Improving listening comprehension in a foreign language is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most challenging skills to master. The amount of
Improving listening comprehension in a foreign language is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most challenging skills to master. The amount of time needed to understand a language is enormous. Unfortunately, not everyone succeeds in this field.
Not everyone reaches the finish line and has the pleasure of saying, "I understand most of everything I hear."
On the contrary, the bodies of poor souls who surrendered along the way colorfully decorate the entire length of the route. Everyone has their theory of why they failed.
"My ears are too small."
"I can't listen to German for long because I start to sob."
And who knows, maybe the above is partially true. However, these reasons are not as important as the list you are about to see.
Here are 12 reasons why you have trouble understanding a foreign language.
LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - 12 COMMON ISSUES AND WAYS TO SOLVE THEM
Understanding a spoken word is complex. It's affected by many factors.
LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - 12 COMMON ISSUES AND WAYS TO SOLVE THEM
1. Limited vocabulary
7. Lack of concentration
2. Problems with pronunciation
8. Problems with interpretation/culture
3. Trying to understand everything
9. Problems with natural (i.e. colloquial) speech
4. Insufficient listening practice
10. No visual support
5. Too fast a pace
11. Passive listening
6. One-time listening to recordings
12. Insufficient knowledge of grammar
1. LIMITED VOCABULARY
Insufficient knowledge of vocabulary is one of the main culprits. No wonder you have trouble understanding if your vocabulary is very limited! As you listen, each word and phrase at your disposal becomes your foothold.
Think of it as a puzzle - the more elements that fill the outline of an image, the easier it is to see what the picture is. Similarly, when listening, each subsequent word allows you to understand better what the general meaning/message of a given conversation or recording is.
There are two significant milestones for most languages:
1st milestone - 3000 words
Knowledge of the 3000 most frequently used words in a foreign language allows understanding of 95% of texts and conversations (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). It is worth remembering that, in this case, we count one word as all variations of a given word and its family of words.
For example: "run," "running," and "runner" are counted as one word by this classification.
2nd milestone - 5000 words
Knowledge of the 5000 most-used words in a foreign language allows understanding of 98% of texts and conversations ((Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).
The minimum vocabulary required to listen effectively
If you want to be sure that you will understand to some degree recordings and conversations of all kinds, you should aim for a vocabulary of at least 2.5 - 3 thousand words. But as always - the more, the better!
So you don't know that many words? Come on, get to work! Don't be lazy!
2) PROBLEMS WITH PRONUNCIATION
Issues with pronunciations are one of the hidden reasons why your understanding suffers; hence, many people are entirely unaware of it.
How does sloppy pronunciation cause difficulties in understanding?
(I) Incorrect phonological representations
Each of us, as part of the so-called phonological memory, uses phonological representations.
A phonological representation is the way you think a word sounds.
If your phonological representation largely coincides with the actual pronunciation of the word, then everything is fine, and your brain should recognize the word.
It is worse when your interpretation of the pronunciation of a word completely diverges from its actual pronunciation. The result is a complete lack of understanding, although you often KNOW the word (Rixon 1986: 38). You pronounce it in your "specific" way.
For example, if in your head the pronunciation of the word "gist" sounds like / gɪst / with a hard " g," then you may not completely understand it when you hear its correct pronunciation / ʤɪst/.
(II) Lack of knowledge about assimilations
A separate problem is the so-called phonetic assimilation phenomenon.
Phonetic similarity (phonetic assimilation) - a common phonetic process in which a sound changes to be more similar to a neighboring sound. The essence of every phonetic preference is coarticulation, whose mechanism of action is the influence of a given sound on the articulation of sounds that are adjacent to it. - Wikipedia
Assimilation simply means that the pronunciation of a letter can change due to the letter before or after it.
A typical example of assimilation in a language is when a word ends in a consonant, and the other begins in a vowel. Most often, such words "merge" in pronunciation and are pronounced as one.
E.g. "It is", which we pronounce as / ɪtɪz / /, not / ɪt ɪz /.
How to deal with these problems?
I) Try to accurately internalize the pronunciation of the words you learn
It will affect not only your ability to understand, but also your ability to learn vocabulary. As research shows (Fowler, 1991; Pierce et al. 2017), phonological representations can affect your coding ability, which is an early step in the process of learning and remembering words.
II) Learn the pronunciation and the International Phonetic Alphabet of the language
I know that most people won't do it, but I recommend delving into the sounds of your target language.
It's worth knowing which of them are in your native language and which are not. With this knowledge, you'll know which ones require your special attention.
3) TRYING TO UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING
Great, you're ambitious, but the level of ambition should be in proportion to your current level of capability. Efforts to understand everything do not make sense if, after the first hearing of the recording, you do not know whether the conversation is about politics or whether they offend you.
Listen for the gist, and only then for details - it is the best strategy.
Attempts to pick out individual words by ear make sense only when you can understand the overall meaning of the recording.
If you have not reached this point yet, it is worth listening to the recording again.
4) INSUFFICIENT LISTENING PRACTICE
Good listening comprehension in a foreign language is the most time-consuming language competence. Don't expect 20 minutes of listening a day to work wonders. You should aim for a minimum of 1 hour of listening per day!
I can already hear those moans: "Well, he's crazy! More than 20 minutes! Lord, I have a life! "
Contrary to appearances, it is not so difficult. All you have to do is plan your day well. After all, you can listen to music or recordings almost anywhere! At home, gym, shop, commuting, and often even at work!
5) TOO FAST A PACE
Many people feel that one of the biggest obstacles preventing them from understanding a language well is the high rate of influx when listening.A constant stream of words creates the impression that you always miss essential information, which can make you unnecessarily stressed. Fortunately, it is quite easy to get rid of this problem these days.
(I) Manipulation of the recording speed
Almost every movie and music player nowadays is equipped with speed control. YouTube is a good example. If the average tempo of the recording prevents you from understanding, lower the speed to 0.75. You should immediately notice a big difference.
(II) The word "please."
In the case of conversations with foreigners, the matter is even more straightforward - ask them to speak more slowly and clearly. Most people shouldn't have any problem with this.
They don't want to do it? A quick blow to the temple should subtly encourage them to cooperate.
6) ONE-TIME LISTENING TO RECORDINGS
Repeated listening to a given recording or conversation is not always possible. However, if it's possible, you should always listen to your materials more than once if you have trouble understanding them.
Here's a simple plan you can stick to:
(I)) Learners at levels A1-B1
Find a recording/video on YT or something similar, and listen to it over and over again.
When should you move to the next recording?
When you understand about 80% of the recording, i.e., you grasp its gist - hunting for particular words at this level is pointless.
However, it is essential to become familiar with the prosody of the language and to improve the ability to capture the most common words in a given language.
It is a particularly useful listening system when you want to learn a language for which there are practically no listening materials.
At the time when I was doing my first major language project (learning Swedish from scratch to a level B2 in about four months - a full story here), I could listen to one radio program, lasting about 10 minutes, even a dozen times. This is how long the phonetic identification of "theoretically" simple words that "theoretically" I knew took me.
(II) Learners at B2-C2 levels
Here the matter is much simpler. Assuming that you are indeed at this language level, you should know between 3 and 5 thousand words. Thus, your understanding should range between 95-98%.
Since you are already quite advanced, listening to recordings repeatedly does not make sense, After all, you are already able to identify the essential words appearing in a given language. At these levels, the most important thing is to listen to as many language users as possible to get used to the variety of accents and language patterns.
7) LACK OF CONCENTRATION
Sometimes, problems with understanding are dictated by nothing else but a good old lack of concentration. Each of us knows the moment when, after 2 minutes of listening to the interlocutor, you completely sail away to ride on a pony in a happy place in your head, while saliva begins to gather in the corners of your mouth.
Where does this state come from, and how to remedy it?
(I) Ditch boring recordings
Listen, you are not in an interrogation room in Guantánamo. Nobody compels you to listen to things you don't enjoy. If the subject of the recording causes your eyes to spasm, then change it. Simple logic works here - the more you like a topic, the more willingly and longer you will listen to it.
b) Chunk your listening sessions
There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing.
If the recording is too long, break up your listening session into many parts.
For example, instead of watching one 40-minute episode of a series in one hearing, try to do it in two or three sessions. Everything according to the slogan: "A large elephant is eaten piece by piece."
(III) Avoid adverse conditions
Sometimes the conditions are not conducive to listening. Maybe a bunch of airheads is rehearsing Tibetan throat singing it's a demonstration in defense of the rights of bakers.
In this situation, there are only two things you can do, depending on the nature of the problem:
- find a quiet place to listen
- Keep on listening
If this does not help, get into a fight with some guy in the YT comment section to vent off.
8) PROBLEMS WITH INTERPRETATION / CULTURE
Sometimes the culprit of communication problems is the cultural gulf between interlocutors (Underwood). Interestingly, this problem also occurs among native speakers of a given language. There is no simple remedy.
The only solution is to continually broaden your horizons and explore the culture from which your target language originates.
A classic example of misunderstanding is an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Doing so in the Middle East, West Africa, and South America is a delicate suggestion that you intend to violate the dignity of your interlocutor's rectum. A classic faux pas!
9) PROBLEMS WITH NATURAL (I.E., COLLOQUIAL) SPEECH
The difference between the natural, colloquial language spoken by native speakers and the one that is usually taught in language schools, or which can be heard on the radio, can be huge (Hedge).
In real life, a situation where the interlocutor speaks to you very slowly and clearly shows that:
- a) he will get a stroke soon
- b) thinks you're "special" and it's not a compliment!
(I) Various accents and dialects
Another problem in this category is the variety of accents and dialects. Unfortunately, the uniformity of languages varies dramatically.
For example, in Germanic languages (e.g. English, German, Swedish, Dutch), after driving only 20 km, we may come across a completely different dialect.
For many, this is a huge shock. They spend years convinced that they understand the language well, and suddenly it feels as if they were starting all over again.!
A great example is the Scottish accent, which causes a lot of problems for many people who comprehend very well (classic) English.
P.S. Here is some stand-up of the most famous Scottish stand-up comedian, Frankie Boyle: YouTube (heads up - it's full of swear words!)
If you want to be sure that you will be able to understand native speakers without significant problems, you need to diversify the materials you listen to. It should always be a mix containing both colloquial (e.g., videos on YT) and more formal speech (radio, news, etc.).
Listening to different dialects is not necessary unless you need the ability to understand them for some reason (i.e., moving to a specific region).
10) NO VISUAL SUPPORT
In real life, communication with our potential interlocutor is more abundant with body language or facial expressions. The value of this additional information cannot be overestimated, as it often helps to understand the meaning of the speech, despite the lack of understanding of individual words.
It would be a mistake to limit listening only to the radio or podcasts.
It's worth enlarging your listening toolbox to include audio-visual materials (e.g., TV series or YouTube videos). They will not only speed up your pace of understanding but will also make learning more enjoyable!
11) PASSIVE LISTENING
Many people equate listening to a purely passive activity. Nothing necessary but crash in your armchair and start your favorite podcast! Of course, there is nothing wrong with it, and I usually prefer this type of listening. There is an alternative - active listening.
While listening actively, you should try to make a note of the recording text and words you do not know. Although this is a time-consuming process, it has a positive impact on your understanding.
12) INSUFFICIENT KNOWLEDGE OF GRAMMAR
Lack of (good) knowledge of grammar is one of the last obstacles on your path to full understanding.
It is interesting that the lack of knowledge of grammar does not prevent complete understanding, but only makes it difficult.
I'm sure you know people who went abroad, and after 5 years they still don't know the language. Despite this, they can communicate with native speakers at a basic level, using the requisite words, gestures, and the occasional grunts.
I like to explain this phenomenon, and also the role of grammar in understanding, using the following metaphor.
Imagine that words are building blocks, and grammar is nothing more than a logical mortar holding them together. When we have both, we can create a beautiful "palace of comprehension." If the mortar is missing, the only thing we can do is to stack the bricks on top of one another. This way, we will build "something," but it will certainly not be a palace - more like a swanky privy.
IMPROVING LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - SUMMARY
As you can see, problems with listening comprehension in a foreign language are very diverse. Therefore, to effectively benefit from the advice contained in this article, you should analyze your particular situation as accurately as possible and choose the tips that apply to you.
Regardless, for many language learners,
Being able to read books fast is undoubtedly a fantastic skill and a very tempting one.
Can you feel the thrill of endless possibilities? If you just knew how to do it, you could read, like, ten books per week!
No wonder speed reading is a huge business. There are probably thousands of books written on the subject. And 99% percent are crap – promises-flavored crap.
Sure, everyone would like to be the guy who picks up a thick book, thumbs it through in two minutes to say, “Do they have to dumb down everything these days?”.
Can you become such a person? Definitely no. Can you become a person who reads very fast? Yes. However, if you are looking for a quick and easy solution, you will get severely disappointed.
Let’s start with some basic facts to help you read books fast without speed-reading.
Want to Read Books Fast? Forget About Speed Reading
I know that some might take this statement very personally or even be offended.
“How dare you smear the good name of the speed-reading community?!” However, it has to be said as it frustrates me endlessly.
Almost anywhere I go, I encounter opinions that it is entirely possible. From Tony Buzan’s classic to Tim Ferris’ article, everyone claims that reading with a speed of 1000 words/min is entirely achievable.
