We've all heard that practice makes perfect. It takes time and effort to be great at something, and if you want to do it right, you should practice one skill at a time.
For example, a beginning guitarist might rehearse scales before chords. A young tennis player practices the forehand before the backhand.
This phenomenon is called “blocking,” and because it appeals to common sense and is easy to schedule, blocking is dominant in schools, training programs, and other settings.
However, the question we should be asking ourselves is this: is blocking the most optimal way to practice skills? It doesn't seem so.
What is interleaving?
Interestingly, there is a much better strategy - enter "interleaving".
In interleaving one mixes, or interleaves, practice on several related skills together. In other words, instead of going AAAAABBBBBCCCCC you do ABCABCABCABC.
It turns out that varying it even slightly can yield massive gains in a short period.
Let's take baseball as an example: Batters who do batting practice with a mix of fastballs, change-ups, and curveballs hit for a higher average. The interleaving is more effective because when you're out there in the wild, you need first to discern what kind of problem you're facing before you can start to find a solution, like a ball coming from a pitcher's hand.
There are almost no strategies that are fully universal and can be used for all disciplines and in all learning conditions. The same goes for interleaved practice.
The past four decades definitely demonstrated that interleaving often outperforms blocking for a variety of subjects, but especially motor learning (e.g., sports). The results for other subjects are mixed.
Studies on interleaved practice in different disciplines
For example, when native English speakers used the strategy to learn an entirely unfamiliar language (i.e., generating English-to-Swahili translations), the results were better, the same, or worse than after blocking.
Another study (Rohrer et al., 2015) concerning mathematics showed the dramatic benefits of interleaving on children’s performance at math.
During the experiment, some kids were taught math the traditional way. They got familiar with one mathematical technique in a lesson and then practiced it to death. A second group was given assignments that included questions necessitating the use of different techniques.
The results were as impressive as they were surprising.
One day after the test, the students who’d been utilizing the interleaving method did 25% better. However, when tested a month later, the interleaving method did 76% better.
Keep in mind that such an increase is truly amazing, given that both groups had been learning for the same amount of time. The only difference was that some students learned block by block, and others had their learning mixed up.
The necessary condition before you apply interleaved practice
The results above tell us one important thing. You can't just go cowabunga and start interleaving the heck out of every subject.
Before you do so,you should have some familiarity with subject materials(or the materials should be quickly or easily understood).Otherwise, as appears to be the case for foreign languages, interleaving can sometimes be more confusing than helpful.
It's only logical when you look at this strategy from the memory perspective. For many, using even one technique seems to a burden enough for their working memory. Forcing such people to use three or more make you a psycho who wants to see the world, and their memory, burn.
It's simply too much.
It doesn't take away from the fact that interleaving can be extremely useful. It forces the mind to work harder and to keep searching and reaching for solutions.
However, if you decide to use it, make sure that you're familiar with the strategies you want to interleave. This recommendation is based on a phenomenon called the expertise reversal.
The expertise reversal
The expertise reversal effect occurs when the instruction that is effective for novice learners is ineffective or even counterproductive for more expert learners.
If you look at it differently, more experienced learners learned more from high variability rather than low variability tasks demonstrating the variability effect. In contrast, less experienced learners learned more from low rather than top variability tasks showing a reverse variability effect.
Why might lower variability be better in the beginning?
It was suggested that more experienced learners had sufficient available working memory capacity to process high variability information. In contrast, less experienced learners were overwhelmed by high variability and learned more using low variability information. Subjective ratings of difficulty supported the assumptions based on cognitive load theory, which you have learned before.
In other words, some signals that are needed by low prior knowledge learners might be redundant for high prior knowledge learners due to their existing schema in long-term memory (Kalyuga, 2009).
For example, one of the experiments (Likourezos, Kalyuga, Sweller, 2019) which tested 103 adults studying pre-university mathematics, showed no interaction between levels of variability (high vs. low) and levels of instructional guidance (worked examples vs. unguided problem solving). The significant main effect of variability indicated a variability effect regardless of levels of instructional guidance.
What does it tell us?
We can't play in the big boy's league if we don't cover the basics!
INTERLEAVED PRACTICE – WHEN AND HOW TO USE IT TO MAXIMIZE YOUR LEARNING PACE - Summary
(1) Interleaved practice is perfect for:
any material that can be quickly learned and understood
(2) For more complicated subjects, make sure to familiarize yourself with the appropriate strategies before you decide to interleave them. This way, you will make sure that your working memory isn't overburdened.
The curse of a B2 level might sound like a title of an F-rated horror movie but it’s a very real thing. In fact, it affects most language learners,
What is the curse of a b2 level (aka the language learning plateau)?
The language learning plateau is a phenomenon describing one’s inability to progress past the intermediate stages of language learning (i.e. a B1/B2 level). Typically, the main reasons are using inefficient learning strategies, or not using any learning system at all.
Let’s break down step-by-step why a B2 level is a final station for most language learners and what you can do to fix go beyond this mark. Time to break that curse.
What’s a B2 level is all about
What? You thought I would skip a dry, boring and theoretical part? No way! That’s where all the fun is!
understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization.
interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
Brief explanation: this level can be depicted as a FULL conversational fluency. You can have real conversations with native speakers about a variety of subjects.
Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at quite a deep level.
Expected vocabulary depth: you can convey most of your thoughts but you still, for the most part, lack precision. Compared to a B1 level, you can discuss more topics with more precise vocabulary.
Still, any topic that differs from typical, conversational standards will probably throw you off.
How many people master a language at a C1 or C2 level
English proficiency in the world
Now that you know what a B2 level is all about, let’s take a look at the level of English proficiency in different countries around the world. It’s only natural since this language is still the most popular choice. Our starting point is the EF English Proficiency Index. For brevity’s sake, I will skip the part where I lambaste the reliability of those results.
Countries with the highest English proficiency
Here is a list of countries that were classified as the ones with “very high proficiency” i.e. a C1-C2 level. Pay very close attention to the top dogs. Almost every country in the top 12 has either English as an official language (e.g. Singapore) or it’s a Germanic-speaking country.
Why is it important? If you’re learning a language which is similar to your native tongue, it will be CONSIDERABLY easier for you to master it. Since English is also a Germanic language, it’s not difficult to notice a pattern here.
Of course, there are other factors at play here but this is the most important one for me from the memory standpoint. The way information familiarity modulates your working memory and increases your learning capacity can’t be ignored.
A good example is my mission from a couple of years ago where I learned Czech from scratch to a B1/B2 level in about 1 month., even though my learning system at that time was far from perfect. Yes, I specialize in memory, so I knew what I was doing but I also already spoke Polish, Russian and German. Those languages helped me establish my initial familiarity with Czech vocabulary at about 80%.
Countries with moderate English proficiency
Now it’s time for countries whose English proficiency can be characterized as about B2 level.
As you can see, once we drop outliers like the top 12, the level drops to a B2 level and below. But let’s not stop there.
Here is an excerpt from one of the official Polish reports about German Proficiency in Poland. Let’s keep in mind that we’re talking about self-evaluation here of people who probably wouldn’t be able to describe language requirements for any level. The reality, in other words, is less rosy.
German proficiency at a B1+ level has been achieved by more than 53% of language learners., of which 22% mastered the language at a B2 level, 19% at a C1 level and 12.5% at a C2 level.
In other words, the amount of German learners who claim they have mastered this language amounts to about 16%.
The magical number 20
In different reports, the number 20 is the reoccurring theme. It seems that only less than 20% of learners of any language get past a B2 level. That is of course if you believe that these numbers are reliable.
Scientific studies are less forgiving in this department.
Long (2005, 2013) that the number of learners who achieve a C2 level is anywhere between 1-5%.
The curse of a B2 level – the two main reasons why you are stuck
1. No learning strategy and no system
One of the most surprising facts about how people learn is that most of them have no organized system of learning. You might think that’s an exaggeration but I assure you it’s not.
Here is an excerpt from a recent study (Schimanke, Mertens, Schmid 2019) about learning strategies at a German university.
To get a better insight on how students actually learn, we have conducted a survey among the students of our university (HSW – University of Applied Sciences) about their strategies and learning behaviors.
Overall, there were 135 students participating in this survey from all 6 semesters and between 18 and 31 years of age. 68.1% of the participants were male, 31.9% female.
Only very few of them deliberately make use of learning strategies, such as spaced repetition or the Leitner system. 94.8% of the participants just repeat the learning topics randomly to have them available during a test.
The terrifying thing is that we’re not talking about a bunch of clueless people without any education. We’re talking about bright individuals who will shape the future of their nation.
And yet, almost all of them rely on something I call a let’s-hope-it-sticks strategy. It’s nothing more than spitting on a wall and hoping that something will set. But it rarely does, right?
You can read, reread and cram all you want. Most of the knowledge you gather this way will be forgotten by the end of the next week.
Passive learning can be a very effective learning tool provided that you’re already at an advanced level (especially a B2 level and higher). It can also be relatively useful if, for one reason or another, you are already familiar with a language you want to master (e.g. because it’s a part of the same language family). However, passive learning is a terrible toolfor language rookies.
The body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times in order to put it into your long-term memory (i.e. be able to activate it without any conscious effort). Other studies quote numbers between 7-60.
I will let it sink in!
That’s a lot. Of course, the number varies because it all depends on your background knowledge, emotional saliency of words and so on but it’s still a very big number.
Let’s delve into its consequences.
Everything works if you have lots of time
We know that in most languages 5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).
It means that as long as you are stubborn enough, eventually you will get to about a B2 level. It doesn’t matter how crappy your learning method is. As long as you soldier on, you will get to the finish line even if that takes you 10 years.
Because it’s almost guaranteed that you will amass a sufficient number of repetitions (7-60) of the words which occur in a language with a frequency of 98%! But what if you want to really master a language. Or two. Do you believe that you will be able to pull that number of repetitions for the words which occur with a frequency of about 2%? Of course not.
Think of any rare word from your native tongue like “cream puff” or “head physician”. How often do you hear them in your daily life? Not that often, right? And that’s the problem. C1-C2 levels consist of rare words like these. That’s why your chances of getting there if your default learning style is passive are very thin. Unless you have 20 years of spare time and are willing to spend most of your waking hours surrounding yourself with a language.
Real vocabulary gains from reading and listening at the early stages of language learning
Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998) specifically looked at the number of words acquired from a simplified version of a novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, which had 21000 running words. The novel was read in class during six class periods. It was found that the average vocabulary pick-up was five words.
Lahav (1996) carried out a study of vocabulary learning from simplified readers. She tested students who read 4 readers, each one of about 20 000 words, and found an average learning rate of 3–4 words per book.
The above survey indicates that reading is not likely to be the main source of L2 learners’ vocabulary acquisition. If most words were acquired from reading, learners would have to read about as much as native children do – that is, a million words of text a year. This would require reading one or two books per week. If, however, teachers can expect only small quantities of reading, then word-focused activities should be regarded as a way of vocabulary learning.
Vocabulary gains from listening
Vidal explored incidental vocabulary acquisition from L2 listening (2003), and compared gains from listening with reading (2011). These studies analyzed the effect of a large number of variables (e.g. frequency of occurrence, predictability from word form and parts) on learning. Knowledge gains of 36 target words were measured with a modified version of the Vocabulary Knowledge Scale, on which learners could effectively score 0 to 5.
Out of the maximum score of 180, readers scored 40.85 (22.7%) on the immediate post-test and 19.14 (10.6%) on the one-month delayed test. Listeners scored 27.86 (15.5%) immediately after listening and 14.05 (7.8%) one month later. The main finding is that both reading and listening lead to vocabulary knowledge gains, with gains from reading being much larger than from listening. An effect of frequency occurrence (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 occurrences) was found in both modes but this was considerably stronger in reading. More repetitions were needed in listening (5 to 6) than in reading (2 to 3) for it to have a positive effect on learning.
At the risk of repeating myself, I would like to stress one more time that your learning capacity is affected by your background knowledge. If you’re a Frenchman learning Spanish, the aforementioned numbers won’t apply to you.
At the same time, there are just a few studies around which test long-term retention of vocabulary for almost any method. That’s a pity because 3 months is a cut-off point proving that words have truly been stored in your long-term memory. The studies quoted above also share this problem. Retesting the students of the above experiments at a 3-month mark would surely yield much worse, and realistic, results.
Anyway, the point I would like to drive home is that passive learning is an ineffective language acquisition tool for beginners.
A B2 level is achievable to almost anyone as long as you pursue your learning goal with dogged persistence. However, moving past this level requires from you the use of systems that will allow you to focus heavily on rare words which make up about 2-3% of a language since it’s almost impossible to master them just by learning organically (i.e. reading, listening and talking).
If you stick to smart learning methods, you will surely overcome this hurdle.
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go.
The phenomenon of retrieving words at will seems to be almost magical. The mere intention of wanting to use any of them recalls them effortlessly and in no time.
Hah! You wish!
The truth is that most of us look like constipated capuchin monkeys trying to poop out a screwdriver when we try to retrieve vocab! It’s difficult and it sure as hell doesn’t come easy.
Why is it so?
Well, first of all, the universe is a cruel place and probably hates you. Other than that there are some other memory-related reasons for that state of affairs.
Since I can’t do anything about the universe, let’s concentrate on the latter.
Difference between remembering and retrieving a word
Let’s start with a very different distinction between remembering a piece of information and retrieving it. Contrary to common knowledge and intuition, they are not the same.
To explain this concept, let’s look at a simple model of memory.
As you can clearly see that first you have to encode (memorize) a piece of information and only then can you retrieve it.
It means that:
a) you can remember something but you might not be able to retrieve it.
b) if you can retrieve something you certainly remember it.
The infamous tip-of-the-tongue feeling refers to the so-called failure to retrieve error,
If you want to improve your chance of recalling an item you need to improve its retrievability.
What is retrievability?
Long-term memories can be characterized by two elements: Stability (S) and Retrievability (R) are part of the Two-component model of long-term memory.
Retrievability of memory is a variable of long-term memory that determines the probability of retrieving a memory at any given time since the last review/recall.
I would like to direct your attention to the word “probability”. You can never be certain that you will be able to retrieve a given memory. It all depends on a plethora of factors. But what you can do is increase your odds.
Let’s dig deeper.
Fundamentals – Retrieval Cues
Before we move on, you need to familiarize yourself with some basic memory concepts. Only then will you be able to fully understand why you can’t recall a word and how to change it.
Everything starts with a retrieval CUE.
A Retrieval Cue is a prompt that help us remember. When we make a new memory, we include certain information about the situation that act as a trigger to access the memory. Source: AlleyDog
As you can see, literally everything can be a cue! Let’s say that you meet a nice girl. The way she looks is a cue. Actually, every piece of her garment is a cue. The weather is a cue. The look of disgust on her face as you empty yet another cup of beer and whisper gently into her ear, ” Shh. Let the magic happen” is another great example of a cue.
The sound of your feet being dragged across the dirt by the security is yet another cue.
What? No. That did not happen to me! Mind your own business! Let’s get back to science!
Saying that everything is a cue is a bit lazy, isn’t it? I think you will be able to understand them much better once you see how they are typically categorized.
And don’t worry. This is not an exercise in futility. This info will come handy.
External cues were ones that came from the environment.
Abstract (aka internal) cues were all thoughts or linguistic references to the original episode.
Sensory/perceptual cues were those that provided sensory/perceptual referents to the original episode.
Sensory cues can be further categorized as visual cues, auditory cues, haptic cues, olfactory cues, environmental cues, and so on.
State cues were physiological or emotional referents to the original episode
I hope that now it’s easier for you to understand that literally everything can be a cue – starting from a thought and ending with a smell.
Then, you might wonder, if there are so many of them, how come you still have trouble retrieving memories or words?
The easiest answer is that you need to use the right cues.
Memory principles governing recall
There are a couple of general rules which will help you with understanding when it is usually possible to retrieve a word.
