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.
I often talk about what effective learning methods are all about but I have almost never mentioned all the memory experiments I have run which have failed miserably. It might give you the impression that this is the knowledge which came to me easily. On the contrary.
It was like wading through the puddle of crap to pick up something which seemed to be the gem of wisdom. Only to realize later that it was actually a fossilized chunk of crap. Only to realize a couple of months down the road that it was actually a beautiful diamond hidden beneath the dry shell.
I think you get my point. It was a confusing process where I had to rediscover time and time again different truths in different contents.
Of course, my process of reasoning wasn’t very rigorous at the beginning. Neither were my memory experiments. I was kind of going with my gut and trying to notice whether I remember more or less.
Only later did I start to actually construct hypotheses and test them. Everything got even easier when I started learning more about memory and reading studies related to this area of knowledge.
Before I share with you my conclusions and failures, let’s start with how my experiments were run.
2. set yourself a suitable deadline to test the idea (ideally, at least 3 weeks – 1 month)
3. test it
4. measure the results at the end of your memory experiment
5. draw conclusions
6. rinse and repeat
How did I choose words for my memory experiments?
This is a very important question. Some people think that any words will do. That’s far from the truth.
If you want to run a meaningful memory experiment you need to make sure that the words tested are as different from any other words and concepts you know as it’s only possible.
The reason is that your current knowledge modulates the new knowledge you want to acquire.
If you know English and you’re learning French your results will be immediately distorted. Depending on a source, 40-50% of English words originate from French.
If you want to get unbiased results you need to test the words from languages you know nothing of.
In my case, I frequently tried to memorize words from languages like Basque, Finnish, and Hungarian. They were absolutely foreign to me and I couldn’t associate them in any way with my background knowledge.
“Collectively, these findings provide strong evidence that pre-experimental stimulus familiarity determines the relative costs and benefits of experimental item repetition on the encoding of new item-source associations. By demonstrating the interaction between different types of stimulus familiarity, the present findings advance our understanding of how prior experience affects the formation of new episodic memories.” – Pre-experimental stimulus familiarity modulates the effects of item repetition on source memory – Hongmi Lee, Kyungmi Kim, Do-Joon Yi, 2018
Also, it’s worth noting that a typical batch of items which I tried to commit to my memory was 20. Typically, I tried to memorize between 3-5 batches.
What did I test?
Time to get to the nitty-gritty of my memory experiments. As you already know, I experimented almost exclusively with words which were completely foreign to me in order to minimize my background knowledge interference.
Another important part is the methods I used to test my knowledge. I always tested my recalls using the following methods:
Free recall describes the process in which a person is given a list of items to remember and then is tested by being asked to recall them in any order. Free recall often displays evidence of primacy and recency effects.
Primacy effects are displayed when the person recalls items presented at the beginning of the list earlier and more often. The recency effect is when the person recalls items presented at the end of the list earlier and more often. Free recall often begins with the end of the list and then moves to the beginning and middle of the list.
For that reason, I always tried to recall all the batches at once in order to minimize the number of learning sessions. That gave me the certainty that my results were warped.
Cued recall is when a person is given a list of items to remember and is then tested with cues to remember the material.
There are two basic experimental methods used to conduct cued recall, the study-test method, and the anticipation method. In the study-test method participants study a list of word pairs presented individually.
Immediately after or after a time delay, participants are tested in the study phase of the experiment on the word pairs just previously studied.
One word of each pair is presented in a random order and the participant is asked to recall the item with which it was originally paired. The participant can be tested for either forward recall, Ai is presented as a cue for Bi, or backward recall, Bi is presented as a cue for Ai.
In the anticipation method, participants are shown Ai and are asked to anticipate the word paired with it, Bi. If the participant cannot recall the word, the answer is revealed.
During an experiment using the anticipation method, the list of words is repeated until a certain percentage of Bi words are recalled. – Wikipedia.
The learning curve for cued recall increases systematically with the number of trials completed. This result has caused a debate about whether or not learning is all-or-none.
Why did I use both methods? Because they both show you different things.
“Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009). However, transfer tasks, such as the written fill-in-the-blank activity and the problem-solving task are perhaps better measures of true learning (Mayer, 2009).”
Many people have argued with me that just because they are able to recall words after using some method, it surely means that it’s effective. As you can see, it’s only a part of the story.
That’s why it’s also so important to test any method for the prolonged period of time. Always give yourself at least 3 weeks to test your hypothesis. Then measure the results (here are examples of the things you can measure in language learning).
“There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.” – Enrico Fermi
Why even measure it at all?
Measuring your results certainly doesn’t sound sexy but it’s absolutely necessary. You can’t know for sure that one method is better than the other if you don’t verify it and you don’t control your variables.
What’s more, if you don’t measure, you can’t improve. And that means a great deal in the world of language learning. Using ineffective methods can literally mean that you will have wasted thousands of hours by the end of your life.
I am not that loco and I was never willing to take such a risk. And I am pretty sure you also don’t want to be the guy with a tombstone saying, “It took him 20 years to learn a language to an A2 level, what a moron. Love, family.”
Whenever you’re in doubt – measure your results. It will help you get to the truth.
What does it mean that the experiment failed?
Under every experiment, you will find an explanation of why a given experiment failed or not.
What do I mean by that?
Most of the time it means that it either didn’t provide me with the results I expected or it wasn’t more effective than the method I tested it against.
Of course, in a sense, none of them failed. They all helped me to understand the science of memory better and to improve my memorization skills. Or in more elegant words of Thomas Edison, I can say that:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison
The list of methods I have tested
Below you will find a long list of methods I have tested throughout the years. I can’t vouch that I have included all of them. I have a nasty habit of throwing away everything I don’t need. Unfortunately, in many instances, the victim of my habit was a bunch of notes documenting my experiment.
All my experiments are accompanied by the main conclusions and complementary articles when needed. Enjoy!
Chapter 0 – The typical school stuff
I guess this is the type of learning which is a baseline for many people. All you do is what they tell you to during a class. You read something, do some grammar exercises, write an essay and so on.
Why did it fail? What you give is what you get. I think I simply didn’t apply myself to learning hence my results were just terrible.
The main takeaway:
Apply yourself? Learn regularly? Take your pick.
Chapter 1 – Using a notebook
The first learning system of my own devising was fairly uncomplicated. Ready for it? Every time when I used to encounter any English words I didn’t know, I jotted them down.
Next, I rewrote ALL their meanings, collocations and such from an Oxford Dictionary into my notebook. Then I read my notes on my way to school.
You’re probably wondering why I didn’t just mark these words in a dictionary and read them there, huh?
Well, maybe because I was fed with a lead spoon as a child. Or it has something to do with repeatedly falling down headfirst from a tree.
I don’t know. But these are some of the excuses I use. If it wasn’t bad enough I used this method for at least 3 or years when I was about 18-22.
Why did it fail?
The method was clearly unsustainable. It took me a lot of time to rewrite all the words I needed. What’s worse, there were so many of them that I couldn’t review them in any regular way.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
This was my first system. It was really bad but it also taught me an important lesson. You will always progress, no matter how slow, if you have any kind of learning system in place. Sure, this one sucked but at least it gave me a systematized way of learning new words and their meanings.
The first program of this kind which I bought was called SuperMemo Advanced. It was a brilliant creation which ushered in the new era in the world of my personal learning.
Back then, I already spoke quite good English. Or at least that’s what I thought. To my surprise, it quickly turned out that out of over 10k words which this program contained, I knew almost none.
My grind started. I started slogging through all these words with dogged determination. I was terrified by the number of reviews I soon amassed but somehow I pulled through. I think it took me about 18 months to cover all the words.
What about the final result?
My vocabulary certainly expanded. Initially, I could recall a lot of words but after some time, the novelty effect wore off. I soon found myself forgetting more and more words despite working my butt off every day.
And thus, I decided to keep on searching for my Holy Grail.
it kinda failed
Why did it kinda fail?
