How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Your Action Plan and Recommended Strategies

How to master many fields of knowledge

 

Growing-up has to be one of the saddest things ever from the outside perspective. It’s like a backward evolution. You see how amazingly curious creatures turn into mindless corporate drones. You see how the pursuit of knowledge turns into the pursuit of money.

I believe that curiosity and the power to create are the very things that can ward off all the negative in the world. However, for those qualities to survive, you have to feed them continuously. The problem is that modern times actively discourage people from becoming a polymath.

What’s more, we live in the conviction that there is not enough lifetime to master many areas of expertise.

I want to show you that it’s possible if you play your cards right. Within your lifetime, you can become great at many things. But before we get to the specifics, let’s start with a fundamental question:

 

How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Is It Worth It?

 

 

I like to think of knowing many things as of the magical glasses – the more you know, the more you can see.

 

Being stuck in one field of specialty is nothing short of being blindfolded. You can go throughout life without being able to spot all those enchanting intricacies coming from the expanded perspective.

 

Everything starts making sense. You know why leaves are green. You know why bread turns brown.
Unfortunately, being good at many things is not encouraged these days. We want everyone to be ultra-specialized, which breeds ignorance in almost all other areas.
Kant elegantly touched upon it years ago:

 

It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all.

I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.

The guardians who have kindly taken upon themselves the work of supervision will soon see to it that by far the largest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex) should consider the step forward to maturity not only as difficult but also as highly dangerous.

Having first infatuated their domesticated animals, and carefully prevented the docile creatures from daring to take a single step without the leading-strings to which they are tied, they next show them the danger which threatens them if they try to walk unaided.

Now this danger is not in fact so very great, for they would certainly learn to walk eventually after a few falls.

But an example of this kind is intimidating, and usually frightens them off from further attempts.”

 

It couldn’t be any more accurate. Of course, we don’t have to know everything. But will it hurt to learn just a little bit from many areas of knowledge? Were we created to be stuck in one groove all of our lives?

 

Why You Should Master Many Fields of Knowledge

 

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

~ Robert Anson Heinlein

 

Even though it’s advisable to master at least one field of knowledge intimately, it’s usually not necessary to do it for more than one.

 

How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – the Pareto Principle

 

 

One of the first logical foundations which will allow you to build a wide array of skills is the Pareto Principle.

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

 

In other words, find out what’s essential in a given field of knowledge and learn it. This way, you will be able to double-down on what’s important and save a lot of time in the process.

 

How much time is needed to be good?

Of course, just telling you to apply the Pareto Principle would be lazy. We need more specifics.

From the work of K. Anders Ericsson, we know that to be world-class at something, you need about 10k hours of deliberate practice.

Of course, throughout the years, many other researchers have proven that this number might vary depending on, among others, the complexity of a given skill.

However, for simplicity’s sake, I will stick to this number.

 

Even though the number looks scary, you should not forget that you don’t need to become world-class in every field of knowledge. With just about 1-2k hours, you might become an ordinary expert.

 

If you apply the Pareto Principle to this number, you will see that with just 200-400 hours of your time, you will be able to understand most of the things in this field.
Yikes. Maybe that still looks way too scary. But there is one more thing you can do to learn even smarter.

 

Working smarter – The Pareto Principle of the Pareto Principle

 

 

Once again – the Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. However, if you apply the Pareto principle to the Pareto principle, you might see that roughly 64% of the effects come from 4% of the causes.

 

It means that if you can determine the absolute essentials, you will be able to become good at something while spending only 4% of your time/effort.

 

In other words, with just between 40-80 hours, you will know your way around a given discipline.

Example 1

For example, what if you don’t trust your endocrinologist and would like to, sort of, become one.

Easy, it’s enough that you learn:

  • what hormones are
  • how they function
  • what are the main hormones in our body
  • how they are produced
  • sprinkle on top some knowledge about Type 1 and 2 Diabetes, thyroid disorders, PCOS, cortisol- and testosterone-related disorders.

As difficult as it’s to believe, most specialists deal with the same old cases day in, day out.

