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.


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 18 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 

 

How to Learn Finnish Fast – from Scratch to a B1 Level in 3 Months

Learn finnish fast

 

Do you want to learn Finnish fast? Great! I have a great pleasure of showing you a case study, or a magical transformation as I like to call it, of one of my superstar students. Kate took my language learning course Vocabulary Labs quite many months ago and very quickly morphed into a learning beast! She learned Finnish to an A2 level in 3 weeks and a B1 in about 3 months as verified by one of her local language schools. What makes it even more impressive is that Kate is a busy mom of 2. She has no time to waste.

Another cool thing about this case study is that I collected all of Kate’s emails throughout the course. They will give you a detailed picture of how drastically one’s approach to learning can change once they switch to different learning strategies and start violating memory principles.

This article also gives me yet another chance of showcasing a core philosophy promoted by the Universe of Memory.

 

Learning is mostly a lonely struggle. It’s what you do at home that really matters. Choose a bad learning strategy, or focus on the incorrect things and you can kiss your progress goodbye.

 

If that wasn’t enough, Kate also shares her advice about encouraging your family to join you in your language mission. It seems that the key strategy which has eluded me for years are thinly veiled threats of starving your significant other. Who would have thought?

 

Learn Finnish fast – the Pre-course Evaluation

 

The pre-course evaluation

 

One of the indispensable parts of the Vocabulary Labs course is a pre-course survey which I send to each member before the course starts. It helps me evaluate the state of knowledge of all the participants as well as their propensities and current learning styles.

Below you can find some of Kate’s answers from the said survey. Her original goal was to learn German, but at the very beginning of the course, she decided to change it to Finnish.

 

  • What languages do you know currently and at what levels? Which one is your native tongue?
    Russian is my native tongue.
    I know English at C2.
    I used to know French at B2-C1 and some Latin, but I’ve forgotten most part of both by now. Also, I tried learning Japanese and German, but I’m about A0 in them 🙂
  • How much time can you devote to learning per day? Be as realistic as you only can.
    About an hour if I’m enthusiastic, not more than half an hour if there’s no interest, but only my will power involved.
  • How much time do you spend learning your target language every day? Please give me the approximate numbers for the following categories: reading, listening/watching, writing, talking.
    I‘m not learning German now.
  • What are you reading/watching/listening to?
    I don’t read or watch much (if we speak about fiction or things like news and films), I listen to audiobooks. It isn’t because I don’t like reading or watching. The only reason is that I can listen doing something else at the same time, while reading and watching need total concentration (well, watching a film + crocheting is possible, but with reading even this is out of the question). The majority of what I read/watch is in English (articles, lectures, etc. on the Internet).
  • Who do you talk to (teachers, friends, etc.)?
    Students. But that’s in English. In German, I don’t talk to anyone.
  • How do you learn and revise your vocabulary? What systems/apps/ websites are you using? (the more details the better)
    To learn German, I used Duolingo. I did it because I was interested in whether a program can really teach you anything. It taught me a couple of things, but not much. To study some C2 vocab when I was getting ready to take my CPE exam, I used Quizlet. I created flashcards myself, but I didn’t use them much – it was rather boring.
  • What do you (currently) like/dislike about language learning?
    There isn’t anything that I dislike. Languages are part of my life and have always been. I just enjoy them.
  • What are your strengths/weaknesses when it comes to learning? (discipline, concentration, etc.)
    I remember and understand things quickly – these are my strengths. I drop things easily if I’m bored. This lack of persistence is my weakness.
  • What are your favorite hobbies/pastimes?
    Usually, I’m up to my ears in work, which is also my hobby. When I’m too tired of work, I just relax doing nothing.
  • What is your current vocabulary size in your target language? 
    In German it’s about 100 words, I guess. Not more. Although I’ve never counted them. And they’re all my passive vocabulary.
  • How many new words do you learn per day?
    Zero.
  • How do you currently learn grammar?
    I don’t learn it in at all.
  • What is the quickest you have ever learned a language?
    A year – I was able to talk to a native speaker after a year of studying. But the level wasn’t high, so it all depends on what you mean by “have learned”. If it’s totally independent use of the language, like C1-C2, then my only achievement is English, and it took me many years to reach this level.
    To finish answering, let me say that although I’m very curious about your system, I’m at the same time very skeptical about it. In other words, I don’t really expect much and regard it more like an experiment of some sort. I don’t remember when and how I found your first article about memory and language learning, but I certainly liked it, because I rarely subscribe to receive e-mails. So, I was very interested to find out that you’re launching this course. Judging by your articles, the course is going to be interesting, regardless of my expectations 🙂

 

Learn Finnish fast – Kate’s Progress!

 

Meet Kate!

 

Meet Kate!

 

Once the course starts, all the participants receive e-mail reminders about their progress. It helps me keep track of their learning pace and any potential problems. It also makes for a great read later on! These e-mails create an amazing narrative and show how much people, and their learning capacity, can change within just a couple of weeks.

Here are Kate’s e-mails.

 

Update #1 – Beating 2 months of learning with Duolingo in 5 days

 

Hi Bartosz,

I’d like to share my impressions of your course. At the very beginning, I was skeptical (and I wrote to you about it). Well, seems like I’m not skeptical anymore)) Bartosz, your E.V.A. method is mind-blowing (both literally and figuratively). Its simplicity and effectiveness are just amazing.

Now, more details. My initial aim was German, but right at the beginning of the course, I changed my mind. Since I’ve already tested how Duolinguo works using German, I decided to pick up some other language and see what I will achieve using your method. Then I was going to compare my Duolinguo achievements in German with the achievements in the new language. For the experiment, to be totally honest, I chose a language which looks absolutely alien to me: Finnish. It has nothing in common with the languages I know, since it belongs to a different family.

 

Duolingo experiment

My Duolingo experiment (which I carried out 2 years ago) lasted for about 2 months. I spent on it an hour or more daily. I learned some words and got some understanding of some grammar structures, but that’s about it. I don’t think I could say anything in that language except for the phrases which were repeated multiple times and which I simply knew by heart. I wasn’t satisfied with the results and deleted Duolingo after two months.

I started using your method on May, 5th. On May 10th I realized I’ve already achieved more than after 2 months of Duolingo. And that’s not because Finnish is easy and German is not. Actually, it’s the other way around. In German, there were notions easy to grasp since they’re similar to English in some way. Many words looked familiar, too. Finnish, ha-ha) Nothing in common either with Latin, or with English, or with Russian.

Maybe, pronunciation is easier, but nothing else. Still, I already know more than 100 words and CAN USE them. And it’s very inspiring, of course, to see this progress.

I didn’t believe at first that B1 in 4 months is achievable, but now I think it is pretty possible if I just keep doing it at the same pace (which is not highly demanding, by the way).

As for the biggest takeaway from the Grammar Module — that’s Deep Learning. I haven’t yet been doing it for long, but it already brings in the results.

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

 

Update #2 – First 1000 Finnish words and A2 level in 3 weeks

 

Hi Bartosz,

I’m happy to share my experience of using your course, which is very pleasant indeed.

First of all, yesterday I finished my first thousand of Finnish words (yes, I was waiting with this email just to be able to boast). 400+ of them are regarded by ANKI as mature. This would have never been possible but for the techniques, I learned from you. I do study grammar as well from time to time, but as it requires more concentration and can’t be done 5-10 minutes in the morning, then 3 minutes while the kids are playing in the sandbox, I study little grammar in comparison with vocabulary.

I’ve got a textbook in Finnish. I don’t use it, but what I do is open it once a fortnight and see if I can understand something in there. In the beginning, it didn’t make any sense, but now the first four or five units are pretty easy to understand.

 

Hungry for more

The method has changed my perception of language learning so much that sometimes I feel my progress is slow. At this moment I remember my words “I’d call reaching A2-B1 in 3-4 months a tremendous success”. I know this phenomenon of greediness from my students, and now I’m experiencing it myself. Funny, but when I was doing Duolinguo making no progress whatsoever, I didn’t feel that I was going too slow.

