There is no better way to start a piece on the benefits of talking to yourself than to quote Mr. Jones.
“One advantage of talking to yourself is that you know at least somebody’s listening,” Franklin P. Jones.
You must be thinking now – is there a BAD way to do it? Of course. Believe me, It’s definitely an art. Just like basket weaving.
But seriously – we take our ability to talk to ourselves for granted. I tried to google “talking to yourself” in some languages. The result? Usually, people are trying to make sure that they don’t have schizophrenia.
Taking to Yourself – Why so Many Bad Associations?
Every time, every damn time, when I mention to somebody that I love talking to myself out loud, they give me this weird look. They probably think that I put on my trench coat, get on the bus, sit near some nice old lady, and rub myself while blurting out some incomprehensible words.
That’s a grave misunderstanding. If used the right way, “self-talk,” as psychologists refer to it, can be a handy tool in your mental arsenal. It can, I kid you not, improve almost every area of your life.
No more shameful hiding in the shadows. Embrace your inner voices, and let me walk you through the benefits of talking to yourself!
Cognitive Benefits Of Talking To Yourself
What does the research say about the benefits of talking to yourself?
Research from the University of Michigan found that those who worked through their stress about giving a speech about their qualifications using “you” rather than “I” performed better and were less tormented by anxiety and self-doubt.
When people think of themselves as another person, “it allows them to give themselves objective, helpful feedback“, says Ethan Kross, associate professor of psychology and director of the Self-Control and Emotion Laboratory at the University of Michigan
In another study, psychologists Gary Lupyan (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Daniel Swingley (University of Pennsylvania) conducted a series of experiments to discover whether talking to yourself can help you to locate lost objects.
Long story short – they established that speaking facilitated search, particularly when there was a strong association between the name and the visual target.
You see? Not only children can augment their thinking while doing some tasks!
Are there any other benefits other than being more likely to stay on task, staying focused better, and showing improved perception capabilities?
Sure! Better memory. Think about it – when you talk out loud, you stimulate more sensory channels than when you subvocalize. You hear the sounds. What’s more, even though you may not realize it, your body feels sounds as they are conducted through your bones.
Fun fact: Bone conduction is one reason why a person’s voice sounds different to him/her when it is recorded and played back.
Last but not least, whenever you say something out loud, you engage your emotions. One of the most potent ingredients to boost your memory.
Research is great. But experiencing something first hand is even better.
Choose some words you’d like to memorize and shout it out angrily or with joy and afterward start laughing like a madman. I’ll be amazed if you can’t recall it a few days later.
Here’s a good example. I’m sure you remember this scene if you have seen the movie.
I hope that by this moment, you’re at least muttering to yourself!
Benefits of Talking to Yourself – Overcoming Stage Fright
Everybody has his favorite tricks to deal with anxiety. But the one which I find the most effective is preparing yourself for what’s about to come.
Have a presentation?
Stand in front of the mirror and go through your presentation as many times as it’s necessary to turn it into a brilliant performance. Who knows? Maybe you will enjoy it that much that you will join Toastmasters.
Have an interview?
Collect the list of 20-30 most frequently asked questions and rehearse the crap out of them!
Want to confront your boss about the long-overdue raise?
List all the possible questions that may come up during such a conversation and prepare your answers. Doing so will put you in a much better position when push comes to shove.
And so on. You get the idea.
Proper preparation kills stress and anxiety.
Benefits of Talking to Yourself – Practicing Languages
What if I told you that you could learn a language without uttering a word to anyone else but yourself? You would probably think I’m crazy. And I certainly am. After all, I’m writing an article about talking to yourself.
But that doesn’t change the fact that I learned Swedish (B2 level) to get the job in less than four months without talking to anyone in Swedish (but myself). And while working 50+ hours per week.
Self-talk enables you to concentrate on your weaknesses. Such deliberate practice can significantly improve your language level.
How to Talk to Yourself?
All conversations are based on the “action-reaction” principle. Somebody asks you some questions – you answer. It goes on and on. That’s why, if you want to prepare yourself for conversations with, say, friends from abroad, you should list potential questions that might come up, together with answers to them. Don’t forget about taking into consideration the interests of potential conversation partners!
Of course, you don’t have to come up with all the questions by yourself.
I want to recommend two fantastic websites which I have been using for many years:
It’s only weird if you make it weird. You don’t have to rush to your friends to brag about this, nor do you have to write an article about this (sic!). It’s just a tool to make you a better person.
It’s perfectly normal. Do you know that computer scientists do it as well (not that it means anything!)?
Rubber duck debuggingis an informal term used in software engineering for a method of debugging code. The name is a reference to a story in the book The Pragmatic Programmer in which a programmer would carry around a rubber duck and debug their code by forcing themselves to explain it, line-by-line, to the duck. Many other terms exist for this technique, often involving different inanimate objects.
So don’t be a weirdo and don’t feel ashamed to talk to yourself!
Other Benefits of Talking to Yourself
That’s right. You might use the self-talk for various things, such as:
Energizing and motivating yourself – you can psych yourself up with: “Come on!” “Let’s go!” “You can do this!”. Martial artists have been using screams for hundreds of years to give them some extra energy. I’m pretty sure there is a good reason for that.
Playing devil’s advocate – find the weaknesses in your argumentation. Try to debunk your theories. Saying your options out loud and elaborating on the pros and cons can help bring the right choice to light, and you might be surprised at the unexpected direction your thoughts take when they’re audible.
I love words. They are like tiny, beautiful puzzle pieces. Choose the right ones, and you can assemble beautiful and meaningful sentences. Sentences that convey your thoughts with surgical precision. Choose the wrong ones, and you will get a stinky bag of confusion.
But there is a lot of confusion around how large your vocabulary should be for each level. I have heard dozens of different versions. That’s why I decided to come up with an easy rule on how to remember how many words you should know at every language level.
The Rule of 2 – How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level
Now back to the rule! It is as simple it gets — the number of words needed to advance to every level doubles.
How Many Words You Should Know (for Every Language Level)
Number of Base Words Needed
Add or deduct up to 20% of the given values. This way, you will get the approximate range for each language level.
Why up to 20%? Because words you choose to learn matter that much! If you were to concentrate on words from the frequency list, you would definitely have to deduct 20% on higher levels (B1-C2). However, if you, for some reason, started learning names of trees or birds, you would have to add 20% to the said levels.
What Is a Word?
It needs some clarification since this term has changed its meaning in Linguistics in the last few decades. In the past, “a base word” was the base word itself and all its inflected forms. For example, “tough,” “toughen,” and “toughness” used to be treated as 3 words.
Nowadays, “a base word” indicates “the word family” and consists of the base word and its inflected forms and derivations.
According to a renowned linguistic researcher Paul Nation, if you use the 1.6 factor to base words, you should get (more or less) the number of “separate” words (i.e., inflected words).
“Why Do I Need to Know How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level?”
A fair question, I guess. It’s not a fun fact which you can rub in somebody’s face. There are two good reasons:
Vocabulary size is a good indicator of your current level
The number of words you know is one of the most reliable indicators of your language level. If you track the size of your vocabulary, you should be able to tell (more or less) what level you’re on. Assuming, of course, that you learn the right words. Memorizing the names of plants won’t get you far!
Vocabulary size can be your milestone
Not knowing where you are heading can be frightening. It’s like straying in the fog. You don’t know what lies around the corner. Knowing your goal can give you a sense of direction. Even if you fall, it will be on a pile of cushions, not the sharp rocks.
How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level – Milestones
There are 4 most important vocabulary milestones in language learning. They are a great way to establish what your current language level is and how big a distance you have to cover to get to the next one.
Just in case you wonder – the following rules stand roughly true for most of the languages. Be it Asian or European. But since languages tend to differ from each other quite a bit, please take it with a grain of salt and use these calculations only as a landmark.
1000 words allow you to understand about 80% of the language which surrounds you, as long as it is not too specialized (Hwang, 1989; Hirsh and Nation, 1992; Sutarsyah, Nation and Kennedy, 1994)
In theory, it sounds great. JUST 1000 words, and you understand that much! Unfortunately, the remaining 20% is what really matters. Just look at this sentence:
“I went to the … to buy …. but they told me that they couldn’t… .’ Sure, you understand a lot of words. But does it help?
3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996).
BUT…general comprehension is not the same as full comprehension, as it involves some guessing.
Still, there is no shortage of enthusiasts who claim that such level is high enough to start picking up new words from context. However, researchers tend to disagree and say that the “magical” number of words which allows learning from the context is….(drum roll)
5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). Such a vocabulary size also warrants accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).
It means that you can function surrounded by this language without bigger problems. Sure, you will struggle if you want to formulate your thoughts precisely, or when you encounter specialized vocabulary.
But other than that, you will be fine.
10000 words allow you to understand about 99% of most texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). It is the pinnacle of language learning — a counterpart to having the vocabulary of a college graduate.
With that many words, you can express yourself with fantastic precision and pass for a native speaker if your accent is good enough. It is the minimum goal for every language I learn. It makes me feel like a citizen of a given country.
If you want to download frequency lists for your target language, visit this website.
How Many Words You Should Know for Every Language Level – Summary
Knowing how many words you need to know to get to the C1 level gives you some perspective on how much effort it takes to achieve this monstrous goal.
I’m writing this because many of us get depressed after seeing dozens of videos on YT of people speaking or claiming to speak 10 or 20 languages.
But the truth is that there is a yawning gap between being good and being great at a language (or anything else for that matter).
Any person who has truly mastered a language (i.e., achieved C1/ C2 level) could have learnt 2-4 languages to B2 level or 4-8 languages to A2 level in that time
Remember it the next time gloomy thoughts start creeping up on you, my friend.
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created about 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go.
There are just a few things in this world which make me angry and sad at the same time. But the one that takes the cake is reading almost every month for the past few years that soon, oh so very soon, learning languages will become obsolete.
Sure, it is pointless. Why bother? Technology will solve the problem of interlingual communication. So better not waste your time. You’ll be better-off watching re-runs of The Kardashians.
How many people have given up even before they started? Without even realizing that many, oh so many, years will pass before any translation software or magical devices will be able to do a half-decent job.
But is it really only about communication? Have you ever wondered what other benefits language learning has to offer?
The following list includes 80 benefits of language learning. Some obvious, some surprising. I’ve been hand-picking them for many months from different scientific sources.
The list is a work in progress. I’ll keep on updating it every couple of months. Feel free to write to me if you spot somewhere some benefit which is not on the list.
It’s also worth noting that there is a large body of research to confirm each of these benefits of language learning. Although, I usually quote results of just one or two studies to keep this list more concise.
Purpose of the list
The main purpose of this list is to make you realize how many benefits of language learning there are. I hope that such knowledge will help to pull you through all language-learning plateaus.
What’s more, I also hope that it will help you to inspire others to pursue language learning. Your children, spouse, parents. It’s never too late.
Treat is a language-learning manifesto. Print it, hang it on the wall. And every time you feel like giving up, hug your dictionary and stare at this list for a couple of minutes.
Amazing benefits of language learning
If you learn a foreign language…
1. Your brain will grow
Johan Martensson’s researchshows that after three months of studying a foreign language, learners’ brains grew in four places: the hippocampus, middle frontal gyrus, inferior frontal gyrus, and superior temporal gyrus (gyri are ridges on the cerebral cortex).
What happens when you learn languages for more than 3 months and you’re serious about it?
The right hippocampus and the left superior temporal gyrus were structurally more malleable in interpreters acquiring higher proficiency in the foreign language. Interpreters struggling relatively more to master the language displayed larger gray matter increases in the middle frontal gyrus
According to researchconducted by Julia Morales of Spain’s Granada University, children who learn a second language are able to recall memories better than monolinguals, or speakers of just one language.
When asked to complete memory-based tasks, Morales and her team found that those who had knowledge of multiple languages worked both faster and more accurately.
The young participants who spoke a second language had a clear advantage in working memory. Their brains worked faster, pulling information and identifying problems in a more logical fashion.
When your brain is put through its paces and forced to recall specific words in multiple languages, it develops strength in the areas responsible for storing and retrieving information (read more about improving your short-term memory)
Do you remember how hard listening was at the beginning of the language journey? Pure nightmare! And since the brain has to work really hard to distinguish between different types of sounds in different languages, being bilingual leads to improved listening skills (Krizman et al., 2012).
Further references: Lapkin, et al 1990, Ratte 1968.
4. You will have higher verbal and non-verbal intelligence
In 1962, Peal and Lambert published a study where they found that people who are at least conversationally fluent in more than one language consistently beat monolinguals on tests of verbal and nonverbal intelligence.
Bilinguals showed significant advantage especially in non-verbal tests that required more mental flexibility.
References: Peal E., Lambert M. (1962). “The relation of bilingualism to intelligence”.Psychological Monographs75(546): 1–23.
5. Your attention span will improve
Photo by Lex Mckee
A study from 2010 shows that bilinguals have stronger control over their attention and are more capable of limiting distractions.
When asked to concentrate on a task, the study’s bilingual participants showed an increased ability to tune out distractions and concentrate on the given task.
They were also better equipped to interpret the work before them, eliminating unnecessary information and working on only what was essential.
Great news everyone! The recent evidence suggests a positive impact of bilingualism on cognition.
So what exactly does it mean?
The research found that individuals who speak two or more languages, regardless of their education level, gender or occupation, experience the onset of Alzheimer’s, on average, 4 1/2 years later than monolingual subjects did.
What’s more, even people who acquired a second language in adulthood can enjoy this benefit!
I’m not a fan of multitasking since it’s harmful to your productivity.
However, according to researchconducted by Brian Gold, learning a language increases brain flexibility, making it easy to switch tasks in just seconds. Study participants were better at adapting and were able to handle unexpected situations much better than monolinguals.
That’s great. But the real question is – why were they better?
The plausible explanation is that when we learn a new language, we frequently jump between our familiar first language and the new one, making connections to help us retain what we’re learning.
