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 choicem 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 which 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.

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 which 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.

Have you ever experienced the curse of a B2 level? Share your stroy in the comments!

 

Pictures and images in flashcards – are they even useful?

 

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

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

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

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

 

Potential benefits of learning with pictures

 

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

 

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

 

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

Photo by pine watt on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Boosting your recall

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Aniston neurons

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

How effective are pictures at helping you memorize and recall vocabulary

 

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

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

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

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

 

Effect of pairing words and pictures on memory

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Test it for yourself!

 

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

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

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

How to use picture more effectively in your learning

 

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

What kind of pictures did I use?

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

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

So what kind of pictures did work?

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Summary

 

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

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

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

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

 

Here is why most Spaced Repetition Apps don’t work and how to fix it

 

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

 

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

 

What’s the scientific consensus about Spaced Repetition Apps

 

 

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

 

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

 

Spacing effects can be found in:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Encoding – the most important criterion for effective learning

 

 

A simple model of memory

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Two types of encoding

 

 

Shallow encoding

 

 

Shallow encoding doesn’t help you to connect the piece of information with other meaningful information nor does it help you to further your understanding of it.  It usually concentrates on meaningless banalities.

 

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

 

Deep encoding

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Why creating sentences is so complicated

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Read more about optimizing your language learning here.

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

SRS programs are just a white canvas

 

 

SRS programs

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Quick learning is not about time but about the effort.

 

Important Factors That Affect Your Listening Comprehension – The only two that matter if you want to understand asap

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

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

And thus the question arises: is listening really that difficult or maybe there is something else at play here?

To answer this question we first have to take a look at all the most important factors affecting your listening comprehension.

 

All The Factors That Affect Your Listening Comprehension

 

Listening comprehension is a quite complex beast as it consists of lots of smaller sub-beasts, or sub-skills if you will.

As you will see in a moment, almost everything can affect your level of listening comprehension.

 

1. Your pronunciation

 

For every word you encounter, you create your internal phonetic representations (i.e. how you think that a word should be pronounced). Next, you confront them with the external representations (i.e. how the words are really pronounced).

If they overlap considerably or are identical, and you can fish them out from the recording, you should be able to understand a given word.

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

Read more: How to improve your pronunciation.

 

Your grammar

 

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

 

Lack of understanding how sounds merge or get reduced

 

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

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

 

Your overall listening time

 

IMPORTANT FACTORS THAT AFFECT YOUR LISTENING COMPREHENSION

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

 

It happens way too often that I get an e-mail for one of my readers who complains about their listening skills. Asked how much time they devote to their listening practice, I get a shy “10 minutes per day”.

What an amazing pace and dedication!  Call me in 2045 to tell me whether you can finally understand your first movie dialogue.

Listening takes a lot of time. That’s just the way it is.

 

Lack of visual support

 

Listening becomes much easier once you can see somebody’s body language. A lot of things which would simply get lost in the tangle of speech seem more understandable on the screen once you catch a glimpse of an ironic smirk.

Plus, nobody can take away from you the pleasure of fantasizing about starting a new life with a main actor/actress. And calling your first child “Chad”. What? No, obviously it has never happened to me. Mind your own business.

 

Your vocabulary

 

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

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

 

Problems with concentration

 

As much as I like the idea of listening to recordings in the background, you won’t get far if you can’t focus on the activity at hand. You have to strap your butt to a chair and listen.

Just for the record, I want you to know that in the literature you can find a couple of other factors which affect your listening comprehension. For example, problems with interpretation, inability to identify signals and such. I decided to skip them as they have so little bearing your ability to understand. I don’t want to artificially expand this article.

Let’s now take a look at what are the two most important factor that affects your listening comprehension.

 

The Two Most Important Factors That Affect Your Listening Comprehension

 

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

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

As a reminder:

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

Wiki

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

 

1. The total amount of listening practice

 

 

In order to increase your comprehension, you have to spend a lot of time listening to people or recordings. The more often you do it, the faster you can expect to progress.

However, is the total amount of listening practice really the ultimate answer? I doubt it. If that was the case, there wouldn’t be that many people who live abroad surrounded by a language who still struggle with comprehension.

Actually, I have a good friend of mine who watches everything in English passionately. TV series, movies, news, you name it. Yet, after all these years, his comprehension hasn’t changed that drastically. And it would be surprising if it wasn’t for the fact that he doesn’t have any kind of vocabulary acquisition system in place.

And that leads me to the factor no 2.

 

2. The size of your vocabulary

 

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

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

Let me demonstrate it.

First of all, improving your listening comprehension can be understood as:

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

 

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

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

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

 

Calculate Your Listening Effectiveness

 

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

200/5000 = 0.040 = 4%

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

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

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

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

1000/5000 = 0.20.= 20%

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

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

One exception to this rule

 

THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT FACTORS THAT AFFECT YOUR LISTENING COMPREHENSION

Photo by Noah Näf on Unsplash

 

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Even though much has been written about how to use passive learning, i.e. reading and listening, in language learning, many language learners still puzzle over the following question, “How can I leverage it in order to speed up my learning progress?”

This question is extremely important because the way you combine passive and active learning is actually the key to learning a language fluently.

The purpose of passive learning – it helps to memorize

 

Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress

 

One of the most frequent claims in the language learning community is that passive learning (i.e. reading and listening) is very helpful with memorizing new vocabulary.

Is it true?

The answer is, surprisingly, yes and no. It simply depends on your current language level.

When is Passive learning useful for memorization?

 

If we take a look at the scientific literature, we can learn that there are two important milestones concerning your ability to learn from the context:

When is passive learning useful for memorization?

 1) 3000 words (B1/B2 level)

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

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

This milestone is also important because it’s so-called the minimal threshold for passive learning. It means that reading and listening start making sense only at this level (read more about how many words you need to know for every language level).

2) 5000 words (B2, B2/C1 level)

5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).

Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing  (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).

For exactly that reason this milestone is called the optimal threshold for passive learning.

What’s more, the body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times in order to put it into your long-term memory (i.e. be able to activate it without any conscious effort).

As a sidenote, my personal experience is this – even 5000 words are not enough to start memorizing words. You should aim for at least 8000 in order to do it efficiently.

The conclusion from the above is simple.

Passive learning can be an effective tool for memorization when you know at least 5000 words. But it doesn’t mean that reading or listening is useless before that.

The purpose of passive learning – it complements active learning

 

In order to understand well the function of passive learning in the learning process, we need to start at the source – the simple model of memorization.

The simple model of memorization:

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

This sexy model tells us that in order to acquire knowledge quickly and efficiently, you need to encode information. In other words, you need to manipulate the information in a meaningful way.

Is the element of encoding present in passive learning (i.e. reading or listening)?

Of course not!

That’s the reason why active learning is much better suited for learning material fast.

However, the problem with active learning is that it’s tiring as hell even though it doesn’t take a lot of time. At the end of your learning session, you should feel as if you have been mauled and teabagged by a bear at the same time.

It’s not pretty.

Ok, so you already know that active learning is:

  1. more effective
  2. energy-consuming

What it tells us is that you can do learn actively only for the limited period of time before you run out of steam. In other words, active learning is not sustainable long-term.

What happens then? Do you just call it a day? Nope. You switch to passive learning.

active learning + passive learning = optimal learning

If you stick to this formula, you are guaranteed to learn relatively fast.

Always push yourself to the limit while learning actively and when you are about to black out switch to passive learning.

Of course, this isn’t the only benefit of reading and listening.

The purpose of passive learning – it primes your memory

 

The Purpose Of Passive Learning - Learn How To Use Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress

What is priming?

 

Before I move on, let’s clarify what priming is.

Priming is a technique whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.

Linguistic priming is one of the main factors that influence the accessibility of information in memory (read more about why it is difficult to recall words and how to fix it). The activation of stored knowledge through experiences in the immediate context can make prime-relevant information more accessible in memory, and such recent construct activation can influence inferences, evaluations, and decisions on subsequent tasks. – The SAGE Handbook of Social Psychology: Concise Student Edition

In other words, priming can provide for sets of actions, or, in the lexical field, sets of words.

So, for example, a listener, hearing the word bread will recognize words like baker, butter, knife more quickly than unrelated words like a doctor, mortar, radiator.

One of the prime researchers in this field, Hoey, states: (…) Priming is the result of a speaker encountering evidence and generalising from it. [Primings come] from single focussed and generalising encounters. Language teaching materials and language teachers can provide essential shortcuts to primings. (Hoey 2005: 185f.)

Now that you know what priming is, it’s time to take a look how it affects our memory.

How does priming affect our memory?

 

There is one main effect of priming on our memory.

We process frequent collocations faster than infrequent ones.

In other words, it’s much easier for us, foreign language learners, to understand speech which consists of logical and frequently ocurring collocations. It’s much easier to process a sentence like “I am cutting an onion with a knife” than “I am cutting an onion with a German Shepherd”.

How is it possible?

Because our memories are organized into something called “schemas”.

Schema” is used as a general term to cover all kinds of general knowledge. More closely specified versions of schemas are called scripts, which consist of general knowledge about particular kinds of events, or frames, which consist of knowledge about the properties of particular objects or locations.

It means that with every new collocation e.g. “cut with a knife”, “a sharp knife”, “stab with a knife”, your time of reaction when it comes to understand gets decreased.

If your scripts are rich enough, you can actually predict, even though it’s mostly imperceptible for us, what somebody is going to say (read more about how we process speech here).