At the end of the third week of my experiment, I found an online placement test offered by some Finnish language school in Moscow. The result was that they suggested I join their second-semester group (which means I’d achieved in 3 weeks what they were studying for 4 months at the same price which I paid for your course).

 

Update #3 – 1500 Finnish Words + Convincing Her Husband to Learn as Well!

 

Thanks for monitoring the progress 🙂 I’ve learned a bit more than 1500 words (today it’s the 80th day of my learning), and I’m progressing further. This learning thing seems to be infectious: my husband started on Finnish, too. His pace is slower – just 5 words, but in spite of this, some progress can already be seen. Now I’ve got a partner to practice my skills during breakfast time :)) Totally free and always available.

 

2800+ Finnish words

Summer is over, a new school year has started, which means a lack of time. Well, no time at all, actually. So, I set my daily word limit to 10 (it used to be 20) just to make it doable. Right now the number of words I’ve learned is 2800, which is quite a lot. I decided to take a lesson with a native speaker to see if I will be able to speak. Yes, I’m able to speak and, which is even better, the natives can understand it! It’s more difficult to understand what they say, but I’m sure it’s a matter of practice. I’ve tried lessons with 2 different people, and both couldn’t believe that I’ve been studying Finnish for 4 months only (I took those lessons at the beginning of September, which was exactly 4 months since I started this language from scratch).

 

Plans to take the officialYKI test

Now my plan is to try taking their YKI test. It takes place only in Finland, but the more I learn the eager I am to visit that country. And if I visit it, why not taking the exam? There are three levels on which you can take it: A1-A2, B1-B2, C1-C2. I’m thinking of taking B1-B2. I would attempt at C1 if it weren’t for my extra-busy teaching time till the end of May. I just won’t be able to find the necessary time. However, B2 looks achievable.

Best wishes,
Kate

P. S. “B2 looks achievable”. In a year. God, who could have thought I’d ever say this…

 

A Short Interview With Kate

 

A short interview with Kate
While writing this case study, I was also able to catch up with Kate and ask her a couple of questions about learning and her family. It’s truly inspiring to see how much effort and sneakiness she put into encouraging them to learn Finnish fast as well!

 

What do you do?

I’m a teacher of English. I’ve been teaching for 15 years. I have experience of working at school, but for the last ten years, I’ve been a freelance teacher.

 

Why exactly did you decide to learn Finnish instead of German?

I’ve chosen Finnish because at first learning it was part of an experiment. I was interested to find out whether the system you suggest really allows people to learn languages faster than usual. For this purpose, I needed a language which is different from the ones I was familiar with.

Since I studied Latin, such languages as Italian, Spanish, etc. were out of the question — being familiar with Latin makes it easier to learn them, so it wouldn’t have been clear whether it’s Bartosz’s system working or just my experience. German is in certain ways similar to English. Moreover, by the beginning of the experiment, I had already tried learning German, so this language wasn’t new either. So I was looking for a language from a different language family. Finnish, which is a member of the Uralic family and looked totally alien to me at the beginning of my experiment, was a perfect choice.

My 2 cents: That’s a great approach. It’s really to fool yourself into believing that you can learn fast if you learn a language that is similar to the ones you already know. For years, while I have been devising my learning strategies, I used languages which I knew nothing about to minimize any background knowledge interference.

 

Did you have to force your husband to learn Finnish or was it his choice :)?

Yep. I told him I wouldn’t feed him if he didn’t start learning at least 5 words a day. Speaking seriously, I didn’t force him, but it wasn’t his choice either. I started by creating an ANKI profile for him and added 3 words there every day.

It took less than a minute to revise them during breakfast time, and in about ten-fifteen days he realized he could say simple phrases. It inspired him and he asked me to increase the number of words up to 5. Then 7. Then 10. Then he started reading to learn some grammar and listen so some dialogues on Finnish sites. So that’s how it happened.

My 2 cents: Let’s take a second to appreciate Kate’s brilliance. She didn’t wait until her husband makes up his mind. Instead, she created a separate ANKI account and flashcards to kickstart his progress. Sure, it would be better if he produced them himself. the thing is that probably he wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for Kate’s initiative. If you’ve been contemplating how to force your loved ones to take up a new language, you might benefit from this strategy.

 

Do you currently have some opportunities to use the language? If not, how do you maintain it?

Right now, I don’t have many opportunities to use the language unless I read/listen to something or exchange a couple of phrases with my husband. I used to have 1 lesson a week with a native speaker (I started in September to see whether I would be able to understand something and make myself understood, I liked the person I talked to, so I continued the speaking sessions till February. In February I had to quit because I was fully concentrated on my work).

 

Do you use methods from Vocabulary Labs at your work? Did they affect the results of your students? How?

Yes, I used the methods. One of the methods (or ideas, probably) that I used was to set a certain minimum of what has to be learnt/done every day. I prepared the materials in such a way that the goal of doing them every day was achievable pretty easily. It resulted in my students having covered LOTS of stuff. Much more than was covered by those who studied less systematically.

Another one is, of course, ANKI. I explained to the students how to make cards. Some of them started using it right away, others didn’t want to. I didn’t insist much. In about 3 months it was easy to detect who was and who was not using ANKI without even asking them. The formers’ level grew much more rapidly.

My 2 cents: That definitely sounds familiar. Even after one week of private coaching, I can already hear whether my clients use ANKI or not.

 

Do you use the said methods in your daughter’s education? How exactly does it look like?:)

The only method I’m using in my daughter’s education is ANKI. We just use it to learn words. For example, when we watch a cartoon or just talk about something while walking and this or that word pops up, we write a sentence with it in ANKI (and a picture! you can’t make a card without a picture, it’s almost a crime).

My daughter’s pace is 3 words a day, but we often skip writing new words (not because she isn’t willing, but because I’m a lazy and irresponsible mother). She never skips revising, though. She can’t read in English yet, so I read the sentence aloud making a pause where she has to insert a word. Sometimes she makes sentences herself for the new cards.

About a month ago she asked me whether she could have lessons with someone who speaks English. I found a teacher on iTalki, and now they’re having lessons. I write out the words which are an active vocabulary for the lessons, and then my daughter learns them. If not for this learning, the lessons would mainly be a waste of money (as well as my speaking sessions in Finnish). Backed up by ANKI, however, they are fine: my daughter enjoys talking to someone from far away and understands more and more. I used to have lessons with my daughter last year. She’s a quick learner, but now she’s progressing quicker than she used to.

My younger daughter (3.8 years old) is always near my elder one when she’s revising. Side effect: the younger one knows half the words, too.

My 2 cents: I am raising my son (22 months) bilingually ,and I am also optimizing his words repetitions with ANKI. Of course, he is way too small to do it himself,  being the lazy bugger he is, but I do it for him to optimize his learning curve.

 

What are the three main takeaways you learned from Vocabulary Labs?

1) I found out that learning a language can be amazingly quick. Finnish is more difficult than any other language I’ve come across so far (ok, Latin can compete, but it’s a dead language), yet the pace with which I learned it was quicker than, for example, French. Knowing that a language can be learned fast is, actually, a very important takeaway. It motivates and gives hope thus making me succeed.

2) The one that I’m using in my work: better take a small step every day than sit for 10 hours once a month.

3) ANKI. Needless to comment I suppose.

3a) Switching my mobile to Finnish. It’s a tiny detail, but it reminds me of what I’m supposed to be doing every day.

Actually, I have forgotten many things from the course since it’s very big. Now that I have some free time, I’m going to revisit it 🙂

Are you planning to learn another language anytime soon?

I’m not planning, but dreaming of learning Swedish as soon as I reach B2 in Finnish (which I hope will happen by the end of summer if everything goes as planned).

 

Finnish From Scratch to a b1 Level in 3 Months – the Learning Plan

 

Language strategies

 

In this section, you can find a rough plan which Kate used in order to learn Finnish fast to a B1 level as verified by a language school. As a reminder, if you’re looking for a more detailed version of this blueprint, please read another case study of mine “How to learn German from scratch to a B2 level in 5 months“.