This linguistic workout activates different areas of our brain. The more we switch between languages, the more those brain zones become accustomed to working. Once they’ve become accustomed to this type of “workout,” those same areas start helping to switch between tasks beyond language.
Learning a foreign language improves not only your ability to solve problems and to think more logically. It can also increase your creativity, according to Kathryn Bamford and Donald Mizokawa’s research.
Early language study forces you to reach for alternate words when you can’t quite remember the original one you wanted to use and makes you experiment with new words and phrases.
It improves your skills in divergent thinking, which is the ability to identify multiple solutions to a single problem.
Language learners also show greater cognitive flexibility (Hakuta 1986) and are better at figural creativity (Landry 1973).
It sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But before we move on, let’s clarify what executive functions are:
Executive functions (also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) – is an umbrella term for the management (regulation, control) of cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution. – Wikipedia
The body of research has shown that bilingual individuals are better at such processes; suggesting an interaction between being bilingual and executive functions.
As Anne-Catherine Nicolay and Martine Poncelet, a pair of scientists from Belgium, discovered in their research, learning a language improves individuals’ alertness, auditory attention, divided attention, and mental flexibility. The more you immerse yourself in the new language, the more you hone your executive functions.
In another study, Bialystok gave study subjects a non-linguistic card-sorting task that required flexibility in problem-solving, filtering irrelevant information, as well as recognizing the constancy of some variables in the face of changes in the rules.
Bilingual children significantly outperformed their monolingual peers in this task, suggesting the early development of inhibitory function that aids in solving problems that require the ability to selectively focus attention.
10. You will be better at problem-solving (even at maths!)
In one study, bilingual children were presented with the problems of both mathematical (arranging two sets of bottle caps to be equal according to instruction) and non-mathematical nature (a common household problem represented in pictures) and were asked to provide solutions.
They were rated on scales of creativity, flexibility, and originality. The results confirmed that the bilingual children were more creative in their problem solving than their monolingual peers.
One explanation for this could be bilinguals’ increased metalinguistic awareness, which creates a form of thinking that is more open and objective, resulting in increased awareness and flexibility.
If you want to create a crazy brainiac, teaching your child another language is a way to go!
According to new research, babies exposed to two languages display better learning andmemory skills compared to their monolingual peers.
The study was conducted in Singapore and was the result of the collaboration between scientists and hospitals. Altogether, the study included 114 6 month-old infants – about half of whom had been exposed to two languages from birth.
The study found that when repeatedly shown the same image, bilingual babies recognized familiar images quicker and paid more attention to novel images – demonstrating tendencies that have strong links to higher IQ later in life.
Amazingly, children seem to absorb (even) multiple languages effortlessly.
“The power to learn a language is so great in the young child that it doesn’t seem to matter how many languages you seem to throw their way…They can learn as many spoken languages as you can allow them to hear systematically and regularly at the same time. Children just have this capacity. Their brain is ripe to do this…there doesn’t seem to be any detriment to….develop[ing] several languages at the same time” according to Dr. Susan Curtiss, UCLA Linguistics professor.
Past studies have shown that babies who rapidly get bored with a familiar image demonstrated higher cognition and language ability later on as children (Bialystok & Hakuta 1994; Fuchsen 1989).
A preference for novelty is also linked with higher IQs and better scores in vocabulary tests during pre-school and school-going years.
How many monolingual speakers know what adjectives or gerunds are? Not many. It’s natural. They simply don’t need such knowledge. However, learning a second language draws your attention to the abstract rules and structure of language, thus makes you better at your first language.
Research suggests that foreign language study “enhances children’s understanding of how language itself works and their ability to manipulate language in the service of thinking and problem-solving.” (Cummins 1981).
It sounds like a cliche but let’s say it out loud – your chances of employment in today’s economy are much greater for you than for those who speak only one language.
Multilingual employees are able to communicate and interact within multiple communities. With the rise of technology which enables global communication, such an ability becomes more and more valuable.
What’s more, knowledge of a foreign language conveys, among others, that you’re an intelligent, disciplined and motivated person.
Even if being bilingual is not completely necessary in your field, being fluent in another language gives you a competitive edge over your monolingual competitors.
Of course, feeling that the above is true is one thing, but what about cold hard facts?
In a survey of 581 alumni of The American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Arizona, most graduated stated that they had gained a competitive advantage from their knowledge of foreign languages and other cultures.
They said that not only was language study often a decisive factor in hiring decisions and in enhancing their career paths, but it also provided personal fulfillment, mental discipline, and cultural enlightenment. (Grosse 2004)
15. You will enhance your confidence and sense of achievement
Confidence always increases when a new skill is mastered. Learning a foreign language is no different. It boosts your self-confidence and makes you feel this nice, warm feeling inside.
Knowing a language also makes you more interesting and let’s face it – who doesn’t want to be more interesting?
Evidence from several studies shows language students to have a significantly higher self-concept than do non-language students. (Masciantonio 1977, Saunders 1998, Andrade, et al. 1989).
16. You will score higher on standardized tests
Photo by Dennis Skley
Bilingual students consistently score higher on standardized tests in comparison with their monolingual peers, especially in the areas of math, reading and vocabulary.
How much better are their results?
Results from the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test ) show that students who completed at least four years of foreign-language study scored more than 100 points higher on each section of the SAT than monolingual students. (College Board 2004)
Even third-graders who had received 15 minutes of conversational French lessons daily for a year had statistically higher SAT scores than their peers who had not received French classes. (Lopata 1963)
17. You will think faster
In a small study, bilingual people were about a half-second faster than monolinguals (3.5 versus 4 seconds) at executing novel instructions such as “add 1 to x, divide y by 2, and sum the results.”
Andrea Stocco and Chantel S. Prat of the University of Washington who conducted the research say the findings are in line with previous studies showing that bilingual children show superior performance on non-linguistic tasks.
References: Stocco, A., Yamasaki, B. L., Natalenko, R., & Prat, C. S. “Bilingual brain training: A neurobiological framework of how bilingual experience improves executive function.” International Journal of Bilingualism.
18. You will have better job security
Mastering a language is a skill that requires a lot of time, discipline and persistence. Many people start learning and give up half-way.
That’s why employees who have knowledge of a foreign language are much harder to replace. Of course, the rarer and /or more difficult the language, the stronger your leverage.
19. You will earn more
It comes as no surprise that the knowledge of languages can add a little something to your salary. However, the amount you can get varies significantly from country to country.
So how does it look like for the citizens of the United States?
Albert Saiz, the MIT economist who calculated the 2% premium, found quite different premiums for different languages: just 1.5% for Spanish, 2.3% for French and 3.8% for German. This translates into big differences in the language account: your Spanish is worth $51,000, but French, $77,000, and German, $128,000. Humans are famously bad at weighting the future against the present, but if you dangled even a post-dated $128,000 cheque in front of the average 14-year-old, Goethe and Schiller would be hotter than Facebook. – (www.economist.com)
In the UK, employees who know a foreign language earn an extra £3,000 a year – a total of £145,000 over their lifetime
Companies are prepared to pay workers earning the national average of £25,818 as much as 12% more if they speak or learn a foreign language. For higher earners, the figures are even more startling.
Those earning £45,000 could see a potential cash boost of 20%, amounting to an extra £9,000 a year or £423,000 over a lifetime. – (www.kwintessential.co.uk)
As you can see, knowing a foreign language can be certainly profitable. But please bear in mind that people who know 2 foreign languages earn much more and the reports typically don’t take rare languages into consideration.
20. You will enjoy increased mobility
There are many reasons why people leave their homeland and move to other places. Some look for a better life, others try to find political freedom, love or religious tolerance.
Whatever the reasons might be, knowing foreign languages significantly increases your mobility by removing language barriers and increasing the chances of employment.
What’s more, a stay abroad can positively influence your employability even if you come back to your motherland.
The risk of long-term unemployment after graduation was 50% lower for mobile students than for non-mobile students. Even five years after graduation, the unemployment rate of mobile students was still 23% lower. Also 50% fewer mobile students (2%) than non-mobile students (4%) needed more than 12 months to find their first job. – The Erasmus Impact Study
The Principle of Priority states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first. – Steven Pressfield
Learning a foreign language is one of the most complicated skills out there which one can master. It’s not your typical “to-do list” which usually consists of just a few, simple tasks. To arrive at your final destination (i.e. mastering a language) you need to learn how to prioritize effectively.
Every language learner faces dozens of decisions each day – what should I learn? When to do it? Should it be reading? If yes, what should I read? And so on.
The constant flood of problems you face every day, helps you to become an efficient learner who knows what is important and what is not.
22. You will make new friends for life
Photo by Sanja Gjenero
Arguably, this is one of the most phenomenal benefits of language learning. Your language skills tear down all communication barriers in the world. In the era of the internet, you can find friends in every corner of the world. Africa, Asia, New Zealand are just a few clicks away.
23. Your memory retrieval will improve
Research at the intersection of cognitive science and education has shown that retrieval improves learning in significant ways. Each act of retrieval changes your knowledge, improving the ability to retrieve knowledge again in the future.
References: Nunes, L. D., & Karpicke, J. D. (in press). “Retrieval-based learning: Research at the interface between cognitive science and education”.
24. You will become a better decision-maker
According to a new study, multilingual speakers are more resistant to conditioning and framing techniques, making them less likely to be swayed by such language in advertisements or political campaign speeches.
It seems that foreign-language speakers are more sensitive and observant when it comes to the words they hear and read.
According to new research, the ability to learn a second language may depend less on linguistic skills and more on the ability to recognize patterns.
In the said study, Frost and colleagues measured how well American students in an overseas program picked up on the structure of words and sounds in Hebrew. The students were tested once in the first semester and again in the second semester.
The results showed a high positive correlation between recognizing patterns in the shapes and learning another language.
“These new results suggest that learning a second language is determined to a large extent by an individual ability that is not at all linguistic,” says Ram Frost of Hebrew University in Jerusalem who conducted the study.
“It’s surprising that a short 15-minute test involving the perception of visual shapes could predict to such a large extent which of the students who came to study Hebrew would finish the year with a better grasp of the language,” says Frost.
The findings could have broader implications beyond language learning.
“This finding points to the possibility that a unified and universal principle of statistical learning can quantitatively explain a wide range of cognitive processes across domains, whether they are linguistic or non-linguistic,” concluded the researchers.
Researchers from Spain and Germany found that the process of learning a language and acquiring a wider vocabulary has the effect of stimulating the same part of the brain as having sex or eating chocolate.
Language learning triggers a part of the brain known as the ventral striatum, a pleasure center that is activated when people are involved in activities such as sex, drugs, gambling or eating sugary foods.
References: Pablo Ripollés, Josep Marco-Pallarés, Ulrike Hielscher, Anna Mestres-Missé, Claus Tempelmann, Hans-Jochen Heinze, Antoni Rodríguez-Fornells, Toemme Noesselt. “The Role of Reward in Word Learning and Its Implications for Language Acquisition”.
27. You will increase your general vocabulary
The results of the recent study showed that bilingualism is highly correlated with the breadth of vocabulary knowledge and reading skill.
In other words, bilingual participants have a larger size of vocabulary knowledge and they enjoy better word reading skills.
References: Zohreh Kassaian, Saeedeh Esmae’li (2011). “The Effect of Bilingualism on L3 Breadth of Vocabulary Knowledge and Word Reading Skill”.
28. You’ll enjoy other cultures much better
Photo by Steven L. Shepard, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs.
That’s right. By learning a new language you will be able to gain insights into a different culture, access and enjoy the different entertainment, arts, and customs that have developed in different regions over the centuries.
You won’t have to be forced anymore to listen to movies with mediocre dubbing. No more awkward mumbling while singing songs of your favorite Japanese band!
29. You will be a more aware spender
I must admit that I didn’t expect that language learning can have such a side-effect. But hey! Would science lie?
Anyway, speakers of multiple languages have also been shown to be more self-aware spenders, perceiving “hypothetical” and “real” money (the perceived difference between money on a credit card and money in cold, hard cash) more similarly than monolinguals.
One of the implications of the study, according to its authors is that “people who routinely make decisions in a foreign language rather than their native tongue might be less biased in their savings, investment, and retirement decisions, as a result of reduced myopic loss aversion.”
References: Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa and Sun Gyu An (2012). “The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases”.
30. You will increase information exchange and flow of ideas
If you think English is enough to get all the information from your area of expertise, think again.
Knowledge of languages improves international information exchange thus contributing to various improvements and developments at a national, regional and local level.
Speaking other foreign languages enables you to tap into the vast ocean of information which was not previously available and to pass it on to others.
31. You will increase your global (political) awareness & understanding
While studying another language, you not only learn how to communicate in that language, you also get to know a lot about the country, the culture, and the people. As you progress, you begin to better understand and sympathize with the people who speak the language.
Discovering their history, you experience their pain, share their victories. You begin to see the world through their eyes. And then the magic happens – you create a connection between your own culture and language to theirs and you develop a deeper understanding of your own language and culture.
That often makes you more aware and appreciative of the unique qualities within your own language, people, and culture.
32. You will learn other languages faster
I know. Learning your first foreign language is always hard. You have no plan. You have no idea what you’re doing and where you’re going.
However, mastering one language teaches you the mechanics and structure behind any language (ok, maybe except Basque). That makes learning another language much easier!
33. It will be easier to find a spouse
Loneliness sucks. But thanks to your awesome language skills you might be able to drastically increase your options pool.
You will gain instant access to millions of new people who might be your potential partner. Even ordinary holidays might turn into a love story!
34. You will learn consistency and persistence
Achieving conversational skills in a language takes anywhere from 4-12 months. If you aim at native-like fluency it might take much longer.
The language learning journey is fraught with obstacles. Overcoming these adversities is what boosts your confidence and builds character. Every victory, no matter how small, makes you better equipped to handle future challenges and build consistency and persistence.
