The Curse of a b2 Level AKA the Language Learning Plateau – What It Is and How to Get Unstuck

The curse of a B2 level might sound like a title of an F-rated horror movie but it’s a very real thing. In fact, it affects most language learners,

What is the curse of a b2 level (aka the language learning plateau)?

The language learning plateau is a phenomenon describing one’s inability to progress past the intermediate stages of language learning (i.e. a B1/B2 level). Typically, the main reasons are using inefficient learning strategies, or not using any learning system at all.

 

Let’s break down step-by-step why a B2 level is a final station for most language learners and what you can do to fix go beyond this mark. Time to break that curse.

 

What’s a B2 level is all about

 

What? You thought I would skip a dry, boring and theoretical part? No way! That’s where all the fun is!

Let’s take a look at requirements which one would have to meet in order to be classified at a B2 level. They are a part of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

 

Description of a B2 level (B2 INTERMEDIATE)

At this level, you can:

  • understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization.
  • interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
  • produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

 

Brief explanation: this level can be depicted as a FULL conversational fluency. You can have real conversations with native speakers about a variety of subjects.

Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at quite a deep level.

Expected vocabulary depth: you can convey most of your thoughts but you still, for the most part, lack precision. Compared to a B1 level, you can discuss more topics with more precise vocabulary.

Still, any topic that differs from typical, conversational standards will probably throw you off.

 

How many people master a language at a C1 or C2 level

The curse of a b2 level - what it's all about and how to get unstuck

 

English proficiency in the world

 

Now that you know what a B2 level is all about, let’s take a look at the level of English proficiency in different countries around the world. It’s only natural since this language is still the most popular choice. Our starting point is the EF English Proficiency Index. For brevity’s sake, I will skip the part where I lambaste the reliability of those results.

 

Countries with the highest English proficiency

 

Here is a list of countries that were classified as the ones with “very high proficiency” i.e. a C1-C2 level. Pay very close attention to the top dogs. Almost every country in the top 12 has either English as an official language (e.g. Singapore) or it’s a Germanic-speaking country.

 

Very High Proficiency

 

Why is it important? If you’re learning a language which is similar to your native tongue, it will be CONSIDERABLY easier for you to master it. Since English is also a Germanic language, it’s not difficult to notice a pattern here.

Of course, there are other factors at play here but this is the most important one for me from the memory standpoint. The way information familiarity modulates your working memory and increases your learning capacity can’t be ignored.

A good example is my mission from a couple of years ago where I learned Czech from scratch to a B1/B2 level in about 1 month., even though my learning system at that time was far from perfect. Yes, I specialize in memory, so I knew what I was doing but I also already spoke Polish, Russian and German. Those languages helped me establish my initial familiarity with Czech vocabulary at about 80%.

 

Countries with moderate English proficiency

 

Now it’s time for countries whose English proficiency can be characterized as about B2 level.

 

The curse of a b2 level aka the language learning plateau

 

As you can see, once we drop outliers like the top 12, the level drops to a B2 level and below. But let’s not stop there.

Here is an excerpt from one of the official Polish reports about German Proficiency in Poland. Let’s keep in mind that we’re talking about self-evaluation here of people who probably wouldn’t be able to describe language requirements for any level. The reality, in other words, is less rosy.

 

German proficiency at a B1+ level has been achieved by more than 53% of language learners., of which 22% mastered the language at a B2 level, 19% at a C1 level and 12.5% at a C2 level.

 

In other words, the amount of German learners who claim they have mastered this language amounts to about 16%.

 

The magical number 20

 

In different reports, the number 20 is the reoccurring theme. It seems that only less than 20% of learners of any language get past a B2 level. That is of course if you believe that these numbers are reliable.

Scientific studies are less forgiving in this department.

Long (2005, 2013) that the number of learners who achieve a C2 level is anywhere between 1-5%.

From that, we can only conclude that students who achieve a C1 are also relatively low (read more about in The Handbook of the Neuroscience of Multilingualism).

I rest my case. Let’s move on.

 

The curse of a B2 level – the two main reasons why you are stuck

1. No learning strategy and no system

 

One of the most surprising facts about how people learn is that most of them have no organized system of learning. You might think that’s an exaggeration but I assure you it’s not.

Here is an excerpt from a recent study (Schimanke, Mertens, Schmid 2019) about learning strategies at a German university.

 

To get a better insight on how students actually learn, we have conducted a survey among the students of our university (HSW – University of Applied Sciences) about their strategies and learning behaviors.

Overall, there were 135 students participating in this survey from all 6 semesters and between 18 and 31 years of age. 68.1% of the participants were male, 31.9% female.

Only very few of them deliberately make use of learning strategies, such as spaced repetition or the Leitner system. 94.8% of the participants just repeat the learning topics randomly to have them available during a test.

 

The terrifying thing is that we’re not talking about a bunch of clueless people without any education. We’re talking about bright individuals who will shape the future of their nation.

And yet, almost all of them rely on something I call a let’s-hope-it-sticks strategy. It’s nothing more than spitting on a wall and hoping that something will set. But it rarely does, right?

You can read, reread and cram all you want. Most of the knowledge you gather this way will be forgotten by the end of the next week.

 

There can be no effective learning if you’re not optimizing your repetitions.

 

2. Concentrating on passive learning

 

Passive learning can be a very effective learning tool provided that you’re already at an advanced level (especially a B2 level and higher). It can also be relatively useful if, for one reason or another, you are already familiar with a language you want to master (e.g. because it’s a part of the same language family). However, passive learning is a terrible tool for language rookies.

The body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times in order to put it into your long-term memory (i.e. be able to activate it without any conscious effort). Other studies quote numbers between 7-60.

I will let it sink in!

That’s a lot. Of course, the number varies because it all depends on your background knowledge, emotional saliency of words and so on but it’s still a very big number.

Let’s delve into its consequences.

 

Everything works if you have lots of time

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

 

It means that as long as you are stubborn enough, eventually you will get to about a B2 level. It doesn’t matter how crappy your learning method is. As long as you soldier on, you will get to the finish line even if that takes you 10 years.

Why?

Because it’s almost guaranteed that you will amass a sufficient number of repetitions (7-60) of the words which occur in a language with a frequency of 98%! But what if you want to really master a language. Or two. Do you believe that you will be able to pull that number of repetitions for the words which occur with a frequency of about 2%? Of course not.

Think of any rare word from your native tongue like “cream puff” or “head physician”. How often do you hear them in your daily life? Not that often, right? And that’s the problem. C1-C2 levels consist of rare words like these. That’s why your chances of getting there if your default learning style is passive are very thin. Unless you have 20 years of spare time and are willing to spend most of your waking hours surrounding yourself with a language.

 

 

Real vocabulary gains from reading and listening at the early stages of language learning

 

 

 

Below you can find some findings which closely echo the results I have obtained from my experiments.

 

Vocabulary gains from reading

 

Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998) specifically looked at the number of words acquired from a simplified version of a novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, which had 21000 running words. The novel was read in class during six class periods. It was found that the average vocabulary pick-up was five words.

 

Lahav (1996) carried out a study of vocabulary learning from simplified readers. She tested students who read 4 readers, each one of about 20 000 words, and found an average learning rate of 3–4 words per book.

 

The above survey indicates that reading is not likely to be the main source of L2 learners’ vocabulary acquisition. If most words were acquired from reading, learners would have to read about as much as native children do – that is, a million words of text a year. This would require reading one or two books per week. If, however, teachers can expect only small quantities of reading, then word-focused activities should be regarded as a way of vocabulary learning.

 

Vocabulary gains from listening

 

Vidal explored incidental vocabulary acquisition from L2 listening (2003), and compared gains from listening with reading (2011). These studies analyzed the effect of a large number of variables (e.g. frequency of occurrence, predictability from word form and parts) on learning. Knowledge gains of 36 target words were measured with a modified version of the Vocabulary Knowledge Scale, on which learners could effectively score 0 to 5.

 

 

Out of the maximum score of 180, readers scored 40.85 (22.7%) on the immediate post-test and 19.14 (10.6%) on the one-month delayed test. Listeners scored 27.86 (15.5%) immediately after listening and 14.05 (7.8%) one month later. The main finding is that both reading and listening lead to vocabulary knowledge gains, with gains from reading being much larger than from listening. An effect of frequency occurrence (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 occurrences) was found in both modes but this was considerably stronger in reading. More repetitions were needed in listening (5 to 6) than in reading (2 to 3) for it to have a positive effect on learning.

 

Some caveats

 

At the risk of repeating myself, I would like to stress one more time that your learning capacity is affected by your background knowledge. If you’re a Frenchman learning Spanish, the aforementioned numbers won’t apply to you.

At the same time, there are just a few studies around which test long-term retention of vocabulary for almost any method. That’s a pity because 3 months is a cut-off point proving that words have truly been stored in your long-term memory. The studies quoted above also share this problem. Retesting the students of the above experiments at a 3-month mark would surely yield much worse, and realistic, results.

Anyway, the point I would like to drive home is that passive learning is an ineffective language acquisition tool for beginners.

 

The curse of a b2 level – how to get unstuck

 

The curse of a b2 level aka the language learning plateau

Photo by Tomas Tuma on Unsplash

 

The most important element you should concentrate on is to develop some kind of learning system. Ideally, it should encompass the following strategies:

 

Summary

A B2 level is achievable to almost anyone as long as you pursue your learning goal with dogged persistence. However, moving past this level requires from you the use of systems that will allow you to focus heavily on rare words which make up about 2-3% of a language since it’s almost impossible to master them just by learning organically (i.e. reading, listening and talking).

If you stick to smart learning methods, you will surely overcome this hurdle.

 

Done reading? Time to learn!

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

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

Why Is It Difficult to Recall Vocabulary and How to Fix It?

The phenomenon of retrieving words at will seems to be almost magical. The mere intention of wanting to use any of them recalls them effortlessly and in no time.

Hah! You wish!

The truth is that most of us look like constipated capuchin monkeys trying to poop out a screwdriver when we try to retrieve vocab! It’s difficult and it sure as hell doesn’t come easy.

Why is it so?

Well, first of all, the universe is a cruel place and probably hates you.
Other than that there are some other memory-related reasons for that state of affairs.

Since I can’t do anything about the universe, let’s concentrate on the latter.

 

Difference between remembering and retrieving a word

 

Let’s start with a very different distinction between remembering a piece of information and retrieving it. Contrary to common knowledge and intuition, they are not the same.

To explain this concept, let’s look at a simple model of memory.

  1. encoding
  2. storage
  3. retrieval

As you can clearly see that first you have to encode (memorize) a piece of information and only then can you retrieve it.

It means that:

 

a) you can remember something but you might not be able to retrieve it.

b) if you can retrieve something you certainly remember it.

 

The infamous tip-of-the-tongue feeling refers to the so-called failure to retrieve error,

If you want to improve your chance of recalling an item you need to improve its retrievability.

 

What is retrievability?

Long-term memories can be characterized by two elements: Stability (S) and Retrievability (R) are part of the Two-component model of long-term memory.

 

Retrievability of memory is a variable of long-term memory that determines the probability of retrieving a memory at any given time since the last review/recall.

 

I would like to direct your attention to the word “probability”. You can never be certain that you will be able to retrieve a given memory. It all depends on a plethora of factors. But what you can do is increase your odds.

Let’s dig deeper.

 

Fundamentals – Retrieval Cues

 

Whydifficult to recall vocabulary

 

Before we move on, you need to familiarize yourself with some basic memory concepts. Only then will you be able to fully understand why you can’t recall a word and how to change it.

Everything starts with a retrieval CUE.

 

A Retrieval Cue is a prompt that help us remember. When we make a new memory, we include certain information about the situation that act as a trigger to access the memory. Source: AlleyDog

 

As you can see, literally everything can be a cue! Let’s say that you meet a nice girl. The way she looks is a cue. Actually, every piece of her garment is a cue. The weather is a cue. The look of disgust on her face as you empty yet another cup of beer and whisper gently into her ear, ” Shh. Let the magic happen” is another great example of a cue.

The sound of your feet being dragged across the dirt by the security is yet another cue.

What? No. That did not happen to me! Mind your own business! Let’s get back to science!

Saying that everything is a cue is a bit lazy, isn’t it? I think you will be able to understand them much better once you see how they are typically categorized.

And don’t worry. This is not an exercise in futility. This info will come handy.

 

Types of retrieval cues

Gillian Cohen in her book Memory In the Real World distinguishes the following cues:

  • External cues were ones that came from the environment.
  • Abstract (aka internal) cues were all thoughts or linguistic references to the original episode.
  • Sensory/perceptual cues were those that provided sensory/perceptual referents to the original episode.

Sensory cues can be further categorized as visual cues, auditory cues, haptic cues, olfactory cues, environmental cues, and so on.

  • State cues were physiological or emotional referents to the original episode

I hope that now it’s easier for you to understand that literally everything can be a cue – starting from a thought and ending with a smell.

Then, you might wonder, if there are so many of them, how come you still have trouble retrieving memories or words?

The easiest answer is that you need to use the right cues.

 

Memory principles governing recall

 

There are a couple of general rules which will help you with understanding when it is usually possible to retrieve a word.

 

1) The encoding specificity

Somewhere in the 70s, a psychologist by the name of Endel Tulving proposed a theory called the encoding specificity principle.

It states that:

 

Successful recall relies on the overlap between the thing you are trying to remember and the situation in which you first encountered it, and the cues or prompts that are available when you are trying to recall it”.

 

This gives us our first rule:

 

The more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.

 

Let’s stress it one more time – it’s not guaranteed that you will recall desired words.
Meeting the said conditions simply increases the likelihood of retrieving them.

 

Example:

Let’s say that you memorized (actively) the word “cat” in the following phrase: “a black cat”.
If at any given time during a conversation, you decide to use this phrase, it will most likely come to the top of your mind.

But what happens if you decide to use this word in another phrase:”a wild cat”? Assuming that you already know actively the word “wild”, there is a chance that you will be able to string this sentence together.
However, the likelihood of this is definitely smaller than in the previous example as you have probably never ever made such a mental connection before. This leads to problems with so-called “information transfer“.

 

If you memorized some word in only one context, your mind can cling to it so tightly that it won’t be able to transfer a given item into another context.

 

Any time you use a given word in one part of a conversation and then can’t use it in another one,
you run into exactly this problem.

 

Fun fact

Interestingly, these rules stay true regardless of the relevance of the information you are trying to retrieve.

 

“When short-range contextual dependencies are preserved in nonsense material, the nonsense is as readily recalled as is meaningfull material.” – The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives

 

Side note: Now, when I am reading this sentence I think that I need to go out more often.
I have a strange definition of “fun”.

 

2) The strength of associations

Another aspect of successful retrieval is how strong your associations are. I think that it is intuitively understandable that the stronger the association between the cue and the target information the bigger your chance of retrieving an item is.

However, make no mistake:

 

The strength of your association is still not as important as the match between features of recall and features of encoding (Pansky et al., 2005; Roediger & Guynn, 1996).

Example

Imagine that you are eating peacefully your breakfast in a hotel abroad and all of a sudden
some cat jumps on a table and gracefully puts its paw into your cereal bowl.

You think for a second how to word your outrage in a language of your choice and
then you finally cry out “I will skin you alive, you sack of fleas!”.

From now on, every time you decide to express your outrage in a similar situation
the chance of using exactly this phrase increases.

3) Number of cues

 

 

Edward Vul and Nisheeth Srivastava presented another interesting perspective. Namely, the process of retrieval is the process of retrieving cues that anchor the said item.

From this it follows that:

  • recognition performance is superior to recall performance when the number of items is greater than the number of cues
  • recall performance is better than recognition when the converse holds.

It means that the bigger the number of words you want to memorize, the bigger the number of cues you need.

 

Don’t overdo it – a cue overload effect

There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing. If you decide to go over the top and insert too many cues into a piece of information you are trying to memorize you might notice that your recall rate didn’t change.

It happens so because:

 

If retrieval cues are not recognized as being distinct from one another, then cues are likely to become associated with more information, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of the cue in prompting the recall of target information (Watkins & Watkins, 1975).

 

Example

Let’s say that you want to memorize a two-word phrase “a disgusting slob”. If you just create a flashcard and then try to din it into your head, there is a good chance you won’t succeed.

The number of cues is minimal here. You can just see these words visually.

In other words, you are using one sensory cue. But as you know now, there are quite many different kinds of cues.

You can dollop more of them on top of this one.

  1. You can add a sound (another sensory cue)
  2. You can say it out loud (internal and sensory cue)
  3. You can modulate your emotions (state cues)

Instead of just saying a phrase, you can shout it out angrily.
Win-win! Unless you shout it out on a bus, of course.

It’s worth mentioning that it’s a slight simplification of a problem as it doesn’t factor in
the capacity of our short-term memory.

 

4) Distinctivity of cues

The last (important) piece of a puzzle is how distinct your cues are.

 

In order to increase the likelihood of recalling a verbatim-based piece of information, you need distinct retrieval cues (Anderson, 1983a; Anderson & Reder, 1999; Tuckey 743 & Brewer, 2003).

 

But why do we need distinct retrieval cues?

 

Shortly, recall of one item can prompt further recall of semantically related items (Collins & Loftus, 1975). This occurs through the spread of activation through the associative links of the memory network. Gillian Cohen – Memory In the Real World

 

You can think about it as a domino effect. One element leads us to another.

How to build good cues 

 

difficult to recall and retrieve vocabulary

 

Good quality retrieval cues often have:

  • (1) constructability (cues generated at encoding can be reliably reproduced at recall);
  • (2) consistency between encoding and retrieval within a given context  (i.e. an effective retrieval cue should be compatible with the memory trace created during encoding and show high cue-target match);
  • (3) strong associations with the target and the ability to be easily associated with newly learned information;
  • (4) bidirectionality of association (the cue recalling target information, and target information recalling the cue).
  • (5) It is also important that retrieval cues are distinctive or discriminable.

