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Thread: used to learn

  1. #1
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    used to learn

    Hi,

    There is an interesting thread in the Polish forum on the Polish word for 'learn' and its translations into English. We debated over the way to translate its imperfective aspect and concluded that 'study' should be used in this case, for example: 'I studied English at school, but I didn't learn it.', because 'I learned English at school.' means something different (which we found out thanks to this thread I learned X but I didn't learn/master it). We also analysed different options and there is one that popped out, but I'm unsure about its validity.
    Quote Originally Posted by Thomas1 View Post
    [...]
    Jeff used to learn French, but now he learns Spanish instead.
    http://books.google.pl/books?id=72Tn...page&q&f=false
    [...]
    He used to learn French and German from my governess, and spoke fluently in German with me and in the schoolroom, where he usually prepared his Greek and Latin also.
    http://books.google.pl/books?id=sdhp...page&q&f=false
    [...]
    What does 'used to learn' mean in the sentences above please?
    Is it natural and grammatical to say 'used to learn' in English?


    Looking forward to your contributions.
    Last edited by Thomas1; 12th February 2013 at 8:46 PM. Reason: Links.
    Please correct my errors! Thanks.
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  2. #2
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    Re: used to learn

    I don't think learn works well in those sentences. I won't say you'll never hear a native speaker say this sort of thing, because you might, but studied is so much better. Using learn in these marginal ways just sounds really childish to me - like something a six-year-old (who is still learning his native language ) might say.

    Another possibility is take, which is short for "takes lessons in" ("He used to take French from my governess, but now he's learning German"). That only works if one is taking formal lessons, though. You wouldn't use this to talk about someone teaching himself another language or learning it by conversing with native speakers.

    Which reminds me that so long as the concept of learn is limited in some way - e.g. "trying to learn," "is learning" - you can use it in circumstances in which it doesn't denote a degree of mastery of the topic. But if you say someone learned something, it should mean that he has some competence in it.
    "If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad" - Oxford University Press style manual

  3. #3
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    Re: used to learn

    It strikes me that there is confusion in English between to study and to learn:

    Theoretically, it is possible to study and not learn and learn without study

    I teach you the subject but I cannot ensure that you either study or learn
    You study the subject but I do not know how much of what you study you will learn
    He learns the subject. I showed my dog how to open a door, and he learned first time.

    To learn is to commit an idea or action to memory and, thereafter, be able to recall it to effect.

    To study is to apply yourself to various facts in order that you might learn them; whether you do or how many facts you "learn" is an individual matter.

    Jeff used to learn French, but now he learns Spanish instead.
    Technically, we cannot know, until Jeff is tested, whether he is actually learning or simply studying something. For all we know, he studies every night but nothing actually enters his brain. The best we can say is “Jeff used to learn study French, but now he learns studies Spanish instead.”
    He used to learn French and German from my governess, and spoke fluently in German with me
    This is a slightly different meaning of “to learn”.

    In this meaning, “Learning" requires no teaching – the subject absorbs the knowledge that he later can put to use: “I learned to drive by just getting in a car and driving it.”

    In your example, it could well imply that the governess spoke French and German to her friends and/or to “him” without anything that could be described as “teaching”. Indeed this is how we learn to speak.
    "There are no rules in English, only guidance. Some guidance looks like a rule; it probably isn't."

  4. #4
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    Re: used to learn

    I think there is something odd about using 'used to' with learn. It works with a descriptor of some kind, but not by itself. So I wouldn't use 'learn' in your first sentence; I would use 'study' instead:

    Jeff used to study French, but now he studies Spanish instead.

    On the other hand, if you include a description of the circumstances, then used to learn seems to me to be acceptable:

    He used to learn French and German from my governess ....
    He used to learn languages easily.
    He used to learn every popular song that was played on the radio.


    I think this has to do with the meaning of 'learn', which means to successfully acquire knowledge. It makes sense to talk about the circumstances under which this was done. It is odd to speak of 'used to learn' without qualifiers.

    At least, this is how I see it.

    Cross-posted.
    Last edited by Cagey; 15th February 2013 at 9:32 AM.

  5. #5
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    Re: used to learn

    Thank you very much, Kate.

    My first thought was that perhaps adding 'used to' to 'learn' might change something and we didn't have this element of mastery, as in 'trying to learn' or 'is learning'. However, then I stated thinking that this might not be true and another member suggested this too, in spite of the fact that, for instance, the first sentence comes from a text book for learning English. (I've just added links in my first post.)

    I've got another question, if I may.
    Would it be OK to say then:
    Jeff used to be learnig French, but now he learns Spanish instead.

