If you decide to learn a language, one of the most important decisions you can make is choosing the right learning strategy. This choice will
If you decide to learn a language, one of the most important decisions you can make is choosing the right learning strategy. This choice will either allow you to progress fast or break you mentally like a twig. It's the difference between moving forward in a Ferrari versus using your tears as a lubricant while you crawl.
In the past, I have written a lot about what factors affect vocabulary acquisition and how to tell decent or good language methods from the bad ones. However, people often mistakenly interpret their initial results with a given method as a sign that it truly works. It's like getting into an expensive SPA and seeing crap-stained walls with the graffiti "Steve was here". Disappointing, that is.
When it comes to increasing your passive vocabulary, it almost doesn't matter which strategy you choose - reading, learning flashcards, humming songs. They will all work, more or less, equally well.
However, testing whether your method of activating vocabulary is effective is way trickier. Let me show you how you can verify it and what you should be wary of.
How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively
2 types of recall
Considering that we're interested in testing whether you know your words actively, we must test your recall. In other words, we must know whether you can retrieve a word in your target language when you signal it to your brain during a conversation.
The first thing you need to know is that there are two types of recall.
Free recall is the process in which a person is given a list of items to remember and then is tested by being asked to recall them in any order. There is no natural context which might trigger the words you know.
Free recall often displays evidence of primacy and recency effects. Simply put, if you have just finished your learning session and you can feel dozens of words thrumming in your head, you have just experienced recency effect. The information that you are exposed to at the of your studies is easier to recall. The same goes for the information you have contact with at the beginning of your session - that's the primacy effect.
Cued recall is when a person is given a list of items to remember and is then tested with cues to remember the material.
The word "cues", or contextual triggers, as I like to call them, are key concepts here.
Why Free Recall Is a Bad Measure of Your Ability to Remember
Anytime somebody switches to a new learning method, especially if their baseline was good, old-fashioned cramming, they might experience improved initial recall. Does it mean that they remember more long-term? Absolutely not, although but a few people are aware of this.
"Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009)."
The word "initial" in this case is just a synonym for short-term learning. It gives you an illusion that knowledge has been acquired. However, once this illusion is confronted by precise measurements, it turns out that not much has been retained.
Free Recall and the Illusion of Knowledge
It's also a very common theme regarding many passive learning strategies like reading, restudying, highlighting, etc. The science knows beyond the shadow of the doubt that they are useless, but students still prefer them over battle-tested strategies like spaced repetition.
1. " For example, studies have shown that learners tend to prefer massing or cramming (table 1) over spacing because of the illusion that it is faster and more effective (Kornell, 2009). Technique Definition Massing Learning events are massed together in a short amount of time. Cramming Special form of massing; learning something intensely, often for the first time, in the days or hours before a test. Spacing Learning events are spaced apart over a longer period of time."
Source: Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, Robert A. Bjork - Memory (Handbook of Perception and Cognition
2. "Despite the clear superiority of the recall method over the restudy method, students report they rarely use it when they study. One reason is that it is simply more work to practice facts by arranging a self-test and recalling them. But there is also something else going on. Studying by recalling just doesn’t seem as effective to students as reading back through their notes. Suppose we ask college students to respond to this scenario:
Students in two different classes read the same one-page essay. In Class A, the students were asked to write down as much as they could remember after they finished. In Class B, the students were given an opportunity to restudy the passage after they finished. After one week, all students were tested on their memory for the passage. Which class would you expect to have the higher test scores?
When memory researcher Jennifer McCabe posed a similar question to college students, she found an overwhelming preference for the second strategy, restudying, even though this approach is known to be inferior to the recall method in this situation. Why did the students get it wrong? Most likely, they based their answers on their own experience. They knew that when they finished reading material over and over, they felt confident in their memory. The facts seemed clear and fresh. They popped into mind quickly and easily as the students reviewed them. This is not always so when recalling facts in a self-test—more effort is often required to bring the facts to mind, so they don’t seem as solid. From a student’s point of view, it can seem obvious which method—restudying—produces better learning. Robert Bjork refers to this as an “illusion of competence” after restudying. The student concludes that she knows the material well based on the confident mastery she feels at that moment. And she expects that the same mastery will be there several days later when the exam takes place. But this is unlikely. The same illusion of competence is at work during cramming, when the facts feel secure and firmly grasped. While that is indeed true at the time, it’s a mistake to assume that long-lasting memory strength has been created."
Source: Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, Robert A. Bjork - Memory (Handbook of Perception and Cognition
The above echoes something I have been saying for years - if you simply assume that a learning strategy is effective just because you feel some initial benefits, it doesn't make it true. Unless you test it, it's better to suspend your opinion for some time.
Example: intensive reading and initial learning
A good example of this phenomenon is intensive reading. It can certainly be a good and effective learning strategy for advances learners, but it's absolutely terrible for beginners.
Intensive reading led to more immediate vocabulary gains but spaced practice led to greater long‐term retention.
These "immediate vocabulary gains" are nothing more than a sign of initial learning. It shouldn't however be confused with long-term retention or, as I call it, the real learning. Sadly, most authors of language-related research don't seem to understand it.
What Is the Measure of Real Learning?
Once again, you can take almost any learning method and you will get (relatively) promising results short-term.
However, only transfer tasks, such as using words in a conversation are a good measure of true learning (Mayer, 2009).
The More You Know, the Less You Feel Your Knowledge
Because your knowledge is context-dependent and context-activated. You might know thousands upon thousands of words but you won't "feel" them. Some of them may even stay buried in your mind for years before an opportunity arrives to use them. If you learn how to say "fibroma" in your target language, don't expect to use it unless you encounter a situation wherein you are forced to utilize this word.
This phenomenon can be explained by the concept of habituation. The more we commune with certain stimuli, the less we react to them. In other words, the more you use a language, the less you feel that you really know it.
That's why some extremely competent language learners claim that they barely know a language at a B2 level, while pitiful beginners run around shouting that they are bilingual.
Stress - a Crucial Factor That Needs to Be Taken Into Consideration
Every good language learning methodology can be encapsulated by the Marines' adage:
"Train as you fight, fight as you train"
You should always to train for reality in a manner that mimics the unpredictability and conditions of real life. Anything else than that is simply a filler. Unfortunately, regardless of how good your learning method is, it's almost impossible to incorporate a crucial factor for your ability to retrieve and know your words actively - stress.
Even if you can confidently reproduce words from ANKI at the comfort of your home, it doesn't mean that you will be able to use them in a conversation. Learning in such conditions is always, to some degree, detached from reality. You have time to contemplate the right answer, and everything feels pretty snugly and comfy.
Compare it with a typical conversation where:
Or to put it plainly, lying under your blankie and doing ANKI is a bit less stressful than trying to recall some word in a conversation while a crazy German local is sparging you with his saliva and screaming "Was?! WAS?!".
How Stress Affects Your Brain
Talking is stressful,
Once the cortisol floods your brain, your body goes into the survival mode. You don't need your cool problem-solving skill or silver tongue then. You need to wrestle some huge-ass bear or get the hell out of there. That's why you lose access to any memories and skills that are not well-activated as they are the ones that cost the most energy to retrieve. Your body prioritizes muscle at this point, not ATP-devouring thinking.
"The prefrontal cortex (PFC)—the most evolved brain region—subserves our highest-order cognitive abilities. However, it is also the brain region that is most sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress exposure. Even quite mild acute uncontrollable stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities, and more prolonged stress exposure causes architectural changes in prefrontal dendrites." Source: Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function
At the same, stress doesn't seem to affect hippocampus so much. This region of the brain is typically linked to declarative memory, such as memory for events and facts (Squire, 2004; Squire & Zola, 1996). Interestingly, acute mild stress exposure has no effect on or can actually improve the memory consolidation functions of the hippocampus.
If your eyes glazed over after reading these quotes and you started questioning life choice that brought you to this article, let me assure you that they are extremely important. What these facts tell us is this:
"Non-consolidated information that hasn't been transferred to your long-term memory is extremely prone to any stress-related disturbances. On the other hand, long-term memories stored in your hippocampus are immune to mild and medium levels of stress".
That means that it doesn't matter how confidently you can recall words in the comfort of your home. If your vocabulary is not consolidated well enough, instead of producing fluent speech, it might turn out that you sound like a goat in the middle of the breeding period.
However, there is an easy way to fix it.
Want to Know Words Actively? Overlearn!
Items that are difficult to learn should be overlearned to ensure long term retention (Hulstijn, 2001).
Overlearning refers to practicing newly acquired skills beyond the point of initial mastery. In the context of languages, it means that even if you CAN recall a given word while doing ANKI, or in a conversation, but it takes you some time, you can still improve
Unsurprisingly, you need to crank out more sentences with the word. Make sure that the contexts you use vary as well.
Try to recall the last time when you saw a baby (1,5 - 3-year old). Have you noticed that it keeps on repeating the same word over and over again in different sentences and collocations? That's what overlearning is all about. The easiest, or maybe the only way, to apply it properly is to
It's enough that you find a question and start answering it in a very monotonous way while constantly reusing a problematic word.
Q: Do you like apples?
A: Yes, I like apples. Apples are sweet. I like sweet apples, and I eat them often. I don't eat them often when I can't buy them. I but them in a shop, however, if I don't buy them, then I don't eat them.
You get the gist. Children are a wonderful example of overlearning in action. For example, not that long time ago, my son got so excited by getting a piece of cheese that he repeated this word 53 times (yes, I counted).
53 freaking times. It made me feel lazy and question the effort I put into learning!
How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively - Summary
Most language learning methodologies are plagued by one fatal flaw. They make you believe that being able to reproduce a word in the comfort of your home is equivalent to really knowing it.
Unfortunately, the truth is more complicated. First of all, the ultimate test of your active vocabulary is always a conversation. If you can comfortably recall your newly acquired vocabulary, then you can be relatively confident that your approach works. I say "relatively" because unless you test a given method, you can't be sure that it's precisely what makes you recall words effectively. Most of the time, it's the results of combining a couple of learning strategies.
What's more, if your learning method doesn't involve context and active transfer of your vocabulary between contexts, you can rest assured that it sucks.
Last but not least, if your learning strategy does involve context and active information transfer them, you should put more effort into overlearning those problematic words.
Keep in mind that this is one of those situations where individual differences kick in. Some people are more immune to stress than others. As a consequence, the degree to which you will have to overlearn words will often depend on your genetics and environmental conditioning.
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 25 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
I don't want to convince you that learning is easy. You know damn well that is complicated and full of challenges. Even when you master the process of effective knowledge acquisition, you might still run into different obstacles.
Knowing how to learn is one side of the equation. However, being able to sustain your progress over a long period is an entirely different beast. It's a mental war that you have to wage against your brain and the resistance this spongy thing will create,
This article is supposed to serve you as a life ring. Whenever you feel that you're drowning in the sea of overwhelm, revisit it to resurface.
Feel free to use just one of these strategies or all of them. The most important thing is that you shake off any gloomy feelings and snap out of the state of inertia.
What You Need to Know About Overwhelm
The first you need to know about learning how to deal with overwhelm is that it leads to three results:
They all have one thing in common - loss of control. If you ever notice any of these telltale signs, you should be alarmed. It means that you are losing the grip on your learning process. Instead of being organized and methodical, you start floundering.
Here are some of the strategies that may help you regain the feeling of control.
How To Deal With Overwhelm
1. Be primitive
First thing you need to be aware of is the concept of activation energy.
Activation energy is the energy need to start performing an action. The higher it is, the less of a chance that you will start performing a given action.
That means that you should reduce any clutter that stands in your way and holds you back. It also concerns your general attitude. If you overthink everything, your activation energy will be high as well. You can't focus on the start of the action if dozens of thoughts and tasks are running through your head.
In other words, focus on primitive tasks.
Here is what I mean by that:
Remember that ideally, you want to become a life-long learner. Any temporary setback is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The only thing you should care about is regularity.
Don't break the chain at all costs. Review even two flashcards if you're exhausted today or don't have time, but do something every day!
2. Identify the constraints
The theory of constraints states that in any system, there is one function, resource, process area, or process step that constrains the entire system's ability to deliver on its mission.
Sometimes it will mean that removing just one obstacle will unblock your potential. Other times, you will discover that after eliminating that one significant constraint, there will be another one looming underneath.
In any case, do your best to get rid of these obstacles. Once you do, your learning process should regain its previous smoothness.
Keep in mind that your constraints can be:
Try to identify them on your own. If you can't figure it out, ask someone trust-worthy for help. Sometimes it's easier to spot such problems when you're on the outside looking in.
3. Lower The Intensity
The intensity you can endure will always be a resultant of your:
It's impossible to tell anyone that they should learn X amount of hours per day or do Y flashcards per day. You can suggest a goal that will later be verified by reality. In other words, good goals will be established only after some trial and error.
Regardless, if you notice that instead of jumping for joy at the thought of learning and discovering the unknown, you feel like somebody slapped you with a slimy mackerel, it's time to stop. It's time to rethink whether your learning pace is not too ambitious.
Don't get me wrong - ambitions are great, but regularity always beats short-lived zeal. If your will to learn wanes, decrease your learning and practice intensity temporarily.
Try to find out what pace and effort level make you happy. And don't even try to think of it as a failure. You're making a wise and strategic decision that will guarantee your long-term success.
4. Take more breaks
Very often, a simple solution to feeling overwhelmed is taking more breaks.
How often should you do it?
Once again, your endurance threshold will depend on all the variables mentioned in the previous point.
Sometimes you will discover that you can plug away for hours on end, and sometimes 20 minutes of tackling a complex topic will break you.
It's definitely true for me. I have noticed that my ability to write is very fragile. The slightest distractions will throw me off most of the time. What's more, very often, even 40 minutes of writing leaves me in tears. On the other hand, I can effortlessly pore over ANKI for hours and create hundreds of new flashcards. I am positive, you will observe such regularities in your daily routine as well.
The most important question is - when should you take a break?
The internet is full of different numbers. Some say 20 minutes while the other ones cite a 40-minute rule. None of these things is true.
Your energy levels, and thus your concentration, constantly fluctuate throughout the day. They are also heavily influenced by the variables mentioned above.
That's why the best predictor of the need to take a break is your mental fatigue.
it's time to pause.
Keep in mind that your breaks should be meaningful. That means no electronics and no taxing activities. Go for a walk, meditate, or lie down.
Rest for as long as you need.
It's crucial for your full recovery. I know that 10-15 minutes of lying in my bed is usually all I need. Very often, that leads to micro-naps - I am okay with that. I know that once I get up, I am ready to rumble again.
5. Take care of SPDSH (sleep, private life, diet, sports, health)
Damn, I really tried to find some cool acronym for these elements, but (HuSH PeDo!) is all I got. On the bright side, it is as memorable as it might be offensive to some.
The critical takeaway from this point is that your learning project is not placed in a magical void. Your life is a system of interconnected vessels. If you have problems in your private life or you are sick, learning will be the last thing on your mind. Don't neglect those things at the cost of education.
Trust me - I know how difficult it is. I learn so much that usually, my sleep suffers. It's not wise, and it's something I have been struggling with for a long time.
6. Organize your learning better
The term Information Fatigue Syndrome has been coined recently to refer to stress coming from problems with managing overwhelming information.
Some consequences of IFS listed by Dr David Lewis, a British psychologist, include: anxiety, tension, procrastination, time-wasting, loss of job satisfaction, self-doubt, psychosomatic stress, breakdown of relationships, reduced analytical capacity, etc. The information era tends to overwhelm us with the amount of information.
For example, you might feel stressed by dozens of tabs in your web browser or 20 studies you still have to go through.
I get it because I struggled with it in the past. How have I solved it?
I have organized my learning better, i.e., I focused my full energy on learning in ANKI whenever it's possible.
If I run into some papers or articles, I paste them into ANKI. I know they are safe and sound there, and I can process them by breaking them down into flashcards later. ANKI is my command center, and this feeling helps me stove away any anxiety related to learning.
With this conviction, you can devote all your energy to comprehension, analysis, and retention of the learned material, instead of eating your heart out.
7. Make a shift
A plateau happens when your brain achieves a level of automaticity; in other words, when you can perform a skill on autopilot, without conscious thought. Our brains love autopilot because, in most situations, it's pretty handy. It lets us chew gum and walk and ride bikes without having to think about it, freeing our brains for more important tasks. When it comes to developing talent, however, autopilot is the enemy, because it creates plateaus.
Research by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and co-editor of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, shows that the best way past a plateau is to jostle yourself beyond it; to change your practice method, so you disrupt your autopilot and rebuild a faster, better circuit. One way to do this is to speed things up—to force yourself to do the task faster than you usually would. Or you can slow things down—going so slowly that you highlight previously undetected mistakes. Or you can do the task in reverse order, turn it inside out or upside down. It doesn't matter which technique you use, as long as you find a way to knock yourself out of autopilot and into your sweet spot. - Daniel Coyle - The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills
Personally, making a shift means creating silly flashcards which are based on ridiculous associations or observations. It's refreshing enough that even when I start feeling a bit jaded, this procedure restores the proper frame of mind.
8. Break down your project into smaller chunks
This is a classic productivity strategy and for all the right reasons. Sometimes focusing on a big picture can be detrimental to your performance. The project seems so big and complicated that it robs you of the will to pursue it.
You can overcome this obstacle by breaking your projects into smaller, more manageable chunks.
Take a piece of paper and write down a detailed plan of your undertaking. Number all the steps so you know how to prioritize them. Doing so will free your mental energy and allow you to concentrate on one task at a time.