 

Remember – you don’t need to know every possible exception to every possible rule to be good.

 

Example 2

What if you want to be a semi-professional gourmet? No problem! Memorize the scale for describing foods and start tasting!

Mayonnaise, for example, is supposed to be evaluated along:

  • 1) six dimensions of appearance

(color, color intensity, chroma, shine, lumpiness, and bubbles)

  • 2) ten dimensions of texture:

(adhesiveness to lips, firmness, denseness, and so on)

  • 3) and fourteen dimensions of flavor split among three

subgroups:

a) aromatics (eggy, mustardy, and so forth);

b) basic tastes (salty, sour, and sweet);

c)  chemical-feeling factors (burn, pungent, astringent).

 

Example 3

What if you want to get good at persuading people (because manipulation is such a dirty word)? I would dare to say that reading Cialdini’s classic book should be enough to be at least decent at this craft. The rest is practice and the automation of those rules.

A famous quote by Bruce Lee echoes that thought:

 

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

 

Oftentimes, you might discover that a slightly smaller knowledge that is automated is much better than knowing a lot of theory.

Read more: The Curse of the Hamster Wheel of Knowledge – Why Becoming a Real Expert Is Very Difficult.

 

Your Action Plan

 

Even though we are talking about mastering potentially a lot of fields of knowledge, we all have to start somewhere. Here is a simple list that might help you with the preparation process.

 

1. Make a list of all the things you want to learn and choose no more than 3

Once you master those fields of expertise, you will be able to move on to the next ones.

 

2. Make sure they are potentially applicable to your life

I want to emphasize that you can learn whatever you want. However, if you choose useful skills at the beginning, you will find it much easier to find time to practice them.

Learning practical things is also extremely rewarding and can help you keep your motivation high.

 

3. Choose how much time you want to devote to them daily

 

I don’t want to be too lax in my calculations, that’s why I am going to assume that being good enough at something requires 100 hours.

 

That tells us that with about 1 hour per day for each field of knowledge, you should be able to know them relatively well in a bit over three months.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the more you know, the easier it will be for you to acquire even more skills and knowledge (so-called the Snowball Effect).

Remember that you don’t have to cling to these numbers religiously – they are here to impose some general guidelines.

 

4. Determine what you should learn

You can try to google what are the essentials of the given area of specialty or contact somebody who does it for a living. That should do the trick.

 

5. Get your learning materials

Once you know what to learn, this step shouldn’t be too difficult. The only thing I can add here is this – make sure that your source of knowledge is reliable. You don’t want to waste your time remembering things that have no reflection in reality.

 

How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Recommended Strategies

 

Your action plan and basic strategies

 

Congratulations! Now you know roughly how to organize your learning. It’s time you familiarized yourself with the strategies which might help you achieve your goals faster and with less effort.

 

1. Use deliberate practice

 

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

 

Common characteristics of deep learning:

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

 

In other words, deliberate practice gives you a goal and tells you to mercilessly concentrate on a given concept until you’re ready to move on to the next one.
I will be the first to admit that it’s not the most pleasant learning strategy. However, if you power through it, you will find out that it’s the quickest one out there. For me, a little pain for a lot of gains is undoubtedly a trade-off I am willing to make (read more about deliberate practice here).
 

2. Combine skills (aka laddering, skill transfer)

 

It’s important to realize that a lot of different skills might be combined to save you time and make your practice sessions more productive.

 

For example, you can:

  • exercise and listen to a lecture at the same time
  • learn a language and use it to master a particular area of knowledge
  • learn how to negotiate to get a job in a different department where you will be able to use your newly acquired programming skills

The number of combinations is endless. Give it some thought and contemplate what kind of combinations might work for you.

I like to watch pointless YT videos from time to time, but I never do it without a work-out session.

 

3. Use and automate your knowledge 

Not every skill has to be useful, but it’s certainly much easier to maintain it if you automate its use, and you can use it. At least on a semi-regular basis (read more about automating your skills here).

 

4. Do interesting things / choose difficult projects

Simple tasks don’t require much brainpower – probably that’s why soon multifunctional AI blenders will replace 50% of our planet.

