One of the key messages of this site is big learning in small doses. In this post I want to give you an example of using this principle by explaining how I learned to read the Indian alphabet, more correctly know as Devanagari.
One of the languages I am trying to learn is Sanskrit, the ancient liturgical language of Hinduism. Many of the source texts of both Hinduism and Buddhism are written in this language using the Devanagari script. Here is the word yoga written in Devanagari:
Devanagari is used in many modern Indian languages including Hindi. So my first step was to purchase a set of Hindi script flashcards.
The cards show a Devanagari letter (which represents either a vowel sound or a consonant and a vowel sound) and an image that is supposed to be a mnemonic for the letter. The letter in the card pictured above stands for the “ga” sound.
Here is the back of a card
I did not find the visual mnemonics helpful, indeed they were a nuisance because I wanted the letter to be the cue for remembering, but I solved this problem by placing a card over the bottom half of the card.
Rather than try to learn the entire deck at once, I started with only three cards. Each morning, while walking on my treadmill, I would see if I could say the sound of each letter in the small pile. When I could correctly identify the sound of every card in the pile I would add one or two more. I would only add cards when I felt I has mastered the cards in the current pile.
When working with flash cards it is very important shuffle the deck every time you review. This is because of the serial position effect in list learning discovered by Hermann Ebbinghaus. In learning any list we tend to have better memory for the beginning of the list and the end of the list and poorer memory for the items in the middle. However, we want to remember all the letters equally well and we do not want the order of the cards to be a cue for remembering the letters. So when working with flashcards, shuffle the pack for every review.
Over the course of a couple of months, spending a very few minutes everyday, I learned the basic Devanagari alphabet. I now review the entire deck of flashcards only three times a week just to maintain my skill. If I had tried to learn through intense cramming I think I would have failed, and I certainly would not have retained the information.
If you take a long term perspective and break a big learning task into small steps, you can succeed in mastering seemingly difficult material.