Think about those rules as guidelines. Applying them will definitely increase your odds of retrieving an item.

However, don’t go too crazy and try to apply all of them every time when you try to memorize something. If anything, you should increase the number of cues only for the words you have trouble remembering.

How to maximize your chances of recalling words – Summary

 

Time to recap everything you have learned so far about maximizing your chances of recalling something. But let’s do it in plain English this time.

 

  • 1. You should be the person who generates cues

If you download ready-to-use flashcards or use apps like Duolingo and then whine that you can’t learn then there’s your explanation.

 

High levels of recall usually occur when the cue is self-generated (Hunt & Smith, 1996).

 

  • 2. Retrieve vocabulary in different conditions

If you just sit at home and pore over a computer or books you are encoding and retrieving items in the same conditions and that clearly hinders their retrievability.

As you already know in order to retrieve a piece of information we need to use good cues.

Remember:

 

Retrieval is a selective process, relying on a complex interaction between encoded information and features of the retrieval environment (Tulving & Thomson, 1973).

 

  • 3. Memorize natural phrases / collocations

One more time – the more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.

Let’s say that you want to learn the word “a bike”. You decide to put it into the following phrase which you will later memorize “a bike made with light alloys”.

If you have never ever heard yourself saying such a phrase in your native tongue then what are you doing?! Use something simpler and more natural, for example, “a new bike”.

P.S. Here you can read more about choosing the best learning methods.

 

Examples of learning methods which impede retrievability

 

In the world of learning, there are a lot of methods and approaches which don’t work at all
or which can be used only in the specific cases.

I would like to complete your understanding of this topic by giving you a couple of examples
of strategies which don’t follow the aforementioned framework and thus, will mostly hinder your learning

 

Mnemonics

As I have argued before, mnemonics are a great addition to your learning toolkit.
However, you shouldn’t treat them as anything more than just a temporary extension of your short-term memory.

Let’s look at the quickest way to retrieve a word in a conversation.

 

PHRASE YOU LEARN       PHRASE YOU RETRIEVE
encoding cue             ->      retrieval cue (identical or similar to the encoding cue) = success

 

Quite straightforward, isn’t it?

Now here is the path of retrieval when you decide to use mnemonics:

 

a big cat  -> looking for associations -> turning them into pictures -> placing them in some location -> decoding them -> retrieval

 

As you can see, we are adding a lot of unnecessary steps into the process of retrieval. The usual effect is that you:

  • a) don’t remember them after a couple of days/weeks
  • b) you remember them but can’t recall them since you have no real context for these items

 

Associations

Associations are certainly a useful learning tool. The problems occur when there are too many of them. In my line of work, I have met people who were obsessed with finding an association
for every possible piece of information.

The thing is that the associations, just like mnemonics, can at best help you with remembering the word but not retrieving it.

 

A couple of associations are great because they are distinct.
However, there is nothing distinct and special about 100 associations.

 

Another problem is that once again you are lengthening the process of retrieving a word

 

encoding information -> building an association -> decoding an association -> retrieval

(a cat) -> (it sounds similar to a candy bar ” Kit Kat -> (now you want to use the word in a conversation) it was something connected with a candy bar -> I bought a new Snickers!

Teaching/learning styles

 

difficult to recall vocabulary and retrieve it

 

I have mentioned before in a couple of articles that learning styles don’t exist (read about it more here).
Sure, you can have preferences for a giving style of learning but that does not mean that this style
of learning will be more effective memory-wise.

Sure enough, there is a host of studies which suggest that even teaching styles have no influence
on the students’ ability to recall information.

If you have ever had a teacher who hired a throng of merry and naked gnomes in order
to sing you a lengthy list of historical dates then I have bad news for you.

Although, you have to appreciate the effort, right?

 

Done reading? Time to learn!

 

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

I am on the mission to change it. I have created 32 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go.

 

Conversational Topics for Specific Language Levels (A1, A2, B1, B2, etc.)

conversational topics for specific language levels

Establishing which language level you're at can be quite tricky. Not only do you have to know how large your current vocabulary is, but also you have to be able to talk about specific topics.

This knowledge can be useful for three purposes:

  1. To measure your language level more precisely 
  2. To choose a conversational subject for your lessons or speak-to-yourself sessions
  3. To be well-prepared for official certificates

If you fail to meet these conversational requirements, it can be quite difficult to pass appropriate exams. 

Read more: How To Learn German From Scratch To A B2 Level In 5 months: A Case Study

Of course, if you just learn for fun or you don't need official papers, you shouldn't worry too much about being able to talk about all those topics.

Let's dive right in and learn what they are.


Conversational Topics for Specific Language Levels 


A1 - BREAKTHROUGH (requirements)


  • Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type.
  • Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has.
  • Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.
  • Let's be honest. You don't know much at this level and not much is expected of you. Still, you should be able to discuss the following topics.


    Expected conversational depth level: very superficial
    Expected vocabulary depth: everyone is happy that you know any words at all and that you can string them into semi-coherent sentences.


    A1 Conversational topics


    1.  Personal information and introductions
    2.  Offers and requests (can you ..., do you want to ... ?)
    3.  Free time and daily routines
    4.  Past events, first times, important events in your life (e.g. describing what you did last weekend)
    5.  Describing places, homes (... is big/small/red/etc.)
    6.  Shopping, food (e.g. ordering something at the restaurant)
    7.  Work/study life (What do you do _______?)
    8.  Describe people
    9.  Getting around
    10.  Suggestions/arrangements to meet (e.g. inviting someone somewhere)
    11.  Journeys/visiting places/means of transport


    A2 - WAYSTAGE (requirements)


  • Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment).
  • Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.
  • Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment, and matters in areas of immediate need.
  • You know simple words, phrases with very limited reading skills and cannot keep up with conversations in the language. You still second guess your choice of words and constantly refer to guidelines.


    Expected conversational depth level: superficial,
    Expected vocabulary depth: you should know the most basic of all the words. No fancy or precise vocabulary belongs is expected of you.


    A2 Conversational topics


    Here are conversational topics you should be able to talk about at this level (source):

    1.  The individual* personal particulars* appearance* clothing* daily routine
    2.  Partnership* family* relatives* acquaintances, friends* classmates/ colleagues
    3.  Family* family members* family occasions /celebrations
    4.  Place of living* house/flat* furnishing of the living-room /bedroom* kitchen furniture, gadgets* the street, the town* (sharing the housework)
    5.  Traveling/transport* means of transport* timetable/information* buying tickets (bus, train, plane)* traveling documents
    6.  Shopping/shops* shops* special shops* electronics* markets* grocery* clothes shops* departments in a shopping center
    7.  Communication/keeping in contact* post (letter, postcard)* telephone / fax* text messages, e-mails
    8.  Services* restaurant (menu, ordering, paying)* hotel (booking, paying)
    9.  Culture/entertainment–* free time activities* guests* cinemas* theatres* museums* concerts
    10.  Time/weather* seasons* weather* rainy weather/winter weather/snowing
    11.  Health/illnesses* at the pediatrician’s* at the doctor’s* at the dentist’s* some common illnesses(flu, cold)* medication* at the chemist’s
    12.  Sport* popular sports* football* athletics* doing sports* sport and hobby
    13.  Media* television* radio* newspapers* magazines
    14.  Hobby* reading* listening to music* computer games* the candidate’s favorite pastime
    15.  Studying/work* subjects* popular professions* workplaces* colleagues / school-friends* daily routine at home / at work


    Here are sample A2 speaking tests:

    Here is an excerpt from a German A2 exam (passed by those candidates). Even if you don't know any German, just pay attention to the pace of this conversation. If you do, notice the simplicity of the vocabulary which is being used.


    B1 - THRESHOLD (requirements)

     conversational topics

    Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash


  • Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
  • Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst traveling in an area where the language is spoken.
  • Can produce simple connected text on familiar topics or the ones of personal interest.
  • Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
  • This is the level which most people think of when they hear "conversational fluency". The gist of this level is that you can participate in a simplified conversation about popular topics.

    Notice that topic-wise, this level is not that different from an A2. The main difference is that your vocabulary is bigger and hence you can talk about these subjects at a slightly deeper level.


    Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at a slightly deep level
    Expected vocabulary depth: you can convey many of your thoughts but you lack precision. Think "It's bad that people like" rather than "it's infuriating that people can be such mendacious scum"


    B1 Conversational topics


    Here are conversational topics you should be able to talk about at this level (source, source 2):

    1.  The individual* personal particulars* appearance* inner characteristics* casual / evening wear
    2. Partnership* relatives, friends* acquaintances, neighbors* classmates/schoolmates/colleagues
    3.  Family* family members* family occasions/celebrations* distribution of tasks in the family
    4.  Place of living* house/block house/flat* furnishing/gadgets of the rooms* furnishing/gadgets of the kitchen and the bathroom* rent and bills* housework
    5.  Traveling/transport* means of transport* public transport* timetable/information* buying tickets/preparation for a journey* traveling abroad/traveling documents
    6.  Shopping/shops* shops/markets* department stores / departments* groceries/household goods* clothing* electric appliances
    7.  Communication/keeping in contact* post (letter, telegram, parcel)* telephone (traditional, mobile, text messages)* Internet (e-mail, Skype, chat)
    8.  Services* financial services (transfer, exchange)* restaurant (menu, ordering, paying)* hotel (booking, paying)
    9.  Culture/entertainment* guests* cinemas* theaters* museums* concerts* library (school, at home, public)
    10.  Time/weather* seasons/weather* weather forecast
    11.  Health/illnesses
      eating and drinking
      at the doctor’s* common illnesses and their symptoms* prescriptions / medication /pharmacy
    12.  Sport* popular sports* national sports* doing sports
    13.  Media* television* radio* newspapers / magazines
    14.  Hobby* gardening / DIY* reading / listening to music* computer
    15.  Studying/work* types of schools* subjects* popular professions/workplaces* daily routine
    16.  European Union* members of the EU* travelling / work / mobility
    17.  Culture and civilization* basic practical information regarding the home country and the target language country (weather, currency, eating habits, daily routine, celebrations, shopping opportunities, etc)* tourist attractions* accommodation / restaurants
    18. Holidays and celebrations


    Here are sample B1 speaking tests:


    • In English

    I find this one especially fitting if you want to understand what this level is all about


    • In German


    B2 - INTERMEDIATE (requirements)

    Photo by Ben White on Unsplash


  • Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization.
  • Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
  • Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options
  • This level can be depicted as a FULL conversational fluency. You can have real conversations with native speakers about a variety of subjects.


    Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at quite a deep level
    Expected vocabulary depth: you can convey most of your thoughts but you still, for the most part, lack precision. Compared to a B1 level, you can discuss more topics with more precise vocabulary.


    B2 Conversational topics


    Here are conversational topics you should be able to talk about at this level (source and source 2):

    1.  The individual* behavioral patterns* fashion/clothing/cosmetics
    2.  Partnership* making friends (in person, on the net, etc.)* roles in the family* contacts at work / at school
    3.  Family* family/bringing up children* relationship of generations / living together* marriage/forms of partnership
    4.  Place of living* rental/property/lodgings* buying a flat/buying on credit /renovation* way of living in a town and a village
    5.  Traveling/transport* driving/highway codes* walking, riding the bike* reasons/forms of traveling abroad
    6.  Shopping/shops* shopping habits/commercials, ads* chains/shopping by mail* retail shops versus shopping centers
    7.  Communication/keeping in contact –* reasons for the popularity of mobiles* the role of language knowledge in communication* the increasing dominance of the English language
    8.  Services* car rental / travel agencies* repairs / guarantees
    9.  Culture/entertainment* books versus Internet* cinema, theatre versus TV, video, DVD* he Internet and the social networking sites
    10.  Time/weather* role and accurateness of forecasts* relationship between climate and flora/fauna
    11.  Health/illnesses* outpatient department / hospital / specialists* nature cure – medicines* prevention / screening* healthy diet
    12.  Sport* doing sports – healthy lifestyle –dangerous/extreme sports* ball games / team sports / rules* water sports/winter sports* Olympic Games
    13.  Media* features of newspapers, their columns* sensation and news
    14.  Hobby* pursuing amateur arts* clubs (sport, cultural, professional)* hobby and work* modern/peculiar hobbies
    15.  Studying/work* language knowledge / skills / career* equal chances in education / finding a workplace* unemployment* exchange programs / scholarships abroad / professional development* new forms of studying
    16.  European Union* work in the EU* language teaching/language knowledge/work opportunities in the EU
    17.  Culture and civilization The home country and the target language country* population / ethnic minorities* historic traditions / monuments / cultural values* artistic / ethnographic characteristics
    18.  Public life* public institutions / personal documents* public safety* national holidays
    19.  Environmental protection* pollution (air, water, soil, et)* selective waste management* recycling* alternative sources of energy
    20.  Current topics/events* public life / politics / NGOs* economy
    21.  Education system


    Here are sample B2 speaking tests:


    • In English ​
    • In German 



    C1 - ADVANCED/PROFICIENT (requirements)


  • He/she can understand a wide range of more demanding, longer texts, and recognize implicit meaning in them.
  • He/she can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for the right expression.
  • He/she can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.
  • He/she can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing the correct use of organizational patterns, connectors, and cohesive devices.
  • In linguistic terms, proficiency does not translate to the same meaning as fluent. To state you are proficient means you are comfortable with the use of the language in spoken and written form but not at the same level as a native speaker.

    Read more: The Word Substitution Technique – How To Increase Your Vocabulary Size Considerably.


    Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at a (very) deep level (depending on a subject)
    Expected vocabulary depth: not only can you convey almost every thought but your language is also becoming more and more natural. You start using idioms and distinguishing between different shades of meaning of many words.


    C1 Conversational topics


    Here are conversational topics you should be able to talk about at this level (source):

    1.  The individual* ambition/career building* the individual and the society* problems of social integration
    2.  Partnership* forms of partnership* nationalities/minorities
    3.  Family* the social status of families / the system of family allowances* family/career
    4.  Place of living* housing situation/difficulties in building a house* homelessness / its causes/ problems* housing and mobility
    5.  Traveling/transport* problems of city traffic / public transport versus using cars* transport and environmental protection* tourism as a source of income* development in transport / its aspects
    6.  Shopping/shops* consumers’ society* buying on credit/with credit cards/on the Internet* shopping tourism
    7.  Communication/keeping in contact* the Internet in business communication* Fax, e-mail versus traditional letter writing* less widely used languages versus English
    8.  Services* quality/guarantee of services* role, significance of services* electronic services / online ordering
    9.  Culture/entertainment* role of arts in the past and present* public collections and their maintenance / art / historic relics / monuments* mentorship / sponsorship / advertising
    10.  Time/weather* natural catastrophes and their consequences* hole in the ozone layer/dangers of global warming
    11.  Health/illnesses* science/research serving medical care / genetics* alternative methods of healing* health tourism
    12.  Sport* first-class sports – mass sports/doping* professionalism in sports / amateur sports / extreme sports* sport and women (chess, boxing, weightlifting, football)* sport and commercials
    13.  Media* objectivity / impartiality of providing information*  stars / celebrities
    14.  Hobby* promoting traditions* exclusive hobbies (golf, horse riding, scuba diving, etc.)* hobby and/or professionalism?
    15.  Studying/work* (over) qualification/chances on the work market* lifelong education* finding work/mobility* chances of the underprivileged
    16.  European Union* the role of the EU in world politics* common / national currency
    17.  Culture and civilization The home country and the target language country* fame/recognition in the world / their relationship to each other* their image* differences in traditions / customs / ideology
    18.  Public life* the purity of public life / corruption* political parties / elections / referendum
    19.  Environmental protection* prevention in environmental protection* environmental catastrophes and their consequences
    20.  Current topics/events* public life / politics / NGOs* economy / arts / sports
    21.  Globalization* uniformity (dressing, eating, culture, consumer products, etc.)* globalization / maintaining national characteristics
    22.  Current questions on ethics* animal experiments* nuclear experiments
    23.  Current questions on economy/society–* smuggling: goods/people* smoking/dangers of drug addiction


    Here are sample C1 speaking tests:


    • In English


    • In German


    C2 - MASTERY (requirements)

    Photo by Ashton Mullins on Unsplash


  • Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
  • Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
  • Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.
  • C2 Conversational topics


    No need to waste my breath, or fingertips, here. At this level, you are absolutely fluent and can talk about almost everything. No wonder! You're approaching the level presented by well-educated-native speakers.

    My only advice for you at this level is to dive into details of any topic you decide to discuss. You need to put in lots of effort to activate all those obscure words. Don't talk just about shopping. Discuss "high-impact strategies to increase a wholesale diversification". Or, you know, something of this sort.


    Conversational Topics for Specific Language Levels - Summary


    Knowing conversational topics for specific language levels is crucial if you want to pass any official certificate. Even more so if you decide to do it on your own. Such knowledge allows you to shield yourself from any unpleasant surprises during the speaking part of an exam.

    However, if you feel no need to obtain any official documents, knowing conversational topics for specific language levels can help you prepare better for your lessons or even give you lots of question ideas for your self-talk!


    Listening Comprehension in a Foreign Language – 12 Ways to Improve It

    Listening comprehension in a foreign language

    Improving listening comprehension in a foreign language is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most challenging skills to master. The amount of time needed to understand a language is enormous. Unfortunately, not everyone succeeds in this field.

    Not everyone reaches the finish line and has the pleasure of saying, "I understand most of everything I hear."

    On the contrary, the bodies of poor souls who surrendered along the way colorfully decorate the entire length of the route. Everyone has their theory of why they failed.
    "My ears are too small." 
    "I can't listen to German for long because I start to sob."

