We've all heard that practice makes perfect. It takes time and effort to be great at something, and if you want to do it right, you should practice one skill at a time.
For example, a beginning guitarist might rehearse scales before chords. A young tennis player practices the forehand before the backhand.
This phenomenon is called “blocking,” and because it appeals to common sense and is easy to schedule, blocking is dominant in schools, training programs, and other settings.
However, the question we should be asking ourselves is this: is blocking the most optimal way to practice skills? It doesn't seem so.
What is interleaving?
Interestingly, there is a much better strategy - enter "interleaving".
In interleaving one mixes, or interleaves, practice on several related skills together. In other words, instead of going AAAAABBBBBCCCCC you do ABCABCABCABC.
It turns out that varying it even slightly can yield massive gains in a short period.
Let's take baseball as an example: Batters who do batting practice with a mix of fastballs, change-ups, and curveballs hit for a higher average. The interleaving is more effective because when you're out there in the wild, you need first to discern what kind of problem you're facing before you can start to find a solution, like a ball coming from a pitcher's hand.
There are almost no strategies that are fully universal and can be used for all disciplines and in all learning conditions. The same goes for interleaved practice.
The past four decades definitely demonstrated that interleaving often outperforms blocking for a variety of subjects, but especially motor learning (e.g., sports). The results for other subjects are mixed.
Studies on interleaved practice in different disciplines
For example, when native English speakers used the strategy to learn an entirely unfamiliar language (i.e., generating English-to-Swahili translations), the results were better, the same, or worse than after blocking.
Another study (Rohrer et al., 2015) concerning mathematics showed the dramatic benefits of interleaving on children’s performance at math.
During the experiment, some kids were taught math the traditional way. They got familiar with one mathematical technique in a lesson and then practiced it to death. A second group was given assignments that included questions necessitating the use of different techniques.
The results were as impressive as they were surprising.
One day after the test, the students who’d been utilizing the interleaving method did 25% better. However, when tested a month later, the interleaving method did 76% better.
Keep in mind that such an increase is truly amazing, given that both groups had been learning for the same amount of time. The only difference was that some students learned block by block, and others had their learning mixed up.
The necessary condition before you apply interleaved practice
The results above tell us one important thing. You can't just go cowabunga and start interleaving the heck out of every subject.
Before you do so,you should have some familiarity with subject materials(or the materials should be quickly or easily understood).Otherwise, as appears to be the case for foreign languages, interleaving can sometimes be more confusing than helpful.
It's only logical when you look at this strategy from the memory perspective. For many, using even one technique seems to a burden enough for their working memory. Forcing such people to use three or more make you a psycho who wants to see the world, and their memory, burn.
It's simply too much.
It doesn't take away from the fact that interleaving can be extremely useful. It forces the mind to work harder and to keep searching and reaching for solutions.
However, if you decide to use it, make sure that you're familiar with the strategies you want to interleave. This recommendation is based on a phenomenon called the expertise reversal.
The expertise reversal
The expertise reversal effect occurs when the instruction that is effective for novice learners is ineffective or even counterproductive for more expert learners.
If you look at it differently, more experienced learners learned more from high variability rather than low variability tasks demonstrating the variability effect. In contrast, less experienced learners learned more from low rather than top variability tasks showing a reverse variability effect.
Why might lower variability be better in the beginning?
It was suggested that more experienced learners had sufficient available working memory capacity to process high variability information. In contrast, less experienced learners were overwhelmed by high variability and learned more using low variability information. Subjective ratings of difficulty supported the assumptions based on cognitive load theory, which you have learned before.
In other words, some signals that are needed by low prior knowledge learners might be redundant for high prior knowledge learners due to their existing schema in long-term memory (Kalyuga, 2009).
For example, one of the experiments (Likourezos, Kalyuga, Sweller, 2019) which tested 103 adults studying pre-university mathematics, showed no interaction between levels of variability (high vs. low) and levels of instructional guidance (worked examples vs. unguided problem solving). The significant main effect of variability indicated a variability effect regardless of levels of instructional guidance.
What does it tell us?
We can't play in the big boy's league if we don't cover the basics!
INTERLEAVED PRACTICE – WHEN AND HOW TO USE IT TO MAXIMIZE YOUR LEARNING PACE - Summary
(1) Interleaved practice is perfect for:
any material that can be quickly learned and understood
(2) For more complicated subjects, make sure to familiarize yourself with the appropriate strategies before you decide to interleave them. This way, you will make sure that your working memory isn't overburdened.
The curse of a B2 level might sound like a title of an F-rated horror movie but it’s a very real thing. In fact, it affects most language learners,
What is the curse of a b2 level (aka the language learning plateau)?
The language learning plateau is a phenomenon describing one’s inability to progress past the intermediate stages of language learning (i.e. a B1/B2 level). Typically, the main reasons are using inefficient learning strategies, or not using any learning system at all.
Let’s break down step-by-step why a B2 level is a final station for most language learners and what you can do to fix go beyond this mark. Time to break that curse.
What’s a B2 level is all about
What? You thought I would skip a dry, boring and theoretical part? No way! That’s where all the fun is!
understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization.
interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
Brief explanation: this level can be depicted as a FULL conversational fluency. You can have real conversations with native speakers about a variety of subjects.
Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at quite a deep level.
Expected vocabulary depth: you can convey most of your thoughts but you still, for the most part, lack precision. Compared to a B1 level, you can discuss more topics with more precise vocabulary.
Still, any topic that differs from typical, conversational standards will probably throw you off.
How many people master a language at a C1 or C2 level
English proficiency in the world
Now that you know what a B2 level is all about, let’s take a look at the level of English proficiency in different countries around the world. It’s only natural since this language is still the most popular choice. Our starting point is the EF English Proficiency Index. For brevity’s sake, I will skip the part where I lambaste the reliability of those results.
Countries with the highest English proficiency
Here is a list of countries that were classified as the ones with “very high proficiency” i.e. a C1-C2 level. Pay very close attention to the top dogs. Almost every country in the top 12 has either English as an official language (e.g. Singapore) or it’s a Germanic-speaking country.
Why is it important? If you’re learning a language which is similar to your native tongue, it will be CONSIDERABLY easier for you to master it. Since English is also a Germanic language, it’s not difficult to notice a pattern here.
Of course, there are other factors at play here but this is the most important one for me from the memory standpoint. The way information familiarity modulates your working memory and increases your learning capacity can’t be ignored.
A good example is my mission from a couple of years ago where I learned Czech from scratch to a B1/B2 level in about 1 month., even though my learning system at that time was far from perfect. Yes, I specialize in memory, so I knew what I was doing but I also already spoke Polish, Russian and German. Those languages helped me establish my initial familiarity with Czech vocabulary at about 80%.
Countries with moderate English proficiency
Now it’s time for countries whose English proficiency can be characterized as about B2 level.
As you can see, once we drop outliers like the top 12, the level drops to a B2 level and below. But let’s not stop there.
Here is an excerpt from one of the official Polish reports about German Proficiency in Poland. Let’s keep in mind that we’re talking about self-evaluation here of people who probably wouldn’t be able to describe language requirements for any level. The reality, in other words, is less rosy.
German proficiency at a B1+ level has been achieved by more than 53% of language learners., of which 22% mastered the language at a B2 level, 19% at a C1 level and 12.5% at a C2 level.
In other words, the amount of German learners who claim they have mastered this language amounts to about 16%.
The magical number 20
In different reports, the number 20 is the reoccurring theme. It seems that only less than 20% of learners of any language get past a B2 level. That is of course if you believe that these numbers are reliable.
Scientific studies are less forgiving in this department.
Long (2005, 2013) that the number of learners who achieve a C2 level is anywhere between 1-5%.
The curse of a B2 level – the two main reasons why you are stuck
1. No learning strategy and no system
One of the most surprising facts about how people learn is that most of them have no organized system of learning. You might think that’s an exaggeration but I assure you it’s not.
Here is an excerpt from a recent study (Schimanke, Mertens, Schmid 2019) about learning strategies at a German university.
To get a better insight on how students actually learn, we have conducted a survey among the students of our university (HSW – University of Applied Sciences) about their strategies and learning behaviors.
Overall, there were 135 students participating in this survey from all 6 semesters and between 18 and 31 years of age. 68.1% of the participants were male, 31.9% female.
Only very few of them deliberately make use of learning strategies, such as spaced repetition or the Leitner system. 94.8% of the participants just repeat the learning topics randomly to have them available during a test.
The terrifying thing is that we’re not talking about a bunch of clueless people without any education. We’re talking about bright individuals who will shape the future of their nation.
And yet, almost all of them rely on something I call a let’s-hope-it-sticks strategy. It’s nothing more than spitting on a wall and hoping that something will set. But it rarely does, right?
You can read, reread and cram all you want. Most of the knowledge you gather this way will be forgotten by the end of the next week.
Passive learning can be a very effective learning tool provided that you’re already at an advanced level (especially a B2 level and higher). It can also be relatively useful if, for one reason or another, you are already familiar with a language you want to master (e.g. because it’s a part of the same language family). However, passive learning is a terrible toolfor language rookies.
The body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times in order to put it into your long-term memory (i.e. be able to activate it without any conscious effort). Other studies quote numbers between 7-60.
I will let it sink in!
That’s a lot. Of course, the number varies because it all depends on your background knowledge, emotional saliency of words and so on but it’s still a very big number.
Let’s delve into its consequences.
Everything works if you have lots of time
We know that in most languages 5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).
It means that as long as you are stubborn enough, eventually you will get to about a B2 level. It doesn’t matter how crappy your learning method is. As long as you soldier on, you will get to the finish line even if that takes you 10 years.
Because it’s almost guaranteed that you will amass a sufficient number of repetitions (7-60) of the words which occur in a language with a frequency of 98%! But what if you want to really master a language. Or two. Do you believe that you will be able to pull that number of repetitions for the words which occur with a frequency of about 2%? Of course not.
Think of any rare word from your native tongue like “cream puff” or “head physician”. How often do you hear them in your daily life? Not that often, right? And that’s the problem. C1-C2 levels consist of rare words like these. That’s why your chances of getting there if your default learning style is passive are very thin. Unless you have 20 years of spare time and are willing to spend most of your waking hours surrounding yourself with a language.
Real vocabulary gains from reading and listening at the early stages of language learning
Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998) specifically looked at the number of words acquired from a simplified version of a novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, which had 21000 running words. The novel was read in class during six class periods. It was found that the average vocabulary pick-up was five words.
Lahav (1996) carried out a study of vocabulary learning from simplified readers. She tested students who read 4 readers, each one of about 20 000 words, and found an average learning rate of 3–4 words per book.
The above survey indicates that reading is not likely to be the main source of L2 learners’ vocabulary acquisition. If most words were acquired from reading, learners would have to read about as much as native children do – that is, a million words of text a year. This would require reading one or two books per week. If, however, teachers can expect only small quantities of reading, then word-focused activities should be regarded as a way of vocabulary learning.
Vocabulary gains from listening
Vidal explored incidental vocabulary acquisition from L2 listening (2003), and compared gains from listening with reading (2011). These studies analyzed the effect of a large number of variables (e.g. frequency of occurrence, predictability from word form and parts) on learning. Knowledge gains of 36 target words were measured with a modified version of the Vocabulary Knowledge Scale, on which learners could effectively score 0 to 5.
