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Although it’s the height of summer, I’m already looking forward to autumn as September means a new academic year and lots of new learning opportunities. I may have finished school and university years ago but in many ways I have never really left. My curiosity and desire to learn are stronger than ever, and once again, I find myself scouring prospectus and websites, scribbling down details of courses and workshops to work out which I can fit in around my schedule.

London is a superb place if you love learning. There’s no shortage of community colleges, academic centres and private teachers but opportunities to learn or develop new skills can also be found in the oddest corners, not to mention online*. Here’s an overview of just some of the opportunities I’ve embraced over the years.

University short courses and community colleges

Many London universities offer short courses in the evening or as winter/summer schools. These courses are not the cheapest but there are some real gems to be had. I have spent a fair few terms at SSEES’ language centre refreshing my rusty Russian and have learnt millinery at the London College of Fashion during the holiday months. Recently The CassAlternative Photographic Printmaking and instrument making courses have caught my eye.

Community colleges may be the Cinderella of adult education but they are not to be underestimated as they offer a wide range of courses, including short weekend ones, usually at very democratic prices.  My favourites are Morley College, City Lit, Bishopsgate Institute and my local college in Greenwich. The teaching on the weekend bra making course at Morley was as good as anything I experienced at the London College of Fashion and the pottery teachers at my local community college are amazing. Whenever possible, I like to use these colleges, particularly in times of public spending cuts as their survival depends (in part) on them being able to demonstrate they serve a real need.

Music lessons abound

I regret never learning to play an instrument as I child but have been making up for it as an adult. Whilst there are many private music teachers in London, I generally enjoy group classes more, like the accordion courses at Morley or the weekend fiddle classes at Cecil Sharpe House (part folk art centre, part music archive).

Violin late starter

Late starter with the violin

Group lessons are often seen as the poor relation to private ones but it all depends on the teaching and the student’s aim. My teachers have covered technique and drilled us with scales, arpeggios and finger exercises, but much like a good language teacher, their focus has been on getting us to make music from day one. As such over half the lesson is devoted to playing together, using technique in practice, learning to listen to and work with fellow musicians whilst playing… There is certainly a place for Grade exams and I use the ABRSM books at home to galvanise my technique but at my stage of life I really don’t need yet another formal certificate. I just want to enjoy playing music with other people. To this end, next term I might join The Goose is Out beginner’s pub session or East London Late Starters Orchestra.

Mastering a new language

As a linguist I never tire of learning new languages. Classes are the traditional route and I have attended many in my lifetime. Community colleges and university language centres are obvious providers but as many countries have designated institutes to promote their language abroad (e.g. Goethe Institute for German, ICI for Italian, Cervantes Instituto for Spanish), it is also worth checking consulate websites.

If the wallet or schedule do not stretch to classes, books and CDs are a good starting point. I have picked up a couple of new languages using these tools, in my case Serbo-Croatian and Swedish.** However, it is necessary to supplement this learning with other tools to get as much exposure to a language as possible. Twenty years ago this meant tuning into short band radio, hunting out foreign magazines at an international news stand or catching the occasional foreign film in the cinema. Now we can access foreign news, films, music, blogs… with a simple Google search. Regularly reading a few paragraphs of a blog, listening to a ten-minute clip on YouTube or trying to join an online forum conversation in a foreign language all help build vocabulary, idioms, an ear for grammar…

Teach yourself Gaelic

The starting point for my latest linguistic project

Unusual and invisible learning 

There are many other avenues for learning beyond formally documented courses. Scratch the surface of the city and they are easy enough to find.

For example, I learnt green wood carving from a group of ‘bodgers’ that runs open days and very affordable introductory courses in a corner of a London cemetery. How did I stumble across this opportunity? I was curious about the craft, researched whether it was covered by a guild or association and then followed the links on the website of the Association of Pole Lathe Turners and Green Wood Workers. The same approach will work for most traditional crafts.

If you are interested in creative writing but don’t fancy a formal course, check if there are any writing clubs in local bookshops. These offer a less formal setting for developing writing skills by providing a focus and supportive feedback, as well as a chance to learn by critiquing others’ efforts.

In this age of commoditised services, it is easy to overlook how much we can actually learn from each other. For example, a family friend taught me the basics of welding, and I have taught a couple of acquaintances to crochet. Many people are only too happy to share skills, just look at how many knitting and stitching clubs have sprung up in recent years. Or how many people have posted how-to clips on YouTube, from how to make a blind or saw a mortise and tenon joint to how to write calligraphy or develop film negatives with coffee…

It may require a little research and ingenuity, some juggling of time, finances*** and priorities, but for me, it has never been easier to satisfy my curiosity and hunger to learn.


* I have not touched on the many online learning options available. I am currently experimenting with some free courses delivered via FutureLearn and shall blog about my findings in the coming months.

** I should qualify this statement by clarifying that I am a linguist by training so accustomed to language learning. That said, my sister has also been learning languages this way and it seems to work for her too.

*** Course fees can be a barrier to learning but many institutions have concessionary rates. For example, Greenwich Community College offers borough residents a discount, as well as generous concessions for those on benefits. Also, if fees are charged per term, it is worth working out the hourly rate when assessing the cost. Some courses I’ve attended actually cost as little as £4 or 5 per hour and were first-rate!


1 comment
  • Lindsay (treadingmyownpath) August 8, 2014, 3:51 am

    I love learning! I went through a phase in my twenties of learning languages – though I am not a linguist – and studied Russian, Japanese and Greek at evening classes.

    Recently I’ve been thinking that I need to get back into going to more courses, workshops etc. Since I’ve lived in Australia I haven’t really done any – everything is so expensive here! But I shouldn’t let money stop me. If I won the lottery (not that I buy a ticket) I think I’d take a year to travel about the place learning stuff. There’s so many cool useful and practical skills to learn. Having not won the lottery, I should still do what I can : )


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