1) The encoding specificity
Somewhere in the 70s, a psychologist by the name of Endel Tulving proposed a theory called the encoding specificity principle.
It states that:
” Successful recall relies on the overlap between the thing you are trying to remember and the situation in which you first encountered it, and the cues or prompts that are available when you are trying to recall it”.
This gives us our first rule:
The more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.
Let’s stress it one more time – it’s not guaranteed that you will recall desired words. Meeting the said conditions simply increases the likelihood of retrieving them.
Let’s say that you memorized (actively) the word “cat” in the following phrase: “a black cat”. If at any given time during a conversation, you decide to use this phrase, it will most likely come to the top of your mind.
But what happens if you decide to use this word in another phrase:”a wild cat”? Assuming that you already know actively the word “wild”, there is a chance that you will be able to string this sentence together. However, the likelihood of this is definitely smaller than in the previous example as you have probably never ever made such a mental connection before. This leads to problems with so-called “information transfer“.
If you memorized some word in only one context, your mind can cling to it so tightly that it won’t be able to transfer a given item into another context.
Any time you use a given word in one part of a conversation and then can’t use it in another one, you run into exactly this problem.
Interestingly, these rules stay true regardless of the relevance of the information you are trying to retrieve.
“When short-range contextual dependencies are preserved in nonsense material, the nonsense is as readily recalled as is meaningfull material.” – The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives
Side note: Now, when I am reading this sentence I think that I need to go out more often. I have a strange definition of “fun”.
2) The strength of associations
Another aspect of successful retrieval is how strong your associations are. I think that it is intuitively understandable that the stronger the association between the cue and the target information the bigger your chance of retrieving an item is.
However, make no mistake:
The strength of your association is still not as important as the match between features of recall and features of encoding (Pansky et al., 2005; Roediger & Guynn, 1996).
Imagine that you are eating peacefully your breakfast in a hotel abroad and all of a sudden some cat jumps on a table and gracefully puts its paw into your cereal bowl.
You think for a second how to word your outrage in a language of your choice and then you finally cry out “I will skin you alive, you sack of fleas!”.
From now on, every time you decide to express your outrage in a similar situation the chance of using exactly this phrase increases.
Edward Vul and Nisheeth Srivastava presented another interesting perspective. Namely, the process of retrieval is the process of retrieving cues that anchor the said item.
From this it follows that:
recognition performance is superior to recall performance when the number of items is greater than the number of cues
recall performance is better than recognition when the converse holds.
It means that the bigger the number of words you want to memorize, the bigger the number of cues you need.
Don’t overdo it – a cue overload effect
There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing. If you decide to go over the top and insert too many cues into a piece of information you are trying to memorize you might notice that your recall rate didn’t change.
It happens so because:
If retrieval cues are not recognized as being distinct from one another, then cues are likely to become associated with more information, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of the cue in prompting the recall of target information (Watkins & Watkins, 1975).
Let’s say that you want to memorize a two-word phrase “a disgusting slob”. If you just create a flashcard and then try to din it into your head, there is a good chance you won’t succeed.
The number of cues is minimal here. You can just see these words visually.
In other words, you are using one sensory cue. But as you know now, there are quite many different kinds of cues.
You can dollop more of them on top of this one.
You can add a sound (another sensory cue)
You can say it out loud (internal and sensory cue)
You can modulate your emotions (state cues)
Instead of just saying a phrase, you can shout it out angrily. Win-win! Unless you shout it out on a bus, of course.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s a slight simplification of a problem as it doesn’t factor in the capacity of our short-term memory.
4) Distinctivity of cues
The last (important) piece of a puzzle is how distinct your cues are.
“In order to increase the likelihood of recalling a verbatim-based piece of information, you need distinct retrieval cues (Anderson, 1983a; Anderson & Reder, 1999; Tuckey 743 & Brewer, 2003).
But why do we need distinct retrieval cues?
Shortly, recall of one item can prompt further recall of semantically related items (Collins & Loftus, 1975). This occurs through the spread of activation through the associative links of the memory network. Gillian Cohen – Memory In the Real World
You can think about it as a domino effect. One element leads us to another.
How to build good cues
Good quality retrieval cues often have:
(1) constructability (cues generated at encoding can be reliably reproduced at recall);
(2) consistency between encoding and retrieval within a given context (i.e. an effective retrieval cue should be compatible with the memory trace created during encoding and show high cue-target match);
(3) strong associations with the target and the ability to be easily associated with newly learned information;
(4) bidirectionality of association (the cue recalling target information, and target information recalling the cue).
(5) It is also important that retrieval cues are distinctive or discriminable.
Think about those rules as guidelines. Applying them will definitely increase your odds of retrieving an item.
However, don’t go too crazy and try to apply all of them every time when you try to memorize something. If anything, you should increase the number of cues only for the words you have trouble remembering.
How to maximize your chances of recalling words – Summary
Time to recap everything you have learned so far about maximizing your chances of recalling something. But let’s do it in plain English this time.
1. You should be the person who generates cues
If you download ready-to-use flashcards or use apps like Duolingo and then whine that you can’t learn then there’s your explanation.
High levels of recall usually occur when the cue is self-generated (Hunt & Smith, 1996).
2. Retrieve vocabulary in different conditions
If you just sit at home and pore over a computer or books you are encoding and retrieving items in the same conditions and that clearly hinders their retrievability.
As you already know in order to retrieve a piece of information we need to use good cues.
Retrieval is a selective process, relying on a complex interaction between encoded information and features of the retrieval environment (Tulving & Thomson, 1973).
3. Memorize natural phrases / collocations
One more time – the more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.
Let’s say that you want to learn the word “a bike”. You decide to put it into the following phrase which you will later memorize “a bike made with light alloys”.
If you have never ever heard yourself saying such a phrase in your native tongue then what are you doing?! Use something simpler and more natural, for example, “a new bike”.
Let’s look at the quickest way to retrieve a word in a conversation.
PHRASE YOU LEARN PHRASE YOU RETRIEVE encoding cue -> retrieval cue (identical or similar to the encoding cue) = success
Quite straightforward, isn’t it?
Now here is the path of retrieval when you decide to use mnemonics:
a big cat -> looking for associations -> turning them into pictures -> placing them in some location -> decoding them -> retrieval
As you can see, we are adding a lot of unnecessary steps into the process of retrieval. The usual effect is that you:
a) don’t remember them after a couple of days/weeks
b) you remember them but can’t recall them since you have no real context for these items
Associations are certainly a useful learning tool. The problems occur when there are too many of them. In my line of work, I have met people who were obsessed with finding an association for every possible piece of information.
The thing is that the associations, just like mnemonics, can at best help you with remembering the word but not retrieving it.
A couple of associations are great because they are distinct. However, there is nothing distinct and special about 100 associations.
Another problem is that once again you are lengthening the process of retrieving a word
encoding information -> building an association -> decoding an association -> retrieval
(a cat) -> (it sounds similar to a candy bar ” Kit Kat -> (now you want to use the word in a conversation) it was something connected with a candy bar -> I bought a new Snickers!
I have mentioned before in a couple of articles that learning styles don’t exist (read about it more here). Sure, you can have preferencesfor a giving style of learning but that does not mean that this style of learning will be more effective memory-wise.
Sure enough, there is a host of studies which suggest that even teaching styles have no influence on the students’ ability to recall information.
If you have ever had a teacher who hired a throng of merry and naked gnomes in order to sing you a lengthy list of historical dates then I have bad news for you.
Although, you have to appreciate the effort, right?
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created 32 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go.
Health/illnesses* at the pediatrician’s* at the doctor’s* at the dentist’s* some common illnesses(flu, cold)* medication* at the chemist’s
Sport* popular sports* football* athletics* doing sports* sport and hobby
Media* television* radio* newspapers* magazines
Hobby* reading* listening to music* computer games* the candidate’s favorite pastime
Studying/work* subjects* popular professions* workplaces* colleagues / school-friends* daily routine at home / at work
Here are sample A2 speaking tests:
Here is an excerpt from a German A2 exam (passed by those candidates). Even if you don't know any German, just pay attention to the pace of this conversation. If you do, notice the simplicity of the vocabulary which is being used.
Health/illnesses eating and drinking at the doctor’s* common illnesses and their symptoms* prescriptions / medication /pharmacy
Sport* popular sports* national sports* doing sports
Media* television* radio* newspapers / magazines
Hobby* gardening / DIY* reading / listening to music* computer
Studying/work* types of schools* subjects* popular professions/workplaces* daily routine
European Union* members of the EU* travelling / work / mobility
Culture and civilization* basic practical information regarding the home country and the target language country (weather, currency, eating habits, daily routine, celebrations, shopping opportunities, etc)* tourist attractions* accommodation / restaurants
Holidays and celebrations
Here are sample B1 speaking tests:
I find this one especially fitting if you want to understand what this level is all about
Studying/work* language knowledge / skills / career* equal chances in education / finding a workplace* unemployment* exchange programs / scholarships abroad / professional development* new forms of studying
European Union* work in the EU* language teaching/language knowledge/work opportunities in the EU
Culture and civilization The home country and the target language country* population / ethnic minorities* historic traditions / monuments / cultural values* artistic / ethnographic characteristics
Public life* public institutions / personal documents* public safety* national holidays
Environmental protection* pollution (air, water, soil, et)* selective waste management* recycling* alternative sources of energy
Current topics/events* public life / politics / NGOs* economy
Here are sample B2 speaking tests:
C1 - ADVANCED/PROFICIENT (requirements)
He/she can understand a wide range of more demanding, longer texts, and recognize implicit meaning in them.
He/she can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for the right expression.
He/she can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.
He/she can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing the correct use of organizational patterns, connectors, and cohesive devices.
In linguistic terms, proficiency does not translate to the same meaning as fluent. To state you are proficient means you are comfortable with the use of the language in spoken and written form but not at the same level as a native speaker.
Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at a (very) deep level (depending on a subject)
Expected vocabulary depth: not only can you convey almost every thought but your language is also becoming more and more natural. You start using idioms and distinguishing between different shades of meaning of many words.
C1 Conversational topics
Here are conversational topics you should be able to talk about at this level (source):
The individual* ambition/career building* the individual and the society* problems of social integration
Partnership* forms of partnership* nationalities/minorities
Family* the social status of families / the system of family allowances* family/career
Place of living* housing situation/difficulties in building a house* homelessness / its causes/ problems* housing and mobility
Traveling/transport* problems of city traffic / public transport versus using cars* transport and environmental protection* tourism as a source of income* development in transport / its aspects
Shopping/shops* consumers’ society* buying on credit/with credit cards/on the Internet* shopping tourism
Communication/keeping in contact* the Internet in business communication* Fax, e-mail versus traditional letter writing* less widely used languages versus English
Services* quality/guarantee of services* role, significance of services* electronic services / online ordering
Culture/entertainment* role of arts in the past and present* public collections and their maintenance / art / historic relics / monuments* mentorship / sponsorship / advertising
Time/weather* natural catastrophes and their consequences* hole in the ozone layer/dangers of global warming
Health/illnesses* science/research serving medical care / genetics* alternative methods of healing* health tourism
Sport* first-class sports – mass sports/doping* professionalism in sports / amateur sports / extreme sports* sport and women (chess, boxing, weightlifting, football)* sport and commercials
Media* objectivity / impartiality of providing information* stars / celebrities
Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.
C2 Conversational topics
No need to waste my breath, or fingertips, here. At this level, you are absolutely fluent and can talk about almost everything. No wonder! You're approaching the level presented by well-educated-native speakers.
My only advice for you at this level is to dive into details of any topic you decide to discuss. You need to put in lots of effort to activate all those obscure words. Don't talk just about shopping. Discuss "high-impact strategies to increase a wholesale diversification". Or, you know, something of this sort.
Conversational Topics for Specific Language Levels - Summary
Knowing conversational topics for specific language levels is crucial if you want to pass any official certificate. Even more so if you decide to do it on your own. Such knowledge allows you to shield yourself from any unpleasant surprises during the speaking part of an exam.
However, if you feel no need to obtain any official documents, knowing conversational topics for specific language levels can help you prepare better for your lessons or even give you lots of question ideas for your self-talk!
The reasons are plenty, and everyone seems to have their own explanations. Some blame disinterest and apathy of learners, while others claim that our brains aren't created to hold significant amounts of information. While I can't offer any advice in this article for dealing with the former, I can help you with the latter.
Let's see what the biggest problem in learning effectively and memorizing tons of information is and how to overcome it.
How Much Information Can We Possibly Remember?
Many people are under the impression that the capacity of our memory is the biggest problem in learning effectively. That's a myth. Unfortunately, if you try to google the answer to how much we can remember, you will get information that is outdated and doesn't reflect the state of our current knowledge.
That's why I will try to give you a number based on my research.
Previous studies about the capacity of our memory
A recent study from 2009 published by Azevedo and colleagues estimated that there approximately 86 billion neurons in the human brain. We also know that each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than an eighty-six trillion connections. Neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time. At the same time, a couple of years ago, scientists from the Salk Institute discovered that instead of 3 synapse sizes, as we previously believed, there are 26 discrete sizes.
They can change over a span of a few minutes, meaning that the brain might have a far greater capacity for storing information than previously thought.
In the past, professor Paul Reber from Northwestern University, who at the time believed there were about one billion neurons in the brain, estimated our brain's memory capacity at about 1,5 petabytes.
So what happens if we include the information mentioned above?
We would arrive at the number closer to 215 petabytes, and that is without taking into consideration additional synapse sizes. If we include 23 of the newly discovered synapse sizes, knowing that in computer terms, this value corresponds to about 4.7 "bits" of information per synapse, we will get about 860 petabytes.
One petabyte is 10^15 bytes of digital information.
As you can see, that's a scary number. However, it tells us one important thing.
Your memory's capacity is not what's holding you back. You could learn a new piece of information every second of your life and live to be 500 years old, and you wouldn't even scrape the surface of what's possible.
A Great Example of the Vast Capacity of Our Memory
There is a good chance you've heard of Kim Peek. He was a savant and the inspiration for the character Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rain Man. Many sources claim that he could memorize between 95-98% of almost any book by reading it in about 1 hour. According to The Times newspaper, he could accurately recall the contents of at least 12,000 books.
Is there any exaggeration in his feats? Highly unlikely. There are lots ofvideos on YouTube that showcase his fantastic memory. Here is an excellent documentary about him. Well worth your time.
Of course, it's easy to dismiss what he was capable of because of being autistic. Nevertheless, I think that what was unusual was his ability to access all the information, not how much he remembered.
Other Problems in Learning Effectively That I Will Omit
Before I get to the meat of the matter, I want you to know that other common learning obstacles may stand in your way.
Why have I decided to leave them off? Truth be told, if you used spaced repetition software, you could ameliorate most of these pains. If you think you don't need these programs then, no offense, but you're like one of those guys who think they are at the nudist beach only to wake up naked at a local playground when their acid wears off. In other words, — you might be a tiny bit delusional.
Three things are required for a skill to be used or a behavior to occur (Fogg 2009):
In our case, I assume that you're not plagued by apathy, and you want to use and apply your knowledge. That leaves us with the remaining two requirements.
Ability can be understood as either knowledge, i.e., possessing the right information or psychomotor skills. I have argued that you can't think effectively without the right information. And no — being able to google something doesn't count. Failure to meet this condition will lead you to build automatic responses based on random pieces of information. As a result, both the quality of your thinking and its effects will be subpar. Garbage in, garbage out.
A trigger can be understood by one or more things that set off your ability.
What can be a trigger?
Almost everything can be the trigger. However, they are based on a combination of one of the five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste) and emotional state.
The problem is that not everything should act as a trigger. You don't want to be standing in an elevator and release your inner surgeon. Nor do you want to sit on the beach and suddenly recall how to program in Python. Triggers should be perfectly tied to a given informational set.
There is one more element missing to understand these interrelations fully.
How Is Our Knowledge Organized?
