Language Learning in a Single Tweet

The Principles and Pitfalls of Simplicity

As a challenge, I want to capture the essence of language learning in a single tweet (280 characters): 

“Clarify your purpose; maximize, minimize, satisfice; find quality input and output opportunities; imitate others; learn and live the culture; seek timely and relevant feedback; develop a strong inner game; join a community; be uncomfortable; stay motivated; be patient; have fun.” (279)

The principle “Keep it simple, stupid (KISS)” has its origin in design but is nowadays applied to a multitude of different areas: business, coaching, education, productivity, medicine, self-help, sports, systems, technology. A complex system with many moving parts implies more points of failure, just as an abundance of data implies more noise and fewer signals. Complexity without organization is overwhelming; simplification lightens the cognitive load, making information and ideas easier to digest. It helps with understanding, recognition, retrieval, and application. As a result, simple ideas are more likely to hit critical mass—widespread social approval. Albert Einstein famously said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Even so, this “less is more” mantra has its dark side. In the corporate world, entrepreneurs reduce their business pitches to mere sound-bites; job-seekers deliver elevator pitches in 30 seconds: “Tell me about yourself. The clock is ticking. Go!” How much information is lost in our quest for simplification? What do we miss? What about nuances, context, and interconnectedness? Are we satisfied with superficiality? Simplify too much, and you enter the dangerous zone of oversimplification; too little and people, as cognitive misers, don’t even bother with the message. The solution is twofold. First, the credibility of the source is paramount. Experts have multilayered contextual knowledge and efficient, intuitive cognitive processes. Their simplification is performed on a base of mastery. In contrast, novices simplify with superficial, disparate knowledge. Their ideas and information lack a strong foundation of competence. Second, Einstein wrote, “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience,” which ironically has transformed over time into the maxim, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” The key is finding the happy medium between complexity and oversimplification.  

In writing, concise diction is more impactful than verbose prose. Simplification trumps complication. I despise when people use phrases such as “in and of itself,” “the fact of the matter is,” “the question as to whether,” or the abysmal “due to the fact that” and “the reason why is because.” All this fluff adds nothing to comprehension, merely adding to the word count—style without substance. The classic writing book, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, has an entire chapter on bad style. Yet, I’m not immune to any of these traps. I frequently use superfluous language laced with overly colorful metaphors. Equally blessed with self-doubt and unattainable perfectionism, I, at least, try to minimize the damage. It takes me many drafts and several editing sessions before I’m remotely satisfied with any of my compositions. Beautiful prose is only achieved through tremendous effort. There is nothing simple about simplicity.

Further Reading

  • The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Alice Calaprice
  • The Elements of Style, Strunk and White