    And who knows, maybe the above is partially true. However, these reasons are not as important as the list you are about to see.

    Here are 12 reasons why you have trouble understanding a foreign language.


    LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - 12 COMMON ISSUES AND WAYS TO SOLVE THEM

    Understanding a spoken word is complex. It's affected by many factors.

    LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - 12 COMMON ISSUES AND WAYS TO SOLVE THEM

    1. Limited vocabulary

    7. Lack of concentration

    2. Problems with pronunciation

    8. Problems with interpretation/culture

    3. Trying to understand everything

    9. Problems with natural (i.e. colloquial) speech

    4. Insufficient listening practice

    10. No visual support

    5. Too fast a pace

    11. Passive listening

    6. One-time listening to recordings

    12. Insufficient knowledge of grammar

    1. LIMITED VOCABULARY 


    Insufficient knowledge of vocabulary is one of the main culprits. No wonder you have trouble understanding if your vocabulary is very limited! As you listen, each word and phrase at your disposal becomes your foothold.

    Think of it as a puzzle - the more elements that fill the outline of an image, the easier it is to see what the picture is. Similarly, when listening, each subsequent word allows you to understand better what the general meaning/message of a given conversation or recording is.

    There are two significant milestones for most languages:


    1st milestone - 3000 words

    Knowledge of the 3000 most frequently used words in a foreign language allows understanding of 95% of texts and conversations (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). It is worth remembering that, in this case, we count one word as all variations of a given word and its family of words.

    For example: "run," "running," and "runner" are counted as one word by this classification.


    2nd milestone  - 5000 words

    Knowledge of the 5000 most-used words in a foreign language allows understanding of 98% of texts and conversations ((Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).


    The minimum vocabulary required to listen effectively

    If you want to be sure that you will understand to some degree recordings and conversations of all kinds, you should aim for a vocabulary of at least 2.5 - 3 thousand words. But as always - the more, the better!

    So you don't know that many words? Come on, get to work! Don't be lazy!


    2) PROBLEMS WITH PRONUNCIATION


    Listening comprehension in a foreign language 12 ways to improve it



    Issues with pronunciations are one of the hidden reasons why your understanding suffers; hence, many people are entirely unaware of it. 


    How does sloppy pronunciation cause difficulties in understanding?


    (I) Incorrect phonological representations

    Each of us, as part of the so-called phonological memory, uses phonological representations.


    A phonological representation is the way you think a word sounds.


    If your phonological representation largely coincides with the actual pronunciation of the word, then everything is fine, and your brain should recognize the word.

    It is worse when your interpretation of the pronunciation of a word completely diverges from its actual pronunciation. The result is a complete lack of understanding, although you often KNOW the word (Rixon 1986: 38). You pronounce it in your "specific" way.

    For example, if in your head the pronunciation of the word "gist" sounds like / gɪst / with a hard " g," then you may not completely understand it when you hear its correct pronunciation / ʤɪst/.


    (II) Lack of knowledge about assimilations


    A separate problem is the so-called phonetic assimilation phenomenon


    Phonetic similarity (phonetic assimilation) - a common phonetic process in which a sound changes to be more similar to a neighboring sound. The essence of every phonetic preference is coarticulation, whose mechanism of action is the influence of a given sound on the articulation of sounds that are adjacent to it. - Wikipedia

    Assimilation simply means that the pronunciation of a letter can change due to the letter before or after it.

    A typical example of assimilation in a language is when a word ends in a consonant, and the other begins in a vowel. Most often, such words "merge" in pronunciation and are pronounced as one.


    E.g. "It is", which we pronounce as / ɪtɪz / /, not / ɪt ɪz /.


    How to deal with these problems?


    I) Try to accurately internalize the pronunciation of the words you learn

    It will affect not only your ability to understand, but also your ability to learn vocabulary. As research shows (Fowler, 1991; Pierce et al. 2017), phonological representations can affect your coding ability, which is an early step in the process of learning and remembering words.


    II) Learn the pronunciation and the International Phonetic Alphabet of the language

    I know that most people won't do it, but I recommend delving into the sounds of your target language.

    It's worth knowing which of them are in your native language and which are not. With this knowledge, you'll know which ones require your special attention.

    Read more: Master Pronunciation of a Foreign Language.


    3) TRYING TO UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING

    Great, you're ambitious, but the level of ambition should be in proportion to your current level of capability. Efforts to understand everything do not make sense if, after the first hearing of the recording, you do not know whether the conversation is about politics or whether they offend you. 

    Listen for the gist, and only then for details - it is the best strategy.

    Attempts to pick out individual words by ear make sense only when you can understand the overall meaning of the recording.

    If you have not reached this point yet, it is worth listening to the recording again.


    4) INSUFFICIENT LISTENING PRACTICE


    Good listening comprehension in a foreign language is the most time-consuming language competence. Don't expect 20 minutes of listening a day to work wonders. You should aim for a minimum of 1 hour of listening per day!

    I can already hear those moans: "Well, he's crazy! More than 20 minutes! Lord, I have a life! "

    Contrary to appearances, it is not so difficult. All you have to do is plan your day well. After all, you can listen to music or recordings almost anywhere! At home, gym, shop, commuting, and often even at work!


    5) TOO FAST A PACE



    Many people feel that one of the biggest obstacles preventing them from understanding a language well is the high rate of influx when listening.A constant stream of words creates the impression that you always miss essential information, which can make you unnecessarily stressed. Fortunately, it is quite easy to get rid of this problem these days.


    (I) Manipulation of the recording speed

    Almost every movie and music player nowadays is equipped with speed control. YouTube is a good example. If the average tempo of the recording prevents you from understanding, lower the speed to 0.75. You should immediately notice a big difference.


    (II) The word "please."

    In the case of conversations with foreigners, the matter is even more straightforward - ask them to speak more slowly and clearly. Most people shouldn't have any problem with this.

    They don't want to do it? A quick blow to the temple should subtly encourage them to cooperate.


    6) ONE-TIME LISTENING TO RECORDINGS 


    Repeated listening to a given recording or conversation is not always possible. However, if it's possible, you should always listen to your materials more than once if you have trouble understanding them.

    Here's a simple plan you can stick to:


    (I)) Learners at levels A1-B1


    Find a recording/video on YT or something similar, and listen to it over and over again.


    When should you move to the next recording?

    When you understand about 80% of the recording, i.e., you grasp its gist - hunting for particular words at this level is pointless. 

    However, it is essential to become familiar with the prosody of the language and to improve the ability to capture the most common words in a given language.

    It is a particularly useful listening system when you want to learn a language for which there are practically no listening materials.

    At the time when I was doing my first major language project (learning Swedish from scratch to a level B2 in about four months - a full story here), I could listen to one radio program, lasting about 10 minutes, even a dozen times. This is how long the phonetic identification of "theoretically" simple words that I  "theoretically" knew took me.


    (II) Learners at B2-C2 levels

    Here the matter is much simpler. Assuming that you are indeed at this language level, you should know between 3 and 5 thousand words. Thus, your understanding should range between 95-98%.

    Since you are already quite advanced, repeatedly listening to a given recording does not make sense, After all, you are already able to identify the essential words appearing in a given language. At these levels, the most important thing is to listen to as many language users as possible to get used to the variety of accents and language patterns.


    7) LACK OF CONCENTRATION


    Sometimes, problems with understanding are dictated by nothing else but a good old lack of concentration. Each of us knows the moment when, after 2 minutes of listening to the interlocutor, you completely sail away to ride on a pony in a happy place in your head, while saliva begins to gather in the corners of your mouth.

    Where does this state come from, and how to remedy it?


    (I) Ditch boring recordings

    Listen, you are not in an interrogation room in Guantánamo. Nobody compels you to listen to things you don't enjoy. If the subject of the recording causes your eyes to spasm, then change it. Simple logic works here - the more you like a topic, the more willingly and longer you will listen to it.


    b) Chunk your listening sessions

    There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing.

    If the recording is too long, break up your listening session into many parts.

    For example, instead of watching one 40-minute episode of a series in one hearing, try to do it in two or three sessions. Everything according to the slogan: "A large elephant is eaten piece by piece."


    (III) Avoid adverse conditions

    Sometimes the conditions are not conducive to listening. Maybe a bunch of airheads are rehearsing Tibetan throat singing as a demonstration in defense of the rights of bakers. 

    In this situation, there are only two things you can do, depending on the nature of the problem:

    • find a quiet place to listen
    • Keep on listening

    If this does not help, get into a fight with some guy in the YT comment section to vent off.


    8) PROBLEMS WITH INTERPRETATION / CULTURE




    Sometimes the culprit of communication problems is the cultural gulf between interlocutors (Underwood). Interestingly, this problem also occurs among native speakers of a given language. There is no simple remedy.

    The only solution is to continually broaden your horizons and explore the culture from which your target language originates.

    A classic example of misunderstanding is an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Doing so in the Middle East, West Africa, and South America is a delicate suggestion that you intend to violate the dignity of your interlocutor's rectum. A classic faux pas!


    9) PROBLEMS WITH NATURAL (I.E., COLLOQUIAL) SPEECH


    The difference between the natural, colloquial language spoken by native speakers and the one that is usually taught in language schools, or which can be heard on the radio, can be huge (Hedge).

    In real life, a situation where the interlocutor speaks to you very slowly it clearly shows that:


    • a) he will have a stroke soon
    • b) thinks you're "special" and it's not a compliment!


    (I) Various accents and dialects

    Another problem in this category is the variety of accents and dialects. Unfortunately, the uniformity of languages varies dramatically.

    For example, in Germanic languages (e.g. English, German, Swedish, Dutch), after driving only 20 km, we may come across a completely different dialect.

    For many, this is a huge shock. They spend years convinced that they understand the language well, and suddenly it feels as if they were starting all over again!

    A great example is the Scottish accent, which causes a lot of problems for many people who comprehend classic English very well.

    P.S. Here is some stand-up of the most famous Scottish stand-up comedian, Frankie Boyle: YouTube (heads up - it's full of swear words!)

    If you want to be sure that you will be able to understand native speakers without significant problems, you need to diversify the materials you listen to. It should always be a mix containing both colloquial (e.g., videos on YT) and more formal speech (radio, news, etc.).

    Listening to different dialects is not necessary unless you need the ability to understand them for some reason (i.e., moving to a specific region).


    10) NO VISUAL SUPPORT


    In real life, communication with our potential interlocutor is more abundant with body language or facial expressions. The value of this additional information cannot be overestimated, as it often helps to understand the meaning of the speech, despite the lack of understanding of individual words.

    It would be a mistake to limit listening only to the radio or podcasts.

    It's worth enlarging your listening toolbox to include audio-visual materials  (e.g., TV series or YouTube videos). They will not only speed up your pace of understanding but will also make learning more enjoyable!

    11) PASSIVE LISTENING



    Many people equate listening to a purely passive activity. Nothing needed but crash in your armchair and start your favorite podcast! Of course, there is nothing wrong with it, and I usually prefer this type of listening. But, there is an alternative - active listening.

    While listening actively, you should try to make a note of the recording text and words you do not know. Although this is a time-consuming process, it has a positive impact on your understanding.


    12) INSUFFICIENT KNOWLEDGE OF GRAMMAR


    Lack of (good) knowledge of grammar is one of the last obstacles on your path to full understanding.

    It is interesting that the lack of knowledge of grammar does not prevent complete understanding, but only makes it difficult.

    I'm sure you know people who went abroad, and after 5 years they still don't know the language. Despite this, they can communicate with native speakers at a basic level, using the requisite words, gestures, and the occasional grunts.

    I like to explain this phenomenon, and also the role of grammar in understanding, using the following metaphor.

    Imagine that words are building blocks, and grammar is nothing more than a logical mortar holding them together. When we have both, we can create a beautiful "palace of comprehension." If the mortar is missing, the only thing we can do is to stack the bricks on top of one another. This way, we will build "something," but it will certainly not be a palace - more like a swanky privy.

    Read more: Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice.


    IMPROVING LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - SUMMARY



    As you can see, problems with listening comprehension in a foreign language are very diverse. Therefore, to effectively benefit from the advice contained in this article, you should analyze your particular situation as accurately as possible and choose the tips that apply to you.

    Regardless, for many language learners, the two main factors which usually impair their listening comprehension are limited vocabulary and insufficient listening practice - these are always the right places to start.

    Good luck!


    Done reading? Time to learn!

     

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

    I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It's enough to download ANKI, and you're good to go. Memorizing things like "phonetic associations"  and such can be really easy!

     

    The Truth About Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics In Learning

    Would you like to be able to memorize a whole book? What about those boring declination tables?

    Silly question. Who wouldn’t?

    One way or the other, you have heard of fantastic memory feats of mnemonists – memorizing decks of cards or thousands of digits. And all this seemingly effortlessly.

    Mnemonics have the power to stimulate the imagination. They definitely stimulated mine.

    This dream, the dream of being able to memorize anything I want, triggered the chain of events which made me embark on a bumpy journey/

    Destination? To discover the actual effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics and master my memory.

    Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics In Learning – My First Experience

     

    I still remember the first time when I had to use mnemonics practically. I failed one of my exams, and I had to retake it. The problem was that I didn’t know when. I was convinced that the day would be announced very soon.
    The days went by, and I didn’t even touch the coursebook. Somehow the notion of the retake blissfully slipped my mind.
    One day I was sitting in the corridor, listening to music and reading a book. Suddenly I heard a muffled voice, “aren’t you preparing for the exam?”. “What exam?” I looked up to see the grinning face of my good friend.
    “It’s starting in 2 hours,” he replied. Somehow his grin turned into an evil smirk.
    “That’s it,” I thought to myself. “I will fail this exam, and I will fail my studies. I will end up homeless and will have to fight sewer spiders for the food.”
    After the first surge of panic passed, I started coming up with possible solutions. I decided that my best chance is to use mnemonics. I didn’t have much experience in using them. Sure, I had read two books up to that point but had almost no exposure to back up the theory.
    Desperate times call for drastic measures. I rolled up my sleeves and started learning. A bit over three h later, I left the professor’s office. I passed. I don’t know how, but I passed. Thus my obsession with mnemonics was born. My imagination was running wild. Where are the boundaries?
    Is it possible for each one of us to become a genius if we just learn to utilize mnemonic strategies? I needed many years to learn the bitter truth. No. Mnemonics will not make you a genius and allow you to absorb tons of information effortlessly.
    “So are they useful at all?” you might ask. And what can they be used for?
    I will get back to this in a moment.

    What Are Mnemonics?

     

    Before we move on, it’s good to explain what mnemonics are quickly. In short, mnemonics are devices to aid our overburdened memory.

    They are used to facilitate efficient encoding by associating new information with the knowledge which is already stored in your long-term memory (Johnson & Weber, 2006 as cited in Gibson, 2009).

    Probably the most common mnemonic device the so-called keyword method coined by Atkinson (1975). It is used to make meaningful auditory and imagery links to remember a word.

    For example, if you want to remember that “to buy” in Spanish is “comprar,” you might create a vivid picture of a man who compares prices of products before the purchase. Not that complicated, right?

    Let’s see now what science has to say about mnemonics.

    Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Learning – an Overview of the Scientific Literature

     

    Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

     

    There is a large body of research about mnemonics. However, probably the most interesting study up-to-date was led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky and released in April 2013 by the Association for Psychological Science.

    In a comprehensive report, the group of authors carefully examined ten learning tactics and rated them from high to low utility based on the evidence they’ve gathered.

    If you are expecting mnemonics to be among the most useful strategies, don’t hold your breath. They didn’t even come close to the top of the list.

    According to the authors, some commonly used techniques, such as underlining, rereading material, and using mnemonic devices, were found to be of surprisingly low utility.

    Of surprisingly low utility?! If you look at memory feats performed by mnemonics, you might conclude that scientists must be taking crazy pills.
    For example, here is a video of Dr. Yip Swee Chooi.

     

     

    What’s so special about him?
    He learned a 1774-page Chinese-English dictionary by heart (in case you wonder – it took him almost six months to do it).
    Another great example is Simon Reinhard, who memorized a deck of cards in 20.438 seconds.

     

     

    Clearly, people with untrained memory would not be able to come close to these results. Still, the report says clearly – mnemonics might not be the best use of your time.

    Of course, I must be perfectly honest with you. There are a lot of studies which show that using mnemonics might be very beneficial for (among others):

    What’s even more important, some studies showed memory improvement with students with disabilities, as described by Fulk (1994) and Bulgren et al. (1994).

    And these are just a few of them and they all state clearly – mnemonics are statistically more effective.

    Effective than what?! And why didn’t I include these studies here then?

    Problems With Studies On The Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Learning

     

    Having read dozens of studies on mnemonics, I can divide the flaws of these studies into the following categories:

    a) Statistical sample is not representative

     

    Do you know how to recognize bad, bullshit science at first glance? Look at the sample.

    To generalize, any number below 100 participants means that researchers just threw your tax money into the gutter.

    b) Control groups suck

     

    Do you know what the usual control group against mnemonics-using students is? Rote learning students.

    Ugh, it’s like watching some bizarre boxing match. “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s gather around to enjoy this very duel – a retarded shrimp vs. quite an ordinary shrimp.”

    c) Laboratory settings

     

    99,9% of these studies are conducted in laboratory settings. And there is quite a yawning gap between research in areas of everyday memory (i.e., field research) and lab-controlled research.

    The Hawthorne effect is one of the things which comes to mind.

    A type of reactivity in which individuals modify or improve an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed

    It’s tough to generalize such results to other settings

    What’s more, so-called low ecological validity comes into play. The laboratory is clearly an artificial situation. People are directed by an ‘experimenter’ in a psychological experiment. They are removed from their natural social settings and asked to memorize different sets of data.

