Achieve Full Language Fluency with the Deep Integration of Languages into Your Daily Life

full language fluency of a foreign languages


Achieving full language fluency is certainly not easy. The internet is filled with all sorts of advice on how to do it. And that's on top of all those shiny lists of language learning tools. No wonder, after all, these are extremely important elements in the whole process. However, in a whirlwind of all kinds of language learning discussions, it's easy to lose sight of one thing - the criterion of utility.


The utility criterion tells us one very simple thing - we should preferentially use things that are directly applicable in our lives.


It doesn't matter how much time you spend going through your textbooks. If the language is not part of your life, the textbook will most often be thrown in the corner at the first sign of a life/time crisis.

It is not difficult to imagine that you are going on vacation for 2 weeks and completely neglect your studies because YOLO, and "let's party dude!". Or suddenly you get sick and you feel so weak that you lack the strength to lift a book.

Sure, you can blame this state of affairs on your lack of willpower or the adverse conjunction of the planets, but the fact is that your contact with language has been neglected because it is not a part of your life!


Full language fluency - languages as a versatile tool



Perhaps the entire system of education is to blame. We are used to thinking that language is yet another school subject. Or thinking that learning a language is drudgery and that "I will cram a couple more words and then I am finally free and will do something interesting."

We forget that language is a tool. And not just any! We're not talking about a rusty knife with a bent handle.

We're talking about a cool Swiss army knife!

There are many ways to integrate languages into your daily life to guarantee that you will achieve full fluency.


Remember that the deeper the integration, the greater the chance that you will learn the language not only fluently but also quickly.


Foreign languages as a tool for entertainment


Broadly understood entertainment is certainly one of the easiest changes you can make. There are so many ways to relax after all! What's more, nobody has to force us to do it. I am yet to hear a mom yelling at her son, "Stop learning , you dweeb. Watch something for once. Oh! I have failed as a parent!".

Here are a few "entertainment" categories that you should include in your daily plan:

Remember that no activity is a waste of time if it is done in a foreign language.


1) Full language fluency - Music

Music is not only a great tool to improve your listening comprehension, but it can also help you to remember words better.


If you don't know what to listen to in the language of your choice, I highly recommend the Music Map website. It allows you to quickly find a lot of exciting artists based on your current musical tastes.

In other words - enter the artist's name and enjoy the sweet view of dozens of other artists.

Here is an example for Rammstein:


2) Full language fluency - watching movies / series


Films, and in particular TV series, are one of the pleasures you don't need to convince anyone of. Often, no more than a few days is enough to get an incurable condition called "one more episode-itis".

Here is a list of some interesting sites where you can watch TV series or movies in the original language or dubbed. Feel free to add your suggestions in the comment section.

  • Czech (http://www.serialycz.cz/)
  • German (http://kinoger.com/)
  • Spanish (http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/) 
  • French (a list of over 30 TV stations)
  • Russian (http://kinogo.cc/)

You can find more resources in my Language Links Database.

I recommend Netflix in particular. You can change a default language of TV series and movies there as well as enable subtitles.

And all this without worrying that the link on the page does not work or that you will see for the 10th time in one day "Do you want to meet singles in your area?". It is one of the best language investments I've made over many years.


3) Full language fluency - exploring interests


Like most people, you are probably quirky. You have your own world, and your own interests to which you can effortlessly devote lots of time. Why not use it to get one step close to achieving full language fluency?

It doesn't matter if you are interested in reading thyme dregs or a 50-meter chinchilla throw. I guarantee you that a little googling is enough to find forums or websites of people who share your passion.

Here are some examples of interesting sites:

4) Full language fluency - gossip magazines


I will say it again - nothing is a waste of time if it is done in foreign languages! The next time your husband catches you reading about Brad Pitt's iron buttocks, just shout shrilly "I'm learning! Do not disturb!" Or do it in German to fluster him. That works better than a pepper spray.

I feel dirty writing this, but here are some recommendations:

  • English (http://hollywoodlife.com/)
  • French (https://www.fan2.fr/)
  • German (https://www.ok-magazin.de/)
  • Spanish (http://www.mundotkm.com/ar/hot-news)

5) Full language fluency - Computer games


If you are hellbent on keeping the last link connecting your childhood with the cold and cruel world of adults alive, I recommend taking up computer games. Especially those that are rich in various dialogues.

The best site where you can find computer games in many languages is Steam.

Read more about Active and Passive Learning – How To Create The Winning Combination.

Foreign language as a tool for professional development


The modern world is not a welcoming place. If you have any hopes of becoming a force to be reckoned with, you need to develop and sharpen your skills continually. Just a moment of inattention is enough to get mangled by the competition, who will then proceed to graciously stomp over your carcass. Terrible. I know.

I recommend finding your preferred sources of specialized information in languages of your choice. This is the easiest way always to be one step ahead of most people in your industry.

Read more about How To Prepare For A Foreign Language Interview And Ace It.


Warning - the initial shock


It is worth mentioning that deep integration of a foreign language into life is not all butterflies and rainbows. Initially, you may feel strong resistance from the brain. This pink, slimy bastard will try to talk you out of trying to surround yourself with a foreign language, "John, don't learn Korean! What will neighbors say?".​

You should be ready for it. It will pass with time. However, it remains an open question how much time will be needed for this.

If you already have some experience with intensive language learning, you probably won't need much time to get used to new experiences. If you're inexperienced, accept that you'll need up to a few weeks.


Achieving Full language fluency - Summary


Often the main difference between a person who has mastered a language and the one who has given up is the extent to which they have made the language part of their lives.

Each additional activity performed in a given language anchors it even deeper.

Such integration will make your learning fully resistant to the turmoils of life. The border between "cramming" and normal life will begin to blur, and eventually it will disappear.

You will always know when this moment will come, as it is truly unforgettable. It reveals itself in the following question: "Did I read / hear it in a foreign language or in my native tongue?"


The Curse of the Hamster Wheel of Knowledge – Why Becoming a Real Expert Is Very Difficult

The curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge

A fascinating and, let's be honest, an inseparable part of human nature is attributing to oneself mainly positive qualities, i.e. egocentric bias.


Egocentric bias - a tendency to explain the consequences of one's own behavior in such a way as to increase positive and reduce negative significance for one's self-esteem.


And maybe I am slightly prejudiced because of my interest in memory, but it seems to me that nowhere else is it as visible as in the work we do.

How many times have you met a doctor, IT specialist, or even a chef who said he was average or mediocre? That's right. It doesn't happen often.

The truth is, there are very few real experts. Not that people are lazy or lacking in intelligence.

All because of the phenomenon I call ... * sinister background music *



THE CURSE OF THE HAMSTER WHEEL OF KNOWLEDGE



What is the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge?

Before proceeding to clarify the nature of the curse itself, it is worth starting with a reminder of what the Pareto principle is.



The Pareto principle


The Pareto principle says that statistically, in many areas of life, 20% of the potential causes are associated with 80% of the results.

This does not mean, of course, that the ratio is always 20/80. Sometimes it will be 10/90 or 30/70.


The most important conclusion, however, is that most often a relatively small group of variables will be responsible for most of the results.

How does this relate to the work we do?


The Pareto principle for work



By transposing the above rule onto professional soil, it is not difficult to notice that in any profession there are a limited number of tasks or problems that will dominate the workload.


Knowledge Pyramid


The next step that will help you understand the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge is to look at the knowledge pyramid.

Although it is sometimes criticized for lack of precision, this pyramid still shows one important thing: active learning, such as performing activities, guarantees much more effective assimilation of information.

Read more about The Guide To Effective Problem Solving For Beginners.


In other words, the information we don't use very quickly fades from our minds.


What's more, the more abstract the information is, the faster we forget it.



Final explanation of the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge


Summarizing the above, we can say that:

  1. A limited number of problems and tasks fill most of the time in any profession.
  2. Unused knowledge (especially abstract) quickly leaves our minds.

And this is the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge.


Most of us have no idea how to retain a great deal of knowledge in our mind, and thus it is quickly forgotten. At the same time, we do not have to suffer undue consequences for this. The lesser amount of knowledge we have and use is able to address the tasks we face, through repetition caused by the Pareto principle.

Thus, most people are at a level of competence that guarantees no one will kick them in the ass, making them a corporate piñata.

But make no mistake about it - it is the so-called survivable level of competence, which is self-sustaining at most.

However, it is no indicator of sophistication or highly specialized knowledge.



An example of a hamster wheel of knowledge - building muscle mass


Initially, I wanted to Google relevant articles or statistics for this section. However, I found that it would be easier to just relate an anecdote from my own life, which for some reason stuck in my mind.

It was relatively easy for me to notice it because I obsessively remember absolutely everything in every field that interests me, in particular anything related to medicine, nutrition and physiology.

A good friend of mine, during one of our conversations, mentioned that he is considering testosterone supplementation because he is not particularly pleased with the growth rate of his muscle mass.

The training and nutrition plan that he got from his trainer with 15 years of experience can be called a classic.

Lift 3 times a week for power to hit every muscle group 2-3 times, eat 5 meals a day, and ingest a ton of strange supplements that if they had an effect, it was definitely a placebo.

After looking at the whole thing, it turned out that:


  • His basal metabolic rate was poorly calculated and was not further adjusted for his weight loss.
  • The optimal amount of protein needed for muscle mass synthesis had been incorrectly calculated.
  • Before starting training, he was not asked to perform thyroid tests. To be honest, I've never heard a trainer instruct a client in my life, despite the fact that in the event of a thyroid disorder, muscle building and regeneration will be impaired.
  • The coach hasn't recommended measuring baseline testosterone. Most mean nowadays have abysmally low levels of this hormone, and it can be easily increased.
  • Carnosine had been recommended as a supplement, although it is found abundantly in meat which my friend eats in abundance. For example, about 450 g of chicken has 2g of carnosine in it, and 450 g of beef about 1.5g. At the same time, the saturation threshold for carnosine is about 2g. After crossing the threshold, it ceases to be effectively absorbed in the small intestine.
  • It was recommended to take BCAA, or branched chain amino acids. This is all the more strange because it is taught in school that proteins are broken down into amino acids and that proteins of animal origin contain large amounts of branched chain amino acids. In addition, he also took whey protein hydrolyzate, which as a supplement of animal origin is also broken down into amino acids, including large quantities into branched chain amino acids.
  • Etc.

I could go on and on about what else could be done, but I think the above is enough to highlight the following thought:


the moment when you think you know enough is the moment when you condemn yourself to mediocrity.


To become a real expert, you need to constantly expand your knowledge.

Let's discuss the simple ways you can do it.


How to fight the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge


Don't worry. We are not talking about smearing your face with bat guano or sticking dill into your colon during the new moon. I mean, it will certainly not hurt, but it won't be that useful.

The following approach is needed here:


1. Have a system

99% of the people I've ever talked to have absolutely no systematic way of acquiring knowledge.


Most often they work on the principle of throwing wet paper at the wall. If you read or listen to information enough, something will probably stick.

If you give yourself 20 years to be decent in your field of choice, then the above solution is completely rational.

However, if you want to do it much faster, create your own learning system.


By the learning system I mean a fixed way of acquiring new information.

The one I usually recommend is simply downloading a review optimization program (e.g. ANKI) and entering the information you want to remember.


2. Don't stop learning

It doesn't matter how much you already know. It's always worth assuming that you still don't know enough. If you already study regularly, you should not have special problems with this.

If you have trouble with regularity, you can always set an overarching rule that you must stick to every day.

It can be, for example, learning 3 new facts a day.

Read more about How To Build Durable Habits In 4 Easy Steps Even If Your Motivation Is At An All Time Low.


3. Create a knowledge map


I say it repeatedly: one of the biggest challenges in science is to be aware of what we don't know as accurately as possible.


Although this sounds abstract, it is perfectly logical. Until you know that there is knowledge that you have not yet acquired, you will not be able to access it in any way, nor will you be able to even consider using it to solve a problem.

A good example is an IT specialist who has learned to program in a given language at an intermediate level and has been using the same commands over and over again to solve various kinds of problems.

Although this knowledge level is often sufficient to solve the problem, it is neither optimal nor efficient.

So your goal is to create a long-term knowledge map, i.e. a list of things you need to learn. You can do this even by browsing through appropriate textbooks or courses and systematically acquiring encountered knowledge.


Have you noticed any signs of the hamster wheel of knowledge curse in your immediate surroundings? Let me know in the comments!


Factors Affecting Word Difficulty I.E., What Kills Your Learning Progress

A list of factors affecting word difficulty

There are many factors affecting word difficulty i.e., your ability to learn and recall them.

No wonder. There are dozens of factor at play here. Unfortunately, typical explanations of what affects these processes are severely lacking. Every time I hear that "you probably don't read enough," I do my best to toss 1 kg of plastic bags into the ocean. Die mermaids, die!

Let's conduct a thorough analysis of the factors that you should take into consideration if you have a hard time learning vocabulary. Some of them will be obvious; others will probably surprise you.


Why words are difficult to remember


As you can imagine, there are lots of elements which you have to take into consideration to fully answer this question. Some of them have marginal meaning and have very little research supporting their validity. 

Others are simply beyond your control. A good example is parts of speech. For instance, research generally shows that they are easier to remember than verbs or adjectives (Philips 1981). They are also encoded in different parts of the brain than verbs

The question is, "Does it matter?" Of course not. You still have to learn both nouns and verbs. The same goes for lexical difficulty.

That's why I am going to focus on the ones which can seriously impair your learning ability.


Factors affecting word difficulty


Factors affecting word difficulty

1. Lack of a learning system

​​​2. Regularity of exposure

3. Timing of repetition

4. Retention intention

5. Pronounceability (i.e., how difficult it is to pronounce)

6. The usefulness of a word

7. Emotional saliency

8. Ease of application (i.e., knowing how to use a word)

9. Lack of context

10. Number of contexts

11. Active encoding

12. Morphological awareness (i.e., derivational complexity)

13. The capacity of your short-term memory

14. Intrinsic cognitive load (ICL)

15. Germane cognitive load

16. German cognitive load (GCL)

17. Mental and physical condition

18. Mental barriers

19. Random variable(s)

Let's discuss them one by one, so you know what potentially impairs your learning speed.


1. Lack of learning system


Autor: George Becker

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.

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.

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.


If you don't have a set way of dealing with words you want to learn, you will fail 9/10. It doesn't matter how bad your strategy is. As long as you have it, there can be some progress.


2. Regularity of exposure to vocabulary


I am sure you have noticed that immigrants who barely know a language still know basic greetings and vocabulary. The reason for this is simple — they are frequently exposed to such words.

"Memorization becomes more difficult the less often given items occur in your learning environment."

Here is a fantastic study showcasing this phenomenon.

"The study examines word knowledge acquisition at different levels. The results showed that greater gains in knowledge were found for at least one aspect of knowledge each time repetitions increased. If learners encounter unknown words ten times in context, sizeable learning gains may occur." Source: The Effects of Repetition on Vocabulary Knowledge

Read more: The Rule of 2 — How Many Words You Should Know (For Every Language Level)


3. Timing of repetition


We have known for over 100 years now that the timing of your repetitions plays a crucial role in the process of learning. Fail to review a word at the right moment, and your retention rate falls drastically.

This phenomenon is presented by the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve. It shows the decline of memory retention in time, or if you look at it from a different perspective, it demonstrates the critical moments when the repetition of the given information should occur.

 the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve

Lucky for you, you don't need to optimize our repetitions manually (e.g., with the Leitner System). You can simply use Spaced Repetition Software.

Most of such programs base (more or less) their algorithms on Ebbinghaus forgetting curve (side note: it has been replicated many times in the last 50 years).

The only program of this kind which I relentlessly promote is ANKI. It's free; it's versatile. What's not to love?

Read more: Optimize Your Language Learning — Optimize Your Repetitions (Part 2)


4. Retention intention


A retention intention sets the stage for good remembering. It is a conscious commitment to acquire a memory and a plan for holding on to it. As soon as you commit to a memory goal, attention locks on to what you want to remember. 

This is how attention works—it serves the goal of the moment. And the stronger the motivation for the goal, the more laser-like attention becomes and the greater its memory benefits. 


In other words, you can watch as many TV series and read as many books as you like. It will still have almost zero effect if you don't try to memorize the things you don't know.

A vital feature of a retention intention is the plan for holding on to the material. It might be as simple as rehearsing the memory, or it might involve one of the memory strategies described later. Whatever the plan, when you are clear about how you intend to retain the material, it is more likely you will actually carry out the plan, and this can make all the difference between a weak and strong memory.


5. Pronounceability of vocabulary


In order to learn the phonological form of a new word, you must be able to hold a representation of that word in some form of temporary memory so that the word as a whole can be committed to long-term memory.

This phonological form is called a phonological representation.

"This temporary storage is provided by the phonological store component of the working memory model. Once you learn the basic repertoire of speech sounds in your target language, the process of learning the form of a new word becomes one of learning the order in which those sounds appear. The primary role of the phonological store in learning new words is, therefore, to retain the order of those sounds." Source:  Dennis Norris, Michael P. A. Page, and Jane Hall, ‘Learning nonwords: the Hebb repetition effect as a model of word learning’ 

What happens when your phonological representations are incorrect?

You impair your ability to both recognize and retain new words.

That's why a decent pronunciation is not just something "nice to have." It's an important aspect of acquiring vocabulary.


6. The usefulness of a word


This item ties back to the mistake of not having an intention to memorize something. It frequently happens that people simply refuse mentally to learn a word because of its potential uselessness.


If you don't consider vocabulary you learn to be useful, then you don't really stand a significant chance of memorizing it.


7. Emotional saliency


It's time to tackle the emotional aspect of learning. Even without any fancy scientific references, you already know that it's much easier to remember things which are emotionally important to us.

"Information without emotion isn't retained." Or, as Ezra Pound said it, "Only emotion endures."

The few experiments comparing the effects of the number of meetings (repetitions) with the quality of the meetings suggest that, of the two, quality has the stronger effect (Laufer, in press; Webb, 2005).

In other words, sometimes it's better to build a couple of emotionally salient sentences with a word of your choice rather than settle for a dozen mediocre ones.

Unfortunately, the main problem with relying on this strategy too much is that you cannot make everything emotionally salient. If everything stands out, nothing does.

Read more about how to memorize vocabulary better by learning swearwords.


8. Ease of application (i.e., knowing how to use a word)


Merely knowing the meaning of a lexical item is not enough. You have to understand how to use the target vocabulary in sentence construction (Larrotto 2011).

That's why it's not enough to simply see a flashcard, or a sentence, made by somebody else to be sure how to use a given word in context.

To be able to use this word correctly, you need to:

  • a) be exposed to language
  • b) make the mental linkage between the word and its uses
  • c) be able to verify whether your assumption is correct

One of the prime example of not knowing how to use a word fall into a category of register restrictions.


Register restrictions


Language register can be understood as the level of formality with which you speak. Different circumstances and people require different registers. Sometimes you will use slang, the other time you will be very formal and polite.

Halliday, McIntosh, and Strevens point out that:


"The choice of items from the wrong register, and the mixing of items from different registers are among the most frequent mistakes made by non-native speakers of a language" (1964:88) Source: Why are Some Words More Difficult than Others? Some Intralexical Factors that Affect the Learning of Words


9. Lack of context


By themselves, words and sentences have little meaning; often they can be understood only in relation to other words and sentences.

In other words: things get connected to things. Words which are not connected to others mean nothing and get forgotten. Providing words not in isolation but in various contexts creates new opportunities to memorize them. Whenever the same word crops up in a new phrase, it will be fixed in your mind in yet another way. 

What's more, the more contexts you can associate a piece of information with, the easier it is to recall it.

The above can be aptly summarized by The Principle of Associations: 

“The human lexicon is believed to be a network of associations, a web-like structure of interconnected links. When students are asked to manipulate words, relate them to other words and to their own experiences, and then to justify their choices, these word associations are reinforced” (Sökmen 1997: 241-2).