Let’s start with the learning resources Kate has used to accomplish her mission.

 

Finnish Learning Resources

 

Kate only four things:

  • ANKI
  • Frequency lists (in the form of ANKI decks)
  • Websites to find native speakers to talk to
  • FinnishPod101

 

I can only smile when people shake their heads in disbelief upon hearing that you don’t need more than a handful of resources to learn a language. Interestingly, the opposite is true. The more learning resources you use, the smaller your chances of being able to use them efficiently. What’s terrifying, even one small piece of paper which you scribble on can be counted as a separate resource. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s a fact.

 

The Best Anki Decks for Finnish Vocabulary

 

One of the fastest ways to learn a language is to start with vocabulary lists. Here are the best English-Finnish ANKI decks I have been able to find.

Please keep in mind that those lists are supposed to be a basis for your own ANKI deck. Nothing can replace the effort you put into creating your own flashcards and sentences.

This deck should be enough to take you from zero to about a B2 level. It also includes examples and audio.

And here are other noteworthy frequency lists of Finnish words:

 

How to Talk With Finnish Native Speakers for Free

 

Organized lessons are, of course, a great idea. However, in the era of the internet, it’s absolutely not necessary to pay for them in order to talk with native speakers.

Here is a list of great websites where you can arrange language exchange with language enthusiasts.

My absolute favorite is definitely Italki. This is also the website that Kate has used to find a language partner.

 

 

Finnish From Scratch to a b1 Level in 3 Months – What to Do

 

Learn finnish fast

 

(1) Download ANKI
(2) Download a frequency list (e.g. in the form of ANKI decks)
(3) Calculate your daily goal.
It’s a number of words you need to learn daily in order to achieve your goal withing a certain timeframe. You should base your calculation on this article – how many words you should need for every language level.
(4) Start creating sentences with the words from your frequency list.
Don’t learn passively. Actually use the information you want to memorize.
(5) Be systematic
(6) Use deliberate practice to quickly acquire grammar
(7) Talk with yourself to consolidate grammar and vocabulary
(8) Once you learn 2000-2500 words, find a language partner if you want to.
Of course, the more words you know before your first conversation, the better for you.
(9) Don’t forget about listening. Try to start practicing your listening comprehension only once you learn at least 2000 words if you want to optimize your learning time.
Of course, there are many nuances to this strategy but this learning plan should allow you to learn Finnish fast.

 

Finnish From Scratch to a b1 Level in 3 Months – the Learning Plan – Summary

 

Way too many people think that learning boils down to devoting vast swathes of time to your learning projects. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, effective learning is all about energy and effort you put into your learning. Very often one hour of honest work can beat 10 hours of bumming around. If you add effective learning strategies to this mix, rest assured that your progress will know no bounds.

Do you want to ask me or Kate something about this mission? Let us know in the comments.

 

Vocabulary Labs

 

Interested in all the methods and strategies that we have used to learn German within that time? Check out my language course Vocabulary Labs. You can read dozens of similar testimonials here. It has been used by hundreds of learners to master over 40 different languages.

 

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 suddensome cat jumps on a table and gracefully puts its paw into your cereal bowl.

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

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

3) Number of cues

 

 

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

From this it follows that:

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

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

 

Don’t overdo it – a cue overload effect

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

It happens so because:

 

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

 

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 inthe capacity of our short-term memory.

 

4) Distinctivity of cues

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

 

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

 

But why do we need distinct retrieval cues?

 

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

 

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

How to build good cues 

 

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.

 

Examples of learning methods which impede retrievability

 

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

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

 

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 RETRIEVEencoding cue             ->      retrieval cue (identical or similar to the encoding cue) = success

 

Quite straightforward, isn’t it?

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Associations

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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 styleof learning will be more effective memory-wise.

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

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

Although, you have to appreciate the effort, right?

 

How to maximize your chances of recalling words – Summary

 

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

 

  • 1. You should be the person who generates cues

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

 

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

 

  • 2. Retrieve vocabulary in different conditions

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

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

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.

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.

 

Polyglot Tips, Advice, and Strategies – Why You Should Take Them With a Grain of Salt

WHY YOU SHOULD TREAT POLYGLOTS; ADVICE, TIPS, AND STRATEGIES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT


One category of emails which I regularly get is called: "X did Y, what do you think about it?" (or some variation of it).

X is usually a polyglot or a YouTuber who just did a mission, whereas Y often stands for a short amount of time. Usually, what a reader expects from me is to tell them that it's possible because they also want to learn fast. I get it - it all sounds exciting. If you can learn a language way faster, then why wouldn't you take advantage of polyglot tips, advice or learning strategies? 

The answer is simple: critical thinking. You are not them, and depending on your skill set and language background, it might not be possible for you even to get close to their results. There is a long list of warning signs that you should be aware of before you decide to emulate what they did. And no - I am not above it. Apply those criteria to my advice as well. 

Let's chomp down a healthy dose of red pills.


Polyglot Tips, Advice, and Strategies - Why You Should Take It With a Grain of Salt



I get this vague feeling that sometimes both people who give and take language advice are a bit detached from reality. 

In a rational world, if someone decided to start training box twice per week, initially, they would choose some simple form of training. Some stretching, basic forms, leg work - that kind of stuff.

A mere suggestion that, "Dude, Mike Tyson has this cool training, let's give it a try!" would be greeted with a pitiful smirk. They would know that this kind of workout routine would leave them in tears and wouldn't be too effective for them at this stage.

Yet, in the realm of languages, people get this idea that any language strategy is immediately applicable to them. Let me assure you - it is not. What's more, very often they can do more harm to your learning progress and motivation than good.

Here are a couple of arguments to bear in mind.


1. Expertise Reversal


The expertise reversal effect occurs when the instruction that is effective for novice learners is ineffective or even counterproductive for more expert learners.

If you look at it differently, more experienced learners learn more from high variability rather than low variability tasks demonstrating the variability effect. In contrast, less experienced learners learn more from low rather than top variability tasks showing a reverse variability effect.

Variability refers to a lack of consistency or fixed patterns in the tasks presented to a learner.
That means that beginners learn the best when there are:
  • not many tasks,
  • tasks are easy and predictable.

If you complicate a learning plan for them, they will never progress, or they will do it extremely slowly.

Call me pragmatic, but I wouldn't like to learn my first language to a B2 level while turning 70.

Sure, thumbs up from a nurse who is just emptying my bedpan sound encouraging, but I think I will pass.


What's an example of a crazy learning plan for beginners?

I bet you have seen or done it before - most of us did. Very often, if you have 45 minutes of learning time per day, you will hear the following recommendations:


  • 15 min of reading,
  • 10 min of listening,
  • 10 minutes of talking,
  • 10 of writing.
It's either this or some other variation of this madness.
Polyglots Advice

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

What I do recommend most of the time for beginners in my course Vocabulary Labs is this:

  • learn vocabulary with Anki,
  • learn basic grammar,
  • consolidate this knowledge with activation strategies.

Once they learn enough words, they start more advanced training, which involves lots of passive learning. Unsurprisingly, people who have failed to learn a language for ten years, miraculously start progressing like crazy.


Polygot Tips - Reading vs. Listening


The expertise reversal also manifests itself in the reading vs. listening effectiveness. Here is an excellent excerpt from a recent study.


Read-and-listen approach benefited novice learners; more expert learners could benefit more from the read-only approach.

2. Confidence can be misleading



The first thing you should keep in mind that we all crave confidence. Nobody wants to listen to people who seem hesitant. It all starts at a young age.

Researchers found that young children between the age of four and five not only prefer to learn from people who appear confident, they also keep track of how well the person's confidence has matched with their knowledge and accuracy in the past (a concept called 'calibration') and avoid learning new information from people who have a history of being overconfident. - ScienceDaily

Said another way, sometimes we don't pay much attention to what somebody has to say as much as how convincing they are when they do it. However, let's not confuse confidence (or age) with good advice.