Then getting "primitive," as suggested in the first point, becomes much more manageable.
Instead of creating your flashcards right away, you can spend two days just pasting learning material into ANKI - that would be your first stage. Next, you can process this material into flashcards in the next couple of days. Only then, after five days, can you buckle down and start reviewing them.
9. Go back to the roots - what's your motivation?
If none of the steps above seem to help, it's time to go back to the drawing board.
Why did you want to achieve your goal? Has anything changed since then?
Revisiting the source of your motivation will allow you to accomplish two things:
- 1It will either pep you up and give you more power to carry on or
- 2you will give up.
The latter sounds ominous, but I assure you it's not.
Your life is dynamic and is in a constant state of motion. Thousands of elements enter and leave your life every week. They can all affect your initial motivation. If you decide, upon the close inspection, that you don't care anymore about your initial goal, I want you to know that it's okay. Ditch your project. Pour yourself a nice glass of whiskey or cocoa, sit in your armchair and think what you want to do next.
Your project is not a life sentence - you can quit anytime you feel that it's not right for you anymore.
10. Pep yourself up
Do you know what the worst part of every undertaking is? The middle.
Beginnings are usually exciting. It's like running into a magical maze. You have lots of energy and progress fast; everything is new and shiny. However, after a couple of weeks, you realize that you're running out of water, and your last meal was a dead squirrel. It's not good.
In other words, the middle of any project is the most monotonous. Your learning slows down. You don't get money out of this. No fans are showering you with their admiration. The only thing ahead of you is more work. It's not sexy, I know.
How to deal with this situation?
Pep yourself up!
It sounds cheesy, but sometimes cheese is all you need, as Paul McCartney used to sing.
Here are some things you might try:
There are no wrong answers here. See what works for you and stick to it in the moments of doubt.
How To Deal With Overwhelm When Learning New Skills - The main takeaway(s)
The moment at which you decide to start learning is usually a peak of your mental capacity and attitude. You feel awesome, and you want to do great things. The problem is that your energy and motivation to learn come and go. There will be plenty of days when you will feel bummed enough to start contemplating and romanticizing the life of a hobo just to run away from all your problems.
That's why it's always preferable to create learning systems instead of relying on flimsy companions like motivation. Here are some of the strategies that might help you:
To deal with overwhelm, try to:
- 1be primitive
- 2identify the constraints
- 3lower the intensity
- 4take more breaks
- 5take care of SPDSH (sleep, private life, diet, sports, health)
- 6organize your learning better
- 7make a shift
- 8break down your project into smaller chunks
- 9go back to the roots - what's your motivation?
- 10pep yourself up
We've all heard that practice makes perfect. It takes time and effort to be great at something, and if you want to do it right, you should practice one skill at a time.
For example, a beginning guitarist might rehearse scales before chords. A young tennis player practices the forehand before the backhand.
This phenomenon is called “blocking,” and because it appeals to common sense and is easy to schedule, blocking is dominant in schools, training programs, and other settings.
However, the question we should be asking ourselves is this: is blocking the most optimal way to practice skills? It doesn't seem so.
What is interleaving?
Interestingly, there is a much better strategy - enter "interleaving".
In interleaving one mixes, or interleaves, practice on several related skills together. In other words, instead of going AAAAABBBBBCCCCC you do ABCABCABCABC.
It turns out that varying it even slightly can yield massive gains in a short period.
Let's take baseball as an example:
Is interleaved practice always the right choice?
There are almost no strategies that are fully universal and can be used for all disciplines and in all learning conditions. The same goes for interleaved practice.
The past four decades definitely demonstrated that interleaving often outperforms blocking for a variety of subjects, but especially motor learning (e.g., sports). The results for other subjects are mixed.
Studies on interleaved practice in different disciplines
For example, when native English speakers used the strategy to learn an entirely unfamiliar language (i.e., generating English-to-Swahili translations), the results were better, the same, or worse than after blocking.
Another study (Rohrer et al., 2015) concerning mathematics showed the dramatic benefits of interleaving on children’s performance at math.
During the experiment, some kids were taught math the traditional way. They got familiar with one mathematical technique in a lesson and then practiced it to death. A second group was given assignments that included questions necessitating the use of different techniques.
The results were as impressive as they were surprising.
One day after the test, the students who’d been utilizing the interleaving method did 25% better. However, when tested a month later, the interleaving method did 76% better.
Keep in mind that such an increase is truly amazing, given that both groups had been learning for the same amount of time. The only difference was that some students learned block by block, and others had their learning mixed up.
The necessary condition before you apply interleaved practice
The results above tell us one important thing. You can't just go cowabunga and start interleaving the heck out of every subject.
Before you do so, you should have some familiarity with subject materials (or the materials should be quickly or easily understood). Otherwise, as appears to be the case for foreign languages, interleaving can sometimes be more confusing than helpful.
It's only logical when you look at this strategy from the memory perspective. For many, using even one technique seems to a burden enough for their working memory. Forcing such people to use three or more make you a psycho who wants to see the world, and their memory, burn.
It's simply too much.
It doesn't take away from the fact that interleaving can be extremely useful. It forces the mind to work harder and to keep searching and reaching for solutions.
However, if you decide to use it, make sure that you're familiar with the strategies you want to interleave. This recommendation is based on a phenomenon called the expertise reversal.
The expertise reversal
The expertise reversal effect occurs when the instruction that is effective for novice learners is ineffective or even counterproductive for more expert learners.
If you look at it differently, more experienced learners learned more from high variability rather than low variability tasks demonstrating the variability effect. In contrast, less experienced learners learned more from low rather than top variability tasks showing a reverse variability effect.
Why might lower variability be better in the beginning?
It was suggested that more experienced learners had sufficient available working memory capacity to process high variability information. In contrast, less experienced learners were overwhelmed by high variability and learned more using low variability information. Subjective ratings of difficulty supported the assumptions based on cognitive load theory, which you have learned before.
In other words, some signals that are needed by low prior knowledge learners might be redundant for high prior knowledge learners due to their existing schema in long-term memory (Kalyuga, 2009).
For example, one of the experiments (Likourezos, Kalyuga, Sweller, 2019) which tested 103 adults studying pre-university mathematics, showed no interaction between levels of variability (high vs. low) and levels of instructional guidance (worked examples vs. unguided problem solving). The significant main effect of variability indicated a variability effect regardless of levels of instructional guidance.
What does it tell us?
We can't play in the big boy's league if we don't cover the basics!
Interleaved Practice - Summary
(1) Interleaved practice is perfect for:
- motor learning
- any material that can be quickly learned and understood
(2) For more complicated subjects, make sure to familiarize yourself with the appropriate strategies before you decide to interleave them. This way, you will make sure that your working memory isn't overburdened.
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 11 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
Many people are in love with the idea of being knowledgeable. Sadly, not many believe that they can acquire enough knowledge. Being able to move through life and overcome all the obstacles effortlessly seems to be reserved mostly for the gifted or unrelatable movie characters.
A big part of the problem is the general inability to acquire considerable amounts of information. However, the other obstacle is deciding what's worth learning. If you don't know where you are headed, you're like a drunk bouncing from one lamp post to another in a twisted version of pinball. The next thing you know is you wake up with a bad headache and a bitter taste of disappointment in your mouth.
There is an easy fix for this - focusing on evergreen knowledge.
Why Should I Focus on Evergreen Skills and Knowledge?
1. It's immediately applicable
The problem with acquiring knowledge randomly is that most of the time if you can't use it, you will lose it. Sure, some bits stay with you throughout your life. Regardless, most of this knowledge will be inevitably lost. So will be your effort and time. I know that many say that spending your time learning is always a good investment.
But is it really?
If I spent 50 hours trying to acquire knowledge and my recall rate, or should I say - return rate, would be 1, 2 or even 5 %, I would be pissed. It would mean that for every 1 hour I spent learning, not more than 3 min were used effectively. That's a very definition of a stupid investment. Sure, you can argue that I have jogged my brain, and tried, and bla bla bla. Still, 5%? Come on!
If I retained that little, I wouldn't even bother learning. I would spend time with my family or binge-watch TV series. Learning is not fun if you can't hold on to any information.
But the evergreen knowledge is different. It's immediately applicable. Every minute you spend acquiring it can give you immense returns on any given day of your life.
2. It makes life easier
The immediate applicability of such knowledge bleeds directly into every area of your life and makes it easier. It allows you to get the most of out of the most ordinary situations and encounters.
Where other people struggle, you see opportunities. It's a real game-changer regarding how you live your life.
3. It gives you a sense of direction
If you have wanted to become a serious learner, but you have never known what to focus on, a list of evergreen skills can give you a clear sense of direction—no more fumbling in the dark. Check one thing off your list and move on to another. In the meantime, watch how much your life changes.
What Knowledge and Skills Can Be Defined as Evergreen?
I think that the most important method to establish what constitutes evergreen knowledge is to ask yourself the following questions:
As a result, you should arrive at the right answers.
Of course, it's worth pointing out that defining what's evergreen is not always perfectly possible. We are all different in some regards. I believe that this distinctiveness should be reflected in the definition of evergreen knowledge.
I like to explain this issue, as contradictory as it might sound to some degree, that evergreen knowledge can be divided into two categories:
- Universally evergreen knowledge
- Personally evergreen knowledge
Universally evergreen knowledge
This category envelopes all the skills and information that are truly necessary to function in any society, country, or profession. Everyone is forced to rely on this knowledge every single day.
Personally evergreen knowledge
This would be the knowledge that's specific to your type of personality, interests or a career path you have chosen. It is the instance where one man's trash is another man's treasure.
Some of the skills I consider evergreen would be treated as an utter waste of time for you. The opposite is true, as well.
Example #1 - Pets
If you're a dog person, knowing a lot about how to take care of your pet would be considered evergreen. That wouldn't be the case for anyone who generally dislikes animals.
Example #2 - Material Engineering
The same would be true for anyone whose area of speciality oscillates around material engineering. In that case, advanced knowledge of chemistry and physics would be a must. Would this kind of knowledge be useful for you and me? Highly unlikely.
Example #3 - Investing
This is an area that applies directly to my life. I am an active trader, and I focus mostly on short-term investments. To be able to do it effectively, I need lots of information regarding the branches that interest me.
Of course, this kind of knowledge would be useless to a non-investor.
News vs information
This is a moment where we should make a distinction between news and information.
Information is a representation of knowledge that feeds your decision-making process. It's almost immediately valuable and useful.
News is just noise - worthless bits of trivia that do nothing to improve any area of your life and feed mostly primitive, emotion-driven parts of your brain.
Unfortunately, I can't help you with deciding what knowledge is personally evergreen for you. This is a one (wo)man job, and you're the person to do it. I would suggest you take your time and compile a list of skills that will be of immense help to you.
In this article, I prefer to focus on universally evergreen skills and why they are worth learning.
A List of Universally Evergreen Skills and Knowledge
For your convenience, press a link to go to the chosen section.
- 1Learning how to learn
- 3Analytical skills
Medicine and health
- 14(Basic) Chemistry
- 15(Basic) mathematics
- 16(Basic) computer science
Playing an instrument
These are the skills that I deem universal for any adult. Not only do they allow you to build a successful and happy life, but also will enable you to overcome any hurdles that you might stumble upon.
Evergreen Skills and Knowledge - Why Are They Necessary?
1. Learning how to learn
Usually, I am first to admit that I am biased in some areas. However, this time, I believe I am stating the obvious.
Knowing how to learn effectively is the single most crucial skill you can master in your life.
Nothing else comes even close. I know that educators from lots of other fields say the same thing about their specialty. They say that mathematics is the king, chemistry is the queen, painting with watercolors is the very essence of life and all that jive.
The thing is that without the knowledge of how to acquire information properly, you will quickly forget all the other information. This way, your life turns into a twisted version of alcohol-infused reality. You learn to wake up the next day and realize that all you have is vague recollections of what you did the night before.
The art of learning should be the very first thing we teach our kids at school. If we did, the standard of living in most countries would rise dramatically. We're talking about flying toilet bowls, and laser sabers here!
Sadly, this world doesn't exist. All we have is an endless game of playing intellectual catch-up and being happy with achieving survival level of professional competence.
2. Money-related skills
Money is an indispensable part of our lives. Yet, not many people take their time to learn how to handle it.
Saving is considered this thing that crotchety old people do. Investing is deemed as a gateway drug to becoming a blood-thirsty, three-piece suit capitalist - not something that honest people do. Budgeting seems like a good idea only when your financial situation is so dire that when you open a toilet bowl, a court executioner pops up humming "Money money money."
Generally, I think that learning more about Business and money is a great way to not only guarantee you financial stability but also to multiple what you already have.
3. Analytical skills
Analytical skills is an umbrella term for subskills such as:
The amount of knowledge in the world is growing at a dizzying pace.
"Buckminster Fuller estimated that up until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By 1945 it was doubling every 25 years, and by 1982 it was doubling every 12-13 months. IBM estimates that in 2020 human knowledge will be doubling every 12 hours." - Modern Working Place
In theory, it should be great news. More knowledge and better access to it means that the quality of our lives and decisions should be increasing as well; except it doesn't.
The most prevalent reactions to this information overload are either:
Analytical skills are the only way out of this madhouse. They allow you to apply a calm, cold, methodical approach to every problem. In the era of widespread misinformation and ignorance, this knowledge seems to be more critical than ever.
Just in the last couple of weeks, we have all had a chance to read the COVID-19 is a hoax created by lizard people who are transmitting via 5g technology. All this to inject you with a bogus vaccine that contains a chip that will travel to your brain to control your bowel movements. What a time to be alive.
Of course, establishing whether something is true or not is a process. It requires suspending your belief and opinions until you learn more about a given subject. Unfortunately, not many people are willing to take their time to do it.
Considering that eating is something we do multiple times per day, it seems crazy for me not to study this topic in-depth. Your health is dependent on how good your diet is and how happy or miserable your life will be. It was the main motivation that led me to become a certified nutritionist.
Interestingly enough, becoming knowledgeable in this field requires a mix of other evergreen skills, namely:
If you accept current nutritional recommendations from your government without doing any proper research and knowing how to interpret the data, you are going to have a bad time.
Just the other day, I had a consultation with a woman who religiously followed all the current guidelines—lots of green veggies, whole-weed bread, etc. She also suffered from a hypothyroid and couldn't fix it even with drugs. You can imagine her shock when I explained to her that cruciferous vegetables that she consumed 5 times per day block absorption of iodine and impair the function of the thyroid. The same goes for the infamous gluten. After eliminating those foods from her diet (and some others as well) and adding some supplementation, her thyroid was alive and kicking in about 4 weeks.
5. Medicine and health
Many people treat doctors as an excuse to ignore this field of knowledge. After all, you are not a trained professional, so why would you even bother?
The reasons are plenty. First of all, modern medicine is strictly drug-based. While it's entirely ok in some, especially acute cases, it's subpar or harmful in others.
Secondly, no doctor will follow you around to check whether you or your relatives are ok. Some basic medical knowledge will allow you to spot many health-related problems from miles away. What's more, no doctor will care about the well-being of you and your family as much as you do. It's precisely this emotional engagement that allows people to dig way deeper into potential solutions than many medical professionals.
Last but not least, there are not many good specialists in any area, including medicine. I used to live in this conviction when I was younger that every doctor is a giant, squishy brain with legs attached to it. Sadly, once I started teaching medical professionals how to learn, I quickly realized that they struggle a lot with remembering. Of course, that weighs a lot on potential diagnoses.
Personally, I can't get enough of this domain. So far, I have created 30k + flashcards from this discipline and did governmental certification to become a trichologist and personal trainer, and I know it's just the beginning!
Productivity is another essential skill everyone should learn. You're going to work most of your life. Being able to get the most out of it is an obvious choice.
Productivity includes subskills, such as:
This skill tied beautifully with knowing how to learn. Once you get a grasp of how to acquire knowledge effectively, increasing your productivity will allow you to work more efficiently and realize projects related to the information you have acquired.
More and more people are getting anxious about the changes our world is going through. AI and the ubiquitous automation threaten to make dozens of professions obsolete in the upcoming decades. And rightly so - it's not fear-mongering. The process is happening as we speak, starting from self-driving cars, warehouse robots, and ending with the pattern-matching AI software. Heck, not that long ago, a Japanese company replaced office workers with artificial intelligence.
However, there is one thing that won't be replaced for a long time, or maybe ever—our boundless creativity and all the emotions that underpin it.
Of course, opinions about whether creativity is something uniquely human are split. However, we can't argue about is that AI programs are typically good at just one thing. Moreover, they need millions of data points to be able to perform this activity.
The same constraints do not limit us. We still need input, but unlike machines, we can make crazy logical and creative leaps between seemingly unrelated subjects.
It's quite a safe bet that unless the processing power of computers increases by hundreds, if not thousands of times or more, the true creativity will remain a hallmark of humanity.
The big advantage is that just learning a couple of basic strategies can make you a way better thinker and problem-solver.
8. Public speaking
Whether you like it or not, public speaking is yet another skill that we cannot escape. Depending on your line of work, you will be forced to step in front of a bunch of people quite often enough.
Learning the basics of public speaking will allow you to feel more confident and make a far better impression than you would otherwise. If you have experienced the soul leaving your body during one of such presentations, you know what I mean.
What's more, it doesn't take much time to acquire this knowledge at a satisfactory level, which makes it even more logical choice for your to-do list.
9. Problem-solving skills
If there is one thing we are not short of is problems. Every day we face dozens of decisions and dilemmas of different magnitude. Being able to tackle them in a systematic way is a very desired competence.