35. You will improve the chances of college acceptance, achievement, and attainment
Photo by Sigurd Decroos
The study conducted in 2011 found that students who were in rigorous programs in high school—that included three years of foreign language study—were more likely to get better grades in college and less likely to drop out. (Horn &Kojaku 2001)
Another study showed that high school seniors with two or more years of foreign language study showed significantly improved performance on achievement tests in English when compared with non-foreign language students. (Bastian 1980)
36. You will improve basic skills development
A study of 13,200 third and fifth graders in Louisiana public schools showed that, regardless of race, gender or academic level, children taking foreign language classes did better on the English section of the Louisiana Basic Skills Test than those who did not. (Dumas 1999)
37. It will benefit academic progress
In Other Subjects According to the 2007 report by the National Council of State Supervisors For Language:
Strong evidence shows that time spent on foreign language study strongly reinforces the core subject areas of reading, English language literacy, social studies, and math.
Foreign language learners consistently outperform control groups in core subject areas on standardized tests, often significantly. (Armstrong & Rogers 1997; Saunders 1998; Masciantonio 1977; Rafferty 1986; Andrade 1989; Kretschmer & Kretschmer 1989)
One study found students scored significantly higher in math and language arts after one semester of foreign language study 90 minutes per week. (Armstrong 1997)
Students who started kindergarten in the first Kansas City foreign language magnet schools in 1988 had surpassed national averages in all subjects by the time they reached fifth grade. These foreign language students performed especially well in mathematics. (Eaton 1994)
Foreign language students within an urban magnet program scored well above anticipated national norms in both reading and mathematics and higher than the average of all magnet two school participants, even though they represent a broad cross-section of the local community. (Andrade 1989)
Mastering the vocabulary of a second language enhances student comprehension and abilities in reading, writing, mathematics, and other subjects. (Saville-Troike 1984)
Bilingualism fosters the development of verbal and spatial abilities. (Diaz 1983)
Students learning a second language in elementary school surpassed those who were not in English reading and language arts tests. (Mavrogenes 1979).
38. You will outperform others on IQ tests
Bilinguals outperform similar monolingual persons on both verbal and nonverbal tests of intelligence, which raises the question of whether ability in more than one language enables individuals to achieve greater intellectual flexibility (Bruck, Lambert, and Tucker, 1974; Hakuta, 1986; Weatherford, 1986).
39. You will improve your communication skills and adaptability
Constant struggles with expressing your thoughts in the early stages of language learning force you to change your approach to expressing yourself. You adapt and simplify your thoughts to facilitate communication. The unusual side-effect of this process is that you become a more effective communicator!
40. You will learn how to manage time effectively
Most of us have a job, study, family and other stuff to take care of. That’s why learning a language requires some serious time management skills. Students of foreign languages become experts at using time productively. After all, how many other people listen to language podcasts on their way to work or at the gym?
41. Second language study benefits understanding and security in the community and society
Research suggests that attitudes about other groups and peoples are formed by the age of ten and are often shaped between the ages of four and eight. Learning a language at a young age helps connect a child with another culture while they are still open-minded and have not yet begun to restrict their views of others whom they perceive to be different. (Curtain & Pesola1988)
Many people dream of having their own business. The main problem they usually encounter is deciding on what they should do. There are thousands of companies of different kinds. How can you make sure that yours is special?
The answer is easy – copy, or to be more precise – copy ideas from other countries. It doesn’t matter whether you want to open a restaurant or start a tech business. Start googling in the language of your choice and soon enough you will find lots of ideas you can copy!
43. You will be sexier
A report commissioned by Michael Thomas, the Hollywood language teacher who has taught celebrities such as Doris Day, Emma Thompson and Woody Allen, highlights some exciting benefits of language learning. According to a report commissioned by Michael Thomas, Britons who learn a foreign language tend to be happier, richer and are considered as sexier than those who can only speak English.
Although the report is about Brits, I would say that it’s a safe bet that language speakers are universally more attractive!
44. You will be more intelligent
The American Academy of Neurology has conducted research which shows that speaking more than one language increases the number of neural pathways in the brain, allowing information to be processed through a greater variety of channels. They’ve also begun to demonstrate that multilingualism improves development in the brain’s areas of executive function and attention, regardless of learner’s age.
45. You will find it easier to learn
Embracing foreign language learning increases your global awareness and understanding. This way, not only do you learn how to communicate in that language but also get to know a great deal more about the country, the culture, and the people. This knowledge is invaluable!“Connecting and joining together with people we have never met and are not related to goes to the very soul and core of our being as humans.” Source: http://www.qlanguage.com.hk/language-learning-increases-global-awareness-understanding/
Learning a new language inspires and encourages you to explore a culture that you have previously only had a slight knowledge of or, worst still, no knowledge of whatsoever. As you progress, you begin to better understand and empathize with the people who speak the language, you learn about their struggles, their history, and even their idiosyncrasies. Simply put, you get a much closer and fascinating insight into what makes them tick!
Moreover, as your empathy and knowledge of their culture grow, something magical begins to happen: you form a connection between your own culture and language to theirs, and you begin to gain a deeper and more profound understanding of your own language and culture. Very often, you become more aware and appreciative of the unique qualities within your own language, people and culture.
“In an age of global interdependence and increasingly multicultural and multiethnic society, early foreign language study gives children unique insight into other cultures and builds their cultural competency skills in a way that no other discipline can do. “The age of ten is a crucial time in the development of attitudes toward nations and groups perceived as ‘other’ according to the research of Piaget, Lambert and others. At age 10, children are in the process of moving from egocentricity to reciprocity and information received before age ten is eagerly received.” (Curtain & Dahlberg 2004)”
“Exposure to a foreign language serves as a means of helping children to intercultural competence. The awareness of a global community can be enhanced when children have the opportunity to experience involvement with another culture through a foreign language.” (Curtain & Dahlberg 2004)
“The positive impact of cultural information is significantly enhanced when that information is experienced through the foreign language and accompanied by experiences in culturally authentic situations.” (Curtain & Dahlberg 2004)
Experiences in learning a second language and learning another culture will facilitate teachers’ interactions with their students’ learning experience. Competent teachers understand that positive self-concept and positive identification with one’s culture is the basis for academic success. (Lemberger 1990)
Foreign language learners are more tolerant of the differences among people. (Carpenter & Torney 1974)
49. You will learn how to learn complex skills
Many people disregard this fact but learning a language is one of the most challenging skills out there. To acquire native-like abilities in understanding, speaking, reading and writing a language, as well as a knowledge of the culture of those who speak it, could take anything from five years to a lifetime.
know how to define your problems and offer a viable solution
As you see, there are many skills you have to learn to master a language. But there is a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.
Once you learn how to master a language, it becomes easier to tackle other skills.
50. Language learning gives you a better understanding of the arts
Another benefit of learning a foreign language is being able to understand and appreciate the arts of another country at a more profound level. As you learn the language and history of Greece, for example, you begin to understand Spanish music, films, and literature.
Let’s take the literature as an example. Very often, the true meaning of words is lost during the translation. Some things simply cannot be translated. Your native language doesn’t have the same words or phrases as every other language. Learning a language will allow you to truly explore the texts you’re reading.
51. It narrows achievement gaps
There is a large body of research proving that learning languages can narrow achievement gaps (source: NEA Research, December 2007)
Children of color, children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and English Language Learners make the most significant proportionate achievement gains from foreign language study.
Early foreign language study is less dependent on previous verbal learning than most other elements of the elementary school curriculum, and this allows some students to succeed who have otherwise experienced repeated failure in school. (Curtain & Dahlberg 2004)
A study of 13,200 third and fifth graders in Louisiana public schools revealed that, regardless of race, gender or academic level, children taking foreign language classes did better on the English section of the Louisiana Basic Skills Test than those who did not. (Dumas 1999)
Foreign language study can help to alter the trajectory for children of average intelligence and narrow the achievement gap. (Garfinkel & Tabor 1991)
Cincinnati’s Foreign Language Magnet Program has a student population that is 57% African American and 43% Caucasian, with 52% of the total receiving free and reduced lunch. Achievement for these children far exceeds national norms in both reading and math and participants in the foreign language magnet program on average score higher than the average of all Cincinnati’s many magnet programs. (Andrade, Kretschmer & Kretschmer 1989)
In a four year study by McGill University, working-class students did just as well in a foreign language as middle-class students even though their English skills were not as good. (Holobow 1988)
52. It makes your traveling more exciting
“The limits of your language are the limits of your world” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Knowing only one language (i.e. English) is very helpful – no one can deny it. But it can get you only as far as the most popular tourist attractions and resorts. On the other hand, knowing more than one language opens up your vacation destination possibilities. Speaking the language of a given country allows you to travel freely and get off the beaten path. And no, you don’t have to be fluent.
Most locals appreciate and reward your willingness to communicate in their native tongue. I’m not a much of the traveler myself, but whenever I spoke the language of the country which I was visiting, the reaction was nothing short of heart-warming! I was encouraged and praised for my language skills, even though I made dozens of mistakes.
53. You won’t be left behind
Many would argue that bilingualism is becoming a progressively necessary and essential skill for anyone who wants to keep up with today’s rapidly increasing global economy. As more and more people recognize the importance of learning an additional language, those who only speak one language will begin to get left behind in our shift towards a more integrated and connected global society.
54. Language learning benefits higher-order and abstract thinking
Speaking a different language means that you are constantly confronted with new ways of thinking about the thing you thought you knew.
Mixed metaphors and phrases change the way you think, and benefit abstract and creative thinking since you acquire multi-faceted view on the world.
As your brain works to process a new language, memory, reasoning, and analytical thinking are heightened.
55. You will get access to information of higher quality
Your information is only as useful as your sources of information. Looking for it in only one language isolates you from thousands of other sources, research results, etc. Very often, they are the ones who offer an interesting angle on the matters of your interest because of cultural differences.
56. You will improve your general communication skills
The above is true in many ways. The apparent benefit of language learning is that a new language gives you the ability to communicate with different people on more meaningful levels.
The less obvious is that by practicing it, you also hone your communication skills generally. You acquire new perspectives and skills that help you express yourself better and understand others more completely.
Finally, learning a new language makes you think differently about your own, providing clarity, complexity, and a deep understanding of others.
75 % of the world doesn’t speak English at all. Do you know what it means for your business? It means that you’re limiting your pool of potential customers. Sure, it might not be the case if you have a small grocery shop. But for others conversing in the client’s language helps to understand his needs.
58. You will become better at playing instruments
Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash
Several of the studies reviewed in a 2011 paper by Finnish music and education researcher Riia Milovanov and her colleagues, showed that mastery of more than one language as well as mastery of music involves higher levels of executive control.
These are the mechanisms responsible for the overall management of cognitive resources and processes – including attention shifts, working memory, reasoning, and switching between tasks.
Learning and practicing something, for instance, a second language, strengthens the brain,” said Ping Li, professor of psychology, linguistics and information sciences and technology. “Like physical exercise, the more you use specific areas of your brain, the more it grows and gets stronger.”
Li and colleagues studied 39 native English speakers’ brains over a six-week period as half of the participants learned Chinese vocabulary. Of the subjects learning the new vocabulary, those who were more successful in attaining the information showed a more connected brain network than both the less successful participants and those who did not learn the new vocabulary.
The researchers also found that the participants who were successful learners had a more connected network than the other participants even before learning took place. A better-integrated brain network is more flexible and efficient, making the task of learning a new language easier. Li and colleagues report their results in a recent article published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics.
The researchers defined the efficiency of brain networks in terms of the strength and direction of connections, or edges, between brain regions of interest, or nodes. The stronger the edges going from one node to the next, the faster the nodes can work together, and the more efficient the network.
Participants each underwent two fMRI scans — one before the experiment began and one after — in order for the researchers to track neural changes. At the end of the study period, the researchers found that the brains of the successful learners had undergone functional changes — the brain network was better integrated.
Such changes, Li and colleagues suggested while reviewing several related studies, are consistent with anatomical changes that can occur in the brain as a result of learning a second language, no matter the age of the learner, as they reported in a recent issue of Cortex.
“A very interesting finding is that, contrary to previous studies, the brain is much more plastic than we thought,” said Li, also co-chair of the interdisciplinary graduate degree program in neuroscience. “We can still see anatomical changes in the brain [in the elderly], which is very encouraging news for aging. And learning a new language can help lead to more graceful aging.”
Meanwhile, Li and colleagues have begun working on interactive ways to teach language using virtual 3-D-like environments with situation-based learning to help the brain make some of those new connections more effectively. Such studies hold the promise that the process of learning a second language as an adult can, in fact, lead to both behavioral and physical changes that may approximate the patterns of learning a language as a child.
Another study from 2017 hinted that foreign-language speakers turned out to be less averse to violating the taboos that can interfere with making utility-maximizing choices. As a consequence, they can make better decisions.
Learning a language is always a challenge. It takes sweat and tears. But amazing things happen once you achieve at least communicative fluency. At that point, you can relax and use your language skills to acquire new knowledge effortlessly.
For example, I spend at least 2-3 hours per day learning medicine in English, German, and Spanish.
This way, I can improve my language and general knowledge at the same time.
62. You will have a wider perspective and more options
Another great news for language learners is having more opportunities to find a job and develop professionally.
A wider perspective and more options is based on in-depth interviews with humanities graduates from the 1970s onwards and captures something of the diversity of career paths followed by graduates in so-called ‘non-vocational’ disciplines.
References: 2006 report by the Higher Education Academies
The research from 2014 shows that simple mistakes in spelling or comprehension that our brains tend to make when taking linguistic shortcuts (such as how you can easily read “tihs senetcne taht is trerilby msispleld”), are easier to avoid for multilinguals.