Never underestimate how gullible we can be. While I am writing this, probably a dozen people on the internet are buying some course on healing cancer with banana enemas because the dude selling it looks and speaks like Gandalf.

Heck, I would probably buy it if he lowered his voice enough.


3. Experts are notoriously bad at explaining why they do certain things



Here is an excellent excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell's' book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking."


"Out of all the research that we've done with top players, we haven't found a single player who is consistent in knowing and explaining exactly what he does," Braden says.


"They give different answers at different times, or they have answers that simply are not meaningful."


One of the things he does, for instance, is videotape top tennis players and then digitize their movements, breaking them down frame by frame on a computer so that he knows, say, precisely how many degrees Pete Sampras rotates his shoulder on a cross-court backhand.

That's precisely how you combat this problematic phenomenon - you don't rely on opinions, you track data. Without it, our explanation of why something happened might be heavily warped by other factors.

If you want to see how far you can go with experimenting, check out this article: Over 30 Things You Can Learn From All My Fail And Successful Memory Experiments.


4. Achieving a certain skill level ≠ efficiency


I love Tim Ferris' approach to breaking down complex skills. One of his strategies involved finding outliers in a given discipline - people who shouldn't be good at something (especially sports), but they excelled against all the odds.

This framework allows you to cut through all the potential noise and eliminate variables that might distort your conclusions.

For example, I have had plenty of discussions with students of philology who claimed that the way they are taught at universities is impeccable. Every single time I had to point out that for five years, at least in Poland, they spend about 40 hours per week learning their target language. Go figure that you can achieve a C1 or C2 level after that many hours of practice!. Personally, I would be more interested in finding out how somebody, with similar or identical background knowledge, did it in a year.

The same goes for a lot of people who were born and raised in multilingual families or countries. It's great that they have acquired all this knowledge, but they are probably not the best people to give advice on how to learn languages.


5. The warping effect of background knowledge



Background knowledge is another variable that is NEVER considered by learners. 

Most of the relevant theories of learning to acknowledge that learners' knowledge bases are the most important moderating factor influencing our ability to acquire information (e.g., Chi, De Leeuw, Chiu, & LaVancher, 1994; Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994).

It is well established that knowledge of a given domain facilitates recall of information in that domain. For example, Spilich, Vesonder, Chiesi, and Voss (1979) found that after listening to a description of a half-inning of a fictitious baseball game, participants high in baseball knowledge recalled more game actions and other game-relevant information, but less irrelevant information, than did participants lower in baseball knowledge.

Similarly, after listening to short vignettes from a game, participants high in baseball knowledge were better able to detect changes in the event descriptions on a subsequent recognition test than participants lower in baseball knowledge, especially when the changes related to the goal structure of the game (Chiesi, Spilich, & Voss, 1979; Experiment 1). 

Walker (1987) also found a domain-knowledge effect when participants could read as well as listen to a half-inning game description.

Finally, Recht and Leslie (1988) reported the same effect when participants read silently the half-inning description.

Knowing many languages significantly changes your ability to acquire new ones. What's more, the more similar the language you want to learn is to the ones you already know, the faster you will acquire it.


Factors affecting your ability to learn



Keep in mind that there are lots of factors affecting your ability to learn, among others:

  1. 1
    Lack of a learning system
  2. 2
    Regularity of exposure
  3. 3
    Timing of repetition
  4. 4
    Retention intention
  5. 5
    Pronounceability (i.e., how difficult it is to pronounce)
  6. 6
    The usefulness of a word
  7. 7
    Emotional saliency
  8. 8
    Ease of application (i.e., knowing how to use a word)
  9. 9
    Lack of context
  10. 10
    Number of contexts
  11. 11
    Active encoding
  12. 12
    Morphological awareness (i.e., derivational complexity)
  13. 13
    The capacity of your short-term memory
  14. 14
    Intrinsic cognitive load (ICL)
  15. 15
    Germane cognitive load
  16. 16
    German cognitive load (GCL)
  17. 17
    Mental and physical condition
  18. 18
    Mental barriers
  19. 19
    Random variable(s)

Polyglots enjoy lots of unique advantages that have one thing in common - they decrease their general cognitive load. It means that they can learn much faster, longer, and more effectively than mono- and bilinguals. We can't pretend that it's not taking place, and we're all start at the same point. If this was a 100-meter dash, a typical polyglot would get a 70-meter headstart.

For example, quite a widespread piece of advice one can hear is that beginners should read simplified texts. Unfortunately, it's not true.

I want to make one thing very clear - no one is lying to you. These strategies DO work for them, but they will most probably won't work for you if your language background isn't extensive enough.


Learning Czech in 1 month


Let me give you a great example. My ninth and the last official language I learned was Czech. In 1 month (about 5 years ago), I managed to learn it from scratch to a B1/B2 level and confirmed with language tests.

It is a great result, and I am proud of it, but even at the beginning of this case study, I mentioned that I already know eight languages. What's more, my native tongue is Polish, and I speak fluent Russian.


Why is it important?

Because Czech shares about 70-80% of words with Polish. That means that right off the bat, my passive knowledge was big, and it was further increased by my knowledge of Russian.

Here are the implications of these numbers:


  • on day 1, I could already read and listen, and start acquiring some words passively
  • I didn't have to practice listening much because Polish and Czech are similar enough
  • there weren't too many words that seemed difficult for me pronunciation-wise
  • etc.


That was Czech. What about Slovak? To my surprise, when I visited Slovakia for Polyglot Gathering in 2017, I understood 98% of everything by virtue of knowing Czech. 

Would the above be true for me if I decided to learn Chinese? No!

That's why be alert if somebody tells you that passive learning is great. It's not - it sucks. However, it is effective for a person with extensive background knowledge.

If you have it - great. If not, better get back to active learning.


Summary -  Polyglot Tips, Advice, and Strategies 



Taking polyglot tips and advice at face value can be a fatal mistake for people who don't know many or any languages. It can lead to opposite effects. Instead of progressing way faster, your progress can be almost non-existent. In extreme cases, you can become so overwhelmed that you will give up.

The overall explanation is simple - polyglots enjoy all the benefits of having extensive background knowledge in a specific field of language learning. That makes their knowledge acquisition process much more efficient.

My suggestion would be to think twice before using their (and my!) advice. Better make sure that it applies to you before you waste any time!


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

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 18 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


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

A list of factors affecting word difficulty

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

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

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


Why words are difficult to remember


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

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

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

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


Factors affecting word difficulty


Factors affecting word difficulty

1. Lack of a learning system

2. Regularity of exposure

3. Timing of repetition

4. Retention intention

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

6. The usefulness of a word

7. Emotional saliency

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

9. Lack of context

10. Number of contexts

11. Active encoding

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

13. The capacity of your short-term memory

14. Intrinsic cognitive load (ICL)

15. Germane cognitive load

16. German cognitive load (GCL)

17. Mental and physical condition

18. Mental barriers

19. Random variable(s)

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


1. Lack of learning system



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

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

Overall, there were 135 students participating in this survey from all 6 semesters and between 18 and 31 years of age. 68.1% of the participants were male, 31.9% female. Only very few of them deliberately make use of learning strategies, such as spaced repetition or the Leitner system. 94.8% of the participants just repeat the learning topics randomly to have them available during a test.

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

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

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

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


2. Regularity of exposure to vocabulary


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

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

Here is a fantastic study showcasing this phenomenon.

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

3. Timing of repetition


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

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


 the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve


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

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

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


4. Retention intention


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

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

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

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


5. Pronounceability of vocabulary


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

This phonological form is called a phonological representation.

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

What happens when your phonological representations are incorrect?

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

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


6. The usefulness of a word


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


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


7. Emotional saliency



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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


Register restrictions

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

Halliday, McIntosh, and Strevens point out that:

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

9. Lack of context


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

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

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

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

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

10. Number of contexts


difficult vocabulary

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


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

  1. 1
    Problems with information transfer

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

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

  1. 2
    Problems with retrieving
  1. 3
    Problems with memorizing

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

Why is that?