The main reason why my experiment failed to some degree is that I didn’t create my own sentences. Most programs of this kind give you ready-to-learn sentences.
Unfortunately, if you don’t actively encode words on your own, they will slip your memory anyway. The optimization algorithm which programs of this kind use is an extremely powerful tool.
Maybe even the most universal shield against forgetting we currently have. However, no amount of reviews can guarantee that the words you learn will be transferred into your long-term memory if you don’t encode them (Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Craik & Tulving, 1975).
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
The optimization algorithms are your best friend learning-wise. It doesn’t matter how much you delude yourself into thinking that you can learn faster by reading, listening or other means.
It won’t happen.
Having a ready-to-use wordlist is extremely convenient and can speed up your learning. You won’t have to waste your time scratching your head and thinking what’s the next word you should learn.
I enrolled in a language school to master German and after about four years I was ready to sit the Goethe-Zertifikat B2 exam. The last trial before the real thing was a mock exam. I took it, I passed it and life felt great.
I felt so proud of myself as I was leaving my language school, “Now I know English, German and Polish, there are 7 languages to go”.
The life had different plans for me. Just as I was ambling down the street I was approached by an elderly German couple asking me if I speak any German.
“I do”, I replied proudly.
“Do you know any good restaurants around here?”, they asked.
As they were finishing their question something terrible happened. I froze. I couldn’t spew out any coherent answer. I huffed and puffed and floundered until I managed to form some vague answer.
As they were leaving I felt devastated. I spent 4 damn years in a language school and couldn’t even hold a simple conversation! On top of this, I just passed a B2 certificate.
Frustrated by this experience I decided to simply pick up a Polish-German dictionary, mark the works I didn’t know but I found useful and start creating short sentences with them.
I used to take this dictionary everywhere with me. I kept my nose in it and wandered around oblivious to my surroundings.
I definitely looked strange but at least I had my pants on most of the time and didn’t yell “repent sinners” so that’s nice.
it kinda failed
Why did it kinda fail?
The problem with this method was that it didn’t allow me to review my vocabulary in any meaningful way. I was jumping from one word to another.
Oftentimes, I spent way too much time concentrating on the words I already knew. Considering that your average pocket dictionary has usually at least 15k words, it was the problem of considerable size.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
1. Even though this method didn’t seem like much, I consider it a big success to some degree. It was then that I realized that creating my own sentences with virtually any word can boost my vocabulary retention.
Contrary to the common wisdom, it doesn’t matter if your sentences don’t sound like something that could originate from the silky smooth lips of a native speaker.
You need to encode words on your own and you need many words in order to convey your thoughts.
2. This method further reinforced my conviction that having a ready-to-use word list can positively affect my learning rate.
Up to this day, I remain a huge fan of pocket dictionaries. Even on the days, when I don’t have much time, I can encode and learn up to 30 words in 15 minutes simply by picking them up from a dictionary.
Trust me, no other method comes even close to this.
I stumbled across the first mentions about mnemonics in an article when I was about 20-21. Even though I was fascinated by the general idea behind mnemonics, I quickly forgot about it.
A couple of months later, by fate, I discovered a small book about mnemonics. It turned out to be a copy of Harry Lorayne’s classic “* How To Develop a Super Power Memory (1957)”.
One week later, I was a full-time mnemonics preacher.
How could I not?
Any person, who tried to learn anything with help of mnemonics can attest to their effectiveness. And that’s true. Compared to your typical “cram and forget” approach, mnemonics work very well.
It takes some time and objectivity to discover that perhaps mnemonics are not as great as many experts like to believe. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here is a list of different memory systems I have tried.
If you have never heard of mnemonics, here is, more or less, how they work:
1. Find a word you want to learn. 2. Inspect it thoroughly and try to spot any associations or familiar word in it. 3. Create a funny/absurd picture based on these words or associations. 4. Place the picture in some location which is well-known to you (e.g. your home). 5. Repeat this process for many words and make sure to connect your pictures with each other. 6. Take a mental walk and decode these words.
Example: Let’s say that you want to learn a Spanish word for “trabajar”. Upon a closer inspection, you notice that:
a) “traba” looks a lot like “drab” b) “jar”, well, it looks like a “jar”.
Next, you combine those words into a short story: you work as a slave at the desk in your room producing enormous “drab jars”.
Can you see it?
The only thing left is to retrieve these words by imagining this entire situation.
If you have never tried this method, it can be quite effective. And, as you can probably guess, that was my initial impression as well.
Why did it fail?
1. I have mentioned before that encoding your own vocabulary is extremely important. If that’s true, then why do mnemonics work so badly for long-term memorization and retention?
here are two types of encoding:
a) shallow encoding
Shallow encoding doesn’t help you to connect the piece of information with other meaningful information nor does it help you to further your understanding of it.
It usually concentrates on meaningless banalities.
Example: You are trying to memorize the word “skada” (Swedish for “to damage”). The prime example of shallow encoding would be to start counting the number of vowels or consonants in this word.
In our case, it would also be creating meaningless pictures based on abstract associations which has nothing to do with the actual use of the word.
b) deep encoding
The absolute opposite of shallow encoding. This time you are trying to make meaningful information between different items.
The more the better. In the case of language learning, it’s simply building sentences with the words you want to learn.
2. The other reason is fairly simple. Sometimes it takes a lot of time to find the right associations. Needless to say, spending 5 minutes on every word in order to do this is pointless.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
1. Even though this method didn’t seem like much, I consider it a big success to some degree. It was then that I realized that creating my own sentences with virtually any word can boost my vocabulary retention. You need to encode words on your own and you need many words in order to convey your thoughts.
2. This method further reinforced my conviction that having a ready-to-use word list can positively affect my learning rate.
After some time, I decided that the main problem was the time I needed to find my associations. I decided to identify the most important prefixes for any language I was concentrating on at that point.
Example: The prefix “ent” is fairly popular in German. I decided to substitute it with the word Ent which is a race of tree-resembling creatures from Tolkien’s fantasy world Middle-earth.
Every time I encountered some word starting with “ent” I could immediately create a picture involving the Ents.
How did this method affect my learning pace?
I started memorizing words lightning fast. Partly because I have created my own “mnemonic picture dictionary” which consisted of over 1000 syllables with their respective pictures.
And yet, once again.
Why did it fail?
Unfortunately, I failed to recognize that quick short-term memorization doesn’t equal successful long-term memorization.
Sure, I was memorizing word quicker but I still had problems using them in conversation and kept on forgetting them anyway.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.
Mnemonics and meditation
Another brilliant idea of mine was thinking that if I only improve the vividness and clarity of my pictures, I will be able to retain them much longer.
I decided to include a 30-minute meditation session to my learning schedule. During that time, the only thing I did was revisiting my mnemonic stories and making them more vivid.
Why did it fail?
No matter how clear your pictures are – if you don’t apply active encoding to your learning, you will inevitably fail.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.
Mnemonics with SRS
The next step for me was combining mnemonics with SR programs like ANKI. I figured out that if I only optimize my repetitions, my retention rate will go through the roof.
Even with this method, I was using a lot of variations. Among others I tried to:
a) use google map images to memorize thousands of words at the same time. b) use virtual and phantom locations and connect them into memory palaces. c) shrink my stories to squeeze even dozens of them into one room.
Why did it fail?
This is where I gave up on mnemonics. My stats and personal experience were very clear about this method of learning.
It doesn’t matter how much I tweak every tiny element of this method – it will always suck as it fails to encapture the very essence of learning – applying contextual learning and deep encoding.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.
I have always been a bookworm so this experiment was quite pleasant to me. In 2016 I decided to read about 60 Swedish articles in the span of about 2 months.
At that time I was already on a C1, or maybe C1 / C2 level. That means I could read without any problems.
In total, I read 52000 words, mainly from the major Swedish news outlets. At about 300 words/min, it took me about 17 hours to go through them all and about 2 hours to find something interesting to read.