Out of the maximum score of 180, readers scored 40.85 (22.7%) on the immediate post-test and 19.14 (10.6%) on the one-month delayed test. Listeners scored 27.86 (15.5%) immediately after listening and 14.05 (7.8%) one month later. The main finding is that both reading and listening lead to vocabulary knowledge gains, with gains from reading being much larger than from listening. An effect of frequency occurrence (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 occurrences) was found in both modes but this was considerably stronger in reading. More repetitions were needed in listening (5 to 6) than in reading (2 to 3) for it to have a positive effect on learning.
At the risk of repeating myself, I would like to stress one more time that your learning capacity is affected by your background knowledge. If you’re a Frenchman learning Spanish, the aforementioned numbers won’t apply to you.
At the same time, there are just a few studies around which test long-term retention of vocabulary for almost any method. That’s a pity because 3 months is a cut-off point proving that words have truly been stored in your long-term memory. The studies quoted above also share this problem. Retesting the students of the above experiments at a 3-month mark would surely yield much worse, and realistic, results.
Anyway, the point I would like to drive home is that passive learning is an ineffective language acquisition tool for beginners.
A B2 level is achievable to almost anyone as long as you pursue your learning goal with dogged persistence. However, moving past this level requires from you the use of systems that will allow you to focus heavily on rare words which make up about 2-3% of a language since it’s almost impossible to master them just by learning organically (i.e. reading, listening and talking).
If you stick to smart learning methods, you will surely overcome this hurdle.
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go.
Would you like to be able to memorize a whole book? What about those boring declination tables?
Silly question. Who wouldn’t?
One way or the other, you have heard of fantastic memory feats of mnemonists – memorizing decks of cards or thousands of digits. And all this seemingly effortlessly.
Mnemonics have the power to stimulate the imagination. They definitely stimulated mine.
This dream, the dream of being able to memorize anything I want, triggered the chain of events which made me embark on a bumpy journey/
Destination? To discover the actual effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics and master my memory.
Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics In Learning – My First Experience
I still remember the first time when I had to use mnemonics practically. I failed one of my exams, and I had to retake it. The problem was that I didn’t know when. I was convinced that the day would be announced very soon.
The days went by, and I didn’t even touch the coursebook. Somehow the notion of the retake blissfully slipped my mind.
One day I was sitting in the corridor, listening to music and reading a book. Suddenly I heard a muffled voice, “aren’t you preparing for the exam?”. “What exam?” I looked up to see the grinning face of my good friend.
“It’s starting in 2 hours,” he replied. Somehow his grin turned into an evil smirk.
“That’s it,” I thought to myself. “I will fail this exam, and I will fail my studies. I will end up homeless and will have to fight sewer spiders for the food.”
After the first surge of panic passed, I started coming up with possible solutions. I decided that my best chance is to use mnemonics. I didn’t have much experience in using them. Sure, I had read two books up to that point but had almost no exposure to back up the theory.
Desperate times call for drastic measures. I rolled up my sleeves and started learning. A bit over three h later, I left the professor’s office. I passed. I don’t know how, but I passed. Thus my obsession with mnemonics was born. My imagination was running wild. Where are the boundaries?
Is it possible for each one of us to become a genius if we just learn to utilize mnemonic strategies? I needed many years to learn the bitter truth. No. Mnemonics will not make you a genius and allow you to absorb tons of information effortlessly.
“So are they useful at all?” you might ask. And what can they be used for?
I will get back to this in a moment.
What Are Mnemonics?
Before we move on, it’s good to explain what mnemonics are quickly. In short, mnemonics are devices to aid our overburdened memory.
They are used to facilitate efficient encoding by associating new information with the knowledge which is already stored in your long-term memory (Johnson & Weber, 2006 as cited in Gibson, 2009).
Probably the most common mnemonic device the so-called keyword method coined by Atkinson (1975). It is used to make meaningful auditory and imagery links to remember a word.
For example, if you want to remember that “to buy” in Spanish is “comprar,” you might create a vivid picture of a man who compares prices of products before the purchase. Not that complicated, right?
Let’s see now what science has to say about mnemonics.
Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Learning – an Overview of the Scientific Literature
There is a large body of research about mnemonics. However, probably the most interesting study up-to-date was led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky and released in April 2013 by the Association for Psychological Science.
In a comprehensive report, the group of authors carefully examined ten learning tactics and rated them from high to low utility based on the evidence they’ve gathered.
If you are expecting mnemonics to be among the most useful strategies, don’t hold your breath. They didn’t even come close to the top of the list.
” According to the authors, some commonly used techniques, such as underlining, rereading material, and using mnemonic devices, were found to be of surprisingly low utility.“
Of surprisingly low utility?! If you look at memory feats performed by mnemonics, you might conclude that scientists must be taking crazy pills.
For example, here is a video of Dr. Yip Swee Chooi.
What’s so special about him?
He learned a 1774-page Chinese-English dictionary by heart (in case you wonder – it took him almost six months to do it).
Another great example is Simon Reinhard, who memorized a deck of cards in 20.438 seconds.
Clearly, people with untrained memory would not be able to come close to these results. Still, the report says clearly – mnemonics might not be the best use of your time.
Of course, I must be perfectly honest with you. There are a lot of studies which show that using mnemonics might be very beneficial for (among others):
“A type of reactivity in which individuals modify or improve an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed“
It’s tough to generalize such results to other settings
What’s more, so-called low ecological validity comes into play. The laboratory is clearly an artificial situation. People are directed by an ‘experimenter’ in a psychological experiment. They are removed from their natural social settings and asked to memorize different sets of data.
This is a very unusual experience that raises the question – how do this novel experience and settings really affect their behavior and memory?
Still, lab research is better than no research at all.
d) Time horizon
Most studies are conducted over a relatively short period. It’s rarely spread over more than 3-4 weeks. As you will soon read, this is why most studies prove the effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics.
e) Nature of the tasks
How would you feel about memorizing and recalling a list of unconnected words or digits? Seriously, be honest. How would you rate your willingness on the scale from “nope” to “never”?
The detachment of such tasks from everyday life and their general lack of usefulness have led some researchers to question whether their findings can be generalized to real life.
Are mnemonics useless?
Am I saying that mnemonics are useless then? Not at all. They can be insanely useful.
But you must understand what they are and what they aren’t. I quoted the excerpt from John Dunlosky’s report for two reasons:
1) It tested different learning strategies against one another.
2) More importantly, it examined the effects of those strategies in LONG-TERM learning.
And this is what mnemonics are not.
They are not a suitable tool for long-term learning.
At least not in the form they are usually presented.
If you are not pressed for time, you can get by without any problems without using mnemonics.
They are also not a panacea for all your memory problems. Itis just another tool in your learning arsenal.
If you have ever read anything by any author, who promotes/sells anything mnemonics-related, you might find it hard to believe. Don’t worry. I also felt disillusioned. And I had good reasons.
Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Learning – My Experiments
Since that pivotal moment of my life, my obsession with mnemonics had been growing in strength with each passing day. There was no stopping me. I was the mnemonics preacher. Everybody HAD to know about how mnemonics are great,
After I won the local memory championship, it only got worse. I experimented with the ardor of meth-addicted junkie. I created memory palaces holding thousands of words. I tried to learn entire books by heart just to test the effectiveness of mnemonics. I have memorized tables, law regulations, and checked my recall at various intervals.
he effect was always the same — high recall rate at the beginning of my experiments. The feeling of overwhelming joy always accompanied these early results. But it never lasted long.
My recall rate was still good after up to 2-4 weeks after creating mnemonic images and reviewing them, although I could notice some deterioration of my memories.
Inevitable drop in recall rate always came after more than four weeks.
And this is precisely why most scientific studies seemingly prove the effectiveness of mnemonics. They test them in labs in short periods.
Once again, I would like to stress that mnemonics can be immensely useful. Useful both for recalling random information as well as helping you achieve high levels of expert performance. Just not for long-term learning.
Read on, and I will show how they can be utilized best. But first, to have a full picture of what you’re dealing with, take a look at the limitations of mnemonics.
Limitations And Disadvantages Of Mnemonics
Gruneberg (1998) argues that the keyword method, in general, is inferior to rote learning in the longer-term retention of vocabulary.
“Campos and Gonzalez (2003) attribute ineffectiveness of the keyword method to participants ‘lack of training. They investigated in four experiments the effectiveness of the mnemonic keyword method using two groups of adults and adolescents. In all the experiments, the rote method was more effective than the keyword method for both adolescents and adults.”
Some people (especially adults) are reluctant to create vivid images and crazy stories.
Some people (especially adults) are unable and/or unwilling to resign from using previously learned strategies.
Using mnemonic devices for memorizing words is time-consuming (especially at the beginning).
Using mnemonics requires more effort (especially at the beginning) than rote-learning.
Mnemonics don’t guarantee understanding.
Learning with mnemonics lacks context.
So if mnemonics are not an excellent way for long-term learning, what are they good for?
How Mnemonics Affect Your Short-Term Memory
Short-term memory has three key aspects:
1. limited capacity (only about 7+-2 items can be stored at a time or 3-4 chunks)
2. limited duration (storage is very fragile, and information can be lost with distraction or passage of time)
3. encoding (primarily acoustic, even translating visual information into sounds).
And here is where the true power of mnemonics lies.
It might not seem like a big deal, but it has tremendous implications for your (language) learning.
Because short-term memory is a necessary step toward the next stage of retention – long-term memory, you can treat short-term memory as a bottleneck of your learning. After all, if you can’t commit some information, even just for a few seconds, to your memory, how are you supposed to learn?
Some researchers claim that working-memory capacity reflects the efficiency of executive functions. In other words, the ability to maintain and manipulate information in the face of distractions and other irrelevant information. ( Engle, R. W., September 1999).
That’s why the best way to think about mnemonics is to treat them as a relatively long-lived external memory with huge capacity.
I will get to the most effective use of mnemonics in a second. First, I want to demonstrate something. Let’s take a look at prodigies.
The Short-Term Memory Of Prodigies
Studies on the prodigies who reached professional-level performance in their domain (e.g., art, math, music) by the age of 10 show something very interesting.
When Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach administered an IQ test tonine prominent child prodigies (…) there were a wide range of IQ scores among the eight prodigies (from 108 to 147), and their cognitive profiles were uneven.
It turned out that the key to understanding their rapid learning in their domain was not their global intellectual functioning.
Most strikingly, every single prodigy in their sample scored off the charts (better than 99 percent of the general population) in working memory — the ability to simultaneously store incoming information while processing other information.
So how can you approach these levels of intellectual functioning?
Key Information Needed to Understand How To use Mnemonics Effectively
2) Calling information to mind strengthens it and helps in future retrieval
3) Understanding the difference between procedural and declarative knowledge.
According to Cohen and Squire (1980):
Procedural knowledge involves “knowing how” to do things. It includes skills, such as “knowing how” to play the piano, ride a bike; tie your shoes and other motor skills. It does not involve conscious thought (i.e. it’s unconscious – automatic). For example, we brush our teeth with little or no awareness of the skills involved.
Declarative knowledge involves “knowing that”. Knowing names of plants , dates, formulas – it’s all part of your declarative knowledge. Recalling information from declarative memory involves, so called, effortfull recall – i.e. information has to be consciously brought to mind and “declared”.