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


11. Lack of active encoding


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

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

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

But what does encoding really mean?

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

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


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

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



12. Morphological awareness


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

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

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

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


13. The capacity of your short-term memory


difficult to learn vocabulary


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

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

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

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

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


14. Intrinsic cognitive load (ICL)


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

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

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


15. Germane cognitive load


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

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

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

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


16. Extraneous cognitive load (ECL)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



17. Mental and physical condition


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

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

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

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



18. Mental barriers



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

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

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


1. Self-fulfilling prophecy

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

This category includes self-diversion pearls like: 

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


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


3. Lack of self-efficacy/growth mindset

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

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

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


4. Social comparison bias

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


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


19. Random variable(s)


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

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


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


The Bell Curve


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

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

What variables are we talking about?

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

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

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

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


Factors affecting word difficulty - the summary


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

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

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


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 47  flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively – The Ultimate Test of Active Vocabulary

How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively


If you decide to learn a language, one of the most important decisions you can make is choosing the right learning strategy. This choice will either allow you to progress fast or break you mentally like a twig. It's the difference between moving forward in a Ferrari versus using your tears as a lubricant while you crawl.

In the past, I have written a lot about what factors affect vocabulary acquisition and how to tell decent or good language methods from the bad ones. However, people often mistakenly interpret their initial results with a given method as a sign that it truly works. It's like getting into an expensive SPA and seeing crap-stained walls with the graffiti "Steve was here". Disappointing, that is.

When it comes to increasing your passive vocabulary, it almost doesn't matter which strategy you choose - reading, learning flashcards, humming songs. They will all work, more or less, equally well.

However, testing whether your method of activating vocabulary is effective is way trickier. Let me show you how you can verify it and what you should be wary of.


How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively


2 types of recall


Considering that we're interested in testing whether you know your words actively, we must test your recall. In other words, we must know whether you can retrieve a word in your target language when you signal it to your brain during a conversation.

The first thing you need to know is that there are two types of recall.

  • free recall
  • cued recall

Free recall


Free recall is the process in which a person is given a list of items to remember and then is tested by being asked to recall them in any order. There is no natural context which might trigger the words you know.

Free recall often displays evidence of primacy and recency effects. Simply put, if you have just finished your learning session and you can feel dozens of words thrumming in your head, you have just experienced recency effect. The information that you are exposed to at the of your studies is easier to recall. The same goes for the information you have contact with at the beginning of your session - that's the primacy effect.


Cued Recall


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

The word "cues", or contextual triggers, as I like to call them, are key concepts here.


Why Free Recall Is a Bad Measure of Your Ability to Remember


Anytime somebody switches to a new learning method, especially if their baseline was good, old-fashioned cramming, they might experience improved initial recall. Does it mean that they remember more long-term? Absolutely not, although but a few people are aware of this.

"Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009)."

The word "initial" in this case is just a synonym for short-term learning. It gives you an illusion that knowledge has been acquired. However, once this illusion is confronted by precise measurements, it turns out that not much has been retained.


Free Recall and the Illusion of Knowledge


It's also a very common theme regarding many passive learning strategies like reading, restudying, highlighting, etc. The science knows beyond the shadow of the doubt that they are useless, but students still prefer them over battle-tested strategies like spaced repetition.

1. " For example, studies have shown that learners tend to prefer massing or cramming (table 1) over spacing because of the illusion that it is faster and more effective (Kornell, 2009). Technique Definition Massing Learning events are massed together in a short amount of time. Cramming Special form of massing; learning something intensely, often for the first time, in the days or hours before a test. Spacing Learning events are spaced apart over a longer period of time."

Source: Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, Robert A. Bjork - Memory (Handbook of Perception and Cognition

2. "Despite the clear superiority of the recall method over the restudy method, students report they rarely use it when they study. One reason is that it is simply more work to practice facts by arranging a self-test and recalling them. But there is also something else going on. Studying by recalling just doesn’t seem as effective to students as reading back through their notes. Suppose we ask college students to respond to this scenario:

Students in two different classes read the same one-page essay. In Class A, the students were asked to write down as much as they could remember after they finished. In Class B, the students were given an opportunity to restudy the passage after they finished. After one week, all students were tested on their memory for the passage. Which class would you expect to have the higher test scores?

When memory researcher Jennifer McCabe posed a similar question to college students, she found an overwhelming preference for the second strategy, restudying, even though this approach is known to be inferior to the recall method in this situation. Why did the students get it wrong? Most likely, they based their answers on their own experience. They knew that when they finished reading material over and over, they felt confident in their memory. The facts seemed clear and fresh. They popped into mind quickly and easily as the students reviewed them. This is not always so when recalling facts in a self-test—more effort is often required to bring the facts to mind, so they don’t seem as solid. From a student’s point of view, it can seem obvious which method—restudying—produces better learning. Robert Bjork refers to this as an “illusion of competence” after restudying. The student concludes that she knows the material well based on the confident mastery she feels at that moment. And she expects that the same mastery will be there several days later when the exam takes place. But this is unlikely. The same illusion of competence is at work during cramming, when the facts feel secure and firmly grasped. While that is indeed true at the time, it’s a mistake to assume that long-lasting memory strength has been created."

Source: Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, Robert A. Bjork - Memory (Handbook of Perception and Cognition

The above echoes something I have been saying for years - if you simply assume that a learning strategy is effective just because you feel some initial benefits, it doesn't make it true. Unless you test it, it's better to suspend your opinion for some time.


Read more:

Example: intensive reading and initial learning

A good example of this phenomenon is intensive reading. It can certainly be a good and effective learning strategy for advances learners, but it's absolutely terrible for beginners.

Intensive reading led to more immediate vocabulary gains but spaced practice led to greater long‐term retention.

These "immediate vocabulary gains" are nothing more than a sign of initial learning. It shouldn't however be confused with long-term retention or, as I call it, the real learning. Sadly, most authors of language-related research don't seem to understand it.


What Is the Measure of Real Learning?



Once again, you can take almost any learning method and you will get (relatively) promising results short-term


However, only transfer tasks, such as using words in a conversation are a good measure of true learning (Mayer, 2009).

The More You Know, the Less You Feel Your Knowledge


Because your knowledge is context-dependent and context-activated. You might know thousands upon thousands of words but you won't "feel" them. Some of them may even stay buried in your mind for years before an opportunity arrives to use them. If you learn how to say "fibroma" in your target language, don't expect to use it unless you encounter a situation wherein you are forced to utilize this word.


This phenomenon can be explained by the concept of habituationThe more we commune with certain stimuli, the less we react to them. In other words, the more you use a language, the less you feel that you really know it. 

That's why some extremely competent language learners claim that they barely know a language at a B2 level, while pitiful beginners run around shouting that they are bilingual.


Read more: 

Stress - a Crucial Factor That Needs to Be Taken Into Consideration


Every good language learning methodology can be encapsulated by the Marines' adage:


"Train as you fight, fight as you train"


You should always to train for reality in a manner that mimics the unpredictability and conditions of real life. Anything else than that is simply a filler. Unfortunately, regardless of how good your learning method is, it's almost impossible to incorporate a crucial factor for your ability to retrieve and know your words actively - stress.

Even if you can confidently reproduce words from ANKI at the comfort of your home, it doesn't mean that you will be able to use them in a conversation. Learning in such conditions is always, to some degree, detached from reality. You have time to contemplate the right answer, and everything feels pretty snugly and comfy.


Compare it with a typical conversation where:

  • there is background noise
  • you have to maintain eye contact
  • you need to focus on what your partner is saying 
  • you do your best to control your pronunciation
  • you have to actively reproduce hundreds of words and apply grammar to them
  • etc.

Or to put it plainly, lying under your blankie and doing ANKI is a bit less stressful than trying to recall some word in a conversation while a crazy German local is sparging you with his saliva and screaming "Was?! WAS?!".