If you want to let, your talents shine, always strive to take up challenging projects which involve the use of many different skills. It doesn’t matter whether they are a part of your job description or just a personal project. Try to make them relatively challenging relative to your current skill set (read more about doing the hard work here).

 

5. Help others

Helping others has to be one of the best ways to master many fields of knowledge. There are thousands of people in the world who might benefit from your expertise. Find them and do your best to help them alleviate at least part of their problems.

 

Not only will you feel slightly better and decrease your chances of becoming a skull ashtray for all the hellish abominations below us, but you will also consolidate your skills significantly better.

 

Why?

Because the more you’re able to embed your knowledge in reality, the easier it is to remember it.

 

How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Summary

 

Many people think that trying to master many fields of knowledge is silly. Why bother if you can pay somebody for their expertise or do something less taxing.

However, the truth is that doing so can be one of the most rewarding experiences in your life. Once you wrap your head around main concepts from many different disciplines, your life will improve. You, in turn, will become more confident.

And the entire process doesn’t have to take that much time if you stick to the strategies mentioned in this article. Good luck on your journey!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Goldlist Method – What Is It All About?

 

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

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

 

If you are old-fashioned, here is a description of how it works.

 

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

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

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

How to Use the Goldlist Method – Summary

 

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

The Goldlist Method – Claims

 

The Goldlist Method

Photo by Bookblock on Unsplash

 

The author of the Goldlist method maintains that:

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

The Goldlist Method – A Scientific Critique

 

1. The Goldlist Method doesn’t circumvent short-term memory

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

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

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

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

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

 

The working memory consolidation

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

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

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

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

Next, the items you learn undergo working memory consolidation.

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

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

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

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

 

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve

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

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

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

 

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

 

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

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

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

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

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

  • frequency of occurrence
  • prior vocabulary knowledge
  • cognateness.

Advanced language learners can get away with more

Since most advanced language learners have a benefit of possessing broader linguistic background knowledge, they can get away with using subpar learning strategies. Their long-term memory modulates short-term memory and thus decreases the overall cognitive load.

 

Is there anything nothing magical about the Goldlist method and the number “30”?

Nope. It follows very precisely the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve which takes into account your short-term memory. Sometimes this number will be higher, sometimes it will be lower depending on your choice of words.

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

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

 

2. The Goldlist Method is impractical and time-consuming

 

Relatively high activation energy and time-consuming

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

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

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

 

Limited usefulness vocabulary-wise

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

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

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

 

3. The Goldlist Method is inflexible

The Goldlist Method - A Scientific Critique

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

 

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

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

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

 

4. Lack of context

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5. The Goldlist Method is detached from reality

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

‘Train as you fight, fight as you train’

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

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

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

 

6. Lack of retention intention

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

You see, everything starts with a retention intention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7. Lack of encoding

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

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

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

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

Shallow and deep encoding.

Encoding can be further divided into shallow and deep encoding.

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

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

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

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

And we all know how it ends.

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

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

 

Read more about factors affecting word difficulty i.e., what kills your learning progress.

The Goldlist Method – Potential Advantages

 

The Goldlist Method - A Scientific Critique

 

There are two things I like about the Goldlist method

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

That’s it.

The Goldlist Method – Suggested Modifications

 

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

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

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

The Goldlist Method – The Overall Assessment

 

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

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

Here are two case studies which will show you how to do it

The Goldlist Method – Summary

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.

 

 

How to Learn Finnish Fast – from Scratch to a b1 Level in 3 Months

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

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

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

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

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

Learn Finnish fast – the Pre-course Evaluation

The pre-course evaluation

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

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

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

Learn Finnish fast – Kate’s Progress!

Meet Kate!

Meet Kate!

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

Here are Kate’s e-mails.

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

Hi Bartosz,

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

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

Duolingo experiment

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

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

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

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

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

Read more about deep learning here.

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

Hi Bartosz,

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

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

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

Hungry for more

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

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

Update #3 – 1500 Finnish words + convincing her husband to learn as well!