Some even go a step further. Comments under any article on speed-reading usually spiral into some bizarre contest.
“800 wpm (words per minute)? That’s laughable, man. Try getting to 2000 wpm, like me, to see what REAL speed reading is!”
Sounds great, right? It doesn’t work.
Before we get to the specific methods, I think you should know a thing or two about my reading background.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH SPEED-READING
I started my speed reading journey about 12 years ago. I have always been a great believer in the capabilities of a human mind. No wonder, I quickly got sucked into the speed-reading world.
Initially, I thought that I was a speedy reader. It quickly turned out that my typical reading speed of >300 wpm was pitiful.
Wouldn’t you feel that way?
You start reading about people who underwent a special kind of speed-reading training. About some super-geniuses, or so I thought, who can read with 3000 wpm or even 8000 wpm?
I felt inadequate.
I started reading every speed reading book I could ferret out. There were good books, and there were terrible books. Ok, mostly they were awful.
Some titles sound as if a shitfaced magician concocted them. Here are some of them. But just a word of warning. Don’t buy them. They are crap. Get yourself drunk instead. Or buy your horse a three-piece suit, It will be a better use of your money
- A Course in Light Speed Reading A Return to Natural Intuitive Reading
- The Alpha-Netics Rapid Reading Program
- The PhotoReading Whole Mind System
Did I get better? Yep. At least in some way.
Trying to Read Books Fast – My First Results
After a couple of weeks of training, I could read with a speed of 1000 words per minute. Then I pushed myself even more, and I got to 1400 wpm.
There was just one problem I couldn’t spot back then. The speed was there, but I understood almost nothing.
I guess Woody Allen summarized it quite brilliantly when he said, ” I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”
It was a very disappointing experience. I needed some time to digest the burden of this conclusion. When I did, it became clear that:
1) Nothing worth reading can/should be read fast.
2) You can read books fast, but you can’t understand and analyze information quickly.
That’s why, as far as I am concerned, anyone who is selling “photographic reading courses” should be pilloried while a fat dude named Stanley sticks a tongue in his ear (so-called “seashell”).
Ok, we got this covered. Let’s move on to the things which can help you read faster.
How To Read Books Fast – Strategies
- Know Thy Goal
- Separate Learning from Reading
- Learn What You Read
- Learn Core Vocabulary
- Build Core Knowledge
- Read a Lot
- Use the Knowledge You Learn
1) Know Thy Goal
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed,
and some few to be chewed and digested. –
FRANCIS BACON (1561–1626)
When in doubt, trust in Bacon. He was definitely onto something.
The very first thing you should do before you open a book, and a waft of the paper hits your nostrils, is to decide why you want to read it.
It doesn’t sound sexy. I know. You are a bad boy, and you’d rather slap that book open right away. However, you need to restrain yourself as it is a crucial step.
You might not feel it, but your decision, subconscious or not, will weigh heavily on what your mind concentrates on. And on what you extract from the text.
You usually read for
Try to choose one of the said purposes.
Of course, sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint the exact purpose of reading. Nevertheless, you always do your best to determine it as precisely as you only can
2) Separate Learning from Reading
Reading is not learning. Learning is not reading.*
*it’s a good tattoo idea if you ever need one
Your brain is not a computer. It can’t switch effectively between two different activities. Do it for a short period, and you will burn through all the glucose stashed in your brain.
Result? Headaches, the feeling of general fatigue, malaise, and so on. After a while, your brain becomes impervious to new information. This method of reading is not very sustainable.
Mind you that I am not saying that you can’t read and learn at the same time. I am just stating a simple fact that it is not a very effective method of reading.
How to Separate Learning from Reading
To be honest, I have struggled with this problem for quite some time until the two beautiful words dawned on me.
I am sure you are familiar with the term but just to be sure, let’s explain it:
Batch working is a process of grouping items because they are similar, or because we plan to do something similar to them.
For instance, it wouldn’t make much sense to make a massive omelet without preparing products beforehand. Can you imagine how ineffective it would be?!
“I need twenty eggs to make this omelet.”
*takes two and cracks them open into a bowl*
“I need two more.”
*opens a fridge and takes another two*
Doesn’t it sound frustrating?
That is why you should always try to group similar tasks. It is the method which, I am pretty sure, saved my sanity.
1) First mark/highlight
Whenever you stumble across something that is
- you don’t agree with
mark/highlight it in some way.
Jot it down on a margin or copy it into some file. Don’t try to dismantle any of the concepts you have read about. The time for that will come.
Done? Good. Keep on reading. Have you marked another fragment? Good. Keep on reading.
After reading a certain number of pages, set aside some time for a more detailed analysis.
Go crazy, analyze the heck out of everything.
Refute, digest, criticize to your heart’s content.
Learning is demanding enough on its own. Don’t mix it additionally with reading.
3) Learn What You Read
This one comes from a very frustrating experience.
About two years ago, I was binge reading about 3-4 books per week. Of course, being a sensible learner, I took notes and scribbled my remarks about everything, even mildly interesting.
In quite a short period, I amassed notes from over 40 books. The bad luck had it that I hit a rough patch and didn’t have so much time anymore. After everything settled, I came back to reading. I didn’t do anything with the notes, mind you. They just sat soused in my notebook.
Fast forward year and a half, I was reading some interesting excerpts from a book on cognitive neuroscience. My eyes lay on a particular sentence, which solved one of the biggest obstacles I had at the time concerning my memory experiments.
I was freaking ecstatic! The worst part?
A couple of months ago, I finally strapped myself to a chair and started going through the notes mentioned above. A couple of minutes into the reading, I saw it. There it was, guffawing blatantly at my helplessness — the same damn fact.
The miracle solution was there all along. I didn’t learn it. In the process, I wasted myriads of hours on useless experimenting.
Before you move to the next book, learn what you have read before.
Almost Every Book Is a Treasure Trove of Knowledge
It makes perfect sense, even more so if you want to specialize in some area. Your average author spends hundreds of hours researching his book or summarizing his knowledge.
Without notes, you will spend dozens of hours reading it and end up with almost no knowledge. You will remember just a couple of main things. Nothing more. And it would be a damn shame.
Thanks to this strategy, your ever-growing knowledge will help you go quickly through most of the books.
It’s not unusual for me to read a 400-page book in less than two days. There is not enough new information for me to absorb. Sometimes you have to do the hard things first, so it gets easier.
You don’t have to read everything.
You can skim through some paragraphs or descriptions. Nobody will judge you.
I am yet to hear, “John is such a filthy, primitive animal, I have heard he skips paragraphs. He sickens me!”
What is important for an author might be meaningless to you. Take this article as an example. I thought it was essential to include my personal experiences. But maybe you don’t care. That’s ok, skim through such passages until you catch a glimpse of something more interesting.
5) Learn Core Vocabulary
A specific lingo permeates every industry and area of specialization. Love it or hate it; it’s still something you must learn.
My main area of specialization is learning/memory and everything in-between, like productivity.
Not knowing what the hippocampus, the dentate gyrus, or the Premack’s principle is, would have the paralyzing influence on my reading ability. It would be equivalent to kneecapping myself and expecting to run.
If you care about being good in the area of your choice, always try to master every word you encounter.
6) Build Core Knowledge
In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you. – MORTIMER J. ADLER
I can safely assume that whatever you read, you read because you want to learn more. Or you want to master a given field of knowledge. In any case, you should know that initially, your pace of reading will always be slow. But that’s good.
Slow is new fast. This deceptive sluggishness is the speed of light in disguise.
Look at this excerpt.
In an imagery study by Okado and Stark (2003), increased PFC activity for false memories was localized to the right anterior cingulate gyrus. Given the role of the anterior cingulate in response competition and conflict (Kerns et al., 2004), the authors concluded that this reflects the increased effort involved in incorrectly endorsing an imagined item as “seen.” ERP studies also support the conclusion that frontal regions may distinguish between true and false memories, and be engaged in greater monitoring and evaluation associated with false retrieval (Curran et al., 2001; Fabiani, Stadler, and Wessels, 2000; Goldmann et al., 2003; Nessler, Mecklinger, and Penney, 2001; Wiese and Daum, 2006).
It’s one thing to get familiar with the nomenclature. But do you really understand how these terms interrelate?
7) Read a Lot
The more you read, the more efficient the reader you become. The reader who knows the ins and outs of different styles of writing. The one who knows when to skim and when to read deep into a text.
These benefits alone explain well why you should try to read as much as possible. But there is one more reason.
The spiral theory of knowledge.
The Spiral Theory of Knowledge
The spiral theory of knowledge describes a fascinating phenomenon.
First, when you encounter a particular idea, you might not notice or comprehend it. Not fully anyway. Then you move on to something else. You learn other subjects, read other books. Then, after some time, you reencounter the same idea, and only then can you get your Eureka moment.
“How could I not understand it before?! That was so easy. The answer was there all along!”
And that’s a great question. How come you didn’t understand this concept before? Your knowledge was to blame. At the time, it was patchy and full of gaps. You were not ready to comprehend the full scope of the idea then.
The potential answer to whatever questions that might be bugging you, consciously or subconsciously, lies in yet another book.
Yes, there is a door behind the door. But you will never know if it has the answer written on it until you open it.
8) Use the Knowledge You Learn
Many people love to brag about the number of books they read every month. They are like beautiful shiny badges. The phenomenon is so well-known that Issac Watts wrote about it in his book “The Improvement Of The Mind” in 1821!
Such persons are under a great temptation to practice these two follies. (1.) To heap up a great number of books at a greater expense than most of them can bear, and to furnish their libraries infinitely better than their understanding. And (2.) when they have gotten such rich treasures of knowledge upon their shelves, they imagine themselves men of learning, and take a pride in talking of the names of famous authors, and the subjects of which they treat, without any real improvement of their own minds in true science or wisdom. At best their learning reaches no further than the indexes and table of contents, while they know not how to judge or reason concerning the matters contained in those authors. And indeed how many volumes of learning soever a man possesses, he is still deplorably poor in his understanding, till he has made those several parts of learning his own property by reading and reasoning, by judging for himself, and remembering what he has read.
Don’t be one of those people.
Try to find even the slightest use, if it is only possible, for whatever that is you’re reading. Impress someone or help a friend with some problems. Find a better job. Anything will do.
Just don’t let it go to waste as I did for such a long time.
Years ago, I used to learn every single fact about almost anything. And I am sad to inform you that it was mostly wasted effort. I don’t remember almost anything I learned.
Why would I?
My brain didn’t find this knowledge useful, nor did I find it helpful – and so it had to go.
How To Read Books Fast – Summary
We are wired to follow the path of the least resistance. No wonder. We are drawn to, seemingly, easy solutions such as speed-reading.
But you already know the truth, don’t you? There are no easy fixes. There are no easy solutions. And yet it is still possible to read fast. Even very fast. But first, you have to put effort into building a foundation.
The very same effort which will make your newly acquired skill taste so sweet. Enjoy it.
Growing-up has to be one of the saddest things ever from the outside perspective. It’s like a backward evolution. You see how amazingly curious creatures turn into mindless corporate drones. You see how the pursuit of knowledge turns into the pursuit of money.
I believe that curiosity and the power to create are the very things that can ward off all the negative in the world. However, for those qualities to survive, you have to feed them continuously. The problem is that modern times actively discourage people from becoming a polymath.
What’s more, we live in the conviction that there is not enough lifetime to master many areas of expertise.
I want to show you that it’s possible if you play your cards right. Within your lifetime, you can become great at many things. But before we get to the specifics, let’s start with a fundamental question:
How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Is It Worth It?
I like to think of knowing many things as of the magical glasses – the more you know, the more you can see.
Being stuck in one field of specialty is nothing short of being blindfolded. You can go throughout life without being able to spot all those enchanting intricacies coming from the expanded perspective.
“It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all.
I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.
The guardians who have kindly taken upon themselves the work of supervision will soon see to it that by far the largest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex) should consider the step forward to maturity not only as difficult but also as highly dangerous.
Having first infatuated their domesticated animals, and carefully prevented the docile creatures from daring to take a single step without the leading-strings to which they are tied, they next show them the danger which threatens them if they try to walk unaided.
Now this danger is not in fact so very great, for they would certainly learn to walk eventually after a few falls.
But an example of this kind is intimidating, and usually frightens them off from further attempts.”
It couldn’t be any more accurate. Of course, we don’t have to know everything. But will it hurt to learn just a little bit from many areas of knowledge? Were we created to be stuck in one groove all of our lives?
Why You Should Master Many Fields of Knowledge
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
~ Robert Anson Heinlein
Even though it’s advisable to master at least one field of knowledge intimately, it’s usually not necessary to do it for more than one.
How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – the Pareto Principle
One of the first logical foundations which will allow you to build a wide array of skills is the Pareto Principle.
The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
In other words, find out what’s essential in a given field of knowledge and learn it. This way, you will be able to double-down on what’s important and save a lot of time in the process.
How much time is needed to be good?
Of course, just telling you to apply the Pareto Principle would be lazy. We need more specifics.
From the work of K. Anders Ericsson, we know that to be world-class at something, you need about 10k hours of deliberate practice.
Of course, throughout the years, many other researchers have proven that this number might vary depending on, among others, the complexity of a given skill.
However, for simplicity’s sake, I will stick to this number.