What’s fascinating, auditory word priming does not require access to word meaning, it may reflect the process whereby listeners build and use presemantic auditory representations. (Trofimovich 2005: 482)

What is a likely mechanism supporting spoken-word processing and learning?

I will tell you a little bit more practical consequences of this phenomenon later.

Fun fact about priming

 

Priming can take many different forms and shapes. One which you might find really interesting is syntactic priming.

Syntactic priming is the phenomenon in which participants adopt the linguistic behaviour of their partner.

Yes. The more time you spend with somebody, the more likely it is that you will understand this person’s idiolect (or that you will adapt it).

Idiolect is an individual’s distinctive and unique use of language, including speech.

The extent of priming

 

Referring to their earlier (1981) work, Ratcliff and McKoon (1988: 389) point out that “they have shown that priming can be obtained between concepts that are much more than four words apart.”

They (and others) therefore raise an important issue about collocation, since it appears to contradict Sinclair’s (1991) claim that there are no valid collocations beyond the five-word mark on either side. The concept of lexical access appears to be very close to lexical priming.

De Mornay Davies is more explicit when he states: Even if two words are not ‘semantically related’ in the strictest sense (i.e. they do not come from the same superordinate category), their frequent association produces a relationship at the “meaning” level. (de Mornay Davies 1998: 394). Source: The concept of Lexical Priming in the context of language use, Michael Pace-Sigge

As you can see, priming is a truly powerful weapon as it relates to concepts which are not in their direct proximity.

What it means practically is that your brain will still be able to understand a collocation even if you interject an extra thought into a sentence.

Here is an example of this phenomenon: “I wanted to cook a dinner so I started to cut an onion, you know, with, like, a really sharp knife

How long can priming last?

 

Findings suggest that auditory word-priming effects have a long-term memory component and are long-lasting (Trofimovich 2005: 481).

What does it mean that they are long-lasting?

It’s speculated that these effects can last months or even years.

Practical consequences of priming

 

The Purpose Of Passive Learning - Learn How To Use Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress

Speaking slower

 

Speaking fluently is a really tricky thing.

Why?

Because you have to combine two things.  First of all, you need to actively memorize new words, ideally, by creating a new context for them.

That will see the said words in your memory. The problem is that, as I have said before, unless you have a lot of contexts, you won’t be able to recall them fast.

Is the solution creating a lot of sentences for a given word?

Sure, it will work, but it’s too much consuming. However, if you start learning passively, you will be exposed to dozens of different contexts for almost every possible word you know.

Even though, you won’t feel it, these contexts will be generalized in your head into scripts and will start acting as triggers.

From then on, whenever you run into a situation which fits your script, your primed words will be right there at the top of your tongue.

If you have ever struggled with fluent speaking, I can guarantee you that you’re missing one of these puzzle pieces.

Problems with comprehension

 

Keep in mind that the richer your words of associations for a given word, the easier it is to understand it.

Reading and, especially, listening are amazing learning tools which will expand this network relatively effortlessly.

Final words

 

Passive learning is certainly a misunderstood language learning tool. Even though it’s often touted as a great tool for memorization, it’s actually pretty ineffective in this department unless you are already an advanced learner. Its real power lies in creating an extensive network of contexts and connections which allow you to both recall and understand words much faster.

Did you find this article interesting? Actually, it is one of over 150 units from my language learning course. Vocabulary Labs. Sounds interesting? Then why not jump on a waiting list?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Goldlist Method – What Is It All About?

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

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

If you are old-fashioned, here is a description of how it works (the description has been borrowed from a great website called How To Get Fluent),

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

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

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

Summary

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

The Goldlist Method – Claims

The Goldlist Method

Photo by Bookblock on Unsplash

The author of the Goldlist method maintains that:

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

The Goldlist Method – A Scientific Critique

1. It doesn’t circumvent short-term memory

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

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

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

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

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

The working memory consolidation

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

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

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

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

Next, the items you learn undergo working memory consolidation.

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

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

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

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

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve

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

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

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

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

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

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

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

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

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

  • frequency of occurrence
  • prior vocabulary knowledge
  • cognateness.

So is there anything nothing magical about the Goldlist method and the number “30”?
Nope. It follows very precisely the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve which takes into account your short-term memory. Sometimes this number will be higher, sometimes it will be lower depending on your choice of words.

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

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

2. Impractical and time-consuming

Relatively high activation energy and time-consuming

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

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

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

Limited usefulness vocabulary-wise

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

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

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

3. Inflexible

The Goldlist Method - A Scientific Critique

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

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

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

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

4. Lack of context

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Detached from reality

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

‘Train as you fight, fight as you train’

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

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

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

6. Lack of retention intention

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

You see, everything starts with a retention intention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Lack of encoding

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

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

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

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

Encoding can be further divided into shallow and deep encoding.

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

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

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

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

And we all know how it ends.

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

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

Potential Advantages

The Goldlist Method - A Scientific Critique

There are two things I like about the Goldlist method

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

That’s it.

Suggested Modifications

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

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

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

The Overall Assessment

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

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

Final Words

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

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


 

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 don’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 the common knowledge and the 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 the 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) a 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 a 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 the sudden
some cat jumps on a table and gracefully puts its paw into your cereal bowl.

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

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

3) Number of cues

 

 

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

From this it follows that:

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

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

Don’t overdo it – a cue overload effect

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

It happens so because:

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

 

Example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) Distinctivity of cues

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

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

But why do we need distinct retrieval cues?

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

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

How to build good cues 

 

difficult to recall and retrieve vocabulary

 

Good quality retrieval cues often have:

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

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

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

How to maximize your chances of recalling words – a summary

 

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

  • 1. You should be the person who generates cues

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

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

  • 2. Retrieve vocabulary in different conditions

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

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

Remember:

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

  • 3. Memorize natural phrases / collocations

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

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

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

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

Examples of learning methods which impede retrievability

 

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

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

Mnemonics

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

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

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

Quite straightforward, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

Associations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching/learning styles

 

difficult to recall vocabulary and retrieve it

 

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

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

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

Although, you have to appreciate the effort, right?

Question for you

How often does it happen to you that you can’t recall vocab when needed? Let me know in the comments!

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

What is better for learning new words – writing or speaking?. It is definitely 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 were just plain wrong.

That’s why I decided to show you a memory-based/science-based answer to this question.

Let’s dive right in!

Why Both Speaking And Writing 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 nice 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 which are read aloud compared to words which are read 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 actually 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 very important 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 in order to choose the one which is relevant. Without the RAS you would be constantly 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 clearly see, both speaking and writing help put the words you use at the forefront of your mind.

Other Advantages Of Writing

 

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

1) Writing is a great learning method for the 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 very hard to get out of this rut unless

  • a) you consume the staggering amount of input
  • b) start making 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

 

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 which I have conducted regarding the efficiency of writing vs speaking show almost no difference between those two.

Longhand vs writing

Interestingly, most findings of research papers concern longhand writing not typing.That causes people to believe that the latter is actually 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 needed for typing.

Most of these studies, however, measure 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 for a coherent formulation of your thoughts should equalize (more 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.

Problems with writing

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

 

a) not everyone wants to / needs 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

 

b) learning a new writing system

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

Writing – recommendations for learning

Best suited for:

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

Other benefits of speaking

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 well activated 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!

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 in a spontaneous way, 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 definitely be your default language learning strategy. At least until you get to a B2 level.

Memory benefits of speaking

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is faster than writing

As I have mentioned earlier, even though there is some research that 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 results of one of the studies which took this seemingly irrelevant fact into consideration

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).

Problems with speaking

a) 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, your command of your target language should already be good.

That means knowing at least a couple of thousand of 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 simply start talking with yourself (learn more about here and here).

Speaking – recommendations for learning

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 on 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 its turn increase your language comprehension.

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

And the winner is … 

Writing or speaking - what is better for learning languages?

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

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

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

Question for you:

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

Why passive learning is an ineffective learning method

There is this persistent belief in the world of language learning that seeing a word a couple of times will allow the information to effortlessly sink in.

If you don’t know anything about memory it might seem like a logical and tempting concept.

After all, the repetition is the mother of all learning.

Laying your eyes on some piece of information time after time should make remembering easy, right?

Not really.

Not that learning can’t happen then. It can. It’s just excruciatingly slow (read more about passive learning).

I would like to show you a couple of experiments which, hopefully, will help you realize that a number of passive repetitions don’t have that much of influence on your ability to recall information actively.

Let’s start with a great experiment which went viral recently.

 


Drawing logos from memory

 

Signs.com has conducted a fascinating experiment, asking 156 Americans between the ages of 20 and 70, to draw 10 famous logos as accurately as possible. The only trick was, that they have to do it without any visual aids, simply from their memory (source – BoredPanda).

How did participants do?

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

The apple logo, which one could argue is very simple, was somewhat correctly drawn by 20% of participants. If you are having a bad day, here are some of the less successful attempts.

 

Passive learning is ineffective

 

The Adidas logo was correctly recalled only by 12% of participants.

passive learning is an ineffective learning method

 

Ok, I know that all this begs a question – what does it have to do with memory?


Implications of the experiment

 

The experiment’s original intent was very interesting on its own. However, if you take a good look and prick up your ears you will soon discover that there is more to it! The experiment is trying to tell us something!

What’s that, Mr. Experiment? What are you trying to tell us?  –passive learning sucks!

