Not everyone is equal in the kingdom of languages. There is one group that is mercilessly oppressed — one group which suffers from a crippling disease called SOCIAL ANXIETY.
It’s a terrible, terrible malady. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to keep your fears and anxiety in a padded cell of your brain. They always scrape their way out to feed your soul with poison. Even if only through the cracks.
But does it mean that you can’t learn a language because of it? Hell no!
I used to suffer from anxiety-induced panic attacks in the past. I sat in my room for days with curtains closed until I ran out of food. Those days are, luckily, long gone. Although anxiety still looms the dark corners of my mind.
So if you are also a victim of this condition – don’t worry. Here is the list of six ideas that you can use to learn to speak a foreign language with social anxiety.
How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety
1) Don’t find a teacher, find a friend
There is a good chance that you don’t want to talk to others because you don’t know them.
You don’t feel comfortable baring your soul in front of them. Every cell in your brain sends you warning signals – watch out; they are out to get you.
But you don’t feel this way around friends or people you trust, do you?
That’s why this is probably the best way to approach language learning for those anxiety stricken. You won’t be able to get any panic attacks or feel anxious with a friend by your side.
Discussing anything becomes much easier when you grow attached to another person. You don’t even have to suffer from anxiety to be able to benefit from such a relationship.
Having such contact with another person drastically changes the way you experience lessons.
You don’t sit in front of a stranger who doesn’t give a shit about your day or well-being. You sit in front of someone who cares. Such a bond makes all the conversations much more meaningful and memorable, as well.
That’s why you should pay close attention to a person who will become your language partner or your teacher.
Look for similarities. Try a lesson to make sure that this person is trustworthy. And, what’s most important, don’t be a weirdo. “Hi, my name is Bartosz. Do you wanna be my friend?”. Ugh.
2) Talk To Yourself
What 99% of people seem to miss is that you don’t necessarily need countless hours of talking with others to be able to communicate freely in your target language.
Because almost all hard work is done in solitude.
Learning vocabulary, grammar, listening. All that you can do on your own.
Of course, it’s great to have some private lessons from time to time to make sure that you are on the right track. But other than that – you will be fine on your own. You can create your feedback loops to make sure that you are speaking correctly.
Talking doesn’t necessarily mean discussing philosophical treatises face-to-face. It’s perfectly fine to stick to written communication. In the era of the internet, you are just a few clicks away from millions of potential language partners.
Here is a list of websites where you can find some language exchange partners:
We might be the pinnacle of evolution, but in some regards, we are no different from your average gopher or a sloth. You can easily get conditioned to react to specific circumstances in a given way.
Why? Habituation. That’s why.
Habituation is a form of learning in which an organism decreases or ceases to respond to a stimulus after repeated presentations. Essentially, the organism learns to stop responding to a stimulus which is no longer biologically relevant. For example, organisms may habituate to repeated sudden loud noises when they learn these have no consequences.
Habituation usually refers to a reduction in innate behaviours, rather than behaviours developed during conditioning in which the process is termed “extinction”. A progressive decline of a behavior in a habituation procedure may also reflect nonspecific effects such as fatigue, which must be ruled out when the interest is in habituation as a learning process. – Wikipedia
c) LOW ANXIETY LEVELS (face-to-face conversations)
go to a nearby language café and talk with others
find the nearest language meeting on MeetUp.com and go there
Any start is a good start as long as you start.
5) Reframe your thoughts
There is a good chance that you have heard about reframing your thoughts. The basic premise is very simple.
Every time you catch yourself being anxious about some situation, you should look at it from a different perspective.
Instead of saying, “Gosh, she sure wouldn’t like to talk with me,” you can change it to, “I bet she is bored right now and would love to have a nice chat with me.”
I know. It sounds corny.
The first time I heard this piece of advice, I felt as if a ragged hobo tried to jam a lump of guano in my hand, saying, “Just pat it into your face, and you will gain superpowers.”
Little did I know that this advice is as brilliant as it is simple. Much water passed under the bridge before I finally started applying it.
But why does it work? Because such is the nature of memories. They are not set in stone and perennial.
Research conducted by Daniela Schiller, of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and her former colleagues from New York University, shows us something truly amazing.
Schiller says that “memories are malleable constructs that are reconstructed with each recall. We all recognize that our memories are like Swiss cheese; what we now know is that they are more like processed cheese.
What we remember changes each time we recall the event. The slightly changed memory is now embedded as “real,” only to be reconstructed with the next recall. – Source
So what does it all mean?
It means that adding new information to your memories or recalling them in a slightly different context might alter them.
How much? Enough for you to recalibrate how you perceive the world around you! It’s up to you how much you want to reshape your perception of reality.
6) Decide whether you really need to speak a language
It seems like a strange statement. But the truth is that not everyone needs to learn how to speak a language.
Before you dive into the language learning process, be sure that it’s something you want. You shouldn’t feel pressured into doing so just because others do. You don’t want to spend hundreds of extra hours on something you are not going to use.
Remember that every language, even the tiniest of them all, is a skeleton key to the vastness of materials – books, movies, anecdotes, etc. It’s fine to learn a language to be able to access them all.
Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety – Your Strategies
Here is a quick summary of all the strategies mentioned above.
Don’t find a teacher, find a friend
Talk To Yourself
Write instead of talking
Reframe your thoughts
Decide whether you really need to speak a language
How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety – Summary
Overcoming your language learning anxiety can be hard, but it is certainly doable. When in doubt, always keep in mind that our reality is negotiable to a large degree – if you believe you can change, it is possible.
What’s more, you shouldn’t forget that the real work is always done in solitude. Teachers or language partners might show you what to concentrate on, but it’s up to you to put this knowledge into practice.
You don’t have to limit yourself to activating your vocabulary only through speaking. Writing is also a very desirable option.
There are just a few things in this world which make me angry and sad at the same time. But the one that takes the cake is reading almost every month for the past few years that soon, oh so very soon, learning languages will become obsolete.
Sure, it is pointless. Why bother? Technology will solve the problem of interlingual communication. So better not waste your time. You’ll be better-off watching re-runs of The Kardashians.
How many people have given up even before they started? Without even realizing that many, oh so many, years will pass before any translation software or magical devices will be able to do a half-decent job.
But is it really only about communication? Have you ever wondered what other benefits language learning has to offer?
The following list includes 80 benefits of language learning. Some obvious, some surprising. I’ve been hand-picking them for many months from different scientific sources.
The list is a work in progress. I’ll keep on updating it every couple of months. Feel free to write to me if you spot somewhere some benefit which is not on the list.
It’s also worth noting that there is a large body of research to confirm each of these benefits of language learning. Although, I usually quote results of just one or two studies to keep this list more concise.
Purpose of the list
The main purpose of this list is to make you realize how many benefits of language learning there are. I hope that such knowledge will help to pull you through all language-learning plateaus.
What’s more, I also hope that it will help you to inspire others to pursue language learning. Your children, spouse, parents. It’s never too late.
Treat is a language-learning manifesto. Print it, hang it on the wall. And every time you feel like giving up, hug your dictionary and stare at this list for a couple of minutes.
Amazing benefits of language learning
If you learn a foreign language…
1. Your brain will grow
Johan Martensson’s researchshows that after three months of studying a foreign language, learners’ brains grew in four places: the hippocampus, middle frontal gyrus, inferior frontal gyrus, and superior temporal gyrus (gyri are ridges on the cerebral cortex).
What happens when you learn languages for more than 3 months and you’re serious about it?
The right hippocampus and the left superior temporal gyrus were structurally more malleable in interpreters acquiring higher proficiency in the foreign language. Interpreters struggling relatively more to master the language displayed larger gray matter increases in the middle frontal gyrus
According to researchconducted by Julia Morales of Spain’s Granada University, children who learn a second language are able to recall memories better than monolinguals, or speakers of just one language.
When asked to complete memory-based tasks, Morales and her team found that those who had knowledge of multiple languages worked both faster and more accurately.
The young participants who spoke a second language had a clear advantage in working memory. Their brains worked faster, pulling information and identifying problems in a more logical fashion.
When your brain is put through its paces and forced to recall specific words in multiple languages, it develops strength in the areas responsible for storing and retrieving information (read more about improving your short-term memory)
Do you remember how hard listening was at the beginning of the language journey? Pure nightmare! And since the brain has to work really hard to distinguish between different types of sounds in different languages, being bilingual leads to improved listening skills (Krizman et al., 2012).
Further references: Lapkin, et al 1990, Ratte 1968.
4. You will have higher verbal and non-verbal intelligence
In 1962, Peal and Lambert published a study where they found that people who are at least conversationally fluent in more than one language consistently beat monolinguals on tests of verbal and nonverbal intelligence.
Bilinguals showed significant advantage especially in non-verbal tests that required more mental flexibility.
References: Peal E., Lambert M. (1962). “The relation of bilingualism to intelligence”.Psychological Monographs75(546): 1–23.
5. Your attention span will improve
Photo by Lex Mckee
A study from 2010 shows that bilinguals have stronger control over their attention and are more capable of limiting distractions.
When asked to concentrate on a task, the study’s bilingual participants showed an increased ability to tune out distractions and concentrate on the given task.
They were also better equipped to interpret the work before them, eliminating unnecessary information and working on only what was essential.
Great news everyone! The recent evidence suggests a positive impact of bilingualism on cognition.
So what exactly does it mean?
The research found that individuals who speak two or more languages, regardless of their education level, gender or occupation, experience the onset of Alzheimer’s, on average, 4 1/2 years later than monolingual subjects did.
What’s more, even people who acquired a second language in adulthood can enjoy this benefit!
I’m not a fan of multitasking since it’s harmful to your productivity.
However, according to researchconducted by Brian Gold, learning a language increases brain flexibility, making it easy to switch tasks in just seconds. Study participants were better at adapting and were able to handle unexpected situations much better than monolinguals.
That’s great. But the real question is – why were they better?
The plausible explanation is that when we learn a new language, we frequently jump between our familiar first language and the new one, making connections to help us retain what we’re learning.
This linguistic workout activates different areas of our brain. The more we switch between languages, the more those brain zones become accustomed to working. Once they’ve become accustomed to this type of “workout,” those same areas start helping to switch between tasks beyond language.
Learning a foreign language improves not only your ability to solve problems and to think more logically. It can also increase your creativity, according to Kathryn Bamford and Donald Mizokawa’s research.
Early language study forces you to reach for alternate words when you can’t quite remember the original one you wanted to use and makes you experiment with new words and phrases.
It improves your skills in divergent thinking, which is the ability to identify multiple solutions to a single problem.
Language learners also show greater cognitive flexibility (Hakuta 1986) and are better at figural creativity (Landry 1973).
It sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But before we move on, let’s clarify what executive functions are:
Executive functions (also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) – is an umbrella term for the management (regulation, control) of cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution. – Wikipedia
The body of research has shown that bilingual individuals are better at such processes; suggesting an interaction between being bilingual and executive functions.
As Anne-Catherine Nicolay and Martine Poncelet, a pair of scientists from Belgium, discovered in their research, learning a language improves individuals’ alertness, auditory attention, divided attention, and mental flexibility. The more you immerse yourself in the new language, the more you hone your executive functions.
In another study, Bialystok gave study subjects a non-linguistic card-sorting task that required flexibility in problem-solving, filtering irrelevant information, as well as recognizing the constancy of some variables in the face of changes in the rules.
Bilingual children significantly outperformed their monolingual peers in this task, suggesting the early development of inhibitory function that aids in solving problems that require the ability to selectively focus attention.
10. You will be better at problem-solving (even at maths!)
In one study, bilingual children were presented with the problems of both mathematical (arranging two sets of bottle caps to be equal according to instruction) and non-mathematical nature (a common household problem represented in pictures) and were asked to provide solutions.
They were rated on scales of creativity, flexibility, and originality. The results confirmed that the bilingual children were more creative in their problem solving than their monolingual peers.
One explanation for this could be bilinguals’ increased metalinguistic awareness, which creates a form of thinking that is more open and objective, resulting in increased awareness and flexibility.
If you want to create a crazy brainiac, teaching your child another language is a way to go!
According to new research, babies exposed to two languages display better learning andmemory skills compared to their monolingual peers.
The study was conducted in Singapore and was the result of the collaboration between scientists and hospitals. Altogether, the study included 114 6 month-old infants – about half of whom had been exposed to two languages from birth.
The study found that when repeatedly shown the same image, bilingual babies recognized familiar images quicker and paid more attention to novel images – demonstrating tendencies that have strong links to higher IQ later in life.
Amazingly, children seem to absorb (even) multiple languages effortlessly.
“The power to learn a language is so great in the young child that it doesn’t seem to matter how many languages you seem to throw their way…They can learn as many spoken languages as you can allow them to hear systematically and regularly at the same time. Children just have this capacity. Their brain is ripe to do this…there doesn’t seem to be any detriment to….develop[ing] several languages at the same time” according to Dr. Susan Curtiss, UCLA Linguistics professor.
Past studies have shown that babies who rapidly get bored with a familiar image demonstrated higher cognition and language ability later on as children (Bialystok & Hakuta 1994; Fuchsen 1989).
A preference for novelty is also linked with higher IQs and better scores in vocabulary tests during pre-school and school-going years.
How many monolingual speakers know what adjectives or gerunds are? Not many. It’s natural. They simply don’t need such knowledge. However, learning a second language draws your attention to the abstract rules and structure of language, thus makes you better at your first language.
Research suggests that foreign language study “enhances children’s understanding of how language itself works and their ability to manipulate language in the service of thinking and problem-solving.” (Cummins 1981).
It sounds like a cliche but let’s say it out loud – your chances of employment in today’s economy are much greater for you than for those who speak only one language.
Multilingual employees are able to communicate and interact within multiple communities. With the rise of technology which enables global communication, such an ability becomes more and more valuable.
What’s more, knowledge of a foreign language conveys, among others, that you’re an intelligent, disciplined and motivated person.
Even if being bilingual is not completely necessary in your field, being fluent in another language gives you a competitive edge over your monolingual competitors.
Of course, feeling that the above is true is one thing, but what about cold hard facts?
In a survey of 581 alumni of The American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Arizona, most graduated stated that they had gained a competitive advantage from their knowledge of foreign languages and other cultures.
They said that not only was language study often a decisive factor in hiring decisions and in enhancing their career paths, but it also provided personal fulfillment, mental discipline, and cultural enlightenment. (Grosse 2004)
15. You will enhance your confidence and sense of achievement
Confidence always increases when a new skill is mastered. Learning a foreign language is no different. It boosts your self-confidence and makes you feel this nice, warm feeling inside.
Knowing a language also makes you more interesting and let’s face it – who doesn’t want to be more interesting?
Evidence from several studies shows language students to have a significantly higher self-concept than do non-language students. (Masciantonio 1977, Saunders 1998, Andrade, et al. 1989).
16. You will score higher on standardized tests
Photo by Dennis Skley
Bilingual students consistently score higher on standardized tests in comparison with their monolingual peers, especially in the areas of math, reading and vocabulary.
How much better are their results?
Results from the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test ) show that students who completed at least four years of foreign-language study scored more than 100 points higher on each section of the SAT than monolingual students. (College Board 2004)
Even third-graders who had received 15 minutes of conversational French lessons daily for a year had statistically higher SAT scores than their peers who had not received French classes. (Lopata 1963)
17. You will think faster
In a small study, bilingual people were about a half-second faster than monolinguals (3.5 versus 4 seconds) at executing novel instructions such as “add 1 to x, divide y by 2, and sum the results.”
Andrea Stocco and Chantel S. Prat of the University of Washington who conducted the research say the findings are in line with previous studies showing that bilingual children show superior performance on non-linguistic tasks.
References: Stocco, A., Yamasaki, B. L., Natalenko, R., & Prat, C. S. “Bilingual brain training: A neurobiological framework of how bilingual experience improves executive function.” International Journal of Bilingualism.
18. You will have better job security
Mastering a language is a skill that requires a lot of time, discipline and persistence. Many people start learning and give up half-way.
That’s why employees who have knowledge of a foreign language are much harder to replace. Of course, the rarer and /or more difficult the language, the stronger your leverage.
19. You will earn more
It comes as no surprise that the knowledge of languages can add a little something to your salary. However, the amount you can get varies significantly from country to country.
So how does it look like for the citizens of the United States?
Albert Saiz, the MIT economist who calculated the 2% premium, found quite different premiums for different languages: just 1.5% for Spanish, 2.3% for French and 3.8% for German. This translates into big differences in the language account: your Spanish is worth $51,000, but French, $77,000, and German, $128,000. Humans are famously bad at weighting the future against the present, but if you dangled even a post-dated $128,000 cheque in front of the average 14-year-old, Goethe and Schiller would be hotter than Facebook. – (www.economist.com)
In the UK, employees who know a foreign language earn an extra £3,000 a year – a total of £145,000 over their lifetime
Companies are prepared to pay workers earning the national average of £25,818 as much as 12% more if they speak or learn a foreign language. For higher earners, the figures are even more startling.
Those earning £45,000 could see a potential cash boost of 20%, amounting to an extra £9,000 a year or £423,000 over a lifetime. – (www.kwintessential.co.uk)
As you can see, knowing a foreign language can be certainly profitable. But please bear in mind that people who know 2 foreign languages earn much more and the reports typically don’t take rare languages into consideration.