Even though the number looks scary, you should not forget that you don’t need to become world-class in every field of knowledge. With just about 1-2k hours, you might become an ordinary expert.
Working smarter – The Pareto Principle of the Pareto Principle
Once again – the Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. However, if you apply the Pareto principle to the Pareto principle, you might see that roughly 64% of the effects come from 4% of the causes.
It means that if you can determine the absolute essentials, you will be able to become good at something while spending only 4% of your time/effort.
In other words, with just between 40-80 hours, you will know your way around a given discipline.
For example, what if you don’t trust your endocrinologist and would like to, sort of, become one.
Easy, it’s enough that you learn:
- what hormones are
- how they function
- what are the main hormones in our body
- how they are produced
- sprinkle on top some knowledge about Type 1 and 2 Diabetes, thyroid disorders, PCOS, cortisol- and testosterone-related disorders.
As difficult as it’s to believe, most specialists deal with the same old cases day in, day out.
Remember – you don’t need to know every possible exception to every possible rule to be good.
What if you want to be a semi-professional gourmet? No problem! Memorize the scale for describing foods and start tasting!
Mayonnaise, for example, is supposed to be evaluated along:
- 1) six dimensions of appearance
(color, color intensity, chroma, shine, lumpiness, and bubbles)
- 2) ten dimensions of texture:
(adhesiveness to lips, firmness, denseness, and so on)
- 3) and fourteen dimensions of flavor split among three
a) aromatics (eggy, mustardy, and so forth);
b) basic tastes (salty, sour, and sweet);
c) chemical-feeling factors (burn, pungent, astringent).
What if you want to get good at persuading people (because manipulation is such a dirty word)? I would dare to say that reading Cialdini’s classic book should be enough to be at least decent at this craft. The rest is practice and the automation of those rules.
A famous quote by Bruce Lee echoes that thought:
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.
Oftentimes, you might discover that a slightly smaller knowledge that is automated is much better than knowing a lot of theory.
Your Action Plan
Even though we are talking about mastering potentially a lot of fields of knowledge, we all have to start somewhere. Here is a simple list that might help you with the preparation process.
1. Make a list of all the things you want to learn and choose no more than 3
Once you master those fields of expertise, you will be able to move on to the next ones.
2. Make sure they are potentially applicable to your life
I want to emphasize that you can learn whatever you want. However, if you choose useful skills at the beginning, you will find it much easier to find time to practice them.
Learning practical things is also extremely rewarding and can help you keep your motivation high.
3. Choose how much time you want to devote to them daily
I don’t want to be too lax in my calculations, that’s why I am going to assume that being good enough at something requires 100 hours.
That tells us that with about 1 hour per day for each field of knowledge, you should be able to know them relatively well in a bit over three months.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that the more you know, the easier it will be for you to acquire even more skills and knowledge (so-called the Snowball Effect).
Remember that you don’t have to cling to these numbers religiously – they are here to impose some general guidelines.
4. Determine what you should learn
You can try to google what are the essentials of the given area of specialty or contact somebody who does it for a living. That should do the trick.
5. Get your learning materials
Once you know what to learn, this step shouldn’t be too difficult. The only thing I can add here is this – make sure that your source of knowledge is reliable. You don’t want to waste your time remembering things that have no reflection in reality.
How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Recommended Strategies
Congratulations! Now you know roughly how to organize your learning. It’s time you familiarized yourself with the strategies which might help you achieve your goals faster and with less effort.
1. Use deliberate practice
Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance. – source.
Common characteristics of deep learning:
- it gives you a specific goal
- it requires your full attention
- it’s energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming
- it gives you feedback
In other words, deliberate practice gives you a goal and tells you to mercilessly concentrate on a given concept until you’re ready to move on to the next one.
2. Combine skills (aka laddering, skill transfer)
It’s important to realize that a lot of different skills might be combined to save you time and make your practice sessions more productive.
For example, you can:
- exercise and listen to a lecture at the same time
- learn a language and use it to master a particular area of knowledge
- learn how to negotiate to get a job in a different department where you will be able to use your newly acquired programming skills
The number of combinations is endless. Give it some thought and contemplate what kind of combinations might work for you.
I like to watch pointless YT videos from time to time, but I never do it without a work-out session.
3. Use and automate your knowledge
Not every skill has to be useful, but it’s certainly much easier to maintain it if you automate its use, and you can use it. At least on a semi-regular basis (read more about automating your skills here).
4. Do interesting things / choose difficult projects
Simple tasks don’t require much brainpower – probably that’s why soon multifunctional AI blenders will replace 50% of our planet.
If you want to let, your talents shine, always strive to take up challenging projects which involve the use of many different skills. It doesn’t matter whether they are a part of your job description or just a personal project. Try to make them relatively challenging relative to your current skill set (read more about doing the hard work here).
5. Help others
Helping others has to be one of the best ways to master many fields of knowledge. There are thousands of people in the world who might benefit from your expertise. Find them and do your best to help them alleviate at least part of their problems.
Not only will you feel slightly better and decrease your chances of becoming a skull ashtray for all the hellish abominations below us, but you will also consolidate your skills significantly better.
Because the more you’re able to embed your knowledge in reality, the easier it is to remember it.
How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Summary
Many people think that trying to master many fields of knowledge is silly. Why bother if you can pay somebody for their expertise or do something less taxing.
However, the truth is that doing so can be one of the most rewarding experiences in your life. Once you wrap your head around main concepts from many different disciplines, your life will improve. You, in turn, will become more confident.
And the entire process doesn’t have to take that much time if you stick to the strategies mentioned in this article. Good luck on your journey!
“Repeat after me!”
Repetitio mater studiorum est.
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, for most 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.
Effective learning requires , so-called, effortful recall.
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:
One minute of talking is worth 5-7 minutes of reading/listening (read more about the benefits of talking to yourself).
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.
What Is 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.
So there you have it. L2 Learners are simply at a disadvantage as for the number of repetitions of words. If you want to optimize your language learning, limiting passive learning activities is one of the first things you should do.
Is Incidental Learning Really That Bad?
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!
Optimize Your Language Learning – Final Thoughts
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.
What is better for learning new words – writing or speaking?. It is one of the questions that come up frequently in different language-related discussions.
I have seen many different answers to this question. Some were quite right, some plain wrong. That’s why I decided to show you a memory-based/science-based answer to this question.
Let’s dive right in!
Writing or Speaking – Why Both Are Great
I don’t want to be this terrible host who welcomes you with a creepy toothless smile and spits on your back as you walk in. I want you to feel comfy and cozy! That’s why I would like to begin on a positive note – both writing and speaking are great learning methods.
There are many reasons for that, but let’s start with the three, which can be deemed as the most important.
1) The Production effect
The “production effect” was initially reported by Hopkins and Edwards in 1972. Unfortunately, for many, many years, it has escaped the attention of the scientific world.
The production effect indicates the improved recall for any information which is produced actively compared to the one which is just heard or read silently.
Simply put, learning actively helps you to remember better.
2) Deep processing (aka The levels-of-processing effect)
This phenomenon was identified by Fergus I. M. Craik and Robert S. Lockhart in 1972,
The levels-of-processing effect suggests that information is better recalled when it has been actively and effortfully processed.
In other words, deeper levels of analysis produce more elaborate, longer-lasting, and stronger memory traces than shallow levels of analysis. Depth of processing falls on a shallow to deep continuum. Shallow processing (e.g., processing based on phonemic and orthographic components) leads to a fragile memory trace that is susceptible to rapid decay. Conversely, deep processing (e.g., semantic processing) results in a more durable memory trace. – Source.
In the world of language learning, creating sentences is one of the most meaningful ways of achieving deep processing of words. That’s one of many reasons why I am against using mnemonics in language learning (in most cases).
3) The reticular activating system (RAS)
Another cool advantage of both writing and speaking is that they activate a part of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS).
Why is it important? Let me explain.
Even though the RAS is a small part of a brain, it plays a vital role – it’s the filter of information that is let into the conscious mind
Every second of every day, it tirelessly scours through the tons of information provided by your sensory organs to choose the relevant one. Without the RAS, you would be continuously flooded with excessive amounts of information, which would virtually overload your brain and impede thinking.
Fortunately, that doesn’t happen as the reticular activating system helps your brain capture what matters most to you and what is relevant to you based on your values, needs, interests, and goals.
As you can see, both speaking and writing help put the words you use at the forefront of your mind.
Additional Benefit of Writing in Language Learning
The previously mentioned benefits are undoubtedly great. However, let’s dive into some other advantages which are more specific to writing.
Writing is a great learning method for advanced students.
Many people, once they move past the B1 level, tend to get stuck at the so-called intermediate plateaus. They use the same old grammar constructions, the same trite expressions, and speech patterns.
It’s tough to get out of this rut unless
- a) you consume the staggering amount of input
- b) start making an effort to use new grammar constructions/words
Can you do it just by speaking? Not really.
Speaking with others, more often than not, requires keeping a conversation alive. You have to think “on your feet” to express your thoughts as quickly and precisely as you only can – if you flounder or stall too long, you might be able to notice a silent agony on your interlocutor’s face.
Writing, however, gives you all the time in the world to jigger your words into something resembling an elegant thought as opposed to the typical intellectuals slurry.
If you puke a little bit in your mouth every time you hear yourself saying, “The movie was nice because actors were nice and it’s good that it was nice,” you know what I mean.
Memory Benefits of Writing in Language Learning
Some research suggests that writing seems to tickle the RAS, and memory centers in your brain a tad harder than speaking. Here are results of one of such studies
“The results show that on the immediate post-test, the Sentence-writing group performed the best, followed by Gap-fill, Comprehension-only, and Control. On the delayed post-test, the Sentence writing and Gap-fill groups equally outperformed the two other groups.” – ScienceDaily.
However, as you will soon discover, it’s only a half-truth.
As a side note, experiments that I have conducted regarding the efficiency of writing vs. speaking show almost no difference between those two.
Longhand vs typing?
Interestingly, most findings of research papers concern longhand writing, not typing. That causes people to believe that the latter is an inferior method.
In the 2014 article published in Scientific American, we can read that:
“When participants were given an opportunity to study with their notes before the final assessment, once again those who took longhand notes outperformed laptop participants. Because longhand notes contain students’ own words and handwriting, they may serve as more effective memory cues by recreating the context (e.g., thought processes, emotions, conclusions) as well as content (e.g., individual facts) from the original learning session.”
On the surface, it might seem true. After all, the cognitive and physical effort needed to write manually is bigger than the one required for typing.
Most of these studies, however, measure the effectiveness of writing/typing under pressure – the said study took place during lectures. It doesn’t have much to do with the organized process of composing an e-mail or an essay at home.
The extra time you have for deliberation and a coherent formulation of your thoughts should equalize (more or less) any potential difference between writing manually and typing.
That’s why you shouldn’t feel pressure to choose just one of them to reap memory benefits. Choose the one you feel most comfortable with.
Disadvantages of Writing in Language Learning
As with every method, there are some potential problems you might run into.
1) Not Everyone Needs to Write
I would dare say that the vast majority of the population of almost any country in the world doesn’t write that much.
Why would they?
If your job is not strictly connected with this skill, you might not find it useful.
2) You Need to Learn a New Writing System
If learning a new language system takes you half the time you needed to speak and understand your target language, it’s understandable that you might be reluctant to do so.
Writing – Recommendations for Language Learners
Best suited for:
- advanced learners (B1-C2) level
- anyone who likes (or needs) to write
Other benefits of speaking
1) Speaking is repetitive
When you write, the fruits of your labor are limited only by your imagination. You can contemplate different word combinations, weave brilliant thoughts.
However, when you speak, you have to be quick. You have to rely mostly on the automated speech patterns and words which are already activated well in your brain.
That’s why most of the things we say every day, even in our native tongue, are very far from being full of imagination. The point isn’t to unleash your inner Shakespeare but to get the point across.
For the same reason, sentences produced by native speakers are also simpler!
2) Speaking is more natural than writing
The world in which people would use the sophisticated language, which previously could be only found in books, would be a hilarious place!
“Alas, the chains of palpitating agony fell on my little toe as I rammed it into the mighty oakiness of a cupboard!”.
Compared with, “I f*** hit my toe against a cupboard.”
The truth is that we usually speak in a much less formal, less structured way. We do not always use full sentences and correct grammar. The vocabulary that we use is more familiar and may include slang. We usually speak spontaneously, without preparation, so we have to make up what we say as we go.
That’s why if your goal is being able to communicate, speaking should be your default language learning strategy, at least until you get to a B2 level.
Memory Benefits of Speaking in Language Learning
1) It involves many sensory channels (i.e. it’s great for your memory)
Speaking is a vibrant, sensory experience. It activates almost all sensory organs and thus creates more stable memories.
In one of the studies about the production effect, we can read that:
Many varieties of production can enhance memory. There is a production advantage for handwriting, for typing, and even for spelling, although none of these is as large as for speaking (Forrin, MacLeod, & Ozubko, 2012).
So what about some studies which say that writing is better for our memory than speaking? Well, they might be some truth in it:
The data suggest that immediate form recall is better when words are learned in the word writing condition than in the word voicing condition, though this advantage seems to disappear after one week – (source: Word writing vs. word voicing : which is a better method for learning L2 vocabulary?)
As you can see, most of the benefits of writing usually disappear upon finishing this activity.