If you want to learn how to overcome the biggest problem in learning effectively, you must first understand the basics of how our knowledge is organized.
The schema theory is probably the best way to do it.
The Schema theory claims that what we currently remember is affected by our background knowledge (i.e., what we already know). In other words, our prior knowledge can significantly influence our current knowledge.
"According to this theory, the knowledge we have stored in memory is organized as a set of schemas, or knowledge structures, which represent generic knowledge about objects, situations, events, or actions that have been acquired from past experience."
"Schemas represent all kinds of generic knowledge from simple knowledge, such as the shape of the letter ``A'', for example, to more complex knowledge such as knowledge about political ideologies or astrophysics. Like the action schemas, knowledge schemas may be linked together into related sets, with superordinate and subordinate schemas. So, for example, the schema for ``table'' would be linked to schemas for ``furniture'', ``rooms'', and ``houses''.
A schema has slots that may be filled with fixed compulsory values, or with variable optional values. A schema for a boat would have ``boats'' as a fixed value, but has ``oars'' and ``engine'' as variable values.
Schemas also supply default values. These are the most probable or typical values. If you are thinking about some particular boat, and you cannot remember the color of the sails, the boat schema might supply the default value ``white'' as being the most probable value to fill the color slot.
My quest to become competent in lots of different domains started many moons ago. What I couldn't figure out for a long time was why I regularly failed to recall information I previously memorized. It didn't matter if I relied on mnemonics or spaced repetition software. A couple of weeks passed, and all the knowledge evaporated. It took me much time to understand that isolated pieces of information are nonsensical to the brain and have little to no practical value.
An example of fallacious reasoning based on isolated bits of information
In one of our discussions my son's nursery teachers mentioned fleetingly that if a child suffers from a persistent cough, it's undoubtedly a sign of parasitic infection.
Can it be true?
Absolutely. Some intestinal parasites (e.g., Ascaris) can lay eggs that might end up in your lungs. We also know some species of parasites that can be found exclusively in the lungs. However, does one piece of information warrant such a diagnosis? Absolutely not.
Dozens of things can cause a cough. Saying that it's X or Y based on one piece of information doesn't have much sense (or it's plain stupid).
For example, if it was a parasitic infection, then in this region of the world, there is a chance it would rather be some intestinal parasite whose eggs migrated to lungs. In that case, way before the occurrence of cough, we could notice some other symptoms, e.g., gastric discomfort, rash, diarrhea, etc. Even then, we would need to run further tests to narrow down possible causes.
Conclusions based on isolated pieces of information are almost always fallacious.
2. Provide relevancy to the information you learn
My past self was not only failing to understand that remembering isolated pieces of information is useless. I also couldn't wrap my head around one simple fact.
Abstract information gets forgotten amazingly fast
If this abstract information is also isolated, then the forgetting will happen almost immediately.
Your goal as a learner is to make this information as useful as it's possible. It should be a part of your reality. We didn't evolve to remember rubbish information. Whatever we learned or remembered was usually necessary for our survival. This was and is true for many things like remembering what not to eat, how to perform certain skills to earn your living, etc.
Whenever I teach medical professionals, they are always baffled why I remember some seemingly trivial information. The disappointingly dull answer is - I brute-force myself to make relevant connections.
Example - biophotons:
When I was learning about biophotons, one of the things I learned is that their emission is a type of bioluminescence. It can theoretically be triggered by reactive oxygen species. That led to a forced, but funny (for me!) conclusion that I turned into a flashcard:
Q: How can I use biophotons to light up my room?
A: eat lots of mercury (= inflammation)
The logic being that this action would trigger a massive inflammatory reaction. Is it exactly true? Not exactly, but it helped to cement the concept in my head, and this is what truly counts.
3. Categorize your knowledge into relevant scripts
You already know that your abilities need triggers. Hence, your goal is to categorize your knowledge into relevant scripts which should get triggered under the right circumstances. Even then, it's easy to overdo it by trying to squeeze too much information into one script, which leads to cue overload.
Cue overload is the phenomenon wherein the slower and less accurate recall is caused by too many associative links (the fan effect; Anderson, 1983a).
Example - lie detection:
Many people, quite naively believe that one gesture is enough to spot a liar — quite the contrary. Real experts usually analyze body language based on clusters of different gestures and cues.
In that case, your ability, i.e., analyzing body language or getting suspicious, would be triggered by a specific combination of cues. Without those cues, your abilities won't get activated. It's not like your amazing skills will be activated around the clock.
It's funny to hear some body language experts claiming that their skills are like the curse, and they can't seem to turn it off. I can almost see them watching some low-budget erotic movie thinking, "hmm, judging by the cues he is not a real plumber, and he didn't come here to unclog the pipes".
4. Create many different scripts for every piece of information
Just like memorizing isolated information is nonsensical, so is combining it into one or only a few scripts.
Any kind of information is by its nature multi-faceted. You can't expect one script to give you a complete picture.
You should do your best to combine those different facets into many scripts, whereas each one of them presents you with a different perspective. The more scripts you create, the more complete and original your thinking will be.
The Biggest Problem in Learning Effectively - Summary
Way too many people believe that the capacity of our memory is the main problem in learning effectively and remembering a lot. It's not the case, but I do understand this line of reasoning. If you believe that remembering a lot is not possible, then you won't make an effort, and you will end up being right (see self-fulfilling prophecy).
The truth is that you can be an expert in many different areas (or at least very competent) if you only learn how to acquire information and turn it into relevant scripts. Unfortunately, no amount of reading will get you close enough to your goal. It's all about the conscious effort and following the plan.
How to Learn Effectively and Memorize a Lot
Don't learn isolated information
Provide relevancy to the information you learn
Categorize your knowledge into relevant schemas that get triggered by the right cues
Create many different scripts for every piece of information
Do you want to share your own experience with memorizing a lot? Leave me a comment!
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It's enough to download ANKI, and you're good to go.
Improving listening comprehension in a foreign language is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most challenging skills to master. The amount of time needed to understand a language is enormous. Unfortunately, not everyone succeeds in this field.
Not everyone reaches the finish line and has the pleasure of saying, "I understand most of everything I hear."
On the contrary, the bodies of poor souls who surrendered along the way colorfully decorate the entire length of the route. Everyone has their theory of why they failed. "My ears are too small." "I can't listen to German for long because I start to sob."
And who knows, maybe the above is partially true. However, these reasons are not as important as the list you are about to see.
Here are 12 reasons why you have trouble understanding a foreign language.
LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - 12 COMMON ISSUES AND WAYS TO SOLVE THEM
Understanding a spoken word is complex. It's affected by many factors.
LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - 12 COMMON ISSUES AND WAYS TO SOLVE THEM
1. Limited vocabulary
7. Lack of concentration
2. Problems with pronunciation
8. Problems with interpretation/culture
3. Trying to understand everything
9. Problems with natural (i.e. colloquial) speech
4. Insufficient listening practice
10. No visual support
5. Too fast a pace
11. Passive listening
6. One-time listening to recordings
12. Insufficient knowledge of grammar
1. LIMITED VOCABULARY
Insufficient knowledge of vocabulary is one of the main culprits. No wonder you have trouble understanding if your vocabulary is very limited! As you listen, each word and phrase at your disposal becomes your foothold.
Think of it as a puzzle - the more elements that fill the outline of an image, the easier it is to see what the picture is. Similarly, when listening, each subsequent word allows you to understand better what the general meaning/message of a given conversation or recording is.
There are two significant milestones for most languages:
1st milestone - 3000 words
Knowledge of the 3000 most frequently used words in a foreign language allows understanding of 95% of texts and conversations (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). It is worth remembering that, in this case, we count one word as all variations of a given word and its family of words.
For example: "run," "running," and "runner" are counted as one word by this classification.
2nd milestone - 5000 words
Knowledge of the 5000 most-used words in a foreign language allows understanding of 98% of texts and conversations ((Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).
The minimum vocabulary required to listen effectively
If you want to be sure that you will understand to some degree recordings and conversations of all kinds, you should aim for a vocabulary of at least 2.5 - 3 thousand words. But as always - the more, the better!
So you don't know that many words? Come on, get to work! Don't be lazy!
2) PROBLEMS WITH PRONUNCIATION
Issues with pronunciations are one of the hidden reasons why your understanding suffers; hence, many people are entirely unaware of it.
How does sloppy pronunciation cause difficulties in understanding?
(I) Incorrect phonological representations
Each of us, as part of the so-called phonological memory, uses phonological representations.
A phonological representation is the way you think a word sounds.
If your phonological representation largely coincides with the actual pronunciation of the word, then everything is fine, and your brain should recognize the word.
It is worse when your interpretation of the pronunciation of a word completely diverges from its actual pronunciation. The result is a complete lack of understanding, although you often KNOW the word (Rixon 1986: 38). You pronounce it in your "specific" way.
For example, if in your head the pronunciation of the word "gist" sounds like / gɪst / with a hard " g," then you may not completely understand it when you hear its correct pronunciation / ʤɪst/.
(II) Lack of knowledge about assimilations
A separate problem is the so-called phonetic assimilation phenomenon.
Phonetic similarity (phonetic assimilation) - a common phonetic process in which a sound changes to be more similar to a neighboring sound. The essence of every phonetic preference is coarticulation, whose mechanism of action is the influence of a given sound on the articulation of sounds that are adjacent to it. - Wikipedia
Assimilation simply means that the pronunciation of a letter can change due to the letter before or after it.
A typical example of assimilation in a language is when a word ends in a consonant, and the other begins in a vowel. Most often, such words "merge" in pronunciation and are pronounced as one.
E.g. "It is", which we pronounce as / ɪtɪz / /, not / ɪt ɪz /.
How to deal with these problems?
I) Try to accurately internalize the pronunciation of the words you learn
It will affect not only your ability to understand, but also your ability to learn vocabulary. As research shows (Fowler, 1991; Pierce et al. 2017), phonological representations can affect your coding ability, which is an early step in the process of learning and remembering words.
II) Learn the pronunciation and the International Phonetic Alphabet of the language
I know that most people won't do it, but I recommend delving into the sounds of your target language.
It's worth knowing which of them are in your native language and which are not. With this knowledge, you'll know which ones require your special attention.
Great, you're ambitious, but the level of ambition should be in proportion to your current level of capability. Efforts to understand everything do not make sense if, after the first hearing of the recording, you do not know whether the conversation is about politics or whether they offend you.
Listen for the gist, and only then for details - it is the best strategy.
Attempts to pick out individual words by ear make sense only when you can understand the overall meaning of the recording.
If you have not reached this point yet, it is worth listening to the recording again.
4) INSUFFICIENT LISTENING PRACTICE
Good listening comprehension in a foreign language is the most time-consuming language competence. Don't expect 20 minutes of listening a day to work wonders. You should aim for a minimum of 1 hour of listening per day!
I can already hear those moans: "Well, he's crazy! More than 20 minutes! Lord, I have a life! "
Contrary to appearances, it is not so difficult. All you have to do is plan your day well. After all, you can listen to music or recordings almost anywhere! At home, gym, shop, commuting, and often even at work!
5) TOO FAST A PACE
Many people feel that one of the biggest obstacles preventing them from understanding a language well is the high rate of influx when listening.A constant stream of words creates the impression that you always miss essential information, which can make you unnecessarily stressed. Fortunately, it is quite easy to get rid of this problem these days.
(I) Manipulation of the recording speed
Almost every movie and music player nowadays is equipped with speed control. YouTube is a good example. If the average tempo of the recording prevents you from understanding, lower the speed to 0.75. You should immediately notice a big difference.
(II) The word "please."
In the case of conversations with foreigners, the matter is even more straightforward - ask them to speak more slowly and clearly. Most people shouldn't have any problem with this.
They don't want to do it? A quick blow to the temple should subtly encourage them to cooperate.
6) ONE-TIME LISTENING TO RECORDINGS
Repeated listening to a given recording or conversation is not always possible. However, if it's possible, you should always listen to your materials more than once if you have trouble understanding them.
Here's a simple plan you can stick to:
(I)) Learners at levels A1-B1
Find a recording/video on YT or something similar, and listen to it over and over again.
When should you move to the next recording?
When you understand about 80% of the recording, i.e., you grasp its gist - hunting for particular words at this level is pointless.
However, it is essential to become familiar with theprosodyof the language and to improve the ability to capture the most common words in a given language.
It is a particularly useful listening system when you want to learn a language for which there are practically no listening materials.
At the time when I was doing my first major language project (learning Swedish from scratch to a level B2 in about four months - a full story here), I could listen to one radio program, lasting about 10 minutes, even a dozen times. This is how long the phonetic identification of "theoretically" simple words that I "theoretically" knew took me.
(II) Learners at B2-C2 levels
Here the matter is much simpler. Assuming that you are indeed at this language level, you should know between 3 and 5 thousand words. Thus, your understanding should range between 95-98%.
Since you are already quite advanced, repeatedly listening to a given recording does not make sense, After all, you are already able to identify the essential words appearing in a given language. At these levels, the most important thing is to listen to as many language users as possible to get used to the variety of accents and language patterns.
7) LACK OF CONCENTRATION
Sometimes, problems with understanding are dictated by nothing else but a good old lack of concentration. Each of us knows the moment when, after 2 minutes of listening to the interlocutor, you completely sail away to ride on a pony in a happy place in your head, while saliva begins to gather in the corners of your mouth.
Where does this state come from, and how to remedy it?
(I) Ditch boring recordings
Listen, you are not in an interrogation room in Guantánamo. Nobody compels you to listen to things you don't enjoy. If the subject of the recording causes your eyes to spasm, then change it. Simple logic works here - the more you like a topic, the more willingly and longer you will listen to it.
b) Chunk your listening sessions
There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing.
If the recording is too long, break up your listening session into many parts.
For example, instead of watching one 40-minute episode of a series in one hearing, try to do it in two or three sessions. Everything according to the slogan: "A large elephant is eaten piece by piece."
(III) Avoid adverse conditions
Sometimes the conditions are not conducive to listening. Maybe a bunch of airheads are rehearsing Tibetan throat singing as a demonstration in defense of the rights of bakers.
In this situation, there are only two things you can do, depending on the nature of the problem:
find a quiet place to listen
Keep on listening
If this does not help, get into a fight with some guy in the YT comment section to vent off.
8) PROBLEMS WITH INTERPRETATION / CULTURE
Sometimes the culprit of communication problems is the cultural gulf between interlocutors (Underwood). Interestingly, this problem also occurs among native speakers of a given language. There is no simple remedy.
The only solution is to continually broaden your horizons and explore the culture from which your target language originates.
A classic example of misunderstanding is an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Doing so in the Middle East, West Africa, and South America is a delicate suggestion that you intend to violate the dignity of your interlocutor's rectum. A classic faux pas!
9) PROBLEMS WITH NATURAL (I.E., COLLOQUIAL) SPEECH
The difference between the natural, colloquial language spoken by native speakers and the one that is usually taught in language schools, or which can be heard on the radio, can be huge (Hedge).
In real life, a situation where the interlocutor speaks to you very slowly it clearly shows that:
a) he will have a stroke soon
b) thinks you're "special" and it's not a compliment!
(I) Various accents and dialects
Another problem in this category is the variety of accents and dialects. Unfortunately, the uniformity of languages varies dramatically.
For example, in Germanic languages (e.g. English, German, Swedish, Dutch), after driving only 20 km, we may come across a completely different dialect.
For many, this is a huge shock. They spend years convinced that they understand the language well, and suddenly it feels as if they were starting all over again!
A great example is the Scottish accent, which causes a lot of problems for many people who comprehend classic English very well.
P.S. Here is some stand-up of the most famous Scottish stand-up comedian, Frankie Boyle: YouTube (heads up - it's full of swear words!)
If you want to be sure that you will be able to understand native speakers without significant problems, you need to diversify the materials you listen to. It should always be a mix containing both colloquial (e.g., videos on YT) and more formal speech (radio, news, etc.).