Knowing these things can help us stew perfect learning mix:
1) Gather information
It doesn’t matter whether you want to learn a language or how to master persuasion strategies. Gather the knowledge needed to achieve your goal.
2) Memorize it with mnemonics
As I have written before, mnemonics can be treated as an extension of your short-term memory. Place as much information as you can on this external “hard-drive.”
3) Start practicing right away
You know the theory of how to play the piano or how to program. It’s high time you started putting your knowledge into practice. Try to use as many pieces of information from your memory as you can.
Because every time you bring one of them to your mind, the magic happens. You start creating and strengthening neural networks responsible for the given action.
Repeat this action a sufficient number of times, and you will automate it. From that moment on, you will be able to perform it subconsciously and with minimal effort.
Let’s see how you can use it in language learning.
Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Language Learning
Since we have established that mnemonics can be treated as your external memory, take a look at other practical applications of mnemonics!
(Other) Practical Applications Of Mnemonics
Mnemonics are useful whenever you need to memorize a lot of information on the fly and remember them for at least a couple of hours.
That’s why you can use them (among others):
During parties and meetings to memorize names and information about other participants
during last-minute panic before the exam or company presentation to make sure that the data stays in your memory!
to impress your wife and show her that “you don’t need no damn shopping lists” to remember what you should buy
to memorize random information which emerges during conversations
And so on. I think you got it!
Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics – Summary
Mnemonics have to be one of the most misunderstood learning tools of all time. They are usually sold as the ultimate solution for all kinds of learning problems, which is far from the truth. As you can see, effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics can be amazing but only provided that you understand precisely what they do. And what they do is “inflate” your short-term memory for some time.
Manage to review the knowledge you acquired with mnemonics by performing some actions specific to that knowledge, .and you can rest assured that your progress will know no boundaries. You will become that “Robo-weirdo.”
And this is what I sincerely wish you.
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. Memorize, among others, what working memory is, what are limitations of mnemonics, and much more!
What is better for learning new words – writing or speaking?. It is one of the questions that come up frequently in different language-related discussions.
I have seen many different answers to this question. Some were quite right, some plain wrong. That’s why I decided to show you a memory-based/science-based answer to this question.
Let’s dive right in!
Writing or Speaking – Why Both Are Great
I don’t want to be this terrible host who welcomes you with a creepy toothless smile and spits on your back as you walk in. I want you to feel comfy and cozy! That’s why I would like to begin on a positive note – both writing and speaking are great learning methods.
There are many reasons for that, but let’s start with the three, which can be deemed as the most important.
1) The Production effect
The “production effect” was initially reported by Hopkins and Edwards in 1972. Unfortunately, for many, many years, it has escaped the attention of the scientific world.
The production effect indicates the improved recall for any information which is produced actively compared to the one which is just heard or read silently.
2) Deep processing (aka The levels-of-processing effect)
This phenomenon was identified by Fergus I. M. Craik and Robert S. Lockhart in 1972,
The levels-of-processing effect suggests that information is better recalled when it has been actively and effortfully processed.
In other words, deeper levels of analysis produce more elaborate, longer-lasting, and stronger memory traces than shallow levels of analysis. Depth of processing falls on a shallow to deep continuum. Shallow processing (e.g., processing based on phonemic and orthographic components) leads to a fragile memory trace that is susceptible to rapid decay. Conversely, deep processing (e.g., semantic processing) results in a more durable memory trace. – Source.
In the world of language learning, creating sentences is one of the most meaningful ways of achieving deep processing of words. That’s one of many reasons why I am 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 vital role – it’s the filter of information that is let into the conscious mind
Every second of every day, it tirelessly scours through the tons of information provided by your sensory organs to choose the relevant one. Without the RAS, you would be continuously flooded with excessive amounts of information, which would virtually overload your brain and impede thinking.
Fortunately, that doesn’t happen as the reticular activating system helps your brain capture what matters most to you and what is relevant to you based on your values, needs, interests, and goals.
As you can see, both speaking and writing help put the words you use at the forefront of your mind.
Additional Benefit of Writing in Language Learning
The previously mentioned benefits are undoubtedly great. However, let’s dive into some other advantages which are more specific to writing.
Writing is a great learning method for advanced students.
Many people, once they move past the B1 level, tend to get stuck at the so-called intermediate plateaus. They use the same old grammar constructions, the same trite expressions, and speech patterns.
It’s tough to get out of this rut unless
a) you consume the staggering amount of input
b) start making an 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 in Language Learning
Some research suggests that writing seems to tickle the RAS, and memory centers in your brain a tad harder than speaking. Here are results of one of such studies
“The results show that on the immediate post-test, the Sentence-writing group performed the best, followed by Gap-fill, Comprehension-only, and Control. On the delayed post-test, the Sentence writing and Gap-fill groups equally outperformed the two other groups.” –ScienceDaily.
However, as you will soon discover, it’s only a half-truth.
As a side note, experiments that I have conducted regarding the efficiency of writing vs. speaking show almost no difference between those two.
“When participants were given an opportunity to study with their notes before the final assessment, once again those who took longhand notes outperformed laptop participants. Because longhand notes contain students’ own words and handwriting, they may serve as more effective memory cues by recreating the context (e.g., thought processes, emotions, conclusions) as well as content (e.g., individual facts) from the original learning session.”
On the surface, it might seem true. After all, the cognitive and physical effort needed to write manually is bigger than the one required for typing.
Most of these studies, however, measure the effectiveness of writing/typing under pressure – the said study took place during lectures. It doesn’t have much to do with the organized process of composing an e-mail or an essay at home.
The extra time you have for deliberation and a coherent formulation of your thoughts should equalize (more or less) any potential difference between writing manually and typing.
That’s why you shouldn’t feel pressure to choose just one of them to reap memory benefits. Choose the one you feel most comfortable with.
Disadvantages of Writing in Language Learning
As with every method, there are some potential problems you might run into.
1) Not Everyone Needs to Write
I would dare say that the vast majority of the population of almost any country in the world doesn’t write that much.
Why would they?
If your job is not strictly connected with this skill, you might not find it useful.
2) You Need to Learn a New Writing System
If learning a new language system takes you half the time you needed to speak and understand your target language, it’s understandable that you might be reluctant to do so.
Writing – Recommendations for Language Learners
Best suited for:
advanced learners (B1-C2) level
anyone who likes (or needs) to write
Other benefits of speaking
1) Speaking is repetitive
When you write, the fruits of your labor are limited only by your imagination. You can contemplate different word combinations, weave brilliant thoughts.
However, when you speak, you have to be quick. You have to rely mostly on the automated speech patterns and words which are already activated well in your brain.
That’s why most of the things we say every day, even in our native tongue, are very far from being full of imagination. The point isn’t to unleash your inner Shakespeare but to get the point across.
For the same reason, sentences produced by native speakers are also simpler!
2) Speaking is more natural than writing
The world in which people would use the sophisticated language, which previously could be only found in books, would be a hilarious place!
“Alas, the chains of palpitating agony fell on my little toe as I rammed it into the mighty oakiness of a cupboard!”.
Compared with, “I f*** hit my toe against a cupboard.”
The truth is that we usually speak in a much less formal, less structured way. We do not always use full sentences and correct grammar. The vocabulary that we use is more familiar and may include slang. We usually speak spontaneously, without preparation, so we have to make up what we say as we go.
That’s why if your goal is being able to communicate, speaking should be your default language learning strategy, at least until you get to a B2 level.
Memory Benefits of Speaking in Language Learning
1) It involves many sensory channels (i.e. it’s great for your memory)
Speaking is a vibrant, sensory experience. It activates almost all sensory organs and thus creates more stable memories.
In one of the studies about the production effect, we can read that:
Many varieties of production can enhance memory. There is a production advantage for handwriting, for typing, and even for spelling, although none of these is as large as for speaking (Forrin, MacLeod, & Ozubko, 2012).
So what about some studies which say that writing is better for our memory than speaking? Well, they might be some truth in it:
As you can see, most of the benefits of writing usually disappear upon finishing this activity.
2) It is more time-efficient than writing
As I have mentioned earlier, even though some research suggests that writing gives your memory some boost, this fact loses its importance once we factor in how much output we can produce with writing compared with speaking.
Here are the results of one of the studies which considered this seemingly irrelevant fact.
The written group produced almost 75% less language than the spoken group did in the time available. This complements previous research discussed in section 3.6 which found more opportunities for language learning in the spoken mode compared to the written mode (e.g., Brown, Sagers, & Laporte, 1999).
Disadvantages of speaking in language learning
1) It Requires a Relatively Good Activation of Your Target Language
Even though I am a big proponent of learning a language via speaking, there is just one small hiccup. If you want to chat with foreigners, the command of your target language should already be good.
If you don’t receive feedback regularly, consider yourself at the high risk of consolidating dozens of small and big language mistakes. You don’t need teachers or tutors for that. However, you do need to create feedback loops.
Speaking – Recommendations for Language Learners
1) Best suited for
anyone who learns to communicate
2) Relatively-well suited for:
anyone who learns to consume media in his target language
Even if you only learn a language to watch media in your target language, you should still spend some time learning how to speak. It will help you to understand language much quicker due to your improved mastery of grammar and vocabulary and their interrelations, which will, in turn, increase your language comprehension.
It is one of the cases where you get two for the price of one.
Writing or Speaking – The winner is …
All in all, my opinion is that for most people out there, speaking is the superior learning method as it allows you to practice what probably matters to you the most – being able to communicate.
What’s more, writing offers almost no benefits memory-wise compare to speaking.
Having that said, you should remember that the ultimate answer might be more complicated for you. Some learn a language to write, some to watch movies and some to talk. Choose your goal and choose your preferred learning method accordingly.
Question for you:
What is your preferred way of using a language – speaking or writing? And why?
Never enough time. There is never enough time to get in shape or learn a language. Or even when there is time, you don’t seem to make much of the progress.
It doesn’t seem normal.
And it isn’t. There is a good chance you have contracted something I call “fluffoholism“. It’s a terrible ailment.
Fluffoholicsare individuals who are very busy doing silly and insignificant activities. As a result, they either feel inadequate for not making progress or make some progress but can’t find time for anything else in their lives.
Of course, the truth is that we are all fluffoholicsto some degree. The person who would concentrate only on relevant tasks would seem like an absolute genius to us mere mortals.
Let’s get it over with. My name is Bartosz, and I’m a recovering fluffoholic. This is what I have learned.
Work Hard and Smart – 3 Categories Of Activities
I like to categorize activities in the following way:
1) Low-intensity activities
It is a counterpart of lying in a cozy bed under a wool blanket with a mug of hot chocolate while your spouse scratches your head.
These are the tasks we tend to do the most. The “feel good” activities — the fluff which masks the real work. Usually, they have very little to do with making any progress.
Many industries prosper around these activities. It’s the apparent honey pot for the naive and lazy.
“Learn how to pick up a girl without washing yourself”
“Learn in your sleep”
“Lose weight by eating Tacos and marshmallows”.
Duolingo – the Lazy Way to Learn Languages
In the world of language learning, it’s Duolingo. I get a lot of messages like this: “I have been using Duolingo for x months, and I completed all the levels, but when I talk to native speakers, they don’t seem to understand me. Oh, also, when I read, I don’t understand most of the things.”