2) It is more time-efficient than writing
As I have mentioned earlier, even though some research suggests that writing gives your memory some boost, this fact loses its importance once we factor in how much output we can produce with writing compared with speaking.
Here are the results of one of the studies which considered this seemingly irrelevant fact.
The written group produced almost 75% less language than the spoken group did in the time available. This complements previous research discussed in section 3.6 which found more opportunities for language learning in the spoken mode compared to the written mode (e.g., Brown, Sagers, & Laporte, 1999).
Disadvantages of speaking in language learning
1) It Requires a Relatively Good Activation of Your Target Language
Even though I am a big proponent of learning a language via speaking, there is just one small hiccup. If you want to chat with foreigners, the command of your target language should already be good.
What would be the easiest way of circumventing this problem?
2) The risk of fossilizing mistakes
Speaking – Recommendations for Language Learners
1) Best suited for
- anyone who learns to communicate
2) Relatively-well suited for:
- anyone who learns to consume media in his target language
Even if you only learn a language to watch media in your target language, you should still spend some time learning how to speak. It will help you to understand language much quicker due to your improved mastery of grammar and vocabulary and their interrelations, which will, in turn, increase your language comprehension.
It is one of the cases where you get two for the price of one.
Writing or Speaking – The winner is …
All in all, my opinion is that for most people out there, speaking is the superior learning method as it allows you to practice what probably matters to you the most – being able to communicate.
What’s more, writing offers almost no benefits memory-wise compare to speaking.
Having that said, you should remember that the ultimate answer might be more complicated for you. Some learn a language to write, some to watch movies and some to talk. Choose your goal and choose your preferred learning method accordingly.
Question for you:
What is your preferred way of using a language – speaking or writing? And why?
Never enough time. There is never enough time to get in shape or learn a language. Or even when there is time, you don’t seem to make much of the progress.
It doesn’t seem normal.
And it isn’t. There is a good chance you have contracted something I call “fluffoholism“. It’s a terrible ailment.
Fluffoholics are individuals who are very busy doing silly and insignificant activities. As a result, they either feel inadequate for not making progress or make some progress but can’t find time for anything else in their lives.
Of course, the truth is that we are all fluffoholics to some degree. The person who would concentrate only on relevant tasks would seem like an absolute genius to us mere mortals.
Let’s get it over with. My name is Bartosz, and I’m a recovering fluffoholic. This is what I have learned.
Work Hard and Smart – 3 Categories Of Activities
I like to categorize activities in the following way:
1) Low-intensity activities
It is a counterpart of lying in a cozy bed under a wool blanket with a mug of hot chocolate while your spouse scratches your head.
These are the tasks we tend to do the most. The “feel good” activities — the fluff which masks the real work. Usually, they have very little to do with making any progress.
Many industries prosper around these activities. It’s the apparent honey pot for the naive and lazy.
- “Learn how to pick up a girl without washing yourself”
- “Learn in your sleep”
- “Lose weight by eating Tacos and marshmallows”.
Duolingo – the Lazy Way to Learn Languages
In the world of language learning, it’s Duolingo. I get a lot of messages like this: “I have been using Duolingo for x months, and I completed all the levels, but when I talk to native speakers, they don’t seem to understand me. Oh, also, when I read, I don’t understand most of the things.”
Sure, it’s motivating. And it’s a pleasant past-time to have. But it isn’t nearly as effective as a lot of other activities. Like speaking, for instance. Other, almost evergreen and legendary language learning methods which allow an individual to achieve fluency include:
- “Learning by listening”
- “Learning by playing computer games”
- “Learning by watching TV”
How to tell if I am doing low-intensity activities?
Typically, you can do them for hours without any particular signs of fatigue. That’s all you need to know. If you feel like “that was fun,” it’s not the real work. It also means that you spend 5-10 x more time than people who do activities from the third category and get comparable results.
2) Moderate-intensity activities
It is a counterpart of getting out of bed and sitting down at the desk.
These activities require some energy from you, but they are not that tiring. It’s running 5 km when you already know that you can run ten if you want to. You still need to put your shoes on. You still need to go out and sweat. But in the end, the overall progress is not so significant.
In the world of language learning, it’s a B2 level. You can talk and express yourself relatively fluently.
You can read most of the articles you want. So you do. And you note down some words. But not too many because you’re already quite good.
How to tell if I am doing moderate-intensity activities?
Usually, you feel that you have to push yourself a bit to start. But once you do, it’s not that bad. Signs of fatigue tend to appear after 1-2 hours.
3) High-Intensity Activities (i.e., the Real Work.)
It is a counterpart of being mauled by a bear and teabagged by the seven muses at the same time.
It’s when you’d rather have a colonoscopy instead of carrying on with what you’re doing right now. The absolute opposite of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” approach. It’s the “there is always something broken, and I’ll find it” philosophy. It feels terrible. But it delivers incredible results.
How to tell if I am doing high-intensity activities?
After you finish learning, you’re sobbing softly and want somebody to hug you. And you feel damn proud. I like to think that it is our small Everest which we should climb daily.
It’s difficult to work hard and smart
I know that I should write every day to publish articles regularly. But I fail. Because they are never good enough, they are never inspiring enough.
I have read somewhere that the average time for writing an article is about 5 hours. It depresses me. It makes me feel like a failure. And I know I should come up with ideas daily. About three years ago, I read on the blog of James Altucher about the concept of becoming the idea machine.
The concept is simple – if you try to come up with ten ideas per day, in 6 months, your life should change significantly. Three years down the road, I’m still struggling to come up with ten ideas once every 3-4 days.
It’s disheartening, and it makes me feel like crap. But now and then, I manage to come up with great ideas. And my face lightens up when I send them to others. And I’m pretty sure their faces light up as well as these ideas change their lives. And that’s what it’s all about.
Remember – If you do not push, you are not practicing.
High-intensity Activities In Language Learning
One of the notoriously difficult activities in language learning is speaking.
- On an A1-A2 level, stringing more than a few words feels like a crucifixion.
- On a B1-B2 level, the challenge is to learn enough words (while improving your grammar) to be able to express yourself quite fluently.
- On a C1-C2 level, the challenge is to continually substitute the words you already know with dozens of other synonyms. It’s where you have to start saying “atrocity” instead of “that ugly thing,” or “marvelous” instead of “great.” (see The Word Substitution Technique)
It’s damn easy to play with Duolingo or Memrise for 1 hour. It’s much harder to open your mouth and start saying something.
Exemplary Results of Regular Conversation with Yourself
I like to highlight my students as an example. If they want to learn with me, they have to accept one condition – they have to bet with me. Each day, from Monday to Friday, I have to get a 10-minute recording of them talking to themselves.
It’s only 10 minutes. And yet, after three weeks, their level changes drastically. It’s almost unbelievable. The side effect is that they probably hate me, but, oh well – it works!
Not accidentally, talking to myself is how I learned Swedish to B2 level to get the job in less than four months without talking to anyone in this language.
How to Fix Your Learning Plan to Work Hard and Smart
It’s a deceptively simple recipe. But it’s hard to implement.
1. Define High-Intensity Activities in Your Domain
2. Start Doing Them at the Cost of Other (i.e., Low- and Medium-Intensity) Activities
Start small. You don’t have to do it for more than 20 minutes daily. Break this time into smaller chunks if you have to. With time, as you toughen up, the overall time spent on practice should be extended.
Remember – High-Intensity Activities Change with Time
You have to be aware that high-intensity activities change with time. They morph into medium- or low-intensity activities. What once was a nightmare can become a breeze with enough time. You should keep it in mind and adjust your learning strategies as you progress.
How to Work Hard and Smart – Summary
Being able to work hard and smart is not about perfectionism or turning into a workaholic. It’s about using whatever time you have to in the most efficient way. The critical step is identifying high-intensity activities in your target domain and executing them daily with relentless consistency.
It won’t be pleasant, but the results will speak for themselves. After all, if you decide to spend time to do something, make it count.
An added benefit is that once you learn how to work hard and smart, this skill that will benefit you all your life.
It’s time for part two of my miniseries on optimizing your learning! If you haven’t read the first part – click here. This time I will show you how to optimize your repetitions.
People like to see effective language learning, or any learning for that matter, as something mysterious. The opposite is true. There are just a couple of essential principles which you should follow if you want to become a quick learner.
Don’t get me wrong – effective learning gets more complicated; the faster you want to learn. And the more long-lasting memories you want to create.
Still, these principles can be applied by anyone, regardless of his sex, or age because the very little known truth is that we all learn, more or less, the same.
Forget about learning styles – they do not exist. I know. It sounds shocking. And it is probably even more surprising than you can imagine – one study showed that 93% of British teachers believe it to be exact!
But you and I, my friend, are not glittery and special snow-flakes. There are rules. And they are not to be treated lightly.
Let’s dig in.
How To Maximize Effectiveness Of Your Learning
Below you can find my list of the essential rules affecting your language learning progress. It’s far from being complete.
There are other rules and limitations, but the ones below are one of the easiest ones to implement.
To maximize your learning, you should make sure that:
1) Focus on active learning
If you only concentrate on reading and listening, you won’t get far. Your brain is terrible at memorizing things that you encounter occasionally.
I will get to this in a moment. But first, let’s start with basics – the process of memorizing can be depicted in the following three steps.
1) Encoding – involves initial processing of information which leads to the construction of its mental representation in memory
2) Storage – is the retention of encoded information in the short-term or long-term memory
3) Recall – is the retrieval of stored information from memory
As you can see, the first step in this process is encoding. I can’t stress this enough – if you don’t encode the information you learn, probably you won’t retain it. You should always, ALWAYS, do your best to manipulate the data you try to learn.
Let’s try to prove it quickly.
If I told you right now to draw the image of your watch, would you be able to do it? Would you be able to reproduce the exact look of the building you work in? Of course not, even though you come into contact with these things multiple times per day.
You do not try to encode such information in any way! If the human brain were capable of doing it, we would all go crazy. It would mean that we would memorize almost every piece of information which we encounter.
But this is far from the truth. Our brain is very selective. It absorbs mostly the information that:
a) Occurs frequently in different contexts
b) We process (encode) –in the domain of language learning, the simplest form of processing a given piece of information is creating a sentence with it
c) Is used actively
2) Optimize Your Repetitions
One of the best ways to optimize your repetitions is by using SRS programs. But what is Spaced Repetition?
Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.
Alternative names include spaced rehearsal, expanding rehearsal, graduated intervals, repetition spacing, repetition scheduling, spaced retrieval, and expanded retrieval.
The science behind SSR
How does the program know when to review given words?
Most of such programs base (more or less) their algorithms on Ebbinghaus forgetting curve (side note: it has been replicated many times in the last 50 years)
The curve presents the decline of memory retention in time, or if you look at it from a different perspective, it demonstrates the critical moments when the repetition of the given information should occur.
In theory, it takes about five optimized repetitions to transfer a word into long-term memory. But come on! Learning would be damn easy if this rule would be true for most of the people!
There are a lot of other variables which come into play:
- the difficulty of the learned material
- understanding of the material
- how meaningful it is
- representation of the material
- physiological factors: stress and sleep (among others)
- the size of the material
- processing of the material
And many others. Still, SRS programs give you the unparalleled upper hand in language learning!
3) Constantly step out of your comfort zone.
Why use the words which you already know, when you can use dozens of synonyms? You should always try to find gaps in your knowledge.
Of course, using SRS programs like ANKI is not to everyone’s liking. I get it. But let’s look at the list of alternatives, shall we?
What Happens If You Don’t Optimize Your Repetitions with SRS
Every learner has to face the following problems to learn new words (effectively).
- What process do you go through to learn a new word?
- Do you write it down? Where?
- How do you revise it later?
- How long does it take you to learn it?
- How many times do you have to see it before you know it?
- And how do you know when you really have learned it?
These aren’t some petty, meaningless decisions. These are the decisions that will heavily influence your progress curve.
Here’s an idea that a lot of people have: when you learn a new word, you write it down in a notebook. Then, every few days, you open the notebook and review all the words that you have learned so far.
It works well at first — you no longer forget everything you learn. But very soon it becomes a nightmare.
After you exceed about 1000 words, reviewing your vocabulary starts taking more and more time. And how do you know EXACTLY which words you should review or pay more attention to?
Usually, after no more than a few months, you throw your notebook into the darkest corner of your room and try to swallow the bitter taste of defeat.
Reviewing Algorithm Is the Foundation of Learning
It has to be said aloud and with confidence: you will never be as effective as programs in executing algorithms. And choosing when to review a word is nothing more than that – an algorithm.
Many oppose this idea of using SRS programs. And it is indeed mind-boggling why. At least for me. The results speak for themselves.
Currently, I am teaching over 30 people – from students, top-level managers to academics. And one of many regularities I have observed is this: Students of mine who use SRS programs regularly beat students who don’t.
How big is the difference?
One student of mine, Mathew, quite a recent graduate of Medicine faculty, passed a B2 German exam in just five months. He started from scratch and only knew one language before our cooperation.
At the same time, a Ph.D. from the local university barely moved one level up the language learning ladder. The only difference between them is that Mathew was very consistent with using ANKI (and other strategies).
Really. That’s it.
And it is not that surprising. The technology has been topping the most celebrated human minds for years now. Different AI programs have beaten top players at games like: chess, scrabble and quite recently Go.
