There’s a saying that goes “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that its stupid.”
It’s often mis-attributed as an Albert Einstein quote, although he never said or wrote it.
Regardless, it’s a genius quote! We all have certain strengths and weaknesses. We need to examine what those are so we can learn most effectively.
From grades eight to twelve, and then in Freshman year of college, I took Spanish classes. That’s five years of Spanish. I got A’s and high B’s in every one, so you could say I did well in the subject. At the end of it all, I could barely speak Spanish.
I assumed it was because I just was bad at foreign languages. I came to believe that my good academic skills got me the grade, but that I would never excel at functionally using a language.
In Sophomore year of college, I decided to start with a different approach. I started teaching myself! It took several months of experimenting with different styles of studying and learning. I made up exercises for myself to practice. Some worked, some didn’t, and I had to stumble through to get better.
I’m a kinetic learner, so I need to do things that get me engaged with the material. To memorize something I need to find a way to make it concrete. I found that the best way for me to learn Spanish was to write out sentences in the language, and say them over and over.
I would find a grammatical rule that I struggled with, or a set of new vocab words, and craft sentences purposefully to include the material I wanted to work on. Reciting them drove the grammar structures and the pronunciation of words into my mind, and over time using them in new sentences became natural.
Eventually, I started speaking the language! Not just repeating it on a test, but actually using it. I found a speaking partner to meet with once a week, and after a few months of that I was speaking very well. Now I’m almost fluent.
The truth was never that I was bad at learning languages. I’m actually pretty good! The truth was that language as it is taught in a classroom did not cater to my learning style. I needed to struggle with the material for a while on my own to find the style most suitable for me. They were asking me to climb when I was built to swim.
Don’t feel discouraged if you struggle to learn a new subject, skill, or hobby. Embrace the struggle! Use it to find your strengths and weaknesses. Ask yourself: “When do I excel best at this? When is this especially difficult for me?” What helps you learn and what hinders you?
Try to find ways of applying your learning style. If you know that you’re a visual learner, draw stuff out. If you learn well by listening, then find some podcasts or youtube videos on your subject of interest. If you’re like me, and you do well with hands-on stuff, try to make the conceptual into something more concrete and tangible. Writing stuff out helps me memorize well.
Fish swim, monkeys climb. What’s the best way for you to excel?