10. Number of contexts


difficult vocabulary

You already know that no context is terrible for your learning. But is one context enough? Most of the time no.

Lack of multiple contexts can lead to at least one of the three following problems:

1) Problems with information transfer


Sometimes if you learn a word in just one or two contexts your brain might not be able to transfer the meaning of the word from one context to another. 

If you learn the word "severe" in the phrase "severe consequences" your brain probably won't be able to use this word in the phrase "a severe headache." In order to overcome this obstacle and "unblock" some word, you need to use it in at least a couple of contexts, so you have a semantic web that holds this information.

2) Problems with retrieving
3) Problems with memorizing

The last problem is connected with meaningless contexts. Sometimes you try to memorize a word in some phrase, but it simply doesn't work out. The word won't stick even though you have managed to avoid all the other mistakes which I have mentioned previously.

Why is that?

It might happen because your brain might find this one particular context(s) too boring! You have your preferences and tastes, and some phrases won't strike that special chord in your brain.


11. Lack of active encoding


The process of memorizing can be depicted in the four following steps:

1) Encoding — involves initial processing of information which leads to the construction of its mental representation in memory

2) Storage — is the retention of encoded information in the short-term or long-term memory

3) Recall — is the retrieval of stored information from memory

As you can see, encoding is a gateway to the land of remembering. 

But what does encoding really mean?

Encoding is any kind of attempt of manipulating a piece of information in order to increase your chances of memorizing it.

If you skip this step of learning, you can be sure that memorizing vocabulary will become really difficult. Here are results of some studies showing real vocabulary gains from reading in the early stages of language learning.


Real vocabulary gains from reading in the early stages of language learning


Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998) specifically looked at the number of words acquired from a simplified version of a novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, which had 21000 running words. The novel was read in class during six class periods. It was found that the average vocabulary pick-up was five words. 
Lahav (1996) carried out a study of vocabulary learning from simplified readers. She tested students who read 4 readers, each one of about 20 000 words, and found an average learning rate of 3–4 words per book.


12. Morphological awareness


Morphological awareness is explicitly thinking about the smallest units of meaning in language, which are called morphemes. These units include root words that can stand alone as words, prefixes, suffixes, and bound roots, which are roots that must have a prefix or suffix added to become a word.

Morphological awareness is also one of your allies in an uneven fight against mastering a language. It helps you understand why words are constructed in a certain way and remember them better.

In order to fully utilize this concept, you need to become paranoid. Every word, name of every product, movie star, city, dish, or even words themselves should be analyzed.

Most of the time, you will discover that they contain some other words. And it doesn't matter whether that's a pure coincidence or not. What matters is that you found the deeper meaning in words you already know.


13. The capacity of your short-term memory


difficult to learn vocabulary

Autor: meo

The main memory limitation every learner has to face is working memory capacity or simply memory span.

Memory span refers to the longest list of items (e.g., digits, letters, words) that a person can repeat back immediately after the presentation in the correct order on 50% of trials. It is limited in terms of chunks.

A chunk is the largest meaningful unit in the presented material that the person recognizes—thus, what counts as a chunk depends on the knowledge of the person being tested.

One interesting conclusion coming from this is that the more languages you know, or the bigger your background knowledge is, the easier it is for you to memorize new words as you can automatically find more meaningful associations for them!

In other words, if you are presented with too much material at the same time, you significantly decrease your chances of remembering a word.


14. Intrinsic cognitive load (ICL)


The Intrinsic Cognitive Load (ICL) is material-dependent, determined by the material's element interactivity. It is commonly understood as the complexity of information.

This complexity depends on the learner's domain-specific prior knowledge (Sweller, 1998). For example, learning single words of a foreign language requires a lower understanding of interacting elements than learning phases of cell division.


The better you are at a certain field of knowledge, the smaller intrinsic cognitive load.


15. Germane cognitive load


This load focuses on all learning-relevant processes which are needed transfer and store information into the long-term memory system.


It is the emotional and mental energy devoted by the individual to the processing of new information presented as part of the learning activity.


In other words, it is connecting that information to the working memory, and imprinting what has been learned into long-term memory.

How do you lower this kind of cognitive load? By having a mental toolbox of effective learning strategies which have been internalized and automated.


16. Extraneous cognitive load (ECL)


The extraneous load (EL) emerges through the design of instructional materials and is directly connected with a decrease in learning-relevant processes.

The extraneous load (EL) is imposed by any form of distractors during learning; hence, this load is often regarded as the ‘unwanted’ or ‘bad’ load.

Hence, every single thing which drives you away from learning is treated as the extraneous cognitive load. Keep in mind that those distractors potentiate one another!


The truth is that those pesky, little things distract us more than we would like to admit.

For example, according to researchers, the mere presence of your smartphone reduces cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive function, even though people believe they are giving a task their full attention and focus. 


Don't forget that attention is the price of admission to the long-term system. If you meed up this step, no learning will ever take place.

What's more, by minimizing the extraneous load, capacity in the working memory can be spared for processing the intrinsic load.

Source: Creating an engaging and stimulating anatomy lecture environment using the Cognitive Load Theory-based Lecture Model: Students' experiences


17. Mental and physical condition


Let's be honest — you can't learn at 100% if you're not feeling at 100%. To improve your learning pace, try to:

  • fix your diet (start with less sugar and processed crap)
  • exercise regularly
  • decrease your stress levels

Of course, sometimes it's difficult to do it right away. Maybe you're experiencing family issues right now, suffering from depression, or taking some medication.

Regardless, keep in mind that these are also factors affecting word difficulty.


18. Mental barriers


Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

Almost everyone can learn a language, and that's a fact. Sure, there are always some exceptions but generally speaking, it's entirely possible with you.

However, our paranoid lizard brain wouldn't be itself if it didn't start infusing your brain with different paranoid thoughts. We are truly experts at undercutting ourselves.

Here are some popular mental barriers which one can use to justify that learning a language is impossible for them:


1. Self-fulfilling prophecy

In short, you are convinced that you are unable to learn and thus you do nothing to learn, and as a result, you don't know anything. Congratulations, you just played yourself.

This category includes self-diversion pearls like: 

"I am too old."
"I don't have time."
"I suffer from social anxiety." (read this to fix this problem)
"I am too stupid."
"Jupiter is in retrogade."
"I am a Scorpio and they are not good at languages." (in this case, take this quiz: how stupid are you?)


2. Lack of psychological safety


In the absence of psychological safety, we fear judgment, reprisal, humiliation, feelings of incompetence, and being unworthy, and may begin to avoid and withdraw from the learning process. Over prolonged periods, this withdrawal also can contribute to burnout and depression (Bynum and Haque 2016).


3. Lack of self-efficacy/growth mindset

Self-efficacy, or the growth mindset, is a common theme often found in the literature; it is the belief in your own ability to achieve learning or performance standards (Bandura, 1991;Latham & Locke, 1991; Sharma & Writer, 2015).

Self-efficacy influences task choice, effort, and persistence, and can also help determine which learning strategies to apply to obtain maximum gain.

Usually, the level of self-efficacy is correlated with goal-setting and achievement:  A student with greater self-efficacy sets higher goals and attains higher levels of achievement Learners with high levels of self-efficacy tend to blame failure on a lack preparation, while those with low self-efficacy tend to blame their lack of ability. Students with low levels of self-efficacy are more prone to allow negative feedback to have a negative influence on their performance and attitudes.


4. Social comparison bias

Spoiler alert! If you keep on comparing yourself to others, you will almost always find somebody better than you. Just don't.


Of course, the list goes on and on, but the examples above should give you a general idea of what to be cautious of.


19. Random variable(s)


A random variable part is an indispensable part of any econometric model. It tries to factor in the unforeseeable into the model's prediction. It might also be used to explain one of the most widespread phenomena in language learning — repeating a word dozens of times and still not being able to acquire it.

Even though this is a really annoying problem, I want to assure you that it's ubiquitous. It also has a perfectly reasonable explanation.


All you need to understand it is a Gaussian function aka "The Bell Curve."


The Bell Curve

Gaussian functions are often used to represent the probability density function of a normally distributed random variable with expected value μ = b and variance σ2 = c2.

What that means is that the bell curve shows you what's the probability of a random variable.

What variables are we talking about?

It can be anything. For example, the variable might take the form of an IQ distribution in society or the size of a biceps among men. Or, in our case, the probability of memorizing a word.

The bell shows you what the chances that a given event will take place are. You can see that most of the time, you won't have problems with memorizing words. The probability of this happening will fall into the 2a range.

However, up to 3% (1a range) of all the words can be treated as outliers. They will either be extremely easy (the right side of the curve) or extremely difficult to memorize (the left side of the curve), and as such, they will require a lot of reviews.


It doesn't matter how much you optimize your learning, this phenomenon will always take place.


Factors affecting word difficulty - the summary



As you have seen, there are lots of factors affecting word difficulty i.e., your ability to remember and recall vocabulary. Effective learning is never about doing one or two things right. It's about combining all the best practices into an efficient learning system. Even then, you can still expect that there will be a small group of words which will be more challenging to memorize. Get used to it.

However, if you have problems with a specific word, I would stay longer with it and analyze it logically — what are its constituents? Is there any logic to it? Can you associate it with something? That should increase your chances of learning this word.

How many of these factors do you incorporate into your learning system? Let me know!

Pictures and Images in Flashcards – Are They Even Useful?

 

Have you noticed a trend that has been going on for quite many years now? Almost every app out there seems to be using pictures. It’s been touted as a magical cure for your inability to learn.

But is it really the case or maybe it’s another thinly veiled attempt to talk you into buying a premium version of some crappy app?

Unfortunately, it seems to be the latter. Yes, learning with pictures has its benefits, but they are relatively tiny compared to the effort and other potential strategies you might use.

Let’s investigate step by step why it’s so!

 

Potential benefits of learning with pictures

 

One picture is worth 1000 words, as the saying goes, and I am pretty sure that every child who ever wandered into their parent’s bedroom in the middle of the night can attest to this. But what’s important to you, as a learner, is how many benefits can learning with pictures offer you. After all, you wouldn’t want to waste too much time adding them to your flashcards if they are useless.

 

The Picture Superiority Effect (i.e. you remember pictures better)

 

Pictures and images in your flashcards - are they even useful?

Photo by pine watt on Unsplash

If we want to discuss advantages of using pictures, we much touch upon the picture superiority effect. This is a go-to argument of many proponents of this approach to learning.

The picture superiority effect refers to the phenomenon in which pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words.

It’s not anything debatable- the effect has been reproduced in a variety of experiments using different methodologies. However, the thing that many experts seem to miss is the following excerpt:

pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words.

It just means we are great at recognizing pictures and images. It has its advantages but it’s not should be confused with being able to effortlessly memorize vocabulary.

Let’s quickly go through some studies to show you how amazingly well we can recognize pictures.

 

Power of recognition memory (i.e. you’re good at recognizing pictures)

 

In one of the most widely-cited studies on recognition memory. Standing showed participants an epic 10,000 photographs over the course of 5 days, with 5 seconds’ exposure per image. He then tested their familiarity, essentially as described above.

The participants showed an 83% success rate, suggesting that they had become familiar with about 6,600 images during their ordeal. Other volunteers, trained on a smaller collection of 1,000 images selected for vividness, had a 94% success rate.

But even greater feats have been reported in earlier times. Peter of Ravenna and Francesco Panigarola, Italian memory teachers from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, respectively, were each said to have retained over 100,000 images for use in recalling enormous amounts of information. – Robert Madigan – How Memory Works and How To Make it Work For You

Now that we have established that we’re pretty good at recognizing images, let’s try to see if pairing words with pictures offers more benefits.

 

Boosting your recall

 

Another amazing benefit of using pictures as a part of your learning strategy is improving your recall. This process occurs in the following way:

During memory recall, neurons in the hippocampus began to fire strongly. This was also the case during a control condition in which participants only had to remember scene images without the objects. Importantly, however, hippocampal ativity lasted much longer when participants also had to remember the associated object (the raspberry or scorpion image). Additionally, neurons in the entorhinal cortex began to fire in parallel to the hippocampus.

The pattern of activation in the entorhinal cortex during successful recall strongly resembled the pattern of activation during the initial learning of the objects,” explains Dr. Bernhard Staresina from the University of Birmingham.” – The brain’s auto-complete function, New insights into associative memory

It’s worth pointing out that even the evidence for improved recall is limited and usually concerns abstract words and idiomatic expressions.

Farley et al. (2012) examined if the meaning recall of words improved in the presence of imagery, and found that only the meaning recall of abstract words improved, while that of concrete nouns did not. A possible interpretation of this finding is that, in the case of concrete nouns, most learners can naturally produce visual images in their mind and use them to remember the words.

Therefore, the Vocabulary Learning and Instruction, 6 (1), 21–31. 26 Ishii:

The Impact of Semantic Clustering additional visual images in the learning material do not affect the learning outcome, since they are already present in their mind. However, in the case of abstract nouns, since it is often difficult for learners to create images independently, the presentation of imagery helps them retain the meaning of the words they are trying to learn.

Jennifer Aniston neurons

 

Jennifer Aniston neurons
It seems that this improved recall is caused by creating immediate associations between words and pictures when they are presented together.

The scientists showed patients images of a person in a context e.g. Jennifer Aniston at the Eiffel Tower, Clint Eastwood in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Halle Berry at the Sidney Opera House or Tiger Woods at the White House. They found that the neuron that formerly fired for a single image e.g. Jennifer Aniston or Halle Berry, now also fired for the associated image too i.e. the Eiffel Tower or Sidney Opera House.

The remarkable result was that the neurons changed their firing properties at the exact moment the subjects formed the new memories – the neuron initially firing to Jennifer Aniston started firing to the Eiffel Tower at the time the subject started remembering this association,” said Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, head of the Centre for Systems Neuroscience at the University of Leicester.” – Researchers Make a “Spectacular Discovery” About Memory Formation and Learning 

To sum it up, we know that:
  • we’re great at remembering pictures
  • we’re great at recognizing pictures
  • we’re great at recalling pictures 

 

Let me make it clear – these benefits are undeniable, and they have their use in the learning process. However, the real question is – how effective are pictures at helping you memorize and recall vocabulary!

 

How effective are pictures at helping you memorize and recall vocabulary

 

Before I move on to the science, let’s start with my personal experiments. Contrary to a lot of “language experts” online, I rarely believe anything I read unless I see lots of quality scientific support for some specific claims. And believe me, it’s not easy. Most of scientific studies are flawed on so many different levels that they shouldn’t be written at all.

Once I have gathered enough evidence, I start running long-term statistical experiments in order to see what benefits a given approach brings to the table.

Read more about experimenting: Fail Fast and Fail Epicly – The Best Way Of Learning Languages

What’s the answer in that case? Not that much. Most of the time you will be able to just remember a picture very well. Possibly, if the picture represents accurately a meaning of a given word, you might find it easier to recall the said meaning. Based on my experiments I can say that the overall benefit of using pictures in learning is not big and amounts to less than 5-10%.

 

Effect of pairing words and pictures on memory

 

Boers, Lindstromberg, Littlemore, Stengers, and Eyckmans (2008) and Boers, Piquer Píriz, Stengers, and Eyckmans (2009) investigated the effect of pictorial elucidation when learning new idiomatic expressions.

The studies revealed that learners retain the meanings of newly learned idiomatic items better when they are presented with visual images. Though there was no impact for the word forms, such presentations at least improved the learning of word meanings.

In other words, using pictures can improve your understanding of what a word, or an idiom, means.

One of the problems I have with most memory-related studies is that scientists blatantly ignore the fact that familiarity with words might heavily skew the final results. For that reason, I really love the following paper from 2017.

Participants (36 English-speaking adults) learned 27 pseudowords, which were paired with 27 unfamiliar pictures. They were given cued recall practice for 9 of the words, reproduction practice for another set of 9 words, and the remaining 9 words were restudied. Participants were tested on their recognition (3-alternative forced choice) and recall (saying the pseudoword in response to a picture) of these items immediately after training, and a week after training. Our hypotheses were that reproduction and restudy practice would lead to better learning immediately after training, but that cued recall practice would lead to better retention in the long term.

In all three conditions, recognition performance was extremely high immediately after training, and a week following training, indicating that participants had acquired associations between the novel pictures and novel words. In addition, recognition and cued recall performance was better immediately after training relative to a week later, confirming that participants forgot some words over time. However, results in the cued recall task did not support our hypotheses. Immediately after training, participants showed an advantage for cued Recall over the Restudy condition, but not over the Reproduce condition. Furthermore, there was no boost for the cued Recall condition over time relative to the other two conditions. Results from a Bayesian analysis also supported this null finding. Nonetheless, we found a clear effect of word length, with shorter words being better learned than longer words, indicating that our method was sufficiently sensitive to detect an impact of condition on learning. – The effect of recall, reproduction, and restudy on word learning: a pre-registered study

As you can see, conclusions are not that optimistic and almost fully coincide with my own experiments. That’s why I would suggest you don’t add pictures to every flashcard. It’s too time-consuming compared to benefits. However, if you really enjoy learning this way, I will suggest to you in a second a better way to utilize pictures.

 

Test it for yourself!

 

I know that the above could be a bit of a buzz-kill for any die-hard fan of all those flashy flashcard apps and what not. But the thing is, you should never just trust someone’s opinion without verifying it. 

Run your own experiment. See how well you retain those pictures and if it really makes a difference result-wise compared to the invested time. Our time on this pancake earth is limited. No need to waste any of it using ineffective learning methods.

It doesn’t take much time and it will be worth more than anyone’s opinion. If you decide to go for it, make sure to run it for at least 2-3 months to truly verify of pictures offer a long-term memory boost.

How to use picture more effectively in your learning

 

Since my initial results with this method weren’t very satisfying I decided to step it up and tried to check how different kind of pictures affect my recall. What’s more, I also verified how using the same picture in many flashcards affects my learning.

What kind of pictures did I use?

I concentrated on pictures which are emotionally salient. I tried everything starting from gore pictures to porn pictures. The results, especially with the latter, weren’t very good. I was sitting there like a horny idiot and couldn’t concentrate even one bit on any of the words. It’s like having a sexy teacher in high school. You can’t wait till you get to your classes but once you do, you don’t hear any words.

Funny enough, I remember most of the pictures, but now words, from this experiment to this day which only further proves to me that your typical approach won’t work here.

So what kind of pictures did work?

Pictures from my personal collection. I found out that if I use one picture in a lot of flashcards where every flashcard concentrates on one word, I am able to recall words extremely easily. In addition, my retention rate has also been improved, although not as significantly as my ability to retrieve words.

 

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

 

If you want to use pictures in your language studies, don’t waste time trying to find a new picture for every word. Choose one picture and use it multiple times in different flashcards. Each time try to memorize a different word.

What’s more, if it’s only possible, try to stick to pics from your personal collection – a weekend at your grandma’s, uncle Jim getting sloshed at your wedding. You know, good stuff!

 

Summary

 

Pictures are a definitely a nice addition to your learning toolkit. However, in order to be able to use them effectively you need to understand that they won’t help you much with memorizing words. The best thing they can offer is a slight boost in remembering words and significantly improved recall for pictures. That’s why don’t waste your time trying to paste a picture into every flashcard. Benefits will be minuscule compared to your effort.

If you really want to get the biggest bang for your buck learning-wise, try to use one picture to memorize many words. That’s a great way of mimicking the way we originally started acquiring vocabulary. And it’s not very time-consuming.

Once you try this method, let me know how it worked for you!

What are your thoughts on using pictures in flashcards? Let me know in the comments!

 

Course-Oriented Thinking – Improve Your Knowledge Coherence and Create Potential Products at the Same Time

I love how paradoxical the modern world is. You are just a click away from accessing almost every imaginable piece of information ever created. If you could acquire just some of it, you would be able to dominate almost every possible area of life. However, it seems like there is a glass wall holding you back. You can lick it all you want but you can’t get through it.

Why is it so? Why is it so difficult to master even one field of knowledge?

