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A Young British Aristocrat
A favour request — please if you haven't already, leave a star rating for Big Picture Medicine on Apple.
The CIA and Alzheimer's
I think languages hold this high ranking in our collective psyches. For example, knowing English, French and German makes someone seem impressive. More so than someone who understands Western Europe's history and how to read a profit and loss statement. But I think the second set of skills are much more useful.
According to the CIA, it takes about 1000–2000 hours to reach fluency in a language. There is even some (conflicting) evidence that being bilingual may delay the onset of Alzheimer's. They hypothesise that language learning creates a 'cognitive reserve'; a moat against Alzheimer's.
I have no doubt that learning a language is better than watching TV. But crucially — the opportunity cost of learning a language is also crazy high. In that same time you could read 200–400 books.
In the myth of the well read person (probably my favourite article of this year), Dwarkesh writes that you could actually understand most fields by reading a dozen or so books on them.
I disagree. I think you can get a basic grasp of a field after reading only 3–5 introductory books on it. By no means an expert. But enough to understand how everything fits together. And crucially: Enough to ask intelligent questions and know where to find the answers.
But to understand something is not to know random minutiae about it - to understand is to know how the parts compose the whole, to notice patterns and discern their causes, and to be able to make predictions on the basis of these insights.
Which means it is actually possible to understand a wide range of topics and fields with a reasonable number of books. In most fields, you really could understand the most important ideas by reading a dozen books (or depending on the technical complexity of the field, a textbook or two plus a handful of seminal papers). If you took reading seriously and read a book a week (approximately an hour or two of reading a day), that’s just 3 months of reading. Half a semester to understand much of an entire field. That is unreasonably effective.
With the obvious caveat of someone who wishes to live or travel extensively in a non-English speaking country, or who just wants to learn languages for the love of them — I think language learning is by-and-large, a waste of time.
A Better Use of Time
If we treat languages like Casey Neistat treats his MacBook Pros — just as tools which help us communicate with other people, perhaps it makes more sense to double down on our English language learning.
In other words, what if we put those 1000–2000 hours of foreign language learning into English instead? Not just 'knowing how to speak English' — but by becoming exceptional at communicating.
But there's no Skillshare course on this. In my own efforts, I've outlined a rough learning plan (open to suggestions):
1️⃣ Public Speaking and Persuasion
I've started agreeing to almost any public speaking opportunity. I think proficiency will only come with practice. I also signed up for my local Toastmasters chapter.
I think my biggest learning and struggle from podcasting has been how to quickly think of and articulate a question — all whilst actively listening. It's really easy to have a question in mind, but in the heat of the moment to projectile (verbal) vomit some nonsense. Especially if the guest is scary.
2️⃣ Writing and Storytelling
This newsletter is good writing practice, although admittedly — it lacks a specific feedback loop on my writing itself. Something I would like to join is David Perell's $1000 Write of Passage Course (but Junior Doctor pay is down 22% since 2008 😤).
(Interestingly, getting good at tweeting forces you to write concisely, think of narratives and front-load interest — very useful writing practice).
3️⃣ Vocabulary and Grammar
I have mixed feelings about this one. I keep a Notes document with interesting words I come across like saccharine and lackadaisical. But if the goal is to communicate better, then using words that no one can understand doesn't make sense. I think Paul Graham writes using simple language very well.
Similarly with grammar, "me and my mates did X" is grammatically incorrect — but it sounds a lot more normal than "my mates and I did X".
4️⃣ Being Funny
I'm not sure how to tackle this one. But doing a stand up comedy set is on my bucket list.
English as a Blessing
I've noticed that my parents have vividly different personalities when speaking Urdu. Meek and mild-mannered in English — they're sharp, witty and gregarious in Urdu.
I question if they'd ever be able to achieve similar mastery of English — but even if possible, I think it would need a lifetime of focused effort.
Being a native English speaker is such an under-appreciated blessing. I sometimes think us native speakers are sitting on an untapped goldmine. Why waste it?
Dr Stephen Reeders founded MVM Partners in 1997. They invest in high growth businesses with bases in London and Boston. He’s had three different lives— Firstly he obtained a BA in Natural Sciences from Cambridge, before getting his Medical Degree from Oxford and then training as a Doctor in some of…
With warmest wishes,