20. You will enjoy increased mobility
There are many reasons why people leave their homeland and move to other places. Some look for a better life, others try to find political freedom, love or religious tolerance.
Whatever the reasons might be, knowing foreign languages significantly increases your mobility by removing language barriers and increasing the chances of employment.
What’s more, a stay abroad can positively influence your employability even if you come back to your motherland.
The risk of long-term unemployment after graduation was 50% lower for mobile students than for non-mobile students. Even five years after graduation, the unemployment rate of mobile students was still 23% lower. Also 50% fewer mobile students (2%) than non-mobile students (4%) needed more than 12 months to find their first job. – The Erasmus Impact Study
The Principle of Priority states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first. – Steven Pressfield
Learning a foreign language is one of the most complicated skills out there which one can master. It’s not your typical “to-do list” which usually consists of just a few, simple tasks. To arrive at your final destination (i.e. mastering a language) you need to learn how to prioritize effectively.
Every language learner faces dozens of decisions each day – what should I learn? When to do it? Should it be reading? If yes, what should I read? And so on.
The constant flood of problems you face every day, helps you to become an efficient learner who knows what is important and what is not.
22. You will make new friends for life
Photo by Sanja Gjenero
Arguably, this is one of the most phenomenal benefits of language learning. Your language skills tear down all communication barriers in the world. In the era of the internet, you can find friends in every corner of the world. Africa, Asia, New Zealand are just a few clicks away.
23. Your memory retrieval will improve
Research at the intersection of cognitive science and education has shown that retrieval improves learning in significant ways. Each act of retrieval changes your knowledge, improving the ability to retrieve knowledge again in the future.
References: Nunes, L. D., & Karpicke, J. D. (in press). “Retrieval-based learning: Research at the interface between cognitive science and education”.
24. You will become a better decision-maker
According to a new study, multilingual speakers are more resistant to conditioning and framing techniques, making them less likely to be swayed by such language in advertisements or political campaign speeches.
It seems that foreign-language speakers are more sensitive and observant when it comes to the words they hear and read.
According to new research, the ability to learn a second language may depend less on linguistic skills and more on the ability to recognize patterns.
In the said study, Frost and colleagues measured how well American students in an overseas program picked up on the structure of words and sounds in Hebrew. The students were tested once in the first semester and again in the second semester.
The results showed a high positive correlation between recognizing patterns in the shapes and learning another language.
“These new results suggest that learning a second language is determined to a large extent by an individual ability that is not at all linguistic,” says Ram Frost of Hebrew University in Jerusalem who conducted the study.
“It’s surprising that a short 15-minute test involving the perception of visual shapes could predict to such a large extent which of the students who came to study Hebrew would finish the year with a better grasp of the language,” says Frost.
The findings could have broader implications beyond language learning.
“This finding points to the possibility that a unified and universal principle of statistical learning can quantitatively explain a wide range of cognitive processes across domains, whether they are linguistic or non-linguistic,” concluded the researchers.
Researchers from Spain and Germany found that the process of learning a language and acquiring a wider vocabulary has the effect of stimulating the same part of the brain as having sex or eating chocolate.
Language learning triggers a part of the brain known as the ventral striatum, a pleasure center that is activated when people are involved in activities such as sex, drugs, gambling or eating sugary foods.
References: Pablo Ripollés, Josep Marco-Pallarés, Ulrike Hielscher, Anna Mestres-Missé, Claus Tempelmann, Hans-Jochen Heinze, Antoni Rodríguez-Fornells, Toemme Noesselt. “The Role of Reward in Word Learning and Its Implications for Language Acquisition”.
27. You will increase your general vocabulary
The results of the recent study showed that bilingualism is highly correlated with the breadth of vocabulary knowledge and reading skill.
In other words, bilingual participants have a larger size of vocabulary knowledge and they enjoy better word reading skills.
References: Zohreh Kassaian, Saeedeh Esmae’li (2011). “The Effect of Bilingualism on L3 Breadth of Vocabulary Knowledge and Word Reading Skill”.
28. You’ll enjoy other cultures much better
Photo by Steven L. Shepard, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs.
That’s right. By learning a new language you will be able to gain insights into a different culture, access and enjoy the different entertainment, arts, and customs that have developed in different regions over the centuries.
You won’t have to be forced anymore to listen to movies with mediocre dubbing. No more awkward mumbling while singing songs of your favorite Japanese band!
29. You will be a more aware spender
I must admit that I didn’t expect that language learning can have such a side-effect. But hey! Would science lie?
Anyway, speakers of multiple languages have also been shown to be more self-aware spenders, perceiving “hypothetical” and “real” money (the perceived difference between money on a credit card and money in cold, hard cash) more similarly than monolinguals.
One of the implications of the study, according to its authors is that “people who routinely make decisions in a foreign language rather than their native tongue might be less biased in their savings, investment, and retirement decisions, as a result of reduced myopic loss aversion.”
References: Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa and Sun Gyu An (2012). “The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases”.
30. You will increase information exchange and flow of ideas
If you think English is enough to get all the information from your area of expertise, think again.
Knowledge of languages improves international information exchange thus contributing to various improvements and developments at a national, regional and local level.
Speaking other foreign languages enables you to tap into the vast ocean of information which was not previously available and to pass it on to others.
31. You will increase your global (political) awareness & understanding
While studying another language, you not only learn how to communicate in that language, you also get to know a lot about the country, the culture, and the people. As you progress, you begin to better understand and sympathize with the people who speak the language.
Discovering their history, you experience their pain, share their victories. You begin to see the world through their eyes. And then the magic happens – you create a connection between your own culture and language to theirs and you develop a deeper understanding of your own language and culture.
That often makes you more aware and appreciative of the unique qualities within your own language, people, and culture.
32. You will learn other languages faster
I know. Learning your first foreign language is always hard. You have no plan. You have no idea what you’re doing and where you’re going.
However, mastering one language teaches you the mechanics and structure behind any language (ok, maybe except Basque). That makes learning another language much easier!
33. It will be easier to find a spouse
Loneliness sucks. But thanks to your awesome language skills you might be able to drastically increase your options pool.
You will gain instant access to millions of new people who might be your potential partner. Even ordinary holidays might turn into a love story!
34. You will learn consistency and persistence
Achieving conversational skills in a language takes anywhere from 4-12 months. If you aim at native-like fluency it might take much longer.
The language learning journey is fraught with obstacles. Overcoming these adversities is what boosts your confidence and builds character. Every victory, no matter how small, makes you better equipped to handle future challenges and build consistency and persistence.
35. You will improve the chances of college acceptance, achievement, and attainment
Photo by Sigurd Decroos
The study conducted in 2011 found that students who were in rigorous programs in high school—that included three years of foreign language study—were more likely to get better grades in college and less likely to drop out. (Horn &Kojaku 2001)
Another study showed that high school seniors with two or more years of foreign language study showed significantly improved performance on achievement tests in English when compared with non-foreign language students. (Bastian 1980)
36. You will improve basic skills development
A study of 13,200 third and fifth graders in Louisiana public schools showed that, regardless of race, gender or academic level, children taking foreign language classes did better on the English section of the Louisiana Basic Skills Test than those who did not. (Dumas 1999)
37. It will benefit academic progress
In Other Subjects According to the 2007 report by the National Council of State Supervisors For Language:
Strong evidence shows that time spent on foreign language study strongly reinforces the core subject areas of reading, English language literacy, social studies, and math.
Foreign language learners consistently outperform control groups in core subject areas on standardized tests, often significantly. (Armstrong & Rogers 1997; Saunders 1998; Masciantonio 1977; Rafferty 1986; Andrade 1989; Kretschmer & Kretschmer 1989)
One study found students scored significantly higher in math and language arts after one semester of foreign language study 90 minutes per week. (Armstrong 1997)
Students who started kindergarten in the first Kansas City foreign language magnet schools in 1988 had surpassed national averages in all subjects by the time they reached fifth grade. These foreign language students performed especially well in mathematics. (Eaton 1994)
Foreign language students within an urban magnet program scored well above anticipated national norms in both reading and mathematics and higher than the average of all magnet two school participants, even though they represent a broad cross-section of the local community. (Andrade 1989)
Mastering the vocabulary of a second language enhances student comprehension and abilities in reading, writing, mathematics, and other subjects. (Saville-Troike 1984)
Bilingualism fosters the development of verbal and spatial abilities. (Diaz 1983)
Students learning a second language in elementary school surpassed those who were not in English reading and language arts tests. (Mavrogenes 1979).
38. You will outperform others on IQ tests
Bilinguals outperform similar monolingual persons on both verbal and nonverbal tests of intelligence, which raises the question of whether ability in more than one language enables individuals to achieve greater intellectual flexibility (Bruck, Lambert, and Tucker, 1974; Hakuta, 1986; Weatherford, 1986).
39. You will improve your communication skills and adaptability
Constant struggles with expressing your thoughts in the early stages of language learning force you to change your approach to expressing yourself. You adapt and simplify your thoughts to facilitate communication. The unusual side-effect of this process is that you become a more effective communicator!
40. You will learn how to manage time effectively
Most of us have a job, study, family and other stuff to take care of. That’s why learning a language requires some serious time management skills. Students of foreign languages become experts at using time productively. After all, how many other people listen to language podcasts on their way to work or at the gym?
41. Second language study benefits understanding and security in the community and society
Research suggests that attitudes about other groups and peoples are formed by the age of ten and are often shaped between the ages of four and eight. Learning a language at a young age helps connect a child with another culture while they are still open-minded and have not yet begun to restrict their views of others whom they perceive to be different. (Curtain & Pesola1988)
Many people dream of having their own business. The main problem they usually encounter is deciding on what they should do. There are thousands of companies of different kinds. How can you make sure that yours is special?
The answer is easy – copy, or to be more precise – copy ideas from other countries. It doesn’t matter whether you want to open a restaurant or start a tech business. Start googling in the language of your choice and soon enough you will find lots of ideas you can copy!
43. You will be sexier
A report commissioned by Michael Thomas, the Hollywood language teacher who has taught celebrities such as Doris Day, Emma Thompson and Woody Allen, highlights some exciting benefits of language learning. According to a report commissioned by Michael Thomas, Britons who learn a foreign language tend to be happier, richer and are considered as sexier than those who can only speak English.
Although the report is about Brits, I would say that it’s a safe bet that language speakers are universally more attractive!
44. You will be more intelligent
The American Academy of Neurology has conducted research which shows that speaking more than one language increases the number of neural pathways in the brain, allowing information to be processed through a greater variety of channels. They’ve also begun to demonstrate that multilingualism improves development in the brain’s areas of executive function and attention, regardless of learner’s age.
45. You will find it easier to learn
Embracing foreign language learning increases your global awareness and understanding. This way, not only do you learn how to communicate in that language but also get to know a great deal more about the country, the culture, and the people. This knowledge is invaluable!“Connecting and joining together with people we have never met and are not related to goes to the very soul and core of our being as humans.” Source: http://www.qlanguage.com.hk/language-learning-increases-global-awareness-understanding/
Learning a new language inspires and encourages you to explore a culture that you have previously only had a slight knowledge of or, worst still, no knowledge of whatsoever. As you progress, you begin to better understand and empathize with the people who speak the language, you learn about their struggles, their history, and even their idiosyncrasies. Simply put, you get a much closer and fascinating insight into what makes them tick!
Moreover, as your empathy and knowledge of their culture grow, something magical begins to happen: you form a connection between your own culture and language to theirs, and you begin to gain a deeper and more profound understanding of your own language and culture. Very often, you become more aware and appreciative of the unique qualities within your own language, people and culture.
“In an age of global interdependence and increasingly multicultural and multiethnic society, early foreign language study gives children unique insight into other cultures and builds their cultural competency skills in a way that no other discipline can do. “The age of ten is a crucial time in the development of attitudes toward nations and groups perceived as ‘other’ according to the research of Piaget, Lambert and others. At age 10, children are in the process of moving from egocentricity to reciprocity and information received before age ten is eagerly received.” (Curtain & Dahlberg 2004)”
“Exposure to a foreign language serves as a means of helping children to intercultural competence. The awareness of a global community can be enhanced when children have the opportunity to experience involvement with another culture through a foreign language.” (Curtain & Dahlberg 2004)
“The positive impact of cultural information is significantly enhanced when that information is experienced through the foreign language and accompanied by experiences in culturally authentic situations.” (Curtain & Dahlberg 2004)
Experiences in learning a second language and learning another culture will facilitate teachers’ interactions with their students’ learning experience. Competent teachers understand that positive self-concept and positive identification with one’s culture is the basis for academic success. (Lemberger 1990)
Foreign language learners are more tolerant of the differences among people. (Carpenter & Torney 1974)
49. You will learn how to learn complex skills
Many people disregard this fact but learning a language is one of the most challenging skills out there. To acquire native-like abilities in understanding, speaking, reading and writing a language, as well as a knowledge of the culture of those who speak it, could take anything from five years to a lifetime.
know how to define your problems and offer a viable solution
As you see, there are many skills you have to learn to master a language. But there is a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.
Once you learn how to master a language, it becomes easier to tackle other skills.
50. Language learning gives you a better understanding of the arts
Another benefit of learning a foreign language is being able to understand and appreciate the arts of another country at a more profound level. As you learn the language and history of Greece, for example, you begin to understand Spanish music, films, and literature.
Let’s take the literature as an example. Very often, the true meaning of words is lost during the translation. Some things simply cannot be translated. Your native language doesn’t have the same words or phrases as every other language. Learning a language will allow you to truly explore the texts you’re reading.
51. It narrows achievement gaps
There is a large body of research proving that learning languages can narrow achievement gaps (source: NEA Research, December 2007)
Children of color, children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and English Language Learners make the most significant proportionate achievement gains from foreign language study.
Early foreign language study is less dependent on previous verbal learning than most other elements of the elementary school curriculum, and this allows some students to succeed who have otherwise experienced repeated failure in school. (Curtain & Dahlberg 2004)
A study of 13,200 third and fifth graders in Louisiana public schools revealed that, regardless of race, gender or academic level, children taking foreign language classes did better on the English section of the Louisiana Basic Skills Test than those who did not. (Dumas 1999)
Foreign language study can help to alter the trajectory for children of average intelligence and narrow the achievement gap. (Garfinkel & Tabor 1991)
Cincinnati’s Foreign Language Magnet Program has a student population that is 57% African American and 43% Caucasian, with 52% of the total receiving free and reduced lunch. Achievement for these children far exceeds national norms in both reading and math and participants in the foreign language magnet program on average score higher than the average of all Cincinnati’s many magnet programs. (Andrade, Kretschmer & Kretschmer 1989)
In a four year study by McGill University, working-class students did just as well in a foreign language as middle-class students even though their English skills were not as good. (Holobow 1988)
52. It makes your traveling more exciting
“The limits of your language are the limits of your world” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Knowing only one language (i.e. English) is very helpful – no one can deny it. But it can get you only as far as the most popular tourist attractions and resorts. On the other hand, knowing more than one language opens up your vacation destination possibilities. Speaking the language of a given country allows you to travel freely and get off the beaten path. And no, you don’t have to be fluent.
Most locals appreciate and reward your willingness to communicate in their native tongue. I’m not a much of the traveler myself, but whenever I spoke the language of the country which I was visiting, the reaction was nothing short of heart-warming! I was encouraged and praised for my language skills, even though I made dozens of mistakes.
53. You won’t be left behind
Many would argue that bilingualism is becoming a progressively necessary and essential skill for anyone who wants to keep up with today’s rapidly increasing global economy. As more and more people recognize the importance of learning an additional language, those who only speak one language will begin to get left behind in our shift towards a more integrated and connected global society.
54. Language learning benefits higher-order and abstract thinking
Speaking a different language means that you are constantly confronted with new ways of thinking about the thing you thought you knew.
Mixed metaphors and phrases change the way you think, and benefit abstract and creative thinking since you acquire multi-faceted view on the world.
As your brain works to process a new language, memory, reasoning, and analytical thinking are heightened.
55. You will get access to information of higher quality
Your information is only as useful as your sources of information. Looking for it in only one language isolates you from thousands of other sources, research results, etc. Very often, they are the ones who offer an interesting angle on the matters of your interest because of cultural differences.
56. You will improve your general communication skills
The above is true in many ways. The apparent benefit of language learning is that a new language gives you the ability to communicate with different people on more meaningful levels.
The less obvious is that by practicing it, you also hone your communication skills generally. You acquire new perspectives and skills that help you express yourself better and understand others more completely.
Finally, learning a new language makes you think differently about your own, providing clarity, complexity, and a deep understanding of others.
75 % of the world doesn’t speak English at all. Do you know what it means for your business? It means that you’re limiting your pool of potential customers. Sure, it might not be the case if you have a small grocery shop. But for others conversing in the client’s language helps to understand his needs.
58. You will become better at playing instruments
Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash
Several of the studies reviewed in a 2011 paper by Finnish music and education researcher Riia Milovanov and her colleagues, showed that mastery of more than one language as well as mastery of music involves higher levels of executive control.
These are the mechanisms responsible for the overall management of cognitive resources and processes – including attention shifts, working memory, reasoning, and switching between tasks.
Learning and practicing something, for instance, a second language, strengthens the brain,” said Ping Li, professor of psychology, linguistics and information sciences and technology. “Like physical exercise, the more you use specific areas of your brain, the more it grows and gets stronger.”