Reference: Albert Costaa, Alice Foucart, Inbal Arnon, Melina Aparici, Jose Apesteguia; “Piensa” twice: On the foreign language effect in decision making (2014)
64. You will see and experience more
Another benefit of language learning is having a chance to experience the world in a much richer way.
“Thierry et al. studied how having different words for different colors in one language might affect the perception of that color as compared to a language that does not discriminate between those colors. In Greek, “light blue” is distinguished from “blue”, not simply as a different shade but as a whole different category of color. In this study, bilingual and monolingual Greek/English participants were shown different shades of blue and light blue as well as green and light green (for which a distinction is not made in Greek) and ERPs were recorded. Electrophysiological measures showed a distinct pattern for the bilinguals indicating that they were perceiving the two colors as completely separate.”
This phenomenon is also evident in Japanese. The language has basic terms for light and dark blue, which may help you perceive the color in different ways (Athanasopoulos et al., 2010).
65. It will change the way you think financially
Language has also been shown to change the way people think financially. A study covered by Jessica Gross on the famous TED.com found that “Futureless language speakers are 30 percent more likely to report having saved in any given year than future language speakers” (Chen) because their language was tailored to the present.
Knowing more languages can help you in the long run economically, as you will have more ways of thinking about the same things. So, in the long run, learning, a second language is an investment in your future.
66. It will encourage you to engage in a critical dialogue with yourself
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lonely cowboy roaming the language wasteland or you learn in a group. Language learning encourages the development of self-management skills.
An essential part of these skills is engaging in a critical dialogue with yourself by continually questioning whatever you’re currently doing. Not a day goes by without asking yourself the following questions.
Am I using this word correctly?
Should I use this or that grammatical construction?
Does X sound natural?
Reference: Honeybone, A., Brossier, V. (2000) ‘The University of Hertfordshire environmental French program’ in King, A. (ed) Languages and the Transfer of Skills (London: CILT), pp. 102-109
67. It will teach you patience and increase your determination
Have you ever heard of delayed gratification? If yes – congratulations, if not, please allow me to quote the omnipotent Wiki:
“Delayed gratification, or deferred gratification, is the ability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward and wait for a later reward. Generally, delayed gratification is associated with resisting a smaller but more immediate reward in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later. A growing body of literature has linked the ability to delay gratification to a host of other positive outcomes, including academic success, physical health, psychological health, and social competence.” Source: Wikipedia
So what does it have to do with languages, huh? Language learning is the pinnacle of delayed gratification. Maybe with the exception of the beginning of this process.
So what does it have to do with languages, huh? Language learning is the pinnacle of delayed gratification. Maybe except the beginning of this process.
You see, initially, the language gains are massive. You seem unstoppable and find great joy in learning. However, after some time, most learners hit the language learning plateau.
Gains are not that significant anymore. You can learn for many weeks and still have doubts about whether you make any progress. This trial by fire teaches you patience, humility, and determination. This is the skill which many learners transplant into other areas of their life like improving their health, learning how to play an instrument,m, etc.
Many language courses involve working in groups and making formal presentations in front of an audience. It’s just the sort of teamwork and presentational skills which employers tell us they are looking for.
By carrying out such tasks, language learners ae in reasoning clearly and in presenting focused arguments.
The mention of such courses in your CV might be a welcome addition for many employers.re trained to think structurally.
Reference: King, A., Thomas, G. (1999) The Guide to Languages and Careers (London: CILT)
69. You will improve your ability to formulate problems
I have already mentioned that one of the benefits of language learning is being able to tackle complex issues. A side effect of this skill is being able to formulate problems clearly. After all, you can’t solve anything if you don’t know what stands in your way.
Ordinary people are often perplexed why serious language learners devote so much time to their passion, “What’s in it for them”? “Why do they have to be so weird?!”.
The truth is that most language learners start small. They want to learn one language for the sake of work/relationship, etc. However, once they get the taste of success, they want more. So they learn another language and then yet another one! The party never ends. Let’s be honest. For most of us, the first language is just the beginning.
Choosing the right learning methodshas always been one of the most daunting tasks for most language learners. No wonder. Around every corner, you can find yet another popular learning strategy.
But how do you know it’s effective? Is it actually based on any real science?
Most people can offer you just their opinions. I am here to show you step-by-step what are the biggest flaws of various language learning methods. In other words, I am going to scrutinize them and show you what their authors don’t know or don’t want to reveal.
The first position on the menu today is the Goldlist method.
Before I start, it’s worth mentioning that this article is not meant to offend the author of the Goldlist method nor disparage anyone who is using it but to show one simple fact – it’s extremely easy to come up with a method but it doesn’t mean it’s effective memory-wise.
The Goldlist Method – What Is It All About?
Unless you are into experimenting with various learning methods, you may not have heard of the Goldlist Method. For that reason, I will try to outline what’s all about so we are on the same page.
First of all, here is a great video that sums up what this method is all about.
If you are old-fashioned, here is a description of how it works.
Get a large (A4 size) notebook. This is going to be your “bronze” book.
Prepare the materials (i.e. words) you’re interested in. The items you choose will go into your “head list”.
Open your book and write the first twenty-five words or phrases down, one below the other, on the left-hand side of the individual page. Include any integral information such as gender or plural forms of nouns or irregular aspects of a verb’s conjugation. The list shouldn’t take you more than twenty minutes to do.
When the list is ready, read through it out loud, mindfully but without straining to remember.
When you start the next piece of the head list, number it 26-50, then 51-75 and so on.
The first distillation – after at least two weeks open your notebook and cast your eye towards your first list of 1 to 25 (or, 26 to 50, or 9,975 to 10,000) depending on which double spread you’re at. The “two weeks plus” pause is important. It’s intended to allow any short-term memories of the information to fade completely so that you can be sure that things you think you’ve got into the long-term memory really are in there. Make sure, then, that you date each set of twenty-five head list items (something I haven’t done in my illustrative photos for this article).
David James says that there is no upper limit to the gap between reviews, though suggests a maximum of two months, simply to keep up momentum.
Discard eight items, and carry the remaining seventeen into a new list, This will be your first “distillation”.
Repeat the process for the second and third distillations (the third and fourth list on your double spread). The interval should be at least 2 weeks.
For the fourth distillation, you start a new book, your “silver” book.
The “gold” notebook works the same way, the hardcore items from the “silver” notebook’s seventh distillation are carried over to the “gold” for new head list of twenty-five lines (distillation number eight) and distillations nine (17 or so lines), ten (twelve or so) and eleven (nine or so).
How to Use the Goldlist Method – Summary
Grab a notebook and write there 25 words which interest you.
After at least 2 weeks check if you remember them and discard 30% of all the words. The rest of the words becomes a part of the second “distillation”
Keep on repeating the same process over and over again. The only thing that changes is that the older “distillations” get rewritten to other notebooks.
The Goldlist Method – Claims
Photo by Bookblock on Unsplash
The author of the Goldlist method maintains that:
The method allows you to retain up to thirty percent of the words in your long-term memory.
It is also claimed that the process circumvents your short-term memory – you are expected to make no conscious effort to remember words. Thanks to this the information will be retained in your long-term memory.
The Goldlist Method – A Scientific Critique
1. The Goldlist Method doesn’t circumvent short-term memory
One of the big claims of the Goldlist method is that it is able to circumvent your short-term memory. Somehow, thanks to it, you are able to place all the information straight in your long-term memory.
Is it possible? Not really. I have noticed that 99% of claims of this kind come from people who have never had much to do with the science of memory. That’s why let’s go briefly through what is required to “remember”.
According to the author of the Goldlist method, David James:
” [[ … ]] we are alternating in and out of these two systems the whole time, we switch ourselves into short-term mode by thinking about memorising and switch out of it by forgetting about memorising.”
Unfortunately, this is a bunch of hooey. This is what the actual science has to say about memorization.
The working memory consolidation
In order to memorize a piece of information, you have to store it in your short-term memory.
This process is initiated by allocating your attention to the stimuli you want to remember.
In other words, initiation of consolidation is under conscious control and requires the use of central attention. The mere fact of looking at a piece of paper and reading/writing words activates it.
Any stimuli that capture attention because of their intrinsic emotional salience appear to be consolidated into memory even when there is no task requirement to do so.
Next, the items you learn undergo working memory consolidation.
Working memory consolidation refers to the: transformation of transient sensory input into a stable memory representation that can be manipulated and recalled after a delay.
Contrary to what the creator of the Goldlist method believes, after this process is complete, be it 2 weeks or more, the short-term memories are not gone. They are simply not easily accessible.
Our brains make two copies of each memoryin the moment they are formed. One is filed away in the hippocampus, the center of short-term memories, while the other is stored in cortex, where our long-term memories reside.
You probably have experienced this phenomenon yourself many times. You learned something in the past. Then, after some years, you took it up again and were able to regain your ability relatively quickly. It was possible because your memories were still there. They just became “neuronally disconnected” and thus inaccessible.
The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve
There is one more proof that shows clearly that the method doesn’t circumvent short-term memory. The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve shows us how fast the incoherent information is forgotten.
What we mean by incoherent is that this is not the information which you can associate with your background knowledge.
This is very often the case when you learn a new language or when you’re at a lower intermediate level.
What’s more, the Ebbinghaus curve’s numbers are based on the assumption that the learned material :
means nothing to you
has no relevance to your life
has no emotional load and meaning for you
On the curve, you can see that if you memorize information now and try to recall after 14 days, you will be able to retrieve about 21-23% of the previously memorized knowledge. Mind you that this is the knowledge that is incoherent, bears no emotional load and means nothing to you.
What happens when you start manually writing down words which interest you or when you are able to establish some connection between them and your life? Well, this number can definitely go up.
Keep in mind that your recall rate will also be affected by:
frequency of occurrence
prior vocabulary knowledge
Advanced language learners can get away with more
Since most advanced language learners have a benefit of possessing broader linguistic background knowledge, they can get away with using subpar learning strategies. Their long-term memory modulates short-term memory and thus decreases the overall cognitive load.
Is there anything nothing magical about the Goldlist method and the number “30”?
Nope. It follows very preciselythe Ebbinghaus forgetting curve which takes into account your short-term memory. Sometimes this number will be higher, sometimes it will be lower depending on your choice of words.
You can check it yourself how low this number can get. Simply choose a language that is from a different linguistic family than the ones you already know. Track your progress and see how this number inevitably goes down.
The Goldlist Method is just a spaced repetition method with bigger intervals. That makes it less effective than most spaced repetition program right off the bat.
2. The Goldlist Method is impractical and time-consuming
Relatively high activation energy and time-consuming
One of the most important concepts in productivity is the activation energy.
The activation energy is the amount of energy needed to start conducting a given activity.
Even though the Goldlist Method has initially the low activation energy, it starts growing considerably with each and every distillation. Having to carry with you a couple of A4 notebooks seems also very impractical to me.
Limited usefulness vocabulary-wise
However, the biggest problem I have with this method in this department is that it suggests I only learn words I am interested in. There are hundreds of situations where one has to learn words that they are not interested in.
And they should work particularly well for the vocabulary you’re interested in.
3. The Goldlist Method is inflexible
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash
This is one of the methods which collapse under their own weight i.e. it’s inflexible. The Goldlist method suggests that you learn vocabulary in 25-word batches.
If I need to master a language quickly and I want to learn at least 40-50 words per day? After 10 days I will be forced to go through 20 distillations. After one month this number will start hitting insane heights. More and more of my attention will be required to keep up with all the reviews. This seems very off-putting.
Another important quality of effective learning methods is that they should automate the learning process. The method which necessitates more and more conscious decisions on your part the more you want to learn simply doesn’t fit the bill.
4. Lack of context
The enormous red flag for any language learning method is the exclusion of context from the learning process.
Simply repeating information in a mindless manner is called passive rehearsal. Many years ago it was actually proven that passive rehearsal has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).
This is just the first problem with the lack of context.
The other one is that almost all the knowledge you possess is activated contextually. If there is no context, it will be extremely difficult for you to retrieve a word when you need it.
In other words – you will remember the information but you will have a hard time using it in a conversation.
As a result, soon enough you will forget a word because there will be no network of other information holding it in your head.
5. The Goldlist Method is detached from reality
The problem with the Goldlist Method is encapsulated in a famous adage used by Marines:
‘Train as you fight, fight as you train’
I can’t stress enough how important these words are.
Always try to train for reality in a manner that mimics the unpredictability and conditions of real life. Anything else than that is simply a filler. A waste of time. It gives you this warm feeling inside, “I have done my job for today”, but it doesn’t deliver results.
Tell me, is rewriting words from one notebook to another actually close to using your target language?
6. Lack of retention intention
Another elementary mistake that we tend to make way too often when we fail to retain a word is actually not trying at all to memorize something.
You see, everything starts with a retention intention.
This fact is even reflected in the simplified model of acquiring information:
A retention intention sets the stage for good remembering. It is a conscious commitment to acquire a memory and a plan for holding on to it. As soon as you commit to a memory goal, attention locks on to what you want to remember.
This is how attention works—it serves the goal of the moment. And the stronger the motivation for the goal, the more laserlike attention becomes and the greater its memory benefits.
In other words, you can watch as many TV series and read as many books as you like. It will still have almost zero effect if you don’t try to memorize the things you don’t know. The same goes for the Goldlist method.
A key feature of a retention intention is the plan for holding on to the material. It might be as simple as rehearsing the memory, or it might involve one of the memory strategies described later. Whatever the plan, when you are clear about how you intend to retain the material, it is more likely you will actually carry out the plan, and this can make all the difference between a weak and strong memory.
7. Lack of encoding
Take a peek once again at the simplified model of acquiring information.
What you can see is that the second most important part of the process of memorization is encoding.
Encoding is any attempt to manipulate the information you are trying to memorize in order to remember it better.
Shallow and deep encoding.
Encoding can be further divided into shallow and deep encoding.
In the world of language learning, deep encoding is nothing more than creating sentences with the words you intend to memorize. In other words, it’s creating contexts for the items you want to learn.
