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Usage of the word learn or "Learning to learn?"
I'm going to go all academic on you in this newsletter and kick off with a dash of religion. So be warned! I'll start the ball rolling with a quotation from the Church of England Book Of Common Prayer, which first saw the light of day in 1662. In this book there are so-called collects or prayers and they are called that because people collected together and listened to the prayer for a particular day. Bear with me and I'll come to the point very soon. I am about to tell you the collect for the second Sunday in Advent. Advent means arrival and refers to the coming of Christ starting with the first Sunday nearest to 30th November and lasts until Christmas Day.
On this second Sunday the priest tells the congregation to pay attention to the words in the Bible – the exact words are: Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. Not a bad slogan for our site www.english-test.net really. So at last we've got there and I do hope you're still with me and have seen the connection with the title and that word in the quotation – learn. Keep that in mind then as we go on about 25 years to 1688, which saw the birth of the poet, Alexander Pope. Now little Alex had a very tough time as a child and was ill for most of his childhood. As a result the poor chap was deformed and dwarfed. But by all accounts he had a lovely face. Our Alex packed a lot in before he died in1744 becoming a poet, satirist, letter writer, and essayist and not only did he design gardens but he had a go at designing grottos as well. In 1709 he wrote his essay on Criticism. It is in this essay that we find the much quoted (and also frequently misquoted but I won't confuse you with the wrong bits now) lines: A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain and drinking largely sobers us again. Let me explain what he's on about. The Pierian spring (in Macedonia) is where you went to drink if you needed knowledge in ancient times. Alexander is telling us to take large gulps of the water because if you only take little sips, you won't think straight and he comes up with that winning line that a little learning is a dangerous thing'. You know who he's referring to, don't you? It's those people, mentioning no names of course, who think they know the answer to everything but really they only know half the thing and that's why they can be dangerous. As you have gathered, I'm homing in on the words 'learn' and 'learning'. And it's surprising how often this word and all its relatives crop up in text and conversation.
An expression that comes from working at sea where ropes and the tying of them played an important part in the life of a sailor in the days of sailing ships as you had to know which rope to pull to raise the sails is learn the ropes. Today we use that to mean start to learn about a new job. If we then have to learn new tasks very quickly to keep up with everyone else we say: We are on a steep learning curve. There is also a slight difference between learn to and learn how to. We learn to speak a foreign language (we acquire the knowledge of the words) and we learn how to drive a car (we acquire the knowledge of how to use the pedals and the steering wheel). In the UK people learning how to drive a car have a plate on the back and front of the car displaying a large red letter 'L' on a white background. This is a warning to the rest of us not to get too near. In the dark ages when I took my driving test (I won't tell you how many times I tried) you had to learn by heart – learn and keep in your memory – all the rules and regulations about driving on public roads. Now people have to take a written test about this. You can also learn by rote whereby you repeat what you hear or read again and again and thus learn it as we say parrot fashion. Two more uses of learn with prepositions: We learn of the result of an election – we find this information out from say, the news. We learn about the important figures in our history at school – our teachers tell us about them. If we find ourselves in an unusual situation that we never forget, we call this a learning experience and that will have an effect on our character. People who have done wrong and after being punished for this wrongdoing decide not to do it again are said to have learned their lesson . I could have said 'learnt' as an alternative. There's been a lot of discussion about the differences between British and American English on our english-test forums and I've just consulted one of my more recent reference books and discovered that the use of 'learnt' in American English is 'as rare as hen's teeth'. Now there's a good expression to remember. Of course we can only use the two-syllable form learn-ed when we're talking about the professor who's very knowledgeable and academic.
Well, I don't know about you but I think it's time to lie down in a darkened room and relax after all this 'learning'. I'll end with a popular expression we use when we come across something new and unexpected suggesting that we can always learn something new every day: Well, we all live and learn. Conversely of course the cynic might add: Some of us just live!
Yours, Alan Townend