Come again, please? – passive learning sucks!!!!

Now, why would Mr. Experiment say such a thing?

How many times would you say that you have seen, so far, Apple’s or Starbuck’s logos?

50? Don’t think so.
100? Highly doubt it.
1000+ ? That’s more like it.

It’s a safe bet that an average participant in this experiments has seen each logo at least several thousand times. Several. Thousand. Times.

That’s a lot, to say the least.

Let’s look at their final results. Surely, with that many “reviews” they must have remembered logos quite well.

 

Don’t know how about you but it’s one of the sadder things I have seen in my life.
And I have seen a cute kitten getting soaked by the rain and crapped on by a pigeon.

But it’s all good because there is a lesson or two in all that doom and gloom.

1) Retention intention matters

It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t mention this – one of the main reasons why people don’t remember information is that they are not even trying.

If you have a neighbor called Rick who you hate, you won’t care much if he is sick. Rick can eat a d*** as far as you are concerned. You don’t want to remember anything about the guy.

The chance of remembering anything if you have no intention of conserving that information is close to zero. It was clearly a case in that study.
Who is warped enough to deliberately memorize logos?

2) Number of passive repetitions has limited influence on our ability to remember

This is likely to be the most important lesson of all. Sometimes even dozens of repetitions of a given word won’t make you remember it!

3) Complexity of information matters

If you look at the table, you will notice another interesting, and logical, thing. The more complicated the logo the less accuracy we could observe.

Arguably, Starbucks’ logo is the most complex of them all. Not surprisingly it could only boast a recall rate of 6%.

It stands true for words as well.

The longer or the more difficult to pronounce a word is the harder it is to commit it to your memory.

Interestingly, some comments suggested that all those companies failed at marketing.
It is clearly not the case. Above all, companies aim at improving our recognition of their brands and products. And that we do without the slightest doubt.


Other experiments to test your ability to recall

 

test your ability to recall

 

The experiment conducted by sings.com had its charm. However, you don’t need to make inroads into other areas of knowledge in order to carry out a similar study.

It’s enough to look around.

1) A mobile phone test

According to comScore’s 2017 Cross Platform Future in Focus report, the average American adult (18+) spends 2 hours, 51 minutes on their smartphone every day.

Another study, conducted by Flurry, shows U.S. consumers actually spend over 5 hours a day on mobile devices! About 86% of that time was taken up by smartphones, meaning we spend about 4 hours, 15 minutes on our mobile phones every day.

It means that you take a peek at your mobile phone at least 40-50 times per day or over 10000 times per year.

Now a question for you – how confident are you that you would be able to draw your mobile phone without looking at it?

2) A watch test

It’s safe to assume that if you have a watch, you look at it dozens of times per day. Most people hold their watches dear and carry them around for years. That would make it quite plausible that you have seen your watch thousands of times.

The question stays the same – how confident are you that you would be able to precisely draw your watch without looking at it?

3) A coin test

Yet another object which we tend to see frequently.

Choose a coin of some common denomination and do your best to replicate it on a piece of paper. Results might be hilarious!

 

What’s that? Your curiosity is still not satiated?

Then you might design an experiment and run it to see how much you can remember after one hour of reading compared to one hour of learning actively some random words (i.e. using them in sentences),

Let me know in the comment about your results if you decide to run any of those tests!
Especially the last one!


Why is passive learning so ineffective?

1) You think your memory is extraordinary

This is an interesting assumption behind passive learning which you might do unconsciously.You see your brain like a humongous harvester of information.

Wham-bam! You reap them one by one. The assumption, as beautiful as it is, is plain wrong.

Your brain is more like a bedraggled peasant with two baskets. There is only so much crap he can pick up throughout the day,

2) Brains want to forget

 

 brain constantly works on forgetting

 

You see, your brain constantly works on forgetting most of the thing you come into contact with.
Reasons are simple

a) our brains are slimy and wrinkled assholes

b) the goal of memory is not to transmit the most accurate information over time, but to guide and optimize intelligent decision making by only holding on to valuable information.

Why should your brain care about some words if many of them don’t occur that often in everyday language?

3) No attention and no encoding

The simple memory model looks more less like this:

  1. Attention
  2. Encoding
  3. Storage
  4. Retrieval

The amount of attention you devote to a piece of information you want to acquire is almost non-existent. Just a glimpse and your roving eye is already elsewhere.

And since almost no attention is allocated to your learning, there can be no encoding as well (more about encoding here).


Passive learning and the illusion of knowledge

 

Did you know that research estimates that about 50% of the primate cerebral cortex is dedicated to processing visual information? That makes a vision the most important sensory system.

No wonder that our vision is the closest thing we have to the perfect memory.

In one of the most famous memory experiments of all times (1973), Lionel Standing proved that it is hard to rival vision in terms of capacity to retain information (Standing, L. (1973). Learning 10000 pictures. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 25(2), 207-222.)

Learning 10000 pictures

Impressive, right?

Not exactly.

The thing is that this information is not something you know actively. You can recognize it but cannot retrieve it most of the time.

Don’t get me wrong. Knowing something passively has its advantages and can be a really powerful factor in creative and thinking processes. But if you want to speak a language you have to know vocabulary explicitly.

Energetic nodding and grumbling worthy of a winner of the one-chromosome lottery don’t count as a conversation.

Why passive learning makes us believe that we “know”?

 

passive learning and the illusion of knowledge

 

In another famous experiment, memory researcher Jennifer McCabe showed why students think that cramming and reading are superior to studying by recalling (which has been proven time and time again to be a better learning method).

In the said experiment, students from two different groups had to read the same one-page essay.

The first group was supposed to recall and write down as much information as they could upon finishing.

The second group was given a chance to restudy the passage after they finished.

One week later both groups were tested on their memory for the passage. Not surprisingly, the second group crashed and burned. Its performance was far worse than the one of the first group.

What’s more, students from the second group were actually quite confident that they would fare better.

“How could they be so wrong?”, you might ask.

Most likely, they based their answers on their own experience. They knew that when they finished reading material over and over, they felt confident in their memory. The facts seemed clear and fresh. They popped into mind quickly and easily as the students reviewed them. This is not always so when recalling facts in a self-test—more effort is often required to bring the facts to mind, so they don’t seem as solid. From a student’s point of view, it can seem obvious which method—restudying—produces better learning. Robert Bjork refers to this as an “illusion of competence” after restudying. The student concludes that she knows the material well based on the confident mastery she feels at that moment.

 

And she expects that the same mastery will be there several days later when the exam takes place. But this is unlikely. The same illusion of competence is at work during cramming, when the facts feel secure and firmly grasped. While that is indeed true at the time, it’s a mistake to assume that long-lasting memory strength has been created. – Robert Madigan – How Memory Works

 

Illusions of competence are certainly seductive. They can easily trick people into misjudging the strength of their memory as easily as they can encourage students to choose learning methods that undermine long-term retention.

The best defense is to use proven memory techniques and to be leery of making predictions about future memory strength based on how solid the memory seems right now!

Final thoughts

As a long-life learner, you should understand that passive learning is one of the slowest ways to acquire knowledge. Adopting such a learning style creates the illusion of knowledge which further perpetuates this vicious circle.

The best way to approach passive learning is to treat it as a complementary method to active learning. The rule is simple – once you are too tired to keep learning actively, you can switch to passive learning.


 

Why Speaking Can Be A Bad Language Learning Strategy

“Just keep on talking” has to be one of the most worn-out phrases in the world of language learning.

Can’t learn a language? Talk.

Not making enough progress? You’re not talking enough. After all, a road to the mount fluency is paved with endless hours of conversation.

“But my progress has really stalled and … .”  MOOOOOOOOOOOOORE, you moron!

Sounds familiar? I bet it does.

If you are one of those people who at some point got stuck at the “intermediate plateau” this article is for you.

Although speaking is without any doubt very effective language learning tool, it’s not the optimal solution for every language learner.

What’s more, this advice can be actually detrimental to your learning

Let’s deconstruct this piece of advice so you understand where the rub lies!

As always, let’s start with basics.

Number of words and levels of understanding

 

Here is the general overview of the number of words and the level of understanding they warrant (for more information read how many words you should know for every language level)

1000 words (A2)1000 words allow you to understand about 80% of the language which surrounds you, as long as they are not fancy.

 

 

 3000 words (B1/B2)3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996).

 

 

 

5000 words (B2)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).

 

 

10000 words (C1 / C2)10000 words allow you to understand about 99% of most texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).

 

 

 

 

 

Depending on a choice of words, you can deduct or add 20% of a given number.

Keep those numbers in mind. We will come back to them soon.
But for now, since nobody like party-poopers. let’s concentrate on positive aspects of speaking.

When is it a good idea to speak?

 

When Speaking is a good Language Learning Strategy

 

Speaking is certainly a GREAT idea, if not the best one, if you start learning a language.

Before I get to “why”, let’s look at other options.

Reading? Useless. Let’s be honest – what can you read at this point that has any deeper meaning or sense and resonates with you? “Judy likes potatoes. She eats potatoes. Potatoes are sweet and tasty”.

Ugh, shoot me in the face already.

Listening? Mostly useless. You don’t know enough words anyway to make head nor tail out of the constant stream of speech. “Dfsdfsdfs “I” ……..(wall of noise) …” says” ………. “hide the body”.