Li and colleagues studied 39 native English speakers’ brains over a six-week period as half of the participants learned Chinese vocabulary. Of the subjects learning the new vocabulary, those who were more successful in attaining the information showed a more connected brain network than both the less successful participants and those who did not learn the new vocabulary.
The researchers also found that the participants who were successful learners had a more connected network than the other participants even before learning took place. A better-integrated brain network is more flexible and efficient, making the task of learning a new language easier. Li and colleagues report their results in a recent article published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics.
The researchers defined the efficiency of brain networks in terms of the strength and direction of connections, or edges, between brain regions of interest, or nodes. The stronger the edges going from one node to the next, the faster the nodes can work together, and the more efficient the network.
Participants each underwent two fMRI scans — one before the experiment began and one after — in order for the researchers to track neural changes. At the end of the study period, the researchers found that the brains of the successful learners had undergone functional changes — the brain network was better integrated.
Such changes, Li and colleagues suggested while reviewing several related studies, are consistent with anatomical changes that can occur in the brain as a result of learning a second language, no matter the age of the learner, as they reported in a recent issue of Cortex.
“A very interesting finding is that, contrary to previous studies, the brain is much more plastic than we thought,” said Li, also co-chair of the interdisciplinary graduate degree program in neuroscience. “We can still see anatomical changes in the brain [in the elderly], which is very encouraging news for aging. And learning a new language can help lead to more graceful aging.”
Meanwhile, Li and colleagues have begun working on interactive ways to teach language using virtual 3-D-like environments with situation-based learning to help the brain make some of those new connections more effectively. Such studies hold the promise that the process of learning a second language as an adult can, in fact, lead to both behavioral and physical changes that may approximate the patterns of learning a language as a child.
Another study from 2017 hinted that foreign-language speakers turned out to be less averse to violating the taboos that can interfere with making utility-maximizing choices. As a consequence, they can make better decisions.
Learning a language is always a challenge. It takes sweat and tears.
But amazing things happen once you achieve at least communicative fluency.
At that point, you can relax and use your language skills to acquire new knowledge effortlessly.
For example, I spend at least 2-3 hours per day learning medicine in English, German, and Spanish.
This way, I can improve my language and general knowledge at the same time.
62. You will have a wider perspective and more options
Another great news for language learners is having more opportunities to find a job and develop professionally.
A wider perspective and more options is based on in-depth interviews with humanities graduates from the 1970s onwards and captures something of the diversity of career paths followed by graduates in so-called ‘non-vocational’ disciplines.
References: 2006 report by the Higher Education Academies
The research from 2014 shows that simple mistakes in spelling or comprehension that our brains tend to make when taking linguistic shortcuts (such as how you can easily read “tihs senetcne taht is trerilby msispleld”), are easier to avoid for multilinguals.
Reference: Albert Costaa, Alice Foucart, Inbal Arnon, Melina Aparici, Jose Apesteguia; “Piensa” twice: On the foreign language effect in decision making (2014)
64. You will see and experience more
Another benefit of language learning is having a chance to experience the world in a much richer way.
“Thierry et al. studied how having different words for different colors in one language might affect the perception of that color as compared to a language that does not discriminate between those colors. In Greek, “light blue” is distinguished from “blue”, not simply as a different shade but as a whole different category of color. In this study, bilingual and monolingual Greek/English participants were shown different shades of blue and light blue as well as green and light green (for which a distinction is not made in Greek) and ERPs were recorded. Electrophysiological measures showed a distinct pattern for the bilinguals indicating that they were perceiving the two colors as completely separate.”
This phenomenon is also evident in Japanese. The language has basic terms for light and dark blue, which may help you perceive the color in different ways (Athanasopoulos et al., 2010).
65. It will change the way you think financially
Language has also been shown to change the way people think financially. A study covered by Jessica Gross on the famous TED.com found that “Futureless language speakers are 30 percent more likely to report having saved in any given year than future language speakers” (Chen) because their language was tailored to the present.
Knowing more languages can help you in the long run economically, as you will have more ways of thinking about the same things. So, in the long run, learning, a second language is an investment in your future.
66. It will encourage you to engage in a critical dialogue with yourself
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lonely cowboy roaming the language wasteland or you learn in a group. Language learning encourages the development of self-management skills.
An essential part of these skills is engaging in a critical dialogue with yourself by continually questioning whatever you’re currently doing. Not a day goes by without asking yourself the following questions.
Am I using this word correctly?
Should I use this or that grammatical construction?
Does X sound natural?
Reference: Honeybone, A., Brossier, V. (2000) ‘The University of Hertfordshire environmental French program’ in King, A. (ed) Languages and the Transfer of Skills (London: CILT), pp. 102-109
67. It will teach you patience and increase your determination
Have you ever heard of delayed gratification? If yes – congratulations, if not, please allow me to quote the omnipotent Wiki:
“Delayed gratification, or deferred gratification, is the ability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward and wait for a later reward. Generally, delayed gratification is associated with resisting a smaller but more immediate reward in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later. A growing body of literature has linked the ability to delay gratification to a host of other positive outcomes, including academic success, physical health, psychological health, and social competence.” Source: Wikipedia
So what does it have to do with languages, huh? Language learning is the pinnacle of delayed gratification. Maybe with the exception of the beginning of this process.
So what does it have to do with languages, huh? Language learning is the pinnacle of delayed gratification. Maybe except the beginning of this process.
You see, initially, the language gains are massive. You seem unstoppable and find great joy in learning. However, after some time, most learners hit the language learning plateau.
Gains are not that significant anymore. You can learn for many weeks and still have doubts about whether you make any progress. This trial by fire teaches you patience, humility, and determination. This is the skill which many learners transplant into other areas of their life like improving their health, learning how to play an instrument,m, etc.
Many language courses involve working in groups and making formal presentations in front of an audience. It’s just the sort of teamwork and presentational skills which employers tell us they are looking for.
By carrying out such tasks, language learners ae in reasoning clearly and in presenting focused arguments.
The mention of such courses in your CV might be a welcome addition for many employers.re trained to think structurally.
Reference: King, A., Thomas, G. (1999) The Guide to Languages and Careers (London: CILT)
69. You will improve your ability to formulate problems
I have already mentioned that one of the benefits of language learning is being able to tackle complex issues. A side effect of this skill is being able to formulate problems clearly. After all, you can’t solve anything if you don’t know what stands in your way.
Ordinary people are often perplexed why serious language learners devote so much time to their passion, “What’s in it for them”? “Why do they have to be so weird?!”.
The truth is that most language learners start small. They want to learn one language for the sake of work/relationship, etc. However, once they get the taste of success, they want more. So they learn another language and then yet another one! The party never ends. Let’s be honest. For most of us, the first language is just the beginning.
Have you noticed a trend that has been going on for quite many years now? Almost every app out there seems to be using pictures. It's been touted as a magical cure for your inability to learn.
But is it really the case or maybe it's another thinly veiled attempt to talk you into buying a premium version of some crappy app?
Unfortunately, it seems to be the latter. Yes, learning with pictures has its benefits, but they are relatively tiny compared to the effort and other potential strategies you might use.
Let's investigate step by step why it's so!
Potential benefits of learning with pictures
One picture is worth 1000 words, as the saying goes, and I am pretty sure that every child who ever wandered into their parent's bedroom in the middle of the night can attest to this. But what's important to you, as a learner, is how many benefits can learning with pictures offer you. After all, you wouldn't want to waste too much time adding them to your flashcards if they are useless.
The Picture Superiority Effect (i.e. you remember pictures better)
If we want to discuss advantages of using pictures, we much touch upon the picture superiority effect. This is a go-to argument of many proponents of this approach to learning.
The picture superiority effect refers to the phenomenon in which pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words.
It's not anything debatable- the effect has been reproduced in a variety of experiments using different methodologies. However, the thing that many experts seem to miss is the following excerpt:
pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words.
It just means we are great at recognizing pictures and images. It has its advantages but it's not should be confused with being able to effortlessly memorize vocabulary.
Let's quickly go through some studies to show you how amazingly well we can recognize pictures.
Power of recognition memory (i.e. you're good at recognizing pictures)
In one of the most widely-cited studies on recognition memory. Standing showed participants an epic 10,000 photographs over the course of 5 days, with 5 seconds’ exposure per image. He then tested their familiarity, essentially as described above.
The participants showed an 83% success rate, suggesting that they had become familiar with about 6,600 images during their ordeal. Other volunteers, trained on a smaller collection of 1,000 images selected for vividness, had a 94% success rate.
But even greater feats have been reported in earlier times. Peter of Ravenna and Francesco Panigarola, Italian memory teachers from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, respectively, were each said to have retained over 100,000 images for use in recalling enormous amounts of information. - Robert Madigan - How Memory Works and How To Make it Work For You
Now that we have established that we're pretty good at recognizing images, let's try to see if pairing words with pictures offers more benefits.
Boosting your recall
Another amazing benefit of using pictures as a part of your learning strategy is improving your recall. This process occurs in the following way:
During memory recall, neurons in the hippocampus began to fire strongly. This was also the case during a control condition in which participants only had to remember scene images without the objects. Importantly, however, hippocampal ativity lasted much longer when participants also had to remember the associated object (the raspberry or scorpion image). Additionally, neurons in the entorhinal cortex began to fire in parallel to the hippocampus.
It's worth pointing out that even the evidence for improved recall is limited and usually concerns abstract words and idiomatic expressions.
Farley et al. (2012) examined if the meaning recall of words improved in the presence of imagery, and found that only the meaning recall of abstract words improved, while that of concrete nouns did not. A possible interpretation of this finding is that, in the case of concrete nouns, most learners can naturally produce visual images in their mind and use them to remember the words.
Therefore, the Vocabulary Learning and Instruction, 6 (1), 21–31. 26 Ishii:
The Impact of Semantic Clustering additional visual images in the learning material do not affect the learning outcome, since they are already present in their mind. However, in the case of abstract nouns, since it is often difficult for learners to create images independently, the presentation of imagery helps them retain the meaning of the words they are trying to learn.
Jennifer Aniston neurons
It seems that this improved recall is caused by creating immediate associations between words and pictures when they are presented together.
The scientists showed patients images of a person in a context e.g. Jennifer Aniston at the Eiffel Tower, Clint Eastwood in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Halle Berry at the Sidney Opera House or Tiger Woods at the White House. They found that the neuron that formerly fired for a single image e.g. Jennifer Aniston or Halle Berry, now also fired for the associated image too i.e. the Eiffel Tower or Sidney Opera House.
"The remarkable result was that the neurons changed their firing properties at the exact moment the subjects formed the new memories – the neuron initially firing to Jennifer Aniston started firing to the Eiffel Tower at the time the subject started remembering this association,” said Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, head of the Centre for Systems Neuroscience at the University of Leicester." - Researchers Make a “Spectacular Discovery” About Memory Formation and Learning
To sum it up, we know that:
we're great at remembering pictures
we're great at recognizing pictures
we're great at recalling pictures
Let me make it clear - these benefits are undeniable, and they have their use in the learning process. However, the real question is - how effective are pictures at helping you memorize and recall vocabulary!
How effective are pictures at helping you memorize and recall vocabulary
Before I move on to the science, let's start with my personal experiments. Contrary to a lot of "language experts" online, I rarely believe anything I read unless I see lots of quality scientific support for some specific claims. And believe me, it's not easy. Most of scientific studies are flawed on so many different levels that they shouldn't be written at all.
Once I have gathered enough evidence, I start running long-term statistical experiments in order to see what benefits a given approach brings to the table.
What's the answer in that case? Not that much. Most of the time you will be able to just remember a picture very well. Possibly, if the picture represents accurately a meaning of a given word, you might find it easier to recall the said meaning. Based on my experiments I can say that the overall benefit of using pictures in learning is not big and amounts to less than 5-10%.
Effect of pairing words and pictures on memory
Boers, Lindstromberg, Littlemore, Stengers, and Eyckmans (2008) and Boers, Piquer Píriz, Stengers, and Eyckmans (2009) investigated the effect of pictorial elucidation when learning new idiomatic expressions.
The studies revealed that learners retain the meanings of newly learned idiomatic items better when they are presented with visual images. Though there was no impact for the word forms, such presentations at least improved the learning of word meanings.
In other words, using pictures can improve your understanding of what a word, or an idiom, means.
One of the problems I have with most memory-related studies is that scientists blatantly ignore the fact that familiarity with words might heavily skew the final results. For that reason, I really love the following paper from 2017.
Participants (36 English-speaking adults) learned 27 pseudowords, which were paired with 27 unfamiliar pictures. They were given cued recall practice for 9 of the words, reproduction practice for another set of 9 words, and the remaining 9 words were restudied. Participants were tested on their recognition (3-alternative forced choice) and recall (saying the pseudoword in response to a picture) of these items immediately after training, and a week after training. Our hypotheses were that reproduction and restudy practice would lead to better learning immediately after training, but that cued recall practice would lead to better retention in the long term.
In all three conditions, recognition performance was extremely high immediately after training, and a week following training, indicating that participants had acquired associations between the novel pictures and novel words. In addition, recognition and cued recall performance was better immediately after training relative to a week later, confirming that participants forgot some words over time. However, results in the cued recall task did not support our hypotheses. Immediately after training, participants showed an advantage for cued Recall over the Restudy condition, but not over the Reproduce condition. Furthermore, there was no boost for the cued Recall condition over time relative to the other two conditions. Results from a Bayesian analysis also supported this null finding. Nonetheless, we found a clear effect of word length, with shorter words being better learned than longer words, indicating that our method was sufficiently sensitive to detect an impact of condition on learning. - The effect of recall, reproduction, and restudy on word learning: a pre-registered study
As you can see, conclusions are not that optimistic and almost fully coincide with my own experiments. That's why I would suggest you don't add pictures to every flashcard. It's too time-consuming compared to benefits. However, if you really enjoy learning this way, I will suggest to you in a second a better way to utilize pictures.
Test it for yourself!
I know that the above could be a bit of a buzz-kill for any die-hard fan of all those flashy flashcard apps and what not. But the thing is, you should never just trust someone's opinion without verifying it.
Run your own experiment. See how well you retain those pictures and if it really makes a difference result-wise compared to the invested time. Our time on this pancake earth is limited. No need to waste any of it using ineffective learning methods.
It doesn't take much time and it will be worth more than anyone's opinion. If you decide to go for it, make sure to run it for at least 2-3 months to truly verify of pictures offer a long-term memory boost.
How to use picture more effectively in your learning
Since my initial results with this method weren’t very satisfying I decided to step it up and tried to check how different kind of pictures affect my recall. What’s more, I also verified how using the same picture in many flashcards affects my learning.
What kind of pictures did I use?
I concentrated on pictures which are emotionally salient. I tried everything starting from gore pictures to porn pictures. The results, especially with the latter, weren’t very good. I was sitting there like a horny idiot and couldn’t concentrate even one bit on any of the words. It’s like having a sexy teacher in high school. You can’t wait till you get to your classes but once you do, you don’t hear any words.
Funny enough, I remember most of the pictures, but now words, from this experiment to this day which only further proves to me that your typical approach won’t work here.
So what kind of pictures did work?
Pictures from my personal collection. I found out that if I use one picture in a lot of flashcards where every flashcard concentrates on one word, I am able to recall words extremely easily. In addition, my retention rate has also been improved, although not as significantly as my ability to retrieve words.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
If you want to use pictures in your language studies, don’t waste time trying to find a new picture for every word. Choose one picture and use it multiple times in different flashcards. Each time try to memorize a different word.
What's more, if it's only possible, try to stick to pics from your personal collection - a weekend at your grandma's, uncle Jim getting sloshed at your wedding. You know, good stuff!
Pictures are a definitely a nice addition to your learning toolkit. However, in order to be able to use them effectively you need to understand that they won't help you much with memorizing words. The best thing they can offer is a slight boost in remembering words and significantly improved recall for pictures. That's why don't waste your time trying to paste a picture into every flashcard. Benefits will be minuscule compared to your effort.
If you really want to get the biggest bang for your buck learning-wise, try to use one picture to memorize many words. That's a great way of mimicking the way we originally started acquiring vocabulary. And it's not very time-consuming.
Once you try this method, let me know how it worked for you!
What are your thoughts on using pictures in flashcards? 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 over 9 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
I love words. They are like tiny, beautiful puzzle pieces. Choose the right ones, and you can assemble beautiful and meaningful sentences. Sentences that convey your thoughts with surgical precision. Choose the wrong ones, and you will get a stinky bag of confusion.
But there is a lot of confusion around how large your vocabulary should be for each level. I have heard dozens of different versions. That’s why I decided to come up with an easy rule on how to remember how many words you should know at every language level.
The Rule of 2 – How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level
Now back to the rule! It is as simple it gets — the number of words needed to advance to every level doubles.
How Many Words You Should Know (for Every Language Level)
Number of Base Words Needed
Add or deduct up to 20% of the given values. This way, you will get the approximate range for each language level.
Why up to 20%? Because words you choose to learn matter that much! If you were to concentrate on words from the frequency list, you would definitely have to deduct 20% on higher levels (B1-C2). However, if you, for some reason, started learning names of trees or birds, you would have to add 20% to the said levels.
What Is a Word?