Sure, it’s motivating. And it’s a pleasant past-time to have. But it isn’t nearly as effective as a lot of other activities. Like speaking, for instance. Other, almost evergreen and legendary language learning methods which allow an individual to achieve fluency include:
“Learning by listening”
“Learning by playing computer games”
“Learning by watching TV”
How to tell if I am doing low-intensity activities?
Typically, you can do them for hours without any particular signs of fatigue. That’s all you need to know. If you feel like “that was fun,” it’s not the real work. It also means that you spend 5-10 x more time than people who do activities from the third category and get comparable results.
2) Moderate-intensity activities
It is a counterpart of getting out of bed and sitting down at the desk.
These activities require some energy from you, but they are not that tiring. It’s running 5 km when you already know that you can run ten if you want to. You still need to put your shoes on. You still need to go out and sweat. But in the end, the overall progress is not so significant.
In the world of language learning, it’s a B2 level. You can talk and express yourself relatively fluently.
You can read most of the articles you want. So you do. And you note down some words. But not too many because you’re already quite good.
How to tell if I am doing moderate-intensity activities?
Usually, you feel that you have to push yourself a bit to start. But once you do, it’s not that bad. Signs of fatigue tend to appear after 1-2 hours.
3) High-Intensity Activities (i.e., the Real Work.)
It is a counterpart of being mauled by a bear and teabagged by the seven muses at the same time.
It’s when you’d rather have a colonoscopy instead of carrying on with what you’re doing right now. The absolute opposite of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” approach. It’s the “there is always something broken, and I’ll find it” philosophy. It feels terrible. But it delivers incredible results.
How to tell if I am doing high-intensity activities?
After you finish learning, you’re sobbing softly and want somebody to hug you. And you feel damn proud. I like to think that it is our small Everest which we should climb daily.
It’s difficult to work hard and smart
I know that I should write every day to publish articles regularly. But I fail. Because they are never good enough, they are never inspiring enough.
I have read somewhere that the average time for writing an article is about 5 hours. It depresses me. It makes me feel like a failure. And I know I should come up with ideas daily. About three years ago, I read on the blog of James Altucher about the concept of becoming the idea machine.
The concept is simple – if you try to come up with ten ideas per day, in 6 months, your life should change significantly. Three years down the road, I’m still struggling to come up with ten ideas once every 3-4 days.
It’s disheartening, and it makes me feel like crap. But now and then, I manage to come up with great ideas. And my face lightens up when I send them to others. And I’m pretty sure their faces light up as well as these ideas change their lives. And that’s what it’s all about.
Remember – If you do not push, you are not practicing.
High-intensity Activities In Language Learning
One of the notoriously difficult activities in language learning is speaking.
On an A1-A2 level, stringing more than a few words feels like a crucifixion.
On a B1-B2 level, the challenge is to learn enough words (while improving your grammar) to be able to express yourself quite fluently.
On a C1-C2 level, the challenge is to continually substitute the words you already know with dozens of other synonyms. It’s where you have to start saying “atrocity” instead of “that ugly thing,” or “marvelous” instead of “great.” (see The Word Substitution Technique)
It’s damn easy to play with Duolingo or Memrise for 1 hour. It’s much harder to open your mouth and start saying something.
Exemplary Results of Regular Conversation with Yourself
I like to highlight my students as an example. If they want to learn with me, they have to accept one condition – they have to bet with me. Each day, from Monday to Friday, I have to get a 10-minute recording of them talking to themselves.
It’s only 10 minutes. And yet, after three weeks, their level changes drastically. It’s almost unbelievable. The side effect is that they probably hate me, but, oh well – it works!
How to Fix Your Learning Plan to Work Hard and Smart
It’s a deceptively simple recipe. But it’s hard to implement.
1. Define High-Intensity Activities in Your Domain
You can do it on your own or ask someone much better than you in a given domain. But the truth is that very often you already know what the problem is and what you should be doing.
It’s a task which you are always postponing. It’s a task which you can’t do for more than a few minutes without having to distract yourself with a mobile phone or other distractors.
2. Start Doing Them at the Cost of Other (i.e., Low- and Medium-Intensity) Activities
Start small. You don’t have to do it for more than 20 minutes daily. Break this time into smaller chunks if you have to. With time, as you toughen up, the overall time spent on practice should be extended.
Remember – High-Intensity Activities Change with Time
You have to be aware that high-intensity activities change with time. They morph into medium- or low-intensity activities. What once was a nightmare can become a breeze with enough time. You should keep it in mind and adjust your learning strategies as you progress.
How to Work Hard and Smart – Summary
Being able to work hard and smart is not about perfectionism or turning into a workaholic. It’s about using whatever time you have to in the most efficient way. The critical step is identifying high-intensity activities in your target domain and executing them daily with relentless consistency.
It won’t be pleasant, but the results will speak for themselves. After all, if you decide to spend time to do something, make it count.
An added benefit is that once you learn how to work hard and smart, this skill that will benefit you all your life.
It’s time for part two of my miniseries on optimizing your learning! If you haven’t read the first part – click here. This time I will show you how to optimize your repetitions.
People like to see effective language learning, or any learning for that matter, as something mysterious. The opposite is true. There are just a couple of essential principles which you should follow if you want to become a quick learner.
Don’t get me wrong – effective learning gets more complicated; the faster you want to learn. And the more long-lasting memories you want to create.
Still, these principles can be applied by anyone, regardless of his sex, or age because the very little known truth is that we all learn, more or less, the same.
Forget about learning styles – they do not exist. I know. It sounds shocking. And it is probably even more surprising than you can imagine – one study showed that 93% of British teachersbelieve it to be exact!
But you and I, my friend, are not glittery and special snow-flakes. There are rules. And they are not to be treated lightly.
Let’s dig in.
How To Maximize Effectiveness Of Your Learning
Below you can find my list of the essential rules affecting your language learning progress. It’s far from being complete.
There are other rules and limitations, but the ones below are one of the easiest ones to implement.
To maximize your learning, you should make sure that:
1) Focus on active learning
If you only concentrate on reading and listening, you won’t get far. Your brain is terrible at memorizing things that 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 the construction of its mental representation in memory
2) Storage – is the retention of encoded information in the short-term or long-term memory
3) Recall – is the retrieval of stored information from memory
As you can see, 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 it. You should always, ALWAYS, do your best to manipulate the data 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 do not try to encode such information in any way! If the human brain were 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 that:
a) Occurs frequently in different contexts
b) We process (encode) –in the domain of language learning, the simplest form of processing a given piece of information is creating a sentence with it
c) Is used actively
2) Optimize Your Repetitions
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 the decline of memory retention in time, or if you look at it from a different perspective, it demonstrates the critical moments when the repetition of the given information should occur.
In theory, it takes about five optimized repetitions to transfer a word into long-term memory. But come on! Learning would be damn easy if this rule would be true for most of the people!
There are 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!
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?
What Happens If You Don’t Optimize Your Repetitions with SRS
Every learner has to face the following problems 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 that 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.
It works well at first — you no longer forget 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.
Reviewing Algorithm Is the Foundation of Learning
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.
Many 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 am teaching 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.
At the same time, a Ph.D. 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 that surprising. The technology has been topping the most celebrated human minds for years now. Different AI programs have beaten top players at games like: chess, scrabble and quite recently Go.
Last year, deep learning machines beat humans in the IQ Test. It might seem scary. But only if we treat such a phenomenon as a threat. But why not use the computational powers of a computer to our advantage?
It would be ridiculous to wrestle with Terminator. It’s just as absurd 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 a 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 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 that shouldn’t use SRS programs. The risk of letting even one word slip your mind is too high.
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 languages to master them, I would go batshit crazy a long time ago. 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 know about 20 thousand words. Of course, you should know at least 50-60% of 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 equivalent to having an additional master’s degree. And you know damn well how much time it takes to accumulate this kind of knowledge! It is not time-efficient to acquire this knowledge without trying to optimize your repetitions.
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 they leave the office. Then maybe, just maybe, you can do without SRS programs.
Why You Should Optimize Your Repetitions – Summary
Trying to hold a vast body of knowledge in your head is challenging, yet entirely possible. The first step in the right direction is understanding that you have to optimize your repetitions. At least if you want to get to the finish line asap.
That’s why using Spaced Repetition Software like ANKI is undoubtedly a must for any serious language learners.
Not everyone is equal in the kingdom of languages. There is one group that is mercilessly oppressed — one group which suffers from a crippling disease called SOCIAL ANXIETY.
It’s a terrible, terrible malady. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to keep your fears and anxiety in a padded cell of your brain. They always scrape their way out to feed your soul with poison. Even if only through the cracks.
But does it mean that you can’t learn a language because of it? Hell no!
I used to suffer from anxiety-induced panic attacks in the past. I sat in my room for days with curtains closed until I ran out of food. Those days are, luckily, long gone. Although anxiety still looms the dark corners of my mind.
So if you are also a victim of this condition – don’t worry. Here is the list of six ideas that you can use to learn to speak a foreign language with social anxiety.
How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety
1) Don’t find a teacher, find a friend
There is a good chance that you don’t want to talk to others because you don’t know them.
You don’t feel comfortable baring your soul in front of them. Every cell in your brain sends you warning signals – watch out; they are out to get you.
But you don’t feel this way around friends or people you trust, do you?
That’s why this is probably the best way to approach language learning for those anxiety stricken. You won’t be able to get any panic attacks or feel anxious with a friend by your side.
Discussing anything becomes much easier when you grow attached to another person. You don’t even have to suffer from anxiety to be able to benefit from such a relationship.
Having such contact with another person drastically changes the way you experience lessons. You don’t sit in front of a stranger who doesn’t give a shit about your day or well-being. You sit in front of someone who cares. Such a bond makes all the conversations much more meaningful and memorable, as well.
That’s why you should pay close attention to a person who will become your language partner or your teacher.
Look for similarities. Try a lesson to make sure that this person is trustworthy. And, what’s most important, don’t be a weirdo. “Hi, my name is Bartosz. Do you wanna be my friend?”. Ugh.
2) Talk To Yourself
What 99% of people seem to miss is that you don’t necessarily need countless hours of talking with others to be able to communicate freely in your target language.
Because almost all hard work is done in solitude. Learning vocabulary, grammar, listening. All that you can do on your own.
Of course, it’s great to have some private lessons from time to time to make sure that you are on the right track. But other than that – you will be fine on your own. You can create your feedback loops to make sure that you are speaking correctly.
Talking doesn’t necessarily mean discussing philosophical treatises face-to-face. It’s perfectly fine to stick to written communication. In the era of the internet, you are just a few clicks away from millions of potential language partners.
Here is a list of websites where you can find some language exchange partners:
We might be the pinnacle of evolution, but in some regards, we are no different from your average gopher or a sloth. You can easily get conditioned to react to specific circumstances in a given way.
Why? Habituation. That’s why.
Habituation is a form of learning in which an organism decreases or ceases to respond to a stimulus after repeated presentations. Essentially, the organism learns to stop responding to a stimulus which is no longer biologically relevant. For example, organisms may habituate to repeated sudden loud noises when they learn these have no consequences.
Habituation usually refers to a reduction in innate behaviours, rather than behaviours developed during conditioning in which the process is termed “extinction”. A progressive decline of a behavior in a habituation procedure may also reflect nonspecific effects such as fatigue, which must be ruled out when the interest is in habituation as a learning process. – Wikipedia
c) LOW ANXIETY LEVELS (face-to-face conversations)
go to a nearby language café and talk with others
find the nearest language meeting on MeetUp.com and go there
Any start is a good start as long as you start.