Speaking? Yes, please! In every possible amount.
Not reading, not listening – speaking is one of the best things you can do at the beginning of your learning.

Why?

  • Speaking is the ” Ultimate Integrator”

It’s breath-taking how complicated it is to utter even one correctish sentence. There are so many things to remember! The best thing about speaking is that it helps you integrate ALL of them.

1. It activates vocabulary.

2. It starts building your muscle memory.

3. It helps you understand the relationship between grammar and words.

4. It activates grammar and automates its use.

And so on.

 

  • Speaking is relatively easy.

It can be as simple as uttering short sentences over and over again. You don’t need to talk with anyone really. You can just talk to yourself.

What’s more. Your sentences don’t have to be correct every time. It’s enough that your language partner understands what you mean.

 

  • Speaking = active learning

Last but not least, the main rule which contributes to the rapid learning is using your knowledge actively.
So it happens that speaking is the pinnacle of active language use.

Of course, you can choose to ignore active learning but I can tell you right now what will happen:

a) you will succeed after a long time

b) your progress will be so slow that you will start backhanding old ladies at bus stops. Finally, you will give up and move on to another language. Inevitably, after some time you will arrive at the same crossroads with your new language.

So do yourself a favor and start talking as quickly as you can. Remember. You don’t have to talk to others. You can just start with uttering short sentences under your breath.

Other perks of self-talk include

  • a) not being judged by others
  • b) you can behave like a Tourette’s-ridden geezer. Bash people in your head all you want!

When it’s a bad idea to “just speak”

 

Just speaking is a bad idea

 

Nothing good lasts forever. Speaking has also its expiration date efficiency-wise.

So when does the fun-ride end? Around a B2 mark (i.e. 4000 / 5000 words.).

Why?

There are two very important reasons for that.

1) You are already (quite) fluent grammar-wise

By this level, you should have your basic grammar fluency. You have produced enough sentences to automate dozens of different grammar patterns and constructions. Uttering more sentences won’t bring you much closer to your goal of being fully fluent.

At this point, you need to expand your vocabulary more in order to achieve your goal.

2) You keep on repeating the same things over and over

Remember previously mentioned numbers? They will come handy now.

We established that knowing about 5 k words grants us the understanding of about 98% of all the things we hear on a daily basis.

What this number is trying to tell us is this:

If you just talk and don’t challenge yourself, you repeat things you already know  95-98% of the time.

Let me rephrase it – out of every 100 words you use only about 2-5  of them can be considered learning.

Even better! Think about like this.

Out of every hour, you only practise for 36 seconds to 3 minutes.
Let’s go crazy and say that it is 5 minutes.

How would you react if your buddy told you about a friend of his who is a little bit “special”. Jeff works as a car dealer and every day he calls the same 95 people, who already bought a car, to sell them the very same car.

I guess you would imagine that he is the kind of guy who gets his pay in sugar cubes and wears a bib instead of a tie. That’s how special he is.

Don’t be like Jeff.

Of course, if your goal is to learn just one language or have a lot of time, keep at it.
However, for any other goal, I would suggest you start fixing your learning schedule.

How do I know it applies to me?

There is a simple rule for that.

If you can already spend an hour or two talking without finding blood stains under your armpits and seeing black blobs in the corner of your eyes it means you’re not learning anymore.

You’re just repeating the same ol’ things over and over again and most of your time and effort is wasted.

I am willing to bet that you already know it deep inside. Try to tune your ears to conversations you typically have in your target language. Aren’t you using the same phrases all the time?

If yes, you need to step it up and stop wasting time on lessons that don’t contribute much to your language development.

The higher your level, the bigger the problem

It’s worth noting that the more advanced you get, the bigger the said problem becomes.

At a C1 level, you know about 99 % of all the words that can be encountered in everyday conversations. Speaking more is clearly not an effective solution here.

Solution – fixing your learning schedule

Why Speaking Can Be A Bad Language Learning Strategy

 

Before I move on, keep in mind that all the advice in this article aims at improving your learning effectiveness regardless of whether you are learning on your own or by having privates lessons or language exchanges.

By no means am I suggesting that you should cut off your friends and leave them high and dry just because this kind of talking is not the most effective learning option out there.

“Sorry Suzie, this random dude on the internet helped me realize that you’re wasting my time. Good riddance and farewell!”.

If you are talking to your friends on a daily basis, there is no reason to give it up. You will learn something every day anyway.

Now that we’ve gotten this hurdle out of the way, let me repeat again – If you want to get out of this gruesome rut and fix your language learning schedule, you need to concentrate on words/phrases you don’t know well.

There are a couple of ways to do it but they all share one feature.

Preparation

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

Making the best use out of your lesson is all about the proper preparation.

As a rule of thumb, I recommend most people at a B2 level or higher to put in 4-5 hours of preparation before each lesson.

Of course, if you learn on your own, feel free to use those techniques whenever your heart desires.

 

  • Discuss a topic beforehand 

If you use structured lessons, usually there is some subject or article that will be discussed. In that case, always make sure that you discuss it with yourself or your friends in advance.

Here is a great website with over 100 topics and thousands of questions which you might use to test yourself.

http://iteslj.org/questions/

Remember – if you catch yourself not knowing some word, always write it down and learn it.

Think about words like “bodkin”, “grovel” or “coppice”. Most people don’t use them that often in their native tongues, let alone in their target language.

That’s why you always should have a system in place to master such words. Otherwise, they quickly fall into oblivion.

As always I recommend ANKI as your go-to program for learning new vocab.

 

  • Look up new phrases/words

Speaking Can Be A Bad Language Learning Strategy

 

While discussing a given subject beforehand is a foolproof method to quickly discover gaps in your knowledge, there is a method that’s much quicker – open a dictionary.

After all, there are potentially thousands of words there which you don’t know and use. Pick the ones you find useful, learn them and start using them during your next language learning session.

And don’t worry too much about using them incorrectly. If it happens, your teacher/language partner will quickly correct your mistake. Not a big deal, right?

 

  • Read a lot about a given subject

Another good idea, although much more time-consuming compared to the previous ones is to simply read a lot about a subject you’re going to discuss during your next lesson.

Find 5-10 articles and start slogging through them!

 

  • Make a conscious effort to use new words/phrases

Your brain is wired to use the most efficient neural pathways i.e. the words you already know very well. That’s why you need to put conscious effort into avoiding them.

It can be as simple as writing down a couple of new phrases on a piece of paper as a reminder of what you can say instead. That’s why Thesaurus is going to be your new best friend.

For example

“I think” = “I believe”

“She cried” = “She was crying her eyes out”

Read more about the word substitution technique – how to increase your vocabulary size considerably.

 

  • Speak about the same topic for a number of days

Why change a subject every 2-3 days? By discussing the same subject for a longer period of time, you will be able to activate your topical vocabulary much better and understand it much deeper.

Final words

Speaking is not the ultimate remedy for all your language problems. While it’s a great strategy at the beginning of your language journey, it gets progressively less effective the more advanced you become.

If you hope to keep on progressing fast, you need to start using some strategies for activating less frequent vocabulary. Once you incorporate them into your language learning schedule, you should see a huge difference.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!

How to choose the best learning methods (and avoid the bad ones)

Scouring the internet to find the ultimate language learning method is no mean feat.

Around every corner, there is something new trying to seduce you. And most of the time you give in. “Why not”, you might think, “It sounds reasonable”.

You don’t even notice when this search turns into a bizarre blind-folded tasting.
One time it’s an acorn. Other time it is a piece of crap.

What’s even worse, almost every person swears by his own method. “Listen, I learned Japanese by yodeling. I am telling ya this is the way to go!”

It is all confusing and disheartening.

That’s why I want to show you how to evaluate learning methods.

Hopefully, upon reading this article you will learn how to navigate those murky waters and make more educated decisions about your learning.

But let’s start with a question I have heard many times.

Why bother with choosing the right method?

1) It saves time

 

choose the best learning methods

 

Nothing is our in this world but time – Seneca

You should treat the choice of a potential learning method as an investment.

Would you ever open a newspaper, close your eyes and just pick some stocks randomly?
I don’t think so.

That’s why I would suggest that you approach choosing a language learning strategy the same way.

Don’t behave like a happy-go-lucky hippie.
Spend an hour or two to think it through.

It will pay off, I promise.
It really makes a difference.

Very often 10 minutes of a good learning method might be worth an hour (or even more) of a crappy method. (* cough* Duolingo *cough*).

Imagine what you could do with all that saved time!

Of course, pondering over this decision for too long is no good either.
Don’t think too long.

Simply evaluate a couple of methods against the guidelines found in this article, choose the right one and move on.

2) It boosts motivation

I don’t believe in motivation. I believe in habits and systems.

But there is no denying that motivation is a force to be reckoned with.
Especially when you take up a new learning project.

However, there is one big problem. Motivation is a capricious mistress.

One day she is lovely and charming, while the other day she goes berserk and kicks you right in the nuts. That’s why relying on motivation is not a good long-term strategy.

Nevertheless, choosing a right strategy will help you notice results of your learning much quicker.
And in my experience, there is nothing better to fuel your motivation.

3) It solves most of other learning problems

Probably you already know it but just in case – most of your learning-related problems stem from the wrong choice of learning methods

Can’t keep more than two languages in your head at the same time?
Wrong learning methods.

Keep on forgetting words?
Wrong learning methods.

I hope that by now, I have convinced you that choosing the right learning method is not a waste of time.