    This is a very unusual experience that raises the question – how do this novel experience and settings really affect their behavior and memory?

    Still, lab research is better than no research at all.

    d) Time horizon

     

    Most studies are conducted over a relatively short period. It’s rarely spread over more than 3-4 weeks. As you will soon read, this is why most studies prove the effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics.

    e) Nature of the tasks

     

    How would you feel about memorizing and recalling a list of unconnected words or digits? Seriously, be honest. How would you rate your willingness on the scale from “nope” to “never”?
    The detachment of such tasks from everyday life and their general lack of usefulness have led some researchers to question whether their findings can be generalized to real life.

    Are mnemonics useless?

    Am I saying that mnemonics are useless then? Not at all. They can be insanely useful.

    But you must understand what they are and what they aren’t. I quoted the excerpt from John Dunlosky’s report for two reasons:

    • 1) It tested different learning strategies against one another.
    • 2) More importantly, it examined the effects of those strategies in LONG-TERM learning.

    And this is what mnemonics are not.

    They are not a suitable tool for long-term learning.

    At least not in the form they are usually presented.

    If you are not pressed for time, you can get by without any problems without using mnemonics.

    They are also not a panacea for all your memory problems. It is just another tool in your learning arsenal.

    If you have ever read anything by any author, who promotes/sells anything mnemonics-related, you might find it hard to believe. Don’t worry. I also felt disillusioned. And I had good reasons.

    Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Learning – My Experiments 

     

    Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

    Picture by: Vlad

    Since that pivotal moment of my life, my obsession with mnemonics had been growing in strength with each passing day. There was no stopping me. I was the mnemonics preacher. Everybody HAD to know about how mnemonics are great,
    After I won the local memory championship, it only got worse. I experimented with the ardor of meth-addicted junkie. I created memory palaces holding thousands of words. I tried to learn entire books by heart just to test the effectiveness of mnemonics. I have memorized tables, law regulations, and checked my recall at various intervals.
    T
    he effect was always the same — high recall rate at the beginning of my experiments. The feeling of overwhelming joy always accompanied these early results. But it never lasted long.
    My recall rate was still good after up to 2-4 weeks after creating mnemonic images and reviewing them, although I could notice some deterioration of my memories.

    Inevitable drop in recall rate always came after more than four weeks.

    And this is precisely why most scientific studies seemingly prove the effectiveness of mnemonics. They test them in labs in short periods.

    Once again, I would like to stress that mnemonics can be immensely useful. Useful both for recalling random information as well as helping you achieve high levels of expert performance. Just not for long-term learning.

    Read on, and I will show how they can be utilized best. But first, to have a full picture of what you’re dealing with, take a look at the limitations of mnemonics.

    Limitations And Disadvantages Of Mnemonics

     

    • Gruneberg (1998) argues that the keyword method, in general, is inferior to rote learning in the longer-term retention of vocabulary.
    • “Campos and Gonzalez (2003) attribute ineffectiveness of the keyword method to participants ‘lack of training. They investigated in four experiments the effectiveness of the mnemonic keyword method using two groups of adults and adolescents. In all the experiments, the rote method was more effective than the keyword method for both adolescents and adults.”
    • Some people (especially adults) are reluctant to create vivid images and crazy stories.
    • Some people (especially adults) are unable and/or unwilling to resign from using previously learned strategies.
    • Using mnemonic devices for memorizing words is time-consuming (especially at the beginning).
    • Using mnemonics requires more effort (especially at the beginning) than rote-learning.
    • Mnemonics don’t guarantee understanding.
    • Learning with mnemonics lacks context.

     

    So if mnemonics are not an excellent way for long-term learning, what are they good for?

    How Mnemonics Affect Your Short-Term Memory

     

    Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

     

    Short-term memory has three key aspects:

    • 1. limited capacity (only about 7+-2 items can be stored at a time or 3-4 chunks)
    • 2. limited duration (storage is very fragile, and information can be lost with distraction or passage of time)
    • 3. encoding (primarily acoustic, even translating visual information into sounds).

     

    And here is where the true power of mnemonics lies.

    Mnemonic devices allow you to boost all these three aspects of your short-term memory significantly.

    It might not seem like a big deal, but it has tremendous implications for your (language) learning.

    Why?

    Because short-term memory is a necessary step toward the next stage of retention – long-term memory, you can treat short-term memory as a bottleneck of your learning. After all, if you can’t commit some information, even just for a few seconds, to your memory, how are you supposed to learn?

    Some researchers claim that working-memory capacity reflects the efficiency of executive functions. In other words, the ability to maintain and manipulate information in the face of distractions and other irrelevant information. ( Engle, R. W., September 1999).

     

    That’s why the best way to think about mnemonics is to treat them as a relatively long-lived external memory with huge capacity.

     

    I will get to the most effective use of mnemonics in a second. First, I want to demonstrate something. Let’s take a look at prodigies.

    The Short-Term Memory Of Prodigies

     

    Studies on the prodigies who reached professional-level performance in their domain (e.g., art, math, music) by the age of 10 show something very interesting.

    When Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach administered an IQ test to nine prominent child prodigies (…) there were a wide range of IQ scores among the eight prodigies (from 108 to 147), and their cognitive profiles were uneven.

    It turned out that the key to understanding their rapid learning in their domain was not their global intellectual functioning.

    Most strikingly, every single prodigy in their sample scored off the charts (better than 99 percent of the general population) in working memory — the ability to simultaneously store incoming information while processing other information.

    So how can you approach these levels of intellectual functioning?

    Key Information Needed to Understand How To use Mnemonics Effectively

     

    1) We learn best by doing
    2) Calling information to mind strengthens it and helps in future retrieval
    3) Understanding the difference between procedural and declarative knowledge.

     

    According to Cohen and Squire (1980):

    Procedural knowledge involves “knowing how” to do things. It includes skills, such as “knowing how” to play the piano, ride a bike; tie your shoes and other motor skills. It does not involve conscious thought (i.e. it’s unconscious – automatic). For example, we brush our teeth with little or no awareness of the skills involved.

    Declarative knowledge involves “knowing that”. Knowing names of plants , dates, formulas – it’s all part of your declarative knowledge. Recalling information from declarative memory involves, so called, effortfull recall – i.e. information has to be consciously brought to mind and “declared”.

     

    Knowing these things can help us stew perfect learning mix:

    • 1) Gather information 

    It doesn’t matter whether you want to learn a language or how to master persuasion strategies. Gather the knowledge needed to achieve your goal.

    • 2) Memorize it with mnemonics

    As I have written before, mnemonics can be treated as an extension of your short-term memory. Place as much information as you can on this external “hard-drive.”

    • 3) Start practicing right away

    You know the theory of how to play the piano or how to program. It’s high time you started putting your knowledge into practice. Try to use as many pieces of information from your memory as you can.

    Because every time you bring one of them to your mind, the magic happens. You start creating and strengthening neural networks responsible for the given action.

    Repeat this action a sufficient number of times, and you will automate it. From that moment on, you will be able to perform it subconsciously and with minimal effort.

    Let’s see how you can use it in language learning.

    Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Language Learning

     

    Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

    Picture by: Shannon Kokoska

     

    When I launched my Czech mission, I already had a rough plan of how to achieve my desired level in record time. This is more or less what I did:

    • 1) I got familiar with grammar
    • 2) I memorized basic declinations and conjugations with mnemonics
    • 3) I memorized about 50 essential words with mnemonics
    • 4) I started producing a lot of sentences by talking to myself and by using the words and mentioned above 
    • 5) I “rinsed and repeated” points 2-4. Each time I increased the number of words and grammar constructions

    Of course, there was also listening and reading practice. If someone asks me what the quickest way to learn a language is, I show them this plan.

    Ok, I also tell them to use ANKI.

    Since we have established that mnemonics can be treated as your external memory, take a look at other practical applications of mnemonics!

    (Other) Practical Applications Of Mnemonics

     

    Mnemonics are useful whenever you need to memorize a lot of information on the fly and remember them for at least a couple of hours.

    That’s why you can use them (among others):

    • During parties and meetings to memorize names and information about other participants
    • during last-minute panic before the exam or company presentation to make sure that the data stays in your memory!
    • During speeches.
    • to impress your wife and show her that “you don’t need no damn shopping lists” to remember what you should buy
    • to memorize random information which emerges during conversations

    And so on. I think you got it!

    Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics – Summary

     

    Mnemonics have to be one of the most misunderstood learning tools of all time. They are usually sold as the ultimate solution for all kinds of learning problems, which is far from the truth. As you can see, effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics can be amazing but only provided that you understand precisely what they do. And what they do is “inflate” your short-term memory for some time.
    Manage to review the knowledge you acquired with mnemonics by performing some actions specific to that knowledge, .and you can rest assured that your progress will know no boundaries. You will become that “Robo-weirdo.”
    And this is what I sincerely wish you.

    Done reading? Time to learn!

     

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

    I am on the mission to change it. I have created 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. Memorize, among others, what working memory is, what are limitations of mnemonics, and much more!

     

     

    Important Factors Affecting Listening Comprehension – the Only Two That Matter If You Want to Understand ASAP

     

    Listening comprehension is quite universally known to be one of the most, if not the most, demanding language skill.

     

    A lot of learners struggle for many years to be able to understand even 90% of a conversation. And it gets worse. The number of language learners who are capable of understanding almost every word they hear amounts to a few percents.

    And thus the question arises: is listening really that difficult or maybe there is something else at play here?
    To answer this question, we first have to take a look at all the most critical factors affecting your listening comprehension.

     

    All The Factors Affecting Listening Comprehension

     

    Listening comprehension is a quite complex beast as it consists of lots of smaller sub-beasts, or sub-skills if you will. As you will see in a moment, almost everything can affect your level of listening comprehension.

     

    1. Your pronunciation

    For every word you encounter, you create your internal phonetic representations (i.e., how you think that a word should be pronounced). Next, you confront them with the external representations (i.e., how the words are really pronounced).
    If they overlap considerably or are identical, and you can fish them out from the recording, you should be able to understand a given word.

     

    This is the exact reason why you might understand a typical accent from a given country but you will struggle with a dialect. Simply, at this point, your internal representations are not broad enough to encompass new external representations.

    Read more: How to improve your pronunciation.

     

    2. Your grammar

    It’s much more difficult to understand the deeper meaning of an utterance if you don’t know how different words come together. Don’t worry. You don’t have to concentrate on learning every single grammar construction in your target language. Simply start with the functional grammar.

     

    3. Knowledge of how sounds merge or get reduced

    Unfortunately, not everything is what it seems. It certainly seems to be the case with sounds. In almost any language there is a tendency of different sounds to be reduced (e.g. vowel reduction) or to be merged (read more about phonological changes).

    If you don’t grasp how these changes happen, it will take you much longer to decipher the ongoing stream of speech.

     

    4. Your overall listening time

     

    IMPORTANT FACTORS THAT AFFECT YOUR LISTENING COMPREHENSION

    Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

     

    It happens way too often that I get an e-mail from one of my readers who complains about their listening skills. Asked how much time they devote to their listening practice, I get a shy “10 minutes per day”.
    What a fantastic pace and dedication!  Call me in 2045 to tell me whether you can finally understand your first movie dialogue.
    Listening takes a lot of time. That’s just the way it is.

     

    5. Visual support

    Listening becomes much easier once you can see somebody’s body language. A lot of things which would get lost in the tangle of speech seem more understandable on the screen once you catch a glimpse of an ironic smirk.
    Plus, nobody can take away from you the pleasure of fantasizing about starting a new life with a main actor/actress. And calling your first child, “Chad.” What? No, obviously, it has never happened to me. Mind your own business!

     

    6. Vocabulary size

     

    It’s as clear as day. The more words you know, the easier it is to fish them out of a recording. If your current vocabulary is, say, 1000 words and you can’t figure out why you don’t understand much, this might be the reason.

    Read more: The Word Substitution Technique – How To Increase Your Vocabulary Size Considerably.

     

    7. Concentration

    As much as I like the idea of listening to recordings in the background, you won’t get far if you can’t focus on the activity at hand. You have to strap your butt to a chair and listen.
    Just for the record, I want you to know that in the literature, you can find a couple of other factors that affect your listening comprehension — for example, problems with interpretation, inability to identify signals, and such. I decided to skip them as they have so little bearing your ability to understand. I don’t want to expand this article artificially.
    Let’s now take a look at what are the two most important factor that affects your listening comprehension.

     

    The Two Most Important Factors Affecting Listening Comprehension

     

    It’s always crucial to know what constituent of some skill is the most important. Skills are difficult enough as they are. However, without any semblance of prioritization, you might spend too much time floundering about desperately.

    You might think about what I am about to propose to you as yet another application of the Pareto principle.

    As a reminder:

     

    The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

    Wiki

    And, as you will shortly see, even among these two, there is one which is clearly more important.

     

    1. The total amount of listening practice

     

     

    In order to increase your comprehension, you have to spend a lot of time listening to people or recordings. The more often you do it, the faster you can expect to progress.
    However, is the total amount of listening practice the ultimate answer? I doubt it. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be that many people who live abroad surrounded by a language that still struggle with listening comprehension.
    I have a good friend of mine who watches everything in English passionately. TV series, movies, news, you name it. Yet, after all these years, his comprehension hasn’t changed that drastically. And it would be surprising if it wasn’t for the fact that he doesn’t have any vocabulary acquisition system in place.
    And that leads me to the factor no 2.

     

    2. The size of your vocabulary

     

    There is a very good reason why the name of my language learning course is Vocabulary Labs and not something else.

     

    The size of your vocabulary is the most reliable predictor of language progress there is. Without knowing a lot of words, improving your listening comprehension will prove very difficult.

    Let me demonstrate it.

    First, improving your listening comprehension can be understood as:

    1. getting used to the prosody of your target language
    2. picking up words you know from the ongoing stream of speech

     

    What’s more, we know from the literature that for most languages, 3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). 5000 words, in its turn, will enable you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997))(read more about levels of comprehension and vocabulary size).

    It’s somewhat agreed that getting accustomed to the prosody doesn’t take that much time. That leaves us with the second task you have to face: fishing out words from the stream of speech.

    If your vocabulary size is 200, how many percents of words are you able to pick up?

     

    Calculate Your Listening Effectiveness

     

    Let’s calculate this, and let’s treat 5000 words as our perfect reference point as this number of words would allow you to understand most of the things you would hear.

    200/5000 = 0.040 = 4%

    We have arrived at the number 4% but what does it really tell us?

    It means that your listening effectiveness per 1 minute or hour of listening practice is 4%.

    So yeah, you can spend hundreds of hours trying to improve your comprehension, but it may turn out that it won’t change too much.

    What if you started listening to recordings with the vocabulary of 1000 words?

    1000/5000 = 0.20.= 20%

    At this point, your listening effectiveness would increase fivefold! Let me formulate it slightly differently – learning just 800 words can greatly increase your listening comprehension.

     

    And this is the exact reason why I advocate listening practice only once you master at least 2000 words (or even more). Having such a vocabulary optimizes your learning time and allows you to progress much faster than others without having to waste more hours.

    One exception to this rule (i.e., what drastically increases your listening comprehension)

     

    THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT FACTORS THAT AFFECT YOUR LISTENING COMPREHENSION

    Photo by Noah Näf on Unsplash

     

    Of course, keep in mind that my listening effectiveness model is simplistic in one aspect.

     

    If you learn a language which is already similar to the ones you already know, your passive vocabulary knowledge will allow you to pick up words which are similar to the ones you are familiar with. 

    For example, if I decide to learn Russian, which shares about 40% of words with Polish, my starting listening comprehension will be about 40%!

    However, that still means that if you increase your vocabulary size with the words you don’t, your listening effectiveness will go up even higher!

     

    Important Factors Affecting Listening Comprehension – Summary

     

    I first published my article “How to learn German from scratch to a B2 level in 5 months,” a couple of years ago. Back then, one statement of mine seemed to spark a lot of controversies.

     

    I forbade Mathew to read and listen to anything for first three months. Actually, if you know how to acquire vocabulary, you do not context to do it. You can learn first 3-5 thousand words simply from frequency lists. It allows you to save a lot of time simply by not being forced to go through all those crappy dialogs in textbooks.

    And I get it. This piece of advice went against everything most people have been taught in schools. It also contradicted almost every strategy proposed by my fellow polyglots. However, as time goes by, there seem to be more and more studies that confirm this theory.

     

    Studies confirming the importance of the aforementioned factors affecting listening comprehension

    [[ … ]] it was revealed that the ability of learners to make connections between highly common English words appears to be dependent on the number of words they know. The more words they know, the more connections they are able to identify. At present, it is not known whether this ability to make connections is a cause or a result of knowing the meanings of more words, or if it is a combination of both.

    [[ … ]] it is also hoped that new avenues shall be explored that focus more deeply on what it means to know a word and the role of lexical retrieval and memory in L2 lexical processing. At present, to its detriment, the field of L2 vocabulary studies remains remarkably insular.

     

    The conclusion is as follows – if you want to improve your listening comprehension asap, you have to, first of all, increase your vocabulary size. Only then does it make sense to devote a lot of time to listening practice.

     

    My advice to you is this – if you want to improve your listening comprehension, you should concentrate on expanding your vocabulary size first (don’t forget about mastering functional grammar). Only then should you gradually increase your overall listening time while still increasing the numbers of words you know.

     

    Do you agree with my theory that the vocabulary size is the most important factor affecting listening comprehension? Let me know in the comments!

     

    Done reading? Time to learn!

     

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

    I am on the mission to change it. I have created about 25 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. Memorizing things like “internal phonetic representations” can be really easy!