My guess is that most people are notoriously bad at tying information together. What’s more, we are also easily overwhelmed by the sea of information. All the facts that we face usually take a form of an impenetrable tangle.

In this article, I would like to show you a way out of this maddening maze. It’s not a complete map but it should be enough to help you wrap your head around any discipline. With some time and dedication, of course.

The remedy is a method of mine which I dubbed course-oriented thinking. Not only will it help you to create or consolidate your expertise but it’ll also, hopefully, give you lots of ideas on writing a book or a course.

Knowledge coherence – the best predictor of one’s expertise

 

 

 

Do you know what the biggest predictor of one’s expertise is?

Knowledge coherence, or in other words the way we structure information we acquire. And we suck badly at it.

Why wouldn’t we?

Throughout our entire education, everything is served to you on a silver platter. It’s always the same dish – the prechewed and predigested informational spaghetti. God forbid that you put more effort into your learning than it’s necessary.

And then comes the day when you need to recall and apply all this knowledge. You reach for emptiness. There is nothing there.

Why is that?

After all, the knowledge presented to you was structured.

What went wrong that you couldn’t remember it? The answer is “Easy come, easy go”.

Learning takes effort.

There is no way around it. It doesn’t matter how many people you will meet on your path who scream otherwise. You need to put in a lot of effort.

And let’s be honest here. If you receive knowledge in a form of a fully digested pulp, you won’t know how to use it. You won’t understand it either.

The truth is that nobody can structure and organize your knowledge for you.

And this is where course-oriented thinking enters the scene.

Course-oriented thinking – a general overview

 

 

In the simplest of terms, course-oriented thinking is based on one principle. You should approach every domain you want to master with a single goal in your mind.

You will create a course to teach someone all there is to know about a given subject.

It will be the best damn course in the universe on a given subject which you can sell to others (read more about mastering many fields of science here).

Pay attention to the words I have used.

 

1.   The best course in the world

 

It’s not going to be any course. It will be the best in the world. No other course will come even close. However,

keep in mind that your course won’t be any good in the beginning. Being the best is the end goal. It’s a journey.

Initially, it will rather resemble a steaming pile of manure. With time, however, you will turn into your own version of David Statue. The one made of marble, not s**t. I better add it so there is no misunderstanding here.

 

2.   The most comprehensive course in the world

 

If you want to go in, go all in. Create a course which will teach you every aspect of your field of choice.

 

3.   It has to be structured and organized

 

Keep in mind that the course should be able to teach a complete beginner how to master a given field of science. If you want to teach somebody how to invest, even a retarded, three-headed shrimp which survived a nuclear apocalypse will succeed.

Ask yourself this while working on your project – “How can you make a layman understand what you want to convey?”.

 

4.   You’re going to sell it

 

 

Another important assumption is that you’re going to sell it. Of course, it doesn’t really matter whether you do it or not. What matters is that this approach will give you some mental incentive to devote as much attention to it as it’s needed.

You wouldn’t sell people crap, right? Exactly. This way of thinking should help you keep your focus on the right track.

Another self-evident advantage of this rationale is actually creating something of value. You might be doing it for yourself right now. However, as the time goes by, you might be struck by a curious thought, “Why won’t I create an actual course or a book?”. And come it will. Trust me.

I still remember my bewilderment in college every time I saw an author publish a book. I couldn’t grasp how it’s possible to amass such vastness of information, structure it, and package it as a complete product.

The secret seems to be disappointingly easy. You start with a product in your mind and you learn as you create it.

 

5.   It’s going to be YOUR course

 

If you set off on this journey with an intention of just copying a curriculum of already existing courses, you might as well stop reading right now. The course has to be your creation. Sure, you might borrow different concepts, methods or solutions from other authors in the field, but it has to be yours. Only this way will you be able to fully understand the scope of a given domain. Trust me, knowing how most of the puzzles fit together is amazingly empowering.

It also means that you can add whatever you want to the course. Dollop some funny pictures or a bucketful of ridiculousness on top of each module. Appreciate all those little peccadilloes that only you can bring to the table.

Example:

In my “investing course”, I find myself frequently quoting a lot of prominent figures from the investing world. Sometimes one quote is more than enough to help a give rule to sink in.

Here is the one by Warren Buffet which I use on a daily basis:

“The stock market is a device for transferring money from the impatient to the patient.”

Sure, I also include some scientific data to back up this idea. However, I don’t find it even half as powerful as the aforementioned quote.

 

Course-oriented thinking – how to structure your course

 

 

1.   Tips for rookies

 

If you are new to some area of expertise, you may find it extremely difficult to create any curriculum. After all, what do you know?

Don’t worry. You don’t have to do all the heavy lifting on your own. Simply pick up any book, or google an online course which is similar to the one you want to create and copy its rough outline.

I would like to remind you that it’s just a place to start. You shouldn’t copy everything. Without the effort of creating a schedule, you won’t be able to learn nearly as fast.

 

2.   Tips for old-timers

 

If you already possess a wealth of knowledge about some domain, you’re in a great place. You already did the bulk of work in the past. Now, muster all you know and start structuring it from A to Z.

 

3. The general advice

 

 

Typically, you should structure your course in an old-fashioned way. Break down a domain of your choosing into modules and units.

Remember that your the structure of your course is not permanent. It’s a living organism. The more you know, and the more information you add to it, the more it will change.

Don’t get too attached to its current form.

 

Course-oriented thinking – what are the best information sources?

 

 

By that point, you should already have a rough curriculum in place. The next important question you have to answer is, “how can I learn more about this“?

Actually, saying it’s important would be an understatement. It’s absolutely crucial. You don’t want to learn from source you don’t trust.

I might be old-fashioned but if I wanted to learn more about investing I wouldn’t take advice from a pimply teenager who lives in his mom’s basement. Especially if he has no previous track record.

Here are some places to start:

 

 

Keep in mind that just reading information is not enough. You actually need to memorize it to be able to connect the dots.

Read more about the importance of memorization here: The Magnet Theory – Why Deep Understanding And Problem-Solving Starts With Memorization.

 

Your mental framework for approaching new information

 

 

1. Be critical

 

Don’t take facts or information at face value. Pay attention whether the opinions are rooted in anything trustworthy. 

As a rule of thumb, my bullshitometer buzzes like crazy anytime I hear that “there is a study proving …”, or better yet, “everyone knows that …”.

Have you read this study yourself? No, not an abstract, an entire study. If not, remain skeptical. As yet another rule of thumb, anyone quoting documentaries as a source of knowledge, especially about health-related issues should be slapped six feet deep into the ground by the mighty gauntlet of knowledge.

Sometimes I waive this rule temporarily if I respect a given expert enough. However, that’s an exception.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s hard. And I fully agree. Nobody said that forming your own opinion and knowledge is easy.

 

2. Stay open-minded

 

 

It’s confusing, I know. Can you be critical and open-minded at the same time? You can, and you should be.

The principle is best encapsulated by Stanford University professor Paul Saffo.

Strong opinions loosely held

At no point in time will you have a complete picture of a given domain. Hence, you are bound to hear lots of different opinions and theories which might contradict your present knowledge.

Don’t discard them just because they don’t sound right. Analyze their conclusions. And don’t stop there. Analyze the rationale which led to those conclusions as well.

A great example is a way in which I approach rapid language learning as described in a case study of mine.

After learning and analyzing hundreds of linguistic studies and memory-related books and papers, it wasn’t hard to see why a typical approach can’t work well. What’s more, it wasn’t too difficult to see why extensive reading and other passive learning approaches are usually terrible ideas. Yet, a couple of years ago there weren’t many people who shared this belief. Luckily, language learning is one of those fields where usually results speak for themselves.

 

What to do with the contradictory information

 

If I encounter some evidence which is either flaky or contradictory to what I already know, I still try to place it somewhere in the course. However, I always place an extra note saying “to be verified”.

You can choose to copy my methodology or think up some other way to mark uncertain information. Whatever works for you.

Upon doing so, you are left with two choices. You can either set off on a revelatory journey to discover what the truth in this particular case is, or leave it for time being. As you acquire more knowledge, the problem will most probably sort itself out.

The best program to structure your knowledge

 

In my book, there is only one clear winner – Evernote. It’s everything you will ever need to write a book, a course or anything else for that matter.

Of course, I might be biased as I don’t know many other programs of this kind.

Evernote makes it very easy to create module and units for every single folder (i.e. your course idea).

 

Improve your knowledge coherence

 

 

Course-oriented thinking – a long-term perspective

 

If you have ever dreamt of mastering many fields of expertise, course-oriented thinking should also be right up your alley.

Once you read this article, you can download Evernote right away and start creating course outlines for every single domain that interests you.

 

Will you be able to pursue them all at the same time with smoldering passion? Definitely not.

Will you be able to work on them for years to come until you achieve mastery? Absolutely.

 

You can think of every field of expertise you want to master as a journey. Maybe you won’t make too many steps in the forthcoming months. But you will keep on going and you will keep on getting better.

What’s more, the mere awareness of having a course which you can expand should keep your eyes wide open to all the wonderful facts and information you stumble upon.

They all will become a welcome addition to your creation. And as with learning intensely, the more courses you create, the easier it will be to master any other domain.

 

Examples of practical, long-term courses

 

 

 

I am pretty sure that you already have a rough idea of which areas of expertise you want to explore. Regardless, I’ve wanted to show you some examples of the courses I have created so far. Of course, they are work in progress. Knowing me, I will keep on expanding them till the day I die. You might use them as a source of inspiration.

A list of my projects (i.e. courses):

The list is certainly not complete but it should give you a general idea of what to gun for. Remember to think long-term. Your course (i.e. knowledge) doesn’t have to be perfect from the get-go. The mere action of having such a project in place will help you put any piece of information in the right context.

Approaching learning in this manner can lead to truly spectacular results. You might discover that after some time, some of your projects will come to life and will become an inseparable part of your existence.

For example, I have never thought of myself as an investor. However, just a couple of weeks upon creating a rough curriculum of my investing course, I dipped my toes in the financial waters. Surprisingly, it turned out that I am really good at it. These days trading is a part of my everyday ritual.

So what do I think? I think you should give it a shot.

 

A summary

 

 

One of the most important factors affecting your ability to remember things is the coherence of your knowledge. Course-oriented thinking can provide you with an excellent framework for structuring your knowledge. What’s more, your potential courses can turn into real-life products which might benefit you in the future.

Keep in mind that your projects don’t have to be perfect from the very beginning. They will probably suck. Only working on them systematically and methodically can guarantee that they will become world-class products.

Don’t treat them dead-serious and don’t be too formal. Sprinkle them with silly memes, anecdotes or quotes. Your courses should be a natural extension of your character. Let your personality shine through the quality information. With time, you might be truly surprised how much this approach can change your life.

 

The Rule of 2 – How Many Words You Should Know (For Every Language Level)

How Many Words You Should Know

 

I love words. They are like tiny, beautiful puzzle pieces. Choose the right ones, and you can assemble beautiful and meaningful sentences. Sentences that convey your thoughts with surgical precision. Choose the wrong ones, and you will get a stinky bag of confusion.

 

But there is a lot of confusion around how large your vocabulary should be for each level. I have heard dozens of different versions. That’s why I decided to come up with an easy rule on how to remember how many words you should know at every language level.

 

The Rule of 2 – How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level

 

 

But first things first. If you have no idea what a language level is, refer to the Common European Framework of Reference for Language Learning.

Now back to the rule! It is as simple it gets — the number of words needed to advance to every level doubles.

How Many Words You Should Know (for Every Language Level)

Language LevelNumber of Base Words Needed
A1500
A21000
B12000
B24000
C18000
C216000

 

Add or deduct up to 20% of the given values. This way, you will get the approximate range for each language level.

 

Why up to 20%? Because words you choose to learn matter that much! If you were to concentrate on words from the frequency list, you would definitely have to deduct 20% on higher levels (B1-C2). However, if you, for some reason, started learning names of trees or birds, you would have to add 20% to the said levels.

What Is a Word?

 

It needs some clarification since this term has changed its meaning in Linguistics in the last few decades. In the past, “a base word” was the base word itself and all its inflected forms. For example, “tough,” “toughen,” and “toughness” used to be treated as 3 words.

 

Nowadays, “a base word” indicates “the word family” and consists of the base word and its inflected forms and derivations.

 

According to a renowned linguistic researcher Paul Nation, if you use the 1.6 factor to base words, you should get (more or less) the number of “separate” words (i.e., inflected words).

 

“Why Do I Need to Know How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level?”

 

 

A fair question, I guess. It’s not a fun fact which you can rub in somebody’s face. There are two good reasons:

Vocabulary size is a good indicator of your current level

The number of words you know is one of the most reliable indicators of your language level. If you track the size of your vocabulary, you should be able to tell (more or less) what level you’re on. Assuming, of course, that you learn the right words. Memorizing the names of plants won’t get you far!

 

Vocabulary size can be your milestone

Not knowing where you are heading can be frightening. It’s like straying in the fog. You don’t know what lies around the corner. Knowing your goal can give you a sense of direction. Even if you fall,  it will be on a pile of cushions, not the sharp rocks.

 

How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level – Milestones

 

 

How Many Words You Should Know

Photo by: John Spooner

 

There are 4 most important vocabulary milestones in language learning. They are a great way to establish what your current language level is and how big a distance you have to cover to get to the next one.

Just in case you wonder – the following rules stand roughly true for most of the languages. Be it Asian or European. But since languages tend to differ from each other quite a bit, please take it with a grain of salt and use these calculations only as a landmark.

 

1000 words

1000 words allow you to understand about 80% of the language which surrounds you, as long as it is not too specialized (Hwang, 1989; Hirsh and Nation, 1992; Sutarsyah, Nation and Kennedy, 1994)

In theory, it sounds great. JUST 1000 words, and you understand that much! Unfortunately, the remaining 20% is what really matters. Just look at this sentence:

“I went to the … to buy …. but they told me that they couldn’t… .’ Sure, you understand a lot of words. But does it help?

 

3000 words

3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996).

It seems like a lot. Sure, on this level, you will be able to hold a decent conversation. You will also be able to get the general ideas and concepts of most of the articles.

BUT…general comprehension is not the same as full comprehension, as it involves some guessing.

Still, there is no shortage of enthusiasts who claim that such level is high enough to start picking up new words from context. However, researchers tend to disagree and say that the “magical” number of words which allows learning from the context is….(drum roll)

 

5000 words

5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). Such a vocabulary size also warrants accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).

It means that you can function surrounded by this language without bigger problems. Sure, you will struggle if you want to formulate your thoughts precisely, or when you encounter specialized vocabulary.

But other than that, you will be fine.

 

10000 words

10000 words allow you to understand about 99% of most texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). It is the pinnacle of language learning — a counterpart to having the vocabulary of a college graduate.

With that many words, you can express yourself with fantastic precision and pass for a native speaker if your accent is good enough. It is the minimum goal for every language I learn. It makes me feel like a citizen of a given country.

 

If you want to download frequency lists for your target language, visit this website.

 

How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level – Summary

 

 

Knowing how many words you need to know to get to the C1 level gives you some perspective on how much effort it takes to achieve this monstrous goal.

I’m writing this because many of us get depressed after seeing dozens of videos on YT of people speaking or claiming to speak 10 or 20 languages.

But the truth is that there is a yawning gap between being good and being great at a language (or anything else for that matter).

 

Any person who has truly mastered a language (i.e., achieved C1/ C2 level) could have learnt 2-4 languages to B2 level or 4-8 languages to A2 level in that time

 

Remember it the next time gloomy thoughts start creeping up on you, my friend.

 

Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created about 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go.

 

 

The Goldlist Method – A Scientific Critique And Why It’s a Waste of Time

Choosing the right learning methods has always been one of the most daunting tasks for most language learners. No wonder. Around every corner, you can find yet another popular learning strategy.

But how do you know it’s effective? Is it actually based on any real science?

Most people can offer you just their opinions. I am here to show you step-by-step what are the biggest flaws of various language learning methods. In other words, I am going to scrutinize them and show you what their authors don’t know or don’t want to reveal.

The first position on the menu today is the Goldlist method.

Before I start, it’s worth mentioning that this article is not meant to offend the author of the Goldlist method nor disparage anyone who is using it but to show one simple fact – it’s extremely easy to come up with a method but it doesn’t mean it’s effective memory-wise.

The Goldlist Method – What Is It All About?

 

Unless you are into experimenting with various learning methods, you may not have heard of the Goldlist Method. For that reason, I will try to outline what’s all about so we are on the same page.

First of all, here is a great video that sums up what this method is all about.

 

If you are old-fashioned, here is a description of how it works.

 

  • Get a large (A4 size) notebook. This is going to be your “bronze” book.
  • Prepare the materials (i.e. words) you’re interested in. The items you choose will go into your “head list”.
  • Open your book and write the first twenty-five words or phrases down, one below the other, on the left-hand side of the individual page. Include any integral information such as gender or plural forms of nouns or irregular aspects of a verb’s conjugation. The list shouldn’t take you more than twenty minutes to do.
  • When the list is ready, read through it out loud, mindfully but without straining to remember.
  • When you start the next piece of the head list, number it 26-50, then 51-75 and so on.
  • The first distillation – after at least two weeks open your notebook and cast your eye towards your first list of 1 to 25 (or, 26 to 50, or 9,975 to 10,000) depending on which double spread you’re at. The “two weeks plus” pause is important. It’s intended to allow any short-term memories of the information to fade completely so that you can be sure that things you think you’ve got into the long-term memory really are in there. Make sure, then, that you date each set of twenty-five head list items (something I haven’t done in my illustrative photos for this article).

David James says that there is no upper limit to the gap between reviews, though suggests a maximum of two months, simply to keep up momentum.

 

  • Discard eight items, and carry the remaining seventeen into a new list, This will be your first “distillation”.
  • Repeat the process for the second and third distillations (the third and fourth list on your double spread). The interval should be at least 2 weeks.
  • For the fourth distillation, you start a new book, your “silver” book.
  • The “gold” notebook works the same way, the hardcore items from the “silver” notebook’s seventh distillation are carried over to the “gold” for new head list of twenty-five lines (distillation number eight) and distillations nine (17 or so lines), ten (twelve or so) and eleven (nine or so).

 

How to Use the Goldlist Method – Summary

 

  • Grab a notebook and write there 25 words which interest you.
  • After at least 2 weeks check if you remember them and discard 30% of all the words. The rest of the words becomes a part of the second “distillation”
  • Keep on repeating the same process over and over again. The only thing that changes is that the older “distillations” get rewritten to other notebooks.

 

The Goldlist Method – Claims

 

The Goldlist Method

Photo by Bookblock on Unsplash

 

The author of the Goldlist method maintains that:

  1. The method allows you to retain up to thirty percent of the words in your long-term memory.
  2. It is also claimed that the process circumvents your short-term memory – you are expected to make no conscious effort to remember words. Thanks to this the information will be retained in your long-term memory.

 

The Goldlist Method – A Scientific Critique

 

1. The Goldlist Method doesn’t circumvent short-term memory

One of the big claims of the Goldlist method is that it is able to circumvent your short-term memory. Somehow, thanks to it, you are able to place all the information straight in your long-term memory.

Is it possible? Not really. I have noticed that 99% of claims of this kind come from people who have never had much to do with the science of memory. That’s why let’s go briefly through what is required to “remember”.

According to the author of the Goldlist method, David James:

 

” [[ … ]] we are alternating in and out of these two systems the whole time, we switch ourselves into short-term mode by thinking about memorising and switch out of it by forgetting about memorising.”

 

Unfortunately, this is a bunch of hooey. This is what the actual science has to say about memorization.

 

The working memory consolidation

In order to memorize a piece of information, you have to store it in your short-term memory.

This process is initiated by allocating your attention to the stimuli you want to remember.

In other words, initiation of consolidation is under conscious control and requires the use of central attention. The mere fact of looking at a piece of paper and reading/writing words activates it.

Any stimuli that capture attention because of their intrinsic emotional salience appear to be consolidated into memory even when there is no task requirement to do so.

Next, the items you learn undergo working memory consolidation.