The next thing on the agenda – learning fallacies.

The Most Widespread Learning Fallacies

 

There are a lot of people who offer you their advice in good faith, even though they themselves are ill-informed.

It’s equally important to know, not only what works, but also what doesn’t work and why. At least if you want to be a good “b*shit” detector learning-wise!

Here is the list of the most important learning fallacies you may fall subject to.

Fallacy #1 – My method works

 

how to choose the best learning methods

 

There are not many people strolling around and saying, “My method sucks and guarantees no results whatsoever. Use it!”.

Everybody is convinced that their learning method is great and that the other guys suck (confirmation bias, anyone?). Here is a corker – they are all right.

Absolutely all learning methods work.

It comes as a shock, right?

Pick any method you want. If you stick to it long enough, you will see some effects.
If you just keep plugging away, eventually you will learn what you have set out to do.

Even the worst of the worst methods work.

I am the best possible example of this. My default method of learning English years ago was to

  • a) write down every word I didn’t know
  • b) rewrite it from a dictionary
  • c) read it 

In other words, I was rewriting a dictionary.

I really do hope that I was fed with a lead spoon as a child.
At least I would be able to justify myself just a little bit.

I have managed to write away 12 A4 notebooks this way. Pure madness and the hands down the crappiest method I have ever heard of.

Yet, I managed to learn English fluently and get all the Cambridge Certificates.
The miracle?

No.

I just kept plugging away at it. Many hours per day. Until I succeeded.

You can see learning as rolling a big ball from point A to point B.

Your learning methods decide how heavy the ball is and thus how much time it will take to get it to the finish line.

The heaviness of the ball doesn’t make it impossible for you to achieve your goal. It just takes longer to do it and it is more difficult.

Main takeaway just because a method works doesn’t really prove anything unless you measure the average results which it gves you.

Fallacy # 2 – I like it (aka personal preferences or learning styles)

 

how to choose the best learning methods

 

Months ago I wrote in one of the articles that learning styles don’t exist. The hell ensued.

I got plenty of angry e-mails. Some people started behaving like an upset stereotypical Brit, “Iconoclastic heresies, my good chum!”. Others would gladly spit into my cereal if they got a chance.

No wonder. I have found a lot of statistics saying that over 80 or even 90% of teachers believe it to be true. Thor only knows how many students have been infected with this idea.

And this is why so many people have a very strong opinion about it.

However, let me repeat for dramatic effect.

Learning styles don’t exist*

* You can read more about it here. It’s not perfect but it should dispel most of your doubts.

Most of the time when people use this term, they mean “personal preferences“.

They prefer to see information visually, orally or in some other way.

PREFER is the key word here.

It doesn’t mean that learning this way is more effective. It means you like it more.

An author who enjoys music the most will think that the music is the best way to learn.
Another one will try to convince you that spending more time outside is the ultimate solution.

But there is some silver lining here.

Liking a given method makes it more sustainable. You can use it longer than some other methods without feeling fatigued.

It certainly counts for something and you should always have such enjoyable learning methods in your arsenal.

Main takeawayjust because you like a method doesn’t make it effective memory- and time-wise. It does, however, make it more sustainable.

Fallacy #3 – Everybody learns differently

 

how to choose the right learning methods

 

Everybody learns differently is just a special case of the snowflake syndrome.

I get it, you are without the slightest doubt special in your own way. However, don’t make a mistake of thinking that

learning differently =/ learning effectively.

Let me explain why we are not so special and so different when it comes to learning.

We are the product of the evolution. Our brains are in many ways very similar.

  • Your working memory capacity is probably the same as mine. Surpass it and you can say goodbye to remembering things.
  • You learn most of the things better by doing.
  • Your attention is very limited. 
  • Your brain needs regular breaks during learning.
  • You learn better when you space your learning.

The list goes on and on.

So yes, you are special in many ways. But not in the ways your brain acquires knowledge.

Main takeawayour brains absorb information in a very similar way. 

Fallacy #4 – It’s based on science

I know what you are thinking. How the hell is this a learning fallacy?
Is it not important for a method to be based on science?

Yes, it is crucial.

However, there is one problem with that.
People love numbers, statistics and quoting research papers.

It makes everything more believable. You can come up with any crappy theory and method, back it up with some research paper and people will buy it.

There are a lot of companies which do exactly that.
They apply flaky results of some fishy research paper(s) to their learning method and sell it for big bucks.

At least twice per month, I get requests to write a review of some “revolutionary” software.
Most of the time the only revolutionary thing about it is spaced repetition.

Obviously, spaced repetition algorithms are amazing. But it doesn’t justify paying for it 20-50$ per month (you know who you are!). You can go ahead and just download ANKI for free.

That’s why this is the trickiest fallacy of them all. Don’t buy into some method just because it sounds sciency. I can guarantee you that almost every method is based on some research paper. Whether its creator knows it or not.

Main takeaway – just because a method is based on a research paper it doesn’t make it effective.

Fallacy #5 – There is one method

 

choose the best learning methods

There is no perfect learning method. 

You can’t build a house with only a hammer. You need other tools as well.

Learning is too complicated to approach it from only one side. It doesn’t matter how good this method seems, be it mnemonics or anything else.

That’s why you should always aim at creating your own personal toolbox.

Main takeaway – there is no perfect method. You should always have at least a couple of them in order to learn effectively.

Important factors in choosing right learning methods

 

Although I would love to give you a perfect recipe for success in learning, I don’t think it is possible. What’s more, I will restrain myself from suggesting the methods I use personally or teach my clients.

Instead, I will show you which criteria you can use to evaluate the general effectiveness of different methods.

A good method should

a) be based on science

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Learn how your memory operates. Once you master this basic information it will be much easier for you to assess different learning methods. (read more about it here and here).

As Aristotle once said

“The fact is our starting point.” 

The more “science boxes” your learning method checks, the better.

b) sustainable (easy to use)

Although not every learning method has to be sustainable, it is good when at least one of them is something that you can do for a long time and you find it pleasant.

But remember – first, do the real work and then have fun.

c) be engaging

The Marines have a great motto

Learn how you fight

Make sure that your learning method resembles real-life situations as much as it is only possible.

d) be tested

Whenever it is possible you should test a strategy you are planning to use long term. Don’t trust somebody just because he says that his method works.

Most people don’t challenge their assumptions.

I get requests to consult or collaborate on some language course all the time. The email exchanges usually end when I ask

“So how exactly have you tested your learning system/method and what is it based on?”.

And then crickets. There has been just one exception to this day.

That’s why design your own experiment to prove a method right or wrong.

Want to switch to another method? Test them against each other.

e) give you feedback

You don’t want to do something without knowing whether it is right or not. A good method should always provide you with some amount of feedback.

Final Words

Choosing the best learning methods is definitely not easy. It might take some time and experience in order to tell the chaff from the wheat.

Nevertheless, it is always worth the effort. The amount of time and frustration you can potentially save is really gigantic.

Good luck!

Question for you – are there any methods you are currently using that you would like me to analyze? Let me know in the comments. Feel free to include your own analysis.

How To Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level In 5 Months: A Case Study

It’s amazing to see what kind of a heated debate a potential speed of learning can sparkle.
A couple of weeks ago I was reading a post on Reddit titled:

How much do you expect a student to learn and be able to speak a new language in one semester with classes once or twice a week? (September to November)

Here are some of the answers.

Not a lot. Maybe half way to the A1 exam?

Depends wholly on the language. Without any language transfer (lexically/historically related languages) I’d expect the speaking skill to be exactly zero. If one only takes

classes once or twice a week they’re going to forget everything between classes.

You need to speak with native speakers. The only way to truly advance in a language is to speak with people. Taking classes can help you form a base but to advance to a level of proficiency you need to study and practice everyday in your own life. Most of the time, I feel language classes are too slow.

This discussion is nothing new. It pops up every now and then on different websites and fora. Almost with no exceptions, answers tend to fall into one of the following categories.

In order to learn a language in 6 months, you have to

a) Live, breathe and sniff a language around the clock.

Advice as great as it is unrealistic. Unless you want to get a first class ticket to the “burnout” town with intermediate stations at “I-start-hating-languages” and “No-I-can’t-grab-a-beer-with-you-because-I-must-learn”, of course.

b) Be an experienced learner 

It’s impossible not to agree with this point. Language learning veterans certainly enjoy a faster learning curve with every next language they learn. However, I would argue that often it is so, simply because they have developed a language learning routine.

c) Give up and cry deeply

But what about an average language learner?

Is it impossible for him to learn a language fast? Do you need to renounce the material world and live in a ram-shackled hut in the Himalayas in order to pull it off?

If I didn’t know a thing or two things about rapid learning, I would probably get this impression.
And I would be wrong.

I am more than sure that the main reason people fail to learn quickly is that they do not know how to do it. And thus, they do not realize what kind of feats they are capable of.

What if I could actually show you specific techniques you should use?

How quickly could you learn a language then?

Mateusz (or Mathew, if you prefer an americanized version) is a student of mine and a rookie in the world of language learning who learned German from the scratch to B2/C1 level in 5 months.

To top it off, after 5 months he had taken the Goethe-Zertifikat B2 exam and passed it

How?

I will get to that.

I will try to share our learning plan and what we did in as many details as I can in the hope that you will try to replicate these results.

Some background and introduction

Initially, I wanted to write this article in the form of an interview. However, I quickly changed my mind.