5) Reframe your thoughts
There is a good chance that you have heard about reframing your thoughts. The basic premise is very simple.
Every time you catch yourself being anxious about some situation, you should look at it from a different perspective.
Instead of saying, “Gosh, she sure wouldn’t like to talk with me,” you can change it to, “I bet she is bored right now and would love to have a nice chat with me.”
I know. It sounds corny.
The first time I heard this piece of advice, I felt as if a ragged hobo tried to jam a lump of guano in my hand, saying, “Just pat it into your face, and you will gain superpowers.”
Little did I know that this advice is as brilliant as it is simple. Much water passed under the bridge before I finally started applying it.
But why does it work? Because such is the nature of memories. They are not set in stone and perennial.
Research conducted by Daniela Schiller, of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and her former colleagues from New York University, shows us something truly amazing.
Schiller says that “memories are malleable constructs that are reconstructed with each recall. We all recognize that our memories are like Swiss cheese; what we now know is that they are more like processed cheese.
What we remember changes each time we recall the event. The slightly changed memory is now embedded as “real,” only to be reconstructed with the next recall. – Source
So what does it all mean?
It means that adding new information to your memories or recalling them in a slightly different context might alter them.
How much? Enough for you to recalibrate how you perceive the world around you! It’s up to you how much you want to reshape your perception of reality.
6) Decide whether you really need to speak a language
It seems like a strange statement. But the truth is that not everyone needs to learn how to speak a language.
Before you dive into the language learning process, be sure that it’s something you want. You shouldn’t feel pressured into doing so just because others do. You don’t want to spend hundreds of extra hours on something you are not going to use.
Remember that every language, even the tiniest of them all, is a skeleton key to the vastness of materials – books, movies, anecdotes, etc. It’s fine to learn a language to be able to access them all.
Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety – Your Strategies
Here is a quick summary of all the strategies mentioned above.
Don’t find a teacher, find a friend
Talk To Yourself
Write instead of talking
Reframe your thoughts
Decide whether you really need to speak a language
How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety – Summary
Overcoming your language learning anxiety can be hard, but it is certainly doable. When in doubt, always keep in mind that our reality is negotiable to a large degree – if you believe you can change, it is possible.
What’s more, you shouldn’t forget that the real work is always done in solitude. Teachers or language partners might show you what to concentrate on, but it’s up to you to put this knowledge into practice.
You don’t have to limit yourself to activating your vocabulary only through speaking. Writing is also a very desirable option.
Before I explain how to improve listening skills in a foreign language, I have one thing to confess.
You wouldn’t believe how long I’ve ignored this skill! I was convinced that mastering grammarand vocabulary is, more or less, enough to have a decent conversation with foreigners. And that these competencies will take care of the rest.
Boy, oh boy, was I wrong! Of course, like all the theories, it all seemed rosy until it got confronted with reality.
How to Improve Listening Skills in a Foreign Language
My “Brilliant” Theory
Years ago, I was obsessing about German. I rolled up my sleeves, got down to work, learned about 8000 words, and got a pretty good grasp of grammar. I could say almost anything I wanted without being too vague. It felt great!
Not so long afterward, I got a chance to visit France. I met an elderly German couple there. “That’s my chance to socialize! That’s my chance to SHINE!”, a naive thought crossed my mind. I approached them and asked them some questions. You know, just an ordinary small-talk. What happened just a moment later left nasty scars on my linguistic self-esteem.
What came out of their mouths was absolute nonsense. They could have, as well, farted with their armpits. My face went red as I asked them, time and time again, to repeat what they had just said. Just one more time. But slower. DAMN YOU! Slower and clearer, I said! And there I stood with glassy eyes, staring at the debris of what was once my theory.
Listening as a Key Language Competence
I guess what I am trying to say is that listening is critical. Since the failure mentioned above, I’ve met many people who are fully functional in the language of their choice just because they understand what they hear.
It’s not that surprising when you think about it. EVERY complex skill consists of several smaller elements. These elements, in turn, are composed of even tinier parts.
Roughly said, communication is nothing more than being able to understand what you hear and being able to express yourself. But as I so painfully learned, listening is much more critical. That’s what makes any social interaction possible.
Since then, I established listening and speaking as a core of my language skills. These skills require an immediate response.
Listening provides you with more sensory channels, such as emotions, hearing visual stimuli (when you listen and watch something). That’s why it’s much easier for you to remember real-life conversations than excerpts from articles.
The final and essential reason to opt for listening is that nobody cares if you read or write slowly. While doing these things, you can typically take your time to double-check anything your heart desires.
“Smith is such a slow reader. I think I’ll fire him.”. Yep, I also have never heard of such a situation. However, it is essential to note that writing and reading are interconnected with speaking and listening. And the progress in any of these areas influences one another.
Improve Listening Skills – Find the Right Resources
Do you have to go through the preparation before the listening practice? Of course not. But don’t be too surprised if you end up getting frustrated quickly or bitterly realize that your progress is excruciatingly slow.
So, where should you start?
FIND THE RIGHT RESOURCES
You might wonder what “right resources” means. The answer is – it depends.
Beginners / Intermediate Learners
If you fall into this category, you should find some simplified materials where the speech is slower, clearer, and ideally – transcribed.
If you’re at least on a B2 level, it means that the only right solution for you is to lay your hands on original programs, talk shows, movies, etc. in your target language.
GET YOUR RESOURCES HANDY
Do you know this annoying feeling when you promise yourself something, and then you can’t seem to force yourself to follow through?
Why is that?
Well, the research (and experience) has it that if you need to spend more than 20 seconds to start doing something, there is a big chance that you’ll fail. The “activation time” should be as short as possible. Choose one or two programs to listen to and make sure that they are just a click away.
Come to terms with the fact that you are not going to understand everything for a long time.
Listen as often as it’s only possible. Listen while doing household chores. Do it when you’re at the gym. Listen when you’re in a car. You get it. LISTEN!
Don’t get annoyed when you don’t understand something. Stress is your archenemy in learning. It’s like with Tibetan throat singing. You won’t be able to wrap your head around it at the beginning. Hmm, I need to work on my comparisons.
And no matter what, don’t give up, you softie! Grin and bear it!
Do not translate into your native tongue. You should be entirely focused on a speaker, not the translation process.
Listen to something you enjoy.
Prepare before listening – quite often it’s possible to check what the news or some program is about. Thanks to this knowledge, you can prepare vocabulary beforehand. If you’re not sure about words that might be used, try to brainstorm them.
Remove distractions – you know why. Interestingly, they’re a welcome addition when you already understand much as they make your listening practice more natural.
Set a goal. You can listen for meaning, for sounds, for tones, for a melody, or stress.
If you find listening incredibly dull, try to gamify your practice – e.g., give yourself 1 point each time when you hear a word starting with P. Or drink one shot of Tequila. Just make sure it’s fun for you!
Build sound recognition. Do you know the most distinctive sounds of your target language? No? Then move to Part 3 of this series. Such knowledge can considerably accelerate your understanding capabilities!
Be aware of how the language changes when it’s spoken. I can’t stress this one enough. If you know how the sounds connect, when they are deleted or inserted, you’ll need much less time to progress!
Look at this example: What are you going to do – Whaddya gonna do?
Being aware of the fact that when a consonant of one word neighbors a vowel of another word, it makes you pronounce these two separate words as one, can help you tremendously with your listening practice.
That’s why you pronounce – “it is” as one word – “itis.”
Another example from English is the transformation of [d] and [y]. When these sounds neighbor each other, they are transformed into [dʒ]
[d] + [y] = [dʒ]
Strategies To Follow During Listening Practice
Throughout the years, I’ve managed to come up with quite many solutions on how I can improve my listening capabilities. Digest them at your own pace, take what you need, and ignore the rest.
Listen for the gist of the conversation. Once you understand it, move on to details
When you watch materials in original, observe mouths of actors/hosts and read their lips.
Try to understand the non-verbal communication of your speaking partner (actors, etc.).
Listen to the melody of the language
Once you get accustomed to the melody of the language, try to separate the ongoing flow of words by (e.g.) pressing your fingers against a table whenever you hear that some word is accented. It’s my favorite trick. Interestingly, sometimes, when I listen to French and perform the said activity, I can understand almost every word. Once I stop, my understanding goes down significantly.
Listen to the first and last letter of a word. It’s especially helpful when you’re just starting your listening practice. In this case, this technique will help separate different words. S ..sm…(smile?), smi…(smirk? smite?), smit… (smite?!), smith (I knew it!)
Use logic to conclude what will follow (get in the habit of guessing).
Listen to a recording more than once. At first, to understand the gist and then to get details.
Slow down the speed of recording. For this purpose, use Audacity, AllPlayer, or simply YouTube.
Speed up the speed of the recording to extend your comfort zone and then move back to an actual pace.
Remember that listening is an active process, note down any phrases or words which you find interesting or don’t understand.
Improve Listening Skills – Summary
Improving listening skills is one of the two most important language skills. Unfortunately, it’s is also terribly time-consuming.
The strategies mentioned above will undoubtedly help you to get faster to the finish line, i.e., understand your target language. Still, you need to keep in mind that the secret sauce is patience. Permanently banish any thoughts of giving up. It is the only way to become successful in language learning.
That’s all, folks! Do you know other listening strategies to improve listening skills? I’d love to hear them! Let me know in the comments.
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.
Have you noticed a trend that has been going on for quite many years now? Almost every app out there seems to be using pictures. It’s been touted as a magical cure for your inability to learn.
But is it really the case or maybe it’s another thinly veiled attempt to talk you into buying a premium version of some crappy app?
Unfortunately, it seems to be the latter. Yes, learning with pictures has its benefits, but they are relatively tiny compared to the effort and other potential strategies you might use.
Let’s investigate step by step why it’s so!
Potential benefits of learning with pictures
One picture is worth 1000 words, as the saying goes, and I am pretty sure that every child who ever wandered into their parent’s bedroom in the middle of the night can attest to this. But what’s important to you, as a learner, is how many benefits can learning with pictures offer you. After all, you wouldn’t want to waste too much time adding them to your flashcards if they are useless.
The Picture Superiority Effect (i.e. you remember pictures better)
If we want to discuss advantages of using pictures, we much touch upon the picture superiority effect. This is a go-to argument of many proponents of this approach to learning.
The picture superiority effect refers to the phenomenon in which pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words.
It’s not anything debatable- the effect has been reproduced in a variety of experiments using different methodologies. However, the thing that many experts seem to miss is the following excerpt:
pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words.
It just means we are great at recognizing pictures and images. It has its advantages but it’s not should be confused with being able to effortlessly memorize vocabulary.
Let’s quickly go through some studies to show you how amazingly well we can recognize pictures.
Power of recognition memory (i.e. you’re good at recognizing pictures)
In one of the most widely-cited studies on recognition memory. Standing showed participants an epic 10,000 photographs over the course of 5 days, with 5 seconds’ exposure per image. He then tested their familiarity, essentially as described above.
The participants showed an 83% success rate, suggesting that they had become familiar with about 6,600 images during their ordeal. Other volunteers, trained on a smaller collection of 1,000 images selected for vividness, had a 94% success rate.
