Learning logistics, or, prescriptions and ballparks

Yesterday’s post on language learning, and comments by Hank Horkoff, have me musing about two facets of learning. One of them I might think of as personal logistics; the other, as expertness.

(To my surprise as a semipro expert in English usage, “expertness” is not only an actual word, it’s been around since the 14th century.)

By personal logistics I mean the things a learner does to set goals, map routes, gauge progress, adopt and adapt strategies, and so on. With language learning in mind, I’d been thinking about ordinary goals like “learn French for my trip to Lyon.”

Embedded in that sentence is what Joe Harless calls a hidden discrimination. On its face, “learn French for my trip” implies that there’s a tourist dosage of French. All I need to do is get the right prescription.

Other than at the most obvious level, there isn’t any such dosage. You do have to know that oui means “yes,” not “we,” and you probably want to know that demander means “to ask,” not “to demand.”

Beyond that, the novice learner can benefit from keeping two things in mind. First, for language as for clothing, “one size fits all” depends mightily on your definition of “size,” “fits,” and “all.”

Get your tacit knowledge of cèpes here.Second, no matter where you’re sitting, linguistically, sometimes it’s a great day just to be in the ballpark. In other words, if in your personal logistics you define a language goal as “act with courtesy and understand basics,” then you can begin to choose the tools that will help you achieve that goal.

When I was in Lyon, I found a menu item I didn’t know. (I found lots, actually. In this case, I was hungry and didn’t want cèpes to take away hunger in the wrong way.) From the dosage perspective, my tourist prescription was a failure. From the ballpark perspective, it was a sunny day, I was with my wife, and we were deciding what to order in a restaurant in Lyon.

(By the way, cèpes are large wild mushrooms.)

When I worked for GE, many of our products related to supply chain management: what businesses do to manage their inputs to help them best produce the results they want. Self-directed learning (self-managed?) has many parallels to that process. What do I want to achieve? What resources can I locate? Which ones are good in terms of what I want to do? Which can I afford (in money, in time)?

That’s a good connection to expertness, which probably needs its own post. Stephen Downes makes a point about all knowledge being tacit. Explicit knowledge is factual, the know-what stuff. Tacit knowledge isn’t, well, explicit — it’s the know-how. And even the explicit things get tricky:

So you may say, but a cat is still a cat. But what constitutes a cat – at which point does a cat cease to be a cat? If it is dead, is it a cat? If it is dismembered, is it a cat? If a cat’s head is sewn onto a dog’s body, is it still a cat? If the cat’s DNA is altered, is it still a cat? It all depends on what you think is important about being a cat – and that, my friends, is a property of the observer, not the cat.

Stephen Downes, Is Knowledge Paradoxical?

Going back to the earlier example, an expert would tell you that “yes” is the English word for affirmation, and that “no” is the word for negation. I do remember reading of a lecture in which a professor said that in English you can’t express a negative with two positives.

To which someone replied, “Yeah, right.”

Photo of cèpes by noodlepie / Graham Holliday.