     

     

    Here Is Why Most Spaced Repetition Apps Don’t Work and How to Fix It

     

    Regardless of whether you use Spaced Repetition Apps or not, you can’t deny that there is some controversy among language learners whether such programs are truly effective. Some people swear by it while others prefer more old-fashioned pen-centered strategies. It gets even better! Even among SRS enthusiasts, you can find different militant fractions. Some claim that Memrise is the best. Other that Quizlet is the way to go.

     

    For many, it can be quite difficult to wrap their head around what’s true and what’s not. Let’s sort it out so you can finally know the answer.

     

    What’s the scientific consensus about Spaced Repetition Apps

     

     

    If you have ever seen one of the aforementioned squabbles online, the first thing you need to know is that opinions that SRS is ineffective are completely detached from reality. Spaced repetition is among the most thoroughly researched memory-related phenomena in the world. Its efficacy has been replicated in hundreds of comprehensive and extensive studies (read more about choosing the best language learning methods).

     

    It is effective on a variety of academic fields and mediums. 

     

    Spacing effects can be found in:

     

    • various domains (e.g., learning perceptual motor tasks or learning lists of words) such as spatial44
    • across species (e.g., rats, pigeons, and humans [or flies or bumblebees, and sea slugs, Carew et al 1972 & Sutton et al 2002])
    • across age groups [infancy, childhood, adulthood, the elderly] and individuals with different memory impairments
    • and across retention intervals of seconds [to days] to months (we have already seen studies using years)

     

    Source (probably the best article online about the spaced repetition, well worth checking out)

     

    The benefits of spaced study had been apparent in an array of motor learning tasks, including:

     

    • maze learning (Culler 1912)
    • typewriting (Pyle 1915)
    • archery (Lashley 1915)
    • javelin throwing (Murphy 1916; see Ruch 1928, for a larger review of the motor learning tasks which reap benefits from spacing; see also Moss 1996, for a more recent review of motor learning tasks).

     

    Heck, there are almost no exceptions to this phenomenon. Sure, there is maybe 5% of studies which haven’t replicated these findings. But upon reading more about their design and methodologies used, one might conclude that they are often an example of bad science.

     

    The only notable exception I have seen so far is that children can often fail to exhibit a spacing effect unless they process learning material in a certain way. This, however, is a topic for another article.

     

    Where does all this controversy about the effectiveness of SRS programs come from then? I will get to it soon.

     

    First, let’s concentrate on what makes learning truly fast and effective.

     

    Encoding – the most important criterion for effective learning

     

     

    A simple model of memory

     

     

    Here is why most Spaced Repetition Apps don't work for you and how to fix it

     

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

    1. Retention intention
    2. Encoding – involves initial processing of information which leads to the construction of its
      mental representation in memory
    3. Storage – is the retention of encoded information in the short-term or long-term memory
    4. Recall – is the retrieval of stored information from memory

     

    Let’s concentrate on the second step of this process. Clearly, you can see that it’s a gateway to the land of remembering. But what does encoding really mean?

     

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

     

    What’s more, there are two kinds of encoding.

     

    Two types of encoding

     

     

    Shallow encoding

     

     

    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.

     

    Deep encoding

     

     

    The absolute opposite of shallow encoding. This time you are trying to make a meaningful connection between different items. The more the better.

     

    Deep encoding is so powerful for your learning that it even shows up in brain scans as increased activity in key brain areas associated with memory. It is this activity that appears to give deep processing its memory advantage. (source: How Memory Works–and How to Make It Work for You).

     

    So what’s the example of deep encoding in the world of language learning? Creating sentences or saying them out loud, to be more precise.

     

    Interestingly, every time I say it, there is always someone who seems surprised. I guess the reason being that we don’t appreciate enough how complicated it is for our brains to create a sentence.

    Why creating sentences is so complicated

     

     

    Why most Spaced Repetition Apps don't work for you and how to fix it

    In order to create even the simplest of sentences you have to:

     

    1. remember actively the words you are currently learning
    2. remember all the other words in the sentence actively
    3. connect them in a meaningful way
    4. apply all the known grammar rules
    5. choose the appropriate register of the sentences (i.e. a form of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting)
    6. remember the pronunciation of all the words in the sentences
    7. pronounce all the said words by using your muscles

     

    As you can see, it’s not that trivial to produce a sentence. And that’s why this process is so meaningful and memorable for your brain.

     

    Initially, a lot of my students grumble about having to create many sentences. They say it’s too exhausting. I agree. The thing is that producing sentences equals knowing and being able to use a language!

     

    To make your inner geek happy, it’s worth mentioning that encoding is very often connected with two other principles of memory which make your learning even more effective:

     

    The level of processing effect (Craik & Lockhart, 1972)  – the more you process a given piece of information, the better you remember it.

     

    The generation effect (Slamecka & Graf, 1978) – active production of a given piece of information increases your chances of permanently storing it in your long-term memory.

    Read more about optimizing your language learning here.

     

    Interesting, right? Now it’s time to answer the most important question – what if somebody is too lazy to actually go through all the trouble of producing sentences?

     

    Consequences Of Lack Of Encoding (i.e. why most Spaced Repetition Apps don’t work)

     

     

    I hope that the following paragraph will help you make a very important decision – never ever use or buy any learning app. I don’t care that you read that Gabriel Wyner is working on a revolutionary app or that Memrise has a better algorithm now.

     

    The most important and effective thing you can do for your learning is to create multiple contexts (i.e. sentences) for a word you want to learn. Simply repeating ready-to-use flashcards, especially the ones without any context, won’t work well. This simple fact renders all the memory apps combined useless. ANKI is really all you need.

     

    Think for a second about the solution those apps dish out to you. Most of the time they simply give you ready-to-use flashcards, often without any context! Or meaningless games which perpetuate shallow encoding. Or even when you see a flashcard with a word in the context, it was not encoded by you and thus it will be way harder to remember.

     

    Time to stop looking for magical solutions. You won’t find them in apps.

     

    To my chagrin, I don’t see any big company talking about this. Of course, the reason is obvious. If you pay for an app, you have to be convinced that it’s truly magical and life-changing. I don’t think they would sell well if the owners started screaming from the rooftops “They are sh*t! What’s truly magical is the effort you put into encoding your vocabulary”!

    Read more about Common Language Learning Mistakes and How To Fix Them With Lean Language Learning.

     

    SRS programs are just a white canvas

     

     

    SRS programs

     

    The right way of thinking about such programs is seeing them as a white canvas.

     

    Algorithms underpinning them are close to perfect in themselves. Unfortunately, some people crap in their hand and insist on smearing it until they get a one-eyed unicorn. The next thing you know is they are running around the internet and screaming that SRS programs don’t work. You can’t be lazy when you learn.

     

    I know that doing ready-to-use flashcards seems “quicker” to use because you don’t have to invest too much energy into producing them. However, in reality, they are more time-consuming in the long run because you need to spend more time repeating words unnecessarily.

     

    It has to do with the mechanism of passive rehearsal which is simply a mindless act of rattling off a cluster of pre-prepared information. Many years ago it was actually proven that it has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).

     

    If you ever want to use such flashcards, simply treat them as a source of vocabulary to learn. Other than that, simply encode your vocabulary and you will be fine. All ready-to-use flashcards can do is create the illusion of time-efficiency while slowing your progress down at the same time.

     

    To sum up, currently there is no other technology, including virtual reality, which is as effective as spaced repetition programs. However, if you don’t actually put in the effort and try to produce sentences for the words you learn then you waste most of the potential of this software.

     

    Quick learning is not about time but about the effort.

    Done reading? Time to learn!

     

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

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

     

     

    Writing or Speaking – What Is Better Memory-Wise for Learning Languages?

    What is better for learning new words – writing or speaking?. It is one of the questions that come up frequently in different language-related discussions.

    I have seen many different answers to this question. Some were quite right, some plain wrong. That’s why I decided to show you a memory-based/science-based answer to this question.

    Let’s dive right in!

     

    Writing or Speaking – Why Both Are Great

     

    I don’t want to be this terrible host who welcomes you with a creepy toothless smile and spits on your back as you walk in. I want you to feel comfy and cozy! That’s why I would like to begin on a positive note – both writing and speaking are great learning methods.

    There are many reasons for that, but let’s start with the three, which can be deemed as the most important.

     

    1) The Production effect

    The “production effect” was initially reported by Hopkins and Edwards in 1972. Unfortunately, for many, many years, it has escaped the attention of the scientific world.

     

    The production effect indicates the improved recall for any information which is produced actively compared to the one which is just heard or read silently.

     

    For example, we tend to remember better words that are read aloud compared to words that are recited silently (MacLeod, 2011).

     

    Simply put, learning actively helps you to remember better.

     

    2) Deep processing (aka The levels-of-processing effect)

    This phenomenon was identified by Fergus I. M. Craik and Robert S. Lockhart in 1972,

    The levels-of-processing effect suggests that information is better recalled when it has been actively and effortfully processed.

     

    In other words, deeper levels of analysis produce more elaborate, longer-lasting, and stronger memory traces than shallow levels of analysis. Depth of processing falls on a shallow to deep continuum. Shallow processing (e.g., processing based on phonemic and orthographic components) leads to a fragile memory trace that is susceptible to rapid decay. Conversely, deep processing (e.g., semantic processing) results in a more durable memory trace. – Source.

     

    In the world of language learning, creating sentences is one of the most meaningful ways of achieving deep processing of words. That’s one of many reasons why I am against using mnemonics in language learning (in most cases).

     

    Writing or speaking - what is better for learning languages?

     

    3) The reticular activating system (RAS)

    Another cool advantage of both writing and speaking is that they activate a part of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS).

    Why is it important? Let me explain.

     

    Even though the RAS is a small part of a brain, it plays a vital role – it’s the filter of information that is let into the conscious mind 

     

    Every second of every day, it tirelessly scours through the tons of information provided by your sensory organs to choose the relevant one. Without the RAS, you would be continuously flooded with excessive amounts of information, which would virtually overload your brain and impede thinking.

    Fortunately, that doesn’t happen as the reticular activating system helps your brain capture what matters most to you and what is relevant to you based on your values, needs, interests, and goals.

    As you can see, both speaking and writing help put the words you use at the forefront of your mind.

     

    Additional Benefit of Writing in Language Learning

     

    The previously mentioned benefits are undoubtedly great. However, let’s dive into some other advantages which are more specific to writing.

     

    Writing is a great learning method for advanced students.

    Many people, once they move past the B1 level, tend to get stuck at the so-called intermediate plateaus. They use the same old grammar constructions, the same trite expressions, and speech patterns.

     

    It’s tough to get out of this rut unless

    • a) you consume the staggering amount of input
    • b) start making an effort to use new grammar constructions/words

     

    Can you do it just by speakingNot really.

    Speaking with others, more often than not, requires keeping a conversation alive. You have to think “on your feet” to express your thoughts as quickly and precisely as you only can – if you flounder or stall too long, you might be able to notice a silent agony on your interlocutor’s face.

    Writing, however, gives you all the time in the world to jigger your words into something resembling an elegant thought as opposed to the typical intellectuals slurry.

    If you puke a little bit in your mouth every time you hear yourself saying, “The movie was nice because actors were nice and it’s good that it was nice,” you know what I mean.

     

    Memory Benefits of Writing in Language Learning

     

    memory benefits of writing in foreign languages

     

    Some research suggests that writing seems to tickle the RAS, and memory centers in your brain a tad harder than speaking. Here are results of one of such studies

     

    “The results show that on the immediate post-test, the Sentence-writing group performed the best, followed by Gap-fill, Comprehension-only, and Control. On the delayed post-test, the Sentence writing and Gap-fill groups equally outperformed the two other groups.” – ScienceDaily.

     

    However, as you will soon discover, it’s only a half-truth.

    As a side note, experiments that I have conducted regarding the efficiency of writing vs. speaking show almost no difference between those two.

     

    Longhand vs typing?

    Interestingly, most findings of research papers concern longhand writing, not typing. That causes people to believe that the latter is an inferior method.

    In the 2014 article published in Scientific American, we can read that:

     

    “When participants were given an opportunity to study with their notes before the final assessment, once again those who took longhand notes outperformed laptop participants.  Because longhand notes contain students’ own words and handwriting, they may serve as more effective memory cues by recreating the context (e.g., thought processes, emotions, conclusions) as well as content (e.g., individual facts) from the original learning session.”

     

    On the surface, it might seem true. After all, the cognitive and physical effort needed to write manually is bigger than the one required for typing.

    Most of these studies, however, measure the effectiveness of writing/typing under pressure – the said study took place during lectures. It doesn’t have much to do with the organized process of composing an e-mail or an essay at home.

    The extra time you have for deliberation and a coherent formulation of your thoughts should equalize (more or less) any potential difference between writing manually and typing.

    That’s why you shouldn’t feel pressure to choose just one of them to reap memory benefits. Choose the one you feel most comfortable with.

     

    Disadvantages of Writing in Language Learning

     

    As with every method, there are some potential problems you might run into.

     

    1) Not Everyone Needs to Write

    I would dare say that the vast majority of the population of almost any country in the world doesn’t write that much.

    Why would they?

    If your job is not strictly connected with this skill, you might not find it useful.

     

    2) You Need to Learn a New Writing System

    If learning a new language system takes you half the time you needed to speak and understand your target language, it’s understandable that you might be reluctant to do so.

     

    Writing – Recommendations for Language Learners

     

    Best suited for:

    • advanced learners (B1-C2) level
    • anyone who likes (or needs) to write

     

    Other benefits of speaking

     

    1) Speaking is repetitive

    When you write, the fruits of your labor are limited only by your imagination. You can contemplate different word combinations, weave brilliant thoughts.

    However, when you speak, you have to be quick. You have to rely mostly on the automated speech patterns and words which are already activated well in your brain.

    That’s why most of the things we say every day, even in our native tongue, are very far from being full of imagination. The point isn’t to unleash your inner Shakespeare but to get the point across.

    For the same reason, sentences produced by native speakers are also simpler!

     

    2) Speaking is more natural than writing

    The world in which people would use the sophisticated language, which previously could be only found in books, would be a hilarious place!

    “Alas, the chains of palpitating agony fell on my little toe as I rammed it into the mighty oakiness of a cupboard!”.

    Compared with, “I f*** hit my toe against a cupboard.”

    The truth is that we usually speak in a much less formal, less structured way. We do not always use full sentences and correct grammar. The vocabulary that we use is more familiar and may include slang. We usually speak spontaneously, without preparation, so we have to make up what we say as we go.

    That’s why if your goal is being able to communicate, speaking should be your default language learning strategy, at least until you get to a B2 level.

     

    Memory Benefits of Speaking in Language Learning

     

     

    1) It involves many sensory channels (i.e. it’s great for your memory)

    Speaking is a vibrant, sensory experience. It activates almost all sensory organs and thus creates more stable memories.

    In one of the studies about the production effect, we can read that:

     

    Many varieties of production can enhance memory. There is a production advantage for handwriting, for typing, and even for spelling, although none of these is as large as for speaking (Forrin, MacLeod, & Ozubko, 2012).

     

    So what about some studies which say that writing is better for our memory than speaking? Well, they might be some truth in it:

     

    The data suggest that immediate form recall is better when words are learned in the word writing condition than in the word voicing condition, though this advantage seems to disappear after one week – (source: Word writing vs. word voicing : which is a better method for learning L2 vocabulary?)

     

    As you can see, most of the benefits of writing usually disappear upon finishing this activity.

     

    2) It is more time-efficient than writing

    As I have mentioned earlier, even though some research suggests that writing gives your memory some boost, this fact loses its importance once we factor in how much output we can produce with writing compared with speaking.

    Here are the results of one of the studies which considered this seemingly irrelevant fact.

     

    The written group produced almost 75% less language than the spoken group did in the time available. This complements previous research discussed in section 3.6 which found more opportunities for language learning in the spoken mode compared to the written mode (e.g., Brown, Sagers, & Laporte, 1999).

    Disadvantages of speaking in language learning

     

    1) It Requires a Relatively Good Activation of Your Target Language

    Even though I am a big proponent of learning a language via speaking, there is just one small hiccup. If you want to chat with foreigners, the command of your target language should already be good.

    That means knowing at least a couple of thousand words and having a decent knowledge of grammar.

    What would be the easiest way of circumventing this problem?

    If you want to increase your oral output without having to speak with native speakers, you can start talking with yourself (learn more about here and here).

    Read more: Why Speaking Can Be A Bad Language Learning Strategy.

     

    2) The risk of fossilizing mistakes

    If you don’t receive feedback regularly, consider yourself at the high risk of consolidating dozens of small and big language mistakes. You don’t need teachers or tutors for that. However, you do need to create feedback loops.

     

    Speaking – Recommendations for Language Learners

     

    1) Best suited for

    • anyone who learns to communicate

     

    2) Relatively-well suited for:

    • anyone who learns to consume media in his target language

     

    Even if you only learn a language to watch media in your target language, you should still spend some time learning how to speak. It will help you to understand language much quicker due to your improved mastery of grammar and vocabulary and their interrelations, which will, in turn, increase your language comprehension.

    It is one of the cases where you get two for the price of one.

     

    Writing or Speaking – The winner is … 

     

    Writing or speaking - what is better for learning languages?

     

    All in all, my opinion is that for most people out there, speaking is the superior learning method as it allows you to practice what probably matters to you the most – being able to communicate.

    What’s more, writing offers almost no benefits memory-wise compare to speaking.

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

    Question for you:

     

    What is your preferred way of using a language – speaking or writing? And why?

     

    Work Hard and Smart – Recover from Fluffoholism and Make Your Time Count

     

    Never enough time. There is never enough time to get in shape or learn a language. Or even when there is time, you don’t seem to make much of the progress.

    It doesn’t seem normal.