But even greater feats have been reported in earlier times. Peter of Ravenna and Francesco Panigarola, Italian memory teachers from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, respectively, were each said to have retained over 100,000 images for use in recalling enormous amounts of information. – Robert Madigan – How Memory Works and How To Make it Work For You
Now that we have established that we’re pretty good at recognizing images, let’s try to see if pairing words with pictures offers more benefits.
Boosting your recall
Another amazing benefit of using pictures as a part of your learning strategy is improving your recall. This process occurs in the following way:
During memory recall, neurons in the hippocampus began to fire strongly. This was also the case during a control condition in which participants only had to remember scene images without the objects. Importantly, however, hippocampal ativity lasted much longer when participants also had to remember the associated object (the raspberry or scorpion image). Additionally, neurons in the entorhinal cortex began to fire in parallel to the hippocampus.
It’s worth pointing out that even the evidence for improved recall is limited and usually concerns abstract words and idiomatic expressions.
Farley et al. (2012) examined if the meaning recall of words improved in the presence of imagery, and found that only the meaning recall of abstract words improved, while that of concrete nouns did not. A possible interpretation of this finding is that, in the case of concrete nouns, most learners can naturally produce visual images in their mind and use them to remember the words.
Therefore, the Vocabulary Learning and Instruction, 6 (1), 21–31. 26 Ishii:
The Impact of Semantic Clustering additional visual images in the learning material do not affect the learning outcome, since they are already present in their mind. However, in the case of abstract nouns, since it is often difficult for learners to create images independently, the presentation of imagery helps them retain the meaning of the words they are trying to learn.
Jennifer Aniston neurons
It seems that this improved recall is caused by creating immediate associations between words and pictures when they are presented together.
The scientists showed patients images of a person in a context e.g. Jennifer Aniston at the Eiffel Tower, Clint Eastwood in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Halle Berry at the Sidney Opera House or Tiger Woods at the White House. They found that the neuron that formerly fired for a single image e.g. Jennifer Aniston or Halle Berry, now also fired for the associated image too i.e. the Eiffel Tower or Sidney Opera House.
“The remarkable result was that the neurons changed their firing properties at the exact moment the subjects formed the new memories – the neuron initially firing to Jennifer Aniston started firing to the Eiffel Tower at the time the subject started remembering this association,” said Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, head of the Centre for Systems Neuroscience at the University of Leicester.” – Researchers Make a “Spectacular Discovery” About Memory Formation and Learning
To sum it up, we know that:
we’re great at remembering pictures
we’re great at recognizing pictures
we’re great at recalling pictures
Let me make it clear – these benefits are undeniable, and they have their use in the learning process. However, the real question is – how effective are pictures at helping you memorize and recall vocabulary!
How effective are pictures at helping you memorize and recall vocabulary
Before I move on to the science, let’s start with my personal experiments. Contrary to a lot of “language experts” online, I rarely believe anything I read unless I see lots of quality scientific support for some specific claims. And believe me, it’s not easy. Most of scientific studies are flawed on so many different levels that they shouldn’t be written at all.
Once I have gathered enough evidence, I start running long-term statistical experiments in order to see what benefits a given approach brings to the table.
What’s the answer in that case? Not that much. Most of the time you will be able to just remember a picture very well. Possibly, if the picture represents accurately a meaning of a given word, you might find it easier to recall the said meaning. Based on my experiments I can say that the overall benefit of using pictures in learning is not big and amounts to less than 5-10%.
Effect of pairing words and pictures on memory
Boers, Lindstromberg, Littlemore, Stengers, and Eyckmans (2008) and Boers, Piquer Píriz, Stengers, and Eyckmans (2009) investigated the effect of pictorial elucidation when learning new idiomatic expressions.
The studies revealed that learners retain the meanings of newly learned idiomatic items better when they are presented with visual images. Though there was no impact for the word forms, such presentations at least improved the learning of word meanings.
In other words, using pictures can improve your understanding of what a word, or an idiom, means.
One of the problems I have with most memory-related studies is that scientists blatantly ignore the fact that familiarity with words might heavily skew the final results. For that reason, I really love the following paper from 2017.
Participants (36 English-speaking adults) learned 27 pseudowords, which were paired with 27 unfamiliar pictures. They were given cued recall practice for 9 of the words, reproduction practice for another set of 9 words, and the remaining 9 words were restudied. Participants were tested on their recognition (3-alternative forced choice) and recall (saying the pseudoword in response to a picture) of these items immediately after training, and a week after training. Our hypotheses were that reproduction and restudy practice would lead to better learning immediately after training, but that cued recall practice would lead to better retention in the long term.
In all three conditions, recognition performance was extremely high immediately after training, and a week following training, indicating that participants had acquired associations between the novel pictures and novel words. In addition, recognition and cued recall performance was better immediately after training relative to a week later, confirming that participants forgot some words over time. However, results in the cued recall task did not support our hypotheses. Immediately after training, participants showed an advantage for cued Recall over the Restudy condition, but not over the Reproduce condition. Furthermore, there was no boost for the cued Recall condition over time relative to the other two conditions. Results from a Bayesian analysis also supported this null finding. Nonetheless, we found a clear effect of word length, with shorter words being better learned than longer words, indicating that our method was sufficiently sensitive to detect an impact of condition on learning. – The effect of recall, reproduction, and restudy on word learning: a pre-registered study
As you can see, conclusions are not that optimistic and almost fully coincide with my own experiments. That’s why I would suggest you don’t add pictures to every flashcard. It’s too time-consuming compared to benefits. However, if you really enjoy learning this way, I will suggest to you in a second a better way to utilize pictures.
Test it for yourself!
I know that the above could be a bit of a buzz-kill for any die-hard fan of all those flashy flashcard apps and what not. But the thing is, you should never just trust someone’s opinion without verifying it.
Run your own experiment. See how well you retain those pictures and if it really makes a difference result-wise compared to the invested time. Our time on this pancake earth is limited. No need to waste any of it using ineffective learning methods.
It doesn’t take much time and it will be worth more than anyone’s opinion. If you decide to go for it, make sure to run it for at least 2-3 months to truly verify of pictures offer a long-term memory boost.
How to use picture more effectively in your learning
Since my initial results with this method weren’t very satisfying I decided to step it up and tried to check how different kind of pictures affect my recall. What’s more, I also verified how using the same picture in many flashcards affects my learning.
What kind of pictures did I use?
I concentrated on pictures which are emotionally salient. I tried everything starting from gore pictures to porn pictures. The results, especially with the latter, weren’t very good. I was sitting there like a horny idiot and couldn’t concentrate even one bit on any of the words. It’s like having a sexy teacher in high school. You can’t wait till you get to your classes but once you do, you don’t hear any words.
Funny enough, I remember most of the pictures, but now words, from this experiment to this day which only further proves to me that your typical approach won’t work here.
So what kind of pictures did work?
Pictures from my personal collection. I found out that if I use one picture in a lot of flashcards where every flashcard concentrates on one word, I am able to recall words extremely easily. In addition, my retention rate has also been improved, although not as significantly as my ability to retrieve words.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
If you want to use pictures in your language studies, don’t waste time trying to find a new picture for every word. Choose one picture and use it multiple times in different flashcards. Each time try to memorize a different word.
What’s more, if it’s only possible, try to stick to pics from your personal collection – a weekend at your grandma’s, uncle Jim getting sloshed at your wedding. You know, good stuff!
Pictures are a definitely a nice addition to your learning toolkit. However, in order to be able to use them effectively you need to understand that they won’t help you much with memorizing words. The best thing they can offer is a slight boost in remembering words and significantly improved recall for pictures. That’s why don’t waste your time trying to paste a picture into every flashcard. Benefits will be minuscule compared to your effort.
If you really want to get the biggest bang for your buck learning-wise, try to use one picture to memorize many words. That’s a great way of mimicking the way we originally started acquiring vocabulary. And it’s not very time-consuming.
Once you try this method, let me know how it worked for you!
What are your thoughts on using pictures in flashcards? Let me know in the comments!
Choosing the right learning methodshas always been one of the most daunting tasks for most language learners. No wonder. Around every corner, you can find yet another popular learning strategy.
But how do you know it’s effective? Is it actually based on any real science?
Most people can offer you just their opinions. I am here to show you step-by-step what are the biggest flaws of various language learning methods. In other words, I am going to scrutinize them and show you what their authors don’t know or don’t want to reveal.
The first position on the menu today is the Goldlist method.
Before I start, it’s worth mentioning that this article is not meant to offend the author of the Goldlist method nor disparage anyone who is using it but to show one simple fact – it’s extremely easy to come up with a method but it doesn’t mean it’s effective memory-wise.
The Goldlist Method – What Is It All About?
Unless you are into experimenting with various learning methods, you may not have heard of the Goldlist Method. For that reason, I will try to outline what’s all about so we are on the same page.
First of all, here is a great video that sums up what this method is all about.
If you are old-fashioned, here is a description of how it works.
Get a large (A4 size) notebook. This is going to be your “bronze” book.
Prepare the materials (i.e. words) you’re interested in. The items you choose will go into your “head list”.
Open your book and write the first twenty-five words or phrases down, one below the other, on the left-hand side of the individual page. Include any integral information such as gender or plural forms of nouns or irregular aspects of a verb’s conjugation. The list shouldn’t take you more than twenty minutes to do.
When the list is ready, read through it out loud, mindfully but without straining to remember.
When you start the next piece of the head list, number it 26-50, then 51-75 and so on.
The first distillation – after at least two weeks open your notebook and cast your eye towards your first list of 1 to 25 (or, 26 to 50, or 9,975 to 10,000) depending on which double spread you’re at. The “two weeks plus” pause is important. It’s intended to allow any short-term memories of the information to fade completely so that you can be sure that things you think you’ve got into the long-term memory really are in there. Make sure, then, that you date each set of twenty-five head list items (something I haven’t done in my illustrative photos for this article).
David James says that there is no upper limit to the gap between reviews, though suggests a maximum of two months, simply to keep up momentum.
Discard eight items, and carry the remaining seventeen into a new list, This will be your first “distillation”.
Repeat the process for the second and third distillations (the third and fourth list on your double spread). The interval should be at least 2 weeks.
For the fourth distillation, you start a new book, your “silver” book.
The “gold” notebook works the same way, the hardcore items from the “silver” notebook’s seventh distillation are carried over to the “gold” for new head list of twenty-five lines (distillation number eight) and distillations nine (17 or so lines), ten (twelve or so) and eleven (nine or so).
How to Use the Goldlist Method – Summary
Grab a notebook and write there 25 words which interest you.
After at least 2 weeks check if you remember them and discard 30% of all the words. The rest of the words becomes a part of the second “distillation”
Keep on repeating the same process over and over again. The only thing that changes is that the older “distillations” get rewritten to other notebooks.
The Goldlist Method – Claims
Photo by Bookblock on Unsplash
The author of the Goldlist method maintains that:
The method allows you to retain up to thirty percent of the words in your long-term memory.
It is also claimed that the process circumvents your short-term memory – you are expected to make no conscious effort to remember words. Thanks to this the information will be retained in your long-term memory.
The Goldlist Method – A Scientific Critique
1. The Goldlist Method doesn’t circumvent short-term memory
One of the big claims of the Goldlist method is that it is able to circumvent your short-term memory. Somehow, thanks to it, you are able to place all the information straight in your long-term memory.