Working memory consolidation refers to the: transformation of transient sensory input into a stable memory representation that can be manipulated and recalled after a delay.

Contrary to what the creator of the Goldlist method believes, after this process is complete, be it 2 weeks or more, the short-term memories are not gone. They are simply not easily accessible.

Our brains make two copies of each memory in the moment they are formed. One is filed away in the hippocampus, the center of short-term memories, while the other is stored in cortex, where our long-term memories reside.

You probably have experienced this phenomenon yourself many times. You learned something in the past. Then, after some years, you took it up again and were able to regain your ability relatively quickly. It was possible because your memories were still there. They just became “neuronally disconnected” and thus inaccessible.

 

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve

There is one more proof that shows clearly that the method doesn’t circumvent short-term memory. The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve shows us how fast the incoherent information is forgotten.

What we mean by incoherent is that this is not the information which you can associate with your background knowledge.

This is very often the case when you learn a new language or when you’re at a lower intermediate level.

 

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

 

What’s more, the Ebbinghaus curve’s numbers are based on the assumption that the learned material :

  • means nothing to you
  • has no relevance to your life
  • has no emotional load and meaning for you

On the curve, you can see that if you memorize information now and try to recall after 14 days, you will be able to retrieve about 21-23% of the previously memorized knowledge. Mind you that this is the knowledge that is incoherent, bears no emotional load and means nothing to you.

What happens when you start manually writing down words which interest you or when you are able to establish some connection between them and your life? Well, this number can definitely go up.

 

Keep in mind that your recall rate will also be affected by:

  • frequency of occurrence
  • prior vocabulary knowledge
  • cognateness.

Advanced language learners can get away with more

Since most advanced language learners have a benefit of possessing broader linguistic background knowledge, they can get away with using subpar learning strategies. Their long-term memory modulates short-term memory and thus decreases the overall cognitive load.

 

Is there anything nothing magical about the Goldlist method and the number “30”?

Nope. It follows very precisely the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve which takes into account your short-term memory. Sometimes this number will be higher, sometimes it will be lower depending on your choice of words.

You can check it yourself how low this number can get. Simply choose a language that is from a different linguistic family than the ones you already know. Track your progress and see how this number inevitably goes down.

 

The Goldlist Method is just a spaced repetition method with bigger intervals. That makes it less effective than most spaced repetition program right off the bat.

 

2. The Goldlist Method is impractical and time-consuming

 

Relatively high activation energy and time-consuming

One of the most important concepts in productivity is the activation energy.

The activation energy is the amount of energy needed to start conducting a given activity.

Even though the Goldlist Method has initially the low activation energy, it starts growing considerably with each and every distillation. Having to carry with you a couple of A4 notebooks seems also very impractical to me.

 

Limited usefulness vocabulary-wise

However, the biggest problem I have with this method in this department is that it suggests I only learn words I am interested in. There are hundreds of situations where one has to learn words that they are not interested in.

 

Good learning methods should work for any kind of vocabulary.s

 

And they should work particularly well for the vocabulary you’re interested in.

 

3. The Goldlist Method is inflexible

The Goldlist Method - A Scientific Critique

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

 

This is one of the methods which collapse under their own weight i.e. it’s inflexible. The Goldlist method suggests that you learn vocabulary in 25-word batches.

If I need to master a language quickly and I want to learn at least 40-50 words per day? After 10 days I will be forced to go through 20 distillations. After one month this number will start hitting insane heights. More and more of my attention will be required to keep up with all the reviews. This seems very off-putting.

Another important quality of effective learning methods is that they should automate the learning process. The method which necessitates more and more conscious decisions on your part the more you want to learn simply doesn’t fit the bill.

 

4. Lack of context

The enormous red flag for any language learning method is the exclusion of context from the learning process.

 

Simply repeating information in a mindless manner is called passive rehearsal. Many years ago it was actually proven that passive rehearsal has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).

 

This is just the first problem with the lack of context.

The other one is that almost all the knowledge you possess is activated contextually. If there is no context, it will be extremely difficult for you to retrieve a word when you need it.

 

In other words – you will remember the information but you will have a hard time using it in a conversation.

 

As a result, soon enough you will forget a word because there will be no network of other information holding it in your head.

 

5. The Goldlist Method is detached from reality

The problem with the Goldlist Method is encapsulated in a famous adage used by Marines:

‘Train as you fight, fight as you train’

I can’t stress enough how important these words are.

Always try to train for reality in a manner that mimics the unpredictability and conditions of real life. Anything else than that is simply a filler. A waste of time. It gives you this warm feeling inside, “I have done my job for today”, but it doesn’t deliver results.

Tell me, is rewriting words from one notebook to another actually close to using your target language?

 

6. Lack of retention intention

Another elementary mistake that we tend to make way too often when we fail to retain a word is actually not trying at all to memorize something.

 

You see, everything starts with a retention intention.

 

This fact is even reflected in the simplified model of acquiring information:

  1. Retention intention
  2. Encoding
  3. Storage
  4. Retrieval

 

A retention intention sets the stage for good remembering. It is a conscious commitment to acquire a memory and a plan for holding on to it. As soon as you commit to a memory goal, attention locks on to what you want to remember.

 

This is how attention works—it serves the goal of the moment. And the stronger the motivation for the goal, the more laserlike attention becomes and the greater its memory benefits.

 

In other words, you can watch as many TV series and read as many books as you like. It will still have almost zero effect if you don’t try to memorize the things you don’t know. The same goes for the Goldlist method.

A key feature of a retention intention is the plan for holding on to the material. It might be as simple as rehearsing the memory, or it might involve one of the memory strategies described later. Whatever the plan, when you are clear about how you intend to retain the material, it is more likely you will actually carry out the plan, and this can make all the difference between a weak and strong memory.

 

7. Lack of encoding

Take a peek once again at the simplified model of acquiring information.

  1. Retention intention
  2. Encoding
  3. Storage
  4. Retrieval

What you can see is that the second most important part of the process of memorization is encoding.

Encoding is any attempt to manipulate the information you are trying to memorize in order to remember it better.

Shallow and deep encoding.

Encoding can be further divided into shallow and deep encoding.

In the world of language learning, deep encoding is nothing more than creating sentences with the words you intend to memorize. In other words, it’s creating contexts for the items you want to learn.

Shadow encoding encompasses almost everything else. Counting vowels, writing down the said items and so on.

Deep encoding is the fastest and the most certain way of memorizing information and maximizing your chances of retrieving it.

If you skip encoding, like the GoldList method does, you immediately revert to mindless repetitions of words (i.e. passive rehearsal).

And we all know how it ends.

Mindless repetition of words has almost zero effect on your learning. If you want to increase your chances of memorizing them permanently you need to use the new words actively in a task (Laufer & Hulstijn (2001:14).

To be honest, I could add some more mistakes which this method perpetuates. However, I think enough is enough – I think I have pointed out all the most glaring ones.

 

Read more about factors affecting word difficulty i.e., what kills your learning progress.

The Goldlist Method – Potential Advantages

 

The Goldlist Method - A Scientific Critique

 

There are two things I like about the Goldlist method

  1. It gives you a system which you can follow. This is certainly the foundation of any effective learning.
  2. It jogs your motor memory by making you write words.

That’s it.

The Goldlist Method – Suggested Modifications

 

The Goldlist method is too flawed to fix it in a considerable manner but let me offer you this suggestion.

Instead of rewriting words, start building sentences with them for every distillation.

This way you will incorporate some deep encoding into your learning process. You should see the difference progress-wise almost immediately.

The Goldlist Method – The Overall Assessment

 

There is no point in beating around the bush  – this is one of the worst learning methods I have ever encountered. It violates almost every major memory principle. If you were contemplating using it – just don’t.

If you have nothing against using apps and programs to learn, I would suggest you start your language learning journey with ANKI.

Here are two case studies which will show you how to do it

The Goldlist Method – Summary

The Goldlist method is one of the best examples of something I have been saying for years – anyone can come up with a learning method. Sometimes it’s enough to sprinkle it with some scientific half-truths to convince thousands of people to try it.

My opinion is this – you’re much better off using many other methods. This is one of the few which seems to be violating almost all known memory principles.

 

Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go.

 

 

Optimize Your Language Learning – Limit Passive Learning Activities

 

“Repeat after me!”

 

Repetitio mater studiorum est.

 

Spending time with my grandfather was always a bit weird. He didn’t want to talk much or play some stupid games. Oh no. He used to sit me in front of him and grill me about different school subjects. Physics. Math. History. But his personal favorite was teaching me Latin proverbs.

Most of them slipped my mind.

But among all those which stuck with me, this is the one I cherish the most:

 

Repetitio mater studiorum est – repetition is a mother of studying

 

These four words contain the wealth of wisdom if you only interpret them in the right way.

On the surface, the problem with learning doesn’t seem that complex. As long as you repeat things you want to learn, everything is fine and dandy. But let’s be honest for a second.

How easily can you recall words during conversations in your target language? How often does your mind go blank?

You desperately try to recall the word you need, but there is nothing there — just the depressing nothingness.

Rings true? There you have it!

So the problem might a bit more complicated than we have thought after all. Put on your “learning overalls,” and let’s dig deeper to explain why repetition is not enough.

Let me start with the basics.

 

Optimize Your Language Learning – Two Kinds Of Repetition

 

Optimize Your Language Learning

 

In its most basic form, the repetition can adopt two forms. It can be either:

1) active

2) passive

 

But what does “passive” mean, especially in the context of language learning?

 

It means that you don’t engage with the information you receive.

 

You don’t do it actively (duh). That’s why activities like reading and listening fall into this category. What terrifies me the most is that the default style of learning, for most of the people, is passive learning.

“But why do passive learning activities suck donkey balls?”, you might ask. Let’s get to it.

 

Why Passive Repetition Sucks and Hinders Your Progress

 

Before I get to the science, let me tell you about a friend of mine. This story might sound familiar to you. Problems of about 90% of people who write to me fit perfectly into the following scenario.

Anyway. So this friend of mine has been learning Russian for over two years now.

I haven’t heard her talk for a long time, but I thought that her level should be at least decent.
Russian is not that different from Polish, after all. So imagine my surprise when I heard her speak Russian a few weeks ago. She barely scratched the B1 level.

My first reaction? “No, f***ing way.”

She’s been learning systematically for over two years, and she can barely string a sentence together? After some investigation, I got to the bottom of it. Yes, her teacher visited her every week. Yes, they did learn.

Or should I say, “learn”? Because the process they went through barely resembled any real learning. They read some articles together. For an entire hour. Almost no speaking at all. No meaningful conversations. No active learning.

Nada. Null. Nothing.

If at any point while reading this description, you told yourself, “Hey, this is pretty much how my lessons look like!” then run. Run the hell away from your teacher or language school. A visit to a local strip-club seems to be a better investment than this. At least you will know what you pay for.

 

Optimize Your Language Learning – the Pyramid of Effective Learning

 

Science is very clear about passive learning. It was proven a long time ago that passive learning has minimal effect on whether the information is later recalled from long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).

Many other studies have managed to replicate the results of the research mentioned above successfully.

So how does effective learning look like? Take a look at the pyramid of effective learning.

 

Optimize Your Language Learning

 

There is a good reason why learning and listening are at the absolute bottom of retention rates.

 

Effective learning requires , so-called, effortful recall.

 

This should be the mantra of every learner. If you want to learn fast, you have to take control of your learning. Without it, your learning is like a boat with no sails in the middle of the storm. You go one way and then the other without any sense of direction. That damn boat needs a captain – you that is!

Ok, so what does the effortful recall mean?

It means that the more effort you put into recalling a piece of information or executing a skill, the more this act benefits the learning. (Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel).

Once again, there are a lot of studies that confirm the effectiveness of active learning. Here are the results of some of the recent findings.

 

Tests that require effortful retrieval of information (e.g., short-answer) promote better retention than tests that require recognition (Larsen et al. 2008).”

 

Effortful retrieval of information improves recall 1-month later, compared with no test (butler and Roediger 2007).”

 

It’s worth mentioning that you can mix these strategies. Why not reap the benefits from the synergy effect?

 

The Effectiveness of Passive Learning

 

Let’s do some simple math. Considering the said effectiveness of given learning strategies, we might conclude that:

 

One minute of talking is worth 5-7 minutes of reading/listening (read more about the benefits of talking to yourself).

 

I know that reading and listening might feel productive, but they are not. These are so-called feel-good activities.

I always shock students of mine by telling them not to listen to anything for the first 8-10 weeks of learning. Instead, I help them concentrate on active learning. Only after this period do they start listening practice. And the gains always amaze them.

There is also a little known consequence of your potential choice of learning strategy. You see, if you don’t learn actively, you automatically condemn yourself to UNINTENTIONAL LEARNING.

*gasp*

 

What Is Unintentional Learning?

 

Optimize Your Language Learning

Picture by: Zack Cannon

Now, this is a truly fascinating type of learning.

 

Unintentional learning takes place when you acquire vocabulary accidentally. It is a by-product of repeating a given piece of information a certain number of times.

 

It’s worth mentioning that is it also one of the default and (most useless) strategies of almost every language learner.

The body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times to put it into your long-term memory. 20 to 50 times! (one of many sources)

It takes way too much time. And time is the luxury a few of us can afford. Of course, One might argue that 20-50 repetitions are not that many. After all, if you read extensively and listen, you should get to this number of repetitions after some time.

Right? No. Here comes another plot twist.

 

Unless you learn three thousand words, reading is a very slow and inefficient activity.

 

And until you reach this number, your odds of learning words contextually are slight. Sure, you can infer the meaning, but there is a good chance that your guess will be incorrect.

And what about rare words which you might find useful?

What If I need to know the word “thimble” because that was my dog’s name, and I feel the need to share it with English speakers? How many thousands pages must I read to stumble across this word, say, ten times? Hell, I don’t remember when was the last time I heard this word in my native tongue!

What about other words like tangs, udder, piston, and so on? I need such words frequently during interpreting or teaching. Relying only on passive learning activities would make me an inefficient teacher/coach/interpreter.

So there you have it. L2 Learners are simply at a disadvantage as for the number of repetitions of words. If you want to optimize your language learning, limiting passive learning activities is one of the first things you should do.

 

Is Incidental Learning Really That Bad?

No. Of course, it is not. Incidental vocabulary acquisition makes some sense. Maybe even a lot but only on one condition – you already know enough words (and grammar) to learn from context. Typically, that’s about 5000 words for most of the languages. But the problem is to memorize these 5000 words before you run out of motivation!

Read more: The Purpose Of Passive Learning – How And When To Use Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress.

 

Optimize Your Language Learning – Final Thoughts

 

As you can see, passive learning activities are a cardinal sin for most language learners. Limiting them is the first step you should take optimize your language learning. The chance is that if you take a good, hard look at your learning schedule, you will discover that they are the culprit, which makes your progress unsatisfying.

They still play an essential role in the learning process, but only if you go through the critical phase of deliberate and active learning.

 

Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. Memorizing things like “effortful recall”, etc. can be really easy!

 

 

Over 30 Things You Can Learn from All My Failed and Successful Memory Experiments

I often talk about what effective learning methods are all about but I have almost never mentioned all the memory experiments I have run which have failed miserably. It might give you the impression that this is the knowledge which came to me easily. On the contrary.

It was like wading through the puddle of crap to pick up something which seemed to be the gem of wisdom. Only to realize later that it was actually a fossilized chunk of crap. Only to realize a couple of months down the road that it was actually a beautiful diamond hidden beneath the dry shell.

I think you get my point. It was a confusing process where I had to rediscover time and time again different truths in different contents.

Of course, my process of reasoning wasn't very rigorous at the beginning. Neither were my memory experiments. I was kind of going with my gut and trying to notice whether I remember more or less.

Only later did I start to actually construct hypotheses and test them. Everything got even easier when I started learning more about memory and reading studies related to this area of knowledge.

Before I share with you my conclusions and failures, let's start with how my experiments were run.


What was the framework of my memory experiments?

 

Over 30 things you can learn from all my failed and successful memory experiments

 

This is a simple blueprint which I have used to run my memory experiments:

  1. 1
    come up with hypotheses
  2. 2
    set yourself a suitable deadline to test the idea (ideally, at least 3 weeks - 1 month)
  3. 3
    test it
  4. 4
    measure the results at the end of your memory experiment
  5. 5
    draw conclusions
  6. 6
    rinse and repeat

How did I choose words for my memory experiments?

 

This is a very important question. Some people think that any words will do. That's far from the truth.

If you want to run a meaningful memory experiment you need to make sure that the words tested are as different from any other words and concepts you know as it's only possible.

The reason is that your current knowledge modulates the new knowledge you want to acquire.

If you know English and you're learning French your results will be immediately distorted. Depending on a source, 40-50% of English words originate from French.

If you want to get unbiased results you need to test the words from languages you know nothing of.

In my case, I frequently tried to memorize words from languages like Basque, Finnish, and Hungarian. They were absolutely foreign to me and I couldn't associate them in any way with my background knowledge.

"Collectively, these findings provide strong evidence that pre-experimental stimulus familiarity determines the relative costs and benefits of experimental item repetition on the encoding of new item-source associations. By demonstrating the interaction between different types of stimulus familiarity, the present findings advance our understanding of how prior experience affects the formation of new episodic memories." - Pre-experimental stimulus familiarity modulates the effects of item repetition on source memory - Hongmi Lee, Kyungmi Kim, Do-Joon Yi, 2018

Also, it's worth noting that a typical batch of items which I tried to commit to my memory was 20. Typically, I tried to memorize between 3-5 batches.


What did I test?

 

Over 30 things you can learn from all my failed

 

Time to get to the nitty-gritty of my memory experiments. As you already know, I experimented almost exclusively with words which were completely foreign to me in order to minimize my background knowledge interference.

Another important part is the methods I used to test my knowledge. I always tested my recalls using the following methods:



Free recall

Free recall describes 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. Free recall often displays evidence of primacy and recency effects.

Primacy effects are displayed when the person recalls items presented at the beginning of the list earlier and more often. The recency effect is when the person recalls items presented at the end of the list earlier and more often. Free recall often begins with the end of the list and then moves to the beginning and middle of the list.

For that reason, I always tried to recall all the batches at once in order to minimize the number of learning sessions. That gave me the certainty that my results were warped.


Cued recall is when a person is given a list of items to remember and is then tested with cues to remember the material.

There are two basic experimental methods used to conduct cued recall, the study-test method, and the anticipation method. In the study-test method participants study a list of word pairs presented individually.

Immediately after or after a time delay, participants are tested in the study phase of the experiment on the word pairs just previously studied.

One word of each pair is presented in a random order and the participant is asked to recall the item with which it was originally paired. The participant can be tested for either forward recall, Ai is presented as a cue for Bi, or backward recall, Bi is presented as a cue for Ai.

In the anticipation method, participants are shown Ai and are asked to anticipate the word paired with it, Bi. If the participant cannot recall the word, the answer is revealed.

During an experiment using the anticipation method, the list of words is repeated until a certain percentage of Bi words are recalled. - Wikipedia.

The learning curve for cued recall increases systematically with the number of trials completed. This result has caused a debate about whether or not learning is all-or-none.

 

(un)succesful memory experiments

 

Why did I use both methods? Because they both show you different things.

"Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009). However, transfer tasks, such as the written fill-in-the-blank activity and the problem-solving task are perhaps better measures of true learning (Mayer, 2009)."

Many people have argued with me that just because they are able to recall words after using some method, it surely means that it's effective. As you can see, it's only a part of the story.

That's why it's also so important to test any method for the prolonged period of time. Always give yourself at least 3 weeks to test your hypothesis. Then measure the results (here are examples of the things you can measure in language learning).

“There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.” – Enrico Fermi


Why even measure it at all?

 


Measuring your results certainly doesn't sound sexy but it's absolutely necessary. You can't know for sure that one method is better than the other if you don't verify it and you don't control your variables. 

What's more, if you don't measure, you can't improve. And that means a great deal in the world of language learning.  Using ineffective methods can literally mean that you will have wasted thousands of hours by the end of your life.

