What I learned about learning from a year in northern Nigeria

And a major reason children learn faster than adults

I spent my national youth service year in northern Nigeria and managed to pick up quite a bit of Hausa, the lingua franca in that part of the country.

And by “a bit,” I mean, I started off needing an interpreter to communicate with my patients, and by the end of the year, I was fine on my own — which was more than could be said for my counterparts not just in the hospital but across the entire local government I was serving in. In fact, I used to joke that, among the formerly non-Hausa speaking corps members, I was the best speaker by the end of our service year. (I’m at least pretty sure I was speaking it much better than anyone else I met in my service state.)

And I don’t think it was because I was smarter than the rest or anything like that.

In fact I never considered myself good with languages prior to that time, although the experience did make me realise I might actually be, because I love words and I apparently pay quite a bit of attention to how languages really work.

But those aren’t the things that made me learn so much so quickly.

So what was it? In one word…


You see, one of the things that happens when you are trying to learn a language is that you get laughed at rather often.

It’s no one’s fault, exactly. It’s just, people tend to find it funny when they hear their familiar language spoken in a way that makes it seem foreign. It’s actually funny, and to laugh at that is not necessarily to laugh at the person speaking it but just in appreciation of the oddness of it.

If however you find this laughter business discouraging, you’ll probably not try speaking the language very often. And the absence of practice is exactly how you won’t learn. And I learned because, when the people laughed at my bumbling attempts to speak their language, I laughed with them, and asked them to tell me what I got wrong.

A good dose of shamelessness is critical to learning.

As long as you’re concerned with how dumb you might look as you learn, you’ll be learning with half attention at any point in time, because the other half is being directed to not looking foolish. And as long as, every time you get what you’re learning wrong, you think to yourself that you should have known more by now, you’re positioning yourself to learn even more slowly.

That’s the advantage kids have over adults: not some magical ability to learn more quickly, but the lack of self-consciousness that lets them focus on what they’re trying to learn.

Yes, it also helps that they have much less baggage to unlearn, but there’s nothing you can do about that part.

But if you do want to learn more quickly, a good place to start is to let go of the idea that you should know more than you do, or that you should have known more by now.

It turns out, a good way to speed up your learning might just be in dropping the “speed” and focusing on the “learning.”

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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