It would leave dozens of bigger and smaller questions unanswered. Not to mention – most interviews are simply boring. So it’s more of a hybrid.

I think that this format should allow you to get the most value out of it.

Let’s get to know a bit of something about our language hero.

Mateusz
1) Tell us first about yourself: I am 26 years old and a doctor intern (a soon-to-be hematologist).

2) What was your previous experience with languages before our mutual challenge – Learning English from the age of 12 – private and normal school lessons. It definitely didn’t go swimmingly. I actually considered myself to be linguistically retarded. Sometimes even my native tongue (Polish) seems to be problematic.

3) How much time did you need to achieve B2 level in English – Over 10 years, I think.

As you can see, Mathew had almost no language experience. What’s worse, he considered himself to be bad at learning languages.

What’s even worse, when I asked him if he knew something about rapid learning strategies he just answered, “Kind of, but somehow I do not believe in these methods”.

Not the greatest beginning of our mission, huh?

As you can see, he had every reason to fail and yet, he succeeded.

One of the main reasons behind why he was able to pull it off was that he was a great student.

What makes a good student?

I have taught many students throughout the years. Even though most of them learn relatively fast and achieve B1/B2 level in about 12 months, just a few of them get to B2 level in 4-8 months.

There are some character traits which make them special.

1) being motivated

Without it, most people just wring their hands and give up upon suffering the first major setback. That’s why you need it so much at the beginning.

Mathew’s motivation was very clear and specific. He wanted to learn German asap to “have an opportunity of doing my medical specialization in Switzerland”.

That allowed to bounce back from every obstacle he encountered.

Of course, you should be aware that the motivation alone doesn’t suffice. You need to create habits and build learning systems as quickly as it is only possible.

Another trait which can definitely help you with that is …

2) being disciplined

It’s the prerequisite for effective learning.

I mean, how else are you going to follow through on our plan?
Luckily for you, you don’t need to be disciplined by nature.

You can actually awaken this trait by …. betting. (read more about it here).

Mathew’s workload was considerable. I knew that at some point he would say, “that’s enough. I deserve a break”. I mean, who wouldn’t?

I made sure that his motivation to keep maintaining his learning pace was sufficient.

How?

We made bets. Failing to do his daily tasks would cost him dearly. Understandably, he was able to resist the temptation to bum around.

The last character trait which a good student should possess is…

3) being coachable

Why is it so important?

Because of your ego.

Some people just can’t take advice. It doesn’t matter that I explain step-by-step why some strategy works and the other one doesn’t. After a short time, they backslide to their wicked ways.

I vividly remember one woman I taught. She was progressing really fast which, I thought naively, was a good sign. One day, out of the blue, she told me that, for now, she is going to put her German in the back-burner.

I knew that something was off about this situation.

“Why? Aren’t you happy with your progress?”, I asked.

“I am. I have never learned so fast in my life”.

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Uhm, honestly I just like my old methods better”.

Not that her methods were any easier or more pleasant, mind you. No.
She just preferred to learn how she always did.

It just shows that you can’t change every person’s approach to learning.

How much time was needed 

Learn German From Scratch

Before we move on to Mathew’s total learning time, let’s put things in perspective and answer the following question first.

How much time do you actually need to learn German to B2 level?

A quick google search shows that The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) suggests that you need about 750 hours to get to this level.

An offer of many German-language schools seems to confirm this number. Usually, you need to spend about 500 – 700 hours in a course and then add about 100-200 hours for learning at home.

Obviously, it’s worth remembering that these numbers may vary depending on your mother tongue and knowledge of other languages. But as for our case, they certainly look solid.

Vocabulary

People who take B2 exams are usually expected to know anywhere between 3 and 4,5 k words.

How much time did Mathew need to learn German to B2 level?

For a period of 5 months, we met, on average, two hours per week.

Yes, just two hours per week. Funny enough, that contrasts starkly with intensive courses where you have to spend about 30 hours per week at your language school.

Of course, he also learned at home. On average, he learned about 3 hours each day (including our meetings).

The total time he needed to get to B2 level amounts to

150 x 3 = 450 hours.

For a rookie who knew just one foreign language before he decided to take on this challenge, it’s certainly impressive.

But what’s even more impressive is Mathew’s vocabulary size after 5 months. Altogether, he learned about 6700 words (yep, we counted).

That means that vocabulary-wise, he surpassed most of the requirements for this level. He could read most of the things he wanted to, including newspapers, and could also speak about a variety of subjects.

Although, it was very clear that his vocabulary wasn’t fully consolidated at this point since he had to struggle for quite a few words.

Mathew’s results

Initially, our goal was to get to a B2 level in 6 months so Mathew could take the B2 Goethe exam and ace it. Interestingly, he managed to do it in 5 months!

Here is his pride and joy:

Learn German From Scratch Results are not bad but, truth be told, I expected them to be much higher. Mathew definitely had a firm grasp of the language.

I guess that in the end, stress got to him as he had no previous experience with such exams.

Learn German from scratch to a B2 level

B2 German study plan

I decided to break everything down for you so you can, hopefully, follow this plan.

Materials

We only used four things

That’s it. There is power in simplicity.

First 2 weeks

During first four hours I taught Mathew

1 weird piece of advice

I think that the aforementioned things are quite clear. What might not be that obvious is why

I forbade Mathew to read and listen to anything for first three months.

“Why?!”, I can hear you screaming! It doesn’t make any sense!

Or does it?

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

What’s more, most people assume that you need to start listening to your target language right away. That’s, forgive me for being so blunt, moronic

If you only know 200 or 600 words and almost no grammar, how much of the return rate can you get from one hour of listening?

Sure, there is some value in it – you can get used to the prosody and so on but all in all, it’s not worth it.

Another weird thing – no conversational partners

Learn German From Scratch

Ok, so that might be another thing which might seem bizarre to you – Mathew had no other conversational partners besides me. Not that it was forbidden or anything, his schedule was simply too hectic to find any people who would be willing to conform to it.

So yes, as weird as it may be, there is a good explanation why it didn’t influence Mathew’s progress negatively.

What people fail to understand that conversations require two things from you:

1) Understanding

If you listen a lot, even without any magical techniques, the day will come when you will be able to understand what is being said (assuming that you practise your grammar and vocabulary).

2) Being able to express yourself

This is usually the resultant of two things

  • having a good command of grammar
  • learning and activating words

Do you need a lot of conversational partners to do it?

Of course not!

Weeks 2-12

  • speaking

After the first two weeks, we dove right into speaking. It was definitely something new for him as he said, ” our conversations started after just a few hours and surprisingly, they were not trivial but revolved around many topics”.

Usually, we started every lesson in the same way. First, I asked him to tell me what he did last week/weekend so he could activate past tenses. He had to also ask some questions using the grammar constructions we had covered so far.

Once again, it might seem strange but keep in mind that most of the time, students talk far more often than they ask questions. Thus, the imbalance ensues.

In the extreme cases, someone might be able to talk quite fluently and still not be able to ask a question without hesitation. This can cripple almost any conversation.

  • teaching Mathew how to activate his vocabulary

Of course, if Mathew had a chance only to speak with me, he wouldn’t get far. That’s why I taught him some other methods to activate his vocabulary and practise his fluency.

Among others, I taught him how he can talk with himself at home (more about it here).

  • main focus

The main focus during this period was learning as many words as possible. On average, Mathew learned between 35-40 words each day.

Weeks 12-16

Learn German From Scratch

  • Listening and writing

This is the time when Mathew started reading a couple of articles per week, as well as listening to News in Slow German for at least 30-40 minutes each day.

As you probably recall, he didn’t listen to anything or anyone else but me for the first months.

Understandably, his comprehension, at the very beginning, was very low. He could get only
about 20-25% of what he heard during the first couple of days.

But what happened next blew his mind.

His comprehension rose to about 80 % within 2-3 weeks. After that, he switched to listening to the normal German radio.

Were his listening skills perfect when he took his exam?

Of course not. They are always one of the most difficult things to improve. But as you could see, they were definitely good enough to pass a listening part of the test.

  • Utilizing passive learning

Active learning is certainly the most powerful language learning tool one might use. But it always works better when you combine it with passive learning.

That’s why I taught Mathew how to surround himself with a language to get even more out of his studies.

Weeks 16-20

This was definitely the most boring period of our preparation.

In addition to doing all the previously mentioned things, I started teaching Mathew how to solve and approach all the parts of the exam.

The only interesting part is that we used some basic mnemonics to improve his presentation skills.

Final words

As you can see, rapid learning is certainly doable. I have done it with dozens of students using the outlined strategy and results are always great.

Of course, it might not be easy to start applying it to your own learning right from the start. After all, it requires a little bit different approach to language learning than the one which is commonly accepted, but it works like a charm.

If you ever replicate this strategy, please drop me a message and let me know how it went.

Happy learnings!

How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

Not everyone is equal in the kingdom of languages.
There is one group which is mercilessly oppressed.

One group which suffers from a crippling disease called…

SOCIAL ANXIETY.

It’s a terrible, terrible malady.
It doesn’t matter how hard you try to keep your fears and anxiety in a padded cell of your brain.

They always scrape their way out just to feed your soul with poison.
Even if only through the cracks.

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

I used to suffer from anxiety-induced panic attacks in the past.
I sat in my room for days with curtains closed until I ran out of food.

Those days are, luckily, long gone. Although anxiety still looms the dark corners of my mind.