Listening to different dialects is not necessary unless you need the ability to understand them for some reason (i.e., moving to a specific region).
10) NO VISUAL SUPPORT
In real life, communication with our potential interlocutor is more abundant with body language or facial expressions. The value of this additional information cannot be overestimated, as it often helps to understand the meaning of the speech, despite the lack of understanding of individual words.
It would be a mistake to limit listening only to the radio or podcasts.
It's worth enlarging your listening toolbox to include audio-visual materials (e.g., TV series or YouTube videos). They will not only speed up your pace of understanding but will also make learning more enjoyable!
11) PASSIVE LISTENING
Many people equate listening to a purely passive activity. Nothing needed but crash in your armchair and start your favorite podcast! Of course, there is nothing wrong with it, and I usually prefer this type of listening. But, there is an alternative - active listening.
While listening actively, you should try to make a note of the recording text and words you do not know. Although this is a time-consuming process, it has a positive impact on your understanding.
12) INSUFFICIENT KNOWLEDGE OF GRAMMAR
Lack of (good) knowledge of grammar is one of the last obstacles on your path to full understanding.
It is interesting that the lack of knowledge of grammar does not prevent complete understanding, but only makes it difficult.
I'm sure you know people who went abroad, and after 5 years they still don't know the language. Despite this, they can communicate with native speakers at a basic level, using the requisite words, gestures, and the occasional grunts.
I like to explain this phenomenon, and also the role of grammar in understanding, using the following metaphor.
Imagine that words are building blocks, and grammar is nothing more than a logical mortar holding them together. When we have both, we can create a beautiful "palace of comprehension." If the mortar is missing, the only thing we can do is to stack the bricks on top of one another. This way, we will build "something," but it will certainly not be a palace - more like a swanky privy.
IMPROVING LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - SUMMARY
As you can see, problems with listening comprehension in a foreign language are very diverse. Therefore, to effectively benefit from the advice contained in this article, you should analyze your particular situation as accurately as possible and choose the tips that apply to you.
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 30flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It's enough to download ANKI, and you're good to go. Memorizing things like "phonetic associations" and such can be really easy!
Would you like to be able to memorize a whole book? What about those boring declination tables?
Silly question. Who wouldn’t?
One way or the other, you have heard of fantastic memory feats of mnemonists – memorizing decks of cards or thousands of digits. And all this seemingly effortlessly.
Mnemonics have the power to stimulate the imagination. They definitely stimulated mine.
This dream, the dream of being able to memorize anything I want, triggered the chain of events which made me embark on a bumpy journey/
Destination? To discover the actual effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics and master my memory.
Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics In Learning – My First Experience
I still remember the first time when I had to use mnemonics practically. I failed one of my exams, and I had to retake it. The problem was that I didn’t know when. I was convinced that the day would be announced very soon.
The days went by, and I didn’t even touch the coursebook. Somehow the notion of the retake blissfully slipped my mind.
One day I was sitting in the corridor, listening to music and reading a book. Suddenly I heard a muffled voice, “aren’t you preparing for the exam?”. “What exam?” I looked up to see the grinning face of my good friend.
“It’s starting in 2 hours,” he replied. Somehow his grin turned into an evil smirk.
“That’s it,” I thought to myself. “I will fail this exam, and I will fail my studies. I will end up homeless and will have to fight sewer spiders for the food.”
After the first surge of panic passed, I started coming up with possible solutions. I decided that my best chance is to use mnemonics. I didn’t have much experience in using them. Sure, I had read two books up to that point but had almost no exposure to back up the theory.
Desperate times call for drastic measures. I rolled up my sleeves and started learning. A bit over three h later, I left the professor’s office. I passed. I don’t know how, but I passed. Thus my obsession with mnemonics was born. My imagination was running wild. Where are the boundaries?
Is it possible for each one of us to become a genius if we just learn to utilize mnemonic strategies? I needed many years to learn the bitter truth. No. Mnemonics will not make you a genius and allow you to absorb tons of information effortlessly.
“So are they useful at all?” you might ask. And what can they be used for?
I will get back to this in a moment.
What Are Mnemonics?
Before we move on, it’s good to explain what mnemonics are quickly. In short, mnemonics are devices to aid our overburdened memory.
They are used to facilitate efficient encoding by associating new information with the knowledge which is already stored in your long-term memory (Johnson & Weber, 2006 as cited in Gibson, 2009).
Probably the most common mnemonic device the so-called keyword method coined by Atkinson (1975). It is used to make meaningful auditory and imagery links to remember a word.
For example, if you want to remember that “to buy” in Spanish is “comprar,” you might create a vivid picture of a man who compares prices of products before the purchase. Not that complicated, right?
Let’s see now what science has to say about mnemonics.
Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Learning – an Overview of the Scientific Literature
There is a large body of research about mnemonics. However, probably the most interesting study up-to-date was led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky and released in April 2013 by the Association for Psychological Science.
In a comprehensive report, the group of authors carefully examined ten learning tactics and rated them from high to low utility based on the evidence they’ve gathered.
If you are expecting mnemonics to be among the most useful strategies, don’t hold your breath. They didn’t even come close to the top of the list.
” According to the authors, some commonly used techniques, such as underlining, rereading material, and using mnemonic devices, were found to be of surprisingly low utility.“
Of surprisingly low utility?! If you look at memory feats performed by mnemonics, you might conclude that scientists must be taking crazy pills.
For example, here is a video of Dr. Yip Swee Chooi.
What’s so special about him?
He learned a 1774-page Chinese-English dictionary by heart (in case you wonder – it took him almost six months to do it).
Another great example is Simon Reinhard, who memorized a deck of cards in 20.438 seconds.
Clearly, people with untrained memory would not be able to come close to these results. Still, the report says clearly – mnemonics might not be the best use of your time.
Of course, I must be perfectly honest with you. There are a lot of studies which show that using mnemonics might be very beneficial for (among others):
“A type of reactivity in which individuals modify or improve an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed“
It’s tough to generalize such results to other settings
What’s more, so-called low ecological validity comes into play. The laboratory is clearly an artificial situation. People are directed by an ‘experimenter’ in a psychological experiment. They are removed from their natural social settings and asked to memorize different sets of data.
This is a very unusual experience that raises the question – how do this novel experience and settings really affect their behavior and memory?
Still, lab research is better than no research at all.
d) Time horizon
Most studies are conducted over a relatively short period. It’s rarely spread over more than 3-4 weeks. As you will soon read, this is why most studies prove the effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics.
e) Nature of the tasks
How would you feel about memorizing and recalling a list of unconnected words or digits? Seriously, be honest. How would you rate your willingness on the scale from “nope” to “never”?
The detachment of such tasks from everyday life and their general lack of usefulness have led some researchers to question whether their findings can be generalized to real life.
Are mnemonics useless?
Am I saying that mnemonics are useless then? Not at all. They can be insanely useful.
But you must understand what they are and what they aren’t. I quoted the excerpt from John Dunlosky’s report for two reasons:
1) It tested different learning strategies against one another.
2) More importantly, it examined the effects of those strategies in LONG-TERM learning.
And this is what mnemonics are not.
They are not a suitable tool for long-term learning.
At least not in the form they are usually presented.
If you are not pressed for time, you can get by without any problems without using mnemonics.
They are also not a panacea for all your memory problems. Itis just another tool in your learning arsenal.
If you have ever read anything by any author, who promotes/sells anything mnemonics-related, you might find it hard to believe. Don’t worry. I also felt disillusioned. And I had good reasons.
Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Learning – My Experiments
Since that pivotal moment of my life, my obsession with mnemonics had been growing in strength with each passing day. There was no stopping me. I was the mnemonics preacher. Everybody HAD to know about how mnemonics are great,
After I won the local memory championship, it only got worse. I experimented with the ardor of meth-addicted junkie. I created memory palaces holding thousands of words. I tried to learn entire books by heart just to test the effectiveness of mnemonics. I have memorized tables, law regulations, and checked my recall at various intervals.
he effect was always the same — high recall rate at the beginning of my experiments. The feeling of overwhelming joy always accompanied these early results. But it never lasted long.
My recall rate was still good after up to 2-4 weeks after creating mnemonic images and reviewing them, although I could notice some deterioration of my memories.
Inevitable drop in recall rate always came after more than four weeks.
And this is precisely why most scientific studies seemingly prove the effectiveness of mnemonics. They test them in labs in short periods.
Once again, I would like to stress that mnemonics can be immensely useful. Useful both for recalling random information as well as helping you achieve high levels of expert performance. Just not for long-term learning.
Read on, and I will show how they can be utilized best. But first, to have a full picture of what you’re dealing with, take a look at the limitations of mnemonics.
Limitations And Disadvantages Of Mnemonics
Gruneberg (1998) argues that the keyword method, in general, is inferior to rote learning in the longer-term retention of vocabulary.
“Campos and Gonzalez (2003) attribute ineffectiveness of the keyword method to participants ‘lack of training. They investigated in four experiments the effectiveness of the mnemonic keyword method using two groups of adults and adolescents. In all the experiments, the rote method was more effective than the keyword method for both adolescents and adults.”
Some people (especially adults) are reluctant to create vivid images and crazy stories.
Some people (especially adults) are unable and/or unwilling to resign from using previously learned strategies.
Using mnemonic devices for memorizing words is time-consuming (especially at the beginning).
Using mnemonics requires more effort (especially at the beginning) than rote-learning.
Mnemonics don’t guarantee understanding.
Learning with mnemonics lacks context.
So if mnemonics are not an excellent way for long-term learning, what are they good for?
How Mnemonics Affect Your Short-Term Memory
Short-term memory has three key aspects:
1. limited capacity (only about 7+-2 items can be stored at a time or 3-4 chunks)
2. limited duration (storage is very fragile, and information can be lost with distraction or passage of time)
3. encoding (primarily acoustic, even translating visual information into sounds).
And here is where the true power of mnemonics lies.
It might not seem like a big deal, but it has tremendous implications for your (language) learning.
Because short-term memory is a necessary step toward the next stage of retention – long-term memory, you can treat short-term memory as a bottleneck of your learning. After all, if you can’t commit some information, even just for a few seconds, to your memory, how are you supposed to learn?
Some researchers claim that working-memory capacity reflects the efficiency of executive functions. In other words, the ability to maintain and manipulate information in the face of distractions and other irrelevant information. ( Engle, R. W., September 1999).
That’s why the best way to think about mnemonics is to treat them as a relatively long-lived external memory with huge capacity.
I will get to the most effective use of mnemonics in a second. First, I want to demonstrate something. Let’s take a look at prodigies.
The Short-Term Memory Of Prodigies
Studies on the prodigies who reached professional-level performance in their domain (e.g., art, math, music) by the age of 10 show something very interesting.
When Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach administered an IQ test tonine prominent child prodigies (…) there were a wide range of IQ scores among the eight prodigies (from 108 to 147), and their cognitive profiles were uneven.
It turned out that the key to understanding their rapid learning in their domain was not their global intellectual functioning.
Most strikingly, every single prodigy in their sample scored off the charts (better than 99 percent of the general population) in working memory — the ability to simultaneously store incoming information while processing other information.
So how can you approach these levels of intellectual functioning?
Key Information Needed to Understand How To use Mnemonics Effectively
2) Calling information to mind strengthens it and helps in future retrieval
3) Understanding the difference between procedural and declarative knowledge.
According to Cohen and Squire (1980):
Procedural knowledge involves “knowing how” to do things. It includes skills, such as “knowing how” to play the piano, ride a bike; tie your shoes and other motor skills. It does not involve conscious thought (i.e. it’s unconscious – automatic). For example, we brush our teeth with little or no awareness of the skills involved.
Declarative knowledge involves “knowing that”. Knowing names of plants , dates, formulas – it’s all part of your declarative knowledge. Recalling information from declarative memory involves, so called, effortfull recall – i.e. information has to be consciously brought to mind and “declared”.
Knowing these things can help us stew perfect learning mix:
1) Gather information
It doesn’t matter whether you want to learn a language or how to master persuasion strategies. Gather the knowledge needed to achieve your goal.
2) Memorize it with mnemonics
As I have written before, mnemonics can be treated as an extension of your short-term memory. Place as much information as you can on this external “hard-drive.”
3) Start practicing right away
You know the theory of how to play the piano or how to program. It’s high time you started putting your knowledge into practice. Try to use as many pieces of information from your memory as you can.
Because every time you bring one of them to your mind, the magic happens. You start creating and strengthening neural networks responsible for the given action.
Repeat this action a sufficient number of times, and you will automate it. From that moment on, you will be able to perform it subconsciously and with minimal effort.
Let’s see how you can use it in language learning.
Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Language Learning
Since we have established that mnemonics can be treated as your external memory, take a look at other practical applications of mnemonics!
(Other) Practical Applications Of Mnemonics
Mnemonics are useful whenever you need to memorize a lot of information on the fly and remember them for at least a couple of hours.
That’s why you can use them (among others):
During parties and meetings to memorize names and information about other participants
during last-minute panic before the exam or company presentation to make sure that the data stays in your memory!
to impress your wife and show her that “you don’t need no damn shopping lists” to remember what you should buy
to memorize random information which emerges during conversations
And so on. I think you got it!
Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics – Summary
Mnemonics have to be one of the most misunderstood learning tools of all time. They are usually sold as the ultimate solution for all kinds of learning problems, which is far from the truth. As you can see, effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics can be amazing but only provided that you understand precisely what they do. And what they do is “inflate” your short-term memory for some time.
Manage to review the knowledge you acquired with mnemonics by performing some actions specific to that knowledge, .and you can rest assured that your progress will know no boundaries. You will become that “Robo-weirdo.”
And this is what I sincerely wish you.
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. Memorize, among others, what working memory is, what are limitations of mnemonics, and much more!
Listening comprehension is quite universally known to be one of the most, if not the most, demanding language skill.
A lot of learners struggle for many years to be able to understand even 90% of a conversation. And it gets worse. The number of language learners who are capable of understanding almost every word they hear amounts to a few percents.
And thus the question arises: is listening really that difficult or maybe there is something else at play here?
To answer this question, we first have to take a look at all the most critical factors affecting your listening comprehension.
All The Factors Affecting Listening Comprehension
Listening comprehension is a quite complex beast as it consists of lots of smaller sub-beasts, or sub-skills if you will. As you will see in a moment, almost everything can affect your level of listening comprehension.
1. Your pronunciation
For every word you encounter, you create your internal phonetic representations (i.e., how you think that a word should be pronounced). Next, you confront them with the external representations (i.e., how the words are really pronounced).
If they overlap considerably or are identical, and you can fish them out from the recording, you should be able to understand a given word.
This is the exact reason why you might understand a typical accent from a given country but you will struggle with a dialect. Simply, at this point, your internal representations are not broad enough to encompass new external representations.
It’s much more difficult to understand the deeper meaning of an utterance if you don’t know how different words come together. Don’t worry. You don’t have to concentrate on learning every single grammar construction in your target language. Simply start with the functional grammar.
3. Knowledge of how sounds merge or get reduced
Unfortunately, not everything is what it seems. It certainly seems to be the case with sounds. In almost any language there is a tendency of different sounds to be reduced (e.g. vowel reduction) or to be merged (read more about phonological changes).
If you don’t grasp how these changes happen, it will take you much longer to decipher the ongoing stream of speech.
It happens way too often that I get an e-mail from one of my readers who complains about their listening skills. Asked how much time they devote to their listening practice, I get a shy “10 minutes per day”.
What a fantastic pace and dedication! Call me in 2045 to tell me whether you can finally understand your first movie dialogue.
Listening takes a lot of time. That’s just the way it is.
5. Visual support
Listening becomes much easier once you can see somebody’s body language. A lot of things which would get lost in the tangle of speech seem more understandable on the screen once you catch a glimpse of an ironic smirk.
Plus, nobody can take away from you the pleasure of fantasizing about starting a new life with a main actor/actress. And calling your first child, “Chad.” What? No, obviously, it has never happened to me. Mind your own business!