I am not that loco and I was never willing to take such a risk. And I am pretty sure you also don't want to be the guy with a tombstone saying, "It took him 20 years to learn a language to an A2 level, what a moron. Love, family."

Whenever you're in doubt - measure your results. It will help you get to the truth.


What does it mean that the experiment failed?


Under every experiment, you will find an explanation of why a given experiment failed or not. 

What do I mean by that?

Most of the time it means that it either didn't provide me with the results I expected or it wasn't more effective than the method I tested it against.

Of course, in a sense, none of them failed. They all helped me to understand the science of memory better and to improve my memorization skills. Or in more elegant words of Thomas Edison, I can say that:

 "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." - Thomas A. Edison


The list of methods I have tested

 


Below you will find a long list of methods I have tested throughout the years. I can't vouch that I have included all of them. I have a nasty habit of throwing away everything I don't need. Unfortunately, in many instances, the victim of my habit was a bunch of notes documenting my experiment.

All my experiments are accompanied by the main conclusions and complementary articles when needed. Enjoy!


Chapter 0 - The typical school stuff


I guess this is the type of learning which is a baseline for many people. All you do is what they tell you to during a class. You read something, do some grammar exercises, write an essay and so on.


Experiment status:

It failed.


Why did it fail? 

What you give is what you get. I think I simply didn't apply myself to learning hence my results were just terrible.


The main takeaway:

Apply yourself? Learn regularly? Take your pick. 


Chapter 1 - Using a notebook

The first learning system of my own devising was fairly uncomplicated. Ready for it? Every time when I used to encounter any English words I didn't know, I jotted them down.

Next, I rewrote ALL their meanings, collocations and such from an Oxford Dictionary into my notebook. Then I read my notes on my way to school.

You're probably wondering why I didn't just mark these words in a dictionary and read them there, huh?

Well, maybe because I was fed with a lead spoon as a child. Or it has something to do with repeatedly falling down headfirst from a tree.

I don't know. But these are some of the excuses I use. If it wasn't bad enough I used this method for at least 3 or years when I was about 18-22.

 

Things you can learn from all my failed and successful memory experiments

 

Experiment status:

It failed.


Why did it fail?

The method was clearly unsustainable. It took me a lot of time to rewrite all the words I needed. What's worse, there were so many of them that I couldn't review them in any regular way.


The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

This was my first system. It was terrible but it also taught me an important lesson. You will always progress, no matter how slow, if you have any kind of learning system in place. Sure, this one sucked but at least it gave me a systematized way of learning new words and their meanings.


Chapter 2 - SRS programs

 

I must have been about 19 or 20 when I discovered Spaced Repetition Software.

The first program of this kind which I bought was called SuperMemo Advanced. It was a brilliant creation which ushered in the new era in the world of my personal learning.

 

SRS Programs

 

Back then, I already spoke quite good English. Or at least that's what I thought. To my surprise, it quickly turned out that out of over 10k words which this program contained, I knew almost none.

My grind started. I started slogging through all these words with dogged determination. I was terrified by the number of reviews I soon amassed but somehow I pulled through. I think it took me about 18 months to cover all the words.


What about the final result?

My vocabulary certainly expanded. Initially, I could recall a lot of words but after some time, the novelty effect wore off. I soon found myself forgetting more and more words despite working my butt off every day.

And thus, I decided to keep on searching for my Holy Grail.


Experiment status:

It kinda failed.


Why did it kinda fail?

The main reason why my experiment failed to some degree is that I didn't create my own sentences. Most programs of this kind give you ready-to-learn sentences. 

Unfortunately, if you don't actively encode words on your own, they will slip your memory anyway. The optimization algorithm which programs of this kind use is an extremely powerful tool.

Maybe even the most universal shield against forgetting we currently have. However, no amount of reviews can guarantee that the words you learn will be transferred into your long-term memory if you don't encode them (Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Craik & Tulving, 1975).


The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

The optimization algorithms are your best friend learning-wise. It doesn't matter how much you delude yourself into thinking that you can learn faster by reading, listening or other means.

It won't happen.

Having a ready-to-use wordlist is extremely convenient and can speed up your learning. You won't have to waste your time scratching your head and thinking what's the next word you should learn.

A good idea is to start with frequency lists.


Read more:

 

Chapter 3 - Using a dictionary

 

I enrolled in a language school to master German and after about four years I was ready to sit the Goethe-Zertifikat B2 exam. The last trial before the real thing was a mock exam. I took it, I passed it and life felt great.

 I felt so proud of myself as I was leaving my language school, "Now I know English, German and Polish, there are 7 languages to go".

The life had different plans for me. Just as I was ambling down the street I was approached by an elderly German couple asking me if I speak any German.

"I do", I replied proudly.

"Do you know any good restaurants around here?", they asked.

As they were finishing their question something terrible happened. I froze. I couldn't spew out any coherent answer. I huffed and puffed and floundered until I managed to form some vague answer.

As they were leaving I felt devastated. I spent 4 damn years in a language school and couldn't even hold a simple conversation! On top of this, I just passed a B2 certificate.

Frustrated by this experience I decided to simply pick up a Polish-German dictionary, mark the works I didn't know but I found useful and start creating short sentences with them.

I used to take this dictionary everywhere with me. I kept my nose in it and wandered around oblivious to my surroundings.

I definitely looked strange but at least I had my pants on most of the time and didn't yell "repent sinners" so that's nice.


Experiment status:

It kinda failed.


Why did it kinda fail?

The problem with this method was that it didn't allow me to review my vocabulary in any meaningful way. I was jumping from one word to another.

Oftentimes, I spent way too much time concentrating on the words I already knew. Considering that your average pocket dictionary has usually at least 15k words, it was the problem of considerable size.


The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

1. Even though this method didn't seem like much, I consider it a big success to some degree. It was then that I realized that creating my own sentences with virtually any word can boost my vocabulary retention.

Contrary to the common wisdom, it doesn't matter if your sentences don't sound like something that could originate from the silky smooth lips of a native speaker.

You need to encode words on your own and you need many words in order to convey your thoughts.

2. This method further reinforced my conviction that having a ready-to-use word list can positively affect my learning rate.

Up to this day, I remain a huge fan of pocket dictionaries. Even on the days, when I don't have much time, I can encode and learn up to 30 words in 15 minutes simply by picking them up from a dictionary.

Trust me, no other method comes even close to this.


Chapter 4 - Mnemonics


My learning false starts

 

I stumbled across the first mentions about mnemonics in an article when I was about 20-21. Even though I was fascinated by the general idea behind mnemonics, I quickly forgot about it.

A couple of months later, by fate, I discovered a small book about mnemonics. It turned out to be a copy of Harry Lorayne's classic "* How To Develop a Super Power Memory (1957)".

One week later, I was a full-time mnemonics preacher.


How could I not?

Any person, who tried to learn anything with help of mnemonics can attest to their effectiveness. And that's true. Compared to your typical "cram and forget" approach, mnemonics work very well.

It takes some time and objectivity to discover that perhaps mnemonics are not as great as many experts like to believe. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Here is a list of different memory systems I have tried.


Classic mnemonics

 

If you have never heard of mnemonics, here is, more or less, how they work:

  1. 1
    Find a word you want to learn.
  2. 2
    Inspect it thoroughly and try to spot any associations or familiar word in it.
  3. 3
    Create a funny/absurd picture based on these words or associations.
  4. 4
    Place the picture in some location which is well-known to you (e.g. your home).
  5. 5
    Repeat this process for many words and make sure to connect your pictures with each other.
  6. 6
    Take a mental walk and decode these words.
Example:

Let's say that you want to learn a Spanish word for "trabajar". Upon a closer inspection, you notice that:

a) "traba" looks a lot like "drab"
b) "jar", well, it looks like a "jar".

Next, you combine those words into a short story: you work as a slave at the desk in your room producing enormous "drab jars".

Can you see it?

Great.

The only thing left is to retrieve these words by imagining this entire situation.

If you have never tried this method, it can be quite effective. And, as you can probably guess, that was my initial impression as well.


Status:

It failed.


Why did it fail?

1. I have mentioned before that encoding your own vocabulary is extremely important. If that's true, then why do mnemonics work so badly for long-term memorization and retention?


Two types of encoding:

a) shallow encoding

Shallow encoding doesn't help you to connect the piece of information with other meaningful information nor does it help you to further your understanding of it.

It usually concentrates on meaningless banalities.


Example:
You are trying to memorize the word "skada" (Swedish for "to damage"). The prime example of shallow encoding would be to start counting the number of vowels or consonants in this word.

In our case, it would also be creating meaningless pictures based on abstract associations which has nothing to do with the actual use of the word.

b) deep encoding

The absolute opposite of shallow encoding. This time you are trying to make meaningful information between different items.

The more the better. In the case of language learning, it's simply building sentences with the words you want to learn.

2. The other reason is fairly simple. Sometimes it takes a lot of time to find the right associations. Needless to say, spending 5 minutes on every word in order to do this is pointless.


The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

1. Even though this method didn't seem like much, I consider it a big success to some degree. It was then that I realized that creating my own sentences with virtually any word can boost my vocabulary retention. You need to encode words on your own and you need many words in order to convey your thoughts.

2. This method further reinforced my conviction that having a ready-to-use word list can positively affect my learning rate.


Read more:

My system of mnemonics

 

After some time, I decided that the main problem was the time I needed to find my associations. I decided to identify the most important prefixes for any language I was concentrating on at that point.


Example:
The prefix "ent" is fairly popular in German. I decided to substitute it with the word Ent which is a race of tree-resembling creatures from Tolkien's fantasy world Middle-earth.

 

Learning experiments

 

Every time I encountered some word starting with "ent" I could immediately create a picture involving the Ents.

How did this method affect my learning pace?

I started memorizing words lightning fast. Partly because I have created my own "mnemonic picture dictionary" which consisted of over 1000 syllables with their respective pictures.

And yet, once again.


Experiment status:

It failed.


Why did it fail?

Unfortunately, I failed to recognize that quick short-term memorization doesn't equal successful long-term memorization.

Sure, I was memorizing word quicker but I still had problems using them in conversation and kept on forgetting them anyway.


The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.


Mnemonics and meditation

 

Another brilliant idea of mine was thinking that if I only improve the vividness and clarity of my pictures, I will be able to retain them much longer.

I decided to include a 30-minute meditation session to my learning schedule. During that time, the only thing I did was revisiting my mnemonic stories and making them more vivid.


Experiment status:

It failed.


Why did it fail?

No matter how clear your pictures are - if you don't apply active encoding to your learning, you will inevitably fail.


The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.


Mnemonics with SRS

 

The next step for me was combining mnemonics with SR programs like ANKI.
I figured out that if I only optimize my repetitions, my retention rate will go through the roof.

Even with this method, I was using a lot of variations. Among others, I tried to:

  1. 1
    use Google map images to memorize thousands of words at the same time
  2. 2
    use  virtual and phantom locations and connect them into memory palaces
  3. 3
    shrink my stories to squeeze even dozens of them into one room
Experiment status:

It failed.


Why did it fail?

This is where I gave up on mnemonics. My stats and personal experience were very clear about this method of learning.

It doesn't matter how much I tweak every tiny element of this method - it will always suck as it fails to encapture the very essence of learning - applying contextual learning and deep encoding.


The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.


Read more:

Chapter 4 - Traditional approaches

 

I started looking into passive learning years after I started my language learning/memory journey. I didn't do it because I believed they are very effective.

On the contrary, I have never been a fan of passive learning and I don't understand why so many language bloggers promote them.

Passive learning, as appealing as it might be, has been found, time and time again, terribly ineffective compared to active learning. 

The best argumentation for this line of learning I have seen so far is quoting the misbegotten theory of Krashen who was debunked one year after it was published.

As negative as this introduction may sound, I still was very curious how many words I can pick up and activate from passive learning.


Extensive reading


successful memory experiments


Experiment 1:

I have always been a bookworm so this experiment was quite pleasant to me. In 2016 I decided to read about 60 Swedish articles in the span of about 2 months.

At that time I was already on a C1, or maybe C1 / C2 level. That means I could read without any problems.

In total, I read 52000 words, mainly from the major Swedish news outlets. At about 300 words/min, it took me about 17 hours to go through them all and about 2 hours to find something interesting to read.

I didn't write down any words, I was just trying to memorize them while reading (without mnemonics).


The final result?

After a careful analysis of my vocabulary, I found out that I picked up 5 extra words.

In other words, I spend 19 hours and had nothing to show for. To fully showcase how ridiculously slow that pace it's worth reminding you that on a bad day, I can encode and learn up to 30 words in 15 minutes simply by picking them up from a dictionary and encoding them in ANKI.

That experiment definitely echoes the experience of my students. Even though it's only an anecdote.

Over one year ago, a student of mine who learned German decided to read the first two books of the Harry Potter series in German.

At the time, she was on a B1/B2 level. I tried to discourage her from doing it and direct her efforts to active learning but she put her foot down.

After about 4 months she told me that she finished reading them - in total about 1000 pages or so.

The result was once again quite depressing. Once she told me about her intention, I started jotting down EVERY NEW WORD which came up during our classes. It wasn't difficult at all as I taught her from the very beginning. I knew exactly which words she already used.

After 4 months, countless hours, 1000 pages she managed to introduce 0 extra words to her parlance.

 

All my failed and successful memory experiments

 

Experiment 2:

In my next experiment conducted in May 2018, I set off to check how many new words I can pick up from watching English movies with French subtitles. I was pretty sure that this method would be more effective since it involves more sensory channels.

In total, I watched about 60 hours worth of TV series. My level at that time was about B1. During that time I was able to pick up 11 words, most of which I was able to use spontaneously.

I haven't been able to memorize other words than the ones I learned before. In other words, it allowed me to learn more.


Experiment status:

it was a success and a failure at the same time.


Why did it fail/succeed?

1. The experiment was certainly a success because it confirmed something I have been telling for a long time. Passive learning can be an amazing tool if you use it as an adjacent method.

Every day you should do your best to concentrate on active learning. Once you're done and you can't din more words into your head, feel free to read or listen as much as you want.

Spontaneous activation of words is much easier once you already have these words in your head. This is definitely something my experiment confirmed.

Even though I avoided speaking for 2 months, my fluency was actually higher after 60 hours of reading. Mind you that I didn't pick up almost any new words. But the ones I knew came to my mind much quicker.

2. The experiment also failed because clearly reading was subpar to basically any active learning method, I have ever tried.


The main takeaways (i.e. what I learned):
1. "Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009). However, transfer tasks, such as the written fill-in-the-blank activity and the problem-solving task are perhaps better measures of true learning (Mayer, 2009)."

Just because you have a general impression of remembering words after a reading session, it doesn't mean that you've committed them to your memory. The only tests which can confirm involve the active use of the said words.

2. Acquisition of new vocabulary from reading will be terribly slow and ineffective until you learn about 5k words. 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). If you're hell-bent on learning this way, make sure that you know at least 3k words as it's the minimum threshold needed for contextual guessing. (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996).

3. Your ability to speak fluently and produce spontaneous speech is dependent to a high degree on the amount of input you expose yourself to.


Read more:

Extensive listening

 

effective learning methods

 

As painful as it is for my analytical heart, I have never run any rigorous memory experiment involving extensive listening. All I have are my anecdotes concerning three main languages I teach (Swedish, English, German). For that reason, please take it with a grain of salt.

I haven't done any form of extensive listening practice for any of those languages until I was at least at a B2 level. In other words, my vocabulary amounted to at least 5k words which warranted quite accurate contextual guessing.

Even though I can't give you any specific number, we're talking about thousands of hours of listening practice for English and hundreds of hours for both Swedish and German. My main listening activities concentrated mainly on watching TV series and movies.


Status:

It succeeded!


Why did it succeed?

Despite the lack of detailed stats, I could definitely notice that my ability to produce spontaneous speech and to understand was greatly increased.

What's more, vocabulary acquisition was also much higher compared to extensive reading. The probable reason is, once again, the wealth of stimuli, which is related to watching movies.


The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

1. Extensive listening is certainly the most useful form of passive learning. Especially up to a C1 level. 

2. The vocabulary acquisition rate is also quite high provided that you build your core vocabulary first. I can only speculate that on earlier stages, it would be quite ineffective since the cognitive load would be too high to enable effective learning.

It's worth keeping in mind that extensive listening is still quite a terrible tool of acquiring vocabulary compared to almost any active learning strategy. Once again, it can be treated as a perfect supplement to active learning.


Chapter 4 - Random memory experiments

 

All the experiments presented here reflect a very interesting stage in my memory journey. Back then, I was willing to run almost any memory experiment as long as there is at least one scientific paper behind it.

In hindsight, sometimes I don't know what the hell I was thinking!


Holding my urine

Judge me all you want, I did it. Years ago I read this study whose conclusion was that holding your urine improves decision making before choosing an immediate or a delayed financial reward.

As you can see, it had nothing to do with language learning or memory improvement. Of course, that didn't stop me. The experiment went on for 3 weeks. During that time I almost pissed myself a couple of times but it certainly did nothing for my retention rate.


Fun fact:

a Dutch scientist conducting this study, Mirjam Tusk, was actually awarded Ig Nobel.


Status:

a debacle


Why did it fail?

Because I was a silly and impressionable dummy. But hey! At least I have an anecdote to share!


The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Screw you Miriam and your research.


Learning in nature


failed and successful memory experiments

 

There are a lot of studies which show that spending time in nature helps to boost your memory. Some of them even show that staring at a photo of trees or a brisk walk in the woods can improve your memory and attention performance by 20%.

And obviously, that was a good enough reason for me to try it.

For three weeks in 2014, I spend 1 hour per day learning Swedish in the nearby park. The results were quite clear - no advantage whatsoever compared to studying at home.

Status:

It failed.


Why did it fail?

Because the memory experiment conducted in the lab are usually detached from reality and don't carry over to real life? That would be my guess. Interestingly, I noticed that my attention performance dropped while learning in the park. I was constantly distracted by damn squirrels, dogs, and bawling children. The general conditions weren't very conducive to studying.


The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Learn where there is a minimal amount of distraction in order to maximize your memory performance.


Emotional modulation of the learned material

One of the undeniable laws of learning says that we always remember better items which are emotionally salient. That gave me the idea that if I learn how to modulate this saliency, I could use it to my advantage to boost my retention.

I did lots of weird things to achieve this goal. I screamed foreign words out at the top of my lungs. I made myself furious or jealous with the help of my imagination and then proceeded to memorize short lists of words.


Status:

It failed.


Why did it fail?

Truth be told, I was able to remember a lot of these words right away so the first impression suggests that the method works. But as I usually say, in order to truly discover whether something works you need to run delayed recall tests.

You have to wait at least 1 or 2 weeks before you retest your memory. Only then do you get a clear answer about whether a method works or not. This strategy failed. 

In hindsight, the reason is simple - if everything stands out emotionally, nothing stands out emotionally.


The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Just don't.


Learning before going to sleep

Another great strategy which I have heard about was learning before going to sleep. Like all short memory experiments of mine, it lasted 3 weeks in September 2015. The idea for this experiment was sparked by research showing a correlation between time of studying and how it can potentially improve your recall.

The protocol was very simple. I tried to memorize 10 random words from languages I knew right before going to sleep.

How did I fare?

Not much better than usually. My retention rate was improved by about 4%.


Status: 

It failed.


Why did it fail?

I know that you might think that 4% is not too shabby and it's worth something. However, in my case, I deemed the results less than impressive. Especially considering that I tried to memorize words from the languages I already knew which was a major mistake.

What's more, if we include other co-founders, my results won't be much better than the chance. I had definitely better results with practicing motor skills before going to bed.


The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Try at your own risk - I don't see any super-duper benefits. It's much more important to have a sound sleeping schedule than to practice at any specific time.


Combining learning with physical activity

 

Experiments

 

There is plenty of research demonstrating the benefits of combining physical activity with learning. The general idea is to space your learning sessions and to interrupt them with bouts of vigorous exercise.