It needs some clarification since this term has changed its meaning in Linguistics in the last few decades. In the past, “a base word” was the base word itself and all its inflected forms. For example, “tough,” “toughen,” and “toughness” used to be treated as 3 words.
Nowadays, “a base word” indicates “the word family” and consists of the base word and its inflected forms and derivations.
According to a renowned linguistic researcher Paul Nation, if you use the 1.6 factor to base words, you should get (more or less) the number of “separate” words (i.e., inflected words).
“Why Do I Need to Know How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level?”
A fair question, I guess. It’s not a fun fact which you can rub in somebody’s face. There are two good reasons:
Vocabulary size is a good indicator of your current level
The number of words you know is one of the most reliable indicators of your language level. If you track the size of your vocabulary, you should be able to tell (more or less) what level you’re on. Assuming, of course, that you learn the right words. Memorizing the names of plants won’t get you far!
Vocabulary size can be your milestone
Not knowing where you are heading can be frightening. It’s like straying in the fog. You don’t know what lies around the corner. Knowing your goal can give you a sense of direction. Even if you fall, it will be on a pile of cushions, not the sharp rocks.
How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level – Milestones
There are 4 most important vocabulary milestones in language learning. They are a great way to establish what your current language level is and how big a distance you have to cover to get to the next one.
Just in case you wonder – the following rules stand roughly true for most of the languages. Be it Asian or European. But since languages tend to differ from each other quite a bit, please take it with a grain of salt and use these calculations only as a landmark.
1000 words allow you to understand about 80% of the language which surrounds you, as long as it is not too specialized (Hwang, 1989; Hirsh and Nation, 1992; Sutarsyah, Nation and Kennedy, 1994)
In theory, it sounds great. JUST 1000 words, and you understand that much! Unfortunately, the remaining 20% is what really matters. Just look at this sentence:
“I went to the … to buy …. but they told me that they couldn’t… .’ Sure, you understand a lot of words. But does it help?
3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996).
BUT…general comprehension is not the same as full comprehension, as it involves some guessing.
Still, there is no shortage of enthusiasts who claim that such level is high enough to start picking up new words from context. However, researchers tend to disagree and say that the “magical” number of words which allows learning from the context is….(drum roll)
5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). Such a vocabulary size also warrants accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).
It means that you can function surrounded by this language without bigger problems. Sure, you will struggle if you want to formulate your thoughts precisely, or when you encounter specialized vocabulary.
But other than that, you will be fine.
10000 words allow you to understand about 99% of most texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). It is the pinnacle of language learning — a counterpart to having the vocabulary of a college graduate.
With that many words, you can express yourself with fantastic precision and pass for a native speaker if your accent is good enough. It is the minimum goal for every language I learn. It makes me feel like a citizen of a given country.
If you want to download frequency lists for your target language, visit this website.
How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level – Summary
Knowing how many words you need to know to get to the C1 level gives you some perspective on how much effort it takes to achieve this monstrous goal.
I’m writing this because many of us get depressed after seeing dozens of videos on YT of people speaking or claiming to speak 10 or 20 languages.
But the truth is that there is a yawning gap between being good and being great at a language (or anything else for that matter).
Any person who has truly mastered a language (i.e., achieved C1/ C2 level) could have learnt 2-4 languages to B2 level or 4-8 languages to A2 level in that time
Remember it the next time gloomy thoughts start creeping up on you, my friend.
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 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.
Choosing the right learning methodshas always been one of the most daunting tasks for most language learners. No wonder. Around every corner, you can find yet another popular learning strategy.
But how do you know it’s effective? Is it actually based on any real science?
Most people can offer you just their opinions. I am here to show you step-by-step what are the biggest flaws of various language learning methods. In other words, I am going to scrutinize them and show you what their authors don’t know or don’t want to reveal.
The first position on the menu today is the Goldlist method.
Before I start, it’s worth mentioning that this article is not meant to offend the author of the Goldlist method nor disparage anyone who is using it but to show one simple fact – it’s extremely easy to come up with a method but it doesn’t mean it’s effective memory-wise.
The Goldlist Method – What Is It All About?
Unless you are into experimenting with various learning methods, you may not have heard of the Goldlist Method. For that reason, I will try to outline what’s all about so we are on the same page.
First of all, here is a great video that sums up what this method is all about.
If you are old-fashioned, here is a description of how it works.
Get a large (A4 size) notebook. This is going to be your “bronze” book.
Prepare the materials (i.e. words) you’re interested in. The items you choose will go into your “head list”.
Open your book and write the first twenty-five words or phrases down, one below the other, on the left-hand side of the individual page. Include any integral information such as gender or plural forms of nouns or irregular aspects of a verb’s conjugation. The list shouldn’t take you more than twenty minutes to do.
When the list is ready, read through it out loud, mindfully but without straining to remember.
When you start the next piece of the head list, number it 26-50, then 51-75 and so on.
The first distillation – after at least two weeks open your notebook and cast your eye towards your first list of 1 to 25 (or, 26 to 50, or 9,975 to 10,000) depending on which double spread you’re at. The “two weeks plus” pause is important. It’s intended to allow any short-term memories of the information to fade completely so that you can be sure that things you think you’ve got into the long-term memory really are in there. Make sure, then, that you date each set of twenty-five head list items (something I haven’t done in my illustrative photos for this article).
David James says that there is no upper limit to the gap between reviews, though suggests a maximum of two months, simply to keep up momentum.
Discard eight items, and carry the remaining seventeen into a new list, This will be your first “distillation”.
Repeat the process for the second and third distillations (the third and fourth list on your double spread). The interval should be at least 2 weeks.
For the fourth distillation, you start a new book, your “silver” book.
The “gold” notebook works the same way, the hardcore items from the “silver” notebook’s seventh distillation are carried over to the “gold” for new head list of twenty-five lines (distillation number eight) and distillations nine (17 or so lines), ten (twelve or so) and eleven (nine or so).
How to Use the Goldlist Method – Summary
Grab a notebook and write there 25 words which interest you.
After at least 2 weeks check if you remember them and discard 30% of all the words. The rest of the words becomes a part of the second “distillation”
Keep on repeating the same process over and over again. The only thing that changes is that the older “distillations” get rewritten to other notebooks.
The Goldlist Method – Claims
Photo by Bookblock on Unsplash
The author of the Goldlist method maintains that:
The method allows you to retain up to thirty percent of the words in your long-term memory.
It is also claimed that the process circumvents your short-term memory – you are expected to make no conscious effort to remember words. Thanks to this the information will be retained in your long-term memory.
The Goldlist Method – A Scientific Critique
1. The Goldlist Method doesn’t circumvent short-term memory
One of the big claims of the Goldlist method is that it is able to circumvent your short-term memory. Somehow, thanks to it, you are able to place all the information straight in your long-term memory.
Is it possible? Not really. I have noticed that 99% of claims of this kind come from people who have never had much to do with the science of memory. That’s why let’s go briefly through what is required to “remember”.
According to the author of the Goldlist method, David James:
” [[ … ]] we are alternating in and out of these two systems the whole time, we switch ourselves into short-term mode by thinking about memorising and switch out of it by forgetting about memorising.”
Unfortunately, this is a bunch of hooey. This is what the actual science has to say about memorization.
The working memory consolidation
In order to memorize a piece of information, you have to store it in your short-term memory.
This process is initiated by allocating your attention to the stimuli you want to remember.
In other words, initiation of consolidation is under conscious control and requires the use of central attention. The mere fact of looking at a piece of paper and reading/writing words activates it.
Any stimuli that capture attention because of their intrinsic emotional salience appear to be consolidated into memory even when there is no task requirement to do so.
Next, the items you learn undergo working memory consolidation.
Working memory consolidation refers to the: transformation of transient sensory input into a stable memory representation that can be manipulated and recalled after a delay.
Contrary to what the creator of the Goldlist method believes, after this process is complete, be it 2 weeks or more, the short-term memories are not gone. They are simply not easily accessible.
Our brains make two copies of each memoryin the moment they are formed. One is filed away in the hippocampus, the center of short-term memories, while the other is stored in cortex, where our long-term memories reside.
You probably have experienced this phenomenon yourself many times. You learned something in the past. Then, after some years, you took it up again and were able to regain your ability relatively quickly. It was possible because your memories were still there. They just became “neuronally disconnected” and thus inaccessible.
The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve
There is one more proof that shows clearly that the method doesn’t circumvent short-term memory. The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve shows us how fast the incoherent information is forgotten.
What we mean by incoherent is that this is not the information which you can associate with your background knowledge.
This is very often the case when you learn a new language or when you’re at a lower intermediate level.
What’s more, the Ebbinghaus curve’s numbers are based on the assumption that the learned material :
means nothing to you
has no relevance to your life
has no emotional load and meaning for you
On the curve, you can see that if you memorize information now and try to recall after 14 days, you will be able to retrieve about 21-23% of the previously memorized knowledge. Mind you that this is the knowledge that is incoherent, bears no emotional load and means nothing to you.
What happens when you start manually writing down words which interest you or when you are able to establish some connection between them and your life? Well, this number can definitely go up.
Keep in mind that your recall rate will also be affected by:
frequency of occurrence
prior vocabulary knowledge
Advanced language learners can get away with more
Since most advanced language learners have a benefit of possessing broader linguistic background knowledge, they can get away with using subpar learning strategies. Their long-term memory modulates short-term memory and thus decreases the overall cognitive load.
Is there anything nothing magical about the Goldlist method and the number “30”?
Nope. It follows very preciselythe Ebbinghaus forgetting curve which takes into account your short-term memory. Sometimes this number will be higher, sometimes it will be lower depending on your choice of words.
You can check it yourself how low this number can get. Simply choose a language that is from a different linguistic family than the ones you already know. Track your progress and see how this number inevitably goes down.
The Goldlist Method is just a spaced repetition method with bigger intervals. That makes it less effective than most spaced repetition program right off the bat.
2. The Goldlist Method is impractical and time-consuming
Relatively high activation energy and time-consuming
One of the most important concepts in productivity is the activation energy.
The activation energy is the amount of energy needed to start conducting a given activity.
Even though the Goldlist Method has initially the low activation energy, it starts growing considerably with each and every distillation. Having to carry with you a couple of A4 notebooks seems also very impractical to me.
Limited usefulness vocabulary-wise
However, the biggest problem I have with this method in this department is that it suggests I only learn words I am interested in. There are hundreds of situations where one has to learn words that they are not interested in.
And they should work particularly well for the vocabulary you’re interested in.
3. The Goldlist Method is inflexible
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash
This is one of the methods which collapse under their own weight i.e. it’s inflexible. The Goldlist method suggests that you learn vocabulary in 25-word batches.
If I need to master a language quickly and I want to learn at least 40-50 words per day? After 10 days I will be forced to go through 20 distillations. After one month this number will start hitting insane heights. More and more of my attention will be required to keep up with all the reviews. This seems very off-putting.
Another important quality of effective learning methods is that they should automate the learning process. The method which necessitates more and more conscious decisions on your part the more you want to learn simply doesn’t fit the bill.
4. Lack of context
The enormous red flag for any language learning method is the exclusion of context from the learning process.
Simply repeating information in a mindless manner is called passive rehearsal. Many years ago it was actually proven that passive rehearsal has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).
This is just the first problem with the lack of context.
The other one is that almost all the knowledge you possess is activated contextually. If there is no context, it will be extremely difficult for you to retrieve a word when you need it.
In other words – you will remember the information but you will have a hard time using it in a conversation.
As a result, soon enough you will forget a word because there will be no network of other information holding it in your head.
5. The Goldlist Method is detached from reality
The problem with the Goldlist Method is encapsulated in a famous adage used by Marines:
‘Train as you fight, fight as you train’
I can’t stress enough how important these words are.
Always try to train for reality in a manner that mimics the unpredictability and conditions of real life. Anything else than that is simply a filler. A waste of time. It gives you this warm feeling inside, “I have done my job for today”, but it doesn’t deliver results.
Tell me, is rewriting words from one notebook to another actually close to using your target language?
6. Lack of retention intention
Another elementary mistake that we tend to make way too often when we fail to retain a word is actually not trying at all to memorize something.
You see, everything starts with a retention intention.
This fact is even reflected in the simplified model of acquiring information:
A retention intention sets the stage for good remembering. It is a conscious commitment to acquire a memory and a plan for holding on to it. As soon as you commit to a memory goal, attention locks on to what you want to remember.
This is how attention works—it serves the goal of the moment. And the stronger the motivation for the goal, the more laserlike attention becomes and the greater its memory benefits.
In other words, you can watch as many TV series and read as many books as you like. It will still have almost zero effect if you don’t try to memorize the things you don’t know. The same goes for the Goldlist method.
A key feature of a retention intention is the plan for holding on to the material. It might be as simple as rehearsing the memory, or it might involve one of the memory strategies described later. Whatever the plan, when you are clear about how you intend to retain the material, it is more likely you will actually carry out the plan, and this can make all the difference between a weak and strong memory.
7. Lack of encoding
Take a peek once again at the simplified model of acquiring information.
What you can see is that the second most important part of the process of memorization is encoding.
Encoding is any attempt to manipulate the information you are trying to memorize in order to remember it better.
Shallow and deep encoding.
Encoding can be further divided into shallow and deep encoding.
In the world of language learning, deep encoding is nothing more than creating sentences with the words you intend to memorize. In other words, it’s creating contexts for the items you want to learn.
Shadow encoding encompasses almost everything else. Counting vowels, writing down the said items and so on.
Deep encoding is the fastest and the most certain way of memorizing information and maximizing your chances of retrieving it.
If you skip encoding, like the GoldList method does, you immediately revert to mindless repetitions of words (i.e. passive rehearsal).
And we all know how it ends.
Mindless repetition of words has almost zero effect on your learning. If you want to increase your chances of memorizing them permanently you need to use the new words actively in a task (Laufer & Hulstijn (2001:14).
To be honest, I could add some more mistakes which this method perpetuates. However, I think enough is enough – I think I have pointed out all the most glaring ones.
There are two things I like about the Goldlist method
It gives you a system which you can follow. This is certainly the foundation of any effective learning.
It jogs your motor memory by making you write words.
The Goldlist Method – Suggested Modifications
The Goldlist method is too flawed to fix it in a considerable manner but let me offer you this suggestion.
Instead of rewriting words, start building sentences with them for every distillation.
This way you will incorporate some deep encoding into your learning process. You should see the difference progress-wise almost immediately.
The Goldlist Method – The Overall Assessment
There is no point in beating around the bush – this is one of the worst learning methods I have ever encountered. It violates almost every major memory principle. If you were contemplating using it – just don’t.
If you have nothing against using apps and programs to learn, I would suggest you start your language learning journey with ANKI.
Here are two case studies which will show you how to do it
The Goldlist method is one of the best examples of something I have been saying for years – anyone can come up with a learning method. Sometimes it’s enough to sprinkle it with some scientific half-truths to convince thousands of people to try it.
My opinion is this – you’re much better off using many other methods. This is one of the few which seems to be violating almost all known memory principles.
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.
Spending time with my grandfather was always a bit weird. He didn’t want to talk much or play some stupid games. Oh no. He used to sit me in front of him and grill me about different school subjects. Physics. Math. History. But his personal favorite was teaching me Latin proverbs.
Most of them slipped my mind.
But among all those which stuck with me, this is the one I cherish the most:
Repetitio mater studiorum est – repetition is a mother of studying
These four words contain the wealth of wisdom if you only interpret them in the right way.
On the surface, the problem with learning doesn’t seem that complex. As long as you repeat things you want to learn, everything is fine and dandy. But let’s be honest for a second.
How easily can you recall words during conversations in your target language? How often does your mind go blank?
You desperately try to recall the word you need, but there is nothing there — just the depressing nothingness.
Rings true? There you have it!
So the problem might a bit more complicated than we have thought after all. Put on your “learning overalls,” and let’s dig deeper to explain why repetition is not enough.
Let me start with the basics.
Optimize Your Language Learning – Two Kinds Of Repetition
In its most basic form, the repetition can adopt two forms. It can be either:
But what does “passive” mean, especially in the context of language learning?
It means that you don’t engage with the information you receive.
You don’t do it actively (duh). That’s why activities like reading and listening fall into this category. What terrifies me the most is that the default style of learning, formost of the people, is passive learning.
“But why do passive learning activities suck donkey balls?”, you might ask. Let’s get to it.
Why Passive Repetition Sucks and Hinders Your Progress
Before I get to the science, let me tell you about a friend of mine. This story might sound familiar to you. Problems of about 90% of people who write to me fit perfectly into the following scenario.
Anyway. So this friend of mine has been learning Russian for over two years now.
I haven’t heard her talk for a long time, but I thought that her level should be at least decent.
Russian is not that different from Polish, after all. So imagine my surprise when I heard her speak Russian a few weeks ago. She barely scratched the B1 level.
My first reaction? “No, f***ing way.”
She’s been learning systematically for over two years, and she can barely string a sentence together? After some investigation, I got to the bottom of it. Yes, her teacher visited her every week. Yes, they did learn.
Or should I say, “learn”? Because the process they went through barely resembled any real learning. They read some articles together. For an entire hour. Almost no speaking at all. No meaningful conversations. No active learning.
Nada. Null. Nothing.