So if you are also a victim of this condition – don’t worry.

Here is the list of six ideas which you can use to overcome your anxiety and learn how to speak your target language.

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

 

How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

 

There is a good chance that you don’t want to talk with others because you don’t know them.
You don’t feel comfortable baring your soul in front of them.

Every cell in your brain send you warning signals – watch out, they are out to get you.

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

That’s why this is probably the best way to approach language learning for those anxiety stricken.

You won’t be able to get any panic attacks or feel anxious with a friend by your side.

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

Having such a contact with another person drastically changes the way you experience lessons.
You don’t sit in front of a stranger who doesn’t give a shit about your day or well-being.

You sit in front of someone who cares.
Such a bond makes all the conversations much more meaningful and memorable as well.

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

Look for similarities. Try a lesson to make sure that this person is trustworthy.

And, what’s most important, don’t be a weirdo. “Hi, my name is Bartosz. Do you wanna be my friend?”.

Ugh.

2) Talk To Yourself

 

Talk to yourself in a foreign language

 

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

Why?

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

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

Actually, you can create your own feedback loops to make sure that you are speaking correctly.

But how can you practise speaking on your own

The basic technique goes like this

  1. visit iteslj.org/questions
  2. choose a subject you want to discuss
  3. start answering and do it out loud

Don’t know a word? Write it down.

You know a word? Try to find a synonym!
Depending on your preferences you might look it up immediately or save it for later.

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

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

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

Have fun!

Q: Have you ever tried eating with your feet?

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

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

And guess what?
Nothing. Nothing will happen.

And once you get good and confident enough, you can go and start talking with others.

I find it quite often to be more effective than the real conversations.

I know, I know.

On the surface, it might seem absurd.
There is no interaction after all.

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

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

I can talk for 20 minutes with myself about cervical cancer. Could I do it with someone else? 

I guess so. Let’s try to imagine such a conversation.

– “Hi Tom! Wanna talk about cervical cancer? Will be fun! I promise!”

– “Stay away, you weirdo!’

– “Cool! Some other time then”

3) Write instead of talking

 

How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

 

Talking doesn’t necessarily mean discussing philosophical treatises face-to-face.
It’s perfectly fine to stick to written communication.

In the era of the internet, you are just a few clicks aways from millions of potential language partners.

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

Don’t want to talk with others?

Don’t worry. You still might activate your vocabulary. Simply start writing on a daily basis. Anything really will do. It can be a diary, a blog, some observations.

Make it difficult for yourself and choose some difficult subject to jog your mind.

it can even be some erotic novel! “The secret erotic life of ferns”, for example.

Yep. I definitely like this one.

4) Condition yourself

 

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

Why?
Habituation. That’s why.

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

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

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

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

Your action plan is simple but not easy.

Find situations where you can expose yourself to stressors

As Oscar Wilde used to say, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

And only you know how deep you are stuck in this anxiety gutter.

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

Some of the things you might do are:

HIGH ANXIETY LEVELS (dropping comments)

  • comment some post in one of FB language groups
  • comment a YT video
  • comment some tweet
  • comment an article on Reddit or some other website

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

MEDIUM ANXIETY LEVELS (exchanging messages)

  • register at Italki.com and write to just one language exchange partner
  • download HelloTalk and write to someone

LOW ANXIETY LEVELS (face-to-face conversations)

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

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

5) Reframe your thoughts

 

How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

 

There is a good chance that you have heard about reframing your thoughts.

The basic premise is very simple.

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

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

I know. It sounds corny.

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

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

But why does it work?
Because such is the nature of memories.

They are not set in stone and perennial.

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

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

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

So what does it all mean?

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

How much?
Enough for you to recalibrate how you perceive the world around you!

It’s up to you how much you want to reshape your perception of the reality.

6) Decide whether you really need to speak a language

 

How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

 

It seems like a strange statement, doesn’t it?
But the truth is that not everyone needs to learn how to speak some language.

Before you dive into the language learning process, be sure that it’s something you really want. You shouldn’t feel pressured into doing so just because others do.

You don’t want to spend hundreds of extra hours on something you are not going to use.

Remember that every language, even the tiniest of them all, is a skeleton key to the vastness of materials – books, movies, anecdotes, etc.

It’s fine to learn a language just to be able to access them all.

Conclusion

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

What’s more, you shouldn’t forget that the real work is always done in solitude.
Teachers or language partners might show you what to concentrate on but it’s up to you to put this knowledge into practice.

Lastly, you don’t have to limit yourself to activating your vocabulary only through speaking. Writing is also a very desirable option.

Back to you.

Can you share any tricks/methods which helped you overcome your language learning anxiety?

No advice is too small or trivial.

As always, feel free to comment or drop me a message.

How Much Time It Takes To Maintain (And Improve) Many Languages

Being a polyglot sounds like such an amazing thing, doesn’t it? Admiration, fame, money, women throwing themselves at your feet.

All these things are not only great but also completely imaginary.

Ok, just a bad joke. It is pretty great.

But plenty of people notoriously underestimates how much time it takes to maintain and learn languages. I am sure you know the type.

They love to assume that the only prerequisite to master many languages is some unspecified talent.

I get it. If you say, “I envy you, I wish I could speak so many languages but I just don’t have a knack for it”, you don’t have to feel guilty.

That’s why they keep sucking the rationalization’s tit until they get all warm and blissful.

And who knows? Maybe they are right to some degree. We are all born different. Wiring in our little brains differs from one another.

Some people might actually have some head-start. But one thing is sure – no magical combinations of neural networks will ever make you a polyglot if you don’t put in the long hours.

How many?

It’s time to unveil the mystery.

For the past four weeks, I have been trying to track down how much time I devote to learning and maintaining my languages each week.

But before we get to that, let’s start with the baseline,

My Current Language Levels

Here are my current levels:

  • English: C2+ (C2 level + a couple of specializations)
  • Swedish: C1/C2
  • German: C1/C2
  • Russian: C1
  • Esperanto: C1
  • Czech: B2/C1
  • Spanish: B2
  • French: A2/B1

As a side note, I can’t understand why some people say that they know a language when they can barely string a sentence together. Your language is not dormant – it is mostly forgotten. Deal with it,

No one would go to an interview claiming that they know JavaScript but “not right now”.
Somehow, this practice seems to be quite widespread in the language learning world.

C1 level

You might notice that I learn my languages to at least C1 level. There is a very good reason for that – language attrition happens muuuch slower on this level than on the lower ones.

Once you get there, you can start taking breaks from that language to entertain yourself with other projects.

Time Breakdown

 

how much time to maintain and improve many languages

WORK

Let’s start with my unfair advantage – I teach / train people for a living. It allows me to spend considerable amounts of time while being surrounded by many languages.

Currently, I teach/coach 30+ people per week.

Main languages I teach are:

  • Swedish – 8-10 hours
  • German – 8-10 hours
  • English – 8-10 hours

These are not your usual conversations. I work almost exclusively with professionals. Each hour I spent with them is designed to jog their memory and bring them to the point of exhaustion.

That requires from me quite a considerable vocabulary which is awesome.

 

If we add to this mix a couple hours of consultations each week, we get a pretty decent number.

Total time: 24-35 hours

SPARE TIME – LEARNING PART

I am not sure whether it’s sad or not but I spend most of my waking hours learning and/or experimenting with memory systems. None of these activities are carried out in my mother tongue.

I figured out that since I know it pretty well it would be a waste of time.

Basically, it means, as absurd as it sounds, that Polish (my native tongue) and French are the least frequently used languages by me.

It leads to some bizarre and funny situations. Sometimes my brain plays with me and prompts me to conjugate Polish verbs in a really weird way – I have created monsters like “wypróbowywałem” instead of “wypróbowałem” more times than I would like to admit.

Quite a side-effect, huh?

Another interesting side-effect is dreaming in foreign languages. I have actually had dreams where people were speaking one foreign language and my brain was displaying subtitles in another.

Yep. Who needs drugs when you have languages.

Anyway, reading, talking, noting, writing are all done in various languages.

The rough breakdown looks more less like this. Mind you that these numbers reflect only a couple of last weeks and they are bound to change. They have to adjust to my needs, after all.

English – 15-hours. As much as I would like to suppress the use of this language throughout the week, it is impossible.

About 80% of e-mails I get are in English. 98% of all scientific papers I read are in English, no other language comes even close when it comes to their quality. I would say that I read at least 300+ pages per week in that language.

And let’s not forget about writing articles. Once again English prevails.

Czech – 5 hours per week. Mostly reading (10-15 articles per week) and learning/revising vocabulary.

Russian – 3-7 hours per week. Mostly revising and learning vocabulary. I read maybe 1-2 articles per week. Oh, and let’s throw about 2-4 episodes of TV series to this mix!

Esperanto – 1-2 hours per week Mostly revising and learning vocabulary. Unfortunately, there are not many websites in Esperanto which overlap with my interests. It means that I read maybe 0-2 pages in Esperanto per week.

Swedish – 4-6 hours. I need to maintain my Swedish skills at a high level because of my job. I tend to read 10-20 articles per week and tend to watch a fair share of YT in Swedish (I highly recommend I Just Want To Be Cool channel, if you are learning Swedish).

French – 0-1 hours per week. Currently, I am busy with many projects and the sole victim of this state of affairs is French. As a not so surprising result, my French is deteriorating rather fast.