I didn’t write down any words, I was just trying to memorize them while reading (without mnemonics).
The final result?
After a careful analysis of my vocabulary, I found out that I picked up 5 extra words.
In other words, I spend 19 hours and had nothing to show for. To fully showcase how ridiculously slow that pace it’s worth reminding you that on a bad day, I can encode and learn up to 30 words in 15 minutes simply by picking them up from a dictionary and encoding them in ANKI.
That experiment definitely echoes the experience of my students. Even though it’s only an anecdote.
Over one year ago, a student of mine who learned German decided to read the first two books of the Harry Potter series in German.
At the time, she was on a B1/B2 level. I tried to discourage her from doing it and direct her efforts to active learning but she put her foot down.
After about 4 months she told me that she finished reading them – in total about 1000 pages or so.
The result was once again quite depressing. Once she told me about her intention, I started jotting down EVERY NEW WORD which came up during our classes. It wasn’t difficult at all as I taught her from the very beginning. I knew exactly which words she already used.
After 4 months, countless hours, 1000 pages she managed to introduce 0 extra words to her parlance.
In my next experiment conducted in May 2018, I set off to check how many new words I can pick up from watching English movies with French subtitles. I was pretty sure that this method would be more effective since it involves more sensory channels.
In total, I watched about 60 hours worth of TV series. My level at that time was about B1. During that time I was able to pick up 11 words, most of which I was able to use spontaneously.
I haven’t been able to memorize other words than the ones I learned before. In other words, it allowed me to learn more.
it was a success and a failure at the same time.
Why did it fail/succeed?
1. The experiment was certainly a success because it confirmed something I have been telling for a long time. Passive learning can be an amazing tool if you use it as an adjacent method.
Every day you should do your best to concentrate on active learning. Once you’re done and you can’t din more words into your head, feel free to read or listen as much as you want.
Spontaneous activation of words is much easier once you already have these words in your head. This is definitely something my experiment confirmed.
Even though I avoided speaking for 2 months, my fluency was actually higher after 60 hours of reading. Mind you that I didn’t pick up almost any new words. But the ones I knew came to my mind much quicker.
2. The experiment also failed because clearly reading was subpar to basically any active learning method, I have ever tried.
The main takeaways (i.e. what I learned):
1. “Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009). However, transfer tasks, such as the written fill-in-the-blank activity and the problem-solving task are perhaps better measures of true learning (Mayer, 2009).”
Just because you have a general impression of remembering words after a reading session, it doesn’t mean that you’ve committed them to your memory. The only tests which can confirm involve the active use of the said words.
2. Acquisition of new vocabulary from reading will be terribly slow and ineffective until you learn about 5k words. 5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).
Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997). If you’re hell-bent on learning this way, make sure that you know at least 3k words as it’s the minimum threshold needed for contextual guessing. (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996).
3. Your ability to speak fluently and produce spontaneous speech is dependent to a high degree on the amount of input you expose yourself to.
As painful as it is for my analytical heart, I have never run any rigorous memory experiment involving extensive listening. All I have are my anecdotes concerning three main languages I teach (Swedish, English, German). For that reason, please take it with a grain of salt.
I haven’t done any form of extensive listening practice for any of those languages until I was at least at a B2 level. In other words, my vocabulary amounted to at least 5k words which warranted quite accurate contextual guessing.
Even though I can’t give you any specific number, we’re talking about thousands of hours of listening practice for English and hundreds of hours for both Swedish and German. My main listening activities concentrated mainly on watching TV series and movies.
Why did it succeed?
Despite the lack of detailed stats, I could definitely notice that my ability to produce spontaneous speech and to understand was greatly increased.
What’s more, vocabulary acquisition was also much higher compared to extensive reading. The probable reason is, once again, the wealth of stimuli, which is related to watching movies.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
1. Extensive listening is certainly the most useful form of passive learning. Especially up to a C1 level.
2. The vocabulary acquisition rate is also quite high provided that you build your core vocabulary first. I can only speculate that on earlier stages, it would be quite ineffective since the cognitive load would be too high to enable effective learning.
It’s worth keeping in mind that extensive listening is still quite a terrible tool of acquiring vocabulary compared to almost any active learning strategy. Once again, it can be treated as a perfect supplement to active learning.
Chapter 4 – Random memory experiments
All the experiments presented here reflect a very interesting stage in my memory journey. Back then, I was willing to run almost any memory experiment as long as there is at least one scientific paper behind it.
In hindsight, sometimes I don’t know what the hell I was thinking!
As you can see, it had nothing to do with language learning or memory improvement. Of course, that didn’t stop me. The experiment went on for 3 weeks. During that time I almost pissed myself a couple of time but it certainly did nothing for my retention rate.
a Dutch scientist conducting this study, Mirjam Tusk, was actually awarded Ig Nobel.
Why did it fail?
Because I was a silly and impressionable dummy. But hey! At least I have an anecdote to share!
There are a lot of studies which show that spending time in nature helps to boost your memory. Some of them even show that staring at a photo of trees or a brisk walk in the woods can improve your memory and attention performance by 20%.
And obviously, that was a good enough reason for me to try it.
For three weeks in 2014, I spend 1 hour per day learning Swedish in the nearby park. The results were quite clear – no advantage whatsoever compared to studying at home.
Why did it fail?
Because the memory experiment conducted in the lab are usually detached from reality and don’t carry over to real life? That would be my guess. Interestingly, I noticed that my attention performance dropped while learning in the park. I was constantly distracted by damn squirrels, dogs, and bawling children. The general conditions weren’t very conducive to studying.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Learn where there is a minimal amount of distraction in order to maximize your memory performance.
Emotional modulation of the learned material
One of the undeniable laws of learning says that we always remember better items which are emotionally salient. That gave me the idea that if I learn how to modulate this saliency, I could use it to my advantage to boost my retention.
I did lots of weird things to achieve this goal. I screamed foreign words out at the top of my lungs. I made myself furious or jealous with the help of my imagination and then proceeded to memorize short lists of words.
Why did it fail?
Truth be told, I was able to remember a lot of these words right away so the first impression suggests that the method works. But as I usually say, in order to truly discover whether something works you need to run delayed recall tests.
You have to wait at least 1 or 2 weeks before you retest your memory. Only then do you get a clear answer about whether a method works or not. This strategy failed.
In hindsight, the reason is simple – if everything stands out emotionally, nothing stands out emotionally.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Learning before going to sleep
Another great strategy which I have heard about was learning before going to sleep. Like all short memory experiments of mine, it lasted 3 weeks in September 2015. The idea for this experiment was sparked by research showing a correlation between time of studying and how it can potentially improve your recall.
The protocol was very simple. I tried to memorize 10 random words from languages I knew right before going to sleep.
How did I fare?
Not much better than usually. My retention rate was improved by about 4%.
Why did it fail?
I know that you might think that 4% is not too shabby and it’s worth something. However, in my case, I deemed the results less than impressive. Especially considering that I tried to memorize words from the languages I already knew which was a major mistake.
What’s more, if we include other co-founders, my results won’t be much better than the chance. I had definitely better results with practicing motor skills before going to bed.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Try at your own risk – I don’t see any super-duper benefits. It’s much more important to have a sound sleeping schedule than to practice at any specific time.
Combining learning with physical activity
There is plenty of research demonstrating the benefits of combining physical activity with learning. The general idea is to space your learning sessions and to interrupt them with bouts of vigorous exercise.
Here is a great excerpt from Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative (2011).
One immediate outcome of the research is a process known as spaced learning, in which teachers give short lessons, sometimes of less than ten minutes, before changing to physical activity and then repeating the lesson. In one trial, the pupils scored up to 90 percent in a science paper after one session involving three 20-minute bursts, interspersed with ten-minute breaks for physical activity. The pupils had not covered any part of the science syllabus before the lessons.