Problem-solving skills include subskills such as:
What's more, it can be reinforced by many other skills on the list like knowing how to learn, creativity, psychology, and analytical skills.
Psychology is the science that studies what influences our minds and behaviors. It's a critical component of our everyday lives. It helps to unveil all the hidden and unconscious mechanisms that drive our lives.
Studying psychological concepts will allow you to both improve relations with your directs surroundings as well as learn how to stop sabotaging ourselves and get out of your own way.
Once again, there is a certain overlap between psychology, creativity, and problem-solving.
Psychology was my first love way before the memory came into the picture. I was brought up in a dysfunctional family. My father was a mean, abusive alcoholic, and that inevitably shaped me as a young kid - and not in a good way. I was terribly aggressive and constantly got into trouble.
When I was about 11 or 12, I entered a bookshop and out of boredom picked up some random psychology book because it sounded smart. My life has never been the same since then. Concept by concept, I could understand where my behavior and actions came from, and I began to fix them. This is the power of psychology - 10/10 would recommend.
The art of persuasion
One of the most readily accessible subbranches of psychology is the art of persuasion. We all have to "sell" ourselves or our ideas in one way or another. You might as well learn how to do it effectively!
It's also worth keeping in mind that the art of persuasion is a double-edged sword. It can also be used against you as a tool of manipulation. Even if you're not interested in learning it to become more convincing yourself, it's worth doing so to become aware when others try to manipulate you.
As the old poker adage goes, if you don't know who the sucker in the room is, it means you are the sucker.
11. (Basic) law
The law doesn't evoke the most pleasant associations. Regardless, our every action is bound by it. Sadly, like many other evergreen skills, it's usually brushed off throughout the education system.
Learning its basics, be it, basic humans rights or tax regulations, will allow you to become a more aware citizen as well as bring you many other benefits, including the financial ones.
12. (Basic) economics
Economics is a field of science that explores how society uses its limited resources to best meet its needs. Both macro- and microeconomics can be applied to many other branches of knowledge, making it a universal tool to understand the economic reality we live in.
You can use it mostly to optimize your financial decisions. It can come quite handy both in investing or choosing the right moment to purchase different goods.
13. Basic physics
Physics is one of a few branched that made the modern world possible. Its applications can be found all around us in every device we use: batteries, cell phones, computers, cars, and constructions of any kind.
Even though it seems abstract at first, it can help you get a better grasp of dozens of everyday phenomena. I find it especially practical when combined with other evergreen skills like nutrition, medicine, and chemistry.
For example, my mom is a cosmetician, and I have always been, somewhat organically, fascinated by this field. One of the cosmetic preparations that are all the rage among ladies is hyaluronic acid.
Very often, it is as expensive as hell. What's more, companies do their best to convince you that it can miraculously regenerate and moisturize any type of skin even if it looks like a 15-year old tire. Sadly, these claims don't hold true. Once you learn a bit about dermatology and combine it with physics (i.e., the concept of permeability), you will realize that most hyaluronic acid preparations are too big to pass through the first layer of skin called stratum corneum. Just like many other preparations, I might add.
You see? A bit of reading will have saved you thousands of dollars.
14. Basic Chemistry
I still remember this memorable saying from school that chemistry "feeds, heals, clothes and defends." It's true.
Chemistry is a tenacious companion of our everyday struggles. It can be found in cosmetics, drugs, clothes, cleaning products and weapons. Knowing just a bit of chemistry can be extremely helpful, especially if you combine it with other evergreen skills.
Personally, I love how medicine and chemistry go hand in hand. For example, once you learn about displacement reactions, you can apply this concept to understand one of the causes of hypothyroid.
It turns out that halogens, i.e., elements like chlorine, bromine, and fluoride, can displace iodine that is responsible for producing your main thyroid hormones. In other words, accidental drink of the tap or swimming pool water or eating your toothpaste might mess you up.
The same goes for drinking too much tea because its leaves, especially young ones, are full of fluoride.
Everything is connected, and chemistry is an integral part of the whole.
15. Basic mathematics
I love mathematics with all my heart. This was one of the mains reasons why I chose Econometrics as my major. That's why it hurts me a lot to see a lot of disdain for mathematics these days. All of a sudden everyone seems convinced that calculators and Excel are our saviors.
It's painfully wrong. I agree that not many people need to know advanced math. However, a lot of basic concepts and a general numerical is necessary.
I would argue that basic statistics is one of the most mat skills one can possess. Without them, it's difficult to interpret any scientific research or even numbers communicated to us by our governments.
16. Basic computer science
There is no denying that we spend almost every day plugged to digital reality. There is little hope that it will ever change.
For that reason, it's definitely worth learning a bit about computers, programming languages and even network infrastructure. It doesn't take much time, but it can certainly improve your understanding of this area of life.
If your native tongue is anything else than English than knowing at least this one language is undoubtedly an evergreen skill. English is the language of knowledge; the modern Latin if you will. If you want to know anything about anything, you need to know it.
However, even if you're an already native speaker, mastering another language should be a must based on the cognitive benefits it delivers.
Nevertheless, I don't think you should overdo it. I believe that knowing more than three foreign languages is rarely practical and worth your time unless you really love this area of knowledge, or you have other good reasons.
18. Playing an instrument
I know what you're thinking. Playing an instrument is a direct contradiction of my definition of evergreen skills. It's certainly not something one does every day.
I have placed it on my list because just like languages, it's one of the best cognitive boosters in the world. If you care about your or your children's mental well-being, I would consider putting it on your to-do list.
It sure as heck is more effective than investing in some stupid brain-training games or thinking that Sudoku will enlarge your brain enough as to bend space-time.
A couple of benefits of learning how to play an instrument:
"Children exposed to a multi-year program of music tuition involving training in increasingly complex rhythmic, tonal, and practical skills display superior cognitive performance in reading skills compared with their non-musically trained peers, according to a new study." - Science Dailly
"Musical training seems to hone auditory memory skills. Musicians have better auditory working memory (Chan et al., 1998; Jakobson et al., 2008; Parbery-Clark et al., 2009b, 2011a; Strait et al., 2012b, 2013a), potentially accounted for by musicians' increased activation of larger neuronal networks involved in cognitive control and sustained attention than non-musicians when confronted with difficult memory tasks (Gaab and Schlaug, 2003; Pallesen et al., 2010)." - Art and science: how musical training shapes the brain
"Musicians have a larger corpus callosum, the fiber tract underlying most interhemispheric communication, with musicians who started training at an earlier age having a larger corpus callosum compared to musicians who started later (Schlaug et al., 1995; Wan and Schlaug, 2010). Musicians' larger corpus callosum volume may reflect decreased interhemispheric inhibition (Ridding et al., 2000) and more communication between the two hemispheres."
How to Use Many Evergreen Skills in a Meaningful Way
Evergreen skills are easy to activate by their very nature. However, a great way to use them at the same time is to come up with a project.
Most of the projects are characterized by a high degree of complexity and necessitate the use of many different skills. What's more, they are a preferable way for many people to learn. Not everyone can pore over books for months without any specific purpose. Projects, on the other hand, are meaningful and highly engaging.
They can also be a gateway to a better and more successful life - also financially. For example, I did my trichology certification for fun, as a personal project. Would it be difficult to open my practice or team up with someone to open a clinic? I don't think so. Nevertheless, it all started as a fun side project.
Think whether there is something you have always wanted to do or create and start working towards it step by step. Acquire all the necessary evergreen skills on your way there and observe how much easier your project comes. There are truly few things in life that give as much satisfaction as seeing your vision come to life.
Summary - Evergreen Skills and Knowledge
Evergreen skills and knowledge should be a top priority for any ambitious individual. The time you devote to their development is among the best investments in life you can make as they can be used in every single area of your life.
The best part is that the more of them you learn, the more powerful those evergreen skills become. It's a beautiful demonstration of the synergy effect where the sum of parts is way greater than the individual part themselves.
Which of those skills is the most important for you? Let me know in the comments!
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 43 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
One category of emails which I regularly get is called: "X did Y, what do you think about it?" (or some variation of it).
X is usually a polyglot or a YouTuber who just did a mission, whereas Y often stands for a short amount of time. Usually, what a reader expects from me is to tell them that it's possible because they also want to learn fast. I get it - it all sounds exciting. If you can learn a language way faster, then why wouldn't you take advantage of polyglot tips, advice or learning strategies?
The answer is simple: critical thinking. You are not them, and depending on your skill set and language background, it might not be possible for you even to get close to their results. There is a long list of warning signs that you should be aware of before you decide to emulate what they did. And no - I am not above it. Apply those criteria to my advice as well.
Let's chomp down a healthy dose of red pills.
Polyglot Tips, Advice, and Strategies - Why You Should Take It With a Grain of Salt
I get this vague feeling that sometimes both people who give and take language advice are a bit detached from reality.
In a rational world, if someone decided to start training box twice per week, initially, they would choose some simple form of training. Some stretching, basic forms, leg work - that kind of stuff.
A mere suggestion that, "Dude, Mike Tyson has this cool training, let's give it a try!" would be greeted with a pitiful smirk. They would know that this kind of workout routine would leave them in tears and wouldn't be too effective for them at this stage.
Yet, in the realm of languages, people get this idea that any language strategy is immediately applicable to them. Let me assure you - it is not. What's more, very often they can do more harm to your learning progress and motivation than good.
Here are a couple of arguments to bear in mind.
1. Expertise Reversal
The expertise reversal effect occurs when the instruction that is effective for novice learners is ineffective or even counterproductive for more expert learners.
If you look at it differently, more experienced learners learn more from high variability rather than low variability tasks demonstrating the variability effect. In contrast, less experienced learners learn more from low rather than top variability tasks showing a reverse variability effect.
Variability refers to a lack of consistency or fixed patterns in the tasks presented to a learner.
That means that beginners learn the best when there are:
If you complicate a learning plan for them, they will never progress, or they will do it extremely slowly.
Call me pragmatic, but I wouldn't like to learn my first language to a B2 level while turning 70.
Sure, thumbs up from a nurse who is just emptying my bedpan sound encouraging, but I think I will pass.
What's an example of a crazy learning plan for beginners?
I bet you have seen or done it before - most of us did. Very often, if you have 45 minutes of learning time per day, you will hear the following recommendations:
It's either this or some other variation of this madness.
What I do recommend most of the time for beginners in my course Vocabulary Labs is this:
Once they learn enough words, they start more advanced training, which involves lots of passive learning. Unsurprisingly, people who have failed to learn a language for ten years, miraculously start progressing like crazy.
Polygot Tips - Reading vs. Listening
The expertise reversal also manifests itself in the reading vs. listening effectiveness. Here is an excellent excerpt from a recent study.
Read-and-listen approach benefited novice learners; more expert learners could benefit more from the read-only approach.
2. Confidence can be misleading
The first thing you should keep in mind that we all crave confidence. Nobody wants to listen to people who seem hesitant. It all starts at a young age.
Researchers found that young children between the age of four and five not only prefer to learn from people who appear confident, they also keep track of how well the person's confidence has matched with their knowledge and accuracy in the past (a concept called 'calibration') and avoid learning new information from people who have a history of being overconfident. - ScienceDaily
Said another way, sometimes we don't pay much attention to what somebody has to say as much as how convincing they are when they do it. However, let's not confuse confidence (or age) with good advice.
Never underestimate how gullible we can be. While I am writing this, probably a dozen people on the internet are buying some course on healing cancer with banana enemas because the dude selling it looks and speaks like Gandalf.
Heck, I would probably buy it if he lowered his voice enough.
3. Experts are notoriously bad at explaining why they do certain things
Here is an excellent excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell's' book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking."
"Out of all the research that we've done with top players, we haven't found a single player who is consistent in knowing and explaining exactly what he does," Braden says.
"They give different answers at different times, or they have answers that simply are not meaningful."
One of the things he does, for instance, is videotape top tennis players and then digitize their movements, breaking them down frame by frame on a computer so that he knows, say, precisely how many degrees Pete Sampras rotates his shoulder on a cross-court backhand.
That's precisely how you combat this problematic phenomenon - you don't rely on opinions, you track data. Without it, our explanation of why something happened might be heavily warped by other factors.
If you want to see how far you can go with experimenting, check out this article: Over 30 Things You Can Learn From All My Fail And Successful Memory Experiments.
4. Achieving a certain skill level ≠ efficiency
I love Tim Ferris' approach to breaking down complex skills. One of his strategies involved finding outliers in a given discipline - people who shouldn't be good at something (especially sports), but they excelled against all the odds.
This framework allows you to cut through all the potential noise and eliminate variables that might distort your conclusions.
For example, I have had plenty of discussions with students of philology who claimed that the way they are taught at universities is impeccable. Every single time I had to point out that for five years, at least in Poland, they spend about 40 hours per week learning their target language. Go figure that you can achieve a C1 or C2 level after that many hours of practice!. Personally, I would be more interested in finding out how somebody, with similar or identical background knowledge, did it in a year.
The same goes for a lot of people who were born and raised in multilingual families or countries. It's great that they have acquired all this knowledge, but they are probably not the best people to give advice on how to learn languages.
5. The warping effect of background knowledge
Background knowledge is another variable that is NEVER considered by learners.
Most of the relevant theories of learning to acknowledge that learners' knowledge bases are the most important moderating factor influencing our ability to acquire information (e.g., Chi, De Leeuw, Chiu, & LaVancher, 1994; Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994).
It is well established that knowledge of a given domain facilitates recall of information in that domain. For example, Spilich, Vesonder, Chiesi, and Voss (1979) found that after listening to a description of a half-inning of a fictitious baseball game, participants high in baseball knowledge recalled more game actions and other game-relevant information, but less irrelevant information, than did participants lower in baseball knowledge.
Similarly, after listening to short vignettes from a game, participants high in baseball knowledge were better able to detect changes in the event descriptions on a subsequent recognition test than participants lower in baseball knowledge, especially when the changes related to the goal structure of the game (Chiesi, Spilich, & Voss, 1979; Experiment 1).
Walker (1987) also found a domain-knowledge effect when participants could read as well as listen to a half-inning game description.
Finally, Recht and Leslie (1988) reported the same effect when participants read silently the half-inning description.
Knowing many languages significantly changes your ability to acquire new ones. What's more, the more similar the language you want to learn is to the ones you already know, the faster you will acquire it.
Factors affecting your ability to learn
Keep in mind that there are lots of factors affecting your ability to learn, among others:
- 1Lack of a learning system
- 2Regularity of exposure
- 3Timing of repetition
- 4Retention intention
- 5Pronounceability (i.e., how difficult it is to pronounce)
- 6The usefulness of a word
- 7Emotional saliency
- 8Ease of application (i.e., knowing how to use a word)
- 9Lack of context
- 10Number of contexts
- 11Active encoding
- 12Morphological awareness (i.e., derivational complexity)
- 13The capacity of your short-term memory
- 14Intrinsic cognitive load (ICL)
- 15Germane cognitive load
- 16German cognitive load (GCL)
- 17Mental and physical condition
- 18Mental barriers
- 19Random variable(s)
Polyglots enjoy lots of unique advantages that have one thing in common - they decrease their general cognitive load. It means that they can learn much faster, longer, and more effectively than mono- and bilinguals. We can't pretend that it's not taking place, and we're all start at the same point. If this was a 100-meter dash, a typical polyglot would get a 70-meter headstart.
For example, quite a widespread piece of advice one can hear is that beginners should read simplified texts. Unfortunately, it's not true.
I want to make one thing very clear - no one is lying to you. These strategies DO work for them, but they will most probably won't work for you if your language background isn't extensive enough.
Learning Czech in 1 month
Let me give you a great example. My ninth and the last official language I learned was Czech. In 1 month (about 5 years ago), I managed to learn it from scratch to a B1/B2 level and confirmed with language tests.
It is a great result, and I am proud of it, but even at the beginning of this case study, I mentioned that I already know eight languages. What's more, my native tongue is Polish, and I speak fluent Russian.
Why is it important?
Because Czech shares about 70-80% of words with Polish. That means that right off the bat, my passive knowledge was big, and it was further increased by my knowledge of Russian.
Here are the implications of these numbers:
That was Czech. What about Slovak? To my surprise, when I visited Slovakia for Polyglot Gathering in 2017, I understood 98% of everything by virtue of knowing Czech.
Would the above be true for me if I decided to learn Chinese? No!
That's why be alert if somebody tells you that passive learning is great. It's not - it sucks. However, it is effective for a person with extensive background knowledge.
If you have it - great. If not, better get back to active learning.
Summary - Polyglot Tips, Advice, and Strategies
Taking polyglot tips and advice at face value can be a fatal mistake for people who don't know many or any languages. It can lead to opposite effects. Instead of progressing way faster, your progress can be almost non-existent. In extreme cases, you can become so overwhelmed that you will give up.
The overall explanation is simple - polyglots enjoy all the benefits of having extensive background knowledge in a specific field of language learning. That makes their knowledge acquisition process much more efficient.
My suggestion would be to think twice before using their (and my!) advice. Better make sure that it applies to you before you waste any time!
Done reading? Time to learn!
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 18 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
It’s amazing to see what kind of a heated debate a potential speed of learning can sparkle. A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a post on Reddit titled:
Here are some of the answers.
You need to speak with native speakers. The only way to truly advance in a language is to speak with people. Taking classes can help you form a base but to advance to a level of proficiency you need to study and practice everyday in your own life. Most of the time, I feel language classes are too slow.