German – 3-5 hours per week. Besides learning new words and revising old ones, I read about 5-10 articles per week and watch a bit of YT.

Spanish – 3-4 hours per week. Mostly revising and learning vocabulary with some articles here and there.

And just for the clarity’s sake – I learn and revise my vocabulary by talking in order to keep it active.

Total time: 34-40 hours per week.

SPARE TIME – ENTERTAINMENT

how much time to maintain and improve many languages

 

Now it really gets weird!

I tend to watch a lot of TV series with my girlfriend – about 15 hours per week. It’s great fun. However, it has bothered me for a long time that everything we watch is in English.

That’s a wrinkle I couldn’t iron out.

And then it dawned on me – why not turn this ordinary activity into another language learning exercise?
Why not translate everything actors say into one of the languages I am trying to improve?

As I thought so I did. I have been doing it for about 4 months now and it has really helped me improve my fluency in a couple of languages.

“What about words or phrases you don’t know?”, you might ask.

I have an easy but effective system which takes care of that problem. I memorize them with mnemonics on the fly and quickly note them down after each episode.

Next day I look them up and encode them. Quite an elegant solution, isn’t it?

Of course, it doesn’t work each time. Sometimes I am just too tired and I let myself get sucked into a TV whirlwind.

Total time: 5-15 hours

The Final Result

The results were beyond interesting. It was no secret to me that I learn a lot but I didn’t think that it’s that much!

Not even once did I sink below the level of 70 hours per week, although I am sure that it might happen in the future.

Thank God I am not a crack addict. Otherwise, I would be this guy who crawls through broken glass to lick other junkies’ nostrils to get his daily high.

Total time: 63-90 hours per week

Want to increase your weekly learning time? Read on. There is some food for thought for you there.

ACTIVE vs. PASSIVE LEARNING

Active use: 35-50 hours per week (talking to others or myself)
Semi-active use: about 15 hours per week (translating TV series in my mind)
Passive: 15-35 hours per week (reading + listening/watching)

CHALLENGES

how much time to maintain and improve many languages

 

Over 70 hours per week is certainly a lot of time. That’s why there is one important question which begs to be asked.

Does it all come easy? Or does it require some tremendous amount of will power? At the risk of rubbing some people the wrong way the answer is – It does come easy.

At this point of time in my life, I do most of those things without giving them much thought. But I had to work my way up to get there.

And believe me – it was a long walk and the slope was slippery.

There is definitely a number of challenges you need to face if you want to pump up your total learning time. Here are some of them.

CREATING HABITS

Definitely one of the most important things to master, if not the most important one. If you want to make sure that you will learn day in, day out, you need to build within yourself the urge to do it.

The urge that can only be built and fueled by habits.

Forget about the motivation. Motivation is for suckers. You have to show up every day until the habit of learning becomes the extension of yourself.

Only then will you be able to not only learn a lot without much effort but also crave it.

Read more about creating durable habits here.

ALTERNATING LANGUAGES

You can’t just choose one or two and toss the rest into some musty pit. They would rust away in the blink of an eye.

You need to introduce and invite every language you’re learning to your life. You have to make conscious effort to use them all constantly.

Beginnings are ugly and weird. It seems your guest is hammered and shits on your carpet and you don’t know what to do with him.

But once the dust settles, using a given language should become your second nature.

Here are more tips about juggling many languages.

SURROUNDING YOURSELF WITH LANGUAGES

Use every possible moment you get to learn a word or two. The chances to do it are everywhere around you:

And so on. Every little bit counts

AUTOMATING INPUT

The general of productivity is that the fewer decisions you have to make, the better your general efficiency is. It’s hard to argue with that.

Let’s say that you want to read something, How much time do you usually spend before you pick up an article? 5 minutes? 10 minutes?

It might not seem like a lot. However, it adds up very quickly.
Soon it may turn out that at least a dozen of hours per week is trickling between your fingers.

The same goes for choosing movies or YT videos.

Me?

I am hell-bent on not letting that happen.
I would rather spend this time weaving wicker baskets than losing it due to my indecision.

That’s why my input-gathering process is almost fully automated.

In the morning, when I arrive at my desk with a steamy mug of coffee, everything I need is already in my e-mail box. Scientific papers, videos, articles. Everything.

I don’t need to spend even one minute more than I should trying to find the necessary information.

And yet, as you can clearly seem  I still spend a lot of time learning and maitaning my languages which leads me to the last point.

WHY I WON’T LEARN NEW LANGUAGES ANYTIME SOON

how much time to maintain and improve many languages

People learn languages for different reasons.
Mine has always struck people as eccentric.

I haven’t learned languages because of my deep love for them.

No doubt I have fallen in love with them during the process of learning (except for French – f*** you French!) but my affection hasn’t been the main factor.

The main reason was always the pursuit of better memory.

And even though I know that I still have a lot to learn memory-wise, I know that learning languages won’t get me much further.

I don’t find languages challenging anymore. Sure, I haven’t learned Basque or even one of Asian languages. But I don’t need to.

The general principles of learning and memory improvement won’t change just because I switched to a new language.

And to be honest, what’s the difference between knowing 8 and 9 languages?
Or 10-12? Not that big, in my opinion.

However, the time you need to maintain them grows significantly with every new addition. Of course, some learners trade quality for quantity but I personally prefer to truly master the languages I know.

Languages vs other branches of knowledge

I have read in some scientific paper that learning a language to C1 level is tantamount to graduating from studies.

How come?

Both activities require thorough knowledge and understanding of about 10000 words/concepts.

But I don’t believe it to be true. I don’t know many college graduates who can use their knowledge as fluently and practically as C1 language learners can use their vocabulary.

And that is what bugs me. Why would I learn another language when there are so many other mysteries just waiting to be solved (I guess it’s the FOMO syndrome?

So many branches of knowledge which seem to lure me. Every day, I seem to find yet another thing which I don’t know much about.

The choice is simple – I can either excel at many other things or simply learn another language or 5.

The latter is infinitely less exciting and practical.

So what’s next?

Years ago I promised myself that I would master 10 languages till I turn 40.
Right now I am 31 and I still have plenty of time to achieve my goal.

But I think that this time I will take my time.and stick to learning some other things and hopefully running this blog full-time.

CONCLUSION

Not everyone needs to be a polyglot but if this is a path you decide to tread, you should be fully aware that it requires much time and effort.

The path is fraught with various obstacles. Get rid of one of them and soon you will realize that another one took its place.

But if there was just one thing, I would like you to take away from this article, it would be this one:

You have to make the languages you learn a central part of your life, only then will you be able to truly master them.

Question for you:

What stops you from learning your target language(s) more often?”

I would love to hear your opinion.

 

How To Master Grammar Of Any Language And Why Deliberate Practice Is The Fastest Way To Do It

I don’t like waiting. It’s not that I can’t be patient – quite often I just 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 definitely 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 common knowledge has it that you need plenty of time in order to learn your way around it.
You have to fumble about in the dark until you finally crawl out of it.

It goes without saying that the whole process takes the 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 which has been used by the world’s top performers for over three decades. It can help you break grammar into the easily digestible chunks.

In other words, the 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.

Problems With Typical Approach To Learning Grammar

Feedback Is Not (Always) Enough

 

Master Grammar Fast
Try to imagine your average lesson. Not even group lessons – those are terribly 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 the 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 very difficult to choose the ones which you should concentrate on. The ones which you will try to act upon.

In other words, just 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 huge 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 10 others take its place!

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 times, 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.

Acquiring Rare Grammar Constructions

While it might not be a big deal for some, it is definitely 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 actually 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 declination of German definite articles. They are the stuff of nightmares for many and thus the perfect choice.

 

Master Grammar Of Any Language

 

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. – source

If you fry your working memory, you can forget about effective learning.

The easiest test possible you can run in order to check whether this condition is met is to try to reproduce information you have just memorized.

If you can do it without the excessive number of groans then you are all set.

For the purpose of 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.

Quick sanity check confirms that I am able to 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 definitely delusional.

But what does devoting your full attention really mean?

It means just one thing.

You should only pay attention to the correct use of the given piece of grammar.. If it happens that 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. This is how our attention works.

Here is a great video which exemplifies this phenomenon.

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

These videos have definitely a very sobering effect on all the people who claim to possess the superior concentration power.

And they definitely 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.
The deliberate practice is boring 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.

This 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 exactly practise the deep learning?

What I usually recommend is to create at least 100 sentences with the given grammar construction within 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 the 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:

 

Master Grammar Of Any Language

 

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 aforementioned rules, 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)

Quick Summary:

1) Choose a small chunk of grammar

2) Create at least 100 sentences with it

3) Make sure that you can use it well enough

4) Move on to another grammar construction

Why The Deliberate Practice Is The Perfect Solution

 

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, learning grammar of a given language to a decent level might take ages. The deep learning gives you this plan.

Here are some advantages of this kind of approach:

It concentrates your attention

Your attention is restless and gets bored easily. Like a small child or a merry drunk.
You need to learn to tame it.

And this is precisely what the 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

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 It For Other Things Than Grammar?

Heck yeah!

You can use it for anything language and non-language related.

Learn how to produce 2 tricky sounds from your target language. – Once you learn how to pronounce them in the isolation, try to pronounce them, say, 100 times in different words.

Done?

Start practising 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.

Conclusion

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

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 – what can you potentially use the deliberate practice to improve the quality of your life?

1 2 3 4