If at any point while reading this description, you told yourself, “Hey, this is pretty much how my lessons look like!” then run. Run the hell away from your teacher or language school. A visit to a local strip-club seems to be a better investment than this. At least you will know what you pay for.
Optimize Your Language Learning – the Pyramid of Effective Learning
Science is very clear about passive learning. It was proven a long time ago that passive learning has minimal effect on whether the information is later recalled from long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).
Many other studies have managed to replicate the results of the research mentioned above successfully.
So how does effective learning look like? Take a look at the pyramid of effective learning.
There is a good reason why learning and listening are at the absolute bottom of retention rates.
This should be the mantra of every learner. If you want to learn fast, you have to take control of your learning. Without it, your learning is like a boat with no sails in the middle of the storm. You go one way and then the other without any sense of direction. That damn boat needs a captain – you that is!
Ok, so what does the effortful recall mean?
It means that the more effort you put into recalling a piece of information or executing a skill, the more this act benefits the learning. (Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel).
Once again, there are a lot of studies that confirm the effectiveness of active learning. Here are the results of some of the recent findings.
“Tests that require effortful retrieval of information (e.g., short-answer) promote better retention than tests that require recognition (Larsen et al. 2008).”
“Effortful retrieval of information improves recall 1-month later, compared with no test (butler and Roediger 2007).”
It’s worth mentioning that you can mix these strategies. Why not reap the benefits from the synergy effect?
The Effectiveness of Passive Learning
Let’s do some simple math. Considering the said effectiveness of given learning strategies, we might conclude that:
I know that reading and listening might feel productive, but they are not. These are so-called feel-good activities.
I always shock students of mine by telling them not to listen to anything for the first 8-10 weeks of learning. Instead, I help them concentrate on active learning. Only after this period do they start listening practice. And the gains always amaze them.
There is also a little known consequence of your potential choice of learning strategy. You see, if you don’t learn actively, you automatically condemn yourself to UNINTENTIONAL LEARNING.
Now, this is a truly fascinating type of learning.
Unintentional learning takes place when you acquire vocabulary accidentally. It is a by-product of repeating a given piece of information a certain number of times.
It’s worth mentioning that is it also one of the default and (most useless) strategies of almost every language learner.
The body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times to put it into your long-term memory. 20 to 50 times! (one of many sources)
It takes way too much time. And time is the luxury a few of us can afford. Of course, One might argue that 20-50 repetitions are not that many. After all, if you read extensively and listen, you should get to this number of repetitions after some time.
Right? No. Here comes another plot twist.
Unless you learn three thousand words, reading is a very slow and inefficient activity.
And until you reach this number, your odds of learning words contextually are slight. Sure, you can infer the meaning, but there is a good chance that your guess will be incorrect.
And what about rare words which you might find useful?
What If I need to know the word “thimble” because that was my dog’s name, and I feel the need to share it with English speakers? How many thousands pages must I read to stumble across this word, say, ten times? Hell, I don’t remember when was the last time I heard this word in my native tongue!
What about other words like tangs, udder, piston, and so on? I need such words frequently during interpreting or teaching. Relying only on passive learning activities would make me an inefficient teacher/coach/interpreter.
No. Of course, it is not. Incidental vocabulary acquisition makes some sense. Maybe even a lot but only on one condition – you already know enough words (and grammar) to learn from context. Typically, that’s about 5000 words for most of the languages. But the problem is to memorize these 5000 words before you run out of motivation!
As you can see, passive learning activities are a cardinal sin for most language learners. Limiting them is the first step you should take optimize your language learning. The chance is that if you take a good, hard look at your learning schedule, you will discover that they are the culprit, which makes your progress unsatisfying.
They still play an essential role in the learning process, but only if you go through the critical phase of deliberate and active learning.
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 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 “effortful recall”, etc. can be really easy!
Being creative is definitely one of the superpowers of modern times. Alas, various TV series and movies have warped this amazing skill beyond recognition.
There is always some charming and smug asshole who seems to deliver a brilliant solution after one glance at the piece of paper. I mean, how realistic is that?
Being creative is a hard work and more often than not, it's a long process. And it's certainly not easy.
Problems with coming up with creative solutions
I love to walk around the town and observe how new businesses prosper.
As in any big city (Wroclaw -see some pictures here), there is always a new shop or a restaurant cropping up around the corner.
And as in any big city, most of them go bankrupt. There is nothing weird about this.
What's weird is that most of these businesses almost never try anything to stay afloat.
I know because I regularly check what they are trying to do in order to help themselves. The answer 99% of the time is "nothing". They just establish their business, see that it doesn't work and then put up the shutters.
And I die a little bit every time I see this.
Would it hurt them to think up a couple of things which will help to save their business? Would it hurt them to try just a little bit harder? Many of them just throw a towel and gracefully bend over and let their lack of creativity take most of their life savings.
That just goes to show that maybe being creative is not that easy. Maybe there are obstacles which you need to be aware of in order to overcome them.
Let's go through them to see where the potential pitfalls lie.
Everyone would like to be this spontaneous genius. You see a problem and bam!
Just 5 seconds later you shake out a brilliant idea out of your sleeve. The crowd cheers, your admirers sway as you walk on and grace them with your greatness.
Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. Most of the time, you just look blankly at a piece of paper and then start bawling uncontrollably.
2. Availability Heuristic
Availability Bias or Heuristic, the term coined by Daniel Kahneman, states that we tend to most easily recall what is salient, important, frequent, and recent.
This tendency can be perceived as the brain's energy-saving mode.
Why burn through precious deposits of glucose to recall everything when you can just concentrate on what's available?
The problem with this bias is that what's available in your memory is rarely what's needed to really solve a problem.
3. First-conclusion bias
If you want another proof that your brain is lazy and spiteful, look no more.
First-conclusion bias states that most of the time, we are willing to accept the first idea we get. Once again, this is yet another energy-saving mechanism of ours.
Remember that logical and creative thinking requires activation of prefrontal cortex which is the most energy consuming part of our brain.
Once again, the problem is that the first conclusion is rarely any good.
Now that you know your enemy a little bit better, let's take a closer look at the process of being creative.
The most important tenet of creativity
"Since the only way you are going to find solutions to painful problems is by thinking deeply about them—i.e., reflecting." - Ray Dalio
We like to think about being creative as of something magical. You know, the magic comes, rubs you gently on your arms and sticks the right words into your ears together with its tongue.
The reality is that it's definitely more like pushing a boulder up the hill. If you drop it, you will probably never pick it up again.
And that means that
creativity is more about the process than anything else.
You need to constantly revisit the problem and constantly send the intention of solving it to the unconscious (read more about problem-solving).
What's more, I believe that creative ideas come from accumulating many small insights. You can't just settle for whatever knowledge you currently have - being creative is the process of curating the right ideas, tools, and facts (read more about why memorization is necessary to think effectively).
Now that you know what being creative is all about, let me explain how thinking work.
Thinking flashcards - how to make them
You can use any SR (spaced repetition) program to create thinking flashcards. The one I always recommend is ANKI. It gives you full control over your content. What's more, you can be sure that it won't disappear overnight or some company won't block your knowledge database if you don't give them your spleen or twerk.
1. Create a separate deck
Once you download it, create a separate deck and call it appropriately (like Bartosz's Magical Idea Deck).
2. Select a problem you want to solve
It doesn't matter how big a problem is as long as it is something that bothers you. If nothing comes to your mind right now but you would like to give this strategy a try, here are a couple of ideas which might help you:
help your friend solve a problem
come up with X ways to improve your life / earn more
come up with X ways to improve some product
think about how you can help develop your own / sb's company
Once you're done, put the name of the problem into the question field
3. Add two things into the answer field
I believe that placing some limitations on your ideas is one of the best ways to boost your creativity. It limits the general pool of possibilities and allows you to concentrate on the ones that count.
Put anything which can contribute even slightly to solving the problem. Facts, products, tools, people and so on.
A friend of mine runs a very successful pub (its motif is a pre-war Poland). He has been increasing his profit for many years now but it seems that he's running out of steam.
Q: How to increase the profit of X pub? A:
easy and cheap to implement
it has a viral potential
Happy hour ideas
Original dish of the day
Ask people what they would like to buy there (surveys)
Organize wine/vodka/whiskey degustation
Come up with a new, weird holiday to promote the pub (e.g. Hate My Boss Mondays - you can win X for the best anecdote about your boss)
Buy stuff for X money and take a part in a lottery
As you can see, not every idea is original and let me be clear - it doesn't have to be. Most of the time, a solution to almost every problem is already out there.
What's more, you don't have to flesh out all your ideas right away. You can add more details with every next review of your thinking flashcard.
You already know how to make thinking flashcards. Now, let me explain how they work. Don't worry, it's extremely easy.
1. Click "show answer" and brainstorm
Once you see the title of a flashcard, click "Show answer" so you can see your current list of ideas. Try to use whatever information you have there to come up with the solution. Nothing comes to your mind? Move on then.
2. Add another idea
Add at least one idea or limitation to your current list. You have to keep on stirring the cauldron of creativity!
3. Rinse and repeat
Repeat the process until you finally come up with something interesting.
Remember that the intervals between your brainstorming sessions shouldn't be too long. Always click "again" if you're afraid that's happening.
Also, keep in mind that it's unlikely that you will arrive at the solution while browsing or expanding these flashcards.
All they do is constantly keep a given problem at the forefront of your mind.
When your input reaches the critical mass, you will find yourself coming up with great ideas in the most unusual places. Although, it usually happens when you don't concentrate on the problem at hand.
Creativity is truly sly, isn't it?
Throughout the years, I have read about dozens of different creativity techniques but this is the only one which has allowed to be consistent. There are good reasons for that.
Thinking flashcards help you:
accumulate your input in an organized manner
attack a given problem regularly
are fully automated
Especially, if you already use ANKI or other SRS program. What's more, they don't cost you much energy. If you have ever given up on your creativity in the past, maybe it's time to reconsider!
It would be a shame to let this article go to waste. If you find this method appealing, choose one problem you have and get down to work.
Remember - it doesn't have to be anything big. As always, the trickiest part is to start. Of course, if you decide to use it, please let me know how it went.
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 22 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
Even though much has been written about how to use passive learning, i.e. reading and listening, in language learning, many language learners still puzzle over the following question, "How can I leverage it in order to speed up my learning progress?"
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).
For exactly that reason this milestone is called the optimal threshold for passive learning.
What's more, 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).
As a sidenote, my personal experience is this - even 5000 words are not enough to start memorizing words. You should aim for at least 8000 in order to do it efficiently.
The conclusion from the above is simple.
Passive learning can be an effective tool for memorization when you know at least 5000 words. But it doesn't mean that reading or listening is useless before that.
The purpose of passive learning - it compliments active learning
In order to understand well the function of passive learning in the learning process, we need to start at the source - the simple model of memorization.
The simple model of memorization:
This sexy model tells us that in order to acquire knowledge quickly and efficiently, you need to encode information. In other words, you need to manipulate the information in a meaningful way.
Is the element of encoding present in passive learning (i.e. reading or listening)?
Of course not!
That's the reason why active learning is much better suited for learning material fast.
However, the problem with active learning is that it's tiring as hell even though it doesn't take a lot of time. At the end of your learning session, you should feel as if you have been mauled and teabagged by a bear at the same time.
It's not pretty.
Ok, so you already know that active learning is:
What it tells us is that you can do learn actively only for the limited period of time before you run out of steam. In other words, active learning is not sustainable long-term.
What happens then? Do you just call it a day? Nope. You switch to passive learning.
active learning + passive learning = optimal learning
If you stick to this formula, you are guaranteed to learn relatively fast.
Always push yourself to the limit while learning actively and when you are about to black out switch to passive learning.
Of course, this isn't the only benefit of reading and listening.
The purpose of passive learning - it primes your memory
What is priming?
Before I move on, let's clarify what priming is.
Primingis a technique whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.
In other words, priming can provide for sets of actions, or, in the lexical field, sets of words.
So, for example, a listener, hearing the word bread will recognize words like baker, butter, knife more quickly than unrelated words like a doctor, mortar, radiator.
One of the prime researchers in this field, Hoey, states: (...) Priming is the result of a speaker encountering evidence and generalising from it. [Primings come] from single focussed and generalising encounters. Language teaching materials and language teachers can provide essential shortcuts to primings. (Hoey 2005: 185f.)
Now that you know what priming is, it's time to take a look how it affects our memory.
How does priming affect our memory?
There is one main effect of priming on our memory.
We process frequent collocations faster than infrequent ones.
In other words, it's much easier for us, foreign language learners, to understand speech which consists of logical and frequently ocurring collocations. It's much easier to process a sentence like "I am cutting an onion with a knife" than "I am cutting an onion with a German Shepherd".
How is it possible?
Because our memories are organized into something called "schemas".
"Schema'' is used as a general term to cover all kinds of general knowledge. More closely specified versions of schemas are called scripts, which consist of general knowledge about particular kinds of events, or frames, which consist of knowledge about the properties of particular objects or locations.
It means that with every new collocation e.g. "cut with a knife", "a sharp knife", "stab with a knife", your time of reaction when it comes to understand gets decreased.
If your scripts are rich enough, you can actually predict, even though it's mostly imperceptible for us, what somebody is going to say (read more abouthow we process speech here).
What's fascinating, auditory word priming does not require access to word meaning, it may reflect the process whereby listeners build and use presemantic auditory representations. (Trofimovich 2005: 482)
What is a likely mechanism supporting spoken-word processing and learning?
I will tell you a little bit more practical consequences of this phenomenon later.
Fun fact about priming
Priming can take many different forms and shapes. One which you might find really interesting is syntactic priming.
Syntactic priming is the phenomenon in which participants adopt the linguistic behaviour of their partner.
Yes. The more time you spend with somebody, the more likely it is that you will understand this person's idiolect (or that you will adapt it).
Idiolectis an individual's distinctive and unique use of language, including speech.
They (and others) therefore raise an important issue about collocation, since it appears to contradict Sinclair’s (1991) claim that there are no valid collocations beyond the five-word mark on either side. The concept of lexical access appears to be very close to lexical priming.
De Mornay Davies is more explicit when he states: Even if two words are not ‘semantically related’ in the strictest sense (i.e. they do not come from the same superordinate category), their frequent association produces a relationship at the “meaning” level. (de Mornay Davies 1998: 394). Source: The concept of Lexical Priming in the context of language use, Michael Pace-Sigge
As you can see, priming is a truly powerful weapon as it relates to concepts which are not in their direct proximity.
What it means practically is that your brain will still be able to understand a collocation even if you interject an extra thought into a sentence.
Here is an example of this phenomenon: "I wanted to cook a dinner, so I started to cut an onion, you know, with, like, a really sharp knife".
How long can priming last?
Findings suggest that auditory word-priming effects have a long-term memory component and are long-lasting (Trofimovich 2005: 481).
What does it mean that they are long-lasting?
It's speculated that these effects can last months or even years.
Practical consequences of priming
Speaking fluently is a really tricky thing.
Because you have to combine two things. First of all, you need to actively memorize new words, ideally, by creating a new context for them.
That will see the said words in your memory. The problem is that, as I have said before, unless you have a lot of contexts, you won't be able to recall them fast.
Is the solution creating a lot of sentences for a given word?
Sure, it will work, but it's too much consuming. However, if you start learning passively, you will be exposed to dozens of different contexts for almost every possible word you know.
Even though, you won't feel it, these contexts will be generalized in your head into scripts and will start acting as triggers.
From then on, whenever you run into a situation which fits your script, your primed words will be right there at the top of your tongue.
If you have ever struggled with fluent speaking, I can guarantee you that you're missing one of these puzzle pieces.
Problems with comprehension
Keep in mind that the richer your words of associations for a given word, the easier it is to understand it.
Reading and, especially, listening are amazing learning tools which will expand this network relatively effortlessly.
Passive learning is certainly a misunderstood language learning tool. Even though it's often touted as a great tool for memorization, it's actually pretty ineffective in this department unless you are already an advanced learner. Its real power lies in creating an extensive network of contexts and connections which allow you to both recall and understand words much faster.
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 16 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
The quality of your life depends mostly on your ability to make the right decisions and to solve problems. One could think that in the world of almost unlimited access to information our decision-making abilities should be getting better and better.
Is it really the case?
I don't think so. There are many explanations for why it is so.
However, instead of delving into them, I would like you to show you how to improve the quality of your thinking and problem-solving skills with the concept of my own devising - The Magnet Theory.
But first things first. Let's start with a structure of knowledge.
Bloom's Taxonomy - the Hierarchy of Knowledge
Not a week goes by when I hear someone say - if you don't understand something, don't learn it. And some part of me crumbles away every time when I hear it.
Because nothing could be further from the truth.
Understanding is very often the by-product of all the information at your disposal.
Let me explain why. Let's start with fundamentals i.e. Bloom's taxonomy. Bloom's taxonomy depicts the structure of knowledge and how it is organized.
Take a look at the foundation of this pyramid. Can you see it? That's right. Understanding doesn't seem to be the most important element of knowledge.
Why do you think it is so? I will tell you why - because you can't think without facts.
Facts are frequently the foundation of good solutions and thinking.
Why Understanding Is Overrated
My guess is that most of the time, on the surface, it is easier to understand something than to memorize dozens of different facts.
We like to assume that if A leads to D then it surely happens in a nice progression - A causes B. B causes C. C causes D.
The reality is that most of the time progression looks more like this.