I started testing this idea in early 2016. Since I dislike gyms, I decided to weave in quick calisthenics workouts into my learning schedule.
Long story short, such an approach managed to significantly improve my attention span and slightly boosted my recall.
Why did it succeed?
Even though there is a lot of great science which explains in a detailed way how exercise can help you with studying, I think it has a lot to do with Serial-position effect.
Serial-position effect is the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst.
Why do I think so?
Because I have noticed similar improvements while taking so-called meaningful breaks i.e. taking a walk, or just lying down and breathing mindfully.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Mixing work-outs with your learning is certainly worth replicating
John J. Ratey – Spark, The Revolutionary New Science Of The Brain And Exercise
Learning with pictures
1) a traditional approach
I am more than sure that even if you haven’t tried using pictures in your own studies, you at least heard how great of a method that is.
But the real question which many people seem to ignore is – how much does it really help?
My answer is – not that much. Most of the time you will be able to just remember a picture very well. Based on my experiments I can say that the overall benefit of using pictures in learning is not big and amounts to less than 5%. At least when you stick to a typical approach i.e. adding random pictures to your ANKI flashcards.
Is there a better way?
2) a different approach
Since my initial results with this method weren’t very satisfying I decided to step it up and tried to check how different kind of pictures affect my recall. What’s more, I also verified how using the same picture in many flashcards affects my learning.
What kind of pictures did I use?
I concentrated on pictures which are emotionally salient. I tried everything starting from gore pictures to porn pictures. The results, especially with the latter, weren’t very good. I was sitting there like a horny idiot and couldn’t concentrate even one bit on any of the words. It’s like having a sexy teacher in high school. You can’t wait till you get to your classes but once you do, you don’t hear any words.
Funny enough, I remember most of the pictures from this experiment to this day which only further proves to me that your typical approach won’t work here.
So what kind of pictures did work?
Pictures from my personal collection. I found out that if I use one picture in a lot of flashcards where every flashcard concentrates on one word, I am able to recall words extremely easily. In addition, my retention rate has also been improved, although not as significantly as my ability to retrieve words.
Why did it fail?
While it’s true that it’s really easy to memorize picture, I haven’t noticed any amazing benefits using a typical approach i.e. inserting a new picture into every flashcard.
Why did it succeed?
I think that my approach to using pictures in language learning is so effective because it mimics a lot how we normally acquire vocabulary as children. It’s much easier to memorize names of different objects and phenomena if the same situation occurs frequently.
I have never seen any scientific experiments in this vein so I hope that the linguistic community will pick it up one day.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
If you want to use pictures in your language studies, don’t waste time trying to find a new picture for every word. Choose one picture and use it multiple times in different flashcards. Each time try to memorize a different word.
Learning with GIFS
Don’t worry, this will be a short one. If you haven’t known this before, you can insert GIFs into your ANKI flashcards. Overall, it will give you an additional recall and retrieval boost.
Why did it succeed? GIFs are very similar to real life situation. There is some dynamism there connected with visual stimulus.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned): It works provided that, once again, you use the same GIF for many flashcards.
Writing vs speaking
Another interesting experiment which I set out to conduct, in 2017 if I am not mistaken, was to settle once and for all what’s better for language learning memory-wise – writing or speaking?
I won’t elaborate about it since I have already written a full article about this problem (you can find the link below).
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
All in all, my opinion is that for the most people out there, speaking is the superior learning method as it allows you to practice what probably matters to you the most – being able to communicate. What’s more, writing offers almost no benefits memory-wise compare to speaking.
Having that said, you should remember that the ultimate answer might be more complex for you. Some learn a language to write, some to watch movies and some to talk. Choose your goal and choose your preferred learning method in accordance with it.
Even though conducting all these experiments might seem like a lot of work, I think it was more than worth it. Especially since I have always been more interested in how memory works than knowing many languages.
I thought that it might be interesting for you to see how my quest for better memory has influenced my learning speed throughout the years. However, please remember that using the right methods is one thing. Another is that with every next language, it’s getting easier and easier to learn the next ones.
Of course, even a layman might learn extremely fast if they know how to do it. I have managed to teach a lot of people to a B2 level in a couple of months with just 1 hour of classes per week so it can’t be that bad (read more). Heck, some people who took my course Vocabulary Labs managed to do it without any help whatsoever within that time frame.
Side note: the numbers below don’t represent my current levels, just how fast I learned these languages to a B2 level.
My learning pace over the years
The languages below are chronologically ordered starting with the ones which I learned first. I never bothered tracking how much time I needed to get a C1 level and beyond in most of these languages. The number below don’t represent my current levels, just how fast I learned these languages to a B2 level.
When did I start? When I was 12.
Time needed to get to a B2 level: 7 years
Was the level verified? Yes, an FCE certificate
When did I start? When I was 15.
Time needed to get to a B2 level: 10 years
Was the level verified? Yes, by a private tutor
When did I start? When I was 20.
Time needed to get to a B2 level: 4-5 years
Was the level verified? Yes, a mock Goethe-Zertifikat B2
When did I start? When I was 25.
Time needed to get to a B2 level: 1-1,5 year
Was the level verified? No
When did I start? When I was 26.
Time needed to get to a B1 level: 6 months
Time needed to get to a B2 level: about 2 years
Was the level verified? No
When did I start? When I was 27.
Time needed to get to a B2 level: 3,5 months
Was the level verified? Yes, a multifaceted, internal verification in one of the global corporations
Czech was also the last language I learned. About that time I decided to focus on other fields of science and improving my languages.
Right now, for the most European languages, I don’t think it would take me more than 6-8 weeks to learn them to a B2 level. When it comes to trickier languages like Hungarian or any Asian language it’s hard to say as I never looked into them deeply. Although probably if enough number of people are interested I will do another language mission in the future and will document my progress thoroughly.
Does it mean that these methods are bad?
As you have seen, I have classified quite many methods with which I have experimented as a failure. Does it mean they are inherently bad? Not necessarily. Depending on your current stage in language learning, many of them might boost your learning significantly provided that the one you’re using right now is bad.
Even my results which show modest boosts (e.g. 5%) in recall and retrieval rate should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, if you’re a person who is not very physically active, you might experience a significant increase in your ability to recall if just work out more.
Regardless of that, a lot of my experiments should show you rough effectiveness of many of these methods. I hope that one day I will find time to come back to this article and expand my lists of experiments including some others which I missed this time.
You might also wonder why I haven’t covered many of the popular apps and learning systems in this article. The answer is very simple – I didn’t have to. There are dozens of principles of memory to master in order to learn effectively. Once you acquire them, you can simply disregard many popular solutions because you can spot all the mistakes they are perpetuating. Not every experiment is worth your time.
How many of these methods have you experimented with? Let me know.
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.
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 which sums up what this method is all about.
If you are old-fashioned, here is a description of how it works (the description has been borrowed from a great website called How To Get Fluent),
Get a large (A4 size) notebook. This is going to be your “bronze” book.
Prepare the materials (i.e. words) you’re interested in. The items you choose will go into your “headlist”.
Open your book and write the first twenty-five words or phrases down, one below the other, on the left-hand side of the individual page. Include any integral information such as gender or plural forms of nouns or irregular aspects of a verb’s conjugation. The list shouldn’t take you more than twenty minutes to do.
When the list is ready, read through it out loud, mindfully but without straining to remember.
When you start the next piece of the headlist, number it 26-50, then 51-75 and so on.
The first distillation – after at least two weeks open your notebook and cast your eye towards your first list of 1 to 25 (or, 26 to 50, or 9,975 to 10,000) depending on which double spread you’re at. The “two weeks plus” pause is important. It’s intended to allow any short-term memories of the information to fade completely so that you can be sure that things you think you’ve got into the long-term memory really are in there. Make sure, then, that you date each set of twenty-five headlist items (something I haven’t done in my illustrative photos for this article).
