Understand before you learn

Here’s some advice about learning that sounds like it doesn’t make sense: understand before you learn.

But how can you understand if you haven’t started learning?

The key is in the meanings of “understand” and “learn”. This point is about not trying to memorise or study material that you haven’t first tried to understand. In this context, “learn” means memorise or actively study. The idea is that comprehension comes first and reinforcement follows.

If the first thing you do is memorise 1000 common Chinese characters, you’ve certainly created a nice foundation, but you will struggle to read anything useful in Chinese. If you instead focus on comprehending whole sentences with a smaller set of characters, your learning and ability will progress much faster.

Similarly, memorising a list of vocabulary will certainly help with your Chinese listening, but you will struggle to get beyond the basics if that is your only approach. A wider-reaching understanding and knowledge is required to intuitively understand real Chinese.

Depending on your outlook, this may seem obvious, but many people and courses do try to make it happen the other way round. We are encouraged to start studying a foreign language by memorising vocabulary lists, instead of first trying to get a general feel for the language. It’s often more effective to learn practical sentences and develop an ear for a language, but this in some cases this is not the focus of beginner courses and textbooks.

As you move past the beginner stages, the importance of this idea grows. Memorising sentences and vocabulary is useful and quite effective, but it can never come before the goal of trying to gain some understanding of how words and phrases work in a more general scope. You should try to gain some level of wider comprehension first, then use the more focused study methods to reinforce it over the long term.

The idea here is that “learning” is a tool to strengthen comprehension, not one to establish it. The initial understanding comes from a bigger-picture process (which might also be described as learning). In other words, you start with holistic learning and build on it with granular methods.

This point has come from the twenty rules for formulating knowledge, and I think it has some truth when it comes to learning Chinese. The original article is referring to other types of knowledge than language learning, but it can certainly be applied.

What do you think?

Series: Twenty rules for learning

  1. Understand before you learn (this article)
  2. Learn before you memorise
  3. Build upon the basics
  4. The minimum information principle
  5. Cloze deletion for learning Chinese
  6. Use imagery to learn Chinese
  7. Use mnemonics
  8. Graphical deletion and audio deletion for learning Chinese
  9. Avoid sets
  10. Avoid enumerations
  11. Interference when learning Chinese
  12. 5 ways to optimise your Chinese flashcards
  13. Refer to other memories
  14. Personalise your Chinese learning
  15. Using emotional states to remember Chinese
  16. The importance of context in Chinese flashcards
  17. Why redundancy is good for language learning

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