Here is a great excerpt from Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative (2011).

One immediate outcome of the research is a process known as spaced learning, in which teachers give short lessons, sometimes of less than ten minutes, before changing to physical activity and then repeating the lesson. In one trial, the pupils scored up to 90 percent in a science paper after one session involving three 20-minute bursts, interspersed with ten-minute breaks for physical activity. The pupils had not covered any part of the science syllabus before the lessons.

I started testing this idea in early 2016. Since I dislike gyms, I decided to weave in quick calisthenics workouts into my learning schedule.

Long story short, such an approach managed to significantly improve my attention span and slightly boosted my recall.


Status: 

It succeeded!


Why did it succeed?

Even though there is a lot of great science which explains in a detailed way how exercise can help you with studying, I think it has a lot to do with Serial-position effect.

Serial-position effect is the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst.

Why do I think so?

Because I have noticed similar improvements while taking so-called meaningful breaks i.e. taking a walk, or just lying down and breathing mindfully.


The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Mixing work-outs with your learning is certainly worth replicating.


Read more:
  • John J. Ratey - Spark, The Revolutionary New Science Of The Brain And Exercise

Learning with pictures

 

1. a traditional approach

I am more than sure that even if you haven't tried using pictures in your own studies, you at least heard how great of a method that is.

Is there any truth to it?

First of all, it's slightly easier to memorize words which are accompanied by pictures. It's related to so-called "Jennnifer Aniston neurons" (I am not making it up!) - the firing of a single neuron for a single image to form a concept.

That's why you definitely increase your chances of memorizing a word by adding pictures (read more about the picture superiority effect).

But the real question which many people seem to ignore is - how much does it really help?

My answer is - not that much. Most of the time you will be able to just remember a picture very well. Based on my experiments I can say that the overall benefit of using pictures in learning is not big and amounts to less than 5%. At least when you stick to a typical approach i.e. adding random pictures to your ANKI flashcards.

Is there a better way?


2. a different approach

Since my initial results with this method weren't very satisfying I decided to step it up and tried to check how different kind of pictures affect my recall. What's more, I also verified how using the same picture in many flashcards affects my learning.

 

What kind of pictures did I use?

I concentrated on pictures which are emotionally salient. I tried everything starting from gore pictures to porn pictures. The results, especially with the latter, weren't very good. I was sitting there like a horny idiot and couldn't concentrate even one bit on any of the words. It's like having a sexy teacher in high school. You can't wait till you get to your classes but once you do, you don't hear any words.

 

Funny enough, I remember most of the pictures from this experiment to this day which only further proves to me that your typical approach won't work here.

 

So what kind of pictures did work?

Pictures from my personal collection. I found out that if I use one picture in a lot of flashcards where every flashcard concentrates on one word, I am able to recall words extremely easily. In addition, my retention rate has also been improved, although not as significantly as my ability to retrieve words.


Status: 

failure/success.


Why did it fail?

While it's true that it's really easy to memorize picture, I haven't noticed any amazing benefits using a typical approach i.e. inserting a new picture into every flashcard.


Why did it succeed?

I think that my approach to using pictures in language learning is so effective because it mimics a lot how we normally acquire vocabulary as children. It's much easier to memorize names of different objects and phenomena if the same situation occurs frequently.

I have never seen any scientific experiments in this vein, so I hope that the linguistic community will pick it up one day.


The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

If you want to use pictures in your language studies, don't waste time trying to find a new picture for every word. Choose one picture and use it multiple times in different flashcards. Each time try to memorize a different word.


Learning with GIFS

 

Learning with GIFS

 

Don't worry, this will be a short one. If you haven't known this before, you can insert GIFs into your ANKI flashcards. Overall, it will give you an additional recall and retrieval boost.

Status:

It succeeded!


Why did it succeed? 

GIFs are very similar to real life situation. There is some dynamism there connected with visual stimulus.

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned): 

It works provided that, once again, you use the same GIF for many flashcards.


Writing vs speaking

Another interesting experiment which I set out to conduct, in 2017 if I am not mistaken, was to settle once and for all what's better for language learning memory-wise - writing or speaking?

I won't elaborate about it since I have already written a full article about this problem (you can find the link below).


The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

All in all, my opinion is that for the most people out there, speaking is the superior learning method as it allows you to practice what probably matters to you the most – being able to communicate. What’s more, writing offers almost no benefits memory-wise compare to speaking.

Having that said, you should remember that the ultimate answer might be more complex for you. Some learn a language to write, some to watch movies and some to talk. Choose your goal and choose your preferred learning method in accordance with it.


Read more:

How my learning pace changed over the years

 

Even though conducting all these experiments might seem like a lot of work, I think it was more than worth it. Especially since I have always been more interested in how memory works than knowing many languages.

I thought that it might be interesting for you to see how my quest for better memory has influenced my learning speed throughout the years. However, please remember that using the right methods is one thing. Another is that with every next language, it's getting easier and easier to learn the next ones.

Of course, even a layman might learn extremely fast if they know how to do it. I have managed to teach a lot of people to a B2 level in a couple of months with just 1 hour of classes per week so it can't be that bad (read more). Heck, some people who took my course Vocabulary Labs managed to do it without any help whatsoever within that time frame.

Side note: the numbers below don't represent my current levels, just how fast I learned these languages to a B2 level.


My learning pace over the years


The languages below are chronologically ordered starting with the ones which I learned first. I never bothered tracking how much time I needed to get a C1 level and beyond in most of these languages. The number below don't represent my current levels, just how fast I learned these languages to a B2 level.

Learning English

When did I start? When I was 12.

Time needed to get to a B2 level: 7  years

Was the level verified? Yes, an FCE certificate

Learning Russian

When did I start? When I was 15.

Time needed to get to a B2 level: 10 years

Was the level verified? Yes, by a private tutor

Learning German

When did I start? When I was 20.

Time needed to get to a B2 level: 4-5 years

Was the level verified? Yes, a mock Goethe-Zertifikat B2

Learning Spanish

When did I start? When I was 25.

Time needed to get to a B2 level: 1-1,5 year

Was the level verified? No

Learning French

When did I start? When I was 26.

Time needed to get to a B1 level: 6 months

Time needed to get to a B2 level: about 2 years

Was the level verified? No

Learning Swedish

When did I start? When I was 27.

Time needed to get to a B2 level: 3,5 months

Was the level verified? Yes, a multifaceted, internal verification in one of the global corporations

Read more about this missionLearn by talking to yourself.

Learning Esperanto

When did I start? When I was 28.

Time needed to get to a B1 level: 3 weeks

Time needed to get to a B2 level: ???

Was the level verified? Yes, by my Esperanto teacher

Learning  Czech

When did I start? When I was 29.

Time needed to get to a B1/B2: 4 weeks

Was the level verified? Yes, two separate online placement tests

Read more about this missionHow to learn communicative Czech in one month

Czech was also the last language I learned. About that time I decided to focus on other fields of science and improving my languages.

Right now, for the most European languages, I don't think it would take me more than 6-8 weeks to learn them to a B2 level. When it comes to trickier languages like Hungarian or any Asian language it's hard to say as I never looked into them deeply. Although probably if enough number of people are interested I will do another language mission in the future and will document my progress thoroughly.


Does it mean that these methods are bad?

 

failed memory experiments

 

As you have seen, I have classified quite many methods with which I have experimented as a failure. Does it mean they are inherently bad? Not necessarily. Depending on your current stage in language learning, many of them might boost your learning significantly provided that the one you're using right now is bad.

Even my results which show modest boosts (e.g. 5%) in recall and retrieval rate should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, if you're a person who is not very physically active, you might experience a significant increase in your ability to recall if just work out more.

Regardless of that, a lot of my experiments should show you rough effectiveness of many of these methods. I hope that one day I will find time to come back to this article and expand my lists of experiments including some others which I missed this time.

You might also wonder why I haven't covered many of the popular apps and learning systems in this article. The answer is very simple - I didn't have to. There are dozens of principles of memory to master in order to learn effectively. Once you acquire them, you can simply disregard many popular solutions because you can spot all the mistakes they are perpetuating. Not every experiment is worth your time.

How many of these methods have you experimented with? Let me know. 


Thinking Flashcards – Unleash Your Creativity With The Power of Spaced Repetition Programs

Thinking Flashcards - Harvest The Power of Spaced Repetition Programs To Unleash Your Creativity

Being creative is definitely one of the superpowers of modern times. Alas, various TV series and movies have warped this amazing skill beyond recognition.

There is always some charming and smug asshole who seems to deliver a brilliant solution after one glance at the piece of paper. I mean, how realistic is that?

Being creative is a hard work and more often than not, it's a long process. And it's certainly not easy.


Problems with coming up with creative solutions

 

I love to walk around the town and observe how new businesses prosper.

As in any big city (Wroclaw - see some pictures here), there is always a new shop or a restaurant cropping up around the corner.

And as in any big city, most of them go bankrupt. There is nothing weird about this.

What's weird is that most of these businesses almost never try anything to stay afloat.

I know because I regularly check what they are trying to do in order to help themselves. The answer 99% of the time is "nothing". They just establish their business, see that it doesn't work and then put up the shutters.

And I die a little bit every time I see this.

Would it hurt them to think up a couple of things which will help to save their business? Would it hurt them to try just a little bit harder? Many of them just throw a towel and gracefully bend over and let their lack of creativity take most of their life savings.

That just goes to show that maybe being creative is not that easy. Maybe there are obstacles which you need to be aware of in order to overcome them.

Let's go through them to see where the potential pitfalls lie.


1. Lack of system

  


I know plenty of really smart people but almost none of them have any system for being creative. When asked why they usually answer that:

  1. 1
    it is weird
  2. 2
    it is robotic
  3. 3
    creativity shouldn't be tamed
  4. 4
    [[ insert another rationalization - use random excuse generator]]

And I get it.

Everyone would like to be this spontaneous genius. You see a problem and bam!

Just 5 seconds later you shake out a brilliant idea out of your sleeve. The crowd cheers, your admirers sway as you walk on and grace them with your greatness.

Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. Most of the time, you just look blankly at a piece of paper and then start bawling uncontrollably.


2. Availability Heuristic

 

Availability Bias or Heuristic, the term coined by Daniel Kahneman, states that we tend to most easily recall what is salient, important, frequent, and recent.

This tendency can be perceived as the brain's energy-saving mode.

Why burn through precious deposits of glucose to recall everything when you can just concentrate on what's available?

The problem with this bias is that what's available in your memory is rarely what's needed to really solve a problem.

 


3. First-conclusion bias

 

If you want another proof that your brain is lazy and spiteful, look no more.

First-conclusion bias states that most of the time, we are willing to accept the first idea we get. Once again, this is yet another energy-saving mechanism of ours.

Remember that logical and creative thinking requires activation of prefrontal cortex which is the most energy consuming part of our brain.

Once again, the problem is that the first conclusion is rarely any good.

Now that you know your enemy a little bit better, let's take a closer look at the process of being creative.


The most important tenet of creativity


"Since the only way you are going to find solutions to painful problems is by thinking deeply about them—i.e., reflecting." - Ray Dalio

We like to think about being creative as of something magical. You know, the magic comes, rubs you gently on your arms and sticks the right words into your ears together with its tongue.

The reality is that it's definitely more like pushing a boulder up the hill. If you drop it, you will probably never pick it up again.

And that means that

creativity is more about the process than anything else.

You need to constantly revisit the problem and constantly send the intention of solving it to the unconscious (read more about problem-solving).

What's more, I believe that creative ideas come from accumulating many small insights. You can't just settle for whatever knowledge you currently have - being creative is the process of curating the right ideas, tools, and facts (read more about why memorization is necessary to think effectively).

The following quote nicely reflects this idea:

"To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practised, requires years of contemplation." - Mind Performance Hacks: Tips & Tools for Overclocking Your Brain

Now that you know what being creative is all about, let me explain how thinking work.


Thinking flashcards - how to make them

 


You can use any SR (spaced repetition) program to create thinking flashcards. The one I always recommend is ANKI. It gives you full control over your content. What's more, you can be sure that it won't disappear overnight or some company won't block your knowledge database if you don't give them your spleen or twerk.


1. Create a separate deck

 

Once you download it, create a separate deck and call it appropriately (like Bartosz's Magical Idea Deck).

 


2. Select a problem you want to solve

 

It doesn't matter how big a problem is as long as it is something that bothers you. If nothing comes to your mind right now but you would like to give this strategy a try, here are a couple of ideas which might help you:

  • help your friend solve a problem
  • come up with X ways to improve your life / earn more
  • come up with X ways to improve some product
  • think about how you can help develop your own / sb's company

Once you're done, put the name of the problem into the question field


3. Add two things into the answer field

 


a) Limitations:

I believe that placing some limitations on your ideas is one of the best ways to boost your creativity. It limits the general pool of possibilities and allows you to concentrate on the ones that count.


b) Tools/facts/information

Put anything which can contribute even slightly to solving the problem. Facts, products, tools, people and so on.


Example:

 

A friend of mine runs a very successful pub (its motif is a pre-war Poland). He has been increasing his profit for many years now but it seems that he's running out of steam.

Q: How to increase the profit of X pub?
A:

limitations:

  • easy and cheap to implement
  • it has a viral potential

tools/ideas/facts:

  • Happy hour ideas
  • Original dish of the day
  • Ask people what they would like to buy there (surveys)
  • Organize wine/vodka/whiskey degustation
  • Come up with a new, weird holiday to promote the pub (e.g. Hate My Boss Mondays - you can win X for the best anecdote about your boss)
  • Buy stuff for X money and take a part in a lottery


As you can see, not every idea is original and let me be clear - it doesn't have to be. Most of the time, a solution to almost every problem is already out there.

What's more, you don't have to flesh out all your ideas right away. You can add more details with every next review of your thinking flashcard.


Thinking flashcards - how to use them

 

 

You already know how to make thinking flashcards. Now, let me explain how they work. Don't worry, it's extremely easy.

1. Click "show answer" and brainstorm

Once you see the title of a flashcard, click "Show answer" so you can see your current list of ideas. Try to use whatever information you have there to come up with the solution. Nothing comes to your mind? Move on then.

2. Add another idea

Add at least one idea or limitation to your current list. You have to keep on stirring the cauldron of creativity!

3. Rinse and repeat

Repeat the process until you finally come up with something interesting.

Remember that the intervals between your brainstorming sessions shouldn't be too long. Always click "again" if you're afraid that's happening.

Also, keep in mind that it's unlikely that you will arrive at the solution while browsing or expanding these flashcards.

All they do is constantly keep a given problem at the forefront of your mind.

When your input reaches the critical mass, you will find yourself coming up with great ideas in the most unusual places. Although, it usually happens when you don't concentrate on the problem at hand.

Creativity is truly sly, isn't it?


Final words

 

Throughout the years, I have read about dozens of different creativity techniques but this is the only one which has allowed to be consistent. There are good reasons for that.

Thinking flashcards help you:
  1. 1
    accumulate your input in an organized manner
  2. 2
    attack a given problem regularly
  3. 3
    are fully automated

Especially, if you already use ANKI or other SRS program. What's more, they don't cost you much energy. If you have ever given up on your creativity in the past, maybe it's time to reconsider!


Your homework

 

It would be a shame to let this article go to waste. If you find this method appealing, choose one problem you have and get down to work.

Remember - it doesn't have to be anything big. As always, the trickiest part is to start. Of course, if you decide to use it, please let me know how it went.


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 22 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


The Purpose Of Passive Learning – How And When To Use Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress

 

Even though much has been written about how to use passive learning, i.e. reading and listening, in language learning, many language learners still puzzle over the following question, “How can I leverage it in order to speed up my learning progress?”

This question is extremely important because the way you combine passive and active learning is actually the key to learning a language fluently.

The purpose of passive learning – it helps to memorize

 

Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress

 

One of the most frequent claims in the language learning community is that passive learning (i.e. reading and listening) is very helpful with memorizing new vocabulary.

Is it true?

The answer is, surprisingly, yes and no. It simply depends on your current language level.

When is Passive learning useful for memorization?

 

If we take a look at the scientific literature, we can learn that there are two important milestones concerning your ability to learn from the context:

When is passive learning useful for memorization?

 1) 3000 words (B1/B2 level)

3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). It seems like a lot.

Sure, on this level, you will be able to hold a decent conversation. You will also be able to get the general ideas and concepts of most of the articles.

This milestone is also important because it’s so-called the minimal threshold for passive learning. It means that reading and listening start making sense only at this level (read more about how many words you need to know for every language level).

2) 5000 words (B2, B2/C1 level)

5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).

Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing  (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).

For exactly that reason this milestone is called the optimal threshold for passive learning.

What’s more, the body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times in order to put it into your long-term memory (i.e. be able to activate it without any conscious effort).

As a sidenote, my personal experience is this – even 5000 words are not enough to start memorizing words. You should aim for at least 8000 in order to do it efficiently.

The conclusion from the above is simple.

Passive learning can be an effective tool for memorization when you know at least 5000 words. But it doesn’t mean that reading or listening is useless before that.

The purpose of passive learning – it complements active learning

 

In order to understand well the function of passive learning in the learning process, we need to start at the source – the simple model of memorization.

The simple model of memorization:

  1. Retention intention
  2. Encoding
  3. Storage
  4. Retrieval

This sexy model tells us that in order to acquire knowledge quickly and efficiently, you need to encode information. In other words, you need to manipulate the information in a meaningful way.

Is the element of encoding present in passive learning (i.e. reading or listening)?

Of course not!

That’s the reason why active learning is much better suited for learning material fast.

However, the problem with active learning is that it’s tiring as hell even though it doesn’t take a lot of time. At the end of your learning session, you should feel as if you have been mauled and teabagged by a bear at the same time.

It’s not pretty.

Ok, so you already know that active learning is:

  1. more effective
  2. energy-consuming

What it tells us is that you can do learn actively only for the limited period of time before you run out of steam. In other words, active learning is not sustainable long-term.

What happens then? Do you just call it a day? Nope. You switch to passive learning.

active learning + passive learning = optimal learning

If you stick to this formula, you are guaranteed to learn relatively fast.

Always push yourself to the limit while learning actively and when you are about to black out switch to passive learning.

Of course, this isn’t the only benefit of reading and listening.

The purpose of passive learning – it primes your memory

 

The Purpose Of Passive Learning - Learn How To Use Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress

What is priming?

 

Before I move on, let’s clarify what priming is.

Priming is a technique whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.

Linguistic priming is one of the main factors that influence the accessibility of information in memory (read more about why it is difficult to recall words and how to fix it). The activation of stored knowledge through experiences in the immediate context can make prime-relevant information more accessible in memory, and such recent construct activation can influence inferences, evaluations, and decisions on subsequent tasks. – The SAGE Handbook of Social Psychology: Concise Student Edition

In other words, priming can provide for sets of actions, or, in the lexical field, sets of words.

So, for example, a listener, hearing the word bread will recognize words like baker, butter, knife more quickly than unrelated words like a doctor, mortar, radiator.

One of the prime researchers in this field, Hoey, states: (…) Priming is the result of a speaker encountering evidence and generalising from it. [Primings come] from single focussed and generalising encounters. Language teaching materials and language teachers can provide essential shortcuts to primings. (Hoey 2005: 185f.)

Now that you know what priming is, it’s time to take a look how it affects our memory.

How does priming affect our memory?

 

There is one main effect of priming on our memory.

We process frequent collocations faster than infrequent ones.

In other words, it’s much easier for us, foreign language learners, to understand speech which consists of logical and frequently ocurring collocations. It’s much easier to process a sentence like “I am cutting an onion with a knife” than “I am cutting an onion with a German Shepherd”.

How is it possible?

Because our memories are organized into something called “schemas”.

Schema” is used as a general term to cover all kinds of general knowledge. More closely specified versions of schemas are called scripts, which consist of general knowledge about particular kinds of events, or frames, which consist of knowledge about the properties of particular objects or locations.

It means that with every new collocation e.g. “cut with a knife”, “a sharp knife”, “stab with a knife”, your time of reaction when it comes to understand gets decreased.