David James says that there is no upper limit to the gap between reviews, though suggests a maximum of two months, simply to keep up momentum.
Discard eight items, and carry the remaining seventeen into a new list, This will be your first “distillation”.
Repeat the process for the second and third distillations (the third and fourth list on your double spread). The interval should be at least 2 weeks.
For the fourth distillation, you start a new book, your “silver” book.
The “gold” notebook works the same way, the hardcore items from the “silver” notebook’s seventh distillation are carried over to the “gold” for new headlist of twenty-five lines (distillation number eight) and distillations nine (17 or so lines), ten (twelve or so) and eleven (nine or so).
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. It doesn’t circumvent short-term memory
One of the big claims of the Goldlist method is that it is able to circumvent your short-term memory. Somehow, thanks to it, you are able to place all the information straight in your long-term memory.
Is it possible? Not really. I have noticed that 99% of claims of this kind come from people who have never had much to do with the science of memory. That’s why let’s go briefly through what is required to “remember”.
According to the author of the Goldlist method, David James:
” [[ … ]] we are alternating in and out of these two systems the whole time, we switch ourselves into short-term mode by thinking about memorising and switch out of it by forgetting about memorising.”
Unfortunately, this is a bunch of hooey. This is what the actual science has to say about memorization.
The working memory consolidation
In order to memorize a piece of information, you have to store it in your short-term memory.
This process is initiated by allocating your attention to the stimuli you want to remember.
In other words, initiation of consolidation is under conscious control and requires the use of central attention. The mere fact of looking at a piece of paper and reading/writing words activates it.
Any stimuli that capture attention because of their intrinsic emotional salience appear to be consolidated into memory even when there is no task requirement to do so.
Next, the items you learn undergo working memory consolidation.
Working memory consolidation refers to the: transformation of transient sensory input into a stable memory representation that can be manipulated and recalled after a delay.
Contrary to what the creator of the Goldlist method believes, after this process is complete, be it 2 weeks or more, the short-term memories are not gone. They are simply not easily accessible.
Our brains make two copies of each 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 which shows clearly that the method doesn’t circumvent short-term memory. The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve shows us how fast the incoherent information is forgotten.
What we mean by incoherent is that this is not the information which you can associate with your background knowledge.
This is very often the case when you learn a new language or when you’re at a lower intermediate level.
What’s more, the Ebbinghaus curve’s numbers are based on the assumption that the learned material :
means nothing to you
has no relevance to your life
has no emotional load and meaning for you
On the curve, you can see that if you memorize information now and try to recall after 14 days, you will be able to retrieve about 21-23% of the previously memorized knowledge. Mind you that this is the knowledge which is incoherent, bears no emotional load and means nothing to you.
What happens when you start manually writing down words which interest you or when you are able to establish some connection between them and your life? Well, this number can definitely go up.
Keep in mind that your recall rate will also be affected by:
frequency of occurrence
prior vocabulary knowledge
So 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 which is from the different linguistic family than the ones you already know. Track your progress and see how this number inevitably goes down.
The Goldlist Method is just a spaced repetition method with bigger intervals. That makes it less effective than most spaced repetition program right off the bat.
2. Impractical and time-consuming
Relatively high activation energy and time-consuming
One of the most important concepts in productivity is the activation energy.
The activation energy is the amount of energy needed to start conducting a given activity.
Even though the Goldlist Method has initially the low activation energy, it starts growing considerably with each and every distillation. Having to carry with you a couple of A4 notebooks seems also very impractical to me.
Limited usefulness vocabulary-wise
However, the biggest problem I have with this method in this department is that it suggests I only learn words I am interested in. There are hundreds of situations where one has to learn words which they are not interested in.
And they should work particularly well for the vocabulary you’re interested in.
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash
This is one of the methods which collapse under their own weight i.e. it’s inflexible. The Goldlist method suggests that you learn vocabulary in 25-word batches.
What If I need to master a language quickly and I want to learn at least 40-50 words per day? After 10 days I will be forced to go through 20 distillations. After one month this number will start hitting insane heights. More and more of my attention will be required to keep up with all the reviews. This seems very off-putting.
Another important quality of effective learning methods is that they should automate the learning process. The method which necessitates more and more conscious decisions on your part the more you want to learn simply doesn’t fit the bill.
4. Lack of context
The enormous red flag for any language learning method is the exclusion of context from the learning process.
Simply repeating information in a mindless manner is called passive rehearsal. Many years ago it was actually proven that passive rehearsal has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).
This is just the first problem with the lack of context.
The other one is that almost all the knowledge you possess is activated contextually. If there is no context, it will be extremely difficult for you to retrieve a word when you need it.
In other words – you will remember the information but you will have a hard time using it in a conversation.
As a result, soon enough you will forget a word because there will be no network of other information holding it in your head.
5. Detached from reality
The problem with the GoldList Method is encapsulated in a famous adage used by Marines:
‘Train as you fight, fight as you train’
I can’t stress enough how important these words are.
Always try to train for reality in a manner that mimics the unpredictability and conditions of real life. Anything else than that is simply a filler. A waste of time. It gives you this warm feeling inside, “I have done my job for today”, but it doesn’t deliver results.
Tell me, is rewriting words from one notebook to another actually close to using your target language?
6. Lack of retention intention
Another elementary mistake which we tend to make way too often when we fail to retain a word is actually not trying at all to memorize something.
You see, everything starts with a retention intention.
This fact is even reflected in the simplified model of acquiring information:
A retention intention sets the stage for good remembering. It is a conscious commitment to acquire a memory and a plan for holding on to it. As soon as you commit to a memory goal, attention locks on to what you want to remember.
This is how attention works—it serves the goal of the moment. And the stronger the motivation for the goal, the more laserlike attention becomes and the greater its memory benefits.
In other words, you can watch as many TV series and read as many books as you like. It will still have almost zero effect if you don’t try to memorize the things you don’t know. The same goes for the GoldList method.
A key feature of a retention intention is the plan for holding on to the material. It might be as simple as rehearsing the memory, or it might involve one of the memory strategies described later. Whatever the plan, when you are clear about how you intend to retain the material, it is more likely you will actually carry out the plan, and this can make all the difference between a weak and a strong memory.
7. Lack of encoding
Take a peek once again at the simplified model of acquiring information.
What you can see is that the second most important part of the process of memorization is encoding.
Encoding is any attempt to manipulate the information you are trying to memorize in order to remember it better.
Encoding can be further divided into shallow and deep encoding.
In the world of language learning, deep encoding is nothing more than creating sentences with the words you intend to memorize. In other words, it’s creating contexts for the items you want to learn.
Shadow encoding encompasses almost everything else. Counting vowels, writing down the said items and so on.
Deep encoding is the fastest and the most certain way of memorizing information and maximizing your chances of retrieving it.
If you skip encoding, like the GoldList method does, you immediately revert to mindless repetitions of words (i.e. passive rehearsal).
And we all know how it ends.
Mindless repetition of words has almost zero effect on your learning. If you want to increase your chances of memorizing them permanently you need to use the new words actively in a task (Laufer & Hulstijn (2001:14).
To be honest, I could add some more mistakes which this method perpetuates. However, I think enough is enough – I think I have pointed out all the most glaring ones.
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 is too flawed to fix it in a considerable manner but let me offer you this suggestion.
Instead of rewriting words, start building sentences with them for every distillation.
This way you will incorporate some deep encoding into your learning process. You should see the difference progress-wise almost immediately.
The Overall Assessment
There is no point in beating around the bush – this is one of the worst learning methods I have ever encountered. It violates almost every major memory principle. If you were contemplating using it – just don’t.
If you have nothing against using apps and programs to learn, I would suggest you start your language learning journey with ANKI.
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.
What is better for learning new words – writing or speaking?. It is definitely one of the questions that come up frequently in different language-related discussions.
I have seen many different answers to this question. Some were quite right. Some were just plain wrong.
That’s why I decided to show you a memory-based/science-based answer to this question.