Common Learning Myths – to Learn a Language in 6 Months, You Have To:
1) Live, breathe and sniff a language around the clock.
This advice is as great as it is unrealistic unless you want to get a first-class ticket to the “burnout” town with intermediate stations at “I-start-hating-languages” and “No-I-can’t-grab-a-beer-with-you-because-I-must-learn,” of course.
2) Be an experienced learner
It’s impossible not to agree with this point. Language learning veterans certainly enjoy a faster learning curve with every next language they learn. However, I would argue that often it is so, simply because they have developed a language learning routine.
3) Give up and cry deeply
Some background and introduction
Initially, I wanted to write this article in the form of an interview. However, I quickly changed my mind. It would leave dozens of bigger and smaller questions unanswered. Not to mention – most interviews are boring. So it’s more of a hybrid.
I think that this format should allow you to get the most value out of it. Let’s get to know a bit of something about our language hero.
1) Tell us first about yourself: I am 26 years old and a doctor intern (a soon-to-be hematologist).
2) What was your previous experience with languages before our mutual challenge – Learning English from the age of 12 – private and regular school lessons. It definitely didn’t go swimmingly. I actually considered myself to be linguistically retarded. Sometimes even my native tongue (Polish) seems to be problematic.
3) How much time did you need to achieve a B2 level in English – Over 10 years, I think.
As you can see, Mathew had almost no language experience. What’s worse, he considered himself to be bad at learning languages.
What makes a good student?
I have taught many students throughout the years. Even though most of them learn relatively fast and achieve B1/B2 level in about 12 months, just a few of them get to B2 level in 4-8 months.
Some character traits make them unique.
1) being motivated
Without it, most people wring their hands and give up upon suffering the first major setback. That’s why you need it so much at the beginning.
Mathew’s motivation was apparent and specific. He wanted to learn German asap to “have an opportunity of doing my medical specialization in Switzerland.” That allowed him to bounce back from every obstacle he encountered.
Of course, you should be aware that motivation alone doesn’t suffice. You need to create habits and build learning systems as quickly as it is only possible.
Another trait which can help you with that is:
2) being disciplined
It’s the prerequisite for effective learning.
I mean, how else are you going to follow through on our plan? Luckily for you, you don’t need to be disciplined by nature. You can awaken this trait by betting. (read more about it here).
Mathew’s workload was considerable. I knew that at some point, he would say, “that’s enough. I deserve a break”. I mean, who wouldn’t? I made sure that his motivation to keep maintaining his learning pace was sufficient.
We made bets. Failing to do his daily tasks would cost him dearly. Understandably, he was able to resist the temptation to bum around.
The last character trait which a good student should possess is:
3) being coachable
How to Learn German from Scratch to a b2 Level in 5 Months – How Much Time Was Needed
Before we move on to Mathew’s total learning time, let’s put things in perspective and answer the following question first.
How much time do you need to learn German to a B2 level?
A quick google search shows that The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) suggests that you need about 750 hours to get to this level.
An offer of many German-language schools seems to confirm this number. Usually, you need to spend about 500 – 700 hours in a course and then add about 100-200 hours for learning at home.
It’s worth remembering that these numbers may vary depending on your mother tongue and knowledge of other languages. But as for our case, they certainly look solid.
How many words do you need to learn German to a B2 level?
People who take B2 exams are usually expected to know anywhere between 3 and 4,5 k words.
How much time did Mathew need to learn German to B2 level?
For five months, we met, on average, two hours per week.
Yes, just two hours per week. Funny enough, that contrasts starkly with intensive courses where you have to spend about 30 hours per week at your language school. Of course, he also learned at home. On average, he learned about 3 hours each day (including our meetings).
The total time he needed to get to B2 level amounts to
150 x 3 = 450 hours.
For a rookie who knew just one foreign language before he decided to take on this challenge, it’s undoubtedly impressive.
But what’s even more impressive is Mathew’s vocabulary size after five months. Altogether, he learned about 6700 words (yep, we counted).
That means that vocabulary-wise, he surpassed most of the requirements for this level. He could read most of the things he wanted to, including newspapers, and could also speak about a variety of subjects.
Although it was apparent that his vocabulary wasn’t fully consolidated at this point since he had to struggle for quite a few words.
Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level In 5 Months – Mathew’s results
Initially, our goal was to get to a B2 level in 6 months so Mathew could take the B2 Goethe exam and ace it. Interestingly, he managed to do it in 5 months! Here is his pride and joy:
Results are not bad, but I expected them to be much higher. Mathew had a firm grasp of the language. I guess that in the end, stress got to him as he had no previous experience with such exams.
Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level In 5 Months – A Study Plan
I decided to break everything down for you so you can, hopefully, follow this plan.
We only used four things
That’s it. There is power in simplicity.
Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level – The first 2 weeks
During first four hours I taught Mathew
- how to use ANKI and why it is effective
- all the functional Grammar (i.e., Grammar which you need to communicate with others)
- how to choose your daily goals so you know that you will achieve a given level within the desired timeframe
- first memory system so you could utilize ANKI more effectively
No listening and no reading
I think that the things mentioned above are quite clear. What might not be that obvious is why
I forbade Mathew to read and listen to anything for the first three months.
“Why?!” I can hear you screaming! It doesn’t make any sense! Or does it?
If you know how to acquire vocabulary, you do not context to do it. You can learn the first 3-5 thousand words directly 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.
What’s more, most people assume that you need to start listening to your target language right away. That’s, forgive me for being so blunt, moronic. If you only know 200 or 600 words and almost no grammar, how much of the return rate can you get from one hour of listening?
Sure, there is some value in it – you can get used to the prosody and so on, but all in all, it’s not worth it.
No conversational partners
Ok, so that might be another thing which might seem bizarre to you – Mathew had no other conversational partners besides me. Not that it was forbidden or anything, his schedule was too hectic to find any people who would be willing to conform to it.
So yes, as weird as it may be, there is a good explanation of why it didn’t influence Mathew’s progress negatively. What people fail to understand that conversations require two things from you:
If you listen a lot, even without any magical techniques, the day will come when you will be able to understand what is being said (assuming that you practice your grammar and vocabulary).
2) Being able to express yourself
This is usually the result of two things
- having a good command of grammar
- learning and activating words
Do you need a lot of conversational partners to do it?
Of course not!
Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level – Weeks 2-12
After the first two weeks, we dove right into speaking. It was something new for him as he said, ” our conversations started after just a few hours, and surprisingly, they were not trivial but revolved around many topics.”
Usually, we started every lesson in the same way. First, I asked him to tell me what he did last week/weekend so he could activate past tenses. He also had to ask some questions using the grammar constructions we had covered so far.
Once again, it might seem strange, but keep in mind that most of the time, students talk far more often than they ask questions. Thus, the imbalance ensues.
In extreme cases, someone might be able to talk quite fluently and still not be able to ask a question without hesitation. This can cripple almost any conversation.
Teaching Mathew how to activate his vocabulary
Of course, if Mathew had a chance only to speak with me, he wouldn’t get far. That’s why I taught him some other methods to activate his vocabulary and practice his fluency.
The main focus – vocabulary acquisition
The main focus during this period was learning as many words as possible. On average, Mathew learned between 35-40 words each day.
Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level – Weeks 12-16
Listening and writing
It was the time when Mathew started reading a couple of articles per week, as well as listening to News in Slow German for at least 30-40 minutes each day.
As you probably recall, he didn’t listen to anything or anyone else but me for the first months. Understandably, his comprehension, at the very beginning, was very low. He could get only
about 20-25% of what he heard during the first couple of days. But what happened next blew his mind.
His comprehension rose to about 80 % within 2-3 weeks. After that, he switched to listening to the regular German radio.
Were his listening skills perfect when he took his exam? Of course not. They are always one of the most challenging things to improve. But as you could see, they were good enough to pass a listening part of the test.
Utilizing passive learning
Active learning is undoubtedly the most powerful language learning tool one might use. But it always works better when you combine it with passive learning.
That’s why I taught Mathew how to surround himself with a language to get even more out of his studies.
Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level – Weeks 16-20
It was the most boring period of our preparation. In addition to doing all the previously mentioned things, I started teaching Mathew how to solve and approach all the parts of the exam. It doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s a crucial element if you want to pass a certificate. You need to create a habit of solving different examination parts in a particular manner.
It’s worth mentioning that we used some basic mnemonics to improve Mathew’s presentation skills. Being able to quickly memorize a rough plan of what you would like to say helps to take the edge off.
How To Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level In 5 Months – Summary
As you can see, rapid learning is undoubtedly doable even if you want to learn German from scratch to a B2 level in 5 months or faster. I have done it with dozens of students using the outlined strategy, and results are always great.
Of course, it might not be easy to start applying it to your learning right from the start. After all, it requires a little bit different approach to language learning than the one which is commonly accepted, but it works like a charm.
If you ever replicate this strategy, please drop me a message and let me know how it went.
Interested in all the methods and strategies that we have used to learn German within that time? Check out my language course Vocabulary Labs. You can read dozens of similar testimonials here. It has been used by hundreds of learners to master over 40 different languages.
Done reading? Time to learn!
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 20 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
Contrary to popular belief, not all learning leads to enlightenment and self-development. Oftentimes, lousy learning practices can lead to the contrary. Instead of acquiring in-depth and meaningful knowledge, you end up learning random and superficial pieces of information of questionable credibility.
In other words, stupid learning can turn out to be a waste of time, whereas smart learning will, unsurprisingly, make you smart. As such, it should be a priority for any self-respecting student or professional.
Unfortunately, most people learn by feel. Partly because of the undisciplined approach to knowledge acquisition and somewhat because smart learning has become a bit of a trite slogan in recent years. We all know we should do it, but hardly anyone knows what it is.
Let's tackle this topic step by step.
What is smart learning?
There are 5 key traits that characterize smart learning.
1. Optimizing your reviews
If you still haven't got the news. We have known for over 140 years that optimizing reviews allows us to slow down memory decay. About that time, a brilliant German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus proved that we could significantly slow down memory decay by revising the learning material at the right moment.
The famous Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve depicts this phenomenon.
You would think that 140 years is plenty of time, but I assure you it's not. The concept of optimizing your reviews is still relatively unknown. Spaced Repetition Software, which allows you to revise learning material at the optimal intervals automatically, is nowhere to be found in public schools or at universities. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between.
Keep in mind that using programs like ANKI is not the ultimate solution. Yes, using it will certainly make you a better learner than about 70% of the population.
However, what makes it really effective is using it correctly, i.e., applying the right learning methods while reviewing information in ANKI. Spaced repetition algorithms are your white canvass, but you also have to know how to paint to get the best effects.
2. Choosing the right learning materials
There are 2 types of sources of information:
- Primary sources
- Secondary sources
(1) Primary sources
Primary sources refer to previously established scientific facts (e.g., math, physics, and chemistry textbooks) or firsthand, fundamental research that is based upon observations or experiments (e.g., research articles in journals).
(2) Secondary sources
Secondary sources or secondhand sources refer to any learning resource which loosely relates to the primary resources and/or interprets them in a certain way (e.g., interviews, YT videos, etc.).
Roles of both sources of information
Both types of sources can be very useful in learning. The first one provides you with the certainty that the information you acquire is true.
Secondary sources, on the other hand, can help you make sense out of that information.
Sometimes hearing somebody's opinion on some matter can help you connect the dots and arrive at the right conclusion.
Always prioritize primary sources
As long as you focus on relentlessly acquiring knowledge from the primary sources, you can rest assured that your expertise will keep on growing and will be of the highest quality.
The problem arises when you try to derive a big chunk of your knowledge from secondhand sources. It always means one thing — you suspend your right to have any meaningful opinion.
You scarf down any crap which people dish out. And make no mistake. There are very few people who put in time and effort to really learn something.
Most simply regurgitate different anecdotes and old wives' tales to boost their ego.
Unless you prioritize learning from the primary sources, you will never be able to tell what's true and what's not.
Trust the facts, not the experts. Way too many people have their own agenda and have no problem with profiting from the naivety and ignorance of the others.
If you want to see for yourself how wide-spread that behavior is, go ahead and look up some popular language-learning websites. You will be lucky to find even one quotation on most of them.
As Dr. Johnson so wisely observed, truth is hard to assimilate in any mind when opposed by interest. Moreover, strong feelings about issues do not usually emerge from deep understanding and knowledge.
3. Knowing what you can forget
However, it doesn't mean that you literally have to suck in everything. With all due respect to the hard-working scientific community, when I read medical or memory studies, I rarely care who has written them. I won't waste any brainpower to remember it.
Why? Because ANKI is also a browseable database! If I need to look up the authors of a certain study, I can get this information within seconds.
You should always try to separate the worthwhile from the wooly.
It won't always be obvious to establish what's relevant and what's not. Sometimes only time will tell. There were times when I started memorizing random stuff only to realize after some time that I don't need to know it by heart.
In other words, figuring out what's worth memorizing requires some trial and error, and it's heavily dependent on the depth of knowledge you want to acquire and on the conditions you will retrieve it in.
Definitely, one important criterion which can help you guide this decision process is choosing whether you want to master a certain discipline or be decent/good at it.
Personally, I wouldn't decide to learn a lot of scripts or commands by heart if I was just programming for fun. However, if you want to learn a programming language to the "native" level of familiarity, you can't be too picky. In return, that will allow you to sketch out personal utility software, scripts, and hacks rapidly.
4. Choosing the right learning strategies
Choosing the right learning strategies depends on a lot of factors. However, there are two crucial elements that you need to incorporate if you want to become a successful learner.
Have a learning system
Let me make it very clear — you
This is the basis of any learning success. Skipping this part makes as much sense as trying to build your house from the second floor.
Stop learning passively
The idea that we can acquire information effectively by reading or listening is as rife as antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea. Yes, you can learn this way, but this process is excruciatingly slow.
It doesn't matter how many relevant scientific studies get produced every year that show that passive learning is useless. The illusion of learning always seems to have the upper hand.
Students who engage in active learning learn more -- but feel like they learn less -- than peers in more lecture-oriented classrooms.
When memory researcher Jennifer McCabe posed a similar question to college students, she found an overwhelming preference for the second strategy, restudying, even though this approach is known to be inferior to the recall method in this situation.
Why did the students get it wrong?
Most likely, they based their answers on their own experience. They knew that when they finished reading material over and over, they felt confident in their memory. The facts seemed clear and fresh. They popped into mind quickly and easily as the students reviewed them. This is not always so when recalling facts in a self-test—more effort is often required to bring the facts to mind, so they don’t seem as solid. From a student’s point of view, it can seem obvious which method—restudying—produces better learning. Robert Bjork refers to this as an “illusion of competence” after restudying.
The student concludes that she knows the material well based on the confident mastery she feels at that moment. And she expects that the same mastery will be there several days later when the exam takes place. But this is unlikely. The same illusion of competence is at work during cramming when the facts feel secure and firmly grasped. While that is indeed true at the time, it’s a mistake to assume that long-lasting memory strength has been created.
Illusions of competence are seductive. They can easily mislead people into misjudging the strength of their memory, and they can encourage students to adopt study methods that undermine long-term retention. The best defense is to use proven memory techniques and to be leery of making predictions about future memory strength based on how solid the memory seems right now
Here are other articles concerning passive learning:
5. Concentrating On What’s Evergreen!
One of the best ways of amassing impressive knowledge within a relatively short period is concentrating on what's evergreen. Even though it's not possible in every single case, I believe that this is something we all should strive for. Political leaders will change, programming languages will evolve, but physics, math, and even psychology will remain almost unchanged at their core.
Focusing on those subjects will allow you to build evergreen knowledge that can be applied almost everywhere regardless of circumstances. What's more, the more you learn, the easier it will be for you to expand your knowledge. Every discipline contains nuggets of wisdom that can be transplanted into other areas.
Most of relevant theories of learning to acknowledge that learners’ knowledge bases are the most important moderating factor influencing our ability to acquire information (e.g., Chi, De Leeuw, Chiu, & LaVancher, 1994; Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994).
In other words, the more of such knowledge you gather, the quicker you will be able to learn!
Does it mean that you should try to master all the big disciplines? Of course not (unless you want to). Be picky and adjust your choices to your needs.
Whatever you do, remember this. Acquiring evergreen knowledge is an investment that will keep on giving and will never go to waste.
WHAT ARE EXAMPLES OF EVERGREEN KNOWLEDGE?
The exact sciences (math, physics, etc.)
The art of persuasion
The science of memory and productivity
The basic nutritional and medical information
The basic financial knowledge
Summary — What is smart learning and how to apply it to become a better learner?
Smart learning is a fantastic learning philosophy. I am not only its big fan, but I also practice it every single day myself.
It can be seen as the best of the worlds, i.e., productivity and the science of memory.
At its core, smart learning involves 5 key elements which, if applied correctly, can help you to learn faster and become a better learner:
Optimizing your reviews
Choosing the right learning materials
Knowing what you can forget
Choosing the right learning strategies
Concentrating On What’s Evergreen!
Done reading? Time to learn!
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 23 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
Another cool thing about this case study is that I collected all of Kate’s emails throughout the course. They will give you a detailed picture of how drastically one’s approach to learning can change once they switch to different learning strategies and start violating memory principles.
This article also gives me yet another chance of showcasing a core philosophy promoted by the Universe of Memory.
Learning is mostly a lonely struggle. It’s what you do at home that really matters. Choose a bad learning strategy, or focus on the incorrect things and you can kiss your progress goodbye.
If that wasn’t enough, Kate also shares her advice about encouraging your family to join you in your language mission. It seems that the key strategy which has eluded me for years are thinly veiled threats of starving your significant other. Who would have thought?