Shadow encoding encompasses almost everything else. Counting vowels, writing down the said items and so on.
Deep encoding is the fastest and the most certain way of memorizing information and maximizing your chances of retrieving it.
If you skip encoding, like the GoldList method does, you immediately revert to mindless repetitions of words (i.e. passive rehearsal).
And we all know how it ends.
Mindless repetition of words has almost zero effect on your learning. If you want to increase your chances of memorizing them permanently you need to use the new words actively in a task (Laufer & Hulstijn (2001:14).
To be honest, I could add some more mistakes which this method perpetuates. However, I think enough is enough – I think I have pointed out all the most glaring ones.
There are two things I like about the Goldlist method
It gives you a system which you can follow. This is certainly the foundation of any effective learning.
It jogs your motor memory by making you write words.
The Goldlist Method – Suggested Modifications
The Goldlist method is too flawed to fix it in a considerable manner but let me offer you this suggestion.
Instead of rewriting words, start building sentences with them for every distillation.
This way you will incorporate some deep encoding into your learning process. You should see the difference progress-wise almost immediately.
The Goldlist Method – The Overall Assessment
There is no point in beating around the bush – this is one of the worst learning methods I have ever encountered. It violates almost every major memory principle. If you were contemplating using it – just don’t.
If you have nothing against using apps and programs to learn, I would suggest you start your language learning journey with ANKI.
Here are two case studies which will show you how to do it
The Goldlist method 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.
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 now and then on different websites and fora. Almost with no exceptions, answers tend to fall into one of the following categories.
Common Learning Myths – to Learn a Language in 6 Months, You Have To:
1) Live, breathe and sniff a language around the clock.
This advice is as great as it is unrealistic unless you want to get a first-class ticket to the “burnout” town with intermediate stations at “I-start-hating-languages” and “No-I-can’t-grab-a-beer-with-you-because-I-must-learn,” of course.
2) Be an experienced learner
It’s impossible not to agree with this point. Language learning veterans certainly enjoy a faster learning curve with every next language they learn. However, I would argue that often it is so, simply because they have developed a language learning routine.
3) Give up and cry deeply
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 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 show you the 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 scratch to B2/C1 level in 5 months.
To top it off, after five months he had taken the Goethe-Zertifikat B2 exam and passed it
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 boring. So it’s more of a hybrid.
I think that this format should allow you to get the most value out of it. Let’s get to know a bit of something about our language hero.
1) Tell us first about yourself: I am 26 years old and a doctor intern (a soon-to-be hematologist).
2) What was your previous experience with languages before our mutual challenge – Learning English from the age of 12 – private and regular school lessons. It definitely didn’t go swimmingly. I actually considered myself to be linguistically retarded. Sometimes even my native tongue (Polish) seems to be problematic.
3) How much time did you need to achieve a B2 level in English – Over 10 years, I think.
As you can see, Mathew had almost no language experience. What’s worse, he considered himself to be bad at learning languages.
What’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 most fabulous beginning of our mission, huh?
As you can see, he had every reason to fail, and yet, he succeeded. One of the main reasons 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.
Some character traits make them unique.
1) being motivated
Without it, most people wring their hands and give up upon suffering the first major setback. That’s why you need it so much at the beginning.
Mathew’s motivation was apparent and specific. He wanted to learn German asap to “have an opportunity of doing my medical specialization in Switzerland.” That allowed him to bounce back from every obstacle he encountered.
Of course, you should be aware that motivation alone doesn’t suffice. You need to create habits and build learning systems as quickly as it is only possible.
Another trait which can help you with that is:
2) being disciplined
It’s the prerequisite for effective learning.
I mean, how else are you going to follow through on our plan? Luckily for you, you don’t need to be disciplined by nature. You can awaken this trait by betting. (read more about it here).
Mathew’s workload was considerable. I knew that at some point, he would say, “that’s enough. I deserve a break”. I mean, who wouldn’t? I made sure that his motivation to keep maintaining his learning pace was sufficient.
We made bets. Failing to do his daily tasks would cost him dearly. Understandably, he was able to resist the temptation to bum around.
The last character trait which a good student should possess is:
3) being coachable
Why is it so important? Because of your ego.
Some people 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 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 only shows that you can’t change every person’s approach to learning.
How to Learn German from Scratch to a b2 Level in 5 Months – How Much Time Was Needed
Before we move on to Mathew’s total learning time, let’s put things in perspective and answer the following question first.
How much time do you need to learn German to a B2 level?
An offer of many German-language schools seems to confirm this number. Usually, you need to spend about 500 – 700 hours in a course and then add about 100-200 hours for learning at home.
It’s worth remembering that these numbers may vary depending on your mother tongue and knowledge of other languages. But as for our case, they certainly look solid.
How many words do you need to learn German to a B2 level?
People who take B2 exams are usually expected to know anywhere between 3 and 4,5 k words.
How much time did Mathew need to learn German to B2 level?
For five months, we met, on average, two hours per week.
Yes, just two hours per week. Funny enough, that contrasts starkly with intensive courses where you have to spend about 30 hours per week at your language school. Of course, he also learned at home. On average, he learned about 3 hours each day (including our meetings).
The total time he needed to get to B2 level amounts to
150 x 3 = 450 hours.
For a rookie who knew just one foreign language before he decided to take on this challenge, it’s undoubtedly impressive.
But what’s even more impressive is Mathew’s vocabulary size after five months. Altogether, he learned about 6700 words (yep, we counted).
That means that vocabulary-wise, he surpassed most of the requirements for this level. He could read most of the things he wanted to, including newspapers, and could also speak about a variety of subjects.
Although it was apparent that his vocabulary wasn’t fully consolidated at this point since he had to struggle for quite a few words.
Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level In 5 Months – Mathew’s results
Initially, our goal was to get to a B2 level in 6 months so Mathew could take the B2 Goethe exam and ace it. Interestingly, he managed to do it in 5 months!
Here is his pride and joy:
Results are not bad, but I expected them to be much higher. Mathew had a firm grasp of the language. I guess that in the end, stress got to him as he had no previous experience with such exams.
Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level In 5 Months – A Study Plan
I decided to break everything down for you so you can, hopefully, follow this plan.
first memory system so you could utilize ANKI more effectively
No listening and no reading
I think that the things mentioned above are quite clear. What might not be that obvious is why
I forbade Mathew to read and listen to anything for the first three months.
“Why?!” I can hear you screaming! It doesn’t make any sense!
Or does it?
If you know how to acquire vocabulary, you do not context to do it. You can learn the first 3-5 thousand words directly from frequency lists. It allows you to save a lot of time simply by not being forced to go through all those crappy dialogs in textbooks.
What’s more, most people assume that you need to start listening to your target language right away. That’s, forgive me for being so blunt, moronic
If you only know 200 or 600 words and almost no grammar, how much of the return rate can you get from one hour of listening?
Sure, there is some value in it – you can get used to the prosody and so on, but all in all, it’s not worth it.
No conversational partners
Ok, so that might be another thing which might seem bizarre to you – Mathew had no other conversational partners besides me. Not that it was forbidden or anything, his schedule was too hectic to find any people who would be willing to conform to it.
So yes, as weird as it may be, there is a good explanation of why it didn’t influence Mathew’s progress negatively. What people fail to understand that conversations require two things from you:
If you listen a lot, even without any magical techniques, the day will come when you will be able to understand what is being said (assuming that you practice your grammar and vocabulary).
2) Being able to express yourself
This is usually the result of two things
having a good command of grammar
learning and activating words
Do you need a lot of conversational partners to do it?
Of course not!
Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level – Weeks 2-12
After the first two weeks, we dove right into speaking. It was something new for him as he said, ” our conversations started after just a few hours, and surprisingly, they were not trivial but revolved around many topics.”
Usually, we started every lesson in the same way. First, I asked him to tell me what he did last week/weekend so he could activate past tenses. He also had to ask some questions using the grammar constructions we had covered so far.
Once again, it might seem strange, but keep in mind that most of the time, students talk far more often than they ask questions. Thus, the imbalance ensues.
In extreme cases, someone might be able to talk quite fluently and still not be able to ask a question without hesitation. This can cripple almost any conversation.
Teaching Mathew how to activate his vocabulary
Of course, if Mathew had a chance only to speak with me, he wouldn’t get far. That’s why I taught him some other methods to activate his vocabulary and practice his fluency.
Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level – Weeks 16-20
It was the most boring period of our preparation. In addition to doing all the previously mentioned things, I started teaching Mathew how to solve and approach all the parts of the exam. It doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s a crucial element if you want to pass a certificate. You need to create a habit of solving different examination parts in a particular manner.
It’s worth mentioning that we used some basic mnemonicsto improve Mathew’s presentation skills. Being able to quickly memorize a rough plan of what you would like to say helps to take the edge off.
How To Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level In 5 Months – Summary
As you can see, rapid learning is undoubtedly doable even if you want to learn German from scratch to a B2 level in 5 months or faster. I have done it with dozens of students using the outlined strategy, and results are always great.
Of course, it might not be easy to start applying it to your learning right from the start. After all, it requires a little bit different approach to language learning than the one which is commonly accepted, but it works like a charm.
If you ever replicate this strategy, please drop me a message and let me know how it went.
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 20 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
Achieving full language fluency is certainly not easy. The internet is filled with all sorts of advice on how to do it. And that's on top of all those shiny lists of language learning tools. No wonder, after all, these are extremely important elements in the whole process. However, in a whirlwind of all kinds of language learning discussions, it's easy to lose sight of one thing - the criterion of utility.
The utility criterion tells us one very simple thing - we should preferentially use things that are directly applicable in our lives.
It doesn't matter how much time you spend going through your textbooks. If the language is not part of your life, the textbook will most often be thrown in the corner at the first sign of a life/time crisis.
It is not difficult to imagine that you are going on vacation for 2 weeks and completely neglect your studies because YOLO, and "let's party dude!". Or suddenly you get sick and you feel so weak that you lack the strength to lift a book.
Sure, you can blame this state of affairs on your lack of willpower or the adverse conjunction of the planets, but the fact is that your contact with language has been neglected because it is not a part of your life!
Full language fluency - languages as a versatile tool
Perhaps the entire system of education is to blame. We are used to thinking that language is yet another school subject. Or thinking that learning a language is drudgery and that "I will cram a couple more words and then I am finally free and will do something interesting."
We forget that language is a tool. And not just any! We're not talking about a rusty knife with a bent handle.
We're talking about a cool Swiss army knife!
There are many ways to integrate languages into your daily life to guarantee that you will achieve full fluency.
Remember that the deeper the integration, the greater the chance that you will learn the language not only fluently but also quickly.
Foreign languages as a tool for entertainment
Broadly understood entertainment is certainly one of the easiest changes you can make. There are so many ways to relax after all! What's more, nobody has to force us to do it. I am yet to hear a mom yelling at her son, "Stop learning , you dweeb. Watch something for once. Oh! I have failed as a parent!".
Here are a few "entertainment" categories that you should include in your daily plan:
Remember that no activity is a waste of time if it is done in a foreign language.
1) Full language fluency - Music
Music is not only a great tool to improve your listening comprehension, but it can also help you to remember words better.
If you don't know what to listen to in the language of your choice, I highly recommend the Music Map website. It allows you to quickly find a lot of exciting artists based on your current musical tastes.
In other words - enter the artist's name and enjoy the sweet view of dozens of other artists.
Here is an example for Rammstein:
2) Full language fluency - watching movies / series
Films, and in particular TV series, are one of the pleasures you don't need to convince anyone of. Often, no more than a few days is enough to get an incurable condition called "one more episode-itis".
Here is a list of some interesting sites where you can watch TV series or movies in the original language or dubbed. Feel free to add your suggestions in the comment section.
I recommend Netflix in particular. You can change a default language of TV series and movies there as well as enable subtitles.
And all this without worrying that the link on the page does not work or that you will see for the 10th time in one day "Do you want to meet singles in your area?". It is one of the best language investments I've made over many years.
3) Full language fluency - exploring interests
Like most people, you are probably quirky. You have your own world, and your own interests to which you can effortlessly devote lots of time. Why not use it to get one step close to achieving full language fluency?
It doesn't matter if you are interested in reading thyme dregs or a 50-meter chinchilla throw. I guarantee you that a little googling is enough to find forums or websites of people who share your passion.
https://techcrunch.com/ - TechCrunch contains absolutely all the news from the world of technology that you could think of.
www.universeofmemory.com - So what if this is my site? I never said I was objective! On the site you will find a lot of articles about effective language learning, productivity, and memory improvement.
4) Full language fluency - gossip magazines
I will say it again - nothing is a waste of time if it is done in foreign languages! The next time your husband catches you reading about Brad Pitt's iron buttocks, just shout shrilly "I'm learning! Do not disturb!" Or do it in German to fluster him. That works better than a pepper spray.
I feel dirty writing this, but here are some recommendations:
If you are hellbent on keeping the last link connecting your childhood with the cold and cruel world of adults alive, I recommend taking up computer games. Especially those that are rich in various dialogues.
The best site where you can find computer games in many languages is Steam.
The modern world is not a welcoming place. If you have any hopes of becoming a force to be reckoned with, you need to develop and sharpen your skills continually. Just a moment of inattention is enough to get mangled by the competition, who will then proceed to graciously stomp over your carcass. Terrible. I know.
I recommend finding your preferred sources of specialized information in languages of your choice. This is the easiest way always to be one step ahead of most people in your industry.
It is worth mentioning that deep integration of a foreign language into life is not all butterflies and rainbows. Initially, you may feel strong resistance from the brain. This pink, slimy bastard will try to talk you out of trying to surround yourself with a foreign language, "John, don't learn Korean! What will neighbors say?".
You should be ready for it. It will pass with time. However, it remains an open question how much time will be needed for this.
If you already have some experience with intensive language learning, you probably won't need much time to get used to new experiences. If you're inexperienced, accept that you'll need up to a few weeks.