Let’s dive right in!
Why Both Speaking And Writing Are Great
I don’t want to be this terrible host who welcomes you with a creepy toothless smile and spits on your back as you walk in. I want you to feel nice and cozy!
That’s why I would like to begin on a positive note – both writing and speaking are great learning methods. There are many reasons for that but let’s start with the three which can be deemed as the most important.
1) The Production effect
The “production effect” was initially reported by Hopkins and Edwards in 1972. Unfortunately, for many, many years it has escaped the attention of the scientific world.
The production effect indicates the improved recall for any information which is produced actively compared to the one which is just heard or read silently.
2) Deep processing (aka The levels-of-processing effect)
This phenomenon was identified by Fergus I. M. Craik and Robert S. Lockhart in 1972,
The levels-of-processing effect suggests that information is better recalled when it has been actively and effortfully processed.
In other words, deeper levels of analysis produce more elaborate, longer-lasting, and stronger memory traces than shallow levels of analysis. Depth of processing falls on a shallow to deep continuum. Shallow processing (e.g., processing based on phonemic and orthographic components) leads to a fragile memory trace that is susceptible to rapid decay. Conversely, deep processing (e.g., semantic processing) results in a more durable memory trace. – Source.
In the world of language learning, creating sentences is actually one of the most meaningful ways of achieving deep processing of words. That’s one of many reasons why I am againstusing mnemonics in language learning (in most cases).
3) The reticular activating system (RAS)
Another cool advantage of both writing and speaking is that they activate a part of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS).
Why is it important?
Let me explain.
Even though the RAS is a small part of a brain, it plays a very important role – it’s the filter of information that is let into the conscious mind
Every second of every day, it tirelessly scours through the tons of information provided by your sensory organs in order to choose the one which is relevant. Without the RAS you would be constantly flooded with excessive amounts of information which would virtually overload your brain and impede thinking.
Fortunately, that doesn’t happen as the reticular activating system helps your brain capture what matters most to you and what is relevant to you based on your values, needs, interests, and goals.
As you can clearly see, both speaking and writing help put the words you use at the forefront of your mind.
Other Advantages Of Writing
The previously mentioned benefits are certainly great. However, let’s dive into some other advantages which are more specific to writing.
1) Writing is a great learning method for the advanced students.
Many people, once they move past the B1 level, tend to get stuck at the so-called intermediate plateaus. They use the same old grammar constructions, the same trite expressions and speech patterns.
It’s very hard to get out of this rut unless
a) you consume the staggering amount of input
b) start making effort to use new grammar constructions/words
Speaking with others, more often than not, requires keeping a conversation alive. You have to think “on your feet” to express your thoughts as quickly and precisely as you only can – if you flounder or stall too long, you might be able to notice a silent agony on your interlocutor’s face.
Writing, however, gives you all the time in the world to jigger your words into something resembling an elegant thought as opposed to the typical intellectuals slurry.
If you puke a little bit in your mouth every time you hear yourself saying “The movie was nice because actors were nice and it’s good that it was nice”, you know what I mean.
Memory benefits of writing
Some research suggests that writing seems to tickle the RAS and memory centers in your brain a tad harder than speaking.
Here are results of one of such studies
“The results show that on the immediate post-test, the Sentence-writing group performed the best, followed by Gap-fill, Comprehension-only, and Control. On the delayed post-test, the Sentence writing and Gap-fill groups equally outperformed the two other groups.” –ScienceDaily.
However, as you will soon discover, it’s only a half-truth.
As a side note, experiments which I have conducted regarding the efficiency of writing vs speaking show almost no difference between those two.
Longhand vs writing
Interestingly, most findings of research papers concern longhand writing not typing.That causes people to believe that the latter is actually an inferior method.
“When participants were given an opportunity to study with their notes before the final assessment, once again those who took longhand notes outperformed laptop participants. Because longhand notes contain students’ own words and handwriting, they may serve as more effective memory cues by recreating the context (e.g., thought processes, emotions, conclusions) as well as content (e.g., individual facts) from the original learning session.”
On the surface, it might seem true. After all, the cognitive and physical effort needed to write manually is bigger than the one needed for typing.
Most of these studies, however, measure effectiveness of writing/typing under pressure – the said study took place during lectures. It doesn’t have much to do with the organized process of composing an e-mail or an essay at home.
The extra time you have for deliberation and for a coherent formulation of your thoughts should equalize (more less) any potential difference between writing manually and typing.
That’s why you shouldn’t feel pressure to choose just one of them to reap memory benefits. Choose the one you feel most comfortable with.
Problems with writing
As with every method, there are some potential problems you might run into.
a) not everyone wants to / needs write
I would dare say that the vast majority of the population of almost any country in the world doesn’t write that much.
Why would they?
If your job is not strictly connected with this skill, you might not find it useful
b) learning a new writing system
If learning a new language system takes you half the time you needed to actually speak and understand your target language, it’s understandable that you might be reluctant to do so.
Writing – recommendations for learning
Best suited for:
advanced learners (B1-C2) level
anyone who likes (or needs) to write
Other benefits of speaking
Speaking is repetitive
When you write, the fruits of your labor are limited only by your imagination. You can contemplate different word combinations, weave brilliant thoughts.
However, when you speak, you have to be quick. You have to rely mostly on the automated speech patterns and words which are already well activated in your brain.
That’s why most of the things we say every day, even in our native tongue, are very far from being full of imagination. The point isn’t to unleash your inner Shakespeare but to get the point across.
For the same reason, sentences produced by native speakers are also simpler!
Speaking is more natural than writing
The world in which people would use the sophisticated language, which previously could be only found in books, would be a hilarious place!
“Alas, the chains of palpitating agony fell on my little toe as I rammed it into the mighty oakiness of a cupboard!”.
Compared with, “I f*** hit my toe against a cupboard.”
The truth is that we usually speak in a much less formal, less structured way. We do not always use full sentences and correct grammar. The vocabulary that we use is more familiar and may include slang. We usually speak in a spontaneous way, without preparation, so we have to make up what we say as we go.
That’s why if your goal is being able to communicate, speaking should definitely be your default language learning strategy. At least until you get to a B2 level.
Memory benefits of speaking
It involves many sensory channels (i.e. it’s great for your memory)
Speaking is a rich, sensory experience. It activates almost all sensory organs and thus creates more stable memories.
In one of the studies about the production effect, we can read that:
Many varieties of production can enhance memory. There is a production advantage for handwriting, for typing, and even for spelling, although none of these is as large as for speaking (Forrin, MacLeod, & Ozubko, 2012).
So what about some studies which say that writing is better for our memory than speaking? Well, they might be some truth in it:
As you can see, most of the benefits of writing usually disappear upon finishing this activity.
It is faster than writing
As I have mentioned earlier, even though there is some research that suggests that writing gives your memory some boost, this fact loses its importance once we factor in how much output we can produce with writing compared with speaking.
Here are results of one of the studies which took this seemingly irrelevant fact into consideration
The written group produced almost 75% less language than the spoken group did in the time available. This complements previous research discussed in section 3.6 which found more opportunities for language learning in the spoken mode compared to the written mode (e.g., Brown, Sagers, & Laporte, 1999).
Problems with speaking
a) it requires a relatively good activation of your target language
Even though I am a big proponent of learning a language via speaking there is just one small hiccup. If you want to chat with foreigners, your command of your target language should already be good.
What would be the easiest way of circumventing this problem?
If you want to increase your oral output without having to speak with native speakers, you can simply start talking with yourself (learn more about here and here).
Speaking – recommendations for learning
Best suited for
anyone who learns to communicate
Relatively-well suited for:
anyone who learns to consume media in his target language
Even if you only learn a language to watch media in your target language, you should still spend some time on learning how to speak. It will help you to understand language much quicker due to your improved mastery of grammar and vocabulary and their interrelations, which will in its turn increase your language comprehension.