How Stress Affects Your Brain


The Ultimate Test of Active Vocabulary


Talking is stressful, especially for introverts. The worst thing that stress does in such situations is that limits the activity of your frontal lobe. This part of the brain is responsible for, among, others, emotional expression, problem solving, memory, judgment and language.

Once the cortisol floods your brain, your body goes into the survival mode. You don't need your cool problem-solving skill or silver tongue then. You need to wrestle some huge-ass bear or get the hell out of there. That's why you lose access to any memories and skills that are not well-activated as they are the ones that cost the most energy to retrieve. Your body prioritizes muscle at this point, not ATP-devouring thinking.


"The prefrontal cortex (PFC)—the most evolved brain region—subserves our highest-order cognitive abilities. However, it is also the brain region that is most sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress exposure. Even quite mild acute uncontrollable stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities, and more prolonged stress exposure causes architectural changes in prefrontal dendrites." Source: Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function


At the same, stress doesn't seem to affect hippocampus so much. This region of the brain is typically linked to declarative memory, such as memory for events and facts (Squire, 2004; Squire & Zola, 1996). Interestingly, acute mild stress exposure has no effect on or can actually improve the memory consolidation functions of the hippocampus.


If your eyes glazed over after reading these quotes and you started questioning life choice that brought you to this article, let me assure you that they are extremely important. What these facts tell us is this:

"Non-consolidated information that hasn't been transferred to your long-term memory is extremely prone to any stress-related disturbances. On the other hand, long-term memories stored in your hippocampus are immune to mild and medium levels of stress".

That means that it doesn't matter how confidently you can recall words in the comfort of your home. If your vocabulary is not consolidated well enough, instead of producing fluent speech, it might turn out that you sound like a goat in the middle of the breeding period.

However, there is an easy way to fix it.


Want to Know Words Actively? Overlearn!



Items that are difficult to learn should be overlearned to ensure long term retention (Hulstijn, 2001).


Overlearning refers to practicing newly acquired skills beyond the point of initial mastery. In the context of languages, it means that even if you CAN recall a given word while doing ANKI, or in a conversation, but it takes you some time, you can still improve

How?

Unsurprisingly, you need to crank out more sentences with the word. Make sure that the contexts you use vary as well.

Try to recall the last time when you saw a baby (1,5 - 3-year old). Have you noticed that it keeps on repeating the same word over and over again in different sentences and collocations? That's what overlearning is all about. The easiest, or maybe the only way, to apply it properly is to talk to yourself. I dare say that no one would be patient enough to listen to this waffle while being sober.


It's enough that you find a question and start answering it in a very monotonous way while constantly reusing a problematic word.

Q: Do you like apples?

A: Yes, I like apples. Apples are sweet. I like sweet apples, and I eat them often. I don't eat them often when I can't buy them. I but them in a shop, however, if I don't buy them, then I don't eat them.

You get the gist. Children are a wonderful example of overlearning in action. For example, not that long time ago, my son got so excited by getting a piece of cheese that he repeated this word 53 times (yes, I counted).

53 freaking times. It made me feel lazy and question the effort I put into learning!


How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively - Summary



Most language learning methodologies are plagued by one fatal flaw. They make you believe that being able to reproduce a word in the comfort of your home is equivalent to really knowing it.

Unfortunately, the truth is more complicated. First of all, the ultimate test of your active vocabulary is always a conversation. If you can comfortably recall your newly acquired vocabulary, then you can be relatively confident that your approach works. I say "relatively" because unless you test a given method, you can't be sure that it's precisely what makes you recall words effectively. Most of the time, it's the results of combining a couple of learning strategies. 

What's more, if your learning method doesn't involve context and active transfer of your vocabulary between contexts, you can rest assured that it sucks.

Last but not least, if your learning strategy does involve context and active information transfer them, you should put more effort into overlearning those problematic words.

Keep in mind that this is one of those situations where individual differences kick in. Some people are more immune to stress than others. As a consequence, the degree to which you will have to overlearn words will often depend on your genetics and environmental conditioning.


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

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

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 25 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


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

full language fluency of a foreign languages

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

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

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

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

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


Full language fluency - languages as a versatile tool


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

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

We're talking about a cool Swiss army knife!

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

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


Foreign languages as a tool for entertainment


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

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

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


1) Full language fluency - Music



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

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

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


Here is an example for Rammstein:

2) Full language fluency - watching movies / series


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

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

You can find more resources in my Language Links Database.

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

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


3) Full language fluency - exploring interests


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

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


Here are some examples of interesting sites:

4) Full language fluency - gossip magazines


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

I feel dirty writing this, but here are some recommendations:
  • English (http://hollywoodlife.com/)
  • French (https://www.fan2.fr/)
  • German (https://www.ok-magazin.de/)
  • Spanish (http://www.mundotkm.com/ar/hot-news)

5) Full language fluency - Computer games


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

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


Foreign language as a tool for professional development



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

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


Warning - the initial shock

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

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

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


Achieving Full language fluency - Summary


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

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

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

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


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

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

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 12 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


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.

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

Can you do it just by speaking? Not really.

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

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

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


Memory Benefits of Writing in Language Learning

 

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.

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

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 – (sourceWord 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

 

Best suited for
  • anyone who learns to communicate
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?


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 21 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.



Effective Listening Skills – A Weird Fact About How We Process Foreign Languages

How often have you wondered how the brain processes sound? After all, that is what contributes to effective listening skills. Not that often. I guess. Why would you?

I know I didn’t.

At least, until I have stumbled across the research of Dr. Emili Balaguer-Ballester and her colleague Andrew Rupp of Heidelberg from Bournemouth University’s (BU). Their goal was to answer the following question…

What Affects How We Hear?

 

Do we hear sounds as they are, or do our expectations about what we are going to hear instantaneously shape the way sound is processed?

Through the use of computational neuroscience models, Dr. Balaguer-Ballester and his team intend to map the way that the brain processes sound. Here is the most interesting conclusion they have come to:

“Almost 80% of connections between central and pre-cortical areas during sound processing seem to be top-down i.e. from the brain to the auditory peripheral system and not bottom-up, which is perhaps unexpected,” he explains. “As sound comes from an external stimulus, it would be fair to assume that most of our processing occurs from what we hear, but that is apparently not the case. What your brain expects to hear can be as important as the sound itself.” – Dr Balaguer-Ballester

This is backed up by the fact that it takes hundreds of milliseconds for sound to be processed along the neurons from the ear to the brain, which does not explain how we can immediately recognize the sex of a speaker or identifying a melody after just a few milliseconds

More information: “Understanding Pitch Perception as a Hierarchical Process with Top-Down Modulation.” PLoS Comput Biol 5(3): e1000301 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000301

Does Your Mind Play Tricks On You?

 

 

Actually, it’s quite likely that you have already fallen victim to this phenomenon! It has happened to me dozens of time. Especially after a longer session of speaking some foreign language. I’m sure you KNOW the feeling!

Your brain switches into the “X language” mode. Suddenly, you hear some voices outside the window. Why the hell are they speaking Swedish?!!! Especially in Poland?! And why can’t I understand what they are talking about? What kind of dialect is it?!

Oh, wait. It’s not Swedish. It’s Polish. Damn you brain! Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me 60 times, I’m an idiot!

Possible Explanation Of This Phenomenon

 

It seems that the most plausible explanation is as follows – the brain is all about expectations and context. Have you ever noticed that when you learn something in one context, like the school, it becomes difficult to recall when that context shifts?

This is because learning depends heavily on how and where you do it: it depends on who is there, what is around you and how you learn.

It turns out that in the long-term people learn information best when they are exposed to it in different ways or different contexts. When learning is highly context-dependent, it doesn’t transfer well or stick as well over the years.

How Does It Affect Your Learning?

Effective Listening Skills

Picture by: Sanja Gjenero

Here are some methods I have come up with which might aid your listening: (and here are over 20 more)

1) Browse dictionary before listening

Just browse. You don’t have to learn any words nor do you have to memorize them.