Last year, deep learning machines beat humans in the IQ Test. It might seem scary. But only if we treat such a phenomenon as a threat. But why not use the computational powers of a computer to our advantage?
It would be ridiculous to wrestle with Terminator. It’s just as absurd trying to beat computers at optimizing repetitions.
But should everyone use such programs?
Should You Use SRS programs?
I know that you can still be unsure whether or not you should be using SRS programs. That’s why I have decided to create a list of profiles to help you identify your language learning needs:
1) I am learning only one language
If you are learning only one language, it’s reasonable to assume that you can surround yourself with it. In this case, using ANKI is not that necessary.
However, things change quite a bit if you are learning your first language, and you have NO previous experience with language learning.
In that case, better save yourself a lot of frustration and download ANKI.
2) I am a translator/interpreter (or pursue any language-related profession)
My imagination certainly has its limits since I can’t imagine a representative of any language-related profession that shouldn’t use SRS programs. The risk of letting even one word slip your mind is too high.
Just the material I have covered during my postgraduates studies in legal translation and interpreting amounts to more than 5000 specialized words.
If I wanted to rely on surrounding myself with languages to master them, I would go batshit crazy a long time ago. Who reads legal documents for fun?!
Even if you are not a translator/interpreter yet, but would like to become one in the future, do yourself a favor and download ANKI.
3) I learn 2 or more languages
Then I would strongly suggest using ANKI, especially if you would like to become fully fluent in them.
The math is quite easy. Getting to C1 level in 2 languages requires you to know about 20 thousand words. Of course, you should know at least 50-60% of them actively. This number might sound quite abstract, or maybe not that impressive, so let me put it in another way.
Knowing about 10 thousand words in a foreign language is equivalent to having an additional master’s degree. And you know damn well how much time it takes to accumulate this kind of knowledge! It is not time-efficient to acquire this knowledge without trying to optimize your repetitions.
Of course, you can find an exception to every rule. It is not that mentally taxing to imagine a situation where somebody uses one language at work and then another foreign language once they leave the office. Then maybe, just maybe, you can do without SRS programs.
Why You Should Optimize Your Repetitions – Summary
What do you think about SRS programs? Have you ever used any? Let me know, your opinion is important to me!
I don’t like waiting. It’s not that I can’t be patient – quite often, I don’t see the point. Especially in the world of language learning, the typical response to any question seems to be, “it will come with time” or “you will learn it subconsciously.”
It’s especially true for grammar.
If we exclude just a handful of enthusiasts, we can say that learning is one of the least favorite activities of most language learners. It’s a big, dark, and ugly maze. You have to learn how to handle it. Otherwise, it will chew you up and spit you out. And then crap on your face while you are sobbing pitifully.
The collective knowledge has it that you need plenty of time to learn your way around it. You have to fumble about in the dark until you finally crawl out of it. The whole process takes a heavy toll on the language learner’s motivation.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. The entire process can be accelerated at least several times, thanks to the deep learning (a.k.a. the deliberate practice).
It’s the methodology that has been used by the world’s top performers for over three decades. It can help you break grammar into easily digestible chunks. In other words, deep learning provides you with a step-by-step blueprint to master grammar of any language. It can replace any teacher if you know how to use it.
But let’s start with the basics.
Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice
Problems With Typical Approach To Learning Grammar
1. Feedback Is Not (Always) Enough
Try to imagine your average lesson. Not even group lessons – those are ineffective (though enjoyable for some). I mean 1-1 lessons.
Have you ever noticed that even though you often get feedback from your teacher, you still keep on making the same mistakes?
Here is why.
Learning almost always takes place in a chaotic and cluttered environment. At any given moment, there are dozens of dozens of pieces of information fighting for your attention. During your typical lessons, your teacher might correct you dozens of times. “Wrong pronunciation, wrong conjugation, wrong (…)”.
You are getting bitch slapped to a pulp by the feedback.
The problem is too much information. If you get too many pieces of information, it’s challenging to choose the ones which you should concentrate on — the ones which you will try to act upon.
In other words, to geek it up a bit:
The information overload which may hinder the integration of the new information into long-term memory. – source
“Why not correct a student about just one aspect of the language?”, you might think. This thought sounds tempting. And let’s be honest – yes, if you correct just one or two things, students will start correcting those mistakes much quicker. But there is a massive downside to this. If you don’t make a student aware of other mistakes he makes, he optimistically assumes that they are not there!
That’s even worse! By the time you get through previous grammar aspects, your student will already have consolidated dozens of other mistakes!
It’s like the grammar-hydra! Eliminate one mistake, and ten others take its place!
2. Passive Learning Is Not Efficient
Passive learning (i.e., reading and writing) won’t help either unless you invest significant amounts of time. So yes, it is possible to acquire decent grammar this way. However, if you want to learn many languages, it gets harder and harder to keep up with this input-heavy schedule.
But most of the time, seeing or hearing correctly composed sentences won’t make you utter the correct ones on your own. (read more about passive learning here)
Unless you think that reading about surgical procedures makes you a skilled surgeon. In that case – I rest my case. What you have to remember is that the deep understanding of most of the skills comes from using them. You won’t just wake up one day and suddenly start spewing beautiful sentences left and right.
3. The difficulty of Acquiring Rare Grammar Constructions
While it might not be a big deal for some, it is annoying for me. Some grammar constructions occur very rarely. So rarely that learning them through context seems almost absurd.
How long would I have to read to learn some of them? How many hundreds (thousands) of sentences would I have to read to find one or two written in, say, past perfect continuous? Crapload. That’s how many.
But if I can replace all these hours of reading and listening with just 2-3 hours of the deliberate practice, why wouldn’t I?
What Is Deep Learning (a.k.a. Deliberate Practice)?
Before I move on and show you how you can use it to improve your language learning skills, let’s try to define what deep learning is:
Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance. – source
Some common characteristics of deep learning include:
- it gives you a specific goal
- it requires your full attention
- it’s energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming
- it gives you feedback
Words, words, words! But what does it all REALLY mean?
1) You need a specific goal
Choose a grammar construction you have problems with, and which is useful at the same time.
For the sake of this article, I will use the declination of German definite articles. They are the stuff of nightmares for many and thus the perfect choice.
But that’s not over. There is one more thing which you have to remember about this goal.
If you can’t commit a given piece of grammar to your memory, it means that it’s too big.
Because the availability of working memory is crucial for implementing expectancy-based strategic actions.
If you fry your working memory, you can forget about effective learning. The most straightforward test possible you can run to check whether this condition is met is to try to reproduce the information you have just memorized. If you can do it without the excessive number of groans, then you are all set.
For the article, let’s assume that I want to master the Akkusativ form for “der,” “die,” and “das.” Let’s leave plural for some other time.
A quick sanity check confirms that I can comfortably reproduce the declination of the said forms.
2) it requires your full attention
As my beloved Hungarian proverb puts it:
“If you have one ass you can’t sit on two horses” .
You should only pay attention to the correct use of the given piece of grammar. If you make some other mistakes along the way – so be it.
“But doesn’t it mean that I will start consolidating some other grammar mistakes?”. That’s a fair question, but no – you won’t. The reason is painfully simple.
If you devote your full attention to using one grammar construction correctly, you won’t even notice other mistakes. It is how our attention works.
Here is a great video that exemplifies this phenomenon.
Have you seen that one already? Watch that one know.
These videos have a very sobering effect on all the people who claim to possess superior concentration power. And they prove one thing – it’s hard to consolidate something you don’t see.
3) It’s energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming
I am not going to lie to you. Deliberate practice is tedious and tiring. And that’s bad news because, in the era of modern technologies, everything must be fun and hip. However, if you want to achieve results quickly, I am sure that’s a trade-off you are willing to make.
In a nutshell, you build awareness of a given grammar construction by creating dozens upon dozens of sentences with it. It is what Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, wrote in one of her articles:
“What I had done in learning Russian was to emphasize not just understanding of the language, but fluency. Fluency of something whole like a language requires a kind of familiarity that only repeated and varied interaction with the parts can develop.
Where my language classmates had often been content to concentrate on simply understanding Russian they heard or read, I instead tried to gain an internalized, deep-rooted fluency with the words and language structure. I wouldn’t just be satisfied to know that понимать meant “to understand.”
I’d practice with the verb—putting it through its paces by conjugating it repeatedly with all sorts of tenses, and then moving on to putting it into sentences, and then finally to understanding not only when to use this form of the verb, but also when not to use it. I practiced recalling all these aspects and variations quickly.
After all, through practice, you can understand and translate dozens—even thousands— of words in another language.
But if you aren’t fluent, when someone throws a bunch of words at you quickly, as with normal speaking (which always sounds horrifically fast when you’re learning a new language), you have no idea what they’re actually saying, even though technically you understand all the component words and structure. And you certainly can’t speak quickly enough yourself for native speakers to find it enjoyable to listen to you.” – source
So how should you correctly practice deep learning?
What I usually recommend is to create at least 100 sentences with the given grammar construction within the next 5-7 days. But as always – the more, the better.
Make sure that every sentence is different from the previous one and that YOU are the one who comes up with these sentences.
- Ich habe den grossen Hund gehabt.
- Er hat mir das schöne Haus gekauft.
- Wir stellen den Teller auf den Tisch.
If you want to master grammar of any language asap, it will help you get there,
4) It gives you feedback
In the perfect world, there is always someone who can provide you with feedback. However, if you stick to the rules mentioned above, you should be able to produce grammatically correct sentences without any, or with minimal, supervision.
It’s only logical – if you try to do just one thing correctly, it won’t take long before you are fully aware that the construction you are using is applied appropriately.
You are better at monitoring your progress than you think.
Research has showed that individuals are able to monitor, control and regulate their behaviors in learning contexts, but all depends on the resources and the pedagogical approach used by the educators (Agina et al., 2011)
How to Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice – a Quick Summary
- Choose a small chunk of grammar
- Create at least 100 sentences with it
- Make sure that you can use it well enough
- Move on to another grammar construction
Benefits of Deliberate Practice
I like to look at every field of knowledge, as one might look at the deep lake. It seems enigmatic and sinister. You want to cross it, but you don’t know how. It’s the same feeling most people get when they see monstrous grammar books. Helplessness, fear, and doubt peek at you from every page of the book.
“How dare you think that you might ever learn all of this?!”, they seem to whisper.
And it’s true. Without any specific plan, mastering grammar of any language to a decent level might take ages. Deep learning provides you with such a plan.
Here are some advantages of this kind of approach:
1. It concentrates your attention
Your attention is restless and gets bored quickly. Like a small child or a merry drunk. You need to learn to tame it. And it is precisely what deliberate practice does. It focuses your attention on one thing and one thing only. It is especially important because
“Attention constrains learning to relevant dimensions of the environment, while we learn what to attend to via trial and error.” – source
2. It’s Time-Efficient
Concentrating your efforts on just one thing means one more thing – you save a lot of time. Don’t want to wait till your butt overgrows with moss, and you look like Keith Richards? Then the deliberate practice might be right up your alley.
Can I Use Deliberate Practice For Other Things Than Grammar?
Heck yeah! You can use it for almost anything – not only to master grammar of any language.
Trying to improve your pronunciation?
Start practicing these words in full sentences until the muscle memory is created.
Trying to improve your creativity?
Come up with 10-15 ideas (more about being creative here) for every problem you encounter. After 1-2 months, you will start noticing an enormous shift in your way of thinking. I know I did.
Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice – Summary
Even if you wouldn’t consider yourself a grammar-savvy person, the deliberate practice has the potential to accelerate your learning significantly.
It’s not very complicated, but don’t let the apparent simplicity of this method fool you. It’s just one of the few techniques I have seen in my life, which has worked every time and with every student.
Why not try it yourself?
Question – Have you ever tried to master grammar of any language with deliberate practice? Let me know!
I like to collect all sorts of nonsensical sayings about language learning. There is an overabundance of them, but one of my favorites is: "children learn quickly."
"Nonsense?!" you might say with indignation. "Don't all children speak well at a young age?"
I don't think we should be putting on a pedestal the mental achievements of a being for whom one of the more impressive skills is the ability to fart and sneeze simultaneously.
But let's not rely on guesses and assumptions. It's time to put on some "scientific" trunks and dive into the sea of scientific research to find out what the real pace of children's learning is.
Why Adults Learn Languages Faster
SIZE OF VOCABULARY IN CHILDREN AGED 1-7 years
To be able to count anything, we need to start with basic data and look at the average vocabulary of children aged 12 months (when they start to say the first words) up to the age of 7.
Due to the availability of data on this subject, I will use the numbers given for an average American child. I think that these numbers will still be a decent reflection of the average child for other languages, especially considering that English is one of the most lexically developed languages in the world.
DEFINITION OF WORDS
Remember that in linguistics, there is no single and strict definition of a word. Depending on the data, one word is, well, just one word (a unique selection and order of letters). In other studies, the word and all its inflections are counted as one word. For example, according to this classification, the words "jump," "jumped," "jumping," etc. are treated as one word. If you see a particularly large number in this table, it means that each word is counted separately.
The other data pool describes the average expressive vocabulary of children as follows:
- Children speak their first words around the 12th month. Some children need a little more time - about 16 months. However, it is believed that the later time horizon is still within the norm.
- At 18 months, children usually use about 50 words (but we don't worry too much unless they have less than 10-20).
