Learning Languages

I stumbled across a video by Tim Baldridge this morning. I don't know Tim - it looks like he's a developer and he's made a number of instructional videos on Clojure.

This video is titled "Learning a Language Takes time."

In the video (embedded below) Tim talks about the design of a guitar and a violin. How a guitar is "better" designed - frets make it easy to hit correct notes, tuning pegs stay in place and you can easily play a single note or a chord.

Contrast that to a violin. Tuning pegs have no mechanism and are held in place by friction, notes must be precisely hit, and producing even a single note at a time so that it sounds good is a challenge.

On the other hand, you can do some really amazing things on a violin if you master it.

This struck a chord with me. I once saw an interview with Itzhak Perlman - my favorite violinist or all time (and coincidentally my childhood violin teacher' teacher). He was comparing a violinist with a pianist. He said that it was easy to play the correct notes in tune on a piano and since the mechanics were simpler a musician can, earlier in their career, start working on interpreting the music. A violinist, on the other hand (in his opinion) can take half a lifetime to master just from the mechanics point of view and only then can you really start working on the music.

Perlman was talking about an album he had released - "Concertos from my Childhood." The idea was that young violinists study a standard repertoire of "learning concertos" and of course, since they're beginners they never sound good. Perlman decided to record a number of these as an adult and this album was the result.

Here's a track of Perlman playing one of those concertos that I remember struggling through as a kid:

Of course, this is Perlman so I'm betting he sounded pretty good as a kid:

Back to Tim's video.

Tim talks about the idea that learning a language, much like an instrument takes time and also that some languages do less hand holding and are harder to learn than others. The two key points are:

  1. Some times things are harder to learn because at the end of the day they have more power and so it's worth it.
  2. Don't expect to learn something subntantial overnight.
  3. With focused practice over time, you can master new hard things.

Tim's a little less sympathetic than I'd be in my classroom but that's okay - Tim's talking about teaching developers a new language and so I think he's view is appropriate and correct there.

The truth is that learning does take time. You can create the illusion of results with concentrated coaching and flashy tools but real education takes work and time 1.

A couple of years ago I was speaking to a non-teacher friend who had just run a month long intensive "coding" summer program. They were very proud of the work and what the kids accomplished – "They learned so much… Their projects were awesome." The group had a reunion some time later. I asked how much they remembered - "pretty much nothing."

So, here's Tim's video. It's about 20 minutes but if you're pressed for time, just up the speed of playback:

Footnotes:

1

but work can indeed be fun

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