A -> L -> B -> G -> C -> K -> X -> E -> D
It's an interaction of dozens of different elements which we very often don't see because of our limited knowledge. This phenomenon is called "The illusion of explanatory depth".
"People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins."
“This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous,” Sloman and Fernbach observe.
The Real Reason Why Understanding Starts With Memorization
That doesn't inspire much confidence comprehension-wise, does it?
How many concepts do you know that can be understood by knowing just 3-5 facts? I can tell you right away, that there are not many of them. And even if you find any, they probably won't be worth your while.
In order to see the big picture, you need a lot of facts. Which, truth be told, can be problematic.
Because you don't know how many puzzle pieces are needed to create it. That leaves you just one choice - you have to keep on memorizing things even if they don't make any sense at the moment. You need to memorize facts before you understand what they mean.
If you memorize just the things you understand, you will never be able to look beyond the obvious. The problem nowadays is that almost nobody is willing to do it. Why bother if all the knowledge you need is at your fingertips?
It is the tendency to forget information that can be found readily online by using Internet search engines such as Google. According to the first study about the Google effect, people are less likely to remember certain details they believe will be accessible online.
The thing is that if you want to be the best at something, you need all those pesky details.
My answer has always been the same and possibly disappointing to others - I try to memorize everything.
I don't care how abstract or vague a given piece of information seems. I will commit it to my memory. I do it because I can't possibly know which fact will tip the scale and raise the curtain to reveal the magnificence of understanding.
That's why I can't be picky.
At some point, the facts always come together to form a clear answer. Sometimes, you just have to wait for it.
For example, right now I can tell you quite exactly what science currently has to say about the process of working-memory consolidation. This knowledge includes even tiny facts about frequencies of different brain waves.
And I will be honest with you. I don't know right now the purpose of this information. I am more than clueless. But I am pretty sure it will come handy one day. Maybe in one year, maybe in ten. Whenever it might be, I know that I will be ready.
It might not be the most pleasant way to acquire expertise. However, it's sure as hell the fastest and the most certain way to do it.
The Magnet Theory - How to Understand the Process of Effective Thinking
Years ago, I was obsessing over the question - how come two smart individuals can arrive at completely different conclusions?
I knew that asking good questions was important in that process. I also understood that you couldn't think effectively without facts.
The effect of these cogitations turned into something I dubbed The Magnet Theory.
It's a very elegant way of understanding the process of problem-solving and effective thinking.
Think of any question or problem you might have as a powerful magnet. The minute you encounter some riddle, the magnet starts doing its magic. It starts scouring your mind and attracting everything which might be useful in the process of cracking a given problem.
And I really do mean everything - anecdotes, scientific facts, your personal experiences and so on. The whole comes together and creates a solution to the problem.
There is one more component of the magnet theory - your ego. It filters and potentially distorts all the potential conclusions you may reach. Even if all the facts are in favor of one solution, your ego might nudge you to reject them all.
The Consequences of the Magnet Theory
1. Almost everyone has an opinion
How many people do you know who don't have an opinion on some matter? Not many.
That's the thing. Any question you ask or problem you state is a potential magnet for the mind of your interlocutor. The magnet will scrape up every little bit piece of information. As a consequence, this motley clue of assorted facts and anecdotes will form an opinion on a given topic.
Are these opinions worth much? You can answer this question yourself.
2. Your thinking is as good as the information you remember
Remember that you will always have an answer to almost every question. That doesn't mean that the answer you come up with is any good. As the great and late Richard Feynman used to say
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.
Don't rush to the conclusions. Before you make a decision ask yourself this - how many good facts do I have at my disposal? Not opinions, not anecdotes but the cold scientific facts.
If the answer is "not many" then do your research to give your magnet some "better food".
I routinely distrust anyone and double-check any kind of information myself. Maybe I am paranoid but my behavior is driven by one simple question - how many people appreciate the importance of memorization and treat it as an indispensable part of their expertise acquisition?
The answer is - close to zero.
That automatically renders most of the opinions you will ever hear in your life invalid. Or at best they might be classified as half-truths. It sounds callous but it's definitely true.
Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. - Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds | The New Yorker
3. Your ego can be the end of you
It's worth keeping in mind that the more somebody holds himself in high esteem, the slimmer the chances that they will be swayed by facts that contradict their opinions.
What's worse, everyone is affected by this bias. Especially all the people who think of themselves as experts or have fancy titles like a Ph.D. or a professor.
Alas, the titles don't mean diddly-squat if you don't have vast knowledge.
If I invited you to a blind taste test of a $12 wine versus a $1,200 wine, could you tell the difference? I bet you $20 you couldn’t. In 2001, Frederic Brochet, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux, ran a study that sent shock waves through the wine industry. Determined to understand how wine drinkers decided which wines they liked, he invited fifty-seven recognized experts to evaluate two wines: one red, one white. After tasting the two wines, the experts described the red wine as intense, deep, and spicy—words commonly used to describe red wines. The white was described in equally standard terms: lively, fresh, and floral. But what none of these experts picked up on was that the two wines were exactly the same wine. Even more damning, the wines were actually both white wine—the “red wine” had been colored with food coloring. Think about that for a second. Fifty-seven wine experts couldn’t even tell they were drinking two identical wines. -I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi
Example 1 - Vitamin C
It reminds me of a great story. A couple of years ago, there was a lot of controversy in Poland around the man called Jerzy Zieba. What did he do, you might ask?
He wrote the book called "The Hidden Therapies - What your doctor won't tell you". It shook the medical world in Poland to the core as it exposed incompetence and rigidness of the Polish health care. In one of the chapters, he described wonderful qualities of Vitamin C which can be used among others to:
treat cancer and various diseases
lower blood sugar
substitute anti-allergic medicine
As a result, the real shitstorm ensued. He was publically flailed and tarred and feathered at the altar of science. There were literally thousands of medical professionals who mocked him to no end.
After all, he was not a doctor. So what that in his book he quoted hundreds of scientific studies from all over the world to back up his claims. He was no one and had no say in the matter.
I saw professors of medicine and oncologists saying straight to the camera that this is scientific tosh and they haven't seen even one scientific paper who proved it.
So why I am telling you all this?
Because each one of these detractors was dead wrong. There are actually hundreds of scientific studies proving the efficacy of vitamin C in treating almost every possible malady.
This anecdote is especially important for me because I have been personally interested in medicine for a long time now as it's definitely one of the main fields of knowledge where you are only as good as your memory. Throughout the years I have read, gathered and memorized dozens upon dozens of articles and studies about vitamin C which confirm its effectiveness.
In the end, the professors were wrong. The ego got the best of them.
It's an important reminder for all of us to never get too cocky. In other words - be humble or be humbled.
Example 2 - Losing Weight
Let's ponder over the following problem. Let's say that your aunt Elma wants to lose weight. She has been buying Vanity Fair for a long time, so she knows that even though she accepts herself, she is fat and hideous, and needs to slim down.
The years of reading have equipped her with a truly powerful, intellectual toolkit.
She knows that she has to:
stop chugging gin before she gets to work
Is losing weight really that simple? It might seem so. After all, doing all those things takes us from point A to point B.
Before, I move on. ask yourself the same question. Be sure to follow the whirlwind of incoming thoughts. Can you feel how they are trying to organize themselves? Or do you maybe feel like you have a ready answer?
I can bet that your first instinct is to start spewing out all the facts in your head. I know that it is typically my first reaction.
However, what's on the surface might be merely a tip of the iceberg. But only once you take a peek "under the hood", will you be able to see the real complexity of the issue at hand.
If you want to lose weight, you have to:
improve fatty acid oxidation
increase insulin sensitivity
increase the breakdown of fat storage
improve fat burning capacity
manage blood sugar levels
Of course, it would be just the beginning of your investigative journey. Next, you would have to learn what is responsible for each of these functions.
Only then will you be able to truly understand what is required to lose weight. And it would be a truly amazing journey because the truth is that there are thousands of possible solutions. If you dig long enough, I am sure you will be able to find the optimal one.
Do we have to understand all the things deeply?
I don't mean to make you paranoid. Of course, you don't have to possess a profound understanding of everything. Although I would suggest you do it for every area of knowledge which is of interest to you.
The Magnet Theory - Summary
The Magnet Theory is an easy way to understand how the processes of thinking and problem-solving work. It can be summarized in the following way:
Problems and questions act as magnets.
Those magnets attract every last scrap of information they can find to form an answer.
The final answers can be potentially distorted by your ego.
The theory leaves us with three conclusions that are applicable to every area of life.
(Almost) everyone has an opinion on anything. The magnet will always attract something which can be used to form a conclusion.
Your conclusions are only as good as the information at your disposal.
Your conclusions can be easily distorted by your biases and ego.
There you have it. I hope that you will be able to apply this theory to improve your quality of thinking.
Do you have anecdotes where some tiny piece of information helped you understand something? Please 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 over 12 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
There is this persistent belief in the world of language learning that seeing a word a couple of times will allow the information to effortlessly sink in.
If you don't know anything about memory it might seem like a logical and tempting concept.
After all, the repetition is the mother of all learning.
Laying your eyes on some piece of information time after time should make remembering easy, right?
Not that learning can't happen then. It can. It's just excruciatingly slow (read more about passive learning).
I would like to show you a couple of experiments which, hopefully, will help you realize that a number of passive repetitions don't have that much of influence on your ability to recall information actively.
Let's start with a great experiment which went viral recently.
Drawing logos from memory
Signs.com has conducted a fascinating experiment, asking 156 Americans between the ages of 20 and 70, to draw 10 famous logos as accurately as possible. The only trick was, that they have to do it without any visual aids, simply from their memory (source - BoredPanda).
How did participants do?
Let's take a look at a couple of examples.
The apple logo, which one could argue is very simple, was somewhat correctly drawn by 20% of participants. If you are having a bad day, here are some of the less successful attempts.
The Adidas logo was correctly recalled only by 12% of participants.
Ok, I know that all this begs a question - what does it have to do with memory?
Implications of the experiment
The experiment's original intent was very interesting on its own. However, if you take a good look and prick up your ears you will soon discover that there is more to it! The experiment is trying to tell us something!
What's that, Mr. Experiment? What are you trying to tell us? - passive learning sucks!
Come again, please? - passive learning sucks!!!!
Now, why would Mr. Experiment say such a thing?
How many times would you say that you have seen, so far, Apple's or Starbuck's logos?
50? Don't think so. 100? Highly doubt it. 1000+ ? That's more like it.
It's a safe bet that an average participant in this experiments has seen each logo at least several thousand times. Several. Thousand. Times.
That's a lot, to say the least.
Let's look at their final results. Surely, with that many "reviews" they must have remembered logos quite well.
Don't know how about you but it's one of the sadder things I have seen in my life.
And I have seen a cute kitten getting soaked by the rain and crapped on by a pigeon.
But it's all good because there is a lesson or two in all that doom and gloom.
1) Retention intention matters
It wouldn't be fair if I didn't mention this - one of the main reasons why people don't remember information is that they are not even trying.
If you have a neighbor called Rick who you hate, you won't care much if he is sick. Rick can eat a d*** as far as you are concerned. You don't want to remember anything about the guy.
The chance of remembering anything if you have no intention of conserving that information is close to zero. It was clearly a case in that study.
Who is warped enough to deliberately memorize logos?
2) Number of passive repetitions has limited influence on our ability to remember
This is likely to be the most important lesson of all. Sometimes even dozens of repetitions of a given word won't make you remember it!
3) Complexity of information matters
If you look at the table, you will notice another interesting, and logical, thing. The more complicated the logo the less accuracy we could observe.
Arguably, Starbucks' logo is the most complex of them all. Not surprisingly it could only boast a recall rate of 6%.
It stands true for words as well.
The longer or the more difficult to pronounce a word is the harder it is to commit it to your memory.
Interestingly, some comments suggested that all those companies failed at marketing.
It is clearly not the case. Above all, companies aim at improving our recognition of their brands and products. And that we do without the slightest doubt.
Other experiments to test your ability to recall
The experiment conducted by sings.com had its charm. However, you don't need to make inroads into other areas of knowledge in order to carry out a similar study.
It's enough to look around.
1) A mobile phone test
According to comScore’s 2017 Cross Platform Future in Focus report, the average American adult (18+) spends 2 hours, 51 minutes on their smartphone every day.
Another study, conducted by Flurry, shows U.S. consumers actually spend over 5 hours a day on mobile devices! About 86% of that time was taken up by smartphones, meaning we spend about 4 hours, 15 minutes on our mobile phones every day.
It means that you take a peek at your mobile phone at least 40-50 times per day or over 10000 times per year.
Now a question for you - how confident are you that you would be able to draw your mobile phone without looking at it?
2) A watch test
It's safe to assume that if you have a watch, you look at it dozens of times per day. Most people hold their watches dear and carry them around for years. That would make it quite plausible that you have seen your watch thousands of times.
The question stays the same - how confident are you that you would be able to precisely draw your watch without looking at it?
3) A coin test
Yet another object which we tend to see frequently.
Choose a coin of some common denomination and do your best to replicate it on a piece of paper. Results might be hilarious!
What's that? Your curiosity is still not satiated?
Then you mightdesign an experiment and run it to see how much you can remember after one hour of reading compared to one hour of learning actively some random words (i.e. using them in sentences),
Let me know in the comment about your results if you decide to run any of those tests!
Especially the last one!
Why is passive learning so ineffective?
1) You think your memory is extraordinary
This is an interesting assumption behind passive learning which you might do unconsciously.
You see your brain like a humongous harvester of information.
Wham-bam! You reap them one by one. The assumption, as beautiful as it is, is plain wrong.
Your brain is more like a bedraggled peasant with two baskets. There is only so much crap he can pick up throughout the day.
2) Brains want to forget
You see, your brain constantly works on forgetting most of the thing you come into contact with.
Why should your brain care about some words if many of them don't occur that often in everyday language?
3) No attention and no encoding
The simple memory model looks more less like this:
The amount of attention you devote to a piece of information you want to acquire is almost non-existent. Just a glimpse and your roving eye is already elsewhere.
And since almost no attention is allocated to your learning, there can be no encoding as well (more about encoding here).
Passive learning and the illusion of knowledge
Did you know that research estimates that about 50% of the primate cerebral cortex is dedicated to processing visual information? That makes a vision the most important sensory system.
No wonder that our vision is the closest thing we have to the perfect memory.
In one of the most famous memory experiments of all times (1973), Lionel Standing proved that it is hard to rival vision in terms of capacity to retain information (Standing, L. (1973). Learning 10000 pictures. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 25(2), 207-222.)
Learning 10000 pictures
Lionel Standing, a British researcher, asked young adults to view 10,000 snapshots of common scenes and situations. Two days later he gave them a recognition test in which the original pictures were mixed in with new pictures they hadn’t seen. The participants picked out the original pictures with an accuracy of eighty-three percent, a jaw-dropping performance. - Robert Madigan - How Memory Works--and How to Make It Work for You.
The thing is that this information is not something you know actively. You can recognize it but cannot retrieve it most of the time.
Don't get me wrong. Knowing something passively has its advantages and can be a really powerful factor in creative and thinking processes. But if you want to speak a language you have to know vocabulary explicitly.
Energetic nodding and grumbling worthy of a winner of the one-chromosome lottery don't count as a conversation.
Why passive learning makes us believe that we "know"?
In another famous experiment, memory researcher Jennifer McCabe showed why students think that cramming and reading are superior to studying by recalling (which has been proven time and time again to be a better learning method).
In the said experiment, students from two different groups had to read the same one-page essay.
The first group was supposed to recall and write down as much information as they could upon finishing.
The second group was given a chance to restudy the passage after they finished.
One week later both groups were tested on their memory for the passage. Not surprisingly, the second group crashed and burned. Its performance was far worse than the one of the first group.
What's more, students from the second group were actually quite confident that they would fare better.
"How could they be so wrong?", you might ask.
Most likely, they based their answers on their own experience. They knew that when they finished reading material over and over, they felt confident in their memory. The facts seemed clear and fresh. They popped into mind quickly and easily as the students reviewed them. This is not always so when recalling facts in a self-test—more effort is often required to bring the facts to mind, so they don’t seem as solid. From a student’s point of view, it can seem obvious which method—restudying—produces better learning. Robert Bjork refers to this as an “illusion of competence” after restudying. The student concludes that she knows the material well based on the confident mastery she feels at that moment.
And she expects that the same mastery will be there several days later when the exam takes place. But this is unlikely. The same illusion of competence is at work during cramming, when the facts feel secure and firmly grasped. While that is indeed true at the time, it’s a mistake to assume that long-lasting memory strength has been created. - Robert Madigan - How Memory Works
Illusions of competence are certainly seductive. They can easily trick people into misjudging the strength of their memory as easily as they can encourage students to choose learning methods that undermine long-term retention.
The best defense is to use proven memory techniques and to be leery of making predictions about future memory strength based on how solid the memory seems right now!
As a long-life learner, you should understand that passive learning is one of the slowest ways to acquire knowledge. Adopting such a learning style creates the illusion of knowledge which further perpetuates this vicious circle.
The best way to approach passive learning is to treat it as a complementary method to active learning. The rule is simple - once you are too tired to keep learning actively, you can switch to passive learning.
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 14 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
1000 words allow you to understand about 80% of the language which surrounds you, as long as they are not fancy.