6. Vocabulary size
It’s as clear as day. The more words you know, the easier it is to fish them out of a recording. If your current vocabulary is, say, 1000 words and you can’t figure out why you don’t understand much, this might be the reason.
As much as I like the idea of listening to recordings in the background, you won’t get far if you can’t focus on the activity at hand. You have to strap your butt to a chair and listen.
Just for the record, I want you to know that in the literature, you can find a couple of other factors that affect your listening comprehension — for example, problems with interpretation, inability to identify signals, and such. I decided to skip them as they have so little bearing your ability to understand. I don’t want to expand this article artificially.
Let’s now take a look at what are the two most important factor that affects your listening comprehension.
The Two Most Important Factors Affecting Listening Comprehension
It’s always crucial to know what constituent of some skill is the most important. Skills are difficult enough as they are. However, without any semblance of prioritization, you might spend too much time floundering about desperately.
You might think about what I am about to propose to you as yet another application of the Pareto principle.
As a reminder:
The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
In order to increase your comprehension, you have to spend a lot of time listening to people or recordings. The more often you do it, the faster you can expect to progress.
However, is the total amount of listening practice the ultimate answer? I doubt it. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be that many people who live abroad surrounded by a language that still struggle with listening comprehension.
I have a good friend of mine who watches everything in English passionately. TV series, movies, news, you name it. Yet, after all these years, his comprehension hasn’t changed that drastically. And it would be surprising if it wasn’t for the fact that he doesn’t have any vocabulary acquisition system in place.
And that leads me to the factor no 2.
2. The size of your vocabulary
There is a very good reason why the name of my language learning course is Vocabulary Labs and not something else.
The size of your vocabulary is the most reliable predictor of language progress there is. Without knowing a lot of words, improving your listening comprehension will prove very difficult.
Let me demonstrate it.
First, improving your listening comprehension can be understood as:
picking up words you know from the ongoing stream of speech
What’s more, we know from the literature that for most languages, 3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). 5000 words, in its turn, will enable you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997))(read more about levels of comprehension and vocabulary size).
It’s somewhat agreed that getting accustomed to the prosody doesn’t take that much time. That leaves us with the second task you have to face: fishing out words from the stream of speech.
If your vocabulary size is 200, how many percents of words are you able to pick up?
Calculate Your Listening Effectiveness
Let’s calculate this, and let’s treat 5000 words as our perfect reference point as this number of words would allow you to understand most of the things you would hear.
200/5000 = 0.040 = 4%
We have arrived at the number 4% but what does it really tell us?
It means that your listening effectiveness per 1 minute or hour of listening practice is 4%.
So yeah, you can spend hundreds of hours trying to improve your comprehension, but it may turn out that it won’t change too much.
What if you started listening to recordings with the vocabulary of 1000 words?
1000/5000 = 0.20.= 20%
At this point, your listening effectiveness would increase fivefold! Let me formulate it slightly differently – learning just 800 words can greatly increase your listening comprehension.
And this is the exact reason why I advocate listening practice only once you master at least 2000 words (or even more). Having such a vocabulary optimizes your learning time and allows you to progress much faster than others without having to waste more hours.
One exception to this rule (i.e., what drastically increases your listening comprehension)
I forbade Mathew to read and listen to anything for first three months. Actually, if you know how to acquire vocabulary, you do not context to do it. You can learn first 3-5 thousand words simply from frequency lists. It allows you to save a lot of time simply by not being forced to go through all those crappy dialogs in textbooks.
And I get it. This piece of advice went against everything most people have been taught in schools. It also contradicted almost every strategy proposed by my fellow polyglots. However, as time goes by, there seem to be more and more studies that confirm this theory.
Studies confirming the importance of the aforementioned factors affecting listening comprehension
[[ … ]] it was revealed that the ability of learners to make connections between highly common English words appears to be dependent on the number of words they know. The more words they know, the more connections they are able to identify. At present, it is not known whether this ability to make connections is a cause or a result of knowing the meanings of more words, or if it is a combination of both.
[[ … ]] it is also hoped that new avenues shall be explored that focus more deeply on what it means to know a word and the role of lexical retrieval and memory in L2 lexical processing. At present, to its detriment, the field of L2 vocabulary studies remains remarkably insular.
The conclusion is as follows – if you want to improve your listening comprehension asap, you have to, first of all, increase your vocabulary size. Only then does it make sense to devote a lot of time to listening practice.
My advice to you is this – if you want to improve your listening comprehension, you should concentrate on expanding your vocabulary size first (don’t forget about mastering functional grammar). Only then should you gradually increase your overall listening time while still increasing the numbers of words you know.
Do you agree with my theory that the vocabulary size is the most important factor affecting listening comprehension? Let me know in the comments!
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created about 25 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. Memorizing things like “internal phonetic representations” can be really easy!
Regardless of whether you use Spaced Repetition Apps or not, you can’t deny that there is some controversy among language learners whether such programs are truly effective. Some people swear by it while others prefer more old-fashioned pen-centered strategies. It gets even better! Even among SRS enthusiasts, you can find different militant fractions. Some claim that Memrise is the best. Other that Quizlet is the way to go.
For many, it can be quite difficult to wrap their head around what’s true and what’s not. Let’s sort it out so you can finally know the answer.
What’s the scientific consensus about Spaced Repetition Apps
If you have ever seen one of the aforementioned squabbles online, the first thing you need to know is that opinions that SRS is ineffective are completely detached from reality. Spaced repetition is among the most thoroughly researched memory-related phenomena in the world. Its efficacy has been replicated in hundreds of comprehensive and extensive studies (read more about choosing the best language learning methods).
It is effective on a variety of academic fields and mediums.
Spacing effects can be found in:
various domains (e.g., learning perceptual motor tasks or learning lists of words) such as spatial44
across species (e.g., rats, pigeons, and humans [or flies or bumblebees, and sea slugs, Carew et al 1972 & Sutton et al 2002])
across age groups [infancy, childhood, adulthood, the elderly] and individuals with different memory impairments
and across retention intervals of seconds [to days] to months (we have already seen studies using years)
Source(probably the best article online about the spaced repetition, well worth checking out)
The benefits of spaced study had been apparent in an array of motor learning tasks, including:
maze learning (Culler 1912)
typewriting (Pyle 1915)
archery (Lashley 1915)
javelin throwing (Murphy 1916; see Ruch 1928, for a larger review of the motor learning tasks which reap benefits from spacing; see also Moss 1996, for a more recent review of motor learning tasks).
Heck, there are almost no exceptions to this phenomenon. Sure, there is maybe 5% of studies which haven’t replicated these findings. But upon reading more about their design and methodologies used, one might conclude that they are often an example of bad science.
The only notable exception I have seen so far is that children can often fail to exhibit a spacing effect unless they process learning material in a certain way. This, however, is a topic for another article.
Where does all this controversy about the effectiveness of SRS programs come from then? I will get to it soon.
First, let’s concentrate on what makes learning truly fast and effective.
Encoding – the most important criterion for effective learning
A simple model of memory
The process of memorization can be depicted in the four following steps:
Encoding – involves initial processing of information which leads to the construction of its mental representation in memory
Storage – is the retention of encoded information in the short-term or long-term memory
Recall – is the retrieval of stored information from memory
Let’s concentrate on the second step of this process. Clearly, you can see that it’s a gateway to the land of remembering. But what does encoding really mean?
“Encoding is any kind of attempt of manipulating a piece of information in order to increase your chances of memorizing it.”
What’s more, there are two kinds of encoding.
Two types of encoding
Shallow encoding doesn’t help you to connect the piece of information with other meaningful information nor does it help you to further your understanding of it. It usually concentrates on meaningless banalities.
Example: you are trying to memorize the word “skada” (Swedish for “to damage”). The prime example of shallow encoding would be to start counting the number of vowels or consonants in this word.
The absolute opposite of shallow encoding. This time you are trying to make a meaningful connection between different items. The more the better.
Deep encoding is so powerful for your learning that it even shows up in brain scans as increased activity in key brain areas associated with memory. It is this activity that appears to give deep processing its memory advantage. (source: How Memory Works–and How to Make It Work for You).
So what’s the example of deep encoding in the world of language learning? Creating sentences or saying them out loud, to be more precise.
Interestingly, every time I say it, there is always someone who seems surprised. I guess the reason being that we don’t appreciate enough how complicated it is for our brains to create a sentence.
Why creating sentences is so complicated
In order to create even the simplest of sentences you have to:
remember actively the words you are currently learning
remember all the other words in the sentence actively
connect them in a meaningful way
apply all the known grammar rules
choose the appropriate register of the sentences (i.e. a form of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting)
remember the pronunciation of all the words in the sentences
pronounce all the said words by using your muscles
As you can see, it’s not that trivial to produce a sentence. And that’s why this process is so meaningful and memorable for your brain.
Initially, a lot of my students grumble about having to create many sentences. They say it’s too exhausting. I agree. The thing is that producing sentences equals knowing and being able to use a language!
To make your inner geek happy, it’s worth mentioning that encoding is very often connected with two other principles of memory which make your learning even more effective:
Interesting, right? Now it’s time to answer the most important question – what if somebody is too lazy to actually go through all the trouble of producing sentences?
Consequences Of Lack Of Encoding (i.e. why most Spaced Repetition Apps don’t work)
I hope that the following paragraph will help you make a very important decision – never ever use or buy any learning app. I don’t care that you read that Gabriel Wyner is working on a revolutionary app or that Memrise has a better algorithm now.
The most important and effective thing you can do for your learning is to create multiple contexts (i.e. sentences) for a word you want to learn. Simply repeating ready-to-use flashcards, especially the ones without any context, won’t work well. This simple fact renders all the memory apps combined useless. ANKI is really all you need.
Think for a second about the solution those apps dish out to you. Most of the time they simply give you ready-to-use flashcards, often without any context! Or meaningless games which perpetuate shallow encoding. Or even when you see a flashcard with a word in the context, it was not encoded by you and thus it will be way harder to remember.
Time to stop looking for magical solutions. You won’t find them in apps.
To my chagrin, I don’t see any big company talking about this. Of course, the reason is obvious. If you pay for an app, you have to be convinced that it’s truly magical and life-changing. I don’t think they would sell well if the owners started screaming from the rooftops “They are sh*t! What’s truly magical is the effort you put into encoding your vocabulary”!
The right way of thinking about such programs is seeing them as a white canvas.
Algorithms underpinning them are close to perfect in themselves. Unfortunately, some people crap in their hand and insist on smearing it until they get a one-eyed unicorn. The next thing you know is they are running around the internet and screaming that SRS programs don’t work. You can’t be lazy when you learn.
I know that doing ready-to-use flashcards seems “quicker” to use because you don’t have to invest too much energy into producing them. However, in reality, they are more time-consuming in the long run because you need to spend more time repeating words unnecessarily.
It has to do with the mechanism of passive rehearsal which is simply a mindless act of rattling off a cluster of pre-prepared information. Many years ago it was actually proven that it has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).
If you ever want to use such flashcards, simply treat them as a source of vocabulary to learn. Other than that, simply encode your vocabulary and you will be fine. All ready-to-use flashcards can do is create the illusion of time-efficiency while slowing your progress down at the same time.
To sum up, currently there is no other technology, including virtual reality, which is as effective as spaced repetition programs. However, if you don’t actually put in the effort and try to produce sentences for the words you learn then you waste most of the potential of this software.
Quick learning is not about time but about the effort.
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go.
Being able to read books fast is undoubtedly a fantastic skill and a very tempting one.
Can you feel the thrill of endless possibilities? If you just knew how to do it, you could read, like, ten books per week!
No wonder speed reading is a huge business. There are probably thousands of books written on the subject. And 99% percent are crap – promises-flavored crap.
Sure, everyone would like to be the guy who picks up a thick book, thumbs it through in two minutes to say, “Do they have to dumb down everything these days?”.
Can you become such a person? Definitely no. Can you become a person who reads very fast? Yes. However, if you are looking for a quick and easy solution, you will get severely disappointed.
Let’s start with some basic facts to help you read books fast without speed-reading.
Want to Read Books Fast? Forget About Speed Reading
I know that some might take this statement very personally or even be offended.
“How dare you smear the good name of the speed-reading community?!” However, it has to be said as it frustrates me endlessly.
Almost anywhere I go, I encounter opinions that it is entirely possible. From Tony Buzan’s classic to Tim Ferris’ article, everyone claims that reading with a speed of 1000 words/min is entirely achievable.
Some even go a step further. Comments under any article on speed-reading usually spiral into some bizarre contest.
“800 wpm (words per minute)? That’s laughable, man. Try getting to 2000 wpm, like me, to see what REAL speed reading is!”
Sounds great, right? It doesn’t work.
Before we get to the specific methods, I think you should know a thing or two about my reading background.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH SPEED-READING
I started my speed reading journey about 12 years ago. I have always been a great believer in the capabilities of a human mind. No wonder, I quickly got sucked into the speed-reading world.
Initially, I thought that I was a speedy reader. It quickly turned out that my typical reading speed of >300 wpm was pitiful.
Wouldn’t you feel that way?
You start reading about people who underwent a special kind of speed-reading training. About some super-geniuses, or so I thought, who can read with 3000 wpm or even 8000 wpm?
I felt inadequate.
I started reading every speed reading book I could ferret out. There were good books, and there were terrible books. Ok, mostly they were awful.
Some titles sound as if a shitfaced magician concocted them. Here are some of them. But just a word of warning. Don’t buy them. They are crap. Get yourself drunk instead. Or buy your horse a three-piece suit, It will be a better use of your money
A Course in Light Speed Reading A Return to Natural Intuitive Reading
The Alpha-Netics Rapid Reading Program
The PhotoReading Whole Mind System
Did I get better? Yep. At least in some way.
Trying to Read Books Fast – My First Results
After a couple of weeks of training, I could read with a speed of 1000 words per minute. Then I pushed myself even more, and I got to 1400 wpm.
There was just one problem I couldn’t spot back then. The speed was there, but I understood almost nothing.
I guess Woody Allen summarized it quite brilliantly when he said, ” I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”
It was a very disappointing experience. I needed some time to digest the burden of this conclusion. When I did, it became clear that:
1) Nothing worth reading can/should be read fast.
2) You can read books fast, but you can’t understand and analyze information quickly.
That’s why, as far as I am concerned, anyone who is selling “photographic reading courses” should be pilloried while a fat dude named Stanley sticks a tongue in his ear (so-called “seashell”).
Ok, we got this covered. Let’s move on to the things which can help you read faster.
How To Read Books Fast – Strategies
Know Thy Goal
Separate Learning from Reading
Learn What You Read
Learn Core Vocabulary
Build Core Knowledge
Read a Lot
Use the Knowledge You Learn
1) Know Thy Goal
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. –
FRANCIS BACON (1561–1626)
When in doubt, trust in Bacon. He was definitely onto something.
The very first thing you should do before you open a book, and a waft of the paper hits your nostrils, is to decide why you want to read it.
It doesn’t sound sexy. I know. You are a bad boy, and you’d rather slap that book open right away. However, you need to restrain yourself as it is a crucial step.
You might not feel it, but your decision, subconscious or not, will weigh heavily on what your mind concentrates on. And on what you extract from the text.
You usually read for
Try to choose one of the said purposes.
Of course, sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint the exact purpose of reading. Nevertheless, you always do your best to determine it as precisely as you only can
2) Separate Learning from Reading
You are ambitious – that’s great. It’s even admirable. And very likely, it is an invisible burden that hovers over your head and stops you from reading faster.
Let me guess. Are you trying to read and analyze information at the same time? You see something thought-provoking, adjust your monocle and say, “Oh my, utterly marvelous. Let’s ponder over it for a while.”
Then if your goal is to read books fast, you are setting yourself up for failure. There is one crucial lesson here you need to understand.