If your scripts are rich enough, you can actually predict, even though it’s mostly imperceptible for us, what somebody is going to say (read more about how we process speech here).

What’s fascinating, auditory word priming does not require access to word meaning, it may reflect the process whereby listeners build and use presemantic auditory representations. (Trofimovich 2005: 482)

What is a likely mechanism supporting spoken-word processing and learning?

I will tell you a little bit more practical consequences of this phenomenon later.

Fun fact about priming

 

Priming can take many different forms and shapes. One which you might find really interesting is syntactic priming.

Syntactic priming is the phenomenon in which participants adopt the linguistic behaviour of their partner.

Yes. The more time you spend with somebody, the more likely it is that you will understand this person’s idiolect (or that you will adapt it).

Idiolect is an individual’s distinctive and unique use of language, including speech.

The extent of priming

 

Referring to their earlier (1981) work, Ratcliff and McKoon (1988: 389) point out that “they have shown that priming can be obtained between concepts that are much more than four words apart.”

They (and others) therefore raise an important issue about collocation, since it appears to contradict Sinclair’s (1991) claim that there are no valid collocations beyond the five-word mark on either side. The concept of lexical access appears to be very close to lexical priming.

De Mornay Davies is more explicit when he states: Even if two words are not ‘semantically related’ in the strictest sense (i.e. they do not come from the same superordinate category), their frequent association produces a relationship at the “meaning” level. (de Mornay Davies 1998: 394). Source: The concept of Lexical Priming in the context of language use, Michael Pace-Sigge

As you can see, priming is a truly powerful weapon as it relates to concepts which are not in their direct proximity.

What it means practically is that your brain will still be able to understand a collocation even if you interject an extra thought into a sentence.

Here is an example of this phenomenon: “I wanted to cook a dinner so I started to cut an onion, you know, with, like, a really sharp knife

How long can priming last?

 

Findings suggest that auditory word-priming effects have a long-term memory component and are long-lasting (Trofimovich 2005: 481).

What does it mean that they are long-lasting?

It’s speculated that these effects can last months or even years.

Practical consequences of priming

 

The Purpose Of Passive Learning - Learn How To Use Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress

Speaking slower

 

Speaking fluently is a really tricky thing.

Why?

Because you have to combine two things.  First of all, you need to actively memorize new words, ideally, by creating a new context for them.

That will see the said words in your memory. The problem is that, as I have said before, unless you have a lot of contexts, you won’t be able to recall them fast.

Is the solution creating a lot of sentences for a given word?

Sure, it will work, but it’s too much consuming. However, if you start learning passively, you will be exposed to dozens of different contexts for almost every possible word you know.

Even though, you won’t feel it, these contexts will be generalized in your head into scripts and will start acting as triggers.

From then on, whenever you run into a situation which fits your script, your primed words will be right there at the top of your tongue.

If you have ever struggled with fluent speaking, I can guarantee you that you’re missing one of these puzzle pieces.

Problems with comprehension

 

Keep in mind that the richer your words of associations for a given word, the easier it is to understand it.

Reading and, especially, listening are amazing learning tools which will expand this network relatively effortlessly.

Final words

 

Passive learning is certainly a misunderstood language learning tool. Even though it’s often touted as a great tool for memorization, it’s actually pretty ineffective in this department unless you are already an advanced learner. Its real power lies in creating an extensive network of contexts and connections which allow you to both recall and understand words much faster.

Did you find this article interesting? Actually, it is one of over 150 units from my language learning course. Vocabulary Labs. Sounds interesting? Then why not jump on a waiting list?

 

What To Do Instead of Nootropics In Order To Maximize Your Brain Power Permanently

What To Do Instead of Nootropics

Nootropics are certainly one of those things that capture your imagination. You pop a pill and everything becomes clear. You are more vigilant, more observant.

Sure, three months down the road you start resembling a patient with a full-blown neurological disorder. You catch yourself scratching your arms nervously while your eyes twitch.

And if your pill is nowhere to be found you drop on the floor and start rhythmically convulsing.

But hey man! Those moments of clarity!

In all seriousness - nootropics have definitely become a thing in the last couple of years. The appeal is understandable.

At the price of a pack of pills, you can become a better version of yourself.

Is it really the case? Nope.

If you ask me, it's definitely more of a fantasy for the naive. Let me explain step-by-step why it is so and what you can do instead to become this sexy learning-machine.


What Are Nootropics?

 

Not everyone is familiar with this notion. Since I don't want to risk keeping you in the dark, let's delve into it.

Nootropics are natural and synthetic compounds that can improve your general cognitive abilities, such as memory, attention, focus, and motivation.

As a rule of thumb, natural nootropics are much safer and can actually improve the brain's health (see Suliman et al. 2016).

As you can see the definition is very far from being precise.

Let's suppose you go into the panic mode before an important meeting and your colleague bitch-slaps you. You suddenly become more focused and sharper.

Can this backhander be treated as a nootropic?

Once again, the definition is unclear. What is clear is that, even though you might not realize it, you probably take some of them already.


Some Of The Available Nootropics?

 

What To Do Instead of Nootropics

 

Our civilization can pride itself on having a long, rich history of drugging ourselves to feel better and smarter. Here are some of the weapons of the mass enlightening:


Caffeine

If your head bobs like a crazy pigeon if you don't get your daily fix, you are probably not surprised to see it here.

These days, it can be found almost everywhere. Especially in soft drinks, dark chocolate and, of course, in coffee.

Effects: 
At normal doses, caffeine has variable effects on learning and memory, but it generally improves reaction time, wakefulness, concentration, and motor coordination. - Nehlig A (2010). "Is caffeine a cognitive enhancer?". Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.


L-Theanine

L-Theanine, or simply theanine, can generally be found in tea.

The amount is dependent on the kind you drink but generally, you can get more in black tea than in green tea.

Effects:
Increases BDNF and attenuates cortisol-to-DHEAS, also has low affinity for AMPA, kainate, and NMDA receptors.


Curcumin

Great news for any enthusiast of Indian cuisine.

Effect:
Produces neuroprotective effects via activating BDNF/TrkB-dependent MAPK and PI-3K cascades in rodent cortical neurons.


Lithium

Elevates BDNF by inhibition of GSK-3, which also increases skeletal muscle growth.


Asian Ginseng

One of the most famous herbs which can boast such effects.

Effects:
Improved memory, enhanced focus/attention (similar to caffeine), enhanced mood through reduced anxiety, enhanced performance: reaction time, endurance, memory retention.


What About Real Nootropics?

 

I know that you probably want to learn more about "real" nootropics. Here is a short list of some of them.


Racetams

Effects:
Enhanced brain metabolism, better communication between the right and left brain hemispheres


Rasagilin

Effects:
Offers neuroprotection via stimulation of PKC phosphorylation; upregulation of PKCepsilon mRNA; induction of Bcl-X(L), Bcl-w, and BDNF mRNAs; and downregulation of PKCgamma, Bad, and Bax mRNAs.


Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ)

Effects:
An antioxidant that also stimulates NGF. Found to be a potent enhancer for the regeneration of peripheral nerves.


Selegiline

Effects:
Elevates NGF, BDNF, and GDNF.


Lion's Mane Mushroom (Hericium erinaceus)

Effects:
Stimulates NGF


Lithium

Effects:
Elevates BDNF by inhibition of GSK-3, which also increases skeletal muscle growth.


Magnesium-l-threonate

Elevation of brain magnesium increased NMDA receptors (NMDARs) signaling, BDNF expression, density of presynaptic puncta, and synaptic plasticity in the prefrontal cortex.

The list goes on and on. As exciting as it all sounds, I would advise against taking most of them. Especially the ones which are intended for the patients with neurological disorders.


Why You Should Stay Away From Most Nootropics



Caffeine is still one of the best nootropics around

 

Maximize Your Brain Power Without Nootropics


If you take caffeine in any form, it might be more than enough for you. Last year, a famous study compared the effectiveness of the CAF+ nootropic to caffeine.

The CAF+ contains a combination of ingredients that have separately shown to boost cognitive performance, including caffeine, l-theanine, vinpocetine, l-tyrosine, and vitamin B6/B12.

It was supposed to be the next big thing in the world of nootropics. Alas, it turned out to be a flop.

Here is the conclusion:

We found that after 90 min, the delayed recall performance on the VLT after caffeine was better than after CAF+ treatment.

Further, caffeine, but not CAF+, improved the performance in a working memory task. In a complex choice reaction task caffeine improved the speed of responding.

Subjective alertness was increased as a result of CAF+ at 30 min after administration. Only caffeine increased diastolic blood pressure.

We conclude that in healthy young students, caffeine improves memory performance and sensorimotor speed, whereas CAF+ does not affect the cognitive performance at the dose tested.

And that's exactly my point. A lot of those compounds which are being plugged shamelessly by different fancy-sounding brain websites are close to useless.

Do yourself a favor and stick to the devil you know.

It's expensive

It's not uncommon to find comments on a Reddit about Nootropics saying that:


"500$ for nootropics is not that much. This is just the price of admission for finding the one which is right for you."


It doesn't sound alarming at all. No sir. Don't think of yourself as a cowardly version of a heroin addict. You're a brave brain-explorer! On a more serious note - a lot of these nootropics are not only shady but expensive as well. Keep that in mind, if you decide to try them out.


Unknown long-term effects

Even though natural nootropics are potentially safe, or even very safe, it definitely can't be said about synthetic nootropics. By taking them you automatically volunteer to become a guinea pig.

Many of the nootropics change your levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamineserotoninGABA and many others.

The thing is that so do many drugs like cocaine.

The long-term effect is usually a strong imbalance of transmitter levels in order to compensate those extremes.

It reminds a lot of enthusiasts of brain-zapping couple of years ago. Even though there were almost no double-blind studies confirming its effectiveness, people glibly jumped on this bandwagon.

Of course, you didn't have to wait long for the first papers showing that brain-zapping might not be as great as we once thought.

As Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir explain in the journal Nature, we don’t know how extended use might change your brain chemistry in the long run.


It's a short-term fix

Call me old-fashioned but if somebody needs a pill every time they want to feel smart or sharp, maybe they are not that smart or sharp? After every use, it's time for a cold and lonely wake-up call.


It's a lazy solution

The important question to ask here is:

what kind of people would like to take such pills in the first place?

There are two groups:


a) lazy-ass slackers and loafers

These are people who have probably never put effort into any of the things they have been doing in their life. I know that you're not one of them because you can read. That takes us to the second group.


b) high-achievers

You know much, you've achieved much but you want more. That's great. That's admirable.

But as a high-achiever, you know that there is no such thing as a lunch for free. Things which are worth your time come with a price.

There are a lot of better, and more permanent, solutions to becoming a person with an extraordinary mind.


What to do instead of nootropics?

 

What To Do Instead of Nootropics In Order To Maximize Your Brain Power Permanently

 


1. Improve short-term memory

Your short-term memory is the bottleneck of your ability to acquire knowledge. By improving it, you can greatly accelerate your learning rate.

Mnemonics are definitely one of the best ways to do it. Read more about improving your short-term memory here.


2. Improve your diet

If you eat like crap (e.g. a lot of processed foods) and you look at a cucumber as if it touched you in your childhood, you should definitely take care of this problem.


3. Fix your dietary indeficiencies

If you have problems with brain fog, concentration, and mental sharpness, there is a very good chance that your diet caused a lot of deficiencies. No nootropics will fix that for you.

Get your blood checked to see what minerals and vitamins you're lacking.

Not sure if you lack anything? Check your nails.

Healthy nails should be smooth and have consistent (pinkish) coloring.

Any spots, discoloration and so on should be alarming.

What's more, most of the time, you can basically assume that you lack Vitamin D3. Especially if you have an office job or don't live in a sunny climate. You probably also lack magnesium unless you're a health buff.


4. Improve your lifestyle

More sport and more physical interactions with people. Both these things will give you a nice dopamine and serotonin kick. If you suspect that nobody loves you, try hugging stray dogs. Even this will do.


5. Learn how to learn faster

Call me biased but no pill will substitute this kind of knowledge. Let's assume that you want to learn a language and you gobbled up a magical tablet. If you use bad learning strategies, you will still get nowhere. This time, however, a little bit faster than before.

Knowing how to learn is a permanent power.


6. Learn how to be more productive and how to focus

If you don't know how to prioritize, nootropics will only make you browse all the cat pictures faster. Here is a good place to start.


7. Learn how to take meaningful breaks

Doing something all the time is definitely one of the worst learning strategies ever. Breaks and a good night sleep are a part of the job.

I should know. I consistently ignore and rediscover this piece of advice.


8. Learn how to make better decisions and how to think

There are dozens of mental models and biases which invisibly shape the decisions you make. Get to know them in order to reason more efficiently.


9. Be consistent and build your knowledge over time

This is probably the best piece of advice I can offer anyone. You need a lot of facts in order to think efficiently and recognize patterns.

Their accumulation won't happen overnight. It can be most aptly explained by one of my all-time favorite anecdotes.


How geniuses are made


Knowledge builds on knowledge; one is not learning independent bits of trivia.

Richard Hamming recalls in You and Your Research:


You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive.

One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not.

Well, I went storming into Bode’s office and said, How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does? 

He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said,

You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years. I simply slunk out of the office!


What Bode was saying was this: Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.

Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works 10% more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former.

 

The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity - it is very much like compound interest.


I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate.


Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.


I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done.


Final words

 

As enticing as nootropics might seem, I would strongly advise against using them. There are literally dozens of other, more permanent solutions, which you should try out first.

And I can tell you this - once you try most of them, you won't even remember why you wanted to give them a try in the first place.

Would you ever consider trying nootropics? 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 26 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.


The Impossible Tuesday – Your Day To Overcome All The Excuses and Prove How Tough You Are

The Impossible Tuesday

We are certainly walking paradoxes. We all want to do something big and be successful. Unfortunately, very often we get stuck in the rut or in the mode of learned helplessness.

We just lie there in a puddle of our tears and weakness. Every now and then when someone passes us by, we cast them a most imploring look with a silent request “help”. But the help never comes.

It’s time to change it. It’s time to act and kick yourself in a butt. And the Impossible Tuesday will show you how.

Two Typical Strategies To Make Progress

 

I believe that maybe 0,001 percent of all the people have this natural, inner motivation that allows them to always work at full capacity. No matter what they do, they always do their best.

But what about the rest of us, mere mortals?

We are royally screwed. Usually, we are doomed to use two compensatory strategies:

  1. building habits
  2. using external motivation (i.e. forcing ourselves to do something)

Building habits

Building habits is the best way to guarantee the long-term success. Having a habit means that your brain doesn’t have to spend much energy to perform a given activity. What’s more, the activity itself is usually the source of constant satisfaction. After all, you are doing something productive every day!

Normally, this is the best possible way to do something. You don’t huff and puff every day to achieve your goals. You are consistent and methodical. As great as this strategy is, it has one big disadvantage – it takes time. Not everyone has enough patience to do it. Not everyone wants to wait a couple of years to be great at something. That leads us to the second strategy.

Using external motivation

Even though the consistency is the key, a short sprint every now and then might help your progress skyrocket. This is what allows you to grow and develop fast – short spurts of concentrated focus.

Think about a physical development, for instance. If you do 20 push-ups per day, you will get bigger and fitter only for some time and then hit the wall. However, if you force yourself to put some more effort once per week, you will keep on growing and developing.

If you learn 5 words per day, then pushing yourself to do 50 words on just one day will more than double your learning pace. Will it frazzle you at the same time? Hell no. That’s just short sprint. You do it and then you’re back to your usual pace.
The thing is that usually it’s difficult to get a grip on yourself and actually do something.

That’s why you need a gentle reminder to get off your butt. A gentle kick, if you will. Actually, the truth is that you probably need a boot so far up your ass that it will act as a pacemaker.

And I am here to deliver this kick.

The Impossible Tuesday – What Is it All About?

 

The Impossible Tuesday
The idea for the Impossible Tuesdays came to me over two years ago. I knew that I was doing a lot but I felt that I could much more. I just needed some reason. Something to force myself. This is how the idea of the Impossible Tuesdays came to be.
I decided that on this very day, I will always try to push myself to do something impossible. Something I would never do normally because it’s too tiring and uncomfortable.
Here are some of the things I managed to pull off on this day:
  • learning 800 words during one day
  • talking to myself for 6 hours in Russian
  • doing 400 push-ups
Unfortunately, somewhere in the turmoil of life I neglected this idea and stopped celebrating this day. Recently, however, I decided to revive it and to share it with you. The Impossible Tuesdays are our chance to claw our way through all the bullshit excuses straight to the finish line. This is one day per week when we will prove that we are not a weak, disgusting, spongy blob and
we can do things we have never thought we could.
We are damn tough and we will prove it. It can be one day a week which makes all the difference.

Bets as the primary tools of The Impossible Tuesdays

 

If you decide that you’re in. You should know how to properly push yourself to do the impossible. Bets are the perfect tool for this purpose. It doesn’t matter how much you love doing something, there is always some border which you won’t cross. It’s uncomfortable, after all. I sure love learning new words but usually, after getting to one hundred I call it quits.

If, on the other hand, you dislike doing something, you need a whip over your head to make you act. In other words, you need to put something at stake.

Here is how bets work:

  1. Choose a GOAL you want to achieve
  2. Determine your TIME HORIZON (1 day in our case)
  3. BET with someone that you’ll achieve
  4. Choose your PUNISHMENT in case you fail to deliver (20$ for example)
  5. Send evidence to your bet buddy
Even though what you have just read is more than enough to act, you can read more about this method here – how to triple your productivity overnight.

Keep in mind that bets are fully flexible. You can mold them and twist them as much as you like to fit your goals.

Now that you know how to flail yourself properly, it’s good to familiarize yourself with a couple of extra guidelines.
They will allow you to maximize your effort.

How To Make Your Effort Count

The Impossible Tuesday - Your day to overcome all the excuses

If you already do something, do 4-5 times as much as you usually do

Remember that the Impossible Tuesdays are all about doing the impossible. Demand from yourself.
If you normally do 10 pushups, do 40.
If you noramlly read 20 pages of a book, read one hundred. Make yourself sweat and squeal.

If you want to take up a new activity – just do it

If you have always wanted to do something but have been delaying it indefinitely – this is your day.
It doesn’t have to be anything huge as long as you start. Always wanted to learn Chinese but life got in the way? Do as little as 1 unit from a textbook.

Break it down into many sessions

Doing a lot of repetitions of any activity is straining.
That’s why make sure you always break the entire process into many chunks.
Don’t even think about knocking out 200 flashcards in one sitting. Try to do it in at least a couple of sessions.

Identify “the dead time” and use it

Dead time is the time spent doing activities which don’t absorb all of our attention.
Think about sitting on the subway or standing in line. These seemingly useless moments can usually be used to do some more productive stuff. Plan ahead and consider how you can incorporate dead time into your Impossible Tuesday.

What can you be on?

 

I can’t tell you what you should concentrate on. Only you know what’s important to you and what’s worth your blood and sweat and tears. I can tell you this – usually you should be doing the things you are actively avoiding. Brainstorm what that thing is for you.
Regardless of that, here are some proposals of the things you can bet on:

Working out:

  • running
  • push-ups
  • sit-ups
  • crunches

Learning:

Creativity

  • Brainstorm a problem you have
  • Come up with X ideas to improve some aspect of your life
  • Come up with a new product you can sell
  • Write X pages of something

Big projects

If you have any other suggestions, let me know in the comment.

The Final Words + The Invitation

 

Every idea needs a critical mass to gain motion. I don’t know if this will work out or maybe I will have to bury the hatchet in this idea. It’s up to you. However, if you decide to take part in, post your goals in the comments together with your bet.

If you can’t think of anything right now, think about it and post it later. On Wednesday come back and post your result as a reply to your original comment.

Who knows? Maybe this is the sign you have been waiting for!