Learn Finnish fast – the Pre-course Evaluation
One of the indispensable parts of the Vocabulary Labs course is a pre-course survey which I send to each member before the course starts. It helps me evaluate the state of knowledge of all the participants as well as their propensities and current learning styles.
Below you can find some of Kate’s answers from the said survey. Her original goal was to learn German, but at the very beginning of the course, she decided to change it to Finnish.
- What languages do you know currently and at what levels? Which one is your native tongue?
Russian is my native tongue.
I know English at C2.
I used to know French at B2-C1 and some Latin, but I’ve forgotten most part of both by now. Also, I tried learning Japanese and German, but I’m about A0 in them 🙂
- How much time can you devote to learning per day? Be as realistic as you only can.
About an hour if I’m enthusiastic, not more than half an hour if there’s no interest, but only my will power involved.
- How much time do you spend learning your target language every day? Please give me the approximate numbers for the following categories: reading, listening/watching, writing, talking.
I‘m not learning German now.
- What are you reading/watching/listening to?
I don’t read or watch much (if we speak about fiction or things like news and films), I listen to audiobooks. It isn’t because I don’t like reading or watching. The only reason is that I can listen doing something else at the same time, while reading and watching need total concentration (well, watching a film + crocheting is possible, but with reading even this is out of the question). The majority of what I read/watch is in English (articles, lectures, etc. on the Internet).
- Who do you talk to (teachers, friends, etc.)?
Students. But that’s in English. In German, I don’t talk to anyone.
- How do you learn and revise your vocabulary? What systems/apps/ websites are you using? (the more details the better)
To learn German, I used Duolingo. I did it because I was interested in whether a program can really teach you anything. It taught me a couple of things, but not much. To study some C2 vocab when I was getting ready to take my CPE exam, I used Quizlet. I created flashcards myself, but I didn’t use them much – it was rather boring.
- What do you (currently) like/dislike about language learning?
There isn’t anything that I dislike. Languages are part of my life and have always been. I just enjoy them.
- What are your strengths/weaknesses when it comes to learning? (discipline, concentration, etc.)
I remember and understand things quickly – these are my strengths. I drop things easily if I’m bored. This lack of persistence is my weakness.
- What are your favorite hobbies/pastimes?
Usually, I’m up to my ears in work, which is also my hobby. When I’m too tired of work, I just relax doing nothing.
- What is your current vocabulary size in your target language?
In German it’s about 100 words, I guess. Not more. Although I’ve never counted them. And they’re all my passive vocabulary.
- How many new words do you learn per day?
- How do you currently learn grammar?
I don’t learn it in at all.
- What is the quickest you have ever learned a language?
A year – I was able to talk to a native speaker after a year of studying. But the level wasn’t high, so it all depends on what you mean by “have learned”. If it’s totally independent use of the language, like C1-C2, then my only achievement is English, and it took me many years to reach this level.
To finish answering, let me say that although I’m very curious about your system, I’m at the same time very skeptical about it. In other words, I don’t really expect much and regard it more like an experiment of some sort. I don’t remember when and how I found your first article about memory and language learning, but I certainly liked it, because I rarely subscribe to receive e-mails. So, I was very interested to find out that you’re launching this course. Judging by your articles, the course is going to be interesting, regardless of my expectations 🙂
Learn Finnish fast – Kate’s Progress!
Once the course starts, all the participants receive e-mail reminders about their progress. It helps me keep track of their learning pace and any potential problems. It also makes for a great read later on! These e-mails create an amazing narrative and show how much people, and their learning capacity, can change within just a couple of weeks.
Here are Kate’s e-mails.
Update #1 – Beating 2 months of learning with Duolingo in 5 days
I’d like to share my impressions of your course. At the very beginning, I was skeptical (and I wrote to you about it). Well, seems like I’m not skeptical anymore)) Bartosz, your E.V.A. method is mind-blowing (both literally and figuratively). Its simplicity and effectiveness are just amazing.
Now, more details. My initial aim was German, but right at the beginning of the course, I changed my mind. Since I’ve already tested how Duolinguo works using German, I decided to pick up some other language and see what I will achieve using your method. Then I was going to compare my Duolinguo achievements in German with the achievements in the new language. For the experiment, to be totally honest, I chose a language which looks absolutely alien to me: Finnish. It has nothing in common with the languages I know, since it belongs to a different family.
My Duolingo experiment (which I carried out 2 years ago) lasted for about 2 months. I spent on it an hour or more daily. I learned some words and got some understanding of some grammar structures, but that’s about it. I don’t think I could say anything in that language except for the phrases which were repeated multiple times and which I simply knew by heart. I wasn’t satisfied with the results and deleted Duolingo after two months.
I started using your method on May, 5th. On May 10th I realized I’ve already achieved more than after 2 months of Duolingo. And that’s not because Finnish is easy and German is not. Actually, it’s the other way around. In German, there were notions easy to grasp since they’re similar to English in some way. Many words looked familiar, too. Finnish, ha-ha) Nothing in common either with Latin, or with English, or with Russian.
Maybe, pronunciation is easier, but nothing else. Still, I already know more than 100 words and CAN USE them. And it’s very inspiring, of course, to see this progress.
I didn’t believe at first that B1 in 4 months is achievable, but now I think it is pretty possible if I just keep doing it at the same pace (which is not highly demanding, by the way).
As for the biggest takeaway from the Grammar Module — that’s Deep Learning. I haven’t yet been doing it for long, but it already brings in the results.
Update #2 – First 1000 Finnish words and A2 level in 3 weeks
I’m happy to share my experience of using your course, which is very pleasant indeed.
First of all, yesterday I finished my first thousand of Finnish words (yes, I was waiting with this email just to be able to boast). 400+ of them are regarded by ANKI as mature. This would have never been possible but for the techniques, I learned from you. I do study grammar as well from time to time, but as it requires more concentration and can’t be done 5-10 minutes in the morning, then 3 minutes while the kids are playing in the sandbox, I study little grammar in comparison with vocabulary.
I’ve got a textbook in Finnish. I don’t use it, but what I do is open it once a fortnight and see if I can understand something in there. In the beginning, it didn’t make any sense, but now the first four or five units are pretty easy to understand.
Hungry for more
The method has changed my perception of language learning so much that sometimes I feel my progress is slow. At this moment I remember my words “I’d call reaching A2-B1 in 3-4 months a tremendous success”. I know this phenomenon of greediness from my students, and now I’m experiencing it myself. Funny, but when I was doing Duolinguo making no progress whatsoever, I didn’t feel that I was going too slow.
At the end of the third week of my experiment, I found an online placement test offered by some Finnish language school in Moscow. The result was that they suggested I join their second-semester group (which means I’d achieved in 3 weeks what they were studying for 4 months at the same price which I paid for your course).
Update #3 – 1500 Finnish Words + Convincing Her Husband to Learn as Well!
Thanks for monitoring the progress 🙂 I’ve learned a bit more than 1500 words (today it’s the 80th day of my learning), and I’m progressing further. This learning thing seems to be infectious: my husband started on Finnish, too. His pace is slower – just 5 words, but in spite of this, some progress can already be seen. Now I’ve got a partner to practice my skills during breakfast time :)) Totally free and always available.
2800+ Finnish words
Summer is over, a new school year has started, which means a lack of time. Well, no time at all, actually. So, I set my daily word limit to 10 (it used to be 20) just to make it doable. Right now the number of words I’ve learned is 2800, which is quite a lot. I decided to take a lesson with a native speaker to see if I will be able to speak. Yes, I’m able to speak and, which is even better, the natives can understand it! It’s more difficult to understand what they say, but I’m sure it’s a matter of practice. I’ve tried lessons with 2 different people, and both couldn’t believe that I’ve been studying Finnish for 4 months only (I took those lessons at the beginning of September, which was exactly 4 months since I started this language from scratch).
Plans to take the officialYKI test
Now my plan is to try taking their YKI test. It takes place only in Finland, but the more I learn the eager I am to visit that country. And if I visit it, why not taking the exam? There are three levels on which you can take it: A1-A2, B1-B2, C1-C2. I’m thinking of taking B1-B2. I would attempt at C1 if it weren’t for my extra-busy teaching time till the end of May. I just won’t be able to find the necessary time. However, B2 looks achievable.
P. S. “B2 looks achievable”. In a year. God, who could have thought I’d ever say this…
A Short Interview With Kate
While writing this case study, I was also able to catch up with Kate and ask her a couple of questions about learning and her family. It’s truly inspiring to see how much effort and sneakiness she put into encouraging them to learn Finnish fast as well!
What do you do?
I’m a teacher of English. I’ve been teaching for 15 years. I have experience of working at school, but for the last ten years, I’ve been a freelance teacher.
Why exactly did you decide to learn Finnish instead of German?
I’ve chosen Finnish because at first learning it was part of an experiment. I was interested to find out whether the system you suggest really allows people to learn languages faster than usual. For this purpose, I needed a language which is different from the ones I was familiar with.
Since I studied Latin, such languages as Italian, Spanish, etc. were out of the question — being familiar with Latin makes it easier to learn them, so it wouldn’t have been clear whether it’s Bartosz’s system working or just my experience. German is in certain ways similar to English. Moreover, by the beginning of the experiment, I had already tried learning German, so this language wasn’t new either. So I was looking for a language from a different language family. Finnish, which is a member of the Uralic family and looked totally alien to me at the beginning of my experiment, was a perfect choice.
My 2 cents: That’s a great approach. It’s really to fool yourself into believing that you can learn fast if you learn a language that is similar to the ones you already know. For years, while I have been devising my learning strategies, I used languages which I knew nothing about to minimize any background knowledge interference.
Did you have to force your husband to learn Finnish or was it his choice :)?
Yep. I told him I wouldn’t feed him if he didn’t start learning at least 5 words a day. Speaking seriously, I didn’t force him, but it wasn’t his choice either. I started by creating an ANKI profile for him and added 3 words there every day.
It took less than a minute to revise them during breakfast time, and in about ten-fifteen days he realized he could say simple phrases. It inspired him and he asked me to increase the number of words up to 5. Then 7. Then 10. Then he started reading to learn some grammar and listen so some dialogues on Finnish sites. So that’s how it happened.
My 2 cents: Let’s take a second to appreciate Kate’s brilliance. She didn’t wait until her husband makes up his mind. Instead, she created a separate ANKI account and flashcards to kickstart his progress. Sure, it would be better if he produced them himself. the thing is that probably he wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for Kate’s initiative. If you’ve been contemplating how to force your loved ones to take up a new language, you might benefit from this strategy.
Do you currently have some opportunities to use the language? If not, how do you maintain it?
Right now, I don’t have many opportunities to use the language unless I read/listen to something or exchange a couple of phrases with my husband. I used to have 1 lesson a week with a native speaker (I started in September to see whether I would be able to understand something and make myself understood, I liked the person I talked to, so I continued the speaking sessions till February. In February I had to quit because I was fully concentrated on my work).
Do you use methods from Vocabulary Labs at your work? Did they affect the results of your students? How?
Yes, I used the methods. One of the methods (or ideas, probably) that I used was to set a certain minimum of what has to be learnt/done every day. I prepared the materials in such a way that the goal of doing them every day was achievable pretty easily. It resulted in my students having covered LOTS of stuff. Much more than was covered by those who studied less systematically.
Another one is, of course, ANKI. I explained to the students how to make cards. Some of them started using it right away, others didn’t want to. I didn’t insist much. In about 3 months it was easy to detect who was and who was not using ANKI without even asking them. The formers’ level grew much more rapidly.
My 2 cents: That definitely sounds familiar. Even after one week of private coaching, I can already hear whether my clients use ANKI or not.
Do you use the said methods in your daughter’s education? How exactly does it look like?:)
The only method I’m using in my daughter’s education is ANKI. We just use it to learn words. For example, when we watch a cartoon or just talk about something while walking and this or that word pops up, we write a sentence with it in ANKI (and a picture! you can’t make a card without a picture, it’s almost a crime).
My daughter’s pace is 3 words a day, but we often skip writing new words (not because she isn’t willing, but because I’m a lazy and irresponsible mother). She never skips revising, though. She can’t read in English yet, so I read the sentence aloud making a pause where she has to insert a word. Sometimes she makes sentences herself for the new cards.
About a month ago she asked me whether she could have lessons with someone who speaks English. I found a teacher on iTalki, and now they’re having lessons. I write out the words which are an active vocabulary for the lessons, and then my daughter learns them. If not for this learning, the lessons would mainly be a waste of money (as well as my speaking sessions in Finnish). Backed up by ANKI, however, they are fine: my daughter enjoys talking to someone from far away and understands more and more. I used to have lessons with my daughter last year. She’s a quick learner, but now she’s progressing quicker than she used to.
My younger daughter (3.8 years old) is always near my elder one when she’s revising. Side effect: the younger one knows half the words, too.
My 2 cents: I am raising my son (22 months) bilingually ,and I am also optimizing his words repetitions with ANKI. Of course, he is way too small to do it himself, being the lazy bugger he is, but I do it for him to optimize his learning curve.
What are the three main takeaways you learned from Vocabulary Labs?
1) I found out that learning a language can be amazingly quick. Finnish is more difficult than any other language I’ve come across so far (ok, Latin can compete, but it’s a dead language), yet the pace with which I learned it was quicker than, for example, French. Knowing that a language can be learned fast is, actually, a very important takeaway. It motivates and gives hope thus making me succeed.
2) The one that I’m using in my work: better take a small step every day than sit for 10 hours once a month.
3) ANKI. Needless to comment I suppose.
3a) Switching my mobile to Finnish. It’s a tiny detail, but it reminds me of what I’m supposed to be doing every day.
Actually, I have forgotten many things from the course since it’s very big. Now that I have some free time, I’m going to revisit it 🙂
Are you planning to learn another language anytime soon?
I’m not planning, but dreaming of learning Swedish as soon as I reach B2 in Finnish (which I hope will happen by the end of summer if everything goes as planned).
Finnish From Scratch to a b1 Level in 3 Months – the Learning Plan
In this section, you can find a rough plan which Kate used in order to learn Finnish fast to a B1 level as verified by a language school. As a reminder, if you’re looking for a more detailed version of this blueprint, please read another case study of mine “How to learn German from scratch to a B2 level in 5 months“.
Let’s start with the learning resources Kate has used to accomplish her mission.
Finnish Learning Resources
Kate only four things:
- Frequency lists (in the form of ANKI decks)
- Websites to find native speakers to talk to
I can only smile when people shake their heads in disbelief upon hearing that you don’t need more than a handful of resources to learn a language. Interestingly, the opposite is true. The more learning resources you use, the smaller your chances of being able to use them efficiently. What’s terrifying, even one small piece of paper which you scribble on can be counted as a separate resource. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s a fact.
The Best Anki Decks for Finnish Vocabulary
One of the fastest ways to learn a language is to start with vocabulary lists. Here are the best English-Finnish ANKI decks I have been able to find.
Please keep in mind that those lists are supposed to be a basis for your own ANKI deck. Nothing can replace the effort you put into creating your own flashcards and sentences.
This deck should be enough to take you from zero to about a B2 level. It also includes examples and audio.
- 10 000 Finnish sentences sorted from easiest to hardest [1/1] (3000 words)
- 10 000 Finnish sentences sorted from easiest to hardest [2/2] (7000 words)
- Finnish Core 1841 Word List (without translation but with pictures)
And here are other noteworthy frequency lists of Finnish words:
How to Talk With Finnish Native Speakers for Free
Organized lessons are, of course, a great idea. However, in the era of the internet, it’s absolutely not necessary to pay for them in order to talk with native speakers.
Here is a list of great websites where you can arrange language exchange with language enthusiasts.
My absolute favorite is definitely Italki. This is also the website that Kate has used to find a language partner.
- Conversation Exchange
- Easy Language Exchange
Finnish From Scratch to a b1 Level in 3 Months – What to Do
Finnish From Scratch to a b1 Level in 3 Months – the Learning Plan – Summary
Way too many people think that learning boils down to devoting vast swathes of time to your learning projects. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, effective learning is all about energy and effort you put into your learning. Very often one hour of honest work can beat 10 hours of bumming around. If you add effective learning strategies to this mix, rest assured that your progress will know no bounds.
Do you want to ask me or Kate something about this mission? Let us know in the comments.
Interested in all the methods and strategies that we have used to learn German within that time? Check out my language course Vocabulary Labs. You can read dozens of similar testimonials here. It has been used by hundreds of learners to master over 40 different languages.
The curse of a B2 level might sound like a title of an F-rated horror movie but it’s a very real thing. In fact, it affects most language learners,
What is the curse of a b2 level (aka the language learning plateau)?
The language learning plateau is a phenomenon describing one’s inability to progress past the intermediate stages of language learning (i.e. a B1/B2 level). Typically, the main reasons are using inefficient learning strategies, or not using any learning system at all.
Let’s break down step-by-step why a B2 level is a final station for most language learners and what you can do to fix go beyond this mark. Time to break that curse.
What’s a B2 level is all about
What? You thought I would skip a dry, boring and theoretical part? No way! That’s where all the fun is!
Let’s take a look at requirements which one would have to meet in order to be classified at a B2 level. They are a part of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
Description of a B2 level (B2 INTERMEDIATE)
At this level, you can:
- understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization.
- interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
- produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
Brief explanation: this level can be depicted as a FULL conversational fluency. You can have real conversations with native speakers about a variety of subjects.
Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at quite a deep level.