Reading is not learning. Learning is not reading.*
*it’s a good tattoo idea if you ever need one
Your brain is not a computer. It can’t switch effectively between two different activities. Do it for a short period, and you will burn through all the glucose stashed in your brain.
Result? Headaches, the feeling of general fatigue, malaise, and so on. After a while, your brain becomes impervious to new information. This method of reading is not very sustainable.
Mind you that I am not saying that you can’t read and learn at the same time. I am just stating a simple fact that it is not a very effective method of reading.
How to Separate Learning from Reading
To be honest, I have struggled with this problem for quite some time until the two beautiful words dawned on me.
I am sure you are familiar with the term but just to be sure, let’s explain it:
Batch working is a process of grouping items because they are similar, or because we plan to do something similar to them.
For instance, it wouldn’t make much sense to make a massive omelet without preparing products beforehand. Can you imagine how ineffective it would be?!
“I need twenty eggs to make this omelet.”
*takes two and cracks them open into a bowl*
“I need two more.”
*opens a fridge and takes another two*
Doesn’t it sound frustrating?
That is why you should always try to group similar tasks. It is the method which, I am pretty sure, saved my sanity.
1) First mark/highlight
Whenever you stumble across something that is
you don’t agree with
mark/highlight it in some way.
Jot it down on a margin or copy it into some file. Don’t try to dismantle any of the concepts you have read about. The time for that will come.
Done? Good. Keep on reading. Have you marked another fragment? Good. Keep on reading.
After reading a certain number of pages, set aside some time for a more detailed analysis. Go crazy, analyze the heck out of everything.
Refute, digest, criticize to your heart’s content.
Learning is demanding enough on its own. Don’t mix it additionally with reading.
3) Learn What You Read
This one comes from a very frustrating experience.
About two years ago, I was binge reading about 3-4 books per week. Of course, being a sensible learner, I took notes and scribbled my remarks about everything, even mildly interesting.
In quite a short period, I amassed notes from over 40 books. The bad luck had it that I hit a rough patch and didn’t have so much time anymore. After everything settled, I came back to reading. I didn’t do anything with the notes, mind you. They just sat soused in my notebook.
Fast forward year and a half, I was reading some interesting excerpts from a book on cognitive neuroscience. My eyes lay on a particular sentence, which solved one of the biggest obstacles I had at the time concerning my memory experiments.
I was freaking ecstatic! The worst part?
A couple of months ago, I finally strapped myself to a chair and started going through the notes mentioned above. A couple of minutes into the reading, I saw it. There it was, guffawing blatantly at my helplessness — the same damn fact.
The miracle solution was there all along. I didn’t learn it. In the process, I wasted myriads of hours on useless experimenting.
Before you move to the next book, learn what you have read before.
Almost Every Book Is a Treasure Trove of Knowledge
It makes perfect sense, even more so if you want to specialize in some area. Your average author spends hundreds of hours researching his book or summarizing his knowledge.
Without notes, you will spend dozens of hours reading it and end up with almost no knowledge. You will remember just a couple of main things. Nothing more. And it would be a damn shame.
Thanks to this strategy, your ever-growing knowledge will help you go quickly through most of the books.
It’s not unusual for me to read a 400-page book in less than two days. There is not enough new information for me to absorb. Sometimes you have to dothe hard things first, so it gets easier.
You can skim through some paragraphs or descriptions. Nobody will judge you.
I am yet to hear, “John is such a filthy, primitive animal, I have heard he skips paragraphs. He sickens me!”
What is important for an author might be meaningless to you. Take this article as an example. I thought it was essential to include my personal experiences. But maybe you don’t care. That’s ok, skim through such passages until you catch a glimpse of something more interesting.
5) Learn Core Vocabulary
A specific lingo permeates every industry and area of specialization. Love it or hate it; it’s still something you must learn.
My main area of specialization is learning/memory and everything in-between, like productivity.
If you care about being good in the area of your choice, always try to master every word you encounter.
6) Build Core Knowledge
In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you. – MORTIMER J. ADLER
I can safely assume that whatever you read, you read because you want to learn more. Or you want to master a given field of knowledge. In any case, you should know that initially, your pace of reading will always be slow. But that’s good.
Slow is new fast. This deceptive sluggishness is the speed of light in disguise.
Look at this excerpt.
In an imagery study by Okado and Stark (2003), increased PFC activity for false memories was localized to the right anterior cingulate gyrus. Given the role of the anterior cingulate in response competition and conflict (Kerns et al., 2004), the authors concluded that this reflects the increased effort involved in incorrectly endorsing an imagined item as “seen.” ERP studies also support the conclusion that frontal regions may distinguish between true and false memories, and be engaged in greater monitoring and evaluation associated with false retrieval (Curran et al., 2001; Fabiani, Stadler, and Wessels, 2000; Goldmann et al., 2003; Nessler, Mecklinger, and Penney, 2001; Wiese and Daum, 2006).
It is a typical excerpt from a book on neuroscience. If you have no scientific foundation, it can be hard for you to read even a couple of pages from such a book. Let alone an entire book.
It is precisely where building core vocabulary and knowledge comes together.
It’s one thing to get familiar with the nomenclature. But do you really understand how these terms interrelate?
Do you understand, at least superficially, what is their function? If not, you have to analyze it. Only then can you move on. It’s not fast. It takes time. But there is not even one discipline in this world where you can skip basics.
The more you read, the more efficient the reader you become. The reader who knows the ins and outs of different styles of writing. The one who knows when to skim and when to read deep into a text.
These benefits alone explain well why you should try to read as much as possible. But there is one more reason.
The spiral theory of knowledge.
The Spiral Theory of Knowledge
The spiral theory of knowledge describes a fascinating phenomenon.
First, when you encounter a particular idea, you might not notice or comprehend it. Not fully anyway. Then you move on to something else. You learn other subjects, read other books. Then, after some time, you reencounter the same idea, and only then can you get your Eureka moment.
“How could I not understand it before?! That was so easy. The answer was there all along!”
And that’s a great question. How come you didn’t understand this concept before? Your knowledge was to blame. At the time, it was patchy and full of gaps. You were not ready to comprehend the full scope of the idea then.
The potential answer to whatever questions that might be bugging you, consciously or subconsciously, lies in yet another book.
Yes, there is a door behind the door. But you will never know if it has the answer written on it until you open it.
8) Use the Knowledge You Learn
Many people love to brag about the number of books they read every month. They are like beautiful shiny badges. The phenomenon is so well-known that Issac Watts wrote about it in his book “The Improvement Of The Mind” in 1821!
Such persons are under a great temptation to practice these two follies. (1.) To heap up a great number of books at a greater expense than most of them can bear, and to furnish their libraries infinitely better than their understanding. And (2.) when they have gotten such rich treasures of knowledge upon their shelves, they imagine themselves men of learning, and take a pride in talking of the names of famous authors, and the subjects of which they treat, without any real improvement of their own minds in true science or wisdom. At best their learning reaches no further than the indexes and table of contents, while they know not how to judge or reason concerning the matters contained in those authors. And indeed how many volumes of learning soever a man possesses, he is still deplorably poor in his understanding, till he has made those several parts of learning his own property by reading and reasoning, by judging for himself, and remembering what he has read.
Don’t be one of those people.
Try to find even the slightest use, if it is only possible, for whatever that is you’re reading. Impress someone or help a friend with some problems. Find a better job. Anything will do.
Just don’t let it go to waste as I did for such a long time.
Years ago, I used to learn every single fact about almost anything. And I am sad to inform you that it was mostly wasted effort. I don’t remember almost anything I learned.
Why would I?
My brain didn’t find this knowledge useful, nor did I find it helpful – and so it had to go.
How To Read Books Fast – Summary
We are wired to follow the path of the least resistance. No wonder. We are drawn to, seemingly, easy solutions such as speed-reading.
But you already know the truth, don’t you? There are no easy fixes. There are no easy solutions. And yet it is still possible to read fast. Even very fast. But first, you have to put effort into building a foundation.
The very same effort which will make your newly acquired skill taste so sweet. Enjoy it.
Growing-up has to be one of the saddest things ever from the outside perspective. It’s like a backward evolution. You see how amazingly curious creatures turn into mindless corporate drones. You see how the pursuit of knowledge turns into the pursuit of money.
I believe that curiosity and the power to create are the very things that can ward off all the negative in the world. However, for those qualities to survive, you have to feed them continuously. The problem is that modern times actively discourage people from becoming apolymath.
What’s more, we live in the conviction that there is not enough lifetime to master many areas of expertise.
I want to show you that it’s possible if you play your cards right. Within your lifetime, you can become great at many things. But before we get to the specifics, let’s start with a fundamental question:
How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Is It Worth It?
I like to think of knowing many things as of the magical glasses – the more you know, the more you can see.
Being stuck in one field of specialty is nothing short of being blindfolded. You can go throughout life without being able to spot all those enchanting intricacies coming from the expanded perspective.
Everything starts making sense. You know why leaves are green. You know why bread turns brown.
Unfortunately, being good at many things is not encouraged these days. We want everyone to be ultra-specialized, which breeds ignorance in almost all other areas.
Kant elegantly touched upon it years ago:
“It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all.
I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.
The guardians who have kindly taken upon themselves the work of supervision will soon see to it that by far the largest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex) should consider the step forward to maturity not only as difficult but also as highly dangerous.
Having first infatuated their domesticated animals, and carefully prevented the docile creatures from daring to take a single step without the leading-strings to which they are tied, they next show them the danger which threatens them if they try to walk unaided.
Now this danger is not in fact so very great, for they would certainly learn to walk eventually after a few falls.
But an example of this kind is intimidating, and usually frightens them off from further attempts.”
It couldn’t be any more accurate. Of course, we don’t have to know everything. But will it hurt to learn just a little bit from many areas of knowledge? Were we created to be stuck in one groove all of our lives?
Why You Should Master Many Fields of Knowledge
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
~ Robert Anson Heinlein
Even though it’s advisable to master at least one field of knowledge intimately, it’s usually not necessary to do it for more than one.
How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – the Pareto Principle
Once again – the Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. However, if you apply the Pareto principle to the Pareto principle, you might see that roughly 64% of the effects come from 4% of the causes.
It means that if you can determine the absolute essentials, you will be able to become good at something while spending only 4% of your time/effort.
In other words, with just between 40-80 hours, you will know your way around a given discipline.
For example, what if you don’t trust your endocrinologist and would like to, sort of, become one.
Easy, it’s enough that you learn:
what hormones are
how they function
what are the main hormones in our body
how they are produced
sprinkle on top some knowledge about Type 1 and 2 Diabetes, thyroid disorders, PCOS, cortisol- and testosterone-related disorders.
As difficult as it’s to believe, most specialists deal with the same old cases day in, day out.
Remember – you don’t need to know every possible exception to every possible rule to be good.
What if you want to be a semi-professional gourmet? No problem! Memorize the scale for describing foods and start tasting!
Mayonnaise, for example, is supposed to be evaluated along:
1) six dimensions of appearance
(color, color intensity, chroma, shine, lumpiness, and bubbles)
2) ten dimensions of texture:
(adhesiveness to lips, firmness, denseness, and so on)
3) and fourteen dimensions of flavor split among three
a) aromatics (eggy, mustardy, and so forth);
b) basic tastes (salty, sour, and sweet);
c) chemical-feeling factors (burn, pungent, astringent).
What if you want to get good at persuading people (because manipulation is such a dirty word)? I would dare to say that reading Cialdini’s classic book should be enough to be at least decent at this craft. The rest is practice and the automation of those rules.
A famous quote by Bruce Lee echoes that thought:
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.
Oftentimes, you might discover that a slightly smaller knowledge that is automated is much better than knowing a lot of theory.
Even though we are talking about mastering potentially a lot of fields of knowledge, we all have to start somewhere. Here is a simple list that might help you with the preparation process.
1. Make a list of all the things you want to learn and choose no more than 3
Once you master those fields of expertise, you will be able to move on to the next ones.
2. Make sure they are potentially applicable to your life
I want to emphasize that you can learn whatever you want. However, if you choose useful skills at the beginning, you will find it much easier to find time to practice them.
Learning practical things is also extremely rewarding and can help you keep your motivation high.
3. Choose how much time you want to devote to them daily
I don’t want to be too lax in my calculations, that’s why I am going to assume that being good enough at something requires 100 hours.
That tells us that with about 1 hour per day for each field of knowledge, you should be able to know them relatively well in a bit over three months.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that the more you know, the easier it will be for you to acquire even more skills and knowledge (so-called the Snowball Effect).
Remember that you don’t have to cling to these numbers religiously – they are here to impose some general guidelines.
4. Determine what you should learn
You can try to google what are the essentials of the given area of specialty or contact somebody who does it for a living. That should do the trick.
5. Get your learning materials
Once you know what to learn, this step shouldn’t be too difficult. The only thing I can add here is this – make sure that your source of knowledge is reliable. You don’t want to waste your time remembering things that have no reflection in reality.
How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Recommended Strategies
Congratulations! Now you know roughly how to organize your learning. It’s time you familiarized yourself with the strategies which might help you achieve your goals faster and with less effort.
1. Use deliberate practice
Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance. – source.
Common characteristics of deep learning:
it gives you a specific goal
it requires your full attention
it’s energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming
it gives you feedback
In other words, deliberate practice gives you a goal and tells you to mercilessly concentrate on a given concept until you’re ready to move on to the next one.
I will be the first to admit that it’s not the most pleasant learning strategy. However, if you power through it, you will find out that it’s the quickest one out there. For me, a little pain for a lot of gains is undoubtedly a trade-off I am willing to make (read more about deliberate practice here).
2. Combine skills (aka laddering, skill transfer)
It’s important to realize that a lot of different skills might be combined to save you time and make your practice sessions more productive.
For example, you can:
exercise and listen to a lecture at the same time
learn a language and use it to master a particular area of knowledge
learn how to negotiate to get a job in a different department where you will be able to use your newly acquired programming skills
The number of combinations is endless. Give it some thought and contemplate what kind of combinations might work for you.
I like to watch pointless YT videos from time to time, but I never do it without a work-out session.
3. Use and automate your knowledge
Not every skill has to be useful, but it’s certainly much easier to maintain it if you automate its use, and you can use it. At least on a semi-regular basis (read more about automating your skills here).
4. Do interesting things / choose difficult projects
Simple tasks don’t require much brainpower – probably that’s why soon multifunctional AI blenders will replace 50% of our planet.
If you want to let, your talents shine, always strive to take up challenging projects which involve the use of many different skills. It doesn’t matter whether they are a part of your job description or just a personal project. Try to make them relatively challenging relative to your current skill set (read more about doing the hard work here).
5. Help others
Helping others has to be one of the best ways to master many fields of knowledge. There are thousands of people in the world who might benefit from your expertise. Find them and do your best to help them alleviate at least part of their problems.
Not only will you feel slightly better and decrease your chances of becoming a skull ashtray for all the hellish abominations below us, but you will also consolidate your skills significantly better.
Because the more you’re able to embed your knowledge in reality, the easier it is to remember it.
How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Summary
Many people think that trying to master many fields of knowledge is silly. Why bother if you can pay somebody for their expertise or do something less taxing.
However, the truth is that doing so can be one of the most rewarding experiences in your life. Once you wrap your head around main concepts from many different disciplines, your life will improve. You, in turn, will become more confident.
And the entire process doesn’t have to take that much time if you stick to the strategies mentioned in this article. Good luck on your journey!
What is better for learning new words – writing or speaking?. It is one of the questions that come up frequently in different language-related discussions.
I have seen many different answers to this question. Some were quite right, some plain wrong. That’s why I decided to show you a memory-based/science-based answer to this question.
Let’s dive right in!
Writing or Speaking – Why Both Are Great
I don’t want to be this terrible host who welcomes you with a creepy toothless smile and spits on your back as you walk in. I want you to feel comfy and cozy! That’s why I would like to begin on a positive note – both writing and speaking are great learning methods.
There are many reasons for that, but let’s start with the three, which can be deemed as the most important.