3000 words (B1/B2)
3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996).
5000 words (B2)
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).
10000 words (C1 / C2)
10000 words allow you to understand about 99% of most texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).
Depending on a choice of words, you can deduct or add 20% of a given number.
Keep those numbers in mind. We will come back to them soon. But for now, since nobody like party-poopers. let's concentrate on positive aspects of speaking.
When is it a good idea to speak?
Speaking is certainly a GREAT idea, if not the best one, if you start learning a language.
Before I get to "why", let's look at other options.
Reading? Useless. Let's be honest - what can you read at this point that has any deeper meaning or sense and resonates with you? "Judy likes potatoes. She eats potatoes. Potatoes are sweet and tasty".
Ugh, shoot me in the face already.
Listening? Mostly useless. You don't know enough words anyway to make head nor tail out of the constant stream of speech. "Dfsdfsdfs "I" ........(wall of noise) ..." says" .......... "hide the body".
Speaking? Yes, please! In every possible amount. Not reading, not listening - speaking is one of the best things you can do at the beginning of your learning.
Speaking is the " Ultimate Integrator"
It's breath-taking how complicated it is to utter even one correctish sentence. There are so many things to remember! The best thing about speaking is that it helps you integrate ALL of them.
It activates vocabulary.
It starts building your muscle memory.
It helps you understand the relationship between grammar and words.
It activates grammar and automates its use.
And so on.
Speaking is relatively easy
It can be as simple as uttering short sentences over and over again. You don't need to talk with anyone really. You can just talk to yourself.
What's more. Your sentences don't have to be correct every time. It's enough that your language partner understands what you mean.
Speaking = active learning
Last but not least, the main rule which contributes to the rapid learning is using your knowledge actively. So it happens that speaking is the pinnacle of active language use.
Of course, you can choose to ignore active learning but I can tell you right now what will happen:
you will succeed after a long time,
your progress will be so slow that you will start backhanding old ladies at bus stops. Finally, you will give up and move on to another language. Inevitably, after some time you will arrive at the same crossroads with your new language.
So do yourself a favor and start talking as quickly as you can. Remember. You don't have to talk to others. You can just start with uttering short sentences under your breath.
Other perks of self-talk include:
not being judged by others,
you can behave like a Tourette's-ridden geezer. Bash people in your head all you want!
When it's a bad idea to "just speak"
Nothing good lasts forever. Speaking has also its expiration date efficiency-wise.
So when does the fun-ride end? Around a B2 mark (i.e. 4000 / 5000 words.).
There are two very important reasons for that.
1) You are already (quite) fluent grammar-wise
By this level, you should have your basic grammar fluency. You have produced enough sentences to automate dozens of different grammar patterns and constructions. Uttering more sentences won't bring you much closer to your goal of being fully fluent.
At this point, you need to expand your vocabulary more in order to achieve your goal.
2) You keep on repeating the same things over and over
Remember previously mentioned numbers? They will come handy now.
We established that knowing about 5 k words grants us the understanding of about 98% of all the things we hear on a daily basis.
What this number is trying to tell us is this:
If you just talk and don't challenge yourself, you repeat things you already know 95-98% of the time.
Let me rephrase it - out of every 100 words you use only about 2-5 of them can be considered learning.
Even better! Think about like this.
Out of every hour, you only practise for 36 seconds to 3 minutes. Let's go crazy and say that it is 5 minutes.
How would you react if your buddy told you about a friend of his who is a little bit "special". Jeff works as a car dealer and every day he calls the same 95 people, who already bought a car, to sell them the very same car.
I guess you would imagine that he is the kind of guy who gets his pay in sugar cubes and wears a bib instead of a tie. That's how special he is.
Don't be like Jeff.
Of course, if your goal is to learn just one language or have a lot of time, keep at it. However, for any other goal, I would suggest you start fixing your learning schedule.
How do I know it applies to me?
There is a simple rule for that.
If you can already spend an hour or two talking without finding blood stains under your armpits and seeing black blobs in the corner of your eyes it means you're not learning anymore.
You're just repeating the same ol' things over and over again and most of your time and effort is wasted.
I am willing to bet that you already know it deep inside. Try to tune your ears to conversations you typically have in your target language. Aren't you using the same phrases all the time?
If yes, you need to step it up and stop wasting time on lessons that don't contribute much to your language development.
The higher your level, the bigger the problem.
It's worth noting that the more advanced you get, the bigger the said problem becomes.
At a C1 level, you know about 99 % of all the words that can be encountered in everyday conversations. Speaking more is clearly not an effective solution here.
Solution - fixing your learning schedule
Before I move on, keep in mind that all the advice in this article aims at improving your learning effectiveness regardless of whether you are learning on your own or by having privates lessons or language exchanges.
By no means am I suggesting that you should cut off your friends and leave them high and dry just because this kind of talking is not the most effective learning option out there.
"Sorry Suzie, this random dude on the internet helped me realize that you're wasting my time. Good riddance and farewell!".
If you are talking to your friends on a daily basis, there is no reason to give it up. You will learn something every day anyway.
Now that we've gotten this hurdle out of the way, let me repeat again - If you want to get out of this gruesome rut and fix your language learning schedule, you need to concentrate on words/phrases you don't know well.
There are a couple of ways to do it, but they all share one feature.
"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." - Abraham Lincoln
Making the best use out of your lesson is all about the proper preparation.
As a rule of thumb, I recommend most people at a B2 level or higher to put in 4-5 hours of preparation before each lesson.
Of course, if you learn on your own, feel free to use those techniques whenever your heart desires.
Discuss a topic beforehand
If you use structured lessons, usually there is some subject or article that will be discussed. In that case, always make sure that you discuss it with yourself or your friends in advance.
Here is a great website with over 100 topics and thousands of questions which you might use to test yourself.
Why change a subject every 2-3 days? By discussing the same subject for a longer period of time, you will be able to activate your topical vocabulary much better and understand it much deeper.
Speaking is not the ultimate remedy for all your language problems. While it's a great strategy at the beginning of your language journey, it gets progressively less effective the more advanced you become.
If you hope to keep on progressing fast, you need to start using some strategies for activating less frequent vocabulary. Once you incorporate them into your language learning schedule, you should see a huge difference.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know!
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 19 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
Scouring the internet to find the ultimate language learning method is no mean feat.
Around every corner, there is something new trying to seduce you. And most of the time you give in. "Why not", you might think, "It sounds reasonable".
You don't even notice when this search turns into a bizarre blind-folded tasting. One time it's an acorn. Other time it is a piece of crap.
What's even worse, almost every person swears by his own method. "Listen, I learned Japanese by yodeling. I am telling ya this is the way to go!"
It is all confusing and disheartening.
That's why I want to show you how to evaluate learning methods.
Hopefully, upon reading this article you will learn how to navigate those murky waters and make more educated decisions about your learning.
But let's start with a question I have heard many times.
Why bother with choosing the right method?
1. It saves time
Nothing is our in this world but time - Seneca
You should treat the choice of a potential learning method as an investment.
Would you ever open a newspaper, close your eyes and just pick some stocks randomly? I don't think so.
That's why I would suggest that you approach choosing a language learning strategy the same way.
Don't behave like a happy-go-lucky hippie. Spend an hour or two to think it through.
It will pay off, I promise. It really makes a difference.
Very often 10 minutes of a good learning method might be worth an hour (or even more) of a crappy method. (* cough* Duolingo *cough*).
Imagine what you could do with all that saved time!
Of course, pondering over this decision for too long is no good either. Don't think too long.
Simply evaluate a couple of methods against the guidelines found in this article, choose the right one and move on.
2. It boosts motivation
I don't believe in motivation. I believe in habits and systems.
But there is no denying that motivation is a force to be reckoned with. Especially when you take up a new learning project.
However, there is one big problem. Motivation is a capricious mistress.
One day she is lovely and charming, while the other day she goes berserk and kicks you right in the nuts. That's why relying on motivation is not a good long-term strategy.
Nevertheless, choosing a right strategy will help you notice results of your learning much quicker. And in my experience, there is nothing better to fuel your motivation.
3. It solves most of the other learning problems
Probably you already know it but just in case - most of your learning-related problems stem from the wrong choice of learning methods
Can't keep more than two languages in your head at the same time? Wrong learning methods.
Keep on forgetting words? Wrong learning methods.
I hope that by now, I have convinced you that choosing the right learning method is not a waste of time.
The next thing on the agenda - learning fallacies.
The Most Widespread Learning Fallacies
There are a lot of people who offer you their advice in good faith, even though they themselves are ill-informed.
It's equally important to know, not only what works, but also what doesn't work and why. At least if you want to be a good "b*shit" detector learning-wise!
Here is the list of the most important learning fallacies you may fall subject to.
Fallacy #1 - My method works
There are not many people strolling around and saying, "My method sucks and guarantees no results whatsoever. Use it!".
Everybody is convinced that their learning method is great and that the other guys suck (confirmation bias, anyone?). Here is a corker - they are all right.
Absolutely all learning methods work.
It comes as a shock, right?
Pick any method you want. If you stick to it long enough, you will see some effects. If you just keep plugging away, eventually you will learn what you have set out to do.
Even the worst of the worst methods work.
I am the best possible example of this.
My default method of learning English years ago was to:
write down every word I didn't know
rewrite it from a dictionary
In other words, I was rewriting a dictionary.
I really do hope that I was fed with a lead spoon as a child. At least I would be able to justify myself just a little bit.
I have managed to write away 12 A4 notebooks this way. Pure madness and the hands down the crappiest method I have ever heard of.
Yet, I managed to learn English fluently and get all the Cambridge Certificates. The miracle?
I just kept plugging away at it. Many hours per day. Until I succeeded.
You can see learning as rolling a big ball from point A to point B.
Your learning methods decide how heavy the ball is and thus how much time it will take to get it to the finish line.
The heaviness of the ball doesn't make it impossible for you to achieve your goal. It just takes longer to do it and it is more difficult.
Main takeaway - just because a method works doesn't really prove anything unless you measure the average results which it gives you.
Fallacy # 2 - I like it (aka personal preferences or learning styles)
Months ago I wrote in one of the articles that learning styles don't exist. The hell ensued.
I got plenty of angry e-mails. Some people started behaving like an upset stereotypical Brit, "Iconoclastic heresies, my good chum!". Others would gladly spit into my cereal if they got a chance.
No wonder. I have found a lot of statistics saying that over 80 or even 90% of teachers believe it to be true. Thor only knows how many students have been infected with this idea.
And this is why so many people have a very strong opinion about it.
However, let me repeat for dramatic effect.
Learning styles don't exist*
* You can read more about it here. It's not perfect but it should dispel most of your doubts.
Most of the time when people use this term, they mean "personal preferences".
They prefer to see information visually, orally or in some other way.
PREFER is the key word here.
It doesn't mean that learning this way is more effective. It means you like it more.
An author who enjoys music the most will think that the music is the best way to learn. Another one will try to convince you that spending more time outside is the ultimate solution.
But there is some silver lining here.
Liking a given method makes it more sustainable. You can use it longer than some other methods without feeling fatigued.
It certainly counts for something and you should always have such enjoyable learning methods in your arsenal.
Main takeaway - just because you like a method doesn't make it effective memory- and time-wise. It does, however, make it more sustainable.
Fallacy #3 - Everybody learns differently
Everybody learns differently is just a special case of the snowflake syndrome.
I get it, you are without the slightest doubt special in your own way. However, don't make a mistake of thinking that
learning differently ≠ learning effectively.
Let me explain why we are not so special and so different when it comes to learning.
We are the product of the evolution. Our brains are in many ways very similar.
Your working memory capacity is probably the same as mine. Surpass it and you can say goodbye to remembering things.
You learn most of the things better by doing.
Your attention is very limited.
Your brain needs regular breaks during learning.
You learn better when you space your learning.
The list goes on and on.
So yes, you are special in many ways. But not in the ways your brain acquires knowledge.
Main takeaway - our brains absorb information in a very similar way.
Fallacy #4 - It's based on science
I know what you are thinking. How the hell is this a learning fallacy? Is it not important for a method to be based on science?
Yes, it is crucial.
However, there is one problem with that. People love numbers, statistics and quoting research papers.
It makes everything more believable. You can come up with any crappy theory and method, back it up with some research paper and people will buy it.
There are a lot of companies which do exactly that. They apply flaky results of some fishy research paper(s) to their learning method and sell it for big bucks.
At least twice per month, I get requests to write a review of some "revolutionary" software. Most of the time the only revolutionary thing about it is spaced repetition.
Obviously, spaced repetition algorithms are amazing. But it doesn't justify paying for it 20-50$ per month (you know who you are!). You can go ahead and just download ANKIfor free.
That's why this is the trickiest fallacy of them all. Don't buy into some method just because it sounds sciency. I can guarantee you that almost every method is based on some research paper. Whether its creator knows it or not.
Main takeaway - just because a method is based on a research paper it doesn't make it effective.
Fallacy #5 - There is one method
There is no perfect learning method.
You can't build a house with only a hammer. You need other tools as well.
Learning is too complicated to approach it from only one side. It doesn't matter how good this method seems, be it mnemonicsor anything else.
That's why you should always aim at creating your own personal toolbox.
Main takeaway - there is no perfect method. You should always have at least a couple of them in order to learn effectively.
Important factors in choosing right learning methods
Although I would love to give you a perfect recipe for success in learning, I don't think it is possible. What's more, I will restrain myself from suggesting the methods I use personally or teach my clients.
Instead, I will show you which criteria you can use to evaluate the general effectiveness of different methods.
A good method should
a) be based on science
“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Learn how your memory operates. Once you master this basic information it will be much easier for you to assess different learning methods. (read more about it hereand here).
As Aristotle once said
“The fact is our starting point.”
The more "science boxes" your learning method checks, the better.
b) be sustainable (easy to use)
Although not every learning method has to be sustainable, it is good when at least one of them is something that you can do for a long time and you find it pleasant.
Want to switch to another method? Test them against each other.
e) give you feedback
You don't want to do something without knowing whether it is right or not. A good method should always provide you with some amount of feedback.
Choosing the best learning methods is definitely not easy. It might take some time and experience in order to tell the chaff from the wheat.
Nevertheless, it is always worth the effort. The amount of time and frustration you can potentially save is really gigantic.
Question for you - are there any methods you are currently using that you would like me to analyze? Let me know in the comments. Feel free to include your own analysis.
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 13 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
Being a polyglot sounds like such an amazing thing, doesn’t it? Admiration, fame, money, women throwing themselves at your feet.
All these things are not only great but also completely imaginary.
Ok, just a bad joke. It is pretty great.
But plenty of people notoriously underestimates how much time it takes to maintain and learn languages. I am sure you know the type.
They love to assume that the only prerequisite to master many languages is some unspecified talent.
I get it. If you say, “I envy you, I wish I could speak so many languages but I just don’t have a knack for it”, you don’t have to feel guilty.
That’s why they keep sucking the rationalization’s tit until they get all warm and blissful.
And who knows? Maybe they are right to some degree. We are all born different. Wiring in our little brains differs from one another.
Some people might actually have some head-start. But one thing is sure – no magical combinations of neural networks will ever make you a polyglot if you don’t put in the long hours.
It’s time to unveil the mystery.
For the past four weeks, I have been trying to track down how much time I devote to learning and maintaining my languages each week.
But before we get to that, let’s start with the baseline,
My Current Language Levels
Here are my current levels:
English: C2+ (C2 level + a couple of specializations)
As a side note, I can’t understand why some people say that they know a language when they can barely string a sentence together. Your language is not dormant – it is mostly forgotten. Deal with it,
Somehow, this practice seems to be quite widespread in the language learning world.
You might notice that I learn my languages to at least C1 level. There is a very good reason for that – language attrition happens muuuch slower on this level than on the lower ones.
Once you get there, you can start taking breaks from that language to entertain yourself with other projects.
Let’s start with my unfair advantage – I teach / train people for a living. It allows me to spend considerable amounts of time while being surrounded by many languages.
Currently, I teach/coach 30+ people per week.
Main languages I teach are:
Swedish – 8-10 hours
German – 8-10 hours
English – 8-10 hours
These are not your usual conversations. I work almost exclusively with professionals. Each hour I spent with them is designed to jog their memory and bring them to the point of exhaustion.
That requires from me quite a considerable vocabulary which is awesome.
If we add to this mix a couple hours of consultations each week, we get a pretty decent number.
Total time: 24-35 hours
SPARE TIME – LEARNING PART
I am not sure whether it’s sad or not but I spend most of my waking hours learning and/or experimenting with memory systems. None of these activities are carried out in my mother tongue.
I figured out that since I know it pretty well it would be a waste of time.
Basically, it means, as absurd as it sounds, that Polish (my native tongue) and French are the least frequently used languages by me.
It leads to some bizarre and funny situations. Sometimes my brain plays with me and prompts me to conjugate Polish verbs in a really weird way – I have created monsters like “wypróbowywałem” instead of “wypróbowałem” more times than I would like to admit.
Quite a side-effect, huh?
Another interesting side-effect is dreaming in foreign languages. I have actually had dreams where people were speaking one foreign language and my brain was displaying subtitles in another.
Yep. Who needs drugs when you have languages.
Anyway, reading, talking, noting, writing are all done in various languages.
