I am doing a Master’s degree in statistics for social sciences, and I had kind of a revelation when I was studying last weekend. I’ve really latched on to the idea of learning statistics by thinking of it as mastering a new language. As a general rule, I feel quite competent and up to the task of learning languages. But statistics is a little bit more daunting, even though I’m interested in it and motivated to develop a solid base of understanding statistics and how to use them.
(Math-y type things don’t come naturally to me. I remember that in 3rd grade, or whenever you learn fractions, I just wasn’t getting it. So Daddy brought home two pies, and we spent a while at the kitchen counter, slicing pies up into various fractions. I think I wasn’t allowed to eat any of the pie until I had correctly identified the fraction thereof, or something like that…a pretty good incentive for tubby little Ellie.)
In my current studies, I’ve noticed myself glazing over at the formulas. When I see: my inclination is to think ‘blah, blah, blah’ and skim past until the text starts again. But I can understand that formula if I slow down and ‘sound out’ each term in that expression. So reading formulas is the new pronunciation to tackle, and all the new terminology is simply vocabulary words that I have to memorize.
Theory is like grammar. Grammar shows me the reasons why sentences are structured the way they are, and learning statistical theory gives me the same scaffolding upon which to build my understanding of various techniques. Finally, I think the most important parallel that I’ve made between language-learning and statistics-learning is this: I have to practice in order to improve. I attribute my success at learning German and Swahili to pretty much having no shame. I just spoke and learned a ton every time I tried to string words together. With statistics, I can’t be shy about using what I’m learning, and getting frustrated by my mistakes will get me nowhere. It was easy to give myself grace when learning a foreign language because it was all new to me. How could I be expected to know that das Buch or kitabu means ‘book’ until I had learned that vocabulary word? Well, I’m in the same situation when it comes to statistics. I have to remind myself to stay patient and that everything I am learning will build up over time until, hopefully, I am able to say that I ‘speak statistics’.