- At 24 months, children usually have expressive vocabulary of 200-300 words (but we don't worry too much unless they have less than 50).
- At the age of 3, children can have 500 to 1100 words in their vocabulary.
- At 5-7 years, children have a vocabulary of 3000-5000 words.
SIZE OF VOCABULARY IN CHILDREN - EXCEPTIONS
Of course, it is worth remembering that this is average data. Depending on the child's intellectual predisposition and the upbringing, he or she may develop faster or slower.
For example, a child in the ninetieth percentile at 16 months knows the same number of words as a 26-month-old child in the tenth percentile.
Why this range?
There is at least one study (Hart and Risley, 2006), which suggests that the size of the vocabulary of a child aged three is closely related to the number of conversations that adults have with this child. Interestingly, the differences in language development and IQ in such children were still visible at the age of nine!
It is, of course, only a curiosity for anyone interested, especially current and future parents.
Let's return to our example. We already have the most important data; now, it is time for some calculations to prove that adults learn languages faster than children.
How Many Words a Day Does an Average Child Learn?
As an example, let's choose a 5-year-old child. And not just any child! Suppose he is little John von Neumann, and he already knows 6,000 words - a number that is well above the average for this age.
Of course, let us assume that the child of this age also has decent grammar and can put these words together quite appropriately.
This extraordinarily well-developed child had about 1,825 days from birth, or 1,460 days since pronouncing the first word, to master 6,000 words.
His average learning pace is therefore:
- 3.29 words per day (from birth)
- 4.11 words per day (from 12 months)
How do these numbers make you feel?
I can only assume that "Well, four words a day. Respect. Hats off. How do they do it?!" is not the first thought to cross your mind. There is nothing impressive about these numbers. Instead, they show one thing: young children learn very slowly.
If you can stand the deadly pace of learning 5 words per day, you'll do better than our wise, exemplary child. It's heartwarming, eh?
The Pace of Learning in Older Children
It is worth remembering that for every person, also for a child, the so-called snowball effect applies.
The snowball effect states that the greater your knowledge (especially in a given field), the faster you can learn.
It means, more or less, that the older the child is, the more new words will be learned per day on average. Many sources say that later in adolescence, this number ranges between 10-14 words (Lipsett / Mehrabian and Owens numbers are from Language Development - An Introduction; Robert E. Owens, Jr .; Allyn and Bacon; 1996).
I will repeat my question: Is such a pace in any way crazy and exceeds the capabilities of an adult? Surely not.
Remember that the snowball effect also applies to you - the more words you know, the faster you will learn more. Besides, as an adult, you have a whole range of attributes and skills unavailable to children:
All these factors make you a real harvester of knowledge!
Adults Learn Languages Faster - Summary
Let it be said again - adults learn languages faster than children!
I have witnessed incredible language acquisitions of people who thought that they could not learn quickly (or that it was impossible), and who within 10 months reached the level of B1 / B2 in the language of their choice (you can read more about it here).
Such a pace of learning exceeds the abilities of even the most gifted children. I think that if we would like to learn something from children, it would be to be persistent in pursuing a goal.
I hope that moving forward you will be more optimistic about your abilities!
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.
But how can you practice speaking on your own?
How to Practice Speaking with Yourself
- visit iteslj.org/questions
- choose a subject you want to discuss
- start answering the questions and do it out loud!
Don’t know a word? Write it down. Do you know a word? Try to find a synonym! Depending on your preferences, you might look it up immediately or save it for later.
You can even scribble these questions on a piece of paper and write down needed vocabulary on the flip side. It will allow you to answer the same question again in the following days.
Q: Why do you hate Kate? (translated into your target language)
A: (needed vocabulary) brainless chatterbox, pretentious
Don’t Be Too Serious – Have Fun
As you can see, you don’t need to be serious when you answer these questions.
Heck, the questions themselves don’t need to be serious!
Q: Have you ever tried eating with your feet?
Q: If you were a hot dog, what kind of hot dog would you be?
The greatest thing of all about learning to talk like this is that nobody judges you. You might mispronounce words in your first try. You might forget them.
And guess what? Nothing. Nothing will happen.
Once you get good and confident enough, you can start talking with others.
I find it quite often to be more effective than real conversations. I know, I know. On the surface, it might seem absurd. There is no interaction, after all.
However, if you look beyond the superficial, you will be able to see that self-talk offers you a lot of opportunities that real-life conversations can’t.
For example, self-talk gives you a chance to activate less frequent words.
I can talk for 20 minutes with myself about cervical cancer. Could I do it with someone else? Let’s try to imagine such a conversation.
– “Hi, Tom! Wanna talk about cervical cancer? It will be fun! I promise!”
– “Stay away, you weirdo!’
– “Cool! Some other time then.”
3) Write instead of talking
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:
Don’t want to talk to others? Don’t worry. You still might activate your vocabulary. Start writing daily. Anything really will do. It can be a diary, a blog, some observations.
Make it difficult for yourself and choose some difficult subject to jog your mind. It can even be some erotic novel! “The secret erotic life of ferns,” for example. Yep. I like this one.
4) Condition yourself
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
Once you learn that all that gloom and doom is only in your head, you can start modifying your behavior (you can read more about it in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn. Highly recommended!)
You can leverage this rule and condition yourself to become a braver version of yourself. Maybe you won’t get I-will-slay-you-and-take-your-women brave in two weeks, but it will get you started.
Your action plan is simple but not easy.
Find situations where you can expose yourself to stressors
As Oscar Wilde used to say, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” And only you know how deep you are stuck in this anxiety gutter.
Choose your first task accordingly, and move your way up from there. Don’t make it too easy or too hard on yourself.
Some of the things you might do are:
Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety – Conditioning Strategies
a) HIGH ANXIETY LEVELS – post your comments:
- in one of FB language groups
- under a YT video
- popular tweets
- an article on Reddit or some other website
In other words, just leave a comment somewhere. You don’t even have to go back to check responses!
b) MEDIUM ANXIETY LEVELS (exchanging messages)
- register at Italki.com and write to just one language exchange partner
- download HelloTalk and write to someone
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 some 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
- Condition yourself
- 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.
Lastly, you don’t have to limit yourself to activating your vocabulary only through speaking. Writing is also a very desirable option.
Back to you.
Can you share any tricks/methods which helped you overcome your language learning anxiety?
No advice is too small or trivial. As always, feel free to comment or drop me a message.
Before I explain how to improve listening skills in a foreign language, I have one thing to confess.
You wouldn’t believe how long I’ve ignored this skill! I was convinced that mastering grammar and vocabulary is, more or less, enough to have a decent conversation with foreigners. And that these competencies will take care of the rest.
Boy, oh boy, was I wrong! Of course, like all the theories, it all seemed rosy until it got confronted with reality.
How to Improve Listening Skills in a Foreign Language
My “Brilliant” Theory
Years ago, I was obsessing about German. I rolled up my sleeves, got down to work, learned about 8000 words, and got a pretty good grasp of grammar. I could say almost anything I wanted without being too vague. It felt great!
Not so long afterward, I got a chance to visit France. I met an elderly German couple there. “That’s my chance to socialize! That’s my chance to SHINE!”, a naive thought crossed my mind. I approached them and asked them some questions. You know, just an ordinary small-talk.
What happened just a moment later left nasty scars on my linguistic self-esteem.
What came out of their mouths was absolute nonsense. They could have, as well, farted with their armpits. My face went red as I asked them, time and time again, to repeat what they had just said. Just one more time. But slower. DAMN YOU! Slower and clearer, I said! And there I stood with glassy eyes, staring at the debris of what was once my theory.
Listening as a Key Language Competence
I guess what I am trying to say is that listening is critical. Since the failure mentioned above, I’ve met many people who are fully functional in the language of their choice just because they understand what they hear.
It’s not that surprising when you think about it. EVERY complex skill consists of several smaller elements. These elements, in turn, are composed of even tinier parts.
Roughly said, communication is nothing more than being able to understand what you hear and being able to express yourself. But as I so painfully learned, listening is much more critical. That’s what makes any social interaction possible.
Since then, I established listening and speaking as a core of my language skills. These skills require an immediate response.
Listening provides you with more sensory channels, such as emotions, hearing visual stimuli (when you listen and watch something). That’s why it’s much easier for you to remember real-life conversations than excerpts from articles.
The final and essential reason to opt for listening is that nobody cares if you read or write slowly. While doing these things, you can typically take your time to double-check anything your heart desires.
“Smith is such a slow reader. I think I’ll fire him.”. Yep, I also have never heard of such a situation. However, it is essential to note that writing and reading are interconnected with speaking and listening. And the progress in any of these areas influences one another.
Improve Listening Skills – Find the Right Resources
Do you have to go through the preparation before the listening practice? Of course not. But don’t be too surprised if you end up getting frustrated quickly or bitterly realize that your progress is excruciatingly slow.
So, where should you start?
FIND THE RIGHT RESOURCES
You might wonder what “right resources” means. The answer is – it depends.
Beginners / Intermediate Learners
If you fall into this category, you should find some simplified materials where the speech is slower, clearer, and ideally – transcribed.
If you’re at least on a B2 level, it means that the only right solution for you is to lay your hands on original programs, talk shows, movies, etc. in your target language.
GET YOUR RESOURCES HANDY
Do you know this annoying feeling when you promise yourself something, and then you can’t seem to force yourself to follow through?
Why is that?
Well, the research (and experience) has it that if you need to spend more than 20 seconds to start doing something, there is a big chance that you’ll fail. The “activation time” should be as short as possible. Choose one or two programs to listen to and make sure that they are just a click away.
Improve Listening Skills – Pre-practice Tips
- Come to terms with the fact that you are not going to understand everything for a long time.
- Listen as often as it’s only possible. Listen while doing household chores. Do it when you’re at the gym. Listen when you’re in a car. You get it. LISTEN!
- Don’t get annoyed when you don’t understand something. Stress is your archenemy in learning. It’s like with Tibetan throat singing. You won’t be able to wrap your head around it at the beginning. Hmm, I need to work on my comparisons.
- And no matter what, don’t give up, you softie! Grin and bear it!
- Do not translate into your native tongue. You should be entirely focused on a speaker, not the translation process.
- Listen to something you enjoy.
- Prepare before listening – quite often it’s possible to check what the news or some program is about. Thanks to this knowledge, you can prepare vocabulary beforehand. If you’re not sure about words that might be used, try to brainstorm them.
- Remove distractions – you know why. Interestingly, they’re a welcome addition when you already understand much as they make your listening practice more natural.
- Set a goal. You can listen for meaning, for sounds, for tones, for a melody, or stress.
- If you find listening incredibly dull, try to gamify your practice – e.g., give yourself 1 point each time when you hear a word starting with P. Or drink one shot of Tequila. Just make sure it’s fun for you!
- Build sound recognition. Do you know the most distinctive sounds of your target language? No? Then move to Part 3 of this series. Such knowledge can considerably accelerate your understanding capabilities!
- Be aware of how the language changes when it’s spoken. I can’t stress this one enough. If you know how the sounds connect, when they are deleted or inserted, you’ll need much less time to progress!
Look at this example: What are you going to do – Whaddya gonna do?
Being aware of the fact that when a consonant of one word neighbors a vowel of another word, it makes you pronounce these two separate words as one, can help you tremendously with your listening practice.
That’s why you pronounce – “it is” as one word – “itis.”
Another example from English is the transformation of [d] and [y]. When these sounds neighbor each other, they are transformed into [dʒ]
[d] + [y] = [dʒ]
Strategies To Follow During Listening Practice
Throughout the years, I’ve managed to come up with quite many solutions on how I can improve my listening capabilities. Digest them at your own pace, take what you need, and ignore the rest.
- Listen for the gist of the conversation. Once you understand it, move on to details
- When you watch materials in original, observe mouths of actors/hosts and read their lips.
- Try to understand the non-verbal communication of your speaking partner (actors, etc.).
- Listen to the melody of the language
- Once you get accustomed to the melody of the language, try to separate the ongoing flow of words by (e.g.) pressing your fingers against a table whenever you hear that some word is accented. It’s my favorite trick. Interestingly, sometimes, when I listen to French and perform the said activity, I can understand almost every word. Once I stop, my understanding goes down significantly.
- Concentrate on sounds that are foreign to you. This technique can also help you maintain your concentration.
- Listen to the first and last letter of a word. It’s especially helpful when you’re just starting your listening practice. In this case, this technique will help separate different words. S ..sm…(smile?), smi…(smirk? smite?), smit… (smite?!), smith (I knew it!)
- Use logic to conclude what will follow (get in the habit of guessing).
- Listen to a recording more than once. At first, to understand the gist and then to get details.
- Slow down the speed of recording. For this purpose, use Audacity, AllPlayer, or simply YouTube.
- Speed up the speed of the recording to extend your comfort zone and then move back to an actual pace.
- Remember that listening is an active process, note down any phrases or words which you find interesting or don’t understand.
Improve Listening Skills – Summary
Improving listening skills is one of the two most important language skills. Unfortunately, it’s is also terribly time-consuming.
The strategies mentioned above will undoubtedly help you to get faster to the finish line, i.e., understand your target language. Still, you need to keep in mind that the secret sauce is patience.
Permanently banish any thoughts of giving up. It is the only way to become successful in language learning.
That’s all, folks! Do you know other listening strategies to improve listening skills? I’d love to hear them! Let me know in the comments.
