4 May 2023
Reading time: 2:57 minutes

When I first came to the UK I had a problem with English.

My mother tongue is Czech. The first foreign languages I learned at the ripe age of five were Slovak and Polish. The Slovak language was part of the Czechoslovakian landscape. Polish I learned from TV programs. We lived close to the border and were able to catch the signal.

In school, I learned compulsory Russian since I was ten. At 14 I went to Gymnasium (similar to a Grammar school in the UK). Here I selected German as my second language. At that time communists were still in power and I knew that I would be able to visit East Germany, but I didn't expect to be able to visit English-speaking countries.

While serving in the Army, the Velvet Revolution changed everything. I was able to go to University and there - with the border open - I opted for English.

We had an American and I learned some basics, but at that time I didn't take it too seriously. So I did the bare minimum to pass the tests. I was able to read and write, but speaking and listening remained a problem.

Fast forward a few years and I came to Northern Ireland. If you ever heard talking someone from Belfast, you will understand that I couldn't make a word of what they were saying. I learned fast, that the two most important phrases are:

"Please slowly." (Pronounced "please slooooowlyyyyy." to emphasize the expected cadence)
"Can you write it down please?"

But living in the UK meant that I had to learn how to speak and listen, fast. And then I found the principle you can use to improve and speed up your learning.

I used German to learn English.

You see, on TV was a program for people who wanted to learn German. The presenter would describe the situation in English. I tried to say it without even knowing what it meant. Then he would say the phrase in German. Knowing German, now I would understand what he was saying before. Next, the presenter repeated the phrase in English. I repeated it along with him. Afterwards, the presenter repeated the phrase in German once more, but I didn't need it, I repeated the phrase in English again.

You see, I used my prior knowledge to learn and adopt new knowledge.

Since then I used this approach in many different scenarios. I even use it when I try to explain something to a person who has no prior knowledge of the subject. For that to work you have to use their prior knowledge to explain the concept of the new subject on an example they can understand.

Explain how computers work

For example, when a friend who didn't knew anything about computers asked me to help with a selection of a new laptop, I had to explain to him what is RAM, what is a hard disc, and what the processor does. So I told him:

Imagine that you have a kitchen. There are storage units where you can have everything you are not using at the moment neatly stacked. The more units you have the more things you can store. That's a hard drive. Its size determines how many movies, documents, etc. you can store for future use.

Then you have a kitchen top where you can put your ingredients and dishes. The bigger the top, the more things you can take out and use. This is the RAM (aka memory). The bigger is memory, the more programs you can have open at the same time.

And the last thing is who is actually cooking. If that's just you, you have two hands. But if you have a helper you will have four hands available. Some tasks would be easier to handle. That's the processor and how many cores it has. The more cores available the more processes can be done at once. The clock speed is just like the experience of the cook. More experience = higher clock speed = faster work.

I used an example he could understand to explain an alien concept to him. And it worked.

And that's it. The tool I gave you today is simple. Use what you know to learn something new.

This leaves me with a question:
How can you reuse what you already know?

Till next week ​

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