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

2800+ Finnish words

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

Plans to take the officialYKI test

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

Best wishes,
Kate

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

A short interview with Kate

A short interview with Kate

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

What do you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) ANKI. Needless to comment I suppose.

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

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

  • Are you planning to learn another language anytime soon?

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

Finnish from scratch to a B1 level in 3 months – the Learning Plan

Language strategies

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

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

Finnish learning resources

Kate only four things:

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

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

The best ANKI decks for Finnish vocabulary

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

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

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

And here are other noteworthy frequency lists of Finnish words:

How to talk with FInnish native speakers for free

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

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

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

The learning plan

Learn finnish fast

  1. Download ANKI
  2. Download a frequency list (e.g. in the form of ANKI decks)
  3. Calculate your daily goal.
It’s a number of words you need to learn daily in order to achieve your goal withing a certain timeframe. You should base your calculation on this article – how many words you should need for every language level.
  1. Start creating sentences with the words from your frequency list.
Don’t learn passively. Actually use the information you want to memorize.
  1. Be systematic
  2. Use deliberate practice to quickly acquire grammar
  3. Talk with yourself to consolidate grammar and vocabulary
  4. 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.
  1. 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.

Summary

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

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

Pictures and Images in Flashcards – Are They Even Useful?

 

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

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

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

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

 

Potential benefits of learning with pictures

 

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

 

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

 

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

Photo by pine watt on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Boosting your recall

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Aniston neurons

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

How effective are pictures at helping you memorize and recall vocabulary

 

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

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

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

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

 

Effect of pairing words and pictures on memory

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Test it for yourself!

 

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

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

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

How to use picture more effectively in your learning

 

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

What kind of pictures did I use?

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

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

So what kind of pictures did work?

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Summary

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What’s the scientific consensus about Spaced Repetition Apps

 

 

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

 

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

 

Spacing effects can be found in:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Encoding – the most important criterion for effective learning

 

 

A simple model of memory

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Two types of encoding

 

 

Shallow encoding

 

 

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

 

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

 

Deep encoding

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Why creating sentences is so complicated

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Read more about optimizing your language learning here.

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

SRS programs are just a white canvas

 

 

SRS programs

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Quick learning is not about time but about the effort.

 

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

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

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

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

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

It is all confusing and disheartening.

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

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

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

Why bother with choosing the right method?

1) It saves time

 

choose the best learning methods

 

Nothing is our in this world but time – Seneca

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine what you could do with all that saved time!

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

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

2) It boosts motivation

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

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

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

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

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

3) It solves most of other learning problems

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

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

Keep on forgetting words?
Wrong learning methods.

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

The next thing on the agenda – learning fallacies.

The Most Widespread Learning Fallacies

 

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

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

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

Fallacy #1 – My method works

 

how to choose the best learning methods

 

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

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

Absolutely all learning methods work.

It comes as a shock, right?

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

Even the worst of the worst methods work.

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

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

In other words, I was rewriting a dictionary.

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

how to choose the best learning methods

 

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

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

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

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

However, let me repeat for dramatic effect.

Learning styles don’t exist*

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

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

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

PREFER is the key word here.

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

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

But there is some silver lining here.

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

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

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

Fallacy #3 – Everybody learns differently

 

how to choose the right learning methods

 

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

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

learning differently =/ learning effectively.

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

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

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

The list goes on and on.

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

Main takeawayour brains absorb information in a very similar way. 

Fallacy #4 – It’s based on science

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

Yes, it is crucial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fallacy #5 – There is one method

 

choose the best learning methods

There is no perfect learning method. 

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

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

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

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

Important factors in choosing right learning methods

 

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

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

A good method should

a) be based on science

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

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

As Aristotle once said

“The fact is our starting point.” 

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

b) sustainable (easy to use)

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

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

c) be engaging

The Marines have a great motto

Learn how you fight

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

d) be tested

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

Most people don’t challenge their assumptions.

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

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

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

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

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

e) give you feedback

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

Final Words

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

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

Good luck!

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