Expected vocabulary depth: you can convey most of your thoughts but you still, for the most part, lack precision. Compared to a B1 level, you can discuss more topics with more precise vocabulary.
Still, any topic that differs from typical, conversational standards will probably throw you off.
How many people master a language at a C1 or C2 level
English proficiency in the world
Now that you know what a B2 level is all about, let’s take a look at the level of English proficiency in different countries around the world. It’s only natural since this language is still the most popular choice. Our starting point is the EF English Proficiency Index. For brevity’s sake, I will skip the part where I lambaste the reliability of those results.
Countries with the highest English proficiency
Here is a list of countries that were classified as the ones with “very high proficiency” i.e. a C1-C2 level. Pay very close attention to the top dogs. Almost every country in the top 12 has either English as an official language (e.g. Singapore) or it’s a Germanic-speaking country.
Why is it important? If you’re learning a language which is similar to your native tongue, it will be CONSIDERABLY easier for you to master it. Since English is also a Germanic language, it’s not difficult to notice a pattern here.
Of course, there are other factors at play here but this is the most important one for me from the memory standpoint. The way information familiarity modulates your working memory and increases your learning capacity can’t be ignored.
A good example is my mission from a couple of years ago where I learned Czech from scratch to a B1/B2 level in about 1 month., even though my learning system at that time was far from perfect. Yes, I specialize in memory, so I knew what I was doing but I also already spoke Polish, Russian and German. Those languages helped me establish my initial familiarity with Czech vocabulary at about 80%.
Countries with moderate English proficiency
Now it’s time for countries whose English proficiency can be characterized as about B2 level.
As you can see, once we drop outliers like the top 12, the level drops to a B2 level and below. But let’s not stop there.
Here is an excerpt from one of the official Polish reports about German Proficiency in Poland. Let’s keep in mind that we’re talking about self-evaluation here of people who probably wouldn’t be able to describe language requirements for any level. The reality, in other words, is less rosy.
German proficiency at a B1+ level has been achieved by more than 53% of language learners., of which 22% mastered the language at a B2 level, 19% at a C1 level and 12.5% at a C2 level.
In other words, the amount of German learners who claim they have mastered this language amounts to about 16%.
The magical number 20
In different reports, the number 20 is the reoccurring theme. It seems that only less than 20% of learners of any language get past a B2 level. That is of course if you believe that these numbers are reliable.
Scientific studies are less forgiving in this department.
Long (2005, 2013) that the number of learners who achieve a C2 level is anywhere between 1-5%.
From that, we can only conclude that students who achieve a C1 are also relatively low (read more about in The Handbook of the Neuroscience of Multilingualism).
I rest my case. Let’s move on.
The curse of a B2 level – the two main reasons why you are stuck
1. No learning strategy and no system
One of the most surprising facts about how people learn is that most of them have no organized system of learning. You might think that’s an exaggeration but I assure you it’s not.
Here is an excerpt from a recent study (Schimanke, Mertens, Schmid 2019) about learning strategies at a German university.
To get a better insight on how students actually learn, we have conducted a survey among the students of our university (HSW – University of Applied Sciences) about their strategies and learning behaviors.
Overall, there were 135 students participating in this survey from all 6 semesters and between 18 and 31 years of age. 68.1% of the participants were male, 31.9% female.
Only very few of them deliberately make use of learning strategies, such as spaced repetition or the Leitner system. 94.8% of the participants just repeat the learning topics randomly to have them available during a test.
The terrifying thing is that we’re not talking about a bunch of clueless people without any education. We’re talking about bright individuals who will shape the future of their nation.
And yet, almost all of them rely on something I call a let’s-hope-it-sticks strategy. It’s nothing more than spitting on a wall and hoping that something will set. But it rarely does, right?
You can read, reread and cram all you want. Most of the knowledge you gather this way will be forgotten by the end of the next week.
There can be no effective learning if you’re not optimizing your repetitions.
2. Concentrating on passive learning
Passive learning can be a very effective learning tool provided that you’re already at an advanced level (especially a B2 level and higher). It can also be relatively useful if, for one reason or another, you are already familiar with a language you want to master (e.g. because it’s a part of the same language family). However, passive learning is a terrible tool for language rookies.
The body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times in order to put it into your long-term memory (i.e. be able to activate it without any conscious effort). Other studies quote numbers between 7-60.
I will let it sink in!
That’s a lot. Of course, the number varies because it all depends on your background knowledge, emotional saliency of words and so on but it’s still a very big number.
Let’s delve into its consequences.
Everything works if you have lots of time
We know that in most languages 5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).
It means that as long as you are stubborn enough, eventually you will get to about a B2 level. It doesn’t matter how crappy your learning method is. As long as you soldier on, you will get to the finish line even if that takes you 10 years.
Because it’s almost guaranteed that you will amass a sufficient number of repetitions (7-60) of the words which occur in a language with a frequency of 98%! But what if you want to really master a language. Or two. Do you believe that you will be able to pull that number of repetitions for the words which occur with a frequency of about 2%? Of course not.
Think of any rare word from your native tongue like “cream puff” or “head physician”. How often do you hear them in your daily life? Not that often, right? And that’s the problem. C1-C2 levels consist of rare words like these. That’s why your chances of getting there if your default learning style is passive are very thin. Unless you have 20 years of spare time and are willing to spend most of your waking hours surrounding yourself with a language.
Real vocabulary gains from reading and listening at the early stages of language learning
Below you can find some findings which closely echo the results I have obtained from my experiments.
Vocabulary gains from reading
Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998) specifically looked at the number of words acquired from a simplified version of a novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, which had 21000 running words. The novel was read in class during six class periods. It was found that the average vocabulary pick-up was five words.
Lahav (1996) carried out a study of vocabulary learning from simplified readers. She tested students who read 4 readers, each one of about 20 000 words, and found an average learning rate of 3–4 words per book.
The above survey indicates that reading is not likely to be the main source of L2 learners’ vocabulary acquisition. If most words were acquired from reading, learners would have to read about as much as native children do – that is, a million words of text a year. This would require reading one or two books per week. If, however, teachers can expect only small quantities of reading, then word-focused activities should be regarded as a way of vocabulary learning.
Vocabulary gains from listening
Vidal explored incidental vocabulary acquisition from L2 listening (2003), and compared gains from listening with reading (2011). These studies analyzed the effect of a large number of variables (e.g. frequency of occurrence, predictability from word form and parts) on learning. Knowledge gains of 36 target words were measured with a modified version of the Vocabulary Knowledge Scale, on which learners could effectively score 0 to 5.
Out of the maximum score of 180, readers scored 40.85 (22.7%) on the immediate post-test and 19.14 (10.6%) on the one-month delayed test. Listeners scored 27.86 (15.5%) immediately after listening and 14.05 (7.8%) one month later. The main finding is that both reading and listening lead to vocabulary knowledge gains, with gains from reading being much larger than from listening. An effect of frequency occurrence (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 occurrences) was found in both modes but this was considerably stronger in reading. More repetitions were needed in listening (5 to 6) than in reading (2 to 3) for it to have a positive effect on learning.
At the risk of repeating myself, I would like to stress one more time that your learning capacity is affected by your background knowledge. If you’re a Frenchman learning Spanish, the aforementioned numbers won’t apply to you.
At the same time, there are just a few studies around which test long-term retention of vocabulary for almost any method. That’s a pity because 3 months is a cut-off point proving that words have truly been stored in your long-term memory. The studies quoted above also share this problem. Retesting the students of the above experiments at a 3-month mark would surely yield much worse, and realistic, results.
Anyway, the point I would like to drive home is that passive learning is an ineffective language acquisition tool for beginners.
The curse of a b2 level – how to get unstuck
The most important element you should concentrate on is to develop some kind of learning system. Ideally, it should encompass the following strategies:
- concentrate on active learning until you get to a B2 level
- learn passively only if you don’t have more power to learn actively
- optimize your language repetitions
- use spaced repetition software (together with active encoding)
A B2 level is achievable to almost anyone as long as you pursue your learning goal with dogged persistence. However, moving past this level requires from you the use of systems that will allow you to focus heavily on rare words which make up about 2-3% of a language since it’s almost impossible to master them just by learning organically (i.e. reading, listening and talking).
If you stick to smart learning methods, you will surely overcome this hurdle.
Done reading? Time to learn!
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go.
The phenomenon of retrieving words at will seems to be almost magical. The mere intention of wanting to use any of them recalls them effortlessly and in no time.
Hah! You wish!
The truth is that most of us look like constipated capuchin monkeys trying to poop out a screwdriver when we try to retrieve vocab! It’s difficult and it sure as hell doesn’t come easy.
Why is it so?
Well, first of all, the universe is a cruel place and probably hates you.Other than that there are some other memory-related reasons for that state of affairs.
Since I can’t do anything about the universe, let’s concentrate on the latter.
Difference between remembering and retrieving a word
Let’s start with a very different distinction between remembering a piece of information and retrieving it. Contrary to common knowledge and intuition, they are not the same.
To explain this concept, let’s look at a simple model of memory.
As you can clearly see that first you have to encode (memorize) a piece of information and only then can you retrieve it.
It means that:
a) you can remember something but you might not be able to retrieve it.
b) if you can retrieve something you certainly remember it.
The infamous tip-of-the-tongue feeling refers to the so-called failure to retrieve error,
If you want to improve your chance of recalling an item you need to improve its retrievability.
What is retrievability?
Long-term memories can be characterized by two elements: Stability (S) and Retrievability (R) are part of the Two-component model of long-term memory.
Retrievability of memory is a variable of long-term memory that determines the probability of retrieving a memory at any given time since the last review/recall.
I would like to direct your attention to the word “probability”. You can never be certain that you will be able to retrieve a given memory. It all depends on a plethora of factors. But what you can do is increase your odds.
Let’s dig deeper.
Fundamentals – Retrieval Cues
Before we move on, you need to familiarize yourself with some basic memory concepts. Only then will you be able to fully understand why you can’t recall a word and how to change it.
Everything starts with a retrieval CUE.
A Retrieval Cue is a prompt that help us remember. When we make a new memory, we include certain information about the situation that act as a trigger to access the memory. Source: AlleyDog
As you can see, literally everything can be a cue! Let’s say that you meet a nice girl. The way she looks is a cue. Actually, every piece of her garment is a cue. The weather is a cue. The look of disgust on her face as you empty yet another cup of beer and whisper gently into her ear, ” Shh. Let the magic happen” is another great example of a cue.
The sound of your feet being dragged across the dirt by the security is yet another cue.
What? No. That did not happen to me! Mind your own business! Let’s get back to science!
Saying that everything is a cue is a bit lazy, isn’t it? I think you will be able to understand them much better once you see how they are typically categorized.
And don’t worry. This is not an exercise in futility. This info will come handy.
Types of retrieval cues
Gillian Cohen in her book Memory In the Real World distinguishes the following cues:
- External cues were ones that came from the environment.
- Abstract (aka internal) cues were all thoughts or linguistic references to the original episode.
- Sensory/perceptual cues were those that provided sensory/perceptual referents to the original episode.
Sensory cues can be further categorized as visual cues, auditory cues, haptic cues, olfactory cues, environmental cues, and so on.
- State cues were physiological or emotional referents to the original episode
I hope that now it’s easier for you to understand that literally everything can be a cue – starting from a thought and ending with a smell.
Then, you might wonder, if there are so many of them, how come you still have trouble retrieving memories or words?
The easiest answer is that you need to use the right cues.
Memory principles governing recall
There are a couple of general rules which will help you with understanding when it is usually possible to retrieve a word.
1) The encoding specificity
Somewhere in the 70s, a psychologist by the name of Endel Tulving proposed a theory called the encoding specificity principle.
It states that:
” Successful recall relies on the overlap between the thing you are trying to remember and the situation in which you first encountered it, and the cues or prompts that are available when you are trying to recall it”.
This gives us our first rule:
The more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.
Let’s stress it one more time – it’s not guaranteed that you will recall desired words.Meeting the said conditions simply increases the likelihood of retrieving them.
Let’s say that you memorized (actively) the word “cat” in the following phrase: “a black cat”.If at any given time during a conversation, you decide to use this phrase, it will most likely come to the top of your mind.
But what happens if you decide to use this word in another phrase:”a wild cat”? Assuming that you already know actively the word “wild”, there is a chance that you will be able to string this sentence together.However, the likelihood of this is definitely smaller than in the previous example as you have probably never ever made such a mental connection before. This leads to problems with so-called “information transfer“.
If you memorized some word in only one context, your mind can cling to it so tightly that it won’t be able to transfer a given item into another context.
Any time you use a given word in one part of a conversation and then can’t use it in another one,you run into exactly this problem.
Interestingly, these rules stay true regardless of the relevance of the information you are trying to retrieve.
“When short-range contextual dependencies are preserved in nonsense material, the nonsense is as readily recalled as is meaningfull material.” – The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives
Side note: Now, when I am reading this sentence I think that I need to go out more often.I have a strange definition of “fun”.
2) The strength of associations
Another aspect of successful retrieval is how strong your associations are. I think that it is intuitively understandable that the stronger the association between the cue and the target information the bigger your chance of retrieving an item is.
However, make no mistake:
The strength of your association is still not as important as the match between features of recall and features of encoding (Pansky et al., 2005; Roediger & Guynn, 1996).
Imagine that you are eating peacefully your breakfast in a hotel abroad and all of a suddensome cat jumps on a table and gracefully puts its paw into your cereal bowl.
You think for a second how to word your outrage in a language of your choice andthen you finally cry out “I will skin you alive, you sack of fleas!”.
From now on, every time you decide to express your outrage in a similar situationthe chance of using exactly this phrase increases.
3) Number of cues
Edward Vul and Nisheeth Srivastava presented another interesting perspective. Namely, the process of retrieval is the process of retrieving cues that anchor the said item.
From this it follows that:
- recognition performance is superior to recall performance when the number of items is greater than the number of cues
- recall performance is better than recognition when the converse holds.
It means that the bigger the number of words you want to memorize, the bigger the number of cues you need.
Don’t overdo it – a cue overload effect
There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing. If you decide to go over the top and insert too many cues into a piece of information you are trying to memorize you might notice that your recall rate didn’t change.
It happens so because:
If retrieval cues are not recognized as being distinct from one another, then cues are likely to become associated with more information, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of the cue in prompting the recall of target information (Watkins & Watkins, 1975).
Let’s say that you want to memorize a two-word phrase “a disgusting slob”. If you just create a flashcard and then try to din it into your head, there is a good chance you won’t succeed.
The number of cues is minimal here. You can just see these words visually.
In other words, you are using one sensory cue. But as you know now, there are quite many different kinds of cues.
You can dollop more of them on top of this one.
- You can add a sound (another sensory cue)
- You can say it out loud (internal and sensory cue)
- You can modulate your emotions (state cues)
Instead of just saying a phrase, you can shout it out angrily.Win-win! Unless you shout it out on a bus, of course.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s a slight simplification of a problem as it doesn’t factor inthe capacity of our short-term memory.
4) Distinctivity of cues
The last (important) piece of a puzzle is how distinct your cues are.
“In order to increase the likelihood of recalling a verbatim-based piece of information, you need distinct retrieval cues (Anderson, 1983a; Anderson & Reder, 1999; Tuckey 743 & Brewer, 2003).
But why do we need distinct retrieval cues?
Shortly, recall of one item can prompt further recall of semantically related items (Collins & Loftus, 1975). This occurs through the spread of activation through the associative links of the memory network. Gillian Cohen – Memory In the Real World
You can think about it as a domino effect. One element leads us to another.
How to build good cues
Good quality retrieval cues often have:
- (1) constructability (cues generated at encoding can be reliably reproduced at recall);
- (2) consistency between encoding and retrieval within a given context (i.e. an effective retrieval cue should be compatible with the memory trace created during encoding and show high cue-target match);
- (3) strong associations with the target and the ability to be easily associated with newly learned information;
- (4) bidirectionality of association (the cue recalling target information, and target information recalling the cue).
- (5) It is also important that retrieval cues are distinctive or discriminable.
Think about those rules as guidelines. Applying them will definitely increase your odds of retrieving an item.
However, don’t go too crazy and try to apply all of them every time when you try to memorize something. If anything, you should increase the number of cues only for the words you have trouble remembering.
Examples of learning methods which impede retrievability
In the world of learning, there are a lot of methods and approaches which don’t work at allor which can be used only in the specific cases.
I would like to complete your understanding of this topic by giving you a couple of examplesof strategies which don’t follow the aforementioned framework and thus, will mostly hinder your learning
As I have argued before, mnemonics are a great addition to your learning toolkit.However, you shouldn’t treat them as anything more than just a temporary extension of your short-term memory.
Let’s look at the quickest way to retrieve a word in a conversation.
PHRASE YOU LEARN PHRASE YOU RETRIEVEencoding cue -> retrieval cue (identical or similar to the encoding cue) = success
Quite straightforward, isn’t it?
Now here is the path of retrieval when you decide to use mnemonics:
a big cat -> looking for associations -> turning them into pictures -> placing them in some location -> decoding them -> retrieval
As you can see, we are adding a lot of unnecessary steps into the process of retrieval. The usual effect is that you:
- a) don’t remember them after a couple of days/weeks
- b) you remember them but can’t recall them since you have no real context for these items
Associations are certainly a useful learning tool. The problems occur when there are too many of them. In my line of work, I have met people who were obsessed with finding an associationfor every possible piece of information.
The thing is that the associations, just like mnemonics, can at best help you with remembering the word but not retrieving it.