If you know in the advance what the programme/audition/episode is about, pay special attention to the vocabulary which might appear there. That is pure logic – it’s unlikely that you’ll need to know the names of herbs if you intend to watch an action movie.

Of course, the best possible dictionary which you might use for this purpose is a pocket dictionary. It’s very handy and it contains the most frequently used words and sentences.

So far this technique has been working really great for me! If you test it, make sure to let me know about the results!

2) Read the transcription before listening

It’s not always possible to do so. But there are some listening materials which facilitate this approach. For example podcasts or language programmes for beginners.

You can also read lyrics of the song before listening to it. This method is much more effective than just trying to figure out what your favorite artist is singing about. It’s also so much better than the awkward muttering “mmmnaaaahh” when you forget the lyrics.

That’s also a guarantee that you won’t butcher the song with the stuff you THINK you hear (read more about effective listening here)

3) Read the general outline of the thing you’re going to listen to

Watching TV series in original? Read an episode description beforehand! This way, you will know (more or less) what to expect. And as you have learned so far – it’s all about what your brain expects to hear!

You can find them on IMDB.

Just a word of warning! I’m sure you have heard many times the following piece of advice – watch movies / TV series with subtitles. This is the utter BS.

The ROTI (return on time investment) from this method is incredibly low. You’ll better off just listening to a random radio audition.

Whether you like it or not, our brains are NOT able to simultaneously follow the images, subtitles, sounds and a plot.

What’s more, following this piece of advice gives you the illusory feeling of understanding.

You usually concentrate on reading subtitles and start feeling that you understand most of the things happening on the screen. The bitter disappointment comes later when you try to re-watch the same thing without subtitles.

You have no damn idea what these funny figures on the screen babble about!

Why do I sound so sure? Because I’ve been there! Luckily, I came to my senses pretty quickly and realized that this method is, let’s not be afraid to use this word, absolutely useless.

Summary

 

One thing you should remember after reading this article is this:

What your brain expects to hear can be as important as the sound itself

If you want to acquire listening skills and get the most out of every minute of listening, you should always try to get familiar with the material you are going to listen to.

Do you have any other ideas how this fact might help others to improve their listening skills? Let us all know!

Laying the Foundation for Learning a Language – How to Learn a Language on Your Own (Part 1)

learn a language on your own

You probably have felt this burning need inside to learn a new language once or twice in your life. But there's a good chance that you didn't know where to start.

It's like standing in front of the dark forest. You know that you have to get through it in order to get what you want.

But it's scary and lonely, and you're hungry, and... look! What a mess! I must clean my room and do some other ... stuff. The point is - not knowing the way is probably one of the biggest obstacles on the way to master the language.

And that's the ultimate goal of this series of articles - to show you where to start, what to do and what to avoid. Each part of the series is devoted to a different issue.

You will learn how to tackle every component of learning a language - including notoriously gruesome grammar and vocabulary.

I really do hope that it will help you get started.

I've learned 8 languages so far and I know one thing - if you can't create the system which emulated what you do, there is a good chance you have no idea what you're doing.

Without further ado:


0. Choose The Language


I assume that you already have a pretty good idea which language you would like to learn.

If you're still on the fence - check this article. it should help you make a right decision.


1. Motivation


This is where it all starts. Sure, other things are important as well. But ask yourself this - why do I want to learn this language?

There are no wrong answers. The reason should be valid for you, not for others.

Do you want to get a new job? Impress your wife? Visit some country? Be able to read Manga?

Remember - if your motivation is flimsy there's a good chance that you'll drop your project as soon as some obstacles get in your way. You definitely don't want that to happen! Can you imagine the surge of anger after you realize that you put hundreds of hours into the project which is a flop?!

You'll probably punch some nice, old lady to vent! That's why you should make sure that your motivation is strong enough to pull you through your darkest hours.

Your desire to learn is a foundation - cherish it.

Let it be a constant reminder of why you do what you do. Reinforce right motives as often as you can - they will be your shield against all the distractions and temptations


Learn a language on your own


Your initial momentum will help you break down all the barricades.

But can you increase your motivation or is it something constant? Well, great news everyone! You can. If there is something I've learned about learning, in general, it's that: the faster your progress is the more and harder you're willing to work to see even more impressive results.

So how can I increase my progress? Read on. We will get to that. My personal favorite to boost my motivation is betting.

How does it work?

Bet with someone that you'll learn, let's say, 300 words in 2 weeks (set a deadline). If you lose you have to suffer consequences - e.g. pay your friend 200$. If you win - great, you've achieved your goal. It's worked wonders for me!

What are other great ways to keep yourself motivated?

Read the Forbes article.

2. Change Attitude Or Die


Another pivotal part of laying the foundations is getting rid of the mental barriers you've been cherishing up to this day.

One of the most widespread (and harmful) beliefs concerning languages are:

I believe that they are terribly destructive (and obviously not true) and seriously impair your learning ability if you do not become aware of them.

That's why you need to become more mindful and

learn how to overpower your inner demons of procrastination and laziness.

So go ahead - slap yourself every time when you catch yourself having these thoughts. The words which you use to describe yourself shape your reality. That's why you should remove all the negative terms from your vocabulary, as well as the word "can't".

Way too many people are stifled by their own preconceived beliefs about what they can and can’t do. Don't be one of those people.


3. Set a Goal


But why? Do I have to? Nope, you don't have to do anything. But if you're vague about what you want to achieve, you 'll probably never do it.

You have to see the target to be able to shoot it! Remember, your goals should be SMART.

So what is a good goal?
  • I want to learn Spanish at a communicative level to be able to get by in Mexico in 2 months
  • I want to learn Russian only to read the works of Dostoevsky in original in 4 months
  • I want to speak German fluently to get the job in the company XYZ in 7 months

I believe that determining an initial level of language which you want to achieve is essential. It has a great impact on the learning methods you should choose and as well on the scope of material.

Be as specific as you only can. You can, of course, learn a given language without purpose if you're passionate about it but most people will simply give up after some time.


4. Get The Right Resources (and not too many of them)


Let's start with basics and explain why you shouldn't use too many learning materials. The reason is simple - having too many options paralyze our ability to make decisions.

That's why I typically provide myself with the three following things:


A pocket dictionary


Laying the Foundation for Learning a Language


Why is it indispensable? Think about it...that's right! The smaller the dictionary the more useful words are included there.

Don't waste your time and money on any big dictionary at the beginning (or at all). The good dictionary should include the most important meanings of a given word.

If you can see only one meaning for each word - skip this dictionary and look for another one. Another quality of the great dictionaries is that they always contain the most popular phrases including given words.

And finally! Pronunciation! Always check if a dictionary has a phonetic transcription of words. Don't worry if you don't know how to read these strangers symbols right now. It's not that difficult.


A good grammar book


Usually, any which is not dedicated to advanced learners is just fine.


A phrase book


It shows in a very neat way frequently used phrases and sentences.

That means you can memorize them and use them right away!


5. Set a Deadline


If you think you shouldn't set one then you're not serious about your project. Even if you don't achieve exactly what you wanted in the given period of time - that's ok. The world hasn't ended. Draw conclusions and move on.

Read Six things about deadlines by Seth Godin

GET TO WORK!


If you have any questions or comments regarding this article, or maybe some other burning problem, drop me a message. And don't forget to subscribe if you enjoyed reading this guide.



Read Other Parts of the Series "How to Learn a Language on Your Own"



Grammar Cheat Sheet – 6 Reasons Why Every Language Learner MUST Have One

I love how language learners usually approach grammar. Or grammar books to be more precise! These vademecums seem to adapt the form of slimy, leprosy-ridden yet magical gnome. You know that if you rub its butt long enough, it will grant you your wish. You will be bestowed with the knowledge and wisdom of the language of your choice.

The ultimate prize sounds great. But somehow, it doesn't entice you to lay your hands on this filthy creature. Not too often anyway.