Is it possible? Not really. I have noticed that 99% of claims of this kind come from people who have never had much to do with the science of memory. That’s why let’s go briefly through what is required to “remember”.
According to the author of the Goldlist method, David James:
” [[ … ]] we are alternating in and out of these two systems the whole time, we switch ourselves into short-term mode by thinking about memorising and switch out of it by forgetting about memorising.”
Unfortunately, this is a bunch of hooey. This is what the actual science has to say about memorization.
The working memory consolidation
In order to memorize a piece of information, you have to store it in your short-term memory.
This process is initiated by allocating your attention to the stimuli you want to remember.
In other words, initiation of consolidation is under conscious control and requires the use of central attention. The mere fact of looking at a piece of paper and reading/writing words activates it.
Any stimuli that capture attention because of their intrinsic emotional salience appear to be consolidated into memory even when there is no task requirement to do so.
Next, the items you learn undergo working memory consolidation.
Working memory consolidation refers to the: transformation of transient sensory input into a stable memory representation that can be manipulated and recalled after a delay.
Contrary to what the creator of the Goldlist method believes, after this process is complete, be it 2 weeks or more, the short-term memories are not gone. They are simply not easily accessible.
Our brains make two copies of each memoryin the moment they are formed. One is filed away in the hippocampus, the center of short-term memories, while the other is stored in cortex, where our long-term memories reside.
You probably have experienced this phenomenon yourself many times. You learned something in the past. Then, after some years, you took it up again and were able to regain your ability relatively quickly. It was possible because your memories were still there. They just became “neuronally disconnected” and thus inaccessible.
The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve
There is one more proof that shows clearly that the method doesn’t circumvent short-term memory. The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve shows us how fast the incoherent information is forgotten.
What we mean by incoherent is that this is not the information which you can associate with your background knowledge.
This is very often the case when you learn a new language or when you’re at a lower intermediate level.
What’s more, the Ebbinghaus curve’s numbers are based on the assumption that the learned material :
means nothing to you
has no relevance to your life
has no emotional load and meaning for you
On the curve, you can see that if you memorize information now and try to recall after 14 days, you will be able to retrieve about 21-23% of the previously memorized knowledge. Mind you that this is the knowledge that is incoherent, bears no emotional load and means nothing to you.
What happens when you start manually writing down words which interest you or when you are able to establish some connection between them and your life? Well, this number can definitely go up.
Keep in mind that your recall rate will also be affected by:
frequency of occurrence
prior vocabulary knowledge
Advanced language learners can get away with more
Since most advanced language learners have a benefit of possessing broader linguistic background knowledge, they can get away with using subpar learning strategies. Their long-term memory modulates short-term memory and thus decreases the overall cognitive load.
Is there anything nothing magical about the Goldlist method and the number “30”?
Nope. It follows very preciselythe Ebbinghaus forgetting curve which takes into account your short-term memory. Sometimes this number will be higher, sometimes it will be lower depending on your choice of words.
You can check it yourself how low this number can get. Simply choose a language that is from a different linguistic family than the ones you already know. Track your progress and see how this number inevitably goes down.
The Goldlist Method is just a spaced repetition method with bigger intervals. That makes it less effective than most spaced repetition program right off the bat.
2. The Goldlist Method is impractical and time-consuming
Relatively high activation energy and time-consuming
One of the most important concepts in productivity is the activation energy.
The activation energy is the amount of energy needed to start conducting a given activity.
Even though the Goldlist Method has initially the low activation energy, it starts growing considerably with each and every distillation. Having to carry with you a couple of A4 notebooks seems also very impractical to me.
Limited usefulness vocabulary-wise
However, the biggest problem I have with this method in this department is that it suggests I only learn words I am interested in. There are hundreds of situations where one has to learn words that they are not interested in.
And they should work particularly well for the vocabulary you’re interested in.
3. The Goldlist Method is inflexible
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash
This is one of the methods which collapse under their own weight i.e. it’s inflexible. The Goldlist method suggests that you learn vocabulary in 25-word batches.
If I need to master a language quickly and I want to learn at least 40-50 words per day? After 10 days I will be forced to go through 20 distillations. After one month this number will start hitting insane heights. More and more of my attention will be required to keep up with all the reviews. This seems very off-putting.
Another important quality of effective learning methods is that they should automate the learning process. The method which necessitates more and more conscious decisions on your part the more you want to learn simply doesn’t fit the bill.
4. Lack of context
The enormous red flag for any language learning method is the exclusion of context from the learning process.
Simply repeating information in a mindless manner is called passive rehearsal. Many years ago it was actually proven that passive rehearsal has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).
This is just the first problem with the lack of context.
The other one is that almost all the knowledge you possess is activated contextually. If there is no context, it will be extremely difficult for you to retrieve a word when you need it.
In other words – you will remember the information but you will have a hard time using it in a conversation.
As a result, soon enough you will forget a word because there will be no network of other information holding it in your head.
5. The Goldlist Method is detached from reality
The problem with the Goldlist Method is encapsulated in a famous adage used by Marines:
‘Train as you fight, fight as you train’
I can’t stress enough how important these words are.
Always try to train for reality in a manner that mimics the unpredictability and conditions of real life. Anything else than that is simply a filler. A waste of time. It gives you this warm feeling inside, “I have done my job for today”, but it doesn’t deliver results.
Tell me, is rewriting words from one notebook to another actually close to using your target language?
6. Lack of retention intention
Another elementary mistake that we tend to make way too often when we fail to retain a word is actually not trying at all to memorize something.
You see, everything starts with a retention intention.
This fact is even reflected in the simplified model of acquiring information:
A retention intention sets the stage for good remembering. It is a conscious commitment to acquire a memory and a plan for holding on to it. As soon as you commit to a memory goal, attention locks on to what you want to remember.
This is how attention works—it serves the goal of the moment. And the stronger the motivation for the goal, the more laserlike attention becomes and the greater its memory benefits.
In other words, you can watch as many TV series and read as many books as you like. It will still have almost zero effect if you don’t try to memorize the things you don’t know. The same goes for the Goldlist method.
A key feature of a retention intention is the plan for holding on to the material. It might be as simple as rehearsing the memory, or it might involve one of the memory strategies described later. Whatever the plan, when you are clear about how you intend to retain the material, it is more likely you will actually carry out the plan, and this can make all the difference between a weak and strong memory.
7. Lack of encoding
Take a peek once again at the simplified model of acquiring information.
What you can see is that the second most important part of the process of memorization is encoding.
Encoding is any attempt to manipulate the information you are trying to memorize in order to remember it better.
Shallow and deep encoding.
Encoding can be further divided into shallow and deep encoding.
In the world of language learning, deep encoding is nothing more than creating sentences with the words you intend to memorize. In other words, it’s creating contexts for the items you want to learn.
Shadow encoding encompasses almost everything else. Counting vowels, writing down the said items and so on.
Deep encoding is the fastest and the most certain way of memorizing information and maximizing your chances of retrieving it.
If you skip encoding, like the GoldList method does, you immediately revert to mindless repetitions of words (i.e. passive rehearsal).
And we all know how it ends.
Mindless repetition of words has almost zero effect on your learning. If you want to increase your chances of memorizing them permanently you need to use the new words actively in a task (Laufer & Hulstijn (2001:14).
To be honest, I could add some more mistakes which this method perpetuates. However, I think enough is enough – I think I have pointed out all the most glaring ones.
There are two things I like about the Goldlist method
It gives you a system which you can follow. This is certainly the foundation of any effective learning.
It jogs your motor memory by making you write words.
The Goldlist Method – Suggested Modifications
The Goldlist method is too flawed to fix it in a considerable manner but let me offer you this suggestion.
Instead of rewriting words, start building sentences with them for every distillation.
This way you will incorporate some deep encoding into your learning process. You should see the difference progress-wise almost immediately.
The Goldlist Method – The Overall Assessment
There is no point in beating around the bush – this is one of the worst learning methods I have ever encountered. It violates almost every major memory principle. If you were contemplating using it – just don’t.
If you have nothing against using apps and programs to learn, I would suggest you start your language learning journey with ANKI.
Here are two case studies which will show you how to do it
The Goldlist method is one of the best examples of something I have been saying for years – anyone can come up with a learning method. Sometimes it’s enough to sprinkle it with some scientific half-truths to convince thousands of people to try it.
My opinion is this – you’re much better off using many other methods. This is one of the few which seems to be violating almost all known memory principles.
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go.
Building habits is the best way to guarantee the long-term success. Having a habit means that your brain doesn’t have to spend much energy to perform a given activity. What’s more, the activity itself is usually the source of constant satisfaction. After all, you are doing something productive every day!
Normally, this is the best possible way to do something. You don’t huff and puff every day to achieve your goals. You are consistent and methodical. As great as this strategy is, it has one big disadvantage – it takes time. Not everyone has enough patience to do it. Not everyone wants to wait a couple of years to be great at something. That leads us to the second strategy.
Using external motivation
Even though the consistency is the key, a short sprint every now and then might help your progress skyrocket. This is what allows you to grow and develop fast – short spurts of concentrated focus.
Think about a physical development, for instance. If you do 20 push-ups per day, you will get bigger and fitter only for some time and then hit the wall. However, if you force yourself to put some more effort once per week, you will keep on growing and developing.
If you learn 5 words per day, then pushing yourself to do 50 words on just one day will more than double your learning pace. Will it frazzle you at the same time? Hell no. That’s just short sprint. You do it and then you’re back to your usual pace.
The thing is that usually it’s difficult to get a grip on yourself and actually do something.
That’s why you need a gentle reminder to get off your butt. A gentle kick, if you will. Actually, the truth is that you probably need a boot so far up your ass that it will act as a pacemaker.
And I am here to deliver this kick.
The Impossible Tuesday – What Is it All About?
The idea for the Impossible Tuesdays came to me over two years ago. I knew that I was doing a lot but I felt that I could much more. I just needed some reason. Something to force myself. This is how the idea of the Impossible Tuesdays came to be.
I decided that on this very day, I will always try to push myself to do something impossible. Something I would never do normally because it’s too tiring and uncomfortable.
Here are some of the things I managed to pull off on this day:
learning 800 words during one day
talking to myself for 6 hours in Russian
doing 400 push-ups
Unfortunately, somewhere in the turmoil of life I neglected this idea and stopped celebrating this day. Recently, however, I decided to revive it and to share it with you. The Impossible Tuesdays are our chance to claw our way through all the bullshit excuses straight to the finish line. This is one day per week when we will prove that we are not a weak, disgusting, spongy blob and
we can do things we have never thought we could.
We are damn tough and we will prove it. It can be one day a week which makes all the difference.
Bets as the primary tools of The Impossible Tuesdays
If you decide that you’re in. You should know how to properly push yourself to do the impossible. Bets are the perfect tool for this purpose. It doesn’t matter how much you love doing something, there is always some border which you won’t cross. It’s uncomfortable, after all. I sure love learning new words but usually, after getting to one hundred I call it quits.
If, on the other hand, you dislike doing something, you need a whip over your head to make you act. In other words, you need to put something at stake.
Here is how bets work:
Choose a GOAL you want to achieve
Determine your TIME HORIZON (1 day in our case)
BET with someone that you’ll achieve
Choose your PUNISHMENT in case you fail to deliver (20$ for example)
Keep in mind that bets are fully flexible. You can mold them and twist them as much as you like to fit your goals.