A couple of associations are great because they are distinct.However, there is nothing distinct and special about 100 associations.
Another problem is that once again you are lengthening the process of retrieving a word
encoding information -> building an association -> decoding an association -> retrieval
(a cat) -> (it sounds similar to a candy bar ” Kit Kat -> (now you want to use the word in a conversation) it was something connected with a candy bar -> I bought a new Snickers!
I have mentioned before in a couple of articles that learning styles don’t exist (read about it more here).Sure, you can have preferences for a giving style of learning but that does not mean that this styleof learning will be more effective memory-wise.
Sure enough, there is a host of studies which suggest that even teaching styles have no influenceon the students’ ability to recall information.
If you have ever had a teacher who hired a throng of merry and naked gnomes in orderto sing you a lengthy list of historical dates then I have bad news for you.
Although, you have to appreciate the effort, right?
How to maximize your chances of recalling words – Summary
Time to recap everything you have learned so far about maximizing your chances of recalling something. But let’s do it in plain English this time.
- 1. You should be the person who generates cues
If you download ready-to-use flashcards or use apps like Duolingo and then whine that you can’t learn then there’s your explanation.
High levels of recall usually occur when the cue is self-generated (Hunt & Smith, 1996).
- 2. Retrieve vocabulary in different conditions
If you just sit at home and pore over a computer or books you are encoding and retrieving items in the same conditions and that clearly hinders their retrievability.
As you already know in order to retrieve a piece of information we need to use good cues.
Retrieval is a selective process, relying on a complex interaction between encoded information and features of the retrieval environment (Tulving & Thomson, 1973).
- 3. Memorize natural phrases / collocations
One more time – the more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.
Let’s say that you want to learn the word “a bike”. You decide to put it into the following phrase which you will later memorize “a bike made with light alloys”.
If you have never ever heard yourself saying such a phrase in your native tongue then what are you doing?! Use something simpler and more natural, for example, “a new bike”.
P.S. Here you can read more about choosing the best learning methods.
Done reading? Time to learn!
I am on the mission to change it. I have created 32 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go.
Establishing which language level you're at can be quite tricky. Not only do you have to know how large your current vocabulary is, but also you have to be able to talk about specific topics.
This knowledge can be useful for three purposes:
- To measure your language level more precisely
- To choose a conversational subject for your lessons or speak-to-yourself sessions
- To be well-prepared for official certificates
If you fail to meet these conversational requirements, it can be quite difficult to pass appropriate exams.
Of course, if you just learn for fun or you don't need official papers, you shouldn't worry too much about being able to talk about all those topics.
Let's dive right in and learn what they are.
Conversational Topics for Specific Language Levels
A1 - BREAKTHROUGH (requirements)
Let's be honest. You don't know much at this level and not much is expected of you. Still, you should be able to discuss the following topics.
Expected conversational depth level: very superficial
Expected vocabulary depth: everyone is happy that you know any words at all and that you can string them into semi-coherent sentences.
A1 Conversational topics
- Personal information and introductions
- Offers and requests (can you ..., do you want to ... ?)
- Free time and daily routines
- Past events, first times, important events in your life (e.g. describing what you did last weekend)
- Describing places, homes (... is big/small/red/etc.)
- Shopping, food (e.g. ordering something at the restaurant)
- Work/study life (What do you do _______?)
- Describe people
- Getting around
- Suggestions/arrangements to meet (e.g. inviting someone somewhere)
- Journeys/visiting places/means of transport
A2 - WAYSTAGE (requirements)
You know simple words, phrases with very limited reading skills and cannot keep up with conversations in the language. You still second guess your choice of words and constantly refer to guidelines.
Expected conversational depth level: superficial,
Expected vocabulary depth: you should know the most basic of all the words. No fancy or precise vocabulary belongs is expected of you.
A2 Conversational topics
Here are conversational topics you should be able to talk about at this level (source):
- The individual* personal particulars* appearance* clothing* daily routine
- Partnership* family* relatives* acquaintances, friends* classmates/ colleagues
- Family* family members* family occasions /celebrations
- Place of living* house/flat* furnishing of the living-room /bedroom* kitchen furniture, gadgets* the street, the town* (sharing the housework)
- Traveling/transport* means of transport* timetable/information* buying tickets (bus, train, plane)* traveling documents
- Shopping/shops* shops* special shops* electronics* markets* grocery* clothes shops* departments in a shopping center
- Communication/keeping in contact* post (letter, postcard)* telephone / fax* text messages, e-mails
- Services* restaurant (menu, ordering, paying)* hotel (booking, paying)
- Culture/entertainment–* free time activities* guests* cinemas* theatres* museums* concerts
- Time/weather* seasons* weather* rainy weather/winter weather/snowing
- Health/illnesses* at the pediatrician’s* at the doctor’s* at the dentist’s* some common illnesses(flu, cold)* medication* at the chemist’s
- Sport* popular sports* football* athletics* doing sports* sport and hobby
- Media* television* radio* newspapers* magazines
- Hobby* reading* listening to music* computer games* the candidate’s favorite pastime
- Studying/work* subjects* popular professions* workplaces* colleagues / school-friends* daily routine at home / at work
Here are sample A2 speaking tests:
Here is an excerpt from a German A2 exam (passed by those candidates). Even if you don't know any German, just pay attention to the pace of this conversation. If you do, notice the simplicity of the vocabulary which is being used.
B1 - THRESHOLD (requirements)
This is the level which most people think of when they hear "conversational fluency". The gist of this level is that you can participate in a simplified conversation about popular topics.
Notice that topic-wise, this level is not that different from an A2. The main difference is that your vocabulary is bigger and hence you can talk about these subjects at a slightly deeper level.
Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at a slightly deep level
Expected vocabulary depth: you can convey many of your thoughts but you lack precision. Think "It's bad that people like" rather than "it's infuriating that people can be such mendacious scum"
B1 Conversational topics
- The individual* personal particulars* appearance* inner characteristics* casual / evening wear
- Partnership* relatives, friends* acquaintances, neighbors* classmates/schoolmates/colleagues
- Family* family members* family occasions/celebrations* distribution of tasks in the family
- Place of living* house/block house/flat* furnishing/gadgets of the rooms* furnishing/gadgets of the kitchen and the bathroom* rent and bills* housework
- Traveling/transport* means of transport* public transport* timetable/information* buying tickets/preparation for a journey* traveling abroad/traveling documents
- Shopping/shops* shops/markets* department stores / departments* groceries/household goods* clothing* electric appliances
- Communication/keeping in contact* post (letter, telegram, parcel)* telephone (traditional, mobile, text messages)* Internet (e-mail, Skype, chat)
- Services* financial services (transfer, exchange)* restaurant (menu, ordering, paying)* hotel (booking, paying)
- Culture/entertainment* guests* cinemas* theaters* museums* concerts* library (school, at home, public)
- Time/weather* seasons/weather* weather forecast
eating and drinking
at the doctor’s* common illnesses and their symptoms* prescriptions / medication /pharmacy
- Sport* popular sports* national sports* doing sports
- Media* television* radio* newspapers / magazines
- Hobby* gardening / DIY* reading / listening to music* computer
- Studying/work* types of schools* subjects* popular professions/workplaces* daily routine
- European Union* members of the EU* travelling / work / mobility
- Culture and civilization* basic practical information regarding the home country and the target language country (weather, currency, eating habits, daily routine, celebrations, shopping opportunities, etc)* tourist attractions* accommodation / restaurants
- Holidays and celebrations
Here are sample B1 speaking tests:
- In English
I find this one especially fitting if you want to understand what this level is all about
- In German
B2 - INTERMEDIATE (requirements)
This level can be depicted as a FULL conversational fluency. You can have real conversations with native speakers about a variety of subjects.
Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at quite a deep level
Expected vocabulary depth: you can convey most of your thoughts but you still, for the most part, lack precision. Compared to a B1 level, you can discuss more topics with more precise vocabulary.
B2 Conversational topics
- The individual* behavioral patterns* fashion/clothing/cosmetics
- Partnership* making friends (in person, on the net, etc.)* roles in the family* contacts at work / at school
- Family* family/bringing up children* relationship of generations / living together* marriage/forms of partnership
- Place of living* rental/property/lodgings* buying a flat/buying on credit /renovation* way of living in a town and a village
- Traveling/transport* driving/highway codes* walking, riding the bike* reasons/forms of traveling abroad
- Shopping/shops* shopping habits/commercials, ads* chains/shopping by mail* retail shops versus shopping centers
- Communication/keeping in contact –* reasons for the popularity of mobiles* the role of language knowledge in communication* the increasing dominance of the English language
- Services* car rental / travel agencies* repairs / guarantees
- Culture/entertainment* books versus Internet* cinema, theatre versus TV, video, DVD* he Internet and the social networking sites
- Time/weather* role and accurateness of forecasts* relationship between climate and flora/fauna
- Health/illnesses* outpatient department / hospital / specialists* nature cure – medicines* prevention / screening* healthy diet
- Sport* doing sports – healthy lifestyle –dangerous/extreme sports* ball games / team sports / rules* water sports/winter sports* Olympic Games
- Media* features of newspapers, their columns* sensation and news
- Hobby* pursuing amateur arts* clubs (sport, cultural, professional)* hobby and work* modern/peculiar hobbies
- Studying/work* language knowledge / skills / career* equal chances in education / finding a workplace* unemployment* exchange programs / scholarships abroad / professional development* new forms of studying
- European Union* work in the EU* language teaching/language knowledge/work opportunities in the EU
- Culture and civilization The home country and the target language country* population / ethnic minorities* historic traditions / monuments / cultural values* artistic / ethnographic characteristics
- Public life* public institutions / personal documents* public safety* national holidays
- Environmental protection* pollution (air, water, soil, et)* selective waste management* recycling* alternative sources of energy
- Current topics/events* public life / politics / NGOs* economy
- Education system
Here are sample B2 speaking tests:
- In English
C1 - ADVANCED/PROFICIENT (requirements)
In linguistic terms, proficiency does not translate to the same meaning as fluent. To state you are proficient means you are comfortable with the use of the language in spoken and written form but not at the same level as a native speaker.
Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at a (very) deep level (depending on a subject)
Expected vocabulary depth: not only can you convey almost every thought but your language is also becoming more and more natural. You start using idioms and distinguishing between different shades of meaning of many words.
C1 Conversational topics
Here are conversational topics you should be able to talk about at this level (source):
- The individual* ambition/career building* the individual and the society* problems of social integration
- Partnership* forms of partnership* nationalities/minorities
- Family* the social status of families / the system of family allowances* family/career
- Place of living* housing situation/difficulties in building a house* homelessness / its causes/ problems* housing and mobility
- Traveling/transport* problems of city traffic / public transport versus using cars* transport and environmental protection* tourism as a source of income* development in transport / its aspects
- Shopping/shops* consumers’ society* buying on credit/with credit cards/on the Internet* shopping tourism
- Communication/keeping in contact* the Internet in business communication* Fax, e-mail versus traditional letter writing* less widely used languages versus English
- Services* quality/guarantee of services* role, significance of services* electronic services / online ordering
- Culture/entertainment* role of arts in the past and present* public collections and their maintenance / art / historic relics / monuments* mentorship / sponsorship / advertising
- Time/weather* natural catastrophes and their consequences* hole in the ozone layer/dangers of global warming
- Health/illnesses* science/research serving medical care / genetics* alternative methods of healing* health tourism
- Sport* first-class sports – mass sports/doping* professionalism in sports / amateur sports / extreme sports* sport and women (chess, boxing, weightlifting, football)* sport and commercials
- Media* objectivity / impartiality of providing information* stars / celebrities
- Hobby* promoting traditions* exclusive hobbies (golf, horse riding, scuba diving, etc.)* hobby and/or professionalism?
- Studying/work* (over) qualification/chances on the work market* lifelong education* finding work/mobility* chances of the underprivileged
- European Union* the role of the EU in world politics* common / national currency
- Culture and civilization The home country and the target language country* fame/recognition in the world / their relationship to each other* their image* differences in traditions / customs / ideology
- Public life* the purity of public life / corruption* political parties / elections / referendum
- Environmental protection* prevention in environmental protection* environmental catastrophes and their consequences
- Current topics/events* public life / politics / NGOs* economy / arts / sports
- Globalization* uniformity (dressing, eating, culture, consumer products, etc.)* globalization / maintaining national characteristics
- Current questions on ethics* animal experiments* nuclear experiments
- Current questions on economy/society–* smuggling: goods/people* smoking/dangers of drug addiction
Here are sample C1 speaking tests:
- In English
- In German
C2 - MASTERY (requirements)
C2 Conversational topics
No need to waste my breath, or fingertips, here. At this level, you are absolutely fluent and can talk about almost everything. No wonder! You're approaching the level presented by well-educated-native speakers.
My only advice for you at this level is to dive into details of any topic you decide to discuss. You need to put in lots of effort to activate all those obscure words. Don't talk just about shopping. Discuss "high-impact strategies to increase a wholesale diversification". Or, you know, something of this sort.
Conversational Topics for Specific Language Levels - Summary
Knowing conversational topics for specific language levels is crucial if you want to pass any official certificate. Even more so if you decide to do it on your own. Such knowledge allows you to shield yourself from any unpleasant surprises during the speaking part of an exam.
However, if you feel no need to obtain any official documents, knowing conversational topics for specific language levels can help you prepare better for your lessons or even give you lots of
Many people dream of having a fantastic memory. Who can blame them! Being able to recall information on a whim seems to be the hallmark of every genius.
Yet, not many get close to this lofty goal. In truth, barely a handful of people acquire even decent expertise in their field of interest.
The reasons are plenty, and everyone seems to have their own explanations. Some blame disinterest and apathy of learners, while others claim that our brains aren't created to hold significant amounts of information. While I can't offer any advice in this article for dealing with the former, I can help you with the latter.
Let's see what the biggest problem in learning effectively and memorizing tons of information is and how to overcome it.
How Much Information Can We Possibly Remember?
Many people are under the impression that the capacity of our memory is the biggest problem in learning effectively. That's a myth. Unfortunately, if you try to google the answer to how much we can remember, you will get information that is outdated and doesn't reflect the state of our current knowledge.
That's why I will try to give you a number based on my research.
Previous studies about the capacity of our memory
A recent study from 2009 published by Azevedo and colleagues estimated that there approximately 86 billion neurons in the human brain. We also know that each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than an eighty-six trillion connections. Neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time. At the same time, a couple of years ago, scientists from the Salk Institute discovered that instead of 3 synapse sizes, as we previously believed, there are 26 discrete sizes.
They can change over a span of a few minutes, meaning that the brain might have a far greater capacity for storing information than previously thought.
In the past, professor Paul Reber from Northwestern University, who at the time believed there were about one billion neurons in the brain, estimated our brain's memory capacity at about 1,5 petabytes.
So what happens if we include the information mentioned above?
We would arrive at the number closer to 215 petabytes, and that is without taking into consideration additional synapse sizes. If we include 23 of the newly discovered synapse sizes, knowing that in computer terms, this value corresponds to about 4.7 "bits" of information per synapse, we will get about 860 petabytes.
One petabyte is 10^15 bytes of digital information.
As you can see, that's a scary number. However, it tells us one important thing.
Your memory's capacity is not what's holding you back. You could learn a new piece of information every second of your life and live to be 500 years old, and you wouldn't even scrape the surface of what's possible.
A Great Example of the Vast Capacity of Our Memory
There is a good chance you've heard of Kim Peek. He was a savant and the inspiration for the character Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rain Man. Many sources claim that he could memorize between 95-98% of almost any book by reading it in about 1 hour. According to The Times newspaper, he could accurately recall the contents of at least 12,000 books.
Is there any exaggeration in his feats? Highly unlikely. There are lots of videos on YouTube that showcase his fantastic memory. Here is
Of course, it's easy to dismiss what he was capable of because of being autistic. Nevertheless, I think that what was unusual was his ability to access all the information, not how much he remembered.
Other Problems in Learning Effectively That I Will Omit
Before I get to the meat of the matter, I want you to know that other common learning obstacles may stand in your way.
The most important of them being:
optimizing your reviews
- dealing with information overload
Why have I decided to leave them off? Truth be told, if you used
What's the Biggest Problem in Learning Effectively?
Remembering is supposed to increase our efficiency in dealing with situations that occur in our lives.
Think about something as simple as seeing a person with a knife. It's doubtful that your reaction would be anything else than fleeing like a challenged dodo bird.
In other words, in the perfect world, certain situations or information should trigger our pre-created scripts as a response.
For that reason,
the biggest problem in learning effectively is our inability to connect information into meaningful models (i.e., schemas), which can be accessed easily.
Notice that it doesn't matter how much you try to cling to different information. Most of them fade into nothingness after a relatively short time.
So the real question is, how should you use your memory capacity to remember different information you confront to increase your efficiency with dealing with those situations.
What's Required for a Skill to Be Used?
Three things are required for a skill to be used or a behavior to occur (Fogg 2009):
In our case, I assume that you're not plagued by apathy, and you want to use and apply your knowledge. That leaves us with the remaining two requirements.
Ability can be understood as either knowledge, i.e., possessing the right information or psychomotor skills. I have argued that you can't think effectively without the right information. And no — being able to google something doesn't count. Failure to meet this condition will lead you to build automatic responses based on random pieces of information. As a result, both the quality of your thinking and its effects will be subpar. Garbage in, garbage out.
A trigger can be understood by one or more things that set off your ability.
What can be a trigger?
Almost everything can be the trigger. However, they are based on a combination of one of the five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste) and emotional state.