    And it isn’t. There is a good chance you have contracted something I call “fluffoholism“. It’s a terrible ailment.

    Fluffoholics are individuals who are very busy doing silly and insignificant activities. As a result, they either feel inadequate for not making progress or make some progress but can’t find time for anything else in their lives.

    Of course, the truth is that we are all fluffoholics to some degree. The person who would concentrate only on relevant tasks would seem like an absolute genius to us mere mortals.

    Let’s get it over with. My name is Bartosz, and I’m a recovering fluffoholic. This is what I have learned.

     

    Work Hard and Smart – 3 Categories Of Activities

     

    I like to categorize activities in the following way:

     

    1) Low-intensity activities

    It is a counterpart of lying in a cozy bed under a wool blanket with a mug of hot chocolate while your spouse scratches your head.

    These are the tasks we tend to do the most. The “feel good” activities — the fluff which masks the real work. Usually, they have very little to do with making any progress.

    Many industries prosper around these activities. It’s the apparent honey pot for the naive and lazy.

    • “Learn how to pick up a girl without washing yourself”
    • “Learn in your sleep”
    • “Lose weight by eating Tacos and marshmallows”.

     

    Duolingo – the Lazy Way to Learn Languages

    In the world of language learning, it’s Duolingo. I get a lot of messages like this: “I have been using Duolingo for x months, and I completed all the levels, but when I talk to native speakers, they don’t seem to understand me. Oh, also, when I read, I don’t understand most of the things.”

    Go figure.

    Sure, it’s motivating. And it’s a pleasant past-time to have. But it isn’t nearly as effective as a lot of other activities. Like speaking, for instance. Other, almost evergreen and legendary language learning methods which allow an individual to achieve fluency include:

    • “Learning by listening”
    • “Learning by playing computer games”
    • “Learning by watching TV”

     

    How to tell if I am doing low-intensity activities?

    Typically, you can do them for hours without any particular signs of fatigue. That’s all you need to know. If you feel like “that was fun,” it’s not the real work. It also means that you spend 5-10 x more time than people who do activities from the third category and get comparable results.

     

    2) Moderate-intensity activities

    It is a counterpart of getting out of bed and sitting down at the desk.

    These activities require some energy from you, but they are not that tiring. It’s running 5 km when you already know that you can run ten if you want to. You still need to put your shoes on. You still need to go out and sweat. But in the end, the overall progress is not so significant.

    In the world of language learning, it’s a B2 level. You can talk and express yourself relatively fluently.

    You can read most of the articles you want. So you do. And you note down some words. But not too many because you’re already quite good.

     

    How to tell if I am doing moderate-intensity activities?

    Usually, you feel that you have to push yourself a bit to start. But once you do, it’s not that bad. Signs of fatigue tend to appear after 1-2 hours.

     

    3) High-Intensity Activities (i.e., the Real Work.)

     

    Work Hard And Smart

     

    It is a counterpart of being mauled by a bear and teabagged by the seven muses at the same time. 

    It’s when you’d rather have a colonoscopy instead of carrying on with what you’re doing right now. The absolute opposite of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” approach. It’s the “there is always something broken, and I’ll find it” philosophy. It feels terrible. But it delivers incredible results.

     

    How to tell if I am doing high-intensity activities? 

    After you finish learning, you’re sobbing softly and want somebody to hug you. And you feel damn proud. I like to think that it is our small Everest which we should climb daily.

     

    It’s difficult to work hard and smart

    I know that I should write every day to publish articles regularly. But I fail. Because they are never good enough, they are never inspiring enough.

    I have read somewhere that the average time for writing an article is about 5 hours. It depresses me. It makes me feel like a failure. And I know I should come up with ideas daily. About three years ago, I read on the blog of James Altucher about the concept of becoming the idea machine.

    The concept is simple – if you try to come up with ten ideas per day, in 6 months, your life should change significantly. Three years down the road, I’m still struggling to come up with ten ideas once every 3-4 days.

    It’s disheartening, and it makes me feel like crap. But now and then, I manage to come up with great ideas. And my face lightens up when I send them to others. And I’m pretty sure their faces light up as well as these ideas change their lives. And that’s what it’s all about.

    Remember – If you do not push, you are not practicing.

     

    High-intensity Activities In Language Learning

     

    One of the notoriously difficult activities in language learning is speaking.

     

    • On an A1-A2 level, stringing more than a few words feels like a crucifixion.
    • On a B1-B2 level, the challenge is to learn enough words (while improving your grammar) to be able to express yourself quite fluently.
    • On a C1-C2 level, the challenge is to continually substitute the words you already know with dozens of other synonyms. It’s where you have to start saying “atrocity” instead of “that ugly thing,” or “marvelous” instead of “great.” (see The Word Substitution Technique)

     

    It’s damn easy to play with Duolingo or Memrise for 1 hour. It’s much harder to open your mouth and start saying something.

    Read more: Why Speaking Can Be A Bad Language Learning Strategy.

     

    Exemplary Results of Regular Conversation with Yourself

    I like to highlight my students as an example. If they want to learn with me, they have to accept one condition – they have to bet with me. Each day, from Monday to Friday, I have to get a 10-minute recording of them talking to themselves.

    It’s only 10 minutes. And yet, after three weeks, their level changes drastically. It’s almost unbelievable. The side effect is that they probably hate me, but, oh well – it works!

    Not accidentally, talking to myself is how I learned Swedish to B2 level to get the job in less than four months without talking to anyone in this language.

     

    How to Fix Your Learning Plan to Work Hard and Smart

     

    It’s a deceptively simple recipe. But it’s hard to implement.

     

    1. Define High-Intensity Activities in Your Domain

    You can do it on your own or ask someone much better than you in a given domain. But the truth is that very often you already know what the problem is and what you should be doing.
    It’s a task which you are always postponing. It’s a task which you can’t do for more than a few minutes without having to distract yourself with a mobile phone or other distractors.

     

    2. Start Doing Them at the Cost of Other (i.e., Low- and Medium-Intensity) Activities

    Start small. You don’t have to do it for more than 20 minutes daily. Break this time into smaller chunks if you have to. With time, as you toughen up, the overall time spent on practice should be extended.

     

    Remember – High-Intensity Activities Change with Time

    You have to be aware that high-intensity activities change with time. They morph into medium- or low-intensity activities. What once was a nightmare can become a breeze with enough time. You should keep it in mind and adjust your learning strategies as you progress.

     

    How to Work Hard and Smart – Summary

     

    Being able to work hard and smart is not about perfectionism or turning into a workaholic. It’s about using whatever time you have to in the most efficient way. The critical step is identifying high-intensity activities in your target domain and executing them daily with relentless consistency.

    It won’t be pleasant, but the results will speak for themselves. After all, if you decide to spend time to do something, make it count. 

    An added benefit is that once you learn how to work hard and smart, this skill that will benefit you all your life.

     

    Optimize Your Repetitions to Accelerate Your Language Learning (Part 2)

     

    It’s time for part two of my miniseries on optimizing your learning! If you haven’t read the first part – click here. This time I will show you how to optimize your repetitions.

    People like to see effective language learning, or any learning for that matter, as something mysterious. The opposite is true. There are just a couple of essential principles which you should follow if you want to become a quick learner.

    Don’t get me wrong – effective learning gets more complicated; the faster you want to learn. And the more long-lasting memories you want to create.

    Still, these principles can be applied by anyone, regardless of his sex, or age because the very little known truth is that we all learn, more or less, the same.

    Forget about learning styles – they do not exist. I know. It sounds shocking. And it is probably even more surprising than you can imagine – one study showed that 93% of British teachers believe it to be exact! 

    But you and I, my friend, are not glittery and special snow-flakes. There are rules. And they are not to be treated lightly.

    Let’s dig in.

     

    How To Maximize Effectiveness Of Your Learning

     

    Optimized Repetitions In Language Learning

     

    Below you can find my list of the essential rules affecting your language learning progress. It’s far from being complete.

    There are other rules and limitations, but the ones below are one of the easiest ones to implement.

    To maximize your learning, you should make sure that:

     

    1) Focus on active learning

    If you only concentrate on reading and listening, you won’t get far. Your brain is terrible at memorizing things that you encounter occasionally.

    Why?

    I will get to this in a moment. But first, let’s start with basics – the process of memorizing can be depicted in the following three steps.

     

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

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

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

    As you can see, the first step in this process is encoding. I can’t stress this enough – if you don’t encode the information you learn, probably you won’t retain it. You should always, ALWAYS, do your best to manipulate the data you try to learn.

    Let’s try to prove it quickly.

    If I told you right now to draw the image of your watch, would you be able to do it? Would you be able to reproduce the exact look of the building you work in? Of course not, even though you come into contact with these things multiple times per day.

    You do not try to encode such information in any way! If the human brain were capable of doing it, we would all go crazy. It would mean that we would memorize almost every piece of information which we encounter.
    But this is far from the truth. Our brain is very selective. It absorbs mostly the information that:

     

    a) Occurs frequently in different contexts

    b) We process (encode)  –in the domain of language learning, the simplest form of processing a given piece of information is creating a sentence with it

    c) Is used actively

     

    2) Optimize Your Repetitions

    One of the best ways to optimize your repetitions is by using SRS programs. But what is Spaced Repetition?

     

    Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.

     

    Alternative names include spaced rehearsal, expanding rehearsal, graduated intervals, repetition spacing, repetition scheduling, spaced retrieval, and expanded retrieval.

     

    The science behind SSR

     

    How does the program know when to review given words?

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

    The curve presents the decline of memory retention in time, or if you look at it from a different perspective, it demonstrates the critical moments when the repetition of the given information should occur.

     

     

    Curve Of Optimized Vocabulary Repetitions

     

    In theory, it takes about five optimized repetitions to transfer a word into long-term memory. But come on! Learning would be damn easy if this rule would be true for most of the people!

    There are a lot of other variables which come into play:

     

    • the difficulty of the learned material
    • understanding of the material
    • how meaningful it is
    • representation of the material
    • physiological factors: stress and sleep (among others)
    • the size of the material
    • processing of the material

     

    And many others. Still, SRS programs give you the unparalleled upper hand in language learning!

     

    3) Constantly step out of your comfort zone.

    Why use the words which you already know, when you can use dozens of synonyms? You should always try to find gaps in your knowledge.

    Of course, using SRS programs like ANKI is not to everyone’s liking. I get it. But let’s look at the list of alternatives, shall we?

     

    What Happens If You Don’t Optimize Your Repetitions with SRS

     

    Spaced Repetition Software

     

    Every learner has to face the following problems to learn new words (effectively).

     

    • What process do you go through to learn a new word?
    • Do you write it down? Where?
    • How do you revise it later?
    • How long does it take you to learn it?
    • How many times do you have to see it before you know it?
    • And how do you know when you really have learned it?

     

    These aren’t some petty, meaningless decisions. These are the decisions that will heavily influence your progress curve.

    Here’s an idea that a lot of people have: when you learn a new word, you write it down in a notebook. Then, every few days, you open the notebook and review all the words that you have learned so far.

    It works well at first — you no longer forget everything you learn. But very soon it becomes a nightmare.

    After you exceed about 1000 words, reviewing your vocabulary starts taking more and more time. And how do you know EXACTLY which words you should review or pay more attention to?

    Usually, after no more than a few months, you throw your notebook into the darkest corner of your room and try to swallow the bitter taste of defeat.

     

    Reviewing Algorithm Is the Foundation of Learning

    It has to be said aloud and with confidence: you will never be as effective as programs in executing algorithms. And choosing when to review a word is nothing more than that – an algorithm.

    Many oppose this idea of using SRS programs. And it is indeed mind-boggling why. At least for me. The results speak for themselves. 

    Currently, I am teaching over 30 people – from students, top-level managers to academics. And one of many regularities I have observed is this: Students of mine who use SRS programs regularly beat students who don’t.

     

    How big is the difference?

     

    Who should use spaced repetition software?

     

    One student of mine, Mathew, quite a recent graduate of Medicine faculty, passed a B2 German exam in just five months. He started from scratch and only knew one language before our cooperation.

    At the same time, a Ph.D. from the local university barely moved one level up the language learning ladder. The only difference between them is that Mathew was very consistent with using ANKI (and other strategies).

    Really. That’s it.

    And it is not that surprising. The technology has been topping the most celebrated human minds for years now. Different AI programs have beaten top players at games like: chess, scrabble and quite recently Go.

    Last year, deep learning machines beat humans in the IQ Test. It might seem scary. But only if we treat such a phenomenon as a threat. But why not use the computational powers of a computer to our advantage?

    It would be ridiculous to wrestle with Terminator. It’s just as absurd trying to beat computers at optimizing repetitions.

    But should everyone use such programs?

     

    Should You Use SRS programs?

     

    Optimize Your Repetitions in Language Learning

     

    I know that you can still be unsure whether or not you should be using SRS programs. That’s why I have decided to create a list of profiles to help you identify your language learning needs:

     

    1) I am learning only one language

    If you are learning only one language, it’s reasonable to assume that you can surround yourself with it. In this case, using ANKI is not that necessary.

    However, things change quite a bit if you are learning your first language, and you have NO previous experience with language learning.

    In that case, better save yourself a lot of frustration and download ANKI.

     

    2) I am a translator/interpreter (or pursue any language-related profession)

    My imagination certainly has its limits since I can’t imagine a representative of any language-related profession that shouldn’t use SRS programs. The risk of letting even one word slip your mind is too high.

    Just the material I have covered during my postgraduates studies in legal translation and interpreting amounts to more than 5000 specialized words.

    If I wanted to rely on surrounding myself with languages to master them, I would go batshit crazy a long time ago. Who reads legal documents for fun?!

    Even if you are not a translator/interpreter yet, but would like to become one in the future, do yourself a favor and download ANKI.

     

    3) I learn 2 or more languages

    Then I would strongly suggest using ANKI, especially if you would like to become fully fluent in them.

    The math is quite easy. Getting to C1 level in 2 languages requires you to know about 20 thousand words. Of course, you should know at least 50-60% of them actively. This number might sound quite abstract, or maybe not that impressive, so let me put it in another way.

    Knowing about 10 thousand words in a foreign language is equivalent to having an additional master’s degree. And you know damn well how much time it takes to accumulate this kind of knowledge! It is not time-efficient to acquire this knowledge without trying to optimize your repetitions.

    Of course, you can find an exception to every rule. It is not that mentally taxing to imagine a situation where somebody uses one language at work and then another foreign language once they leave the office. Then maybe, just maybe, you can do without SRS programs.

     

    Why You Should Optimize Your Repetitions – Summary

     

    Trying to hold a vast body of knowledge in your head is challenging, yet entirely possible. The first step in the right direction is understanding that you have to optimize your repetitions. At least if you want to get to the finish line asap.
    That’s why using Spaced Repetition Software like ANKI is undoubtedly a must for any serious language learners.

    Read more: Here Is Why Most Spaced Repetition Apps Don’t Work For You and How to Fix It.

     

    What do you think about SRS programs? Have you ever used any? Let me know, your opinion is important to me!

     

    Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice

     

    I don’t like waiting. It’s not that I can’t be patient – quite often, I don’t see the point. Especially in the world of language learning, the typical response to any question seems to be, “it will come with time” or “you will learn it subconsciously.”

    It’s especially true for grammar.

    If we exclude just a handful of enthusiasts, we can say that learning is one of the least favorite activities of most language learners. It’s a big, dark, and ugly maze. You have to learn how to handle it. Otherwise, it will chew you up and spit you out. And then crap on your face while you are sobbing pitifully.

    The collective knowledge has it that you need plenty of time to learn your way around it. You have to fumble about in the dark until you finally crawl out of it. The whole process takes a heavy toll on the language learner’s motivation.

    But it doesn’t have to be like that. The entire process can be accelerated at least several times, thanks to the deep learning (a.k.a. the deliberate practice).

    It’s the methodology that has been used by the world’s top performers for over three decades. It can help you break grammar into easily digestible chunks. In other words, deep learning provides you with a step-by-step blueprint to master grammar of any language. It can replace any teacher if you know how to use it.

    But let’s start with the basics.

     

    Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice

    Problems With Typical Approach To Learning Grammar

    1. Feedback Is Not (Always) Enough

     

    Master Grammar Fast

     

    Try to imagine your average lesson. Not even group lessons – those are ineffective (though enjoyable for some). I mean 1-1 lessons.

    Have you ever noticed that even though you often get feedback from your teacher, you still keep on making the same mistakes?

    Here is why.

    Learning almost always takes place in a chaotic and cluttered environment. At any given moment, there are dozens of dozens of pieces of information fighting for your attention. During your typical lessons, your teacher might correct you dozens of times. “Wrong pronunciation, wrong conjugation, wrong (…)”.

    You are getting bitch slapped to a pulp by the feedback.

    The problem is too much information. If you get too many pieces of information, it’s challenging to choose the ones which you should concentrate on — the ones which you will try to act upon.

    In other words, to geek it up a bit:

     

    The information overload which may hinder the integration of the new information into long-term memory. – source

     

    “Why not correct a student about just one aspect of the language?”, you might think. This thought sounds tempting. And let’s be honest – yes, if you correct just one or two things, students will start correcting those mistakes much quicker. But there is a massive downside to this. If you don’t make a student aware of other mistakes he makes, he optimistically assumes that they are not there!

    That’s even worse! By the time you get through previous grammar aspects, your student will already have consolidated dozens of other mistakes!

    It’s like the grammar-hydra! Eliminate one mistake, and ten others take its place!

     

    2. Passive Learning Is Not Efficient

    Passive learning (i.e., reading and writing) won’t help either unless you invest significant amounts of time. So yes, it is possible to acquire decent grammar this way. However, if you want to learn many languages, it gets harder and harder to keep up with this input-heavy schedule.