    He used to be learning French and German from my governess, and spoke fluently in German with me and in the schoolroom, where he usually prepared his Greek and Latin also.
    ?

    EDIT: I've just seen that the were two posts, by Paul and Cagey, thank you, I'm off to read them.
    Please correct my errors! Thanks.
    Corrigez-moi, s'il vous plaît! Merci.
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  6. #6
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    Re: used to learn

    Thomas1, in the first example, the 'used to learn' means he no longer does but particularly with the word 'instead', there is a suggestion that he has dropped French for Spanish, like someone choosing to play rugby instead of football. I might say: 'I used to learn French but now I learn Spanish instead - I find it appeals to me more.' It doesn't necessarily mean that you have forgotten the French you have learned, only that you decided to choose to study a different language.

    With the second example, the 'used to learn' is providing historical evidence and a background for a person's proficiency in the subject matter so there is no suggestion that the person has stopped learning it.

    Like in the following scenario:

    'How come he is so good with languages?'

    'Well, he used to learn French and German from my governess, and spoke fluently in German with me and in the schoolroom, where he usually prepared his Greek and Latin also.'

    'It certainly shows. He is brilliant at languages.'

    I hope this helps somewhat.
    Last edited by Cliffyboy; 13th February 2013 at 10:54 AM.

  7. #7
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    Re: used to learn

    In the direct method of teaching English there is a following question in one of the textbooks:
    Do you remember every English word that you have learnt?
    The question seems to imply that the words the student has learnt are in his memory. Hence the word "learn". The proposed answer is:
    -No, I don't remember every English word that I have learnt.
    Now, if the student has learnt the words it means he has committed them to memory. Unless, he hasn't. So, how would you put it? No, I don't remember every English word that I tried learning?

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    Re: used to learn

    Quote Originally Posted by von Mises View Post
    In the direct method of teaching English there is a following question in one of the textbooks:
    Do you remember every English word that you have learnt?
    The question seems to imply that the words the student has learnt are in his memory. Hence the word "learn". The proposed answer is:
    -No, I don't remember every English word that I have learnt.
    Now, if the student has learnt the words it means he has committed them to memory. Unless, he hasn't. So, how would you put it? No, I don't remember every English word that I tried learning?
    Not all meanings of the word require committing to eternal memory. It is quite possible (and in my case, certain) that there are things that were learnt some time ago, but which are now forgotten. So I can say, "I only remember about half the Japanese I learnt."

    Learn is a tricky word!
    From the WRF dictionary
    • (when tr, may take a clause as object) to gain knowledge of (something) or acquire skill in (some art or practice)
    • (transitive) to commit to memory
    • (transitive) to gain by experience, example, etc
    • (intr; often followed by of or about) to become informed; know

    Your meaning is not what you think it is, it is what your listener thinks it is

  9. #9
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    Re: used to learn

    I think there is a meaning of completion when you use the verb 'learn' in the past sense. You may have learnt some things, but they are completed. For me the difference between study and learn is the completion aspect. How many people, including native speakers, dare boast that they have fully learnt English?

  10. #10
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    Re: used to learn

    It is fine to use learn in a continuous tense, to signal progress towards acquisition of a skill. I am learning English. In 1968 I was still learning English. But the "would" and "used to" forms are about steady state, not about progress.
    Please expect this post to change in its first day or so as I reflect on the issue.

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    Re: used to learn

    Quote Originally Posted by se16teddy View Post
    It is fine to use learn in a continuous tense, to signal progress towards acquisition of a skill. I am learning English. In 1968 I was still learning English. But the "would" and "used to" forms are about steady state, not about progress.
    "He would learn German from his sister's governess" is about a steady state.
    Then
    "He would be learning German from his sister's governess" expresses progress.
    But it means the same as the following sentence:

    I used to be learning skiing years ago. Now I can't because my tendons are too weak.
    We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers. Carl Sagan

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    Re: used to learn

    Quote Originally Posted by wolfbm1 View Post
    He would learn German from his sister's governess

    He would be learning German from his sister's governess"
    If I heard either of these sentences, I would assume that "would" was meant in a conditional sense.
    Please expect this post to change in its first day or so as I reflect on the issue.

  13. #13
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    Re: used to learn

    Quote Originally Posted by se16teddy View Post
    If I heard either of these sentences, I would assume that "would" was meant in a conditional sense.
    What about this pair:
    He used to learn German from his sister's governess.
    and
    He used to be learning German from his sister's governess.

    The latter sentence is about action in progress, isn't it.
    We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers. Carl Sagan

  14. #14
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    Re: used to learn

    I can't think of a natural use for 'used to be learning'. 'Used to' itself makes it imperfective, so 'used to learn' is all that's needed, and another marking of imperfective doesn't add anything, and wouldn't be used.