Important Factors Affecting Listening Comprehension – the Only Two That Matter If You Want to Understand ASAP
Listening comprehension is quite universally known to be one of the most, if not the most, demanding language skill.
A lot of learners struggle for many years to be able to understand even 90% of a conversation. And it gets worse. The number of language learners who are capable of understanding almost every word they hear amounts to a few percents.
All The Factors Affecting Listening Comprehension
Listening comprehension is a quite complex beast as it consists of lots of smaller sub-beasts, or sub-skills if you will. As you will see in a moment, almost everything can affect your level of listening comprehension.
1. Your pronunciation
This is the exact reason why you might understand a typical accent from a given country but you will struggle with a dialect. Simply, at this point, your internal representations are not broad enough to encompass new external representations.
Read more: How to improve your pronunciation.
2. Your grammar
It’s much more difficult to understand the deeper meaning of an utterance if you don’t know how different words come together. Don’t worry. You don’t have to concentrate on learning every single grammar construction in your target language. Simply start with the functional grammar.
3. Knowledge of how sounds merge or get reduced
Unfortunately, not everything is what it seems. It certainly seems to be the case with sounds. In almost any language there is a tendency of different sounds to be reduced (e.g. vowel reduction) or to be merged (read more about phonological changes).
If you don’t grasp how these changes happen, it will take you much longer to decipher the ongoing stream of speech.
4. Your overall listening time
5. Visual support
6. Vocabulary size
It’s as clear as day. The more words you know, the easier it is to fish them out of a recording. If your current vocabulary is, say, 1000 words and you can’t figure out why you don’t understand much, this might be the reason.
The Two Most Important Factors Affecting Listening Comprehension
It’s always crucial to know what constituent of some skill is the most important. Skills are difficult enough as they are. However, without any semblance of prioritization, you might spend too much time floundering about desperately.
You might think about what I am about to propose to you as yet another application of the Pareto principle.
As a reminder:
The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
And, as you will shortly see, even among these two, there is one which is clearly more important.
1. The total amount of listening practice
2. The size of your vocabulary
There is a very good reason why the name of my language learning course is Vocabulary Labs and not something else.
The size of your vocabulary is the most reliable predictor of language progress there is. Without knowing a lot of words, improving your listening comprehension will prove very difficult.
Let me demonstrate it.
First, improving your listening comprehension can be understood as:
- getting used to the prosody of your target language
- picking up words you know from the ongoing stream of speech
What’s more, we know from the literature that for most languages, 3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). 5000 words, in its turn, will enable you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997))(read more about levels of comprehension and vocabulary size).
It’s somewhat agreed that getting accustomed to the prosody doesn’t take that much time. That leaves us with the second task you have to face: fishing out words from the stream of speech.
If your vocabulary size is 200, how many percents of words are you able to pick up?
Calculate Your Listening Effectiveness
Let’s calculate this, and let’s treat 5000 words as our perfect reference point as this number of words would allow you to understand most of the things you would hear.
200/5000 = 0.040 = 4%
We have arrived at the number 4% but what does it really tell us?
It means that your listening effectiveness per 1 minute or hour of listening practice is 4%.
So yeah, you can spend hundreds of hours trying to improve your comprehension, but it may turn out that it won’t change too much.
What if you started listening to recordings with the vocabulary of 1000 words?
1000/5000 = 0.20.= 20%
At this point, your listening effectiveness would increase fivefold! Let me formulate it slightly differently – learning just 800 words can greatly increase your listening comprehension.
And this is the exact reason why I advocate listening practice only once you master at least 2000 words (or even more). Having such a vocabulary optimizes your learning time and allows you to progress much faster than others without having to waste more hours.
One exception to this rule (i.e., what drastically increases your listening comprehension)
Of course, keep in mind that my listening effectiveness model is simplistic in one aspect.
If you learn a language which is already similar to the ones you already know, your passive vocabulary knowledge will allow you to pick up words which are similar to the ones you are familiar with.
For example, if I decide to learn Russian, which shares about 40% of words with Polish, my starting listening comprehension will be about 40%!
However, that still means that if you increase your vocabulary size with the words you don’t, your listening effectiveness will go up even higher!
Important Factors Affecting Listening Comprehension – Summary
I first published my article “How to learn German from scratch to a B2 level in 5 months,” a couple of years ago. Back then, one statement of mine seemed to spark a lot of controversies.
I forbade Mathew to read and listen to anything for first three months. Actually, if you know how to acquire vocabulary, you do not context to do it. You can learn first 3-5 thousand words simply from frequency lists. It allows you to save a lot of time simply by not being forced to go through all those crappy dialogs in textbooks.
And I get it. This piece of advice went against everything most people have been taught in schools. It also contradicted almost every strategy proposed by my fellow polyglots. However, as time goes by, there seem to be more and more studies that confirm this theory.
Studies confirming the importance of the aforementioned factors affecting listening comprehension
[[ … ]] it was revealed that the ability of learners to make connections between highly common English words appears to be dependent on the number of words they know. The more words they know, the more connections they are able to identify. At present, it is not known whether this ability to make connections is a cause or a result of knowing the meanings of more words, or if it is a combination of both.
[[ … ]] it is also hoped that new avenues shall be explored that focus more deeply on what it means to know a word and the role of lexical retrieval and memory in L2 lexical processing. At present, to its detriment, the field of L2 vocabulary studies remains remarkably insular.
The conclusion is as follows – if you want to improve your listening comprehension asap, you have to, first of all, increase your vocabulary size. Only then does it make sense to devote a lot of time to listening practice.
My advice to you is this – if you want to improve your listening comprehension, you should concentrate on expanding your vocabulary size first (don’t forget about mastering functional grammar). Only then should you gradually increase your overall listening time while still increasing the numbers of words you know.
Do you agree with my theory that the vocabulary size is the most important factor affecting listening comprehension? Let me know in the comments!
I wonder if you’re like me when it comes to tracking your progress?
I used to hate it passionately. I mean, how much geekier can you get? And all these vain people scrupulously jotting down their weight. Pathetic!
And then, one day, I decided to buy myself scales. I joyously stepped on them to see that I hit 100 kg mark. WHAT?! I came to my senses around that time and started tracking, not only my weight but my learning progress as well.
Can you imagine a runner who runs around and one day shouts out: “I’m gonna win a marathon”! And then an older man standing nearby strikes a conversation, something along these lines:
– “That’s amazing! So what’s your best time so far?”
+ “Best? Uhmm, dunno, really. I guess it’s not that important to me.”
– “Have you ever run a marathon before?!”
+ “I’m not sure. But once I ran so long that my feet hurt and I had an ouchie.”
That would be weird, right? And yet, a lot of us do it. The question is: Why?
Why You Should Track Your Progress in Language Learning – Habituation
Not only is it a cool word, but also one of the most critical (and frequent) processes that occur in our lives!
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 that is no longer biologically relevant. For example, organisms may habituate to repeated sudden loud noises when they learn these have no consequence. The Almighty Wikipedia
And therein lies the rub. We get used to our current skills level. And that’s why we NEED tracking. The best part is that it does not need to be sophisticated to be effective.
At the bare minimum, it should be able to show you if you’re moving in the right direction or moving at all. The chance is that you’re spinning your wheels knee-deep in a turd ocean of self-admiration!
6 Ways To Track Your Progress In Language Learning
Of course, to start tracking anything, you need a place to note your progress. Remember, it doesn’t have to be high-tech. You can use a notebook, Google spreadsheet, Excel, or Calc (Open Office).
I assume that you already use Anki. If you don’t, download it immediately (unless you use some other spatial repetition program).
ANKI makes tracking your progress easy. The first important piece of information for us is the number of words you’ve covered so far.
Read more about Why Most Spaced Repetition Apps Don’t Work and How to Fix It.
If you see that within a month you’ve moved from 406 to 700, it’s a clear sign that you’re on the right path.
The second thing worth tracking is the recall rate (especially correct mature).
This piece of information tells us how well you remember the information you learn. If it’s alarmingly low (below 40-50%), it’s a signal that you should seriously consider improving your learning techniques.
Usually, we either read e-books (e-articles) or paper ones. In my opinion, you should track the medium which you use more frequently. When it comes to reading, a good tracking criterion is to note down the number of pages you’ve read.
It doesn’t matter whether you listen to podcasts, music, or watch TV-series. Tally it up and enter the data.
If you write mostly online, start counting how many words you have written (use Word Count Tool). Otherwise, start counting the number of pages you’ve written.
It’s not the easiest thing to track. I’ve never done it as I prefer tracking words. But if you know that speaking is your absolute priority – go for it. Check when the Skype conversation or a meeting with your friend starts and when it finishes, and sum up the total number of hours.
If you put effort into your learning, I’m sure that after just a few weeks, you’ll be amazed to see what you’ve accomplished so far!
It sounds daunting, and I agree. But for me, it comes naturally. As I’ve written before, preparing the outline of grammar is something that should be done before you start learning a language on your own.
Once you have it, start crossing out the grammar topics which you’ve covered or just put a date next to them. It shows how much further grammatically you should get to achieve a certain level.
Benefits Of Tracking Your Progress
1) you never hit a plateau
You see and know that you’re making progress.
2) increased motivation
You can admire your hard work at any time. Open Excel and take a look at yourself, you sexy, hard-working beast! And that helps you stay focused.
3) instant feedback
You see when you slack off or that your learning methods need a change. The data don’t lie! Also, it helps you see patterns in your learning.
4) you don’t focus on the negative
It’s a sad fact, but we tend to focus on negative things in life. Your successes stop giving you joy after a couple of days. We lose sight of our achievements. Your language log will keep on reminding you about them!
Track Your Progress In Language Learning – Summary
I love how language learners usually approach grammar. Or grammar books to be more precise! These vademecums seem to adapt the form of slimy, leprosy-ridden yet magical gnome. You know that if you rub its butt long enough, it will grant you your wish. You will be bestowed with the knowledge and wisdom of the language of your choice.
The ultimate prize sounds great. But somehow, it doesn’t entice you to lay your hands on this filthy creature. Not too often anyway.
No wonder. One look at any enormous grammar book sends shivers down my spine.
Because opening a grammar book is like teleporting yourself into the middle of a language maze. It’s hard to find your way out. Everything seems to be so random and chaotic.
Rules. Rules. More rules. You take a left turn, and you get punched in the stomach. You turn to your right, and you get kicked in the head. Only when you take a few steps back and leave the maze, you begin to see things differently. There are patterns. A lot of patterns. And there is one object, almost the artifact, that can grant you this kind of perspective.
The Grammar Cheat Sheet.
A Case For Grammar Cheat Sheet
It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner in language learning or a mean linguistic son-of-a-gun. A grammar cheat sheet should be an indispensable part of your learning arsenal.
Before I dive into some of the main reasons why you should embrace grammar cheat sheets, I want to share with you a story about my youngest student.
I usually don’t teach kids. It’s a frustrating experience. I am sure that most parents can relate to! Anyway, Adrian is ten years old and a really bright kid. Although amazingly lazy.
Our first lesson revealed that his collective vocabulary amounted to about 40-70 words. After four damn years of his formal English education, he couldn’t say, well, anything. Of course, he couldn’t even use the words he knew in a sentence.
Not a very promising beginning, right?
However, after explaining the most basic English and writing them on his grammar cheat sheet, something seemingly impossible happened.
He got it, I didn’t even expect it, but he got it!
Eleven hours into our English adventure, he is already able to build basic sentences in 4 tenses he knows. Sure, it takes him some time. The sentences are far from perfect. He still needs to resort to the grammar cheat sheet now and then. But again – 10 hours of dedicated learning beat four years of education.
I’ve had a chance to see more of such success stories with adults. But somehow, this story is the one that stuck with me.
6 Reasons To Create A Grammar Cheat Sheet
1) It Gives You Clarity
Grammar doesn’t look half as scary when it is on one piece of paper. Just take a look at the Japanese grammar cheat sheet (don’t worry if you don’t know Japanese – neither do I.)
Everything is presented in a clear and transparent form. One glance at this page makes us want to learn this language!
It also helps you to concentrate on all the most critical aspects of the language. It’s much easier to notice different patterns. And pattern recognition is something of tremendous value in enhancing memory, mind you!
2) It Decreases the Activation Energy
Activation energy is the initial energy needed to start acting. The more time and steps it takes to start doing something, the higher the chance you won’t do it.
Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.
Guess what? It’s much easier to look up a couple of grammar constructions if they are on one piece of paper than:
- a) recall the location of one of x grammar books you have
- b) thumb through it just to realize that it’s not the right one
- c) chew off a couple of pages in an outburst of rage
- d) sit in the corner and cry deeply
3) It Changes Your Approach to Learning
Most language learners flinch at the mere thought of browsing a grammar book because it’s dull. Oh, so stupefyingly dull.
The thing is that the more times you experience this unpleasantness, the more you condition yourself to dislike opening grammar books.
The peak-end rule says that:
People exhibit better memory for more intensely emotional events than less intensely emotional events (…), the atypicality of extreme memories can lead people to believe those extreme moments are representative of the “set” being judged.
4)It Promotes Learning Independence
Having just one piece of paper that provides you with essential information about the languages can help you become a more effective independent learner.
Whenever one of my students doesn’t know how to create some grammar construction, I always refer them to their cheat sheets. On the surface, it might seem bizarre.
