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Learning is like a plate of spaghetti

Whether you like twirling it tightly around your fork or sucking it in until you catch that last drop of delicious sauce, spaghetti is one of those dishes we just keep going back to for more.

But what in the world has it got to do with learning?

A couple years back, over dinner with a colleague from Italy, I was being drilled about how I learnt Chinese in a year and whether I could let them in on some of my secrets. Happy to oblige, the conversation flowed. Soon enough it turned to food and what makes Italian food so fabulous.

One word.


Later on in the evening I was thinking back over our conversation and a comment they had made over the intensive language course they had been attending: it is like we are constantly being given new things to learn...more and more without any time to assimilate just doesn't stop.

And I started to wonder how this type of situation would look like if it was translated into a cooking lesson for Italian food. Where the teacher told you to chop up onions here and a little later some garlic, but instead of telling you to get out a pan and start cooking, continued to throw more ingredients at you.

Listen in and imagine yourself in the scene:

Brava everybody, you have cut the onions and the garlic. Oh yes, here are some ingredients that are good in the pasta, you know the tomato, so fresh, so red, bellissima, here are some fresh ones, but I also give you the can tomato and of course the concentrate. It make the flavour stronger. But not too much, only a little. You can keep that. And too, do not forget these herbs dried...the oregano, basilica, smell soo good...I give you too the fresh basilica...yes, yes and do not forget the beautiful parmigiano, please, you can pass that around, so fine, so good flavour. Take too the gorgonzola and the ricotta and if you like more rich the mascarpone but that is more for sweet, put in your fridge to stay fresh it can be good for sweet. Oh and the beautiful porcini and pancetta and funghi so many good you can make beautiful food...ok, now you have beautiful ingredient now you cook beautiful sauce...

Yes, you may well be working up an appetite by now, but imagine if you are not a confident cook. What will you be feeling as you see all these seemingly familiar and even less familiar ingredients pile up on the worktop in front of you? Would you be able to make a dish worthy of any Italian nonna or would you just try and cobble something together, randomly throwing in a bit of everything?

When I started learning Chinese, I deliberately avoided the classes where we were expected to learn and memorise a large set number of characters every week. Instead I opted for classes which covered relatively little material each week. This may seem a strange choice when my goal was to be conversant in the language in a year, however there was a clear strategy behind it. I wanted to test a concept of becoming fluent in everything I was learning, week by week. This meant, for example, that for each thing I was taught in my weekly class, I would have one week to practise it and use it until it became familiar and like second nature.

Instead of robotically trying to remember a mass of words and grammar rules, with the little I knew, I started having conversations with people. Of course, I didn't venture into technical areas or deep debates, but I was consistently amazed at how people would just talk to me, assuming that I was fluent in the language

The truth is, you don't need all those extra ingredients to make a delicious pasta. As my Italian colleague explained to me, even with just the ripest tomatoes and a splash of olive oil you can make an incredibly delicious sauce for your spaghetti. And when you taste it, nobody will be wondering why you didn't add the funghi or the porcini of any of the other ingredients. They will only be asking for more.

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