No wonder. One look at any enormous grammar book sends shivers down my spine.

Why?

Because opening a grammar book is like teleporting yourself into the middle of a language maze. It's hard to find your way out. Everything seems to be so random and chaotic.

Rules. Rules. More rules. You take a left turn, and you get punched in the stomach. You turn to your right, and you get kicked in the head. Only when you take a few steps back and leave the maze, you begin to see things differently. There are patterns. A lot of patterns. And there is one object, almost the artifact, that can grant you this kind of perspective.

The Grammar Cheat Sheet.


A Case For Grammar Cheat Sheet


It doesn't matter if you're a beginner in language learning or a mean linguistic son-of-a-gun. A grammar cheat sheet should be an indispensable part of your learning arsenal.

Before I dive into some of the main reasons why you should embrace grammar cheat sheets, I want to share with you a story about my youngest student.

I usually don't teach kids. It's a frustrating experience. I am sure that most parents can relate to! Anyway, Adrian is ten years old and a really bright kid. Although amazingly lazy.

Our first lesson revealed that his collective vocabulary amounted to about 40-70 words. After four damn years of his formal English education, he couldn't say, well, anything. Of course, he couldn't even use the words he knew in a sentence.

Not a very promising beginning, right?

However, after explaining the most basic English and writing them on his grammar cheat sheet, something seemingly impossible happened.

He got it, I didn't even expect it, but he got it!

Eleven hours into our English adventure, he is already able to build basic sentences in 4 tenses he knows. Sure, it takes him some time. The sentences are far from perfect. He still needs to resort to the grammar cheat sheet now and then. But again - 10 hours of dedicated learning beat four years of education.

I've had a chance to see more of such success stories with adults. But somehow, this story is the one that stuck with me.


6 Reasons To Create A Grammar Cheat Sheet

 


1) It Gives You Clarity


 Grammar doesn't look half as scary when it is on one piece of paper. Just take a look at the Japanese grammar cheat sheet (don't worry if you don't know Japanese - neither do I.)


Grammar Cheat Sheet 


Everything is presented in a clear and transparent form. One glance at this page makes us want to learn this language!

It also helps you to concentrate on all the most critical aspects of the language. It's much easier to notice different patterns. And pattern recognition is something of tremendous value in enhancing memory, mind you!


2) It Decreases the Activation Energy


 Activation energy is the initial energy needed to start acting. The more time and steps it takes to start doing something, the higher the chance you won't do it.

Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.

SourceThe Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work

Guess what? It's much easier to look up a couple of grammar constructions if they are on one piece of paper than:

  • a) recall the location of one of x grammar books you have
  • b) thumb through it just to realize that it's not the right one
  • c) chew off a couple of pages in an outburst of rage
  • d) sit in the corner and cry deeply

3) It Changes Your Approach to Learning


Most language learners flinch at the mere thought of browsing a grammar book because it's dull. Oh, so stupefyingly dull.

The thing is that the more times you experience this unpleasantness, the more you condition yourself to dislike opening grammar books.

The peak-end rule says that:

People exhibit better memory for more intensely emotional events than less intensely emotional events (…), the atypicality of extreme memories can lead people to believe those extreme moments are representative of the “set” being judged.

Repeat this ritual a sufficient number of times, and you end up with the full-blown I-f**ing-hate-grammar syndrome.


The cheat sheet is clear and straightforward and thus should encourage you to learn grammar.


4) It Promotes Learning Independence


Grammar Cheat Sheet


Having just one piece of paper that provides you with essential information about the languages can help you become a more effective independent learner.

Whenever one of my students doesn't know how to create some grammar construction, I always refer them to their cheat sheets. On the surface, it might seem bizarre.

"What the hell is this dude getting money for?"

But the thing is that building a sentence is like doing puzzles. Every piece of a puzzle is a word. Grammar tells us where the given piece should be placed. That's why, after taking a look at the cheat sheet a couple of times, every student becomes intimately familiar with it.

Using the language ceases to be some voodoo magic. It becomes a logical step-by-step process of putting puzzle pieces into their rightful place.

That's also the reason why it's much easier to convince my students to talk with themselves. They don't need me so desperately anymore.

The said piece of paper can substitute a teacher to some degree!


5) It Helps You Relearn Languages


A lot of knowledge we acquire throughout our lives gets forgotten. At least this is how we commonly refer to the phenomenon of not being able to recall information. However, perhaps the more accurate word, in this case, is "inaccessible".

The knowledge you have acquired probably remains in your long-term memory. Here is what the research conducted by the Association for Psychological Science in 2009 has to say about it:


As it turned out, even though the volunteers showed no memory of the second language in the vocabulary test, they were able to quickly relearn and correctly identify phonemes that were spoken in the neglected language.


Psychologists Jeffrey Bowers, Sven L. Mattys, and Suzanne Gage from the University of Bristol found out in another research that:


(...) even though the volunteers showed no memory of the second language in the vocabulary test, they were able to quickly relearn and correctly identify phonemes that were spoken in the neglected language.


Maybe one day, you will be forced to take a break from language learning. Perhaps because of work, family, or general suckiness of life.

Either way, when all the bad things fade away, you will have your cheat sheet to refresh your memory quickly. It will give you an excellent general overview of the most critical parts of grammar. Psychologists Jeffrey Bowers, Sven L. Mattys, and Suzanne Gage from the University of Bristol found out in another research that:


6) It Makes You More Fluent


Grammar Cheat Sheet


There is this great saying I love.

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The same goes for grammar. We are cognitive misers. We don't want to use our deposits of cognitive energy if it's unnecessary. That's why we cling to the grammar constructions we feel warm and comfortable with.

Seeing all the other constructions, which you don't use at the moment, in one place can be thought-provoking. It acts as a reminder of different possible ways to express yourself and jars you out of grammar lethargy.

Because, all in all, this is what grammar is - the scaffolding which enables us to build proper sentences. And you can't make even a ramshackle hut if all you got are some measly sticks.


The Most Important Rule For Creating a Grammar Cheat Sheet


There is just one rule you should keep in mind if you decide to create your grammar cheat.


Make it clear and concise


Your cheat sheet shouldn't be bigger than one A4 page. It should only contain all the essential grammar rules. Resist the temptation to jot down all the grammar exceptions and constructions nobody even uses.

Blah, blah. It sounds obvious. But very often, once you start creating your cheat sheet, the urge to include as much information as it is only possible sprouts uncontrollably. All so well known voice whispers, "Dude, don't forget to increase THIS rule. And THAT one as well! Screw it! Rewrite the book! Muahahaha."

The next thing you see is a 40-page behemoth. If you need more information, you can always create a second grammar cheat sheet for more advanced concepts.

However, usually, it is unnecessary. All you need are the essential rules. You will pick up the rest once you start surrounding yourself with a language (and using it).


Grammar Cheat Sheet - Summary


For reasons I am yet to grasp, grammar cheat sheets are underappreciated and underutilized tools in language learning. While it may take some time to prepare one on your own, it is usually a much better choice than buying one.

Reason? Most of the paid ones suck big time. Don't be afraid to put some time upfront. You will reap the benefits of this investment for months (or years) to come.


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


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!


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

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

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 13 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


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.


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. 1
    Listen for the gist of the conversation. Once you understand it, move on to details
  2. 2
    When you watch materials in original, observe mouths of actors/hosts and read their lips
  3. 3
    Try to understand the non-verbal communication of your speaking partner (actors, etc.)
  4. 4
    Listen to the melody of the language
  5. 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. 6
    Concentrate on sounds that are foreign to you. This technique can also help you maintain your concentration
  7. 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. 8
    Use logic to conclude what will follow (get in the habit of guessing)
  9. 9
    Listen to a recording more than once. At first, to understand the gist and then to get details
  10. 10
    Slow down the speed of recording. For this purpose, use Audacity, AllPlayer, or simply YouTube
  11. 11
    Speed up the speed of the recording to extend your comfort zone and then move back to an actual pace
  12. 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.


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 8 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


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