“What the hell is this dude getting money for?”
But the thing is that building a sentence is like doing puzzles. Every piece of a puzzle is a word. Grammar tells us where the given piece should be placed. That’s why, after taking a look at the cheat sheet a couple of times, every student becomes intimately familiar with it.
Using the language ceases to be some voodoo magic. It becomes a logical step-by-step process of putting puzzle pieces into their rightful place.
That’s also the reason why it’s much easier to convince my students to talk with themselves. They don’t need me so desperately anymore.
The said piece of paper can substitute a teacher to some degree!
5) It Helps You Relearn Languages
A lot of knowledge we acquire throughout our lives gets forgotten. At least this is how we commonly refer to the phenomenon of not being able to recall information. However, perhaps the more accurate word, in this case, is “inaccessible”.
The knowledge you have acquired probably remains in your long-term memory. Here is what the research conducted by the Association for Psychological Science in 2009 has to say about it:
As it turned out, even though the volunteers showed no memory of the second language in the vocabulary test, they were able to quickly relearn and correctly identify phonemes that were spoken in the neglected language.
Psychologists Jeffrey Bowers, Sven L. Mattys, and Suzanne Gage from the University of Bristol found out in another research that:
(…) even though the volunteers showed no memory of the second language in the vocabulary test, they were able to quickly relearn and correctly identify phonemes that were spoken in the neglected language.
6) It Makes You More Fluent
There is this great saying I love.
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
The same goes for grammar. We are cognitive misers. We don’t want to use our deposits of cognitive energy if it’s unnecessary. That’s why we cling to the grammar constructions we feel warm and comfortable with.
Seeing all the other constructions, which you don’t use at the moment, in one place can be thought-provoking. It acts as a reminder of different possible ways to express yourself and jars you out of grammar lethargy.
Because, all in all, this is what grammar is – the scaffolding which enables us to build proper sentences. And you can’t make even a ramshackle hut if all you got are some measly sticks.
The Most Important Rule For Creating a Grammar Cheat Sheet
There is just one rule you should keep in mind if you decide to create your grammar cheat.
Make it clear and concise
Your cheat sheet shouldn’t be bigger than one A4 page. It should only contain all the essential grammar rules. Resist the temptation to jot down all the grammar exceptions and constructions nobody even uses.
Blah, blah. It sounds obvious. But very often, once you start creating your cheat sheet, the urge to include as much information as it is only possible sprouts uncontrollably. All so well known voice whispers, “Dude, don’t forget to increase THIS rule. And THAT one as well! Screw it! Rewrite the book! Muahahaha.”
The next thing you see is a 40-page behemoth. If you need more information, you can always create a second grammar cheat sheet for more advanced concepts.
However, usually, it is unnecessary. All you need are the essential rules. You will pick up the rest once you start surrounding yourself with a language (and using it).
Grammar Cheat Sheet – Summary
For reasons I am yet to grasp, grammar cheat sheets are underappreciated and underutilized tools in language learning. While it may take some time to prepare one on your own, it is usually a much better choice than buying one.
Reason? Most of the paid ones suck big time. Don’t be afraid to put some time upfront. You will reap the benefits of this investment for months (or years) to come.
Would you like to be able to memorize a whole book? What about those boring declination tables?
Silly question. Who wouldn’t?
One way or the other, you have heard of fantastic memory feats of mnemonists – memorizing decks of cards or thousands of digits. And all this seemingly effortlessly.
Mnemonics have the power to stimulate the imagination. They definitely stimulated mine.
This dream, the dream of being able to memorize anything I want, triggered the chain of events which made me embark on a bumpy journey/
Destination? To discover the actual effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics and master my memory.
Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics In Learning – My First Experience
What Are Mnemonics?
Before we move on, it’s good to explain what mnemonics are quickly. In short, mnemonics are devices to aid our overburdened memory.
They are used to facilitate efficient encoding by associating new information with the knowledge which is already stored in your long-term memory (Johnson & Weber, 2006 as cited in Gibson, 2009).
Probably the most common mnemonic device the so-called keyword method coined by Atkinson (1975). It is used to make meaningful auditory and imagery links to remember a word.
For example, if you want to remember that “to buy” in Spanish is “comprar,” you might create a vivid picture of a man who compares prices of products before the purchase. Not that complicated, right?
Let’s see now what science has to say about mnemonics.
Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Learning – an Overview of the Scientific Literature
There is a large body of research about mnemonics. However, probably the most interesting study up-to-date was led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky and released in April 2013 by the Association for Psychological Science.
In a comprehensive report, the group of authors carefully examined ten learning tactics and rated them from high to low utility based on the evidence they’ve gathered.
If you are expecting mnemonics to be among the most useful strategies, don’t hold your breath. They didn’t even come close to the top of the list.
” According to the authors, some commonly used techniques, such as underlining, rereading material, and using mnemonic devices, were found to be of surprisingly low utility.“
Clearly, people with untrained memory would not be able to come close to these results. Still, the report says clearly – mnemonics might not be the best use of your time.
Of course, I must be perfectly honest with you. There are a lot of studies which show that using mnemonics might be very beneficial for (among others):
- memorizing names
- learning vocabulary
- learning math
What’s even more important, some studies showed memory improvement with students with disabilities, as described by Fulk (1994) and Bulgren et al. (1994).
And these are just a few of them and they all state clearly – mnemonics are statistically more effective.
Effective than what?! And why didn’t I include these studies here then?
Problems With Studies On The Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Learning
Having read dozens of studies on mnemonics, I can divide the flaws of these studies into the following categories:
a) Statistical sample is not representative
Do you know how to recognize bad, bullshit science at first glance? Look at the sample.
To generalize, any number below 100 participants means that researchers just threw your tax money into the gutter.
b) Control groups suck
Do you know what the usual control group against mnemonics-using students is? Rote learning students.
Ugh, it’s like watching some bizarre boxing match. “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s gather around to enjoy this very duel – a retarded shrimp vs. quite an ordinary shrimp.”
c) Laboratory settings
99,9% of these studies are conducted in laboratory settings. And there is quite a yawning gap between research in areas of everyday memory (i.e., field research) and lab-controlled research.
The Hawthorne effect is one of the things which comes to mind.
“A type of reactivity in which individuals modify or improve an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed“
It’s tough to generalize such results to other settings
What’s more, so-called low ecological validity comes into play. The laboratory is clearly an artificial situation. People are directed by an ‘experimenter’ in a psychological experiment. They are removed from their natural social settings and asked to memorize different sets of data.
This is a very unusual experience that raises the question – how do this novel experience and settings really affect their behavior and memory?
Still, lab research is better than no research at all.
d) Time horizon
Most studies are conducted over a relatively short period. It’s rarely spread over more than 3-4 weeks. As you will soon read, this is why most studies prove the effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics.
e) Nature of the tasks
Are mnemonics useless?
Am I saying that mnemonics are useless then? Not at all. They can be insanely useful.
But you must understand what they are and what they aren’t. I quoted the excerpt from John Dunlosky’s report for two reasons:
- 1) It tested different learning strategies against one another.
- 2) More importantly, it examined the effects of those strategies in LONG-TERM learning.
And this is what mnemonics are not.
They are not a suitable tool for long-term learning.
At least not in the form they are usually presented.
If you are not pressed for time, you can get by without any problems without using mnemonics.
They are also not a panacea for all your memory problems. It is just another tool in your learning arsenal.
If you have ever read anything by any author, who promotes/sells anything mnemonics-related, you might find it hard to believe. Don’t worry. I also felt disillusioned. And I had good reasons.
Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Learning – My Experiments
Inevitable drop in recall rate always came after more than four weeks.
And this is precisely why most scientific studies seemingly prove the effectiveness of mnemonics. They test them in labs in short periods.
Once again, I would like to stress that mnemonics can be immensely useful. Useful both for recalling random information as well as helping you achieve high levels of expert performance. Just not for long-term learning.
Read on, and I will show how they can be utilized best. But first, to have a full picture of what you’re dealing with, take a look at the limitations of mnemonics.
Limitations And Disadvantages Of Mnemonics
- Gruneberg (1998) argues that the keyword method, in general, is inferior to rote learning in the longer-term retention of vocabulary.
- “Campos and Gonzalez (2003) attribute ineffectiveness of the keyword method to participants ‘lack of training. They investigated in four experiments the effectiveness of the mnemonic keyword method using two groups of adults and adolescents. In all the experiments, the rote method was more effective than the keyword method for both adolescents and adults.”
- Some people (especially adults) are reluctant to create vivid images and crazy stories.
- Some people (especially adults) are unable and/or unwilling to resign from using previously learned strategies.
- Using mnemonic devices for memorizing words is time-consuming (especially at the beginning).
- Using mnemonics requires more effort (especially at the beginning) than rote-learning.
- Mnemonics don’t guarantee understanding.
- Learning with mnemonics lacks context.
So if mnemonics are not an excellent way for long-term learning, what are they good for?
How Mnemonics Affect Your Short-Term Memory
Short-term memory has three key aspects:
- 1. limited capacity (only about 7+-2 items can be stored at a time or 3-4 chunks)
- 2. limited duration (storage is very fragile, and information can be lost with distraction or passage of time)
- 3. encoding (primarily acoustic, even translating visual information into sounds).
And here is where the true power of mnemonics lies.
Mnemonic devices allow you to boost all these three aspects of your short-term memory significantly.
It might not seem like a big deal, but it has tremendous implications for your (language) learning.
Because short-term memory is a necessary step toward the next stage of retention – long-term memory, you can treat short-term memory as a bottleneck of your learning. After all, if you can’t commit some information, even just for a few seconds, to your memory, how are you supposed to learn?
Some researchers claim that working-memory capacity reflects the efficiency of executive functions. In other words, the ability to maintain and manipulate information in the face of distractions and other irrelevant information. ( Engle, R. W., September 1999).
That’s why the best way to think about mnemonics is to treat them as a relatively long-lived external memory with huge capacity.
I will get to the most effective use of mnemonics in a second. First, I want to demonstrate something. Let’s take a look at prodigies.
The Short-Term Memory Of Prodigies
Studies on the prodigies who reached professional-level performance in their domain (e.g., art, math, music) by the age of 10 show something very interesting.
When Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach administered an IQ test to nine prominent child prodigies (…) there were a wide range of IQ scores among the eight prodigies (from 108 to 147), and their cognitive profiles were uneven.
It turned out that the key to understanding their rapid learning in their domain was not their global intellectual functioning.
Most strikingly, every single prodigy in their sample scored off the charts (better than 99 percent of the general population) in working memory — the ability to simultaneously store incoming information while processing other information.
So how can you approach these levels of intellectual functioning?
Key Information Needed to Understand How To use Mnemonics Effectively
2) Calling information to mind strengthens it and helps in future retrieval
3) Understanding the difference between procedural and declarative knowledge.
According to Cohen and Squire (1980):
Procedural knowledge involves “knowing how” to do things. It includes skills, such as “knowing how” to play the piano, ride a bike; tie your shoes and other motor skills. It does not involve conscious thought (i.e. it’s unconscious – automatic). For example, we brush our teeth with little or no awareness of the skills involved.
Declarative knowledge involves “knowing that”. Knowing names of plants , dates, formulas – it’s all part of your declarative knowledge. Recalling information from declarative memory involves, so called, effortfull recall – i.e. information has to be consciously brought to mind and “declared”.
Knowing these things can help us stew perfect learning mix:
- 1) Gather information
It doesn’t matter whether you want to learn a language or how to master persuasion strategies. Gather the knowledge needed to achieve your goal.
- 2) Memorize it with mnemonics
As I have written before, mnemonics can be treated as an extension of your short-term memory. Place as much information as you can on this external “hard-drive.”
- 3) Start practicing right away
You know the theory of how to play the piano or how to program. It’s high time you started putting your knowledge into practice. Try to use as many pieces of information from your memory as you can.
Because every time you bring one of them to your mind, the magic happens. You start creating and strengthening neural networks responsible for the given action.
Repeat this action a sufficient number of times, and you will automate it. From that moment on, you will be able to perform it subconsciously and with minimal effort.
Let’s see how you can use it in language learning.
Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Language Learning
When I launched my Czech mission, I already had a rough plan of how to achieve my desired level in record time. This is more or less what I did:
- 1) I got familiar with grammar
- 2) I memorized basic declinations and conjugations with mnemonics
- 3) I memorized about 50 essential words with mnemonics
- 4) I started producing a lot of sentences by talking to myself and by using the words and mentioned above
- 5) I “rinsed and repeated” points 2-4. Each time I increased the number of words and grammar constructions
Of course, there was also listening and reading practice. If someone asks me what the quickest way to learn a language is, I show them this plan.
Ok, I also tell them to use ANKI.
Since we have established that mnemonics can be treated as your external memory, take a look at other practical applications of mnemonics!
(Other) Practical Applications Of Mnemonics
Mnemonics are useful whenever you need to memorize a lot of information on the fly and remember them for at least a couple of hours.
That’s why you can use them (among others):
- During parties and meetings to memorize names and information about other participants
- during last-minute panic before the exam or company presentation to make sure that the data stays in your memory!
- During speeches.
- to impress your wife and show her that “you don’t need no damn shopping lists” to remember what you should buy
- to memorize random information which emerges during conversations
And so on. I think you got it!
Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics – Summary