This is one of the cases where you get two for the price of one.
And the winner is …
All in all, my opinion is that for the most people out there, speaking is the superior learning method as it allows you to practise what probably matters to you the most – being able to communicate.
What’s more, writing offers almost no benefits memory-wise compare to speaking.
Having that said, you should remember that the ultimate answer might be more complex for you. Some learn a language to write, some to watch movies and some to talk. Choose your goal and choose your preferred learning method in accordance with it.
Question for you:
What is your preferred way of using a language – speaking or writing? And why?
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.
Any place where you spend quite some time can be optimized for language learning.
Simple stick-it notes can transform any dusty desk into a learning battle station.
But don’t make them boring!. You know what I mean.
Don’t just write “desk = der Tisch” and stick it in its respective place. Make it memorable. Make it fun!
Write “Ich lecke meinen Tisch, wenn ich blau bin” (I lick my desk when I am sloshed). That’s something to remember!
Or even better – make yourself a poster while we’re at it. Here is a quick example:
Even though you might not fully realize it, you use at least dozens of tools every day. A fair share of them is electronic – search engines, mobile phones, browsers, Windows, Excel, etc. – you name it.
But why on Earth would you want to use them in your native tongue?!
Make a list of all the most important software / websites / etc. you use and change the language to your target language!
4) Things you do
Our days are marked by myriads of repetitive activities – commuting, cleaning a flat, going to a gym. Once again, this is something you might use to your advantage.
You can prepare a playlist beforehand and listen to your favorite bands / podcasts / videos during that time.
I hope that these ideas will set you on the right path.
Now, let’s take a look at how the hypothetical “optimized” day might look like!
How Active and Passive Learning Fit Together – The Perfect Learning Day
You wake up at 7 am sharp.
Your alarm clock starts blaring. Beep, beEP, BEEP!!!
“It’s another shitty today”, you think to yourself as you step into the bathroom.
You look at your comatose self in the mirror, sigh heavily, brush your teeth and try to shape yourself into something which resembles the human form.
Then breakfast, dull as Kristen Stewart’s acting, and you kiss your wife. Your eyes utter mute “help me” as you pass her by and leave.
Ugh! Boring! But it could look like this:
Morning On Language Learning Steroids
Your alarm clock gently jars you out of sleep. You open your eyes and light an entire room with your beaming smile.
No wonder. This time you haven’t been ear-raped by some mechanical rattle.
No. This time you wake up to the sounds of your favorite song in your target language. You graciously jump out of bed and leap towards the bathroom.
You look at yourself and think, “Gee, I really do look amazing today!”, as the next song in your target language starts playing.
You dig into your breakfast.
It tastes like a nectar made by Zeus himself.
What to do:
Prepare in advance the playlist of songs in your target language. Delete all the other songs in your mother tongue.
Leave yourself no other choice but to listen to the language you want to improve.
Of course, if a part of your morning routine is to listen to the news or the radio, you don’t have to change it. Find radio stations in your target language on my other website and simply listen to them instead.
You slowly drag your feet toward the train station. “It’s funny”, you notice. The pavement tiles strangely resemble your life. They are gray and shattered.
Once you take a sit, you try to pass the time by rating the miserableness of your co-passengers. But there are no winners in this game.
Pretty bad, right? But it could look like this:
Commute On Language Learning Steroids
You maniacally run towards your train station. You can’t wait to hop on the train! This is one of your favorite parts of the day.
You take a seat and fire off your favorite YT channel. The fascinating interview about … completely pulls you in. “Already my station?”, you think to yourself. “I completely lost track of time!”.
What to do:
Always have some resources handy on your mobile/tablet/notebook. Not too many of them – it leads to decision fatigue. Ideally, it should be something that really interests you.
You should aim at energizing yourself before you start work. If you wear yourself off mentally, you will send a signal to your brain to actually start avoiding this activity in the future.
Aim at interviews or some funny, easily digestible shows. Unless you are really into politics or some “heavier” topics – then go ahead and listen to them as well.
Ordinary Day At The Office
You enter the office and gaze absently at your coworkers. Then you head toward the kitchen to fix yourself a cup of instant enthusiasm. Not that it helps. It’s just a thing you do to pull yourself faster through the day.
All the breaks and conversations turn into one big blur. Even some breaks in-between don’t deliver any relief.
Nightmare, ain’t it? But what about this:
Day At The Office On Language Learning Steroids
You rush into a kitchen and pour yourself a delicious cup of caffeine goodness. You sit comfortably in your cubicle.
Not an ordinary cubicle mind you but a language optimized cubicle. All around you, there are stick-it notes with interesting quotes or jokes in your target language.
After you dig yourself up out of the weekend’s backlog, you start reading newspapers in your target language.
What to do: It’s a very good habit to change the interface of every possible app or website you use to your target language. However don’t feel pressured to do so right away, If you are a beginner.
You might dip your toes first.
Write down where to change language settings and then switch interface to your target language.
Start translating any useful words you might need and switch the language back on. After a couple of such sessions, you should be able to comfortably navigate through any website/app.
What’s more, you can always put some stick-it knows with useful phrases or quotes around you.
Why phrases or quotes?
Because learning is always more efficient when there is context.
Why only put a note on your plant called “plant”, when you can write “a green and beautiful plant!”. Or “watering plants causes diarrhea”.
I know, I know – it sounds absolutely childish.
The thing is that the absurd information is absorbed more effectively. So why don’t you help your brain a little bit?
That was one hell of the day! You’re absolutely ecstatic! You finish your job, catch the train back and come back home.
You open the door to your flat and suddenly everything goes totally silent. You know what you have to do now. The damn work.
If you only concentrate on reading and listening, you won’t get far. Your brain is terrible at memorizing things which you encounter occasionally.
I will get to this in a moment.
But first, let’s start with basics – the process of memorizing can be depicted in the following three steps.
1) Encoding – involves initial processing of information which leads to 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 retrieval of stored information from memory
As you can see, the first step in this process is encoding.
I can’t stress this enough – if you don’t encode the information you learn, probably you won’t retain them. You should always, ALWAYS do your best to manipulate the information you try to learn.
Let’s try to prove it quickly.
If I told you right now to draw the image of your watch, would you be able to do it?
Would you be able to reproduce the exact look of the building you work in?
Of course not. Even though you come into contact with these things multiple times per day.
You simply do not try to encode such information in any way! If human brain was capable of doing it, we would all go crazy.
It would mean that we would memorize almost every piece of information which we encounter.
But this is far from the truth. Our brain is very selective.
It absorbs mostly the information which:
a) Occurs frequently in different contexts
b) We process (encode) – in the domain of language learning, the simplest form of processing a give piece of information is actually creating a sentence with it
c) Is used actively
2) Your learning (repetitions) are optimized
And one of the best ways to optimize your repetitions is by using SRS programs.
But what is Spaced Repetition?
Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.
Alternative names include spaced rehearsal, expanding rehearsal, graduated intervals, repetition spacing, repetition scheduling, spaced retrieval and expanded retrieval.
The science behind SSR
How does the program know when to review given words?
Most of such programs base (more or less) their algorithms on Ebbinghaus forgetting curve (side note: it has been replicated many times in the last 50 years)
The curve presents decline of memory retention in time, or if you look at it from the different perspective, it demonstrates the critical moments when the repetition of the given information should occur.
In theory, it takes about 5 optimized repetitions to transfer a word into the long-term memory. But come on! Learning would be damn easy if this rule would be true for most of the people!
There are actually a lot of other variables which come into play:
the difficulty of the learned material
understanding of the material
how meaningful it is
representation of the material
physiological factors: stress and sleep (among others)
the size of the material
processing of the material
And many others. Still, SRS programs give you the unparalleled upper hand in language learning!
3) You constantly step out of your comfort zone.
Why use the words which you already know, when you can use dozens of synonyms? You should always try to find some gaps in your knowledge. Click here to learn more.