The rough breakdown looks more less like this. Mind you that these numbers reflect only a couple of last weeks and they are bound to change. They have to adjust to my needs, after all.
English– 15-hours. As much as I would like to suppress the use of this language throughout the week, it is impossible.
About 80% of e-mails I get are in English. 98% of all scientific papers I read are in English, no other language comes even close when it comes to their quality. I would say that I read at least 300+ pages per week in that language.
And let’s not forget about writing articles. Once again English prevails.
Czech – 5 hours per week. Mostly reading (10-15 articles per week) and learning/revising vocabulary.
Russian– 3-7 hours per week. Mostly revising and learning vocabulary. I read maybe 1-2 articles per week. Oh, and let’s throw about 2-4 episodes of TV series to this mix!
Esperanto– 1-2 hours per week Mostly revising and learning vocabulary. Unfortunately, there are not many websites in Esperanto which overlap with my interests. It means that I read maybe 0-2 pages in Esperanto per week.
Swedish– 4-6 hours. I need to maintain my Swedish skills at a high level because of my job. I tend to read 10-20 articles per week and tend to watch a fair share of YT in Swedish (I highly recommend I Just Want To Be Coolchannel, if you are learning Swedish).
French– 0-1 hours per week. Currently, I am busy with many projects and the sole victim of this state of affairs is French. As a not so surprising result, my French is deteriorating rather fast.
German– 3-5 hours per week. Besides learning new words and revising old ones, I read about 5-10 articles per week and watch a bit of YT.
Spanish– 3-4 hours per week. Mostly revising and learning vocabulary with some articles here and there.
And just for the clarity’s sake – I learn and revise my vocabulary by talking in order to keep it active.
Total time: 34-40 hours per week.
SPARE TIME – ENTERTAINMENT
Now it really gets weird!
I tend to watch a lot of TV series with my girlfriend – about 15 hours per week. It’s great fun. However, it has bothered me for a long time that everything we watch is in English.
That’s a wrinkle I couldn’t iron out.
And then it dawned on me – why not turn this ordinary activity into another language learning exercise?
Why not translate everything actors say into one of the languages I am trying to improve?
As I thought so I did. I have been doing it for about 4 months now and it has really helped me improve my fluency in a couple of languages.
“What about words or phrases you don’t know?”, you might ask.
I have an easy but effective system which takes care of that problem. I memorize them with mnemonicson the fly and quickly note them down after each episode.
Next day I look them up and encode them. Quite an elegant solution, isn’t it?
Of course, it doesn’t work each time. Sometimes I am just too tired and I let myself get sucked into a TV whirlwind.
Total time: 5-15 hours
The Final Result
The results were beyond interesting. It was no secret to me that I learn a lot but I didn’t think that it’s that much!
Not even once did I sink below the level of 70 hours per week, although I am sure that it might happen in the future.
Thank God I am not a crack addict. Otherwise, I would be this guy who crawls through broken glass to lick other junkies’ nostrils to get his daily high.
Total time: 63-90 hours per week
Want to increase your weekly learning time? Read on. There is some food for thought for you there.
ACTIVE vs. PASSIVE LEARNING
Active use: 35-50 hours per week (talking to others or myself)
Semi-active use: about 15 hours per week (translating TV series in my mind)
Passive: 15-35 hours per week (reading + listening/watching)
Over 70 hours per week is certainly a lot of time. That’s why there is one important question which begs to be asked.
Does it all come easy? Or does it require some tremendous amount of will power? At the risk of rubbing some people the wrong way the answer is – It does come easy.
At this point of time in my life, I do most of those things without giving them much thought. But I had to work my way up to get there.
And believe me – it was a long walk and the slope was slippery.
There is definitely a number of challenges you need to face if you want to pump up your total learning time. Here are some of them.
Definitely one of the most important things to master, if not the most important one. If you want to make sure that you will learn day in, day out, you need to build within yourself the urge to do it.
The urge that can only be built and fueled by habits.
Forget about the motivation. Motivation is for suckers. You have to show up every day until the habit of learning becomes the extension of yourself.
Only then will you be able to not only learn a lot without much effort but also crave it.
The general of productivity is that the fewer decisions you have to make, the better your general efficiency is. It’s hard to argue with that.
Let’s say that you want to read something, How much time do you usually spend before you pick up an article? 5 minutes? 10 minutes?
It might not seem like a lot. However, it adds up very quickly.
Soon it may turn out that at least a dozen of hours per week is trickling between your fingers.
The same goes for choosing movies or YT videos.
I am hell-bent on not letting that happen.
I would rather spend this time weaving wicker baskets than losing it due to my indecision.
That’s why my input-gathering process is almost fully automated.
In the morning, when I arrive at my desk with a steamy mug of coffee, everything I need is already in my e-mail box. Scientific papers, videos, articles. Everything.
I don’t need to spend even one minute more than I should trying to find the necessary information.
And yet, as you can clearly seem I still spend a lot of time learning and maitaning my languages which leads me to the last point.
WHY I WON’T LEARN NEW LANGUAGES ANYTIME SOON
People learn languages for different reasons.
Mine has always struck people as eccentric.
I haven’t learned languages because of my deep love for them.
No doubt I have fallen in love with them during the process of learning (except for French – f*** you French!) but my affection hasn’t been the main factor.
The main reason was always the pursuit of better memory.
And even though I know that I still have a lot to learn memory-wise, I know that learning languages won’t get me much further.
I don’t find languages challenging anymore. Sure, I haven’t learned Basque or even one of Asian languages. But I don’t need to.
The general principles of learning and memory improvement won’t change just because I switched to a new language.
And to be honest, what’s the difference between knowing 8 and 9 languages?
Or 10-12? Not that big, in my opinion.
However, the time you need to maintain them grows significantly with every new addition. Of course, some learners trade quality for quantity but I personally prefer to truly master the languages I know.
Languages vs other branches of knowledge
I have read in some scientific paper that learning a language to C1 level is tantamount to graduating from studies.
Both activities require thorough knowledge and understanding of about 10000 words/concepts.
But I don’t believe it to be true. I don’t know many college graduates who can use their knowledge as fluently and practically as C1 language learners can use their vocabulary.
And that is what bugs me. Why would I learn another language when there are so many other mysteries just waiting to be solved (I guess it’s the FOMOsyndrome?
So many branches of knowledge which seem to lure me. Every day, I seem to find yet another thing which I don’t know much about.
The choice is simple – I can either excel at many other things or simply learn another language or 5.
The latter is infinitely less exciting and practical.
So what’s next?
Years ago I promised myself that I would master 10 languages till I turn 40.
Right now I am 31 and I still have plenty of time to achieve my goal.
But I think that this time I will take my time.and stick to learning some other things and hopefully running this blog full-time.
Not everyone needs to be a polyglot but if this is a path you decide to tread, you should be fully aware that it requires much time and effort.
The path is fraught with various obstacles. Get rid of one of them and soon you will realize that another one took its place.
But if there was just one thing, I would like you to take away from this article, it would be this one:
You have to make the languages you learn a central part of your life, only then will you be able to truly master them.
Question for you:
What stops you from learning your target language(s) more often?”
Any place where you spend quite some time can be optimized for language learning.
Simple stick-it notes can transform any dusty desk into a learning battle station.
But don’t make them boring!. You know what I mean.
Don’t just write “desk = der Tisch” and stick it in its respective place.
Make it memorable. Make it fun!
Write “Ich lecke meinen Tisch, wenn ich blau bin” (I lick my desk when I am sloshed).
That’s something to remember!
Or even better – make yourself a poster while we’re at it.
Here is a quick example:
Even though you might not fully realize it, you use at least dozens of tools every day.
A fair share of them is electronic – search engines, mobile phones, browsers, Windows, Excel, etc. – you name it.
But why on Earth would you want to use them in your native tongue?!
Make a list of all the most important software / websites / etc. you use and change the language to your target language!
4) Things you do
Our days are marked by myriads of repetitive activities – commuting, cleaning a flat, going to a gym.
Once again, this is something you might use to your advantage.
You can prepare a playlist beforehand and listen to your favorite bands / podcasts / videos during that time.
I hope that these ideas will set you on the right path.
Now, let’s take a look at how the hypothetical “optimized” day might look like!
How Active and Passive Learning Fit Together – The Perfect Learning Day
You wake up at 7 am sharp.
Your alarm clock starts blaring.
Beep, beEP, BEEP!!!
“It’s another shitty today”, you think to yourself as you step into the bathroom.
You look at your comatose self in the mirror, sigh heavily, brush your teeth and try to shape yourself into something which resembles the human form.
Then breakfast, dull as Kristen Stewart’s acting, and you kiss your wife. Your eyes utter mute “help me” as you pass her by and leave.
But it could look like this:
Morning On Language Learning Steroids
Your alarm clock gently jars you out of sleep.
You open your eyes and light an entire room with your beaming smile.
This time you haven’t been ear-raped by some mechanical rattle.
No. This time you wake up to the sounds of your favorite song in your target language.
You graciously jump out of bed and leap towards the bathroom.
You look at yourself and think, “Gee, I really do look amazing today!”, as the next song in your target language starts playing.
You dig into your breakfast.
It tastes like a nectar made by Zeus himself.
What to do:
Prepare in advance the playlist of songs in your target language.
Delete all the other songs in your mother tongue.
Leave yourself no other choice but to listen to the language you want to improve.
Of course, if a part of your morning routine is to listen to the news or the radio, you don’t have to change it.
Find radio stations in your target language on my other website and simply listen to them instead.
You slowly drag your feet toward the train station. “It’s funny”, you notice. The pavement tiles strangely resemble your life. They are gray and shattered.
Once you take a sit, you try to pass the time by rating the miserableness of your co-passengers. But there are no winners in this game.
Pretty bad, right? But it could look like this:
Commute On Language Learning Steroids
You maniacally run towards your train station. You can’t wait to hop on the train! This is one of your favorite parts of the day.
You take a seat and fire off your favorite YT channel. The fascinating interview about … completely pulls you in. “Already my station?”, you think to yourself. “I completely lost track of time!”.
What to do:
Always have some resources handy on your mobile/tablet/notebook. Not too many of them – it leads to decision fatigue. Ideally, it should be something that really interests you.
You should aim at energizing yourself before you start work. If you wear yourself off mentally, you will send a signal to your brain to actually start avoiding this activity in the future.
Aim at interviews or some funny, easily digestible shows. Unless you are really into politics or some “heavier” topics – then go ahead and listen to them as well.
Ordinary Day At The Office
You enter the office and gaze absently at your coworkers.
Then you head toward the kitchen to fix yourself a cup of instant enthusiasm.
Not that it helps. It’s just a thing you do to pull yourself faster through the day.
All the breaks and conversations turn into one big blur.
Even some breaks in-between don’t deliver any relief.
Nightmare, ain’t it? But what about this:
Day At The Office On Language Learning Steroids
You rush into a kitchen and pour yourself a delicious cup of caffeine goodness.
You sit comfortably in your cubicle.
Not an ordinary cubicle mind you but a language optimized cubicle.
All around you, there are stick-it notes with interesting quotes or jokes in your target language.
After you dig yourself up out of the weekend’s backlog, you start reading newspapers in your target language.
What to do:
It’s a very good habit to change the interface of every possible app or website you use to your target language. However don’t feel pressured to do so right away, If you are a beginner.
You might dip your toes first.
Write down where to change language settings and then switch interface to your target language.
Start translating any useful words you might need and switch the language back on.
After a couple of such sessions, you should be able to comfortably navigate through any website/app.
What’s more, you can always put some stick-it knows with useful phrases or quotes around you.
Why phrases or quotes?
Because learning is always more efficient when there is context.
Why only put a note on your plant called “plant”, when you can write “a green and beautiful plant!”.
Or “watering plants causes diarrhea”.
I know, I know – it sounds absolutely childish.
The thing is that the absurd information is absorbed more effectively.
So why don’t you help your brain a little bit?
That was one hell of the day!
You’re absolutely ecstatic! You finish your job, catch the train back and come back home.
You open the door to your flat and suddenly everything goes totally silent.
You know what you have to do now. The damn work.
As one of the most spoken languages in the world, Spanish deserves a place on your list of languages to master.
Many a native English speaker, however, has struggled with the Spanish tongue because it requires a greater level of flexibility than English. You’ll have to work hard at polishing your pronunciation if you want to be able to speak with a solidly good Spanish accent.
It also means not despairing or quitting on your dream of speaking Spanish like a native when yet another Spanish speaker fails to understand you.
If you’re aiming to take your Spanish skills to a higher level, read the following 5 fun ways of improving your Spanish pronunciation to find out innovative ways of speaking more like a local.
1. Pick Your Accent
If you’re just starting to learn Spanish, you may be having problems distinguishing between different Spanish accents. Argentina, Spain, Mexico, Cuba and all other Spanish speaking countries in the world speak their own version of Spanish.
Some are so dramatically different, they may not even sound like Spanish to you.
However, don’t feel overwhelmed. The first step in improving your accent is to pick a Spanish speaking country whose accent and dialect you want to focus on.
Does Spain resonate with you because it is in Europe? Or Mexico due to the dominance of Mexican Spanish in the United States? Simply listen to the dialects that are out there and choose one that works for you and stick with it.
Once you adopt the following fun ways of improving your Spanish pronunciation and perfect your accent, adapting it to the Spanish speaking country you are in will not be so difficult.
2. Monitor Your “B’s” and “V’s”
Many students of Spanish tend to have problems differentiating the Spanish ‘b’ from ‘v’. To the untrained ear, these two letters can sound very similar – so similar you might think someone asked you for a ‘beso‘ (kiss) when what they really said is ‘vaso‘ (glass).
Let’s take this step by step: to emit the perfect Spanish pronunciation of ‘v’, for a second let your teeth rest on your bottom lip as if you are going to say the word ‘vest‘ and practice pairing this ‘v’ with the Spanish vowels of ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’ and ‘u’.
The Spanish ‘b’ is similar to the English ‘b’, as in ‘break’ or ‘berries’ and you may also practice pairing the Spanish ‘b’ with the language’s vowels.
Switch back and forth between these mouth positions when you pronounce words like ‘viento‘ (wind) and ‘bella‘ (pretty). If the two sounds sound similar, then you are doing something right.
3. Pronounce those Accents
Amongst the fun ways of improving your Spanish pronunciation is emphasizing Spanish accents. It may be all right for someone who is new to the Spanish language to ignore the little dashes written above a certain syllable in a Spanish word, but if you really want to perfect your Spanish pronunciation, it’s time you paid attention.
Word accents are especially important in Spanish because not only do they alter the meaning of the word, they can make all the difference on whether or not you’ll be understood.
For example, the word for ‘father’ is written as ‘papá’ with the accent on the last letter meaning you should emphasize the last bit of the word more. When you miss the accent, you have the evenly pronounced word ‘papa,’ which means ‘potato.’
Don’t make the mistake of calling someone’s father a potato by paying attention to word accents! One of the best ways to practice your accented words is to read out loud a lot. With practice, you will visually recall the words in your head as you hear yourself and others speak the accented words.
4. Tongue Twist Your Way to Good Pronunciation
Tongue twisters or ‘trabalenguas‘ is a wonderful way to improve your Spanish accent and pronunciation. The repetitive aspect of tongue twisters may make it hard for you to say the tongue twisting phrase quickly but they are relatively easy to commit to memory.
Each tongue twister gives your tongue a good workout and helps loosen it up so that it can easily adapt to Spanish pronunciation. Online, you can find a good many ‘trabalenguas’ that you can say daily to practice your pronunciation. Not only that, you will also be adding to your vocabulary. Here’s an example:
Tres tigres tragaban trigo, tres tigres en un tribal. ¿Que tigre tragaba mas..? Los tres igual.
Do you want to give it a try? Here are some websites with challenging ‘trabalenguas’:
When you’ve been around Spanish speakers long enough, you’ll notice they tend to occasionally link or blend words together.
When will they do this?
When the last letter of a certain word matches the first letter of the following word. For instance, the phrase ‘dos sacos’ (two coats) would sound like ‘dosacos.’
Spanish speakers also link words when the last letter of a certain word is a consonant and the first letter of the following word is a vowel. The question “¿Estás enamorado?” (Are you in love?) would sound linked, as in “¿Estásenamorado?”
Another instance of linking words happens when the last letter of a word and the first letter of the following word are both vowels, such as in the sentence: “Ella está enfadada.” (She’s angry.) The untrained ear would hear it as one long word: “ellaestáenfadada.”
Learning how to link words is one of the fun ways of improving your Spanish pronunciation. Developing an ear for linked words also improves your listening skills and better prepares you as you practice linking and blending your words.
In the end, the goal is to comprehend what Spanish speakers are saying when they blend words.
These 5 tips are certain to help you perfect your accent so that you can communicate more clearly with your fellow Spanish speakers.
While focusing on your pronunciation is one aspect of improving your command of the language, don’t forget to keep up with the other aspects of language learning such as grammar, reading, vocabulary, and speaking.
Focusing your full attention on Spanish learning while tackling all aspects of the language will gradually help you achieve your dream of speaking the language fluently.
Sean Hopwood, MBA is founder and President of Day Translations, Inc., an online localization and Spanish translation services provider, dedicated to the improvement of global communications. By helping both corporations and the individual, Day Translations provides a necessary service at the same time as developing opportunities for greater sympathy and understanding worldwide.