Achieving Full language fluency - Summary
Often the main difference between a person who has mastered a language and the one who has given up is the extent to which they have made the language part of their lives.
Each additional activity performed in a given language anchors it even deeper.
Such integration will make your learning fully resistant to the turmoils of life. The border between "cramming" and normal life will begin to blur, and eventually it will disappear.
You will always know when this moment will come, as it is truly unforgettable. It reveals itself in the following question: "Did I read / hear it in a foreign language or in my native tongue?"
There are many factors affecting word difficulty i.e., your ability to learn and recall them.
No wonder. There are dozens of factor at play here. Unfortunately, typical explanations of what affects these processes are severely lacking. Every time I hear that "you probably don't read enough," I do my best to toss 1 kg of plastic bags into the ocean. Die mermaids, die!
Let's conduct a thorough analysis of the factors that you should take into consideration if you have a hard time learning vocabulary. Some of them will be obvious; others will probably surprise you.
Why words are difficult to remember
As you can imagine, there are lots of elements which you have to take into consideration to fully answer this question. Some of them have marginal meaning and have very little research supporting their validity.
Others are simply beyond your control. A good example is parts of speech. For instance, research generally shows that they are easier to remember than verbs or adjectives (Philips 1981). They are also encoded in different parts of the brain than verbs.
The question is, "Does it matter?" Of course not. You still have to learn both nouns and verbs. The same goes forlexical difficulty.
That's why I am going to focus on the ones which can seriously impair your learning ability.
Factors affecting word difficulty
Factors affecting word difficulty
1. Lack of a learning system
2. Regularity of exposure
3. Timing of repetition
4. Retention intention
5. Pronounceability (i.e., how difficult it is to pronounce)
6. The usefulness of a word
7. Emotional saliency
8. Ease of application (i.e., knowing how to use a word)
Let's discuss them one by one, so you know what potentially impairs your learning speed.
1. Lack of learning system
Autor: George Becker
One of the most surprising facts about how people learn is that most of them have no organized system of learning. You might think that's an exaggeration, but I assure you it's not.
To get a better insight on how students actually learn, we have conducted a survey among the students of our university (HSW — University of Applied Sciences) about their strategies and learning behaviors.
Overall, there were 135 students participating in this survey from all 6 semesters and between 18 and 31 years of age. 68.1% of the participants were male, 31.9% female. Only very few of them deliberately make use of learning strategies, such as spaced repetition or the Leitner system. 94.8% of the participants just repeat the learning topics randomly to have them available during a test.
The terrifying thing is that we're not talking about a bunch of clueless people without any education. We're talking about bright individuals who will shape the future of their nation.
And yet, almost all of them rely on something I call a let's-hope-it-sticks strategy. It's nothing more than spitting on a wall and hoping that something will set. But it rarely does.
You can read, reread and cram all you want. Most of the knowledge you gather this way will be forgotten by the end of the next week.
If you don't have a set way of dealing with words you want to learn, you will fail 9/10. It doesn't matter how bad your strategy is. As long as you have it, there can be some progress.
2. Regularity of exposure to vocabulary
I am sure you have noticed that immigrants who barely know a language still know basic greetings and vocabulary. The reason for this is simple — they are frequently exposed to such words.
"Memorization becomes more difficult the less often given items occur in your learning environment."
Here is a fantastic study showcasing this phenomenon.
"The study examines word knowledge acquisition at different levels. The results showed that greater gains in knowledge were found for at least one aspect of knowledge each time repetitions increased. If learners encounter unknown words ten times in context, sizeable learning gains may occur." Source: The Effects of Repetition on Vocabulary Knowledge
We have known for over 100 years now that the timing of your repetitions plays a crucial role in the process of learning. Fail to review a word at the right moment, and your retention rate falls drastically.
This phenomenon is presented by the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve. It shows the decline of memory retention in time, or if you look at it from a different perspective, it demonstrates the critical moments when the repetition of the given information should occur.
Lucky for you, you don't need to optimize our repetitions manually (e.g., with the Leitner System). You can simply use Spaced Repetition Software.
A retention intention sets the stage for good remembering. It is a conscious commitment to acquire a memory and a plan for holding on to it. As soon as you commit to a memory goal, attention locks on to what you want to remember.
This is how attention works—it serves the goal of the moment. And the stronger the motivation for the goal, the more laser-like attention becomes and the greater its memory benefits.
In other words, you can watch as many TV series and read as many books as you like. It will still have almost zero effect if you don't try to memorize the things you don't know.
A vital feature of a retention intention is the plan for holding on to the material. It might be as simple as rehearsing the memory, or it might involve one of the memory strategies described later. Whatever the plan, when you are clear about how you intend to retain the material, it is more likely you will actually carry out the plan, and this can make all the difference between a weak and strong memory.
5. Pronounceability of vocabulary
In order to learn the phonological form of a new word, you must be able to hold a representation of that word in some form of temporary memory so that the word as a whole can be committed to long-term memory.
This phonological form is called a phonological representation.
"This temporary storage is provided by the phonological store component of the working memory model. Once you learn the basic repertoire of speech sounds in your target language, the process of learning the form of a new word becomes one of learning the order in which those sounds appear. The primary role of the phonological store in learning new words is, therefore, to retain the order of those sounds." Source: Dennis Norris, Michael P. A. Page, and Jane Hall, ‘Learning nonwords: the Hebb repetition effect as a model of word learning’
What happens when your phonological representations are incorrect?
You impair your ability to both recognize and retain new words.
That's why a decent pronunciation is not just something "nice to have." It's an important aspect of acquiring vocabulary.
6. The usefulness of a word
This item ties back to the mistake of not having an intention to memorize something. It frequently happens that people simply refuse mentally to learn a word because of its potential uselessness.
If you don't consider vocabulary you learn to be useful, then you don't really stand a significant chance of memorizing it.
It's time to tackle the emotional aspect of learning. Even without any fancy scientific references, you already know that it's much easier to remember things which are emotionally important to us.
"Information without emotion isn't retained." Or, as Ezra Pound said it, "Only emotion endures."
The few experiments comparing the effects of the number of meetings (repetitions) with the quality of the meetings suggest that, of the two, quality has the stronger effect (Laufer, in press; Webb, 2005).
In other words, sometimes it's better to build a couple of emotionally salient sentences with a word of your choice rather than settle for a dozen mediocre ones.
Unfortunately, the main problem with relying on this strategy too much is that you cannot make everything emotionally salient. If everything stands out, nothing does.
8. Ease of application (i.e., knowing how to use a word)
Merely knowing the meaning of a lexical item is not enough. You have to understand how to use the target vocabulary in sentence construction (Larrotto 2011).
That's why it's not enough to simply see a flashcard, or a sentence, made by somebody else to be sure how to use a given word in context.
To be able to use this word correctly, you need to:
a) be exposed to language
b) make the mental linkage between the word and its uses
c) be able to verify whether your assumption is correct
One of the prime example of not knowing how to use a word fall into a category of register restrictions.
Language register can be understood as the level of formality with which you speak. Different circumstances and people require different registers. Sometimes you will use slang, the other time you will be very formal and polite.
By themselves, words and sentences have little meaning; often they can be understood only in relation to other words and sentences.
In other words: things get connected to things. Words which are not connected to others mean nothing and get forgotten. Providing words not in isolation but in various contexts creates new opportunities to memorize them. Whenever the same word crops up in a new phrase, it will be fixed in your mind in yet another way.
What's more, the more contexts you can associate a piece of information with, the easier it is to recall it.
The above can be aptly summarized by The Principle of Associations:
“The human lexicon is believed to be a network of associations, a web-like structure of interconnected links. When students are asked to manipulate words, relate them to other words and to their own experiences, and then to justify their choices, these word associations are reinforced” (Sökmen 1997: 241-2).
10. Number of contexts
You already know that no context is terrible for your learning. But is one context enough? Most of the time no.
Lack of multiple contexts can lead to at least one of the three following problems:
1) Problems with information transfer
Sometimes if you learn a word in just one or two contexts your brain might not be able to transfer the meaning of the word from one context to another.
If you learn the word "severe" in the phrase "severe consequences" your brain probably won't be able to use this word in the phrase "a severe headache." In order to overcome this obstacle and "unblock" some word, you need to use it in at least a couple of contexts, so you have a semantic web that holds this information.
2) Problems with retrieving
3) Problems with memorizing
The last problem is connected with meaningless contexts. Sometimes you try to memorize a word in some phrase, but it simply doesn't work out. The word won't stick even though you have managed to avoid all the other mistakes which I have mentioned previously.
Why is that?
It might happen because your brain might find this one particular context(s) too boring! You have your preferences and tastes, and some phrases won't strike that special chord in your brain.
11. Lack of active encoding
The process of memorizing can be depicted in the four following steps:
1) Encoding — involves initial processing of information which leads to the construction of its mental representation in memory
2) Storage — is the retention of encoded information in the short-term or long-term memory
3) Recall — is the retrieval of stored information from memory
As you can see, encoding is a gateway to the land of remembering.
But what does encoding really mean?
Encoding is any kind of attempt of manipulating a piece of information in order to increase your chances of memorizing it.
If you skip this step of learning, you can be sure that memorizing vocabulary will become really difficult. Here are results of some studies showing real vocabulary gains from reading in the early stages of language learning.
Real vocabulary gains from reading in the early stages of language learning
Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998) specifically looked at the number of words acquired from a simplified version of a novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, which had 21000 running words. The novel was read in class during six class periods. It was found that the average vocabulary pick-up was five words.
Lahav (1996) carried out a study of vocabulary learning from simplified readers. She tested students who read 4 readers, each one of about 20 000 words, and found an average learning rate of 3–4 words per book.
12. Morphological awareness
Morphological awareness is explicitly thinking about the smallest units of meaning in language, which are called morphemes. These units include root words that can stand alone as words, prefixes, suffixes, and bound roots, which are roots that must have a prefix or suffix added to become a word.
Morphological awareness is also one of your allies in an uneven fight against mastering a language. It helps you understand why words are constructed in a certain way and remember them better.
In order to fully utilize this concept, you need to become paranoid. Every word, name of every product, movie star, city, dish, or even words themselves should be analyzed.
Most of the time, you will discover that they contain some other words. And it doesn't matter whether that's a pure coincidence or not. What matters is that you found the deeper meaning in words you already know.
13. The capacity of your short-term memory
The main memory limitation every learner has to face is working memory capacity or simply memory span.
Memory span refers to the longest list of items (e.g., digits, letters, words) that a person can repeat back immediately after the presentation in the correct order on 50% of trials. It is limited in terms of chunks.
A chunk is the largest meaningful unit in the presented material that the person recognizes—thus, what counts as a chunk depends on the knowledge of the person being tested.
One interesting conclusion coming from this is that the more languages you know, or the bigger your background knowledge is, the easier it is for you to memorize new words as you can automatically find more meaningful associations for them!
In other words, if you are presented with too much material at the same time, you significantly decrease your chances of remembering a word.
14. Intrinsic cognitive load (ICL)
The Intrinsic Cognitive Load (ICL) is material-dependent, determined by the material's element interactivity. It is commonly understood as the complexity of information.
This complexity depends on the learner's domain-specific prior knowledge (Sweller, 1998). For example, learning single words of a foreign language requires a lower understanding of interacting elements than learning phases of cell division.
The better you are at a certain field of knowledge, the smaller intrinsic cognitive load.
15. Germane cognitive load
This load focuses on all learning-relevant processes which are needed transfer and store information into the long-term memory system.
It is the emotional and mental energy devoted by the individual to the processing of new information presented as part of the learning activity.
In other words, it is connecting that information to the working memory, and imprinting what has been learned into long-term memory.
How do you lower this kind of cognitive load? By having a mental toolbox of effective learning strategies which have been internalized and automated.
16. Extraneous cognitive load (ECL)
The extraneous load (EL) emerges through the design of instructional materials and is directly connected with a decrease in learning-relevant processes.
The extraneous load (EL) is imposed by any form of distractors during learning; hence, this load is often regarded as the ‘unwanted’ or ‘bad’ load.
Hence, every single thing which drives you away from learning is treated as the extraneous cognitive load. Keep in mind that those distractors potentiate one another!
The truth is that those pesky, little things distract us more than we would like to admit.
For example, accordingto researchers, the mere presence of your smartphone reduces cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive function, even though people believe they are giving a task their full attention and focus.
Don't forget that attention is the price of admission to the long-term system. If you meed up this step, no learning will ever take place.
What's more, by minimizing the extraneous load, capacity in the working memory can be spared for processing the intrinsic load.
In short, you are convinced that you are unable to learn and thus you do nothing to learn, and as a result, you don't know anything. Congratulations, you just played yourself.
This category includes self-diversion pearls like:
"I am too old."
"I don't have time."
"I suffer from social anxiety." (read this to fix this problem)
"I am too stupid."
"Jupiter is in retrogade."
"I am a Scorpio and they are not good at languages." (in this case, take this quiz: how stupid are you?)
2. Lack of psychological safety
In the absence of psychological safety, we fear judgment, reprisal, humiliation, feelings of incompetence, and being unworthy, and may begin to avoid and withdraw from the learning process. Over prolonged periods, this withdrawal also can contribute to burnout and depression (Bynum and Haque 2016).
3. Lack of self-efficacy/growth mindset
Self-efficacy, or the growth mindset, is a common theme often found in the literature; it is the belief in your own ability to achieve learning or performance standards (Bandura, 1991;Latham & Locke, 1991; Sharma & Writer, 2015).
Self-efficacy influences task choice, effort, and persistence, and can also help determine which learning strategies to apply to obtain maximum gain.
Usually, the level of self-efficacy is correlated with goal-setting and achievement: A student with greater self-efficacy sets higher goals and attains higher levels of achievement Learners with high levels of self-efficacy tend to blame failure on a lack preparation, while those with low self-efficacy tend to blame their lack of ability. Students with low levels of self-efficacy are more prone to allow negative feedback to have a negative influence on their performance and attitudes.