    But most of the time, seeing or hearing correctly composed sentences won’t make you utter the correct ones on your own. (read more about passive learning here)

    Unless you think that reading about surgical procedures makes you a skilled surgeon. In that case – I rest my case. What you have to remember is that the deep understanding of most of the skills comes from using them. You won’t just wake up one day and suddenly start spewing beautiful sentences left and right.

     

    3. The difficulty of Acquiring Rare Grammar Constructions

    While it might not be a big deal for some, it is annoying for me. Some grammar constructions occur very rarely. So rarely that learning them through context seems almost absurd.

    How long would I have to read to learn some of them? How many hundreds (thousands) of sentences would I have to read to find one or two written in, say, past perfect continuous? Crapload. That’s how many.

    But if I can replace all these hours of reading and listening with just 2-3 hours of the deliberate practice, why wouldn’t I?

     

    What Is Deep Learning (a.k.a. Deliberate Practice)?

     

    Master Grammar Of Any Language

     

    Before I move on and show you how you can use it to improve your language learning skills, let’s try to define what deep learning is:

     

    Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance. – source

     

    Some common characteristics of deep learning include:

     

    • it gives you a specific goal
    • it requires your full attention
    • it’s energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming
    • it gives you feedback

     

    Words, words, words! But what does it all REALLY mean?

     

    1) You need a specific goal

    Choose a grammar construction you have problems with, and which is useful at the same time.
    For the sake of this article, I will use the declination of German definite articles. They are the stuff of nightmares for many and thus the perfect choice.

     

    German declination

     

    But that’s not over. There is one more thing which you have to remember about this goal.

     

    If you can’t commit a given piece of grammar to your memory, it means that it’s too big.

     

    Why?

     

    Because the availability of working memory is crucial for implementing expectancy-based strategic actions. 

     

    If you fry your working memory, you can forget about effective learning. The most straightforward test possible you can run to check whether this condition is met is to try to reproduce the information you have just memorized. If you can do it without the excessive number of groans, then you are all set.

    For the article, let’s assume that I want to master the Akkusativ form for “der,” “die,” and “das.” Let’s leave plural for some other time.

    A quick sanity check confirms that I can comfortably reproduce the declination of the said forms.

     

    2) it requires your full attention

    As my beloved Hungarian proverb puts it:

     

    “If you have one ass you can’t sit on two horses” .

     

    You can’t do two things at once without sucking at both of them. If you think that you can, then you are delusional.
    But what does devoting your full attention mean? It means just one thing.

     

    You should only pay attention to the correct use of the given piece of grammar. If you make some other mistakes along the way – so be it.

     

    “But doesn’t it mean that I will start consolidating some other grammar mistakes?”. That’s a fair question, but no – you won’t. The reason is painfully simple.

     

    If you devote your full attention to using one grammar construction correctly, you won’t even notice other mistakes. It is how our attention works.

     

    Here is a great video that exemplifies this phenomenon.

     

     

    Have you seen that one already? Watch that one know.

     

     

    These videos have a very sobering effect on all the people who claim to possess superior concentration power. And they prove one thing – it’s hard to consolidate something you don’t see.

     

    3) It’s energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming

    I am not going to lie to you. Deliberate practice is tedious and tiring. And that’s bad news because, in the era of modern technologies, everything must be fun and hip. However, if you want to achieve results quickly, I am sure that’s a trade-off you are willing to make.

    In a nutshell, you build awareness of a given grammar construction by creating dozens upon dozens of sentences with it. It is what Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, wrote in one of her articles:

     

    “What I had done in learning Russian was to emphasize not just understanding of the language, but fluency. Fluency of something whole like a language requires a kind of familiarity that only repeated and varied interaction with the parts can develop.

    Where my language classmates had often been content to concentrate on simply understanding Russian they heard or read, I instead tried to gain an internalized, deep-rooted fluency with the words and language structure. I wouldn’t just be satisfied to know that понимать meant “to understand.”

    I’d practice with the verb—putting it through its paces by conjugating it repeatedly with all sorts of tenses, and then moving on to putting it into sentences, and then finally to understanding not only when to use this form of the verb, but also when not to use it. I practiced recalling all these aspects and variations quickly.

    After all, through practice, you can understand and translate dozens—even thousands— of words in another language.

    But if you aren’t fluent, when someone throws a bunch of words at you quickly, as with normal speaking (which always sounds horrifically fast when you’re learning a new language), you have no idea what they’re actually saying, even though technically you understand all the component words and structure. And you certainly can’t speak quickly enough yourself for native speakers to find it enjoyable to listen to you.” – source

     

    So how should you correctly practice deep learning?

    What I usually recommend is to create at least 100 sentences with the given grammar construction within the next 5-7 days. But as always – the more, the better.

    Make sure that every sentence is different from the previous one and that YOU are the one who comes up with these sentences.

    Here are some examples:
    • Ich habe den grossen Hund gehabt.
    • Er hat mir das schöne Haus gekauft.
    • Wir stellen den Teller auf den Tisch.
    And so on. Rinse and repeat.
    You have to become a grim grammar executioner. You might not enjoy your job, but you know it has to be done. The great thing about this kind of practice is that you don’t need any fancy tools. A piece of paper will do.
    Below you can find the worksheet I use to teach this concept to my students. It looks like this:

     

    Deep learning Cheatsheet

     

    If you want to master grammar of any language asap, it will help you get there,

     

    4) It gives you feedback

    In the perfect world, there is always someone who can provide you with feedback. However, if you stick to the rules mentioned above, you should be able to produce grammatically correct sentences without any, or with minimal, supervision.

    It’s only logical – if you try to do just one thing correctly, it won’t take long before you are fully aware that the construction you are using is applied appropriately.

    You are better at monitoring your progress than you think.

     

    Research has showed that individuals are able to monitor, control and regulate their behaviors in learning contexts, but all depends on the resources and the pedagogical approach used by the educators (Agina et al., 2011)

     

    How to Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice – a Quick Summary

     

    1. Choose a small chunk of grammar
    2. Create at least 100 sentences with it
    3. Make sure that you can use it well enough
    4. Move on to another grammar construction

     

    Benefits of Deliberate Practice

     

     

    Master The Grammar Of Any Language

     

     

    I like to look at every field of knowledge, as one might look at the deep lake. It seems enigmatic and sinister. You want to cross it, but you don’t know how. It’s the same feeling most people get when they see monstrous grammar books. Helplessness, fear, and doubt peek at you from every page of the book.

    “How dare you think that you might ever learn all of this?!”, they seem to whisper.

    And it’s true. Without any specific plan, mastering grammar of any language to a decent level might take ages. Deep learning provides you with such a plan.

    Here are some advantages of this kind of approach:

     

    1. It concentrates your attention

    Your attention is restless and gets bored quickly. Like a small child or a merry drunk. You need to learn to tame it. And it is precisely what deliberate practice does. It focuses your attention on one thing and one thing only. It is especially important because

     

    “Attention constrains learning to relevant dimensions of the environment, while we learn what to attend to via trial and error.” – source

     

    2. It’s Time-Efficient

    Concentrating your efforts on just one thing means one more thing – you save a lot of time. Don’t want to wait till your butt overgrows with moss, and you look like Keith Richards? Then the deliberate practice might be right up your alley.

     

    Can I Use Deliberate Practice For Other Things Than Grammar?

     

    Heck yeah! You can use it for almost anything – not only to master grammar of any language.

     

    Trying to improve your pronunciation?

    Learn how to produce two tricky sounds from your target language. – Once you learn how to pronounce them in isolation, try to pronounce them, say, 100 times in different words.

    Done?

    Start practicing these words in full sentences until the muscle memory is created.

     

    Trying to improve your creativity?

    Come up with 10-15 ideas (more about being creative here) for every problem you encounter. After 1-2 months, you will start noticing an enormous shift in your way of thinking. I know I did.

     

    Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice – Summary

     

    Even if you wouldn’t consider yourself a grammar-savvy person, the deliberate practice has the potential to accelerate your learning significantly.

    It’s not very complicated, but don’t let the apparent simplicity of this method fool you. It’s just one of the few techniques I have seen in my life, which has worked every time and with every student.

    Why not try it yourself?

     

    Question – Have you ever tried to master grammar of any language with deliberate practice? Let me know!

     

    Why Adults Learn Languages Faster Than Children (A Data-Driven Post)

    Why adults learn foreign languages faster than children

    I like to collect all sorts of nonsensical sayings about language learning. There is an overabundance of them, but one of my favorites is: "children learn quickly."

    "Nonsense?!" you might say with indignation. "Don't all children speak well at a young age?"

    No.

    I don't think we should be putting on a pedestal the mental achievements of a being for whom one of the more impressive skills is the ability to fart and sneeze simultaneously.

    But let's not rely on guesses and assumptions. It's time to put on some "scientific" trunks and dive into the sea of scientific research to find out what the real pace of children's learning is.


    Why Adults Learn Languages Faster


    SIZE OF VOCABULARY IN CHILDREN AGED 1-7 years


    To be able to count anything, we need to start with basic data and look at the average vocabulary of children aged 12 months (when they start to say the first words) up to the age of 7.

    Due to the availability of data on this subject, I will use the numbers given for an average American child. I think that these numbers will still be a decent reflection of the average child for other languages, especially considering that English is one of the most lexically developed languages in the world.

    DEFINITION OF WORDS

    Remember that in linguistics, there is no single and strict definition of a word. Depending on the data, one word is, well, just one word (a unique selection and order of letters). In other studies, the word and all its inflections are counted as one word. For example, according to this classification, the words "jump," "jumped," "jumping," etc. are treated as one word. If you see a particularly large number in this table, it means that each word is counted separately.

    The other data pool describes the average expressive vocabulary of children as follows:

    • Children speak their first words around the 12th month. Some children need a little more time - about 16 months. However, it is believed that the later time horizon is still within the norm.
    • At 18 months, children usually use about 50 words (but we don't worry too much unless they have less than 10-20).
    • At 24 months, children usually have expressive vocabulary of 200-300 words (but we don't worry too much unless they have less than 50).
    • At the age of 3, children can have 500 to 1100 words in their vocabulary.
    • At 5-7 years, children have a vocabulary of 3000-5000 words.

    SIZE OF VOCABULARY IN CHILDREN - EXCEPTIONS

    Of course, it is worth remembering that this is average data. Depending on the child's intellectual predisposition and the upbringing, he or she may develop faster or slower.

    For example, a child in the ninetieth percentile at 16 months knows the same number of words as a 26-month-old child in the tenth percentile.

    Why this range?

    There is at least one study (Hart and Risley, 2006), which suggests that the size of the vocabulary of a child aged three is closely related to the number of conversations that adults have with this child. Interestingly, the differences in language development and IQ in such children were still visible at the age of nine!

    It is, of course, only a curiosity for anyone interested, especially current and future parents.

    Let's return to our example. We already have the most important data; now, it is time for some calculations to prove that adults learn languages faster than children.

     

    How Many Words a Day Does an Average Child Learn?



    As an example, let's choose a 5-year-old child. And not just any child! Suppose he is little John von Neumannand he already knows 6,000 words - a number that is well above the average for this age.

    Of course, let us assume that the child of this age also has decent grammar and can put these words together quite appropriately.

    This extraordinarily well-developed child had about 1,825 days from birth, or 1,460 days since pronouncing the first word, to master 6,000 words.

    His average learning pace is therefore:

    • 3.29 words per day (from birth)
    • 4.11 words per day (from 12 months)

    How do these numbers make you feel?

    I can only assume that "Well, four words a day. Respect. Hats off. How do they do it?!" is not the first thought to cross your mind. There is nothing impressive about these numbers. Instead, they show one thing: young children learn very slowly.

    If you can stand the deadly pace of learning 5 words per day, you'll do better than our wise, exemplary child. It's heartwarming, eh?

    Read more: You Don’t Learn Languages Like a Child – Start Learning Grammar and Vocabulary.


    The Pace of Learning in Older Children


    It is worth remembering that for every person, also for a child, the so-called snowball effect applies.


    The snowball effect states that the greater your knowledge (especially in a given field), the faster you can learn.


    It means, more or less, that the older the child is, the more new words will be learned per day on average. Many sources say that later in adolescence, this number ranges between 10-14 words (Lipsett / Mehrabian and Owens numbers are from Language Development - An Introduction; Robert E. Owens, Jr .; Allyn and Bacon; 1996).

    I will repeat my question: Is such a pace in any way crazy and exceeds the capabilities of an adult? Surely not.

    Remember that the snowball effect also applies to you - the more words you know, the faster you will learn more. Besides, as an adult, you have a whole range of attributes and skills unavailable to children:

    All these factors make you a real harvester of knowledge!


    Adults Learn Languages Faster - Summary 


    Let it be said again - adults learn languages faster than children!

    I have witnessed incredible language acquisitions of people who thought that they could not learn quickly (or that it was impossible), and who within 10 months reached the level of B1 / B2 in the language of their choice (you can read more about it here).

    Such a pace of learning exceeds the abilities of even the most gifted children. I think that if we would like to learn something from children, it would be to be persistent in pursuing a goal.

    I hope that moving forward you will be more optimistic about your abilities!


    How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

     

    Not everyone is equal in the kingdom of languages. There is one group that is mercilessly oppressed — one group which suffers from a crippling disease called SOCIAL ANXIETY.

    It’s a terrible, terrible malady. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to keep your fears and anxiety in a padded cell of your brain. They always scrape their way out to feed your soul with poison. Even if only through the cracks.

    But does it mean that you can’t learn a language because of it? Hell no!

    I used to suffer from anxiety-induced panic attacks in the past. I sat in my room for days with curtains closed until I ran out of food. Those days are, luckily, long gone. Although anxiety still looms the dark corners of my mind.

    So if you are also a victim of this condition – don’t worry. Here is the list of six ideas that you can use to learn to speak a foreign language with social anxiety.

     

    How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

     

    1) Don’t find a teacher, find a friend

     

    How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

     

    There is a good chance that you don’t want to talk to others because you don’t know them.

    You don’t feel comfortable baring your soul in front of them. Every cell in your brain sends you warning signals – watch out; they are out to get you.

    But you don’t feel this way around friends or people you trust, do you?

    That’s why this is probably the best way to approach language learning for those anxiety stricken. You won’t be able to get any panic attacks or feel anxious with a friend by your side.

    Discussing anything becomes much easier when you grow attached to another person. You don’t even have to suffer from anxiety to be able to benefit from such a relationship.

    Having such contact with another person drastically changes the way you experience lessons.
    You don’t sit in front of a stranger who doesn’t give a shit about your day or well-being. You sit in front of someone who cares. Such a bond makes all the conversations much more meaningful and memorable, as well.

     

    That’s why you should pay close attention to a person who will become your language partner or your teacher.

     

    Look for similarities. Try a lesson to make sure that this person is trustworthy. And, what’s most important, don’t be a weirdo. “Hi, my name is Bartosz. Do you wanna be my friend?”. Ugh.

     

    2) Talk To Yourself

     

    Talking to yourself

     

    What 99% of people seem to miss is that you don’t necessarily need countless hours of talking with others to be able to communicate freely in your target language.

    Why?

    Because almost all hard work is done in solitude.
    Learning vocabulary, grammar, listening. All that you can do on your own.

    Of course, it’s great to have some private lessons from time to time to make sure that you are on the right track. But other than that – you will be fine on your own. You can create your feedback loops to make sure that you are speaking correctly.

    But how can you practice speaking on your own?

     

    How to Practice Speaking with Yourself

    The basic technique goes like this:
    1. visit iteslj.org/questions
    2. choose a subject you want to discuss
    3. start answering the questions and do it out loud!

     

    Don’t know a word? Write it down. Do you know a word? Try to find a synonym! Depending on your preferences, you might look it up immediately or save it for later.

    You can even scribble these questions on a piece of paper and write down needed vocabulary on the flip side. It will allow you to answer the same question again in the following days.

     

    EXAMPLE:
    Q: Why do you hate Kate? (translated into your target language)
    A: (needed vocabulary) brainless chatterbox, pretentious

     

    Don’t Be Too Serious – Have Fun

    As you can see, you don’t need to be serious when you answer these questions.
    Heck, the questions themselves don’t need to be serious!

    Have fun!

    Q: Have you ever tried eating with your feet?

    Q: If you were a hot dog, what kind of hot dog would you be?

    The greatest thing of all about learning to talk like this is that nobody judges you. You might mispronounce words in your first try. You might forget them.

    And guess what? Nothing. Nothing will happen.

     

    Once you get good and confident enough, you can start talking with others.

     

    I find it quite often to be more effective than real conversations. I know, I know. On the surface, it might seem absurd. There is no interaction, after all.

    However, if you look beyond the superficial, you will be able to see that self-talk offers you a lot of opportunities that real-life conversations can’t.

     

    For example, self-talk gives you a chance to activate less frequent words.

     

    I can talk for 20 minutes with myself about cervical cancer. Could I do it with someone else? Let’s try to imagine such a conversation.

    – “Hi, Tom! Wanna talk about cervical cancer? It will be fun! I promise!”
    – “Stay away, you weirdo!’
    – “Cool! Some other time then.”

    Read more: Benefits Of Talking To Yourself And How To Do It Right To Master a Language.

     

    3) Write instead of talking

     

    How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

     

    Talking doesn’t necessarily mean discussing philosophical treatises face-to-face. It’s perfectly fine to stick to written communication. In the era of the internet, you are just a few clicks away from millions of potential language partners.

    Here is a list of websites where you can find some language exchange partners:

     

    Don’t want to talk to others? Don’t worry. You still might activate your vocabulary. Start writing daily. Anything really will do. It can be a diary, a blog, some observations.

    Make it difficult for yourself and choose some difficult subject to jog your mind. It can even be some erotic novel! “The secret erotic life of ferns,” for example. Yep. I like this one.