    (I'm interested in this question because I'm going the other way: I'm studying/learning Czech and will soon have to work out when to use the perfective and imperfective of the corresponding two verbs.)

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    Re: used to learn

    Quote Originally Posted by von Mises View Post
    In the direct method of teaching English there is a following question in one of the textbooks:
    Do you remember every English word that you have learnt?
    The question seems to imply that the words the student has learnt are in his memory. Hence the word "learn". The proposed answer is:
    -No, I don't remember every English word that I have learnt.
    Now, if the student has learnt the words it means he has committed them to memory. Unless, he hasn't. So, how would you put it? No, I don't remember every English word that I tried learning?
    The proposed answer is:
    No, I don't remember every English word that I have learnt.
    The above answer is supposed to be better than the one with the word try.

    Because when you commit something to memory then, ta-da, it is there.
    Now when you try to commit something to memory, what is the outcome? We don't know if it is there. It might be a complete failure.

    But Liliana suggested:
    No, I forgot most of what I have learned.
    instead of
    No, I don't remember every English word that I tried learning?
    Last edited by wolfbm1; 15th February 2013 at 11:16 AM.
    We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers. Carl Sagan

  16. #16
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    Re: used to learn

    Quote Originally Posted by entangledbank View Post
    I can't think of a natural use for 'used to be learning'. 'Used to' itself makes it imperfective, so 'used to learn' is all that's needed, and another marking of imperfective doesn't add anything, and wouldn't be used.
    Put in the Google search box the phrase: "What third graders used to be learning." Isn't that a valid example? If it is then why the continuous form was used.

    (I'm interested in this question because I'm going the other way: I'm studying/learning Czech and will soon have to work out when to use the perfective and imperfective of the corresponding two verbs. <Check my latest threads>)
    We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers. Carl Sagan

  17. #17
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    Re: used to learn

    Okay, so that would do. It requires setting up some context. 'Used to' projects the verb into multiple times in the past. Today children learn about computers; in the 1800s they used to learn about the abacus and the slide-rule. Now introduce a more local context where there is a perfective/imperfective distinction on top of that time distinction. Something children traditionally used to have to do was learn(ing) the kings of Israel and Judah. So, while our children are playing with computers in schools, back then they used to be learning the kings of Israel and Judah. But I don't suppose they all succeeded: it's not true they all used to learn the kings of Israel and Judah.

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    Re: used to learn

    Quote Originally Posted by entangledbank View Post
    it's not true they all used to learn the kings of Israel and Judah.
    In the two examples quoted in post 1 (follow the links to see what I mean) the language is of the unsophisticated kind we use when talking to children. In such contexts, we would indeed say, for example, 'they all used to learn the kings of Israel and Judah'.

    It is a childish euphemism. It is intended to avoid the ominous word 'study', which implies effort and work.
    The illusion we wish to create in the minds of the children is that you do learn (inevitably, as it were) the things you are taught in school.

    First, we avoid the passive expression 'to be taught', because we want the children to feel that they are active in the process, secondly, we do not use the word 'study' because we want to avoid any suggestion of hard work or difficulty and thirdly, we want to imply that the process always succeeds, inducing in the child's mind a sense of the naturalness of education: a feeling that does not come readily to everybody.
    Last edited by wandle; 15th February 2013 at 11:50 AM.

  19. #19
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    Re: used to learn

    Quote Originally Posted by wandle View Post
    In the two examples quoted in post 1 (follow the links to see what I mean) the language is of the unsophisticated kind we use when talking to children. In such contexts, we would indeed say, for example, 'they all used to learn the kings of Israel and Judah'.

    It is a childish euphemism. It is intended to avoid the ominous word 'study', which implies effort and work.
    The illusion we wish to create in the minds of the children is that you do learn (inevitably, as it were) the things you are taught in school.

    First, we avoid the passive expression 'to be taught', because we want the children to feel that they are active in the process, secondly, we do not use the word 'study' because we want to avoid any suggestion of hard work or difficulty and thirdly, we want to imply that the process always succeeds, inducing in the child's mind a sense of the naturalness of education: a feeling that does not come readily to everybody.
    You are a genius.
    I remember using a handbook of English entitled "We learn English" by Anna Zawadzka and Janina Smólska
    I always understood it to mean "We keep learning English". And this book used to be used/studied by secondary shool pupils.
    We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers. Carl Sagan

  20. #20
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    Re: used to learn

    Quote Originally Posted by wolfbm1 View Post
    You are a genius.
    I know, but please don't make too much of it.

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