1) The Production effect
The “production effect” was initially reported by Hopkins and Edwards in 1972. Unfortunately, for many, many years, it has escaped the attention of the scientific world.
The production effect indicates the improved recall for any information which is produced actively compared to the one which is just heard or read silently.
2) Deep processing (aka The levels-of-processing effect)
This phenomenon was identified by Fergus I. M. Craik and Robert S. Lockhart in 1972,
The levels-of-processing effect suggests that information is better recalled when it has been actively and effortfully processed.
In other words, deeper levels of analysis produce more elaborate, longer-lasting, and stronger memory traces than shallow levels of analysis. Depth of processing falls on a shallow to deep continuum. Shallow processing (e.g., processing based on phonemic and orthographic components) leads to a fragile memory trace that is susceptible to rapid decay. Conversely, deep processing (e.g., semantic processing) results in a more durable memory trace. – Source.
In the world of language learning, creating sentences is one of the most meaningful ways of achieving deep processing of words. That’s one of many reasons why I am againstusing mnemonics in language learning (in most cases).
3) The reticular activating system (RAS)
Another cool advantage of both writing and speaking is that they activate a part of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS).
Why is it important? Let me explain.
Even though the RAS is a small part of a brain, it plays a vital role – it’s the filter of information that is let into the conscious mind
Every second of every day, it tirelessly scours through the tons of information provided by your sensory organs to choose the relevant one. Without the RAS, you would be continuously flooded with excessive amounts of information, which would virtually overload your brain and impede thinking.
Fortunately, that doesn’t happen as the reticular activating system helps your brain capture what matters most to you and what is relevant to you based on your values, needs, interests, and goals.
As you can see, both speaking and writing help put the words you use at the forefront of your mind.
Additional Benefit of Writing in Language Learning
The previously mentioned benefits are undoubtedly great. However, let’s dive into some other advantages which are more specific to writing.
Writing is a great learning method for advanced students.
Many people, once they move past the B1 level, tend to get stuck at the so-called intermediate plateaus. They use the same old grammar constructions, the same trite expressions, and speech patterns.
It’s tough to get out of this rut unless
a) you consume the staggering amount of input
b) start making an effort to use new grammar constructions/words
Speaking with others, more often than not, requires keeping a conversation alive. You have to think “on your feet” to express your thoughts as quickly and precisely as you only can – if you flounder or stall too long, you might be able to notice a silent agony on your interlocutor’s face.
Writing, however, gives you all the time in the world to jigger your words into something resembling an elegant thought as opposed to the typical intellectuals slurry.
If you puke a little bit in your mouth every time you hear yourself saying, “The movie was nice because actors were nice and it’s good that it was nice,” you know what I mean.
Memory Benefits of Writing in Language Learning
Some research suggests that writing seems to tickle the RAS, and memory centers in your brain a tad harder than speaking. Here are results of one of such studies
“The results show that on the immediate post-test, the Sentence-writing group performed the best, followed by Gap-fill, Comprehension-only, and Control. On the delayed post-test, the Sentence writing and Gap-fill groups equally outperformed the two other groups.” –ScienceDaily.
However, as you will soon discover, it’s only a half-truth.
As a side note, experiments that I have conducted regarding the efficiency of writing vs. speaking show almost no difference between those two.
“When participants were given an opportunity to study with their notes before the final assessment, once again those who took longhand notes outperformed laptop participants. Because longhand notes contain students’ own words and handwriting, they may serve as more effective memory cues by recreating the context (e.g., thought processes, emotions, conclusions) as well as content (e.g., individual facts) from the original learning session.”
On the surface, it might seem true. After all, the cognitive and physical effort needed to write manually is bigger than the one required for typing.
Most of these studies, however, measure the effectiveness of writing/typing under pressure – the said study took place during lectures. It doesn’t have much to do with the organized process of composing an e-mail or an essay at home.
The extra time you have for deliberation and a coherent formulation of your thoughts should equalize (more or less) any potential difference between writing manually and typing.
That’s why you shouldn’t feel pressure to choose just one of them to reap memory benefits. Choose the one you feel most comfortable with.
Disadvantages of Writing in Language Learning
As with every method, there are some potential problems you might run into.
1) Not Everyone Needs to Write
I would dare say that the vast majority of the population of almost any country in the world doesn’t write that much.
Why would they?
If your job is not strictly connected with this skill, you might not find it useful.
2) You Need to Learn a New Writing System
If learning a new language system takes you half the time you needed to speak and understand your target language, it’s understandable that you might be reluctant to do so.
Writing – Recommendations for Language Learners
Best suited for:
advanced learners (B1-C2) level
anyone who likes (or needs) to write
Other benefits of speaking
1) Speaking is repetitive
When you write, the fruits of your labor are limited only by your imagination. You can contemplate different word combinations, weave brilliant thoughts.
However, when you speak, you have to be quick. You have to rely mostly on the automated speech patterns and words which are already activated well in your brain.
That’s why most of the things we say every day, even in our native tongue, are very far from being full of imagination. The point isn’t to unleash your inner Shakespeare but to get the point across.
For the same reason, sentences produced by native speakers are also simpler!
2) Speaking is more natural than writing
The world in which people would use the sophisticated language, which previously could be only found in books, would be a hilarious place!
“Alas, the chains of palpitating agony fell on my little toe as I rammed it into the mighty oakiness of a cupboard!”.
Compared with, “I f*** hit my toe against a cupboard.”
The truth is that we usually speak in a much less formal, less structured way. We do not always use full sentences and correct grammar. The vocabulary that we use is more familiar and may include slang. We usually speak spontaneously, without preparation, so we have to make up what we say as we go.
That’s why if your goal is being able to communicate, speaking should be your default language learning strategy, at least until you get to a B2 level.
Memory Benefits of Speaking in Language Learning
1) It involves many sensory channels (i.e. it’s great for your memory)
Speaking is a vibrant, sensory experience. It activates almost all sensory organs and thus creates more stable memories.
In one of the studies about the production effect, we can read that:
Many varieties of production can enhance memory. There is a production advantage for handwriting, for typing, and even for spelling, although none of these is as large as for speaking (Forrin, MacLeod, & Ozubko, 2012).
So what about some studies which say that writing is better for our memory than speaking? Well, they might be some truth in it:
As you can see, most of the benefits of writing usually disappear upon finishing this activity.
2) It is more time-efficient than writing
As I have mentioned earlier, even though some research suggests that writing gives your memory some boost, this fact loses its importance once we factor in how much output we can produce with writing compared with speaking.
Here are the results of one of the studies which considered this seemingly irrelevant fact.
The written group produced almost 75% less language than the spoken group did in the time available. This complements previous research discussed in section 3.6 which found more opportunities for language learning in the spoken mode compared to the written mode (e.g., Brown, Sagers, & Laporte, 1999).
Disadvantages of speaking in language learning
1) It Requires a Relatively Good Activation of Your Target Language
Even though I am a big proponent of learning a language via speaking, there is just one small hiccup. If you want to chat with foreigners, the command of your target language should already be good.
If you don’t receive feedback regularly, consider yourself at the high risk of consolidating dozens of small and big language mistakes. You don’t need teachers or tutors for that. However, you do need to create feedback loops.
Speaking – Recommendations for Language Learners
1) Best suited for
anyone who learns to communicate
2) Relatively-well suited for:
anyone who learns to consume media in his target language
Even if you only learn a language to watch media in your target language, you should still spend some time learning how to speak. It will help you to understand language much quicker due to your improved mastery of grammar and vocabulary and their interrelations, which will, in turn, increase your language comprehension.
It is one of the cases where you get two for the price of one.
Writing or Speaking – The winner is …
All in all, my opinion is that for most people out there, speaking is the superior learning method as it allows you to practice what probably matters to you the most – being able to communicate.
What’s more, writing offers almost no benefits memory-wise compare to speaking.
Having that said, you should remember that the ultimate answer might be more complicated for you. Some learn a language to write, some to watch movies and some to talk. Choose your goal and choose your preferred learning method accordingly.
Question for you:
What is your preferred way of using a language – speaking or writing? And why?
Never enough time. There is never enough time to get in shape or learn a language. Or even when there is time, you don’t seem to make much of the progress.
It doesn’t seem normal.
And it isn’t. There is a good chance you have contracted something I call “fluffoholism“. It’s a terrible ailment.
Fluffoholicsare individuals who are very busy doing silly and insignificant activities. As a result, they either feel inadequate for not making progress or make some progress but can’t find time for anything else in their lives.
Of course, the truth is that we are all fluffoholicsto some degree. The person who would concentrate only on relevant tasks would seem like an absolute genius to us mere mortals.
Let’s get it over with. My name is Bartosz, and I’m a recovering fluffoholic. This is what I have learned.
Work Hard and Smart – 3 Categories Of Activities
I like to categorize activities in the following way:
1) Low-intensity activities
It is a counterpart of lying in a cozy bed under a wool blanket with a mug of hot chocolate while your spouse scratches your head.
These are the tasks we tend to do the most. The “feel good” activities — the fluff which masks the real work. Usually, they have very little to do with making any progress.
Many industries prosper around these activities. It’s the apparent honey pot for the naive and lazy.
“Learn how to pick up a girl without washing yourself”
“Learn in your sleep”
“Lose weight by eating Tacos and marshmallows”.
Duolingo – the Lazy Way to Learn Languages
In the world of language learning, it’s Duolingo. I get a lot of messages like this: “I have been using Duolingo for x months, and I completed all the levels, but when I talk to native speakers, they don’t seem to understand me. Oh, also, when I read, I don’t understand most of the things.”
Sure, it’s motivating. And it’s a pleasant past-time to have. But it isn’t nearly as effective as a lot of other activities. Like speaking, for instance. Other, almost evergreen and legendary language learning methods which allow an individual to achieve fluency include:
“Learning by listening”
“Learning by playing computer games”
“Learning by watching TV”
How to tell if I am doing low-intensity activities?
Typically, you can do them for hours without any particular signs of fatigue. That’s all you need to know. If you feel like “that was fun,” it’s not the real work. It also means that you spend 5-10 x more time than people who do activities from the third category and get comparable results.
2) Moderate-intensity activities
It is a counterpart of getting out of bed and sitting down at the desk.
These activities require some energy from you, but they are not that tiring. It’s running 5 km when you already know that you can run ten if you want to. You still need to put your shoes on. You still need to go out and sweat. But in the end, the overall progress is not so significant.
In the world of language learning, it’s a B2 level. You can talk and express yourself relatively fluently.
You can read most of the articles you want. So you do. And you note down some words. But not too many because you’re already quite good.
How to tell if I am doing moderate-intensity activities?
Usually, you feel that you have to push yourself a bit to start. But once you do, it’s not that bad. Signs of fatigue tend to appear after 1-2 hours.
3) High-Intensity Activities (i.e., the Real Work.)
It is a counterpart of being mauled by a bear and teabagged by the seven muses at the same time.
It’s when you’d rather have a colonoscopy instead of carrying on with what you’re doing right now. The absolute opposite of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” approach. It’s the “there is always something broken, and I’ll find it” philosophy. It feels terrible. But it delivers incredible results.
How to tell if I am doing high-intensity activities?
After you finish learning, you’re sobbing softly and want somebody to hug you. And you feel damn proud. I like to think that it is our small Everest which we should climb daily.
It’s difficult to work hard and smart
I know that I should write every day to publish articles regularly. But I fail. Because they are never good enough, they are never inspiring enough.
I have read somewhere that the average time for writing an article is about 5 hours. It depresses me. It makes me feel like a failure. And I know I should come up with ideas daily. About three years ago, I read on the blog of James Altucher about the concept of becoming the idea machine.
The concept is simple – if you try to come up with ten ideas per day, in 6 months, your life should change significantly. Three years down the road, I’m still struggling to come up with ten ideas once every 3-4 days.
It’s disheartening, and it makes me feel like crap. But now and then, I manage to come up with great ideas. And my face lightens up when I send them to others. And I’m pretty sure their faces light up as well as these ideas change their lives. And that’s what it’s all about.
Remember – If you do not push, you are not practicing.
High-intensity Activities In Language Learning
One of the notoriously difficult activities in language learning is speaking.
On an A1-A2 level, stringing more than a few words feels like a crucifixion.
On a B1-B2 level, the challenge is to learn enough words (while improving your grammar) to be able to express yourself quite fluently.
On a C1-C2 level, the challenge is to continually substitute the words you already know with dozens of other synonyms. It’s where you have to start saying “atrocity” instead of “that ugly thing,” or “marvelous” instead of “great.” (see The Word Substitution Technique)
It’s damn easy to play with Duolingo or Memrise for 1 hour. It’s much harder to open your mouth and start saying something.
Exemplary Results of Regular Conversation with Yourself
I like to highlight my students as an example. If they want to learn with me, they have to accept one condition – they have to bet with me. Each day, from Monday to Friday, I have to get a 10-minute recording of them talking to themselves.
It’s only 10 minutes. And yet, after three weeks, their level changes drastically. It’s almost unbelievable. The side effect is that they probably hate me, but, oh well – it works!
How to Fix Your Learning Plan to Work Hard and Smart
It’s a deceptively simple recipe. But it’s hard to implement.
1. Define High-Intensity Activities in Your Domain
You can do it on your own or ask someone much better than you in a given domain. But the truth is that very often you already know what the problem is and what you should be doing.
It’s a task which you are always postponing. It’s a task which you can’t do for more than a few minutes without having to distract yourself with a mobile phone or other distractors.
2. Start Doing Them at the Cost of Other (i.e., Low- and Medium-Intensity) Activities
Start small. You don’t have to do it for more than 20 minutes daily. Break this time into smaller chunks if you have to. With time, as you toughen up, the overall time spent on practice should be extended.
Remember – High-Intensity Activities Change with Time
You have to be aware that high-intensity activities change with time. They morph into medium- or low-intensity activities. What once was a nightmare can become a breeze with enough time. You should keep it in mind and adjust your learning strategies as you progress.
How to Work Hard and Smart – Summary
Being able to work hard and smart is not about perfectionism or turning into a workaholic. It’s about using whatever time you have to in the most efficient way. The critical step is identifying high-intensity activities in your target domain and executing them daily with relentless consistency.
It won’t be pleasant, but the results will speak for themselves. After all, if you decide to spend time to do something, make it count.
An added benefit is that once you learn how to work hard and smart, this skill that will benefit you all your life.
It’s time for part two of my miniseries on optimizing your learning! If you haven’t read the first part – click here. This time I will show you how to optimize your repetitions.
People like to see effective language learning, or any learning for that matter, as something mysterious. The opposite is true. There are just a couple of essential principles which you should follow if you want to become a quick learner.
Don’t get me wrong – effective learning gets more complicated; the faster you want to learn. And the more long-lasting memories you want to create.
Still, these principles can be applied by anyone, regardless of his sex, or age because the very little known truth is that we all learn, more or less, the same.
Forget about learning styles – they do not exist. I know. It sounds shocking. And it is probably even more surprising than you can imagine – one study showed that 93% of British teachersbelieve it to be exact!
But you and I, my friend, are not glittery and special snow-flakes. There are rules. And they are not to be treated lightly.
Let’s dig in.
How To Maximize Effectiveness Of Your Learning
Below you can find my list of the essential rules affecting your language learning progress. It’s far from being complete.
There are other rules and limitations, but the ones below are one of the easiest ones to implement.
To maximize your learning, you should make sure that:
1) Focus on active learning
If you only concentrate on reading and listening, you won’t get far. Your brain is terrible at memorizing things that you encounter occasionally.
I will get to this in a moment. But first, let’s start with basics – the process of memorizing can be depicted in the following three steps.
1) Encoding – involves initial processing of information which leads to the construction of its mental representation in memory
2) Storage – is the retention of encoded information in the short-term or long-term memory
3) Recall – is the retrieval of stored information from memory
As you can see, the first step in this process is encoding. I can’t stress this enough – if you don’t encode the information you learn, probably you won’t retain it. You should always, ALWAYS, do your best to manipulate the data you try to learn.