Spoiler alert! If you keep on comparing yourself to others, you will almost always find somebody better than you. Just don't.
Of course, the list goes on and on, but the examples above should give you a general idea of what to be cautious of.
19. Random variable(s)
A random variable part is an indispensable part of any econometric model. It tries to factor in the unforeseeable into the model's prediction. It might also be used to explain one of the most widespread phenomena in language learning — repeating a word dozens of times and still not being able to acquire it.
Even though this is a really annoying problem, I want to assure you that it's ubiquitous. It also has a perfectly reasonable explanation.
All you need to understand it is a Gaussian function aka "The Bell Curve."
Gaussian functions are often used to represent the probability density function of a normally distributed random variable with expected value μ = b and variance σ2 = c2.
What that means is that the bell curve shows you what's the probability of a random variable.
What variables are we talking about?
It can be anything. For example, the variable might take the form of an IQ distribution in society or the size of a biceps among men. Or, in our case, the probability of memorizing a word.
The bell shows you what the chances that a given event will take place are. You can see that most of the time, you won't have problems with memorizing words. The probability of this happening will fall into the 2a range.
However, up to 3% (1a range) of all the words can be treated as outliers. They will either be extremely easy (the right side of the curve) or extremely difficult to memorize (the left side of the curve), and as such, they will require a lot of reviews.
It doesn't matter how much you optimize your learning, this phenomenon will always take place.
Factors affecting word difficulty - the summary
As you have seen, there are lots of factors affecting word difficulty i.e., your ability to remember and recall vocabulary. Effective learning is never about doing one or two things right. It's about combining all the best practices into an efficient learning system. Even then, you can still expect that there will be a small group of words which will be more challenging to memorize. Get used to it.
However, if you have problems with a specific word, I would stay longer with it and analyze it logically — what are its constituents? Is there any logic to it? Can you associate it with something? That should increase your chances of learning this word.
How many of these factors do you incorporate into your learning system? Let me know!
Do you want to learn Finnish fast? Great! I have a great pleasure of showing you a case study, or a magical transformation as I like to call it, of one of my superstar students. Kate took my language learning course Vocabulary Labs quite many months ago and very quickly morphed into a learning beast! She learned Finnish to an A2 level in 3 weeks and a B1 in about 3 months as verified by one of her local language schools. What makes it even more impressive is that Kate is a busy mom of 2. She has no time to waste.
Another cool thing about this case study is that I collected all of Kate’s emails throughout the course. They will give you a detailed picture of how drastically one’s approach to learning can change once they switch to different learning strategies and start violating memory principles.
This article also gives me yet another chance of showcasing a core philosophy promoted by the Universe of Memory.
Learning is mostly a lonely struggle. It’s what you do at home that really matters. Choose a bad learning strategy, or focus on the incorrect things and you can kiss your progress goodbye.
If that wasn’t enough, Kate also shares her advice about encouraging your family to join you in your language mission. It seems that the key strategy which has eluded me for years are thinly veiled threats of starving your significant other. Who would have thought?
Learn Finnish fast – the Pre-course Evaluation
One of the indispensable parts of the Vocabulary Labs course is a pre-course survey which I send to each member before the course starts. It helps me evaluate the state of knowledge of all the participants as well as their propensities and current learning styles.
Below you can find some of Kate’s answers from the said survey. Her original goal was to learn German, but at the very beginning of the course, she decided to change it to Finnish.
What languages do you know currently and at what levels? Which one is your native tongue? Russian is my native tongue. I know English at C2. I used to know French at B2-C1 and some Latin, but I’ve forgotten most part of both by now. Also, I tried learning Japanese and German, but I’m about A0 in them 🙂
How much time can you devote to learning per day? Be as realistic as you only can. About an hour if I’m enthusiastic, not more than half an hour if there’s no interest, but only my will power involved.
How much time do you spend learning your target language every day? Please give me the approximate numbers for the following categories: reading, listening/watching, writing, talking. I‘m not learning German now.
What are you reading/watching/listening to? I don’t read or watch much (if we speak about fiction or things like news and films), I listen to audiobooks. It isn’t because I don’t like reading or watching. The only reason is that I can listen doing something else at the same time, while reading and watching need total concentration (well, watching a film + crocheting is possible, but with reading even this is out of the question). The majority of what I read/watch is in English (articles, lectures, etc. on the Internet).
Who do you talk to (teachers, friends, etc.)? Students. But that’s in English. In German, I don’t talk to anyone.
How do you learn and revise your vocabulary? What systems/apps/ websites are you using? (the more details the better) To learn German, I used Duolingo. I did it because I was interested in whether a program can really teach you anything. It taught me a couple of things, but not much. To study some C2 vocab when I was getting ready to take my CPE exam, I used Quizlet. I created flashcards myself, but I didn’t use them much – it was rather boring.
What do you (currently) like/dislike about language learning? There isn’t anything that I dislike. Languages are part of my life and have always been. I just enjoy them.
What are your strengths/weaknesses when it comes to learning? (discipline, concentration, etc.) I remember and understand things quickly – these are my strengths. I drop things easily if I’m bored. This lack of persistence is my weakness.
What are your favorite hobbies/pastimes? Usually, I’m up to my ears in work, which is also my hobby. When I’m too tired of work, I just relax doing nothing.
What is your current vocabulary size in your target language? In German it’s about 100 words, I guess. Not more. Although I’ve never counted them. And they’re all my passive vocabulary.
How many new words do you learn per day? Zero.
How do you currently learn grammar? I don’t learn it in at all.
What is the quickest you have ever learned a language? A year – I was able to talk to a native speaker after a year of studying. But the level wasn’t high, so it all depends on what you mean by “have learned”. If it’s totally independent use of the language, like C1-C2, then my only achievement is English, and it took me many years to reach this level. To finish answering, let me say that although I’m very curious about your system, I’m at the same time very skeptical about it. In other words, I don’t really expect much and regard it more like an experiment of some sort. I don’t remember when and how I found your first article about memory and language learning, but I certainly liked it, because I rarely subscribe to receive e-mails. So, I was very interested to find out that you’re launching this course. Judging by your articles, the course is going to be interesting, regardless of my expectations 🙂
Learn Finnish fast – Kate’s Progress!
Once the course starts, all the participants receive e-mail reminders about their progress. It helps me keep track of their learning pace and any potential problems. It also makes for a great read later on! These e-mails create an amazing narrative and show how much people, and their learning capacity, can change within just a couple of weeks.
Here are Kate’s e-mails.
Update #1 – Beating 2 months of learning with Duolingo in 5 days
I’d like to share my impressions of your course. At the very beginning, I was skeptical (and I wrote to you about it). Well, seems like I’m not skeptical anymore)) Bartosz, your E.V.A. method is mind-blowing (both literally and figuratively). Its simplicity and effectiveness are just amazing.
Now, more details. My initial aim was German, but right at the beginning of the course, I changed my mind. Since I’ve already tested how Duolinguo works using German, I decided to pick up some other language and see what I will achieve using your method. Then I was going to compare my Duolinguo achievements in German with the achievements in the new language. For the experiment, to be totally honest, I chose a language which looks absolutely alien to me: Finnish. It has nothing in common with the languages I know, since it belongs to a different family.
My Duolingo experiment (which I carried out 2 years ago) lasted for about 2 months. I spent on it an hour or more daily. I learned some words and got some understanding of some grammar structures, but that’s about it. I don’t think I could say anything in that language except for the phrases which were repeated multiple times and which I simply knew by heart. I wasn’t satisfied with the results and deleted Duolingo after two months.
I started using your method on May, 5th. On May 10th I realized I’ve already achieved more than after 2 months of Duolingo. And that’s not because Finnish is easy and German is not. Actually, it’s the other way around. In German, there were notions easy to grasp since they’re similar to English in some way. Many words looked familiar, too. Finnish, ha-ha) Nothing in common either with Latin, or with English, or with Russian.
Maybe, pronunciation is easier, but nothing else. Still, I already know more than 100 words and CAN USE them. And it’s very inspiring, of course, to see this progress.
I didn’t believe at first that B1 in 4 months is achievable, but now I think it is pretty possible if I just keep doing it at the same pace (which is not highly demanding, by the way).
As for the biggest takeaway from the Grammar Module — that’s Deep Learning. I haven’t yet been doing it for long, but it already brings in the results.
Update #2 – First 1000 Finnish words and A2 level in 3 weeks
I’m happy to share my experience of using your course, which is very pleasant indeed.
First of all, yesterday I finished my first thousand of Finnish words (yes, I was waiting with this email just to be able to boast). 400+ of them are regarded by ANKI as mature. This would have never been possible but for the techniques, I learned from you. I do study grammar as well from time to time, but as it requires more concentration and can’t be done 5-10 minutes in the morning, then 3 minutes while the kids are playing in the sandbox, I study little grammar in comparison with vocabulary.
I’ve got a textbook in Finnish. I don’t use it, but what I do is open it once a fortnight and see if I can understand something in there. In the beginning, it didn’t make any sense, but now the first four or five units are pretty easy to understand.
Hungry for more
The method has changed my perception of language learning so much that sometimes I feel my progress is slow. At this moment I remember my words “I’d call reaching A2-B1 in 3-4 months a tremendous success”. I know this phenomenon of greediness from my students, and now I’m experiencing it myself. Funny, but when I was doing Duolinguo making no progress whatsoever, I didn’t feel that I was going too slow.
At the end of the third week of my experiment, I found an online placement test offered by some Finnish language school in Moscow. The result was that they suggested I join their second-semester group (which means I’d achieved in 3 weeks what they were studying for 4 months at the same price which I paid for your course).
Update #3 – 1500 Finnish words + convincing her husband to learn as well!
Thanks for monitoring the progress 🙂 I’ve learned a bit more than 1500 words (today it’s the 80th day of my learning), and I’m progressing further. This learning thing seems to be infectious: my husband started on Finnish, too. His pace is slower – just 5 words, but in spite of this, some progress can already be seen. Now I’ve got a partner to practice my skills during breakfast time :)) Totally free and always available.
2800+ Finnish words
Summer is over, a new school year has started, which means a lack of time. Well, no time at all, actually. So, I set my daily word limit to 10 (it used to be 20) just to make it doable. Right now the number of words I’ve learned is 2800, which is quite a lot. I decided to take a lesson with a native speaker to see if I will be able to speak. Yes, I’m able to speak and, which is even better, the natives can understand it! It’s more difficult to understand what they say, but I’m sure it’s a matter of practice. I’ve tried lessons with 2 different people, and both couldn’t believe that I’ve been studying Finnish for 4 months only (I took those lessons at the beginning of September, which was exactly 4 months since I started this language from scratch).
Plans to take the officialYKI test
Now my plan is to try taking their YKI test. It takes place only in Finland, but the more I learn the eager I am to visit that country. And if I visit it, why not taking the exam? There are three levels on which you can take it: A1-A2, B1-B2, C1-C2. I’m thinking of taking B1-B2. I would attempt at C1 if it weren’t for my extra-busy teaching time till the end of May. I just won’t be able to find the necessary time. However, B2 looks achievable.
Best wishes, Kate
P. S. “B2 looks achievable”. In a year. God, who could have thought I’d ever say this…
A short interview with Kate
While writing this case study, I was also able to catch up with Kate and ask her a couple of questions about learning and her family. It’s truly inspiring to see how much effort and sneakiness she put into encouraging them to learn Finnish fast as well!
What do you do?
I’m a teacher of English. I’ve been teaching for 15 years. I have experience of working at school, but for the last ten years, I’ve been a freelance teacher.
Why exactly did you decide to learn Finnish instead of German?
I’ve chosen Finnish because at first learning it was part of an experiment. I was interested to find out whether the system you suggest really allows people to learn languages faster than usual. For this purpose, I needed a language which is different from the ones I was familiar with.
Since I studied Latin, such languages as Italian, Spanish, etc. were out of the question — being familiar with Latin makes it easier to learn them, so it wouldn’t have been clear whether it’s Bartosz’s system working or just my experience. German is in certain ways similar to English. Moreover, by the beginning of the experiment, I had already tried learning German, so this language wasn’t new either. So I was looking for a language from a different language family. Finnish, which is a member of the Uralic family and looked totally alien to me at the beginning of my experiment, was a perfect choice.
My 2 cents: That’s a great approach. It’s really to fool yourself into believing that you can learn fast if you learn a language that is similar to the ones you already know. For years, while I have been devising my learning strategies, I used languages which I knew nothing about to minimize any background knowledge interference.
Did you have to force your husband to learn Finnish or was it his choice :)?
Yep. I told him I wouldn’t feed him if he didn’t start learning at least 5 words a day. Speaking seriously, I didn’t force him, but it wasn’t his choice either. I started by creating an ANKI profile for him and added 3 words there every day.
It took less than a minute to revise them during breakfast time, and in about ten-fifteen days he realized he could say simple phrases. It inspired him and he asked me to increase the number of words up to 5. Then 7. Then 10. Then he started reading to learn some grammar and listen so some dialogues on Finnish sites. So that’s how it happened.
My 2 cents: Let’s take a second to appreciate Kate’s brilliance. She didn’t wait until her husband makes up his mind. Instead, she created a separate ANKI account and flashcards to kickstart his progress. Sure, it would be better if he produced them himself. the thing is that probably he wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for Kate’s initiative. If you’ve been contemplating how to force your loved ones to take up a new language, you might benefit from this strategy.
Do you currently have some opportunities to use the language? If not, how do you maintain it?
Right now, I don’t have many opportunities to use the language unless I read/listen to something or exchange a couple of phrases with my husband. I used to have 1 lesson a week with a native speaker (I started in September to see whether I would be able to understand something and make myself understood, I liked the person I talked to, so I continued the speaking sessions till February. In February I had to quit because I was fully concentrated on my work).