The problem is that not everything should act as a trigger. You don't want to be standing in an elevator and release your inner surgeon. Nor do you want to sit on the beach and suddenly recall how to program in Python. Triggers should be perfectly tied to a given informational set.
There is one more element missing to understand these interrelations fully.
How Is Our Knowledge Organized?
If you want to learn how to overcome the biggest problem in learning effectively, you must first understand the basics of how our knowledge is organized.
The schema theory is probably the best way to do it.
The Schema theory claims that what we currently remember is affected by our background knowledge (i.e., what we already know). In other words, our prior knowledge can significantly influence our current knowledge.
"According to this theory, the knowledge we have stored in memory is organized as a set of schemas, or knowledge structures, which represent generic knowledge about objects, situations, events, or actions that have been acquired from past experience."
"Schemas represent all kinds of generic knowledge from simple knowledge, such as the shape of the letter ``A'', for example, to more complex knowledge such as knowledge about political ideologies or astrophysics. Like the action schemas, knowledge schemas may be linked together into related sets, with superordinate and subordinate schemas. So, for example, the schema for ``table'' would be linked to schemas for ``furniture'', ``rooms'', and ``houses''.
A schema has slots that may be filled with fixed compulsory values, or with variable optional values. A schema for a boat would have ``boats'' as a fixed value, but has ``oars'' and ``engine'' as variable values.
Schemas also supply default values. These are the most probable or typical values. If you are thinking about some particular boat, and you cannot remember the color of the sails, the boat schema might supply the default value ``white'' as being the most probable value to fill the color slot.
``Schema'' is used as a general term to cover all kinds of general knowledge." - Gillian Cohen - Memory in the Real World
`Schema'' is used as a general term to cover all kinds of general knowledge. However, we can also differentiate more specified versions of schema which are called scripts.
Scripts consist of general knowledge about particular kinds of events, or frames, which consist of knowledge about the properties of particular objects or locations (Cohen).
How to Overcome the Biggest Problem in Learning Effectively
1. Do not learn isolated pieces of information
My quest to become competent in lots of different domains started many moons ago. What I couldn't figure out for a long time was why I regularly failed to recall information I previously memorized. It didn't matter if I relied on mnemonics or spaced repetition software. A couple of weeks passed, and all the knowledge evaporated. It took me much time to understand that isolated pieces of information are nonsensical to the brain and have little to no practical value.
An example of fallacious reasoning based on isolated bits of information
In one of our discussions my son's nursery teachers mentioned fleetingly that if a child suffers from a persistent cough, it's undoubtedly a sign of parasitic infection.
Can it be true?
Absolutely. Some intestinal parasites (e.g., Ascaris) can lay eggs that might end up in your lungs. We also know some species of parasites that can be found exclusively in the lungs. However, does one piece of information warrant such a diagnosis? Absolutely not.
Dozens of things can cause a cough. Saying that it's X or Y based on one piece of information doesn't have much sense (or it's plain stupid).
For example, if it was a parasitic infection, then in this region of the world, there is a chance it would rather be some intestinal parasite whose eggs migrated to lungs. In that case, way before the occurrence of cough, we could notice some other symptoms, e.g., gastric discomfort, rash, diarrhea, etc. Even then, we would need to run further tests to narrow down possible causes.
Conclusions based on isolated pieces of information are almost always fallacious.
2. Provide relevancy to the information you learn
My past self was not only failing to understand that remembering isolated pieces of information is useless. I also couldn't wrap my head around one simple fact.
Abstract information gets forgotten amazingly fast
If this abstract information is also isolated, then the forgetting will happen almost immediately.
Your goal as a learner is to make this information as useful as it's possible. It should be a part of your reality. We didn't evolve to remember rubbish information. Whatever we learned or remembered was usually necessary for our survival. This was and is true for many things like remembering what not to eat, how to perform certain skills to earn your living, etc.
Whenever I teach medical professionals, they are always baffled why I remember some seemingly trivial information. The disappointingly dull answer is - I brute-force myself to make relevant connections.
Example - biophotons:
When I was learning about biophotons, one of the things I learned is that their emission is a type of bioluminescence. It can theoretically be triggered by reactive oxygen species. That led to a forced, but funny (for me!) conclusion that I turned into a flashcard:
Q: How can I use biophotons to light up my room?
A: eat lots of mercury (= inflammation)
The logic being that this action would trigger a massive inflammatory reaction. Is it exactly true? Not exactly, but it helped to cement the concept in my head, and this is what truly counts.
3. Categorize your knowledge into relevant scripts
You already know that your abilities need triggers. Hence, your goal is to categorize your knowledge into relevant scripts which should get triggered under the right circumstances. Even then, it's easy to overdo it by trying to squeeze too much information into one script, which leads to cue overload.
Cue overload is the phenomenon wherein the slower and less accurate recall is caused by too many associative links (the fan effect; Anderson, 1983a).
Example - lie detection:
Many people, quite naively believe that one gesture is enough to spot a liar — quite the contrary. Real experts usually analyze body language based on clusters of different gestures and cues.
In that case, your ability, i.e., analyzing body language or getting suspicious, would be triggered by a specific combination of cues. Without those cues, your abilities won't get activated. It's not like your amazing skills will be activated around the clock.
It's funny to hear some body language experts claiming that their skills are like the curse, and they can't seem to turn it off. I can almost see them watching some low-budget erotic movie thinking, "hmm, judging by the cues he is not a real plumber, and he didn't come here to unclog the pipes".
4. Create many different scripts for every piece of information
Just like memorizing isolated information is nonsensical, so is combining it into one or only a few scripts.
Any kind of information is by its nature multi-faceted. You can't expect one script to give you a complete picture.
You should do your best to combine those different facets into many scripts, whereas each one of them presents you with a different perspective. The more scripts you create, the more complete and original your thinking will be.
The Biggest Problem in Learning Effectively - Summary
Way too many people believe that the capacity of our memory is the main problem in learning effectively and remembering a lot. It's not the case, but I do understand this line of reasoning. If you believe that remembering a lot is not possible, then you won't make an effort, and you will end up being right (see self-fulfilling prophecy).
The truth is that you can be an expert in many different areas (or at least very competent) if you only learn how to acquire information and turn it into relevant scripts. Unfortunately, no amount of reading will get you close enough to your goal. It's all about the conscious effort and following the plan.
How to Learn Effectively and Memorize a Lot
- Don't learn isolated information
- Provide relevancy to the information you learn
- Categorize your knowledge into relevant schemas that get triggered by the right cues
- Create many different scripts for every piece of information
Do you want to share your own experience with memorizing a lot? Leave me a comment!
Done reading? Time to learn!
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It's enough to download ANKI, and you're good to go.
Improving listening comprehension in a foreign language is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most challenging skills to master. The amount of time needed to understand a language is enormous. Unfortunately, not everyone succeeds in this field.
Not everyone reaches the finish line and has the pleasure of saying, "I understand most of everything I hear."
On the contrary, the bodies of poor souls who surrendered along the way colorfully decorate the entire length of the route. Everyone has their theory of why they failed.
"My ears are too small."
"I can't listen to German for long because I start to sob."
And who knows, maybe the above is partially true. However, these reasons are not as important as the list you are about to see.
Here are 12 reasons why you have trouble understanding a foreign language.
LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - 12 COMMON ISSUES AND WAYS TO SOLVE THEM
Understanding a spoken word is complex. It's affected by many factors.
LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - 12 COMMON ISSUES AND WAYS TO SOLVE THEM
1. Limited vocabulary
7. Lack of concentration
2. Problems with pronunciation
8. Problems with interpretation/culture
3. Trying to understand everything
9. Problems with natural (i.e. colloquial) speech
4. Insufficient listening practice
10. No visual support
5. Too fast a pace
11. Passive listening
6. One-time listening to recordings
12. Insufficient knowledge of grammar
1. LIMITED VOCABULARY
Insufficient knowledge of vocabulary is one of the main culprits. No wonder you have trouble understanding if your vocabulary is very limited! As you listen, each word and phrase at your disposal becomes your foothold.
Think of it as a puzzle - the more elements that fill the outline of an image, the easier it is to see what the picture is. Similarly, when listening, each subsequent word allows you to understand better what the general meaning/message of a given conversation or recording is.
There are two significant milestones for most languages:
1st milestone - 3000 words
Knowledge of the 3000 most frequently used words in a foreign language allows understanding of 95% of texts and conversations (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). It is worth remembering that, in this case, we count one word as all variations of a given word and its family of words.
For example: "run," "running," and "runner" are counted as one word by this classification.
2nd milestone - 5000 words
Knowledge of the 5000 most-used words in a foreign language allows understanding of 98% of texts and conversations ((Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).
The minimum vocabulary required to listen effectively
If you want to be sure that you will understand to some degree recordings and conversations of all kinds, you should aim for a vocabulary of at least 2.5 - 3 thousand words. But as always - the more, the better!
So you don't know that many words? Come on, get to work! Don't be lazy!
2) PROBLEMS WITH PRONUNCIATION
Issues with pronunciations are one of the hidden reasons why your understanding suffers; hence, many people are entirely unaware of it.
How does sloppy pronunciation cause difficulties in understanding?
(I) Incorrect phonological representations
Each of us, as part of the so-called phonological memory, uses phonological representations.
A phonological representation is the way you think a word sounds.
If your phonological representation largely coincides with the actual pronunciation of the word, then everything is fine, and your brain should recognize the word.
It is worse when your interpretation of the pronunciation of a word completely diverges from its actual pronunciation. The result is a complete lack of understanding, although you often KNOW the word (Rixon 1986: 38). You pronounce it in your "specific" way.
For example, if in your head the pronunciation of the word "gist" sounds like / gɪst / with a hard " g," then you may not completely understand it when you hear its correct pronunciation / ʤɪst/.
(II) Lack of knowledge about assimilations
A separate problem is the so-called phonetic assimilation phenomenon.
Phonetic similarity (phonetic assimilation) - a common phonetic process in which a sound changes to be more similar to a neighboring sound. The essence of every phonetic preference is coarticulation, whose mechanism of action is the influence of a given sound on the articulation of sounds that are adjacent to it. - Wikipedia
Assimilation simply means that the pronunciation of a letter can change due to the letter before or after it.
A typical example of assimilation in a language is when a word ends in a consonant, and the other begins in a vowel. Most often, such words "merge" in pronunciation and are pronounced as one.
E.g. "It is", which we pronounce as / ɪtɪz / /, not / ɪt ɪz /.
How to deal with these problems?
I) Try to accurately internalize the pronunciation of the words you learn
It will affect not only your ability to understand, but also your ability to learn vocabulary. As research shows (Fowler, 1991; Pierce et al. 2017), phonological representations can affect your coding ability, which is an early step in the process of learning and remembering words.
II) Learn the pronunciation and the International Phonetic Alphabet of the language
I know that most people won't do it, but I recommend delving into the sounds of your target language.
It's worth knowing which of them are in your native language and which are not. With this knowledge, you'll know which ones require your special attention.
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 I "theoretically" knew took me.
(II) Learners at B2-C2 levels
Here the matter is much simpler. Assuming that you are indeed at this language level, you should know between 3 and 5 thousand words. Thus, your understanding should range between 95-98%.
Since you are already quite advanced, repeatedly listening to a given recording does not make sense, After all, you are already able to identify the essential words appearing in a given language. At these levels, the most important thing is to listen to as many language users as possible to get used to the variety of accents and language patterns.
7) LACK OF CONCENTRATION
Sometimes, problems with understanding are dictated by nothing else but a good old lack of concentration. Each of us knows the moment when, after 2 minutes of listening to the interlocutor, you completely sail away to ride on a pony in a happy place in your head, while saliva begins to gather in the corners of your mouth.
Where does this state come from, and how to remedy it?
(I) Ditch boring recordings
Listen, you are not in an interrogation room in Guantánamo. Nobody compels you to listen to things you don't enjoy. If the subject of the recording causes your eyes to spasm, then change it. Simple logic works here - the more you like a topic, the more willingly and longer you will listen to it.
b) Chunk your listening sessions
There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing.
If the recording is too long, break up your listening session into many parts.
For example, instead of watching one 40-minute episode of a series in one hearing, try to do it in two or three sessions. Everything according to the slogan: "A large elephant is eaten piece by piece."
(III) Avoid adverse conditions
Sometimes the conditions are not conducive to listening. Maybe a bunch of airheads are rehearsing Tibetan throat singing as a demonstration in defense of the rights of bakers.
In this situation, there are only two things you can do, depending on the nature of the problem:
- find a quiet place to listen
- Keep on listening
If this does not help, get into a fight with some guy in the YT comment section to vent off.
8) PROBLEMS WITH INTERPRETATION / CULTURE
Sometimes the culprit of communication problems is the cultural gulf between interlocutors (Underwood). Interestingly, this problem also occurs among native speakers of a given language. There is no simple remedy.
The only solution is to continually broaden your horizons and explore the culture from which your target language originates.
A classic example of misunderstanding is an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Doing so in the Middle East, West Africa, and South America is a delicate suggestion that you intend to violate the dignity of your interlocutor's rectum. A classic faux pas!
9) PROBLEMS WITH NATURAL (I.E., COLLOQUIAL) SPEECH
The difference between the natural, colloquial language spoken by native speakers and the one that is usually taught in language schools, or which can be heard on the radio, can be huge (Hedge).
In real life, a situation where the interlocutor speaks to you very slowly it clearly shows that:
- a) he will have a stroke soon
- b) thinks you're "special" and it's not a compliment!
(I) Various accents and dialects
Another problem in this category is the variety of accents and dialects. Unfortunately, the uniformity of languages varies dramatically.
For example, in Germanic languages (e.g. English, German, Swedish, Dutch), after driving only 20 km, we may come across a completely different dialect.
For many, this is a huge shock. They spend years convinced that they understand the language well, and suddenly it feels as if they were starting all over again!
A great example is the Scottish accent, which causes a lot of problems for many people who comprehend classic English very well.
P.S. Here is some stand-up of the most famous Scottish stand-up comedian, Frankie Boyle: YouTube (heads up - it's full of swear words!)
If you want to be sure that you will be able to understand native speakers without significant problems, you need to diversify the materials you listen to. It should always be a mix containing both colloquial (e.g., videos on YT) and more formal speech (radio, news, etc.).
Listening to different dialects is not necessary unless you need the ability to understand them for some reason (i.e., moving to a specific region).
10) NO VISUAL SUPPORT
In real life, communication with our potential interlocutor is more abundant with body language or facial expressions. The value of this additional information cannot be overestimated, as it often helps to understand the meaning of the speech, despite the lack of understanding of individual words.
It would be a mistake to limit listening only to the radio or podcasts.
It's worth enlarging your listening toolbox to include audio-visual materials (e.g., TV series or YouTube videos). They will not only speed up your pace of understanding but will also make learning more enjoyable!
11) PASSIVE LISTENING
Many people equate listening to a purely passive activity. Nothing needed but crash in your armchair and start your favorite podcast! Of course, there is nothing wrong with it, and I usually prefer this type of listening. But, there is an alternative - active listening.
While listening actively, you should try to make a note of the recording text and words you do not know. Although this is a time-consuming process, it has a positive impact on your understanding.
12) INSUFFICIENT KNOWLEDGE OF GRAMMAR
Lack of (good) knowledge of grammar is one of the last obstacles on your path to full understanding.
It is interesting that the lack of knowledge of grammar does not prevent complete understanding, but only makes it difficult.
I'm sure you know people who went abroad, and after 5 years they still don't know the language. Despite this, they can communicate with native speakers at a basic level, using the requisite words, gestures, and the occasional grunts.
I like to explain this phenomenon, and also the role of grammar in understanding, using the following metaphor.
Imagine that words are building blocks, and grammar is nothing more than a logical mortar holding them together. When we have both, we can create a beautiful "palace of comprehension." If the mortar is missing, the only thing we can do is to stack the bricks on top of one another. This way, we will build "something," but it will certainly not be a palace - more like a swanky privy.
IMPROVING LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - SUMMARY
As you can see, problems with listening comprehension in a foreign language are very diverse. Therefore, to effectively benefit from the advice contained in this article, you should analyze your particular situation as accurately as possible and choose the tips that apply to you.
Regardless, for many language learners, the two main factors which usually impair their listening comprehension are limited vocabulary and insufficient listening practice - these are always the right places to start.
Done reading? Time to learn!
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It's enough to download ANKI, and you're good to go. Memorizing things like "phonetic associations" and such can be really easy!
Would you like to be able to memorize a whole book? What about those boring declination tables?
Silly question. Who wouldn’t?
One way or the other, you have heard of fantastic memory feats of mnemonists – memorizing decks of cards or thousands of digits. And all this seemingly effortlessly.
Mnemonics have the power to stimulate the imagination. They definitely stimulated mine.
This dream, the dream of being able to memorize anything I want, triggered the chain of events which made me embark on a bumpy journey/
Destination? To discover the actual effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics and master my memory.
Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics In Learning – My First Experience
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 with mnemonics is, I show them this plan. I also tell them to use ANKI or combine those strategies.
Either way, since learning with mnemonics lacks context, I would avoid using it for language learning unless you can produce lots of sentences with the vocabulary you have memorized this way,
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
Done reading? Time to learn!
I am on the mission to change it. I have created 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. Memorize, among others, what working memory is, what are limitations of mnemonics, and much more!
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!
Done reading? Time to learn!
I am on the mission to change it. I have created about 25 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. Memorizing things like “internal phonetic representations” can be really easy!