques for doing so.
Find out more about the book and about Scott's other projects at: https://www.scotthyoung.com/
What did you find out about learning principles from Scott in this interview? How will you apply what you've discovered in your own learning? Let us know in the comments!