    Read more: Writing or speaking – what is better memory-wise for learning languages?

     

    4) Condition yourself

     

    We might be the pinnacle of evolution, but in some regards, we are no different from your average gopher or a sloth. You can easily get conditioned to react to specific circumstances in a given way.

    Why? Habituation. That’s why.

     

    Habituation is a form of learning in which an organism decreases or ceases to respond to a stimulus after repeated presentations. Essentially, the organism learns to stop responding to a stimulus which is no longer biologically relevant. For example, organisms may habituate to repeated sudden loud noises when they learn these have no consequences.

    Habituation usually refers to a reduction in innate behaviours, rather than behaviours developed during conditioning in which the process is termed “extinction”. A progressive decline of a behavior in a habituation procedure may also reflect nonspecific effects such as fatigue, which must be ruled out when the interest is in habituation as a learning process. – Wikipedia

     

    Once you learn that all that gloom and doom is only in your head, you can start modifying your behavior (you can read more about it in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn. Highly recommended!)

    You can leverage this rule and condition yourself to become a braver version of yourself. Maybe you won’t get I-will-slay-you-and-take-your-women brave in two weeks, but it will get you started.

    Your action plan is simple but not easy.

     

    Find situations where you can expose yourself to stressors

     

    As Oscar Wilde used to say, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” And only you know how deep you are stuck in this anxiety gutter.

    Choose your first task accordingly, and move your way up from there. Don’t make it too easy or too hard on yourself.

    Some of the things you might do are:

     

    Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety – Conditioning Strategies

     

    a) HIGH ANXIETY LEVELS – post your comments:

     

    • in one of FB language groups
    • under a YT video
    • popular tweets
    • an article on Reddit or some other website

    In other words, just leave a comment somewhere. You don’t even have to go back to check responses!

    b) MEDIUM ANXIETY LEVELS (exchanging messages)

     

    • register at Italki.com and write to just one language exchange partner
    • download HelloTalk and write to someone
    c) LOW ANXIETY LEVELS (face-to-face conversations)

     

    • go to a nearby language café and talk with others
    • find the nearest language meeting on MeetUp.com and go there

     

    Any start is a good start as long as you start.

     

    5) Reframe your thoughts

     

    Social Anxiety - Condition Yourself

     

    There is a good chance that you have heard about reframing your thoughts. The basic premise is very simple.

     

    Every time you catch yourself being anxious about some situation, you should look at it from a different perspective.

     

    Instead of saying, “Gosh, she sure wouldn’t like to talk with me,” you can change it to, “I bet she is bored right now and would love to have a nice chat with me.”

    I know. It sounds corny.

    The first time I heard this piece of advice, I felt as if a ragged hobo tried to jam a lump of guano in my hand, saying, “Just pat it into your face, and you will gain superpowers.”

    Little did I know that this advice is as brilliant as it is simple. Much water passed under the bridge before I finally started applying it.

    But why does it work? Because such is the nature of memories. They are not set in stone and perennial.

    Research conducted by Daniela Schiller, of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and her former colleagues from New York University, shows us something truly amazing.

     

    Schiller says that “memories are malleable constructs that are reconstructed with each recall. We all recognize that our memories are like Swiss cheese; what we now know is that they are more like processed cheese.

    What we remember changes each time we recall the event. The slightly changed memory is now embedded as “real,” only to be reconstructed with the next recall. – Source 

     

    So what does it all mean?

    It means that adding new information to your memories or recalling them in a slightly different context might alter them.

    How much? Enough for you to recalibrate how you perceive the world around you! It’s up to you how much you want to reshape your perception of reality.

     

    6) Decide whether you really need to speak a language

     

    Learning Languages - Strategies

     

    It seems like a strange statement. But the truth is that not everyone needs to learn how to speak a language.

    Before you dive into the language learning process, be sure that it’s something you want. You shouldn’t feel pressured into doing so just because others do. You don’t want to spend hundreds of extra hours on something you are not going to use.

    Remember that every language, even the tiniest of them all, is a skeleton key to the vastness of materials – books, movies, anecdotes, etc. It’s fine to learn a language to be able to access them all.

     

    Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety – Your Strategies

     

    Here is a quick summary of all the strategies mentioned above.

    1. Don’t find a teacher, find a friend
    2. Talk To Yourself
    3. Write instead of talking
    4. Condition yourself
    5. Reframe your thoughts
    6. Decide whether you really need to speak a language

     

    How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety – Summary

     

    Overcoming your language learning anxiety can be hard, but it is certainly doable. When in doubt, always keep in mind that our reality is negotiable to a large degree – if you believe you can change, it is possible.

    What’s more, you shouldn’t forget that the real work is always done in solitude. Teachers or language partners might show you what to concentrate on, but it’s up to you to put this knowledge into practice.

    You don’t have to limit yourself to activating your vocabulary only through speaking. Writing is also a very desirable option.

    Lastly, remember that changing your diet can also be very helpful. You can do it, for example, by introducing anti-inflammatory foods like turmeric.

    Back to you.

     

    Can you share any tricks/methods which helped you overcome your language learning anxiety?

    No advice is too small or trivial. As always, feel free to comment or drop me a message.

    How To Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language – Learn a Language On Your Own (Part 5)

    How To Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language

     

    Before I explain how to improve listening skills in a foreign language, I have one thing to confess.

    You wouldn’t believe how long I’ve ignored this skill! I was convinced that mastering grammar and vocabulary is, more or less, enough to have a decent conversation with foreigners. And that these competencies will take care of the rest.

    Boy, oh boy, was I wrong! Of course, like all the theories, it all seemed rosy until it got confronted with reality.

     

    How to Improve Listening Skills in a Foreign Language

     

    My “Brilliant” Theory

    Years ago, I was obsessing about German. I rolled up my sleeves, got down to work, learned about 8000 words, and got a pretty good grasp of grammar. I could say almost anything I wanted without being too vague. It felt great!

    Not so long afterward, I got a chance to visit France. I met an elderly German couple there. “That’s my chance to socialize! That’s my chance to SHINE!”, a naive thought crossed my mind. I approached them and asked them some questions. You know, just an ordinary small-talk.
    What happened just a moment later left nasty scars on my linguistic self-esteem.

    What came out of their mouths was absolute nonsense. They could have, as well, farted with their armpits. My face went red as I asked them, time and time again, to repeat what they had just said. Just one more time. But slower. DAMN YOU! Slower and clearer, I said! And there I stood with glassy eyes, staring at the debris of what was once my theory.

     

    Listening as a Key Language Competence

     

    I guess what I am trying to say is that listening is critical. Since the failure mentioned above, I’ve met many people who are fully functional in the language of their choice just because they understand what they hear.

    It’s not that surprising when you think about it. EVERY complex skill consists of several smaller elements. These elements, in turn, are composed of even tinier parts.

    Roughly said, communication is nothing more than being able to understand what you hear and being able to express yourself. But as I so painfully learned, listening is much more critical. That’s what makes any social interaction possible.

    Since then, I established listening and speaking as a core of my language skills. These skills require an immediate response.

     

    Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language

     

    Listening provides you with more sensory channels, such as emotions, hearing visual stimuli (when you listen and watch something). That’s why it’s much easier for you to remember real-life conversations than excerpts from articles.

    The final and essential reason to opt for listening is that nobody cares if you read or write slowly. While doing these things, you can typically take your time to double-check anything your heart desires.

    “Smith is such a slow reader. I think I’ll fire him.”. Yep, I also have never heard of such a situation. However, it is essential to note that writing and reading are interconnected with speaking and listening. And the progress in any of these areas influences one another.

     

    Improve Listening Skills – Find the Right Resources

     

    Do you have to go through the preparation before the listening practice? Of course not. But don’t be too surprised if you end up getting frustrated quickly or bitterly realize that your progress is excruciatingly slow.

    So, where should you start?

    FIND THE RIGHT RESOURCES

    You might wonder what “right resources” means. The answer is – it depends.

    Beginners / Intermediate Learners

    If you fall into this category, you should find some simplified materials where the speech is slower, clearer, and ideally – transcribed. 

    Advanced Learners

    If you’re at least on a B2 level, it means that the only right solution for you is to lay your hands on original programs, talk shows, movies, etc. in your target language.

    GET YOUR RESOURCES HANDY

    Do you know this annoying feeling when you promise yourself something, and then you can’t seem to force yourself to follow through?

    Why is that?

    Well, the research (and experience) has it that if you need to spend more than 20 seconds to start doing something, there is a big chance that you’ll fail. The “activation time” should be as short as possible. Choose one or two programs to listen to and make sure that they are just a click away.

    Read more: Important Factors That Affect Your Listening Comprehension – the Only Two That Matter If You Want to Understand ASAP.

    Improve Listening Skills – Pre-practice Tips

     

    MENTAL PREPARATION

     

    • Come to terms with the fact that you are not going to understand everything for a long time.
    • Listen as often as it’s only possible. Listen while doing household chores. Do it when you’re at the gym. Listen when you’re in a car. You get it. LISTEN!
    • Don’t get annoyed when you don’t understand something. Stress is your archenemy in learning. It’s like with Tibetan throat singing. You won’t be able to wrap your head around it at the beginning. Hmm, I need to work on my comparisons.
    • And no matter what, don’t give up, you softie! Grin and bear it!

     

    MATTER-OF-FACT PREPARATION

     

    • Do not translate into your native tongue. You should be entirely focused on a speaker, not the translation process.
    • Listen to something you enjoy.
    • Prepare before listening – quite often it’s possible to check what the news or some program is about. Thanks to this knowledge, you can prepare vocabulary beforehand. If you’re not sure about words that might be used, try to brainstorm them.
    • Remove distractions – you know why. Interestingly, they’re a welcome addition when you already understand much as they make your listening practice more natural.
    • Set a goal. You can listen for meaning, for sounds, for tones, for a melody, or stress.
    • If you find listening incredibly dull, try to gamify your practice – e.g., give yourself 1 point each time when you hear a word starting with P. Or drink one shot of Tequila. Just make sure it’s fun for you!
    • Build sound recognition. Do you know the most distinctive sounds of your target language? No? Then move to Part 3 of this series. Such knowledge can considerably accelerate your understanding capabilities!
    • Be aware of how the language changes when it’s spoken. I can’t stress this one enough. If you know how the sounds connect, when they are deleted or inserted, you’ll need much less time to progress!

    Example

    Look at this example: What are you going to do – Whaddya gonna do?

    Being aware of the fact that when a consonant of one word neighbors a vowel of another word, it makes you pronounce these two separate words as one, can help you tremendously with your listening practice.

    That’s why you pronounce – “it is” as one word – “itis.” 

    Another example from English is the transformation of [d] and [y]. When these sounds neighbor each other, they are transformed into [dʒ]

    [d] + [y] = [dʒ]

     

    Strategies To Follow During Listening Practice

     

    How To Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language

     

    Throughout the years, I’ve managed to come up with quite many solutions on how I can improve my listening capabilities. Digest them at your own pace, take what you need, and ignore the rest.

     

    1. Listen for the gist of the conversation. Once you understand it, move on to details
    2. When you watch materials in original, observe mouths of actors/hosts and read their lips.
    3. Try to understand the non-verbal communication of your speaking partner (actors, etc.).
    4. Listen to the melody of the language
    5. Once you get accustomed to the melody of the language, try to separate the ongoing flow of words by (e.g.) pressing your fingers against a table whenever you hear that some word is accented. It’s my favorite trick. Interestingly, sometimes, when I listen to French and perform the said activity, I can understand almost every word. Once I stop, my understanding goes down significantly.
    6. Concentrate on sounds that are foreign to you. This technique can also help you maintain your concentration.
    7. Listen to the first and last letter of a word. It’s especially helpful when you’re just starting your listening practice. In this case, this technique will help separate different words. S ..sm…(smile?), smi…(smirk? smite?), smit… (smite?!), smith (I knew it!)
    8. Use logic to conclude what will follow (get in the habit of guessing).
    9. Listen to a recording more than once. At first, to understand the gist and then to get details.
    10. Slow down the speed of recording. For this purpose, use Audacity, AllPlayer, or simply YouTube.
    11. Speed up the speed of the recording to extend your comfort zone and then move back to an actual pace.
    12. Remember that listening is an active process, note down any phrases or words which you find interesting or don’t understand.

     

    Improve Listening Skills – Summary

     

    Improving listening skills is one of the two most important language skills. Unfortunately, it’s is also terribly time-consuming.

    The strategies mentioned above will undoubtedly help you to get faster to the finish line, i.e., understand your target language. Still, you need to keep in mind that the secret sauce is patience.
    Permanently banish any thoughts of giving up. It is the only way to become successful in language learning.

    That’s all, folks! Do you know other listening strategies to improve listening skills? I’d love to hear them! Let me know in the comments.

     

    Track Your Progress in Language Learning – 6 Easy Ways to Do It

    Track Your Progress In Language Learning

     

    I wonder if you’re like me when it comes to tracking your progress?

    I used to hate it passionately. I mean, how much geekier can you get? And all these vain people scrupulously jotting down their weight. Pathetic!

    And then, one day, I decided to buy myself scales. I joyously stepped on them to see that I hit 100 kg mark. WHAT?! I came to my senses around that time and started tracking, not only my weight but my learning progress as well.

    Can you imagine a runner who runs around and one day shouts out: “I’m gonna win a marathon”! And then an older man standing nearby strikes a conversation, something along these lines:
    – “That’s amazing! So what’s your best time so far?”
    + “Best? Uhmm, dunno, really. I guess it’s not that important to me.”
    – “Have you ever run a marathon before?!”
    + “I’m not sure. But once I ran so long that my feet hurt and I had an ouchie.”

    That would be weird, right? And yet, a lot of us do it. The question is: Why?

     

    Why You Should Track Your Progress in Language Learning – Habituation

     

    Not only is it a cool word, but also one of the most critical (and frequent) processes that occur in our lives!

     

    Habituation is a form of learning in which an organism decreases or ceases to respond to a stimulus after repeated presentations.[1] Essentially, the organism learns to stop responding to a stimulus that is no longer biologically relevant. For example, organisms may habituate to repeated sudden loud noises when they learn these have no consequence. The Almighty Wikipedia

    And therein lies the rub. We get used to our current skills level. And that’s why we NEED tracking. The best part is that it does not need to be sophisticated to be effective.

    At the bare minimum, it should be able to show you if you’re moving in the right direction or moving at all. The chance is that you’re spinning your wheels knee-deep in a turd ocean of self-admiration!

     

    6 Ways To Track Your Progress In Language Learning

     

    My idea of tracking my progress is quite tightly connected to the core language competencies: reading, writing, listening, vocabulary, grammar, and speaking.

    Of course, to start tracking anything, you need a place to note your progress. Remember, it doesn’t have to be high-tech. You can use a notebook, Google spreadsheet, Excel, or Calc (Open Office).

    TRACKING VOCABULARY

    I assume that you already use Anki. If you don’t, download it immediately (unless you use some other spatial repetition program). 

    ANKI makes tracking your progress easy. The first important piece of information for us is the number of words you’ve covered so far.

    Read more about Why Most Spaced Repetition Apps Don’t Work and How to Fix It.

     

     

    Track Your Progress In Language Learning

     

    If you see that within a month you’ve moved from 406 to 700, it’s a clear sign that you’re on the right path.

    The second thing worth tracking is the recall rate (especially correct mature).

     

    Track Your Progress In Language Learning

     

    This piece of information tells us how well you remember the information you learn. If it’s alarmingly low (below 40-50%), it’s a signal that you should seriously consider improving your learning techniques.

    TRACKING READING

    Usually, we either read e-books (e-articles) or paper ones. In my opinion, you should track the medium which you use more frequently. When it comes to reading, a good tracking criterion is to note down the number of pages you’ve read.

    TRACKING LISTENING

    It doesn’t matter whether you listen to podcasts, music, or watch TV-series. Tally it up and enter the data.

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

    TRACKING WRITING

    If you write mostly online, start counting how many words you have written (use Word Count Tool). Otherwise, start counting the number of pages you’ve written.

    TRACKING SPEAKING

    It’s not the easiest thing to track. I’ve never done it as I prefer tracking words. But if you know that speaking is your absolute priority – go for it. Check when the Skype conversation or a meeting with your friend starts and when it finishes, and sum up the total number of hours.

    If you put effort into your learning, I’m sure that after just a few weeks, you’ll be amazed to see what you’ve accomplished so far!

    TRACKING GRAMMAR

    It sounds daunting, and I agree. But for me, it comes naturally. As I’ve written before, preparing the outline of grammar is something that should be done before you start learning a language on your own.

    Once you have it, start crossing out the grammar topics which you’ve covered or just put a date next to them. It shows how much further grammatically you should get to achieve a certain level.

    Read more: Learn language faster with Grammar Cheat Sheet – 6 Reasons Why Every Language Learner MUST Have One

    Benefits Of Tracking Your Progress

     

    1) you never hit a plateau

    You see and know that you’re making progress.

    2) increased motivation

    You can admire your hard work at any time. Open Excel and take a look at yourself, you sexy, hard-working beast! And that helps you stay focused.

    3) instant feedback

    You see when you slack off or that your learning methods need a change. The data don’t lie! Also, it helps you see patterns in your learning.

    4) you don’t focus on the negative

    It’s a sad fact, but we tend to focus on negative things in life. Your successes stop giving you joy after a couple of days. We lose sight of our achievements. Your language log will keep on reminding you about them!

     

    Track Your Progress In Language Learning – Summary

     

    Tracking is a powerful tool in language learning. It would be a shame not to take advantage of it. Of course, you don’t have to go over the top. It’s enough that you start tracking elements that are the most important to you.
    So go ahead and let me know how it works for you!

     

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