Let’s try to prove it quickly.
If I told you right now to draw the image of your watch, would you be able to do it? Would you be able to reproduce the exact look of the building you work in? Of course not, even though you come into contact with these things multiple times per day.
You do not try to encode such information in any way! If the human brain were capable of doing it, we would all go crazy. It would mean that we would memorize almost every piece of information which we encounter. But this is far from the truth. Our brain is very selective. It absorbs mostly the information that:
a) Occurs frequently in different contexts
b) We process (encode) –in the domain of language learning, the simplest form of processing a given piece of information is creating a sentence with it
c) Is used actively
2) Optimize Your Repetitions
One of the best ways to optimize your repetitions is by using SRS programs. But what is Spaced Repetition?
Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.
Alternative names include spaced rehearsal, expanding rehearsal, graduated intervals, repetition spacing, repetition scheduling, spaced retrieval, and expanded retrieval.
The science behind SSR
How does the program know when to review given words?
Most of such programs base (more or less) their algorithms on Ebbinghaus forgetting curve (side note: it has been replicated many times in the last 50 years)
The curve presents the decline of memory retention in time, or if you look at it from a different perspective, it demonstrates the critical moments when the repetition of the given information should occur.
In theory, it takes about five optimized repetitions to transfer a word into long-term memory. But come on! Learning would be damn easy if this rule would be true for most of the people!
There are a lot of other variables which come into play:
the difficulty of the learned material
understanding of the material
how meaningful it is
representation of the material
physiological factors: stress and sleep (among others)
the size of the material
processing of the material
And many others. Still, SRS programs give you the unparalleled upper hand in language learning!
Of course, using SRS programs like ANKI is not to everyone’s liking. I get it. But let’s look at the list of alternatives, shall we?
What Happens If You Don’t Optimize Your Repetitions with SRS
Every learner has to face the following problems to learn new words (effectively).
What process do you go through to learn a new word?
Do you write it down? Where?
How do you revise it later?
How long does it take you to learn it?
How many times do you have to see it before you know it?
And how do you know when you really have learned it?
These aren’t some petty, meaningless decisions. These are the decisions that will heavily influence your progress curve.
Here’s an idea that a lot of people have: when you learn a new word, you write it down in a notebook. Then, every few days, you open the notebook and review all the words that you have learned so far.
It works well at first — you no longer forget everything you learn. But very soon it becomes a nightmare.
After you exceed about 1000 words, reviewing your vocabulary starts taking more and more time. And how do you know EXACTLY which words you should review or pay more attention to?
Usually, after no more than a few months, you throw your notebook into the darkest corner of your room and try to swallow the bitter taste of defeat.
Reviewing Algorithm Is the Foundation of Learning
It has to be said aloud and with confidence: you will never be as effective as programs in executing algorithms. And choosing when to review a word is nothing more than that – an algorithm.
Many oppose this idea of using SRS programs. And it is indeed mind-boggling why. At least for me. The results speak for themselves.
Currently, I am teaching over 30 people – from students, top-level managers to academics. And one of many regularities I have observed is this: Students of mine who use SRS programs regularly beat students who don’t.
At the same time, a Ph.D. from the local university barely moved one level up the language learning ladder. The only difference between them is that Mathew was very consistent with using ANKI (and other strategies).
Really. That’s it.
And it is not that surprising. The technology has been topping the most celebrated human minds for years now. Different AI programs have beaten top players at games like: chess, scrabble and quite recently Go.
Last year, deep learning machines beat humans in the IQ Test. It might seem scary. But only if we treat such a phenomenon as a threat. But why not use the computational powers of a computer to our advantage?
It would be ridiculous to wrestle with Terminator. It’s just as absurd trying to beat computers at optimizing repetitions.
But should everyone use such programs?
Should You Use SRS programs?
I know that you can still be unsure whether or not you should be using SRS programs. That’s why I have decided to create a list of profiles to help you identify your language learning needs:
1) I am learning only one language
If you are learning only one language, it’s reasonable to assume that you can surround yourself with it. In this case, using ANKI is not that necessary.
However, things change quite a bit if you are learning your first language, and you have NO previous experience with language learning.
In that case, better save yourself a lot of frustration and download ANKI.
2) I am a translator/interpreter (or pursue any language-related profession)
My imagination certainly has its limits since I can’t imagine a representative of any language-related profession that shouldn’t use SRS programs. The risk of letting even one word slip your mind is too high.
Just the material I have covered during my postgraduates studies in legal translation and interpreting amounts to more than 5000 specialized words.
If I wanted to rely on surrounding myself with languages to master them, I would go batshit crazy a long time ago. Who reads legal documents for fun?!
Even if you are not a translator/interpreter yet, but would like to become one in the future, do yourself a favor and download ANKI.
3) I learn 2 or more languages
Then I would strongly suggest using ANKI, especially if you would like to become fully fluent in them.
The math is quite easy. Getting to C1 level in 2 languages requires you to know about 20 thousand words. Of course, you should know at least 50-60% of them actively. This number might sound quite abstract, or maybe not that impressive, so let me put it in another way.
Knowing about 10 thousand words in a foreign language is equivalent to having an additional master’s degree. And you know damn well how much time it takes to accumulate this kind of knowledge! It is not time-efficient to acquire this knowledge without trying to optimize your repetitions.
Of course, you can find an exception to every rule. It is not that mentally taxing to imagine a situation where somebody uses one language at work and then another foreign language once they leave the office. Then maybe, just maybe, you can do without SRS programs.
Why You Should Optimize Your Repetitions – Summary
Trying to hold a vast body of knowledge in your head is challenging, yet entirely possible. The first step in the right direction is understanding that you have to optimize your repetitions. At least if you want to get to the finish line asap.
That’s why using Spaced Repetition Software like ANKI is undoubtedly a must for any serious language learners.
I don’t like waiting. It’s not that I can’t be patient – quite often, I don’t see the point. Especially in the world of language learning, the typical response to any question seems to be, “it will come with time” or “you will learn it subconsciously.”
It’s especially true for grammar.
If we exclude just a handful of enthusiasts, we can say that learning is one of the least favorite activities of most language learners. It’s a big, dark, and ugly maze. You have to learn how to handle it. Otherwise, it will chew you up and spit you out. And then crap on your face while you are sobbing pitifully.
The collective knowledge has it that you need plenty of time to learn your way around it. You have to fumble about in the dark until you finally crawl out of it. The whole process takes a heavy toll on the language learner’s motivation.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. The entire process can be accelerated at least several times, thanks to the deep learning (a.k.a. the deliberate practice).
It’s the methodology that has been used by the world’s top performers for over three decades. It can help you break grammar into easily digestible chunks. In other words, deep learning provides you with a step-by-step blueprint to master grammar of any language. It can replace any teacher if you know how to use it.
But let’s start with the basics.
Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice
Problems With Typical Approach To Learning Grammar
1. Feedback Is Not (Always) Enough
Try to imagine your average lesson. Not even group lessons – those are ineffective (though enjoyable for some). I mean 1-1 lessons.
Have you ever noticed that even though you often get feedback from your teacher, you still keep on making the same mistakes?
Here is why.
Learning almost always takes place in a chaotic and cluttered environment. At any given moment, there are dozens of dozens of pieces of information fighting for your attention. During your typical lessons, your teacher might correct you dozens of times. “Wrong pronunciation, wrong conjugation, wrong (…)”.
You are getting bitch slapped to a pulp by the feedback.
The problem is too much information. If you get too many pieces of information, it’s challenging to choose the ones which you should concentrate on — the ones which you will try to act upon.
In other words, to geek it up a bit:
The information overload which may hinder the integration of the new information into long-term memory. – source
“Why not correct a student about just one aspect of the language?”, you might think. This thought sounds tempting. And let’s be honest – yes, if you correct just one or two things, students will start correcting those mistakes much quicker. But there is a massive downside to this. If you don’t make a student aware of other mistakes he makes, he optimistically assumes that they are not there!
That’s even worse! By the time you get through previous grammar aspects, your student will already have consolidated dozens of other mistakes!
It’s like the grammar-hydra! Eliminate one mistake, and ten others take its place!
2. Passive Learning Is Not Efficient
Passive learning (i.e., reading and writing) won’t help either unless you invest significant amounts of time. So yes, it is possible to acquire decent grammar this way. However, if you want to learn many languages, it gets harder and harder to keep up with this input-heavy schedule.
But most of the time, seeing or hearing correctly composed sentences won’t make you utter the correct ones on your own. (read more aboutpassive learning here)
Unless you think that reading about surgical procedures makes you a skilled surgeon. In that case – I rest my case. What you have to remember is that the deep understanding of most of the skills comes from using them. You won’t just wake up one day and suddenly start spewing beautiful sentences left and right.
3. The difficulty of Acquiring Rare Grammar Constructions
While it might not be a big deal for some, it is annoying for me. Some grammar constructions occur very rarely. So rarely that learning them through context seems almost absurd.
How long would I have to read to learn some of them? How many hundreds (thousands) of sentences would I have to read to find one or two written in, say, past perfect continuous? Crapload. That’s how many.
But if I can replace all these hours of reading and listening with just 2-3 hours of the deliberate practice, why wouldn’t I?
What Is Deep Learning (a.k.a. Deliberate Practice)?
Before I move on and show you how you can use it to improve your language learning skills, let’s try to define what deep learning is:
Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance. – source
Some common characteristics of deep learning include:
it gives you a specific goal
it requires your full attention
it’s energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming
it gives you feedback
Words, words, words! But what does it all REALLY mean?
1) You need a specific goal
Choose a grammar construction you have problems with, and which is useful at the same time. For the sake of this article, I will use the declination of German definite articles. They are the stuff of nightmares for many and thus the perfect choice.
But that’s not over. There is one more thing which you have to remember about this goal.
If you can’t commit a given piece of grammar to your memory, it means that it’s too big.
Because the availability of working memory is crucial for implementing expectancy-based strategic actions.
If you fry your working memory, you can forget about effective learning. The most straightforward test possible you can run to check whether this condition is met is to try to reproduce the information you have just memorized. If you can do it without the excessive number of groans, then you are all set.
For the article, let’s assume that I want to master the Akkusativ form for “der,” “die,” and “das.” Let’s leave plural for some other time.
A quick sanity check confirms that I can comfortably reproduce the declination of the said forms.
2) it requires your full attention
As my beloved Hungarian proverb puts it:
“If you have one ass you can’t sit on two horses” .
You can’t do two things at once without sucking at both of them. If you think that you can, then you are delusional.
But what does devoting your full attention mean? It means just one thing.
You should only pay attention to the correct use of the given piece of grammar. If you make some other mistakes along the way – so be it.
“But doesn’t it mean that I will start consolidating some other grammar mistakes?”. That’s a fair question, but no – you won’t. The reason is painfully simple.
If you devote your full attention to using one grammar construction correctly, you won’t even notice other mistakes. It is how our attention works.
Here is a great video that exemplifies this phenomenon.
Have you seen that one already? Watch that one know.
These videos have a very sobering effect on all the people who claim to possess superior concentration power. And they prove one thing – it’s hard to consolidate something you don’t see.
3) It’s energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming
I am not going to lie to you. Deliberate practice is tedious and tiring. And that’s bad news because, in the era of modern technologies, everything must be fun and hip. However, if you want to achieve results quickly, I am sure that’s a trade-off you are willing to make.
In a nutshell, you build awareness of a given grammar construction by creating dozens upon dozens of sentences with it. It is what Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, wrote in one of her articles:
“What I had done in learning Russian was to emphasize not just understanding of the language, but fluency. Fluency of something whole like a language requires a kind of familiarity that only repeated and varied interaction with the parts can develop.
Where my language classmates had often been content to concentrate on simply understanding Russian they heard or read, I instead tried to gain an internalized, deep-rooted fluency with the words and language structure. I wouldn’t just be satisfied to know that понимать meant “to understand.”
I’d practice with the verb—putting it through its paces by conjugating it repeatedly with all sorts of tenses, and then moving on to putting it into sentences, and then finally to understanding not only when to use this form of the verb, but also when not to use it. I practiced recalling all these aspects and variations quickly.
After all, through practice, you can understand and translate dozens—even thousands— of words in another language.
But if you aren’t fluent, when someone throws a bunch of words at you quickly, as with normal speaking (which always sounds horrifically fast when you’re learning a new language), you have no idea what they’re actually saying, even though technically you understand all the component words and structure. And you certainly can’t speak quickly enough yourself for native speakers to find it enjoyable to listen to you.” – source
So how should you correctly practice deep learning?
What I usually recommend is to create at least 100 sentences with the given grammar construction within the next 5-7 days. But as always – the more, the better.
Make sure that every sentence is different from the previous one and that YOU are the one who comes up with these sentences.
Here are some examples:
Ich habe den grossen Hund gehabt.
Er hat mir das schöne Haus gekauft.
Wir stellen den Teller auf den Tisch.
And so on. Rinse and repeat.
You have to become a grim grammar executioner. You might not enjoy your job, but you know it has to be done. The great thing about this kind of practice is that you don’t need any fancy tools. A piece of paper will do.
Below you can find the worksheet I use to teach this concept to my students. It looks like this:
If you want to master grammar of any language asap, it will help you get there,
4) It gives you feedback
In the perfect world, there is always someone who can provide you with feedback. However, if you stick to the rules mentioned above, you should be able to produce grammatically correct sentences without any, or with minimal, supervision.
It’s only logical – if you try to do just one thing correctly, it won’t take long before you are fully aware that the construction you are using is applied appropriately.
You are better at monitoring your progress than you think.
Research has showed that individuals are able to monitor, control and regulate their behaviors in learning contexts, but all depends on the resources and the pedagogical approach used by the educators (Agina et al., 2011)
How to Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice – a Quick Summary
Choose a small chunk of grammar
Create at least 100 sentences with it
Make sure that you can use it well enough
Move on to another grammar construction
Benefits of Deliberate Practice
I like to look at every field of knowledge, as one might look at the deep lake. It seems enigmatic and sinister. You want to cross it, but you don’t know how. It’s the same feeling most people get when they see monstrous grammar books. Helplessness, fear, and doubt peek at you from every page of the book.
“How dare you think that you might ever learn all of this?!”, they seem to whisper.
And it’s true. Without any specific plan, mastering grammar of any language to a decent level might take ages. Deep learning provides you with such a plan.
Here are some advantages of this kind of approach:
1. It concentrates your attention
Your attention is restless and gets bored quickly. Like a small child or a merry drunk. You need to learn to tame it. And it is precisely what deliberate practice does. It focuses your attention on one thing and one thing only. It is especially important because
“Attention constrains learning to relevant dimensions of the environment, while we learn what to attend to via trial and error.” – source
2. It’s Time-Efficient
Concentrating your efforts on just one thing means one more thing – you save a lot of time. Don’t want to wait till your butt overgrows with moss, and you look like Keith Richards? Then the deliberate practice might be right up your alley.
Can I Use Deliberate Practice For Other Things Than Grammar?
Heck yeah! You can use it for almost anything – not only to master grammar of any language.
Learn how to produce two tricky sounds from your target language. – Once you learn how to pronounce them in isolation, try to pronounce them, say, 100 times in different words.
Start practicing these words in full sentences until the muscle memory is created.
Trying to improve your creativity?
Come up with 10-15 ideas (more aboutbeing creative here) for every problem you encounter. After 1-2 months, you will start noticing an enormous shift in your way of thinking. I know I did.
Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice – Summary
Even if you wouldn’t consider yourself a grammar-savvy person, the deliberate practice has the potential to accelerate your learning significantly.
It’s not very complicated, but don’t let the apparent simplicity of this method fool you. It’s just one of the few techniques I have seen in my life, which has worked every time and with every student.
Why not try it yourself?
Question – Have you ever tried to master grammar of any language with deliberate practice? Let me know!