Do you use methods from Vocabulary Labs at your work? Did they affect the results of your students? How?
Yes, I used the methods. One of the methods (or ideas, probably) that I used was to set a certain minimum of what has to be learnt/done every day. I prepared the materials in such a way that the goal of doing them every day was achievable pretty easily. It resulted in my students having covered LOTS of stuff. Much more than was covered by those who studied less systematically.
Another one is, of course, ANKI. I explained to the students how to make cards. Some of them started using it right away, others didn’t want to. I didn’t insist much. In about 3 months it was easy to detect who was and who was not using ANKI without even asking them. The formers’ level grew much more rapidly.
My 2 cents: That definitely sounds familiar. Even after one week of private coaching, I can already hear whether my clients use ANKI or not.
Do you use the said methods in your daughter’s education? How exactly does it look like?:)
The only method I’m using in my daughter’s education is ANKI. We just use it to learn words. For example, when we watch a cartoon or just talk about something while walking and this or that word pops up, we write a sentence with it in ANKI (and a picture! you can’t make a card without a picture, it’s almost a crime).
My daughter’s pace is 3 words a day, but we often skip writing new words (not because she isn’t willing, but because I’m a lazy and irresponsible mother). She never skips revising, though. She can’t read in English yet, so I read the sentence aloud making a pause where she has to insert a word. Sometimes she makes sentences herself for the new cards.
About a month ago she asked me whether she could have lessons with someone who speaks English. I found a teacher on iTalki, and now they’re having lessons. I write out the words which are an active vocabulary for the lessons, and then my daughter learns them. If not for this learning, the lessons would mainly be a waste of money (as well as my speaking sessions in Finnish). Backed up by ANKI, however, they are fine: my daughter enjoys talking to someone from far away and understands more and more. I used to have lessons with my daughter last year. She’s a quick learner, but now she’s progressing quicker than she used to.
My younger daughter (3.8 years old) is always near my elder one when she’s revising. Side effect: the younger one knows half the words, too.
My 2 cents: I am raising my son (22 months) bilingually ,and I am also optimizing his words repetitions with ANKI. Of course, he is way too small to do it himself, being the lazy bugger he is, but I do it for him to optimize his learning curve.
1) I found out that learning a language can be amazingly quick. Finnish is more difficult than any other language I’ve come across so far (ok, Latin can compete, but it’s a dead language), yet the pace with which I learned it was quicker than, for example, French. Knowing that a language can be learned fast is, actually, a very important takeaway. It motivates and gives hope thus making me succeed.
2) The one that I’m using in my work: better take a small step every day than sit for 10 hours once a month.
3) ANKI. Needless to comment I suppose.
3a) Switching my mobile to Finnish. It’s a tiny detail, but it reminds me of what I’m supposed to be doing every day.
Actually, I have forgotten many things from the course since it’s very big. Now that I have some free time, I’m going to revisit it 🙂
Are you planning to learn another language anytime soon?
I’m not planning, but dreaming of learning Swedish as soon as I reach B2 in Finnish (which I hope will happen by the end of summer if everything goes as planned).
Finnish from scratch to a B1 level in 3 months – the Learning Plan
In this section, you can find a rough plan which Kate used in order to learn Finnish fast to a B1 level as verified by a language school. As a reminder, if you’re looking for a more detailed version of this blueprint, please read another case study of mine “How to learn German from scratch to a B2 level in 5 months“.
Let’s start with the learning resources Kate has used to accomplish her mission.
I can only smile when people shake their heads in disbelief upon hearing that you don’t need more than a handful of resources to learn a language. Interestingly, the opposite is true. The more learning resources you use, the smaller your chances of being able to use them efficiently. What’s terrifying, even one small piece of paper which you scribble on can be counted as a separate resource. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s a fact.
The best ANKI decks for Finnish vocabulary
One of the fastest ways to learn a language is to start with vocabulary lists. Here are the best English-Finnish ANKI decks I have been able to find.
Please keep in mind that those lists are supposed to be a basis for your own ANKI deck. Nothing can replace the effort you put into creating your own flashcards and sentences.
Once you learn 2000-2500 words, find a language partner if you want to.
Of course, the more words you know before your first conversation, the better for you.
Don’t forget about listening. Try to start practicing your listening comprehension only once you learn at least 2000 words if you want to optimize your learning time.
Of course, there are many nuances to this strategy but this learning plan should allow you to learn Finnish fast.
Way too many people think that learning boils down to devoting vast swathes of time to your learning projects. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, effective learning is all about energy and effort you put into your learning. Very often one hour of honest work can beat 10 hours of bumming around. If you add effective learning strategies to this mix, rest assured that your progress will know no bounds.
Do you want to ask me or Kate something about this mission? Let us know in the comments.
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!
understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization.
interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
Brief explanation: this level can be depicted as a FULL conversational fluency. You can have real conversations with native speakers about a variety of subjects.
Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at quite a deep level.
Expected vocabulary depth: you can convey most of your thoughts but you still, for the most part, lack precision. Compared to a B1 level, you can discuss more topics with more precise vocabulary.
Still, any topic that differs from typical, conversational standards will probably throw you off.
How many people master a language at a C1 or C2 level
English proficiency in the world
Now that you know what a B2 level is all about, let’s take a look at the level of English proficiency in different countries around the world. It’s only natural since this language is still the most popular 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.
Why is it important? If you’re learning a language which is similar to your native tongue, it will be CONSIDERABLY easier for you to master it. Since English is also a Germanic language, it’s not difficult to notice a pattern here.
Of course, there are other factors at play here but this is the most important one for me from the memory standpoint. The way information familiarity modulates your working memory and increases your learning capacity can’t be ignored.
A good example is my mission from a couple of years ago where I learned Czech from scratch to a B1/B2 level in about 1 month., even though my learning system at that time was far from perfect. Yes, I specialize in memory, so I knew what I was doing but I also already spoke Polish, Russian and German. Those languages helped me establish my initial familiarity with Czech vocabulary at about 80%.
Countries with moderate English proficiency
Now it’s time for countries whose English proficiency can be characterized as about B2 level.
As you can see, once we drop outliers like the top 12, the level drops to a B2 level and below. But let’s not stop there.
Here is an excerpt from one of the official Polish reports about German Proficiency in Poland. Let’s keep in mind that we’re talking about self-evaluation here of people who probably wouldn’t be able to describe language requirements for any level. The reality, in other words, is less rosy.
German proficiency at a B1+ level has been achieved by more than 53% of language learners., of which 22% mastered the language at a B2 level, 19% at a C1 level and 12.5% at a C2 level.
In other words, the amount of German learners who claim they have mastered this language amounts to about 16%.
The magical number 20
In different reports, the number 20 is the reoccurring theme. It seems that only less than 20% of learners of any language get past a B2 level. That is of course if you believe that these numbers are reliable.
Scientific studies are less forgiving in this department.
Long (2005, 2013) that the number of learners who achieve a C2 level is anywhere between 1-5%.
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.
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 toolfor 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.
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
Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998) specifically looked at the number of words acquired from a simplified version of a novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, which had 21000 running words. The novel was read in class during six class periods. It was found that the average vocabulary pick-up was five words.
Lahav (1996) carried out a study of vocabulary learning from simplified readers. She tested students who read 4 readers, each one of about 20 000 words, and found an average learning rate of 3–4 words per book.
The above survey indicates that reading is not likely to be the main source of L2 learners’ vocabulary acquisition. If most words were acquired from reading, learners would have to read about as much as native children do – that is, a million words of text a year. This would require reading one or two books per week. If, however, teachers can expect only small quantities of reading, then word-focused activities should be regarded as a way of vocabulary learning.
Vocabulary gains from listening
Vidal explored incidental vocabulary acquisition from L2 listening (2003), and compared gains from listening with reading (2011). These studies analyzed the effect of a large number of variables (e.g. frequency of occurrence, predictability from word form and parts) on learning. Knowledge gains of 36 target words were measured with a modified version of the Vocabulary Knowledge Scale, on which learners could effectively score 0 to 5.
Out of the maximum score of 180, readers scored 40.85 (22.7%) on the immediate post-test and 19.14 (10.6%) on the one-month delayed test. Listeners scored 27.86 (15.5%) immediately after listening and 14.05 (7.8%) one month later. The main finding is that both reading and listening lead to vocabulary knowledge gains, with gains from reading being much larger than from listening. An effect of frequency occurrence (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 occurrences) was found in both modes but this was considerably stronger in reading. More repetitions were needed in listening (5 to 6) than in reading (2 to 3) for it to have a positive effect on learning.
At the risk of repeating myself, I would like to stress one more time that your learning capacity is affected by your background knowledge. If you’re a Frenchman learning Spanish, the aforementioned numbers won’t apply to you.
At the same time, there are just a few studies around which test long-term retention of vocabulary for almost any method. That’s a pity because 3 months is a cut-off point proving that words have truly been stored in your long-term memory. The studies quoted above also share this problem. Retesting the students of the above experiments at a 3-month mark would surely yield much worse, and realistic, results.
Anyway, the point I would like to drive home is that passive learning is an ineffective language acquisition tool for beginners.
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!
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)
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.
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
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.
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!
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!
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?”
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:
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:
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
What is priming?
Before I move on, let’s clarify what priming is.
Primingis a technique whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.
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 abouthow 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).
Idiolectis an individual’s distinctive and unique use of language, including speech.
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
Speaking fluently is a really tricky thing.
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.
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.
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.
As you can clearly see that first you have to encode (memorize) a piece of information and only then can you retrieve it.
It means that:
a) you can remember something but you might not be able to retrieve it.
b) if you can retrieve something you certainly remember it.
The infamous tip-of-the-tongue feeling refers to the so-called failure to retrieve error,
If you want to improve your chance of recalling an item you need to improve its retrievability.
What is retrievability?
Long-term memories can be characterized by two elements: Stability (S) and Retrievability (R) are part of the Two-component model of long-term memory.
Retrievability of memory is a variable of long-term memory that determines the probability of retrieving a memory at any given time since the last review/recall.
I would like to direct your attention to the word “probability”. You can never be certain that you will be able to retrieve a given memory. It all depends on a plethora of factors. But what you can do is increase your odds.
Let’s dig deeper.
Fundamentals – Retrieval Cues
Before we move on, you need to familiarize yourself with some basic memory concepts. Only then will you be able to fully understand why you can’t recall a word and how to change it.
Everything starts with a retrieval CUE.
A Retrieval Cue is a prompt that help us remember. When we make a new memory, we include certain information about the situation that act as a trigger to access the memory. Source: AlleyDog
As you can see, literally everything can be a cue! Let’s say that you meet a nice girl. The way she looks is a cue. Actually, every piece of her garment is a cue. The weather is a cue. The look of disgust on her face as you empty yet another cup of beer and whisper gently into her ear, ” Shh. Let the magic happen” is another great example of a cue.
The sound of your feet being dragged across the dirt by the security is yet another cue.
What? No. That did not happen to me! Mind your own business! Let’s get back to 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.
External cues were ones that came from the environment.
Abstract (aka internal) cues were all thoughts or linguistic references to the original episode.
Sensory/perceptual cues were those that provided sensory/perceptual referents to the original episode.
Sensory cues can be further categorized as visual cues, auditory cues, haptic cues, olfactory cues, environmental cues, and so on.
State cues were physiological or emotional referents to the original episode
I hope that now it’s easier for you to understand that literally everything can be a cue – starting from a thought and ending with a smell.
Then, you might wonder, if there are so many of them, how come you still have trouble retrieving memories or words?
The easiest answer is that you need to use the right cues.
Memory principles governing recall
There are a couple of general rules which will help you with understanding when it is usually possible to retrieve a word.
1) The encoding specificity
Somewhere in the 70s, a psychologist by the name of Endel Tulving proposed a theory called the encoding specificity principle.
It states that:
” Successful recall relies on the overlap between the thing you are trying to remember and the situation in which you first encountered it, and the cues or prompts that are available when you are trying to recall it”.
This gives us our first rule:
The more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.
Let’s stress it one more time – it’s not guaranteed that you will recall desired words. Meeting the said conditions simply increases the likelihood of retrieving them.
Let’s say that you memorized (actively) 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.
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).
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.
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).
Let’s say that you want to memorize a two-word phrase “a disgusting slob”. If you just create a flashcard and then try to din it into your head, there is a good chance you won’t succeed.
The number of cues is minimal here. You can just see these words visually.
In other words, you are using one sensory cue. But as you know now, there are quite many different kinds of cues.
You can dollop more of them on top of this one.
You can add a sound (another sensory cue)
You can say it out loud (internal and sensory cue)
You can modulate your emotions (state cues)
Instead of just saying a phrase, you can shout it out angrily. Win-win! Unless you shout it out on a bus, of course.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s a slight simplification of a problem as it doesn’t factor 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
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.
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”.
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 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!
I have mentioned before in a couple of articles that learning styles don’t exist (read about it more here). Sure, you can have preferencesfor 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!
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 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.
The Adidas logo was correctly recalled only by 12% of participants.
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
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 mightdesign 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
You see, your brain constantly works on forgetting most of the thing you come into contact with. Reasons are simple
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:
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
Lionel Standing, a British researcher, asked young adults to view 10,000 snapshots of common scenes and situations. Two days later he gave them a recognition test in which the original pictures were mixed in with new pictures they hadn’t seen. The participants picked out the original pictures with an accuracy of eighty-three percent, a jaw-dropping performance. – Robert Madigan – How Memory Works–and How to Make It Work for You.
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”?
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!
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.
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?
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.
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”
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.).
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
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.
“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.
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
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 Thesaurusis going to be your new best friend.
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.
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.
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
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
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?
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)
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 preferto 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 takeaway – just 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
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 takeaway – our 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 ANKIfor 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
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 mnemonicsor 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 hereand 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.