So, putting aside various “life-hacking” methods for optimizing personal learning, I think it really comes down to two basic processes:
1. Understanding the concepts or being familiar with the information involved.
2. Practicing it in context or applying the knowledge.
The first of which typically comes from careful reading of a text, memorization of data or facts, or a personal exploration of the information in some meaningful way. The second comes from really, truly doing it. Putting it to use.
You can’t hope to have learned anything to mastery without applying the knowledge, and you can’t apply knowledge you don’t really have.
In my case this is all about Japanese. I spend a LOT of time memorizing Kanji, especially now that my primary weak point in Japanese is reading, and my Kanji recognition is still not up to par with the rest of my Japanese language skills. But, as much time as I spend staring at Kanji flash cards, trying to recall what they mean… I don’t find the study useful at all until I start seeing those Kanji in real-world texts, like newspapers, books, subtitles, song lyrics, etc. When I translate documents, I get to actively attribute contextual meaning to these “definitions” and “examples” I studied with flash cards.
I often tell people it takes me three times of seeing a new word or kanji in context before I completely process it. I still feel like that accurately describes my learning process.
Anyway, I’m down to about 600 kanji that I haven’t studied at least once, out of a little over 2000. I probably have a good command of the use of 900-1000 of the 1400 I’ve studied, but that number seems to rise as the total number studied does, and when I wasn’t studying kanji explicitly it was pretty much staying put at about the 600 or less that I studied thoroughly in college.
I’m on schedule to have more or less memorized all 2000 by sometime between March and June next year. Although I’m planning to benchmark my progress with the JLPT 1 test in December (I magically passed JLPT 2 in July), I don’t expect to pass until July of next year. Hopefully, after bagging that certification I will feel truly confident in my Japanese and using it as a primary skill in future prospects.