Of course, using SRS programs like ANKI is not to everyone’s liking. I get it.
But let’s look at the list of alternatives, shall we?
Alternatives To Using SRS programs
Every learner has to face the following problems in order to learn new words (effectively).
What process do you go through to learn a new word?
Do you write it down? Where?
How do you revise it later?
How long does it take you to learn it?
How many times do you have to see it before you know it?
And how do you know when you really have learned it?
These aren’t some petty, meaningless decisions. These are the decisions which will heavily influence your progress curve.
Here’s an idea that a lot of people have: when you learn a new word, you write it down in a notebook. Then, every few days, you open the notebook and review all the words that you have learned so far.
This works well at first — you’re no longer forgetting everything you learn. But very soon it becomes a nightmare.
After you exceed about 1000 words, reviewing your vocabulary starts taking more and more time. And how do you know EXACTLY which words you should review or pay more attention to?
Usually, after no more than a few months, you throw your notebook into the darkest corner of your room and try to swallow the bitter taste of defeat.
That’s why it has to be said aloud and with confidence: you will never be as effective as programs in executing algorithms. And choosing when to review a word is nothing more than that – an algorithm.
There are many who oppose this idea of using SRS programs. And it is indeed mind-boggling why. At least for me.
The results speak for themselves. Currently, I teach over 30 people – from students, top-level managers to academics.
And one of many regularities I have observed is this: Students of mine who use SRS programs regularly beat students who don’t.
How big is the difference?
One student of mine, Mathew, quite a recent graduate of Medicine faculty, passed a B2 German exam in just 5 months. He started from the scratch and only knew one language prior to our cooperation.
In the same time, the PhD from the local university, barely moved one level up the language learning ladder.
The only difference between them is that Mathew was very consistent with using ANKI (and other strategies).
Really. That’s it.
And it is not really that surprising.
The technology has been topping the greatest human minds for years now.
It might seem scary. But only if we treat such a phenomenon as a threat. But why not use computational powers of computer to our advantage?
It would be ridiculous to wrestle with Terminator. It’s just as ridiculous trying to beat computers at optimizing repetitions.
But should everyone use such programs?
Should You Use SRS programs?
I know that you can still be unsure whether or not you should be using SRS programs. That’s why I have decided to create the list of profiles to help you identify your language learning needs:
1) I am learning only one language
If you are learning only one language, it’s reasonable to assume that you can surround yourself with it. In this case, using Anki is definitely not that necessary.
However, things change quite a bit if you are learning your first language and you have NO previous experience with language learning.
In that case, better save yourself a lot of frustration and download ANKI.
2) I am a translator / interpreter (or pursue any language-related profession)
My imagination certainly has its limits since I can’t imagine a representative of any language-related profession who shouldn’t use SRS programs.
The risk of letting even one word slip your mind is too great.
Just the material I have covered during my postgraduates studies in legal translation and interpreting amounts to more than 5000 specialized words.
If I wanted to rely on surrounding myself with language in order to learn them I would go batshit crazy long time ago.
Honestly, who reads legal documents for fun?!
Even if you are not a translator / interpreter yet, but would like to become one in the future, do yourself a favor and download ANKI.
3) I learn 2 or more languages
Then I would strongly suggest using ANKI. Especially if you would like to become fully fluent in them.
The math is quite easy. Getting to C1 level in 2 languages, requires you to have a knowledge of about 20 thousands words. Of course, you should know at least 50-60% them actively.
This number might sound quite abstract, or maybe not that impressive, so let me put it in another way.
Knowing about 10 thousand words in a foreign language is tantamount to having an additional master’s degree.
And you know damn well how much time it takes to accumulate this kind of knowledge!
Of course, you can find an exception to every rule. It is not that mentally taxing to imagine a situation where somebody uses one language at work, and then another foreign language once he leaves the office.
Then maybe, just maybe, you can do without SRS programs.
Spending time with my grandfather was always a little bit weird. He didn’t want to talk much or play some stupid games.
Oh no. He used to sit me in front of him and grill me about different school subjects. Physics. Math. History.
But his personal favorite was teaching me Latin proverbs.
Most of them slipped my mind. But among all those which stuck with me, this is the one I cherish the most:
Repetitio mater studiorum est – repetition is a mother of studying
These four words contain the wealth of wisdom if you only interpret them in the right way.
On the surface, the problem with learning doesn’t seem that complex, right?
As long as you repeat things you want to learn, everything is fine and dandy.
But let’s be honest for a second. Like, really honest.
How easily can you recall words during conversations in your target language? How often does your mind go blank?
You desperately try to recall the word you need but there is nothing there. Just the depressing nothingness.
There you have it!
So the problem might a bit more complex than we have thought after all. Put on your “learning overalls” and let’s dig a little bit deeper to explain why repetition is simply not enough.
Let me start with basics.
Two Kinds Of Repetition
In its most basic form, the repetition can adopt two forms.
It can be either:
But what does “passive” mean, especially in the context of language learning?
It means that you don’t engage with the information you get.
You don’t do it actively (duh).
That’s why activities like reading and listening fall into this category.
What terrifies me the most, is that the default style of learning, formost of the people, is passive learning.
“But why do passive learning activities suck donkey balls?”, you might ask. Let’s get to it.
Why Passive Repetition Sucks and Hinders Your Progress
Before I get to the science, let me tell you about one friend of mine. This story might sound familiar to you. Actually, problems of about 90% people who write to me fit perfectly into the following scenario.
Anyway. So this friend of mine has been learning Russian for over two years now.
I haven’t heard her talk for a long time but I thought that her level should be at least decent. Russian is not that different from Polish after all. So imagine my surprise when I heard her speak Russian a few weeks ago. She barely scratched B1 level.
My first reaction? “No f***ing way”.
She’s been learning systematically for over 2 years and she can barely string a sentence together? After some investigation, I got to the bottom of it. Yes, her teacher visited her every week. Yes, they did learn.
Or should I say, “learn”?
Because the process they went through barely resembled any kind of real learning.
They basically read some articles together. For an entire hour.
Almost no speaking at all. No meaningful conversations. No active learning.
Nada. Null. Nothing.
If at any point of reading this description you told yourself, “Hey, this is pretty much how my lessons look like!”, then run.
Run the hell away from your teacher or language school.
A visit to a local strip-club seems to be a better investment than this. At least you will know what you pay for.
The pyramid of effective learning
Science is very clear about passive learning.
It was proven a long time ago that passive learning has a very little effect on whether the information is later recalled from long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).
Many other studies have managed to successfully replicate the results of the aforementioned research.
So how does effective learning look like?
Take a look at the pyramid of effective learning.
There is a good reason why learning and listening are at the absolute bottom of retention rates.
This should be the mantra of every learner. If you want to learn fast, you have to take control of your learning.
Without the control, your learning is like a boat with no sails in the middle of the storm.
You go one way and then the other without any sense of direction.
That damn boat needs a captain! You, that is!
Ok, so what does the effortful recall mean?
It means that the more effort you put into recalling a piece of information or to execute a skill, the more this act benefits the learning. (Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel).
Once again, there are a lot of studies which confirm the effectiveness of active learning. Here are results of some of the recent results.
“Tests that require effortful retrieval of information (e.g., short-answer) promote better retention than tests that require recognition (Larsen et al. 2008).”
Effortful retrieval of information improves recall 1-month later, compared with no test (butler and Roediger 2007)
It’s worth mentioning that you can mix these strategies together. Why not reap the benefits from the synergy effect?
How does this information transplant onto your learning ground?
First of all, let’s do some simple math. Considering the said effectiveness of given learning strategies, we might conclude that:
But the problem is to learn these 5000 words before you run out of motivation…!
As you can see, passive learning activities are a cardinal sin for most language learners. The chance is that if you take a good, hard look at your learning habits, you will discover why your progress is so unsatisfying.
It still plays important roles in the learning process but only if you go through the critical phase of deliberate and active learning.