If, however, you decide to bury this idea, know that you will have dirt on your hands.  The dirt that is soaked in guilt and shame. The stains left by it will taint your soul permanently and they will never go away. They will keep growing until they spill onto your very existence polluting everyone you love. It will …

Ok, ok. No more guilt-tripping! Join me in the comments! We will see how it goes and hopefully, we will make it a permanent thing.

P.S. You can increase your chances of sticking to your plan even more by making yourself accountable. Tell somebody about the challenge or tweet #ImpossibleTuesday together with your goal!

The Magnet Theory – Why Deep Understanding and Problem-Solving Starts with Memorization

The quality of your life depends mostly on your ability to make the right decisions and to solve problems.
One could think that in the world of almost unlimited access to information our decision-making abilities should be getting better and better.

Is it really the case?

I don't think so. There are many explanations for why it is so.

However, instead of delving into them, I would like you to show you how to improve the quality of your thinking and problem-solving skills with the concept of my own devising - The Magnet Theory.

But first things first. Let's start with a structure of knowledge.


Bloom's Taxonomy - the Hierarchy of Knowledge

 

Not a week goes by when I hear someone say - if you don't understand something, don't learn it. And some part of me crumbles away every time when I hear it.

Why?

Because nothing could be further from the truth.

Understanding is very often the by-product of all the information at your disposal.

Let me explain why. Let's start with fundamentals i.e. Bloom's taxonomy.
Bloom's taxonomy depicts the structure of knowledge and how it is organized.

 

The magnet theory

 

Take a look at the foundation of this pyramid. Can you see it? That's right. Understanding doesn't seem to be the most important element of knowledge.

Why do you think it is so? I will tell you why - because you can't think without facts.

Facts are frequently the foundation of good solutions and thinking.


Why Understanding Is Overrated

 

My guess is that most of the time, on the surface, it is easier to understand something than to memorize dozens of different facts.

We like to assume that if A leads to D then it surely happens in a nice progression - A causes B. B causes C. C causes D.

The reality is that most of the time progression looks more like this.

A -> L -> B -> G -> C -> K ->  X -> E -> D

It's an interaction of dozens of different elements which we very often don't see because of our limited knowledge. This phenomenon is called "The illusion of explanatory depth".

 

"People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins."

“This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous,” Sloman and Fernbach observe.


The Real Reason Why Understanding Starts With Memorization

 

Why understanding start with memorization

 

As you probably know, your short-term memory is the bottleneck in the learning process. It can only accommodate a couple of pieces of information at the same time.

That doesn't inspire much confidence comprehension-wise, does it?

How many concepts do you know that can be understood by knowing just 3-5 facts? I can tell you right away, that there are not many of them. And even if you find any, they probably won't be worth your while.

In order to see the big picture, you need a lot of facts. Which, truth be told, can be problematic.

Why?

Because you don't know how many puzzle pieces are needed to create it. That leaves you just one choice - you have to keep on memorizing things even if they don't make any sense at the moment. You need to memorize facts before you understand what they mean.

If you memorize just the things you understand, you will never be able to look beyond the obvious. The problem nowadays is that almost nobody is willing to do it. Why bother if all the knowledge you need is at your fingertips?

This phenomenon is known as the Google effect or digital amnesia.

It is the tendency to forget information that can be found readily online by using Internet search engines such as Google. According to the first study about the Google effect, people are less likely to remember certain details they believe will be accessible online.

The thing is that if you want to be the best at something, you need all those pesky details.


My process of knowledge acquisition 


Throughout the years of running this website, I have received tons of questions about my process of writing and thinking (e.g. The truth about the effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics in learning).

My answer has always been the same and possibly disappointing to others - I try to memorize everything.

I don't care how abstract or vague a given piece of information seems. I will commit it to my memory.
I do it because I can't possibly know which fact will tip the scale and raise the curtain to reveal the magnificence of understanding.

That's why I can't be picky.

At some point, the facts always come together to form a clear answer. Sometimes, you just have to wait for it.

For example, right now I can tell you quite exactly what science currently has to say about the process of working-memory consolidation. This knowledge includes even tiny facts about frequencies of different brain waves.

And I will be honest with you. I don't know right now the purpose of this information. I am more than clueless. But I am pretty sure it will come handy one day. Maybe in one year, maybe in ten. Whenever it might be, I know that I will be ready.

It might not be the most pleasant way to acquire expertise. However, it's sure as hell the fastest and the most certain way to do it.


The Magnet Theory - How to Understand the Process of Effective Thinking

 

Effective thinking


Years ago, I was obsessing over the question - how come two smart individuals can arrive at completely different conclusions?

I knew that asking good questions was important in that process. I also understood that you couldn't think effectively without facts.

 The effect of these cogitations turned into something I dubbed The Magnet Theory.

It's a very elegant way of understanding the process of problem-solving and effective thinking.

 Think of any question or problem you might have as a powerful magnet. The minute you encounter some riddle, the magnet starts doing its magic. It starts scouring your mind and attracting everything which might be useful in the process of cracking a given problem.

 And I really do mean everything - anecdotes, scientific facts, your personal experiences and so on. The whole comes together and creates a solution to the problem.

There is one more component of the magnet theory - your ego. It filters and potentially distorts all the potential conclusions you may reach. Even if all the facts are in favor of one solution, your ego might nudge you to reject them all.


The Consequences of the Magnet Theory

 


1. Almost everyone has an opinion


How many people do you know who don't have an opinion on some matter? Not many.

That's the thing. Any question you ask or problem you state is a potential magnet for the mind of your interlocutor. The magnet will scrape up every little bit piece of information. As a consequence, this motley clue of assorted facts and anecdotes will form an opinion on a given topic.

Are these opinions worth much? You can answer this question yourself.


2. Your thinking is as good as the information you remember


Remember that you will always have an answer to almost every question. That doesn't mean that the answer you come up with is any good. As the great and late Richard Feynman used to say

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.

Don't rush to the conclusions. Before you make a decision ask yourself this - how many good facts do I have at my disposal? Not opinions, not anecdotes but the cold scientific facts.

If the answer is "not many" then do your research to give your magnet some "better food".

I routinely distrust anyone and double-check any kind of information myself. Maybe I am paranoid but my behavior is driven by one simple question - how many people appreciate the importance of memorization and treat it as an indispensable part of their expertise acquisition?

The answer is - close to zero.

That automatically renders most of the opinions you will ever hear in your life invalid. Or at best they might be classified as half-truths. It sounds callous but it's definitely true.

 

Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. - Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds | The New Yorker


3. Your ego can be the end of you


Thinking and problem-solving


It's worth keeping in mind that the more somebody holds himself in high esteem, the slimmer the chances that they will be swayed by facts that contradict their opinions.

What's worse, everyone is affected by this bias. Especially all the people who think of themselves as experts or have fancy titles like a Ph.D. or a professor.

Alas, the titles don't mean diddly-squat if you don't have vast knowledge.

 

If I invited you to a blind taste test of a $12 wine versus a $1,200 wine, could you tell the difference? I bet you $20 you couldn’t. In 2001, Frederic Brochet, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux, ran a study that sent shock waves through the wine industry. Determined to understand how wine drinkers decided which wines they liked, he invited fifty-seven recognized experts to evaluate two wines: one red, one white.
After tasting the two wines, the experts described the red wine as intense, deep, and spicy—words commonly used to describe red wines. The white was described in equally standard terms: lively, fresh, and floral. But what none of these experts picked up on was that the two wines were exactly the same wine. Even more damning, the wines were actually both white wine—the “red wine” had been colored with food coloring. Think about that for a second. Fifty-seven wine experts couldn’t even tell they were drinking two identical wines. - I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi


Example 1 - Vitamin C

It reminds me of a great story. A couple of years ago, there was a lot of controversy in Poland around the man called Jerzy Zieba. What did he do, you might ask?

He wrote the book called "The Hidden Therapies - What your doctor won't tell you". It shook the medical world in Poland to the core as it exposed incompetence and rigidness of the Polish health care. In one of the chapters, he described wonderful qualities of Vitamin C which can be used among others to:

  • treat cancer and various diseases
  • lower cholesterol
  • lower blood sugar
  • substitute anti-allergic medicine

As a result, the real shitstorm ensued. He was publically flailed and tarred and feathered at the altar of science. There were literally thousands of medical professionals who mocked him to no end.

After all, he was not a doctor. So what that in his book he quoted hundreds of scientific studies from all over the world to back up his claims. He was no one and had no say in the matter.

I saw professors of medicine and oncologists saying straight to the camera that this is scientific tosh and they haven't seen even one scientific paper who proved it.

So why I am telling you all this?

Because each one of these detractors was dead wrong. There are actually hundreds of scientific studies proving the efficacy of vitamin C in treating almost every possible malady.

This anecdote is especially important for me because I have been personally interested in medicine for a long time now as it's definitely one of the main fields of knowledge where you are only as good as your memory. Throughout the years I have read, gathered and memorized dozens upon dozens of articles and studies about vitamin C which confirm its effectiveness.

In the end, the professors were wrong. The ego got the best of them.

It's an important reminder for all of us to never get too cocky. In other words - be humble or be humbled.


Example 2 - Losing Weight

Let's ponder over the following problem. Let's say that your aunt Elma wants to lose weight.
She has been buying Vanity Fair for a long time, so she knows that even though she accepts herself, she is fat and hideous, and needs to slim down.

The years of reading have equipped her with a truly powerful, intellectual toolkit.

She knows that she has to:

  • move more
  • eat less
  • eat healthier
  • stop chugging gin before she gets to work

Is losing weight really that simple?
It might seem so. After all, doing all those things takes us from point A to point B.

Before, I move on. ask yourself the same question. Be sure to follow the whirlwind of incoming thoughts.
Can you feel how they are trying to organize themselves? Or do you maybe feel like you have a ready answer?

I can bet that your first instinct is to start spewing out all the facts in your head. I know that it is typically my first reaction.

However, what's on the surface might be merely a tip of the iceberg. But only once you take a peek "under the hood", will you be able to see the real complexity of the issue at hand.

If you want to lose weight, you have to:
  • increase lipolysis 
  • improve fatty acid oxidation
  • increase insulin sensitivity
  • increase the breakdown of fat storage
  • improve fat burning capacity
  • manage blood sugar levels

Of course, it would be just the beginning of your investigative journey. Next, you would have to learn what is responsible for each of these functions.

Only then will you be able to truly understand what is required to lose weight.
And it would be a truly amazing journey because the truth is that there are thousands of possible solutions. If you dig long enough, I am sure you will be able to find the optimal one.

Do we have to understand all the things deeply?

I don't mean to make you paranoid. Of course, you don't have to possess a profound understanding of everything. Although I would suggest you do it for every area of knowledge which is of interest to you.


The Magnet Theory - Summary

 

The Magnet Theory is an easy way to understand how the processes of thinking and problem-solving work. It can be summarized in the following way:

  • Problems and questions act as magnets.
  • Those magnets attract every last scrap of information they can find to form an answer.
  • The final answers can be potentially distorted by your ego.

The theory leaves us with three conclusions that are applicable to every area of life.

  • (Almost) everyone has an opinion on anything. The magnet will always attract something which can be used to form a conclusion.
  • Your conclusions are only as good as the information at your disposal.
  • Your conclusions can be easily distorted by your biases and ego.

There you have it. I hope that you will be able to apply this theory to improve your quality of thinking.

Do you have anecdotes where some tiny piece of information helped you understand something? Please let me know in the comments.


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 12 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.


Why passive learning is an ineffective learning method

There is this persistent belief in the world of language learning that seeing a word a couple of times will allow the information to effortlessly sink in.

If you don’t know anything about memory it might seem like a logical and tempting concept.

After all, the repetition is the mother of all learning.

Laying your eyes on some piece of information time after time should make remembering easy, right?

Not really.

Not that learning can’t happen then. It can. It’s just excruciatingly slow (read more about passive learning).

I would like to show you a couple of experiments which, hopefully, will help you realize that a number of passive repetitions don’t have that much of influence on your ability to recall information actively.

Let’s start with a great experiment which went viral recently.

 


Drawing logos from memory

 

Signs.com has conducted a fascinating experiment, asking 156 Americans between the ages of 20 and 70, to draw 10 famous logos as accurately as possible. The only trick was, that they have to do it without any visual aids, simply from their memory (source – BoredPanda).

How did participants do?

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

The apple logo, which one could argue is very simple, was somewhat correctly drawn by 20% of participants. If you are having a bad day, here are some of the less successful attempts.

 

Passive learning is ineffective

 

The Adidas logo was correctly recalled only by 12% of participants.

passive learning is an ineffective learning method

 

Ok, I know that all this begs a question – what does it have to do with memory?


Implications of the experiment

 

The experiment’s original intent was very interesting on its own. However, if you take a good look and prick up your ears you will soon discover that there is more to it! The experiment is trying to tell us something!

What’s that, Mr. Experiment? What are you trying to tell us?  –passive learning sucks!

Come again, please? – passive learning sucks!!!!

Now, why would Mr. Experiment say such a thing?

How many times would you say that you have seen, so far, Apple’s or Starbuck’s logos?

50? Don’t think so.
100? Highly doubt it.
1000+ ? That’s more like it.

It’s a safe bet that an average participant in this experiments has seen each logo at least several thousand times. Several. Thousand. Times.

That’s a lot, to say the least.

Let’s look at their final results. Surely, with that many “reviews” they must have remembered logos quite well.

 

Don’t know how about you but it’s one of the sadder things I have seen in my life.
And I have seen a cute kitten getting soaked by the rain and crapped on by a pigeon.

But it’s all good because there is a lesson or two in all that doom and gloom.

1) Retention intention matters

It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t mention this – one of the main reasons why people don’t remember information is that they are not even trying.

If you have a neighbor called Rick who you hate, you won’t care much if he is sick. Rick can eat a d*** as far as you are concerned. You don’t want to remember anything about the guy.

The chance of remembering anything if you have no intention of conserving that information is close to zero. It was clearly a case in that study.
Who is warped enough to deliberately memorize logos?

2) Number of passive repetitions has limited influence on our ability to remember

This is likely to be the most important lesson of all. Sometimes even dozens of repetitions of a given word won’t make you remember it!

3) Complexity of information matters

If you look at the table, you will notice another interesting, and logical, thing. The more complicated the logo the less accuracy we could observe.

Arguably, Starbucks’ logo is the most complex of them all. Not surprisingly it could only boast a recall rate of 6%.

It stands true for words as well.

The longer or the more difficult to pronounce a word is the harder it is to commit it to your memory.

Interestingly, some comments suggested that all those companies failed at marketing.
It is clearly not the case. Above all, companies aim at improving our recognition of their brands and products. And that we do without the slightest doubt.


Other experiments to test your ability to recall

 

test your ability to recall

 

The experiment conducted by sings.com had its charm. However, you don’t need to make inroads into other areas of knowledge in order to carry out a similar study.

It’s enough to look around.

1) A mobile phone test

According to comScore’s 2017 Cross Platform Future in Focus report, the average American adult (18+) spends 2 hours, 51 minutes on their smartphone every day.

Another study, conducted by Flurry, shows U.S. consumers actually spend over 5 hours a day on mobile devices! About 86% of that time was taken up by smartphones, meaning we spend about 4 hours, 15 minutes on our mobile phones every day.

It means that you take a peek at your mobile phone at least 40-50 times per day or over 10000 times per year.

Now a question for you – how confident are you that you would be able to draw your mobile phone without looking at it?

2) A watch test

It’s safe to assume that if you have a watch, you look at it dozens of times per day. Most people hold their watches dear and carry them around for years. That would make it quite plausible that you have seen your watch thousands of times.

The question stays the same – how confident are you that you would be able to precisely draw your watch without looking at it?

3) A coin test

Yet another object which we tend to see frequently.

Choose a coin of some common denomination and do your best to replicate it on a piece of paper. Results might be hilarious!

 

What’s that? Your curiosity is still not satiated?

Then you might design an experiment and run it to see how much you can remember after one hour of reading compared to one hour of learning actively some random words (i.e. using them in sentences),

Let me know in the comment about your results if you decide to run any of those tests!
Especially the last one!


Why is passive learning so ineffective?

1) You think your memory is extraordinary

This is an interesting assumption behind passive learning which you might do unconsciously.You see your brain like a humongous harvester of information.

Wham-bam! You reap them one by one. The assumption, as beautiful as it is, is plain wrong.

Your brain is more like a bedraggled peasant with two baskets. There is only so much crap he can pick up throughout the day,

2) Brains want to forget

 

 brain constantly works on forgetting

 

You see, your brain constantly works on forgetting most of the thing you come into contact with.
Reasons are simple

a) our brains are slimy and wrinkled assholes

b) the goal of memory is not to transmit the most accurate information over time, but to guide and optimize intelligent decision making by only holding on to valuable information.

Why should your brain care about some words if many of them don’t occur that often in everyday language?

3) No attention and no encoding

The simple memory model looks more less like this:

  1. Attention
  2. Encoding
  3. Storage
  4. Retrieval

The amount of attention you devote to a piece of information you want to acquire is almost non-existent. Just a glimpse and your roving eye is already elsewhere.

And since almost no attention is allocated to your learning, there can be no encoding as well (more about encoding here).


Passive learning and the illusion of knowledge

 

Did you know that research estimates that about 50% of the primate cerebral cortex is dedicated to processing visual information? That makes a vision the most important sensory system.

No wonder that our vision is the closest thing we have to the perfect memory.

In one of the most famous memory experiments of all times (1973), Lionel Standing proved that it is hard to rival vision in terms of capacity to retain information (Standing, L. (1973). Learning 10000 pictures. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 25(2), 207-222.)

Learning 10000 pictures

Impressive, right?

Not exactly.

The thing is that this information is not something you know actively. You can recognize it but cannot retrieve it most of the time.

Don’t get me wrong. Knowing something passively has its advantages and can be a really powerful factor in creative and thinking processes. But if you want to speak a language you have to know vocabulary explicitly.

Energetic nodding and grumbling worthy of a winner of the one-chromosome lottery don’t count as a conversation.

Why passive learning makes us believe that we “know”?

 

passive learning and the illusion of knowledge

 

In another famous experiment, memory researcher Jennifer McCabe showed why students think that cramming and reading are superior to studying by recalling (which has been proven time and time again to be a better learning method).

In the said experiment, students from two different groups had to read the same one-page essay.

The first group was supposed to recall and write down as much information as they could upon finishing.

The second group was given a chance to restudy the passage after they finished.

One week later both groups were tested on their memory for the passage. Not surprisingly, the second group crashed and burned. Its performance was far worse than the one of the first group.

What’s more, students from the second group were actually quite confident that they would fare better.

“How could they be so wrong?”, you might ask.

Most likely, they based their answers on their own experience. They knew that when they finished reading material over and over, they felt confident in their memory. The facts seemed clear and fresh. They popped into mind quickly and easily as the students reviewed them. This is not always so when recalling facts in a self-test—more effort is often required to bring the facts to mind, so they don’t seem as solid. From a student’s point of view, it can seem obvious which method—restudying—produces better learning. Robert Bjork refers to this as an “illusion of competence” after restudying. The student concludes that she knows the material well based on the confident mastery she feels at that moment.

 

And she expects that the same mastery will be there several days later when the exam takes place. But this is unlikely. The same illusion of competence is at work during cramming, when the facts feel secure and firmly grasped. While that is indeed true at the time, it’s a mistake to assume that long-lasting memory strength has been created. – Robert Madigan – How Memory Works

 

Illusions of competence are certainly seductive. They can easily trick people into misjudging the strength of their memory as easily as they can encourage students to choose learning methods that undermine long-term retention.

The best defense is to use proven memory techniques and to be leery of making predictions about future memory strength based on how solid the memory seems right now!

Final thoughts

As a long-life learner, you should understand that passive learning is one of the slowest ways to acquire knowledge. Adopting such a learning style creates the illusion of knowledge which further perpetuates this vicious circle.

The best way to approach passive learning is to treat it as a complementary method to active learning. The rule is simple – once you are too tired to keep learning actively, you can switch to passive learning.


 

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