Now that you know how to flail yourself properly, it’s good to familiarize yourself with a couple of extra guidelines.
They will allow you to maximize your effort.
How To Make Your Effort Count
If you already do something, do 4-5 times as much as you usually do
Remember that the Impossible Tuesdays are all about doing the impossible. Demand from yourself.
If you normally do 10 pushups, do 40.
If you noramlly read 20 pages of a book, read one hundred. Make yourself sweat and squeal.
If you want to take up a new activity – just do it
If you have always wanted to do something but have been delaying it indefinitely – this is your day.
It doesn’t have to be anything huge as long as you start. Always wanted to learn Chinese but life got in the way? Do as little as 1 unit from a textbook.
Break it down into many sessions
Doing a lot of repetitions of any activity is straining.
That’s why make sure you always break the entire process into many chunks.
Don’t even think about knocking out 200 flashcards in one sitting. Try to do it in at least a couple of sessions.
Identify “the dead time” and use it
Dead time is the time spent doing activities which don’t absorb all of our attention.
Think about sitting on the subway or standing in line. These seemingly useless moments can usually be used to do some more productive stuff. Plan ahead and consider how you can incorporate dead time into your Impossible Tuesday.
What can you be on?
I can’t tell you what you should concentrate on. Only you know what’s important to you and what’s worth your blood and sweat and tears. I can tell you this – usually you should be doing the things you are actively avoiding. Brainstorm what that thing is for you.
Regardless of that, here are some proposals of the things you can bet on:
If you have any other suggestions, let me know in the comment.
The Final Words + The Invitation
Every idea needs a critical mass to gain motion. I don’t know if this will work out or maybe I will have to bury the hatchet in this idea. It’s up to you. However, if you decide to take part in, post your goals in the comments together with your bet.
If you can’t think of anything right now, think about it and post it later. On Wednesday come back and post your result as a reply to your original comment.
Who knows? Maybe this is the sign you have been waiting for!
If, however, you decide to bury this idea, know that you will have dirt on your hands. The dirt that is soaked in guilt and shame. The stains left by it will taint your soul permanently and they will never go away. They will keep growing until they spill onto your very existence polluting everyone you love. It will …
Ok, ok. No more guilt-tripping! Join me in the comments! We will see how it goes and hopefully, we will make it a permanent thing.
P.S. You can increase your chances of sticking to your plan even more by making yourself accountable. Tell somebody about the challenge or tweet #ImpossibleTuesday together with your goal!
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.
Scouring the internet to find the ultimate language learning method is no mean feat.
Around every corner, there is something new trying to seduce you. And most of the time you give in. “Why not”, you might think, “It sounds reasonable”.
You don’t even notice when this search turns into a bizarre blind-folded tasting. One time it’s an acorn. Other time it is a piece of crap.
What’s even worse, almost every person swears by his own method. “Listen, I learned Japanese by yodeling. I am telling ya this is the way to go!”
It is all confusing and disheartening.
That’s why I want to show you how to evaluate learning methods.
Hopefully, upon reading this article you will learn how to navigate those murky waters and make more educated decisions about your learning.
But let’s start with a question I have heard many times.
Why bother with choosing the right method?
1) It saves time
Nothing is our in this world but time – Seneca
You should treat the choice of a potential learning method as an investment.
Would you ever open a newspaper, close your eyes and just pick some stocks randomly? I don’t think so.
That’s why I would suggest that you approach choosing a language learning strategy the same way.
Don’t behave like a happy-go-lucky hippie. Spend an hour or two to think it through.
It will pay off, I promise. It really makes a difference.
Very often 10 minutes of a good learning method might be worth an hour (or even more) of a crappy method. (* cough* Duolingo *cough*).
Imagine what you could do with all that saved time!
Of course, pondering over this decision for too long is no good either. Don’t think too long.
Simply evaluate a couple of methods against the guidelines found in this article, choose the right one and move on.
2) It boosts motivation
I don’t believe in motivation. I believe in habits and systems.
But there is no denying that motivation is a force to be reckoned with. Especially when you take up a new learning project.
However, there is one big problem. Motivation is a capricious mistress.
One day she is lovely and charming, while the other day she goes berserk and kicks you right in the nuts. That’s why relying on motivation is not a good long-term strategy.
Nevertheless, choosing a right strategy will help you notice results of your learning much quicker. And in my experience, there is nothing better to fuel your motivation.
3) It solves most of other learning problems
Probably you already know it but just in case – most of your learning-related problems stem from the wrong choice of learning methods
Can’t keep more than two languages in your head at the same time? Wrong learning methods.
Keep on forgetting words? Wrong learning methods.
I hope that by now, I have convinced you that choosing the right learning method is not a waste of time.
The next thing on the agenda – learning fallacies.
The Most Widespread Learning Fallacies
There are a lot of people who offer you their advice in good faith, even though they themselves are ill-informed.
It’s equally important to know, not only what works, but also what doesn’t work and why. At least if you want to be a good “b*shit” detector learning-wise!
Here is the list of the most important learning fallacies you may fall subject to.
Fallacy #1 – My method works
There are not many people strolling around and saying, “My method sucks and guarantees no results whatsoever. Use it!”.
Everybody is convinced that their learning method is great and that the other guys suck (confirmation bias, anyone?). Here is a corker – they are all right.
Absolutely all learning methods work.
It comes as a shock, right?
Pick any method you want. If you stick to it long enough, you will see some effects. If you just keep plugging away, eventually you will learn what you have set out to do.
Even the worst of the worst methods work.
I am the best possible example of this. My default method of learning English years ago was to
a) write down every word I didn’t know
b) rewrite it from a dictionary
c) read it
In other words, I was rewriting a dictionary.
I really do hope that I was fed with a lead spoon as a child. At least I would be able to justify myself just a little bit.
I have managed to write away 12 A4 notebooks this way. Pure madness and the hands down the crappiest method I have ever heard of.
Yet, I managed to learn English fluently and get all the Cambridge Certificates. The miracle?
I just kept plugging away at it. Many hours per day. Until I succeeded.
You can see learning as rolling a big ball from point A to point B.
Your learning methods decide how heavy the ball is and thus how much time it will take to get it to the finish line.
The heaviness of the ball doesn’t make it impossible for you to achieve your goal. It just takes longer to do it and it is more difficult.
Main takeaway – just because a method works doesn’t really prove anything unless you measure the average results which it gves you.
Fallacy # 2 – I like it (aka personal preferences or learning styles)
Months ago I wrote in one of the articles that learning styles don’t exist. The hell ensued.
I got plenty of angry e-mails. Some people started behaving like an upset stereotypical Brit, “Iconoclastic heresies, my good chum!”. Others would gladly spit into my cereal if they got a chance.
No wonder. I have found a lot of statistics saying that over 80 or even 90% of teachers believe it to be true. Thor only knows how many students have been infected with this idea.
And this is why so many people have a very strong opinion about it.
However, let me repeat for dramatic effect.
Learning styles don’t exist*
* You can read more about it here. It’s not perfect but it should dispel most of your doubts.
Most of the time when people use this term, they mean “personal preferences“.
They preferto see information visually, orally or in some other way.
PREFER is the key word here.
It doesn’t mean that learning this way is more effective. It means you like it more.
An author who enjoys music the most will think that the music is the best way to learn. Another one will try to convince you that spending more time outside is the ultimate solution.
But there is some silver lining here.
Liking a given method makes it more sustainable. You can use it longer than some other methods without feeling fatigued.
It certainly counts for something and you should always have such enjoyable learning methods in your arsenal.
Main takeaway – just because you like a method doesn’t make it effective memory- and time-wise. It does, however, make it more sustainable.
Fallacy #3 – Everybody learns differently
Everybody learns differently is just a special case of the snowflake syndrome.
I get it, you are without the slightest doubt special in your own way. However, don’t make a mistake of thinking that
learning differently =/ learning effectively.
Let me explain why we are not so special and so different when it comes to learning.
We are the product of the evolution. Our brains are in many ways very similar.
Your working memory capacity is probably the same as mine. Surpass it and you can say goodbye to remembering things.
You learn most of the things better by doing.
Your attention is very limited.
Your brain needs regular breaks during learning.
You learn better when you space your learning.
The list goes on and on.
So yes, you are special in many ways. But not in the ways your brain acquires knowledge.
Main takeaway – our brains absorb information in a very similar way.
Fallacy #4 – It’s based on science
I know what you are thinking. How the hell is this a learning fallacy? Is it not important for a method to be based on science?
Yes, it is crucial.
However, there is one problem with that. People love numbers, statistics and quoting research papers.
It makes everything more believable. You can come up with any crappy theory and method, back it up with some research paper and people will buy it.
There are a lot of companies which do exactly that. They apply flaky results of some fishy research paper(s) to their learning method and sell it for big bucks.
At least twice per month, I get requests to write a review of some “revolutionary” software. Most of the time the only revolutionary thing about it is spaced repetition.
Obviously, spaced repetition algorithms are amazing. But it doesn’t justify paying for it 20-50$ per month (you know who you are!). You can go ahead and just download ANKIfor free.
That’s why this is the trickiest fallacy of them all. Don’t buy into some method just because it sounds sciency. I can guarantee you that almost every method is based on some research paper. Whether its creator knows it or not.
Main takeaway – just because a method is based on a research paper it doesn’t make it effective.
Fallacy #5 – There is one method
There is no perfect learning method.
You can’t build a house with only a hammer. You need other tools as well.
Learning is too complicated to approach it from only one side. It doesn’t matter how good this method seems, be it mnemonicsor anything else.
That’s why you should always aim at creating your own personal toolbox.
Main takeaway – there is no perfect method. You should always have at least a couple of them in order to learn effectively.
Important factors in choosing right learning methods
Although I would love to give you a perfect recipe for success in learning, I don’t think it is possible. What’s more, I will restrain myself from suggesting the methods I use personally or teach my clients.
Instead, I will show you which criteria you can use to evaluate the general effectiveness of different methods.
A good method should
a) be based on science
“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Learn how your memory operates. Once you master this basic information it will be much easier for you to assess different learning methods. (read more about it hereand here).
As Aristotle once said
“The fact is our starting point.”
The more “science boxes” your learning method checks, the better.
b) sustainable (easy to use)
Although not every learning method has to be sustainable, it is good when at least one of them is something that you can do for a long time and you find it pleasant.
Such questions can really make your brain sweat and question the effectiveness of strategies you’ve been using so far.
3) They make you use the strategies you have heard of but couldn’t be bothered to use
Be honest with yourself. How many articles about productivity and learning strategies have you read so far?
20, 50, 100?
And how many pieces of advice have you used practically? I guess that this ratio doesn’t look favorably, right? I know it all too well. I tend to hoard hundreds of articles about different learning strategies. And then I struggle to use even just a few of them.
Because why bother?
After all, we are all set in our ways.
That’s why the period of preparation for such tasks gives me the opportunity to dust off the long list of mental tools I have gathered throughout the years.
Tools which I haven’t had the motivation to use before or simply didn’t need at the time.
4) They push the borders of what you previously thought is possible
Challenge breeds inspiration.
If you force yourself to do things which are seemingly impossible or you have no skills for, you give yourself an opportunity to push the boundaries of your comfort zone.
And more often than not, you will find the way to accomplish your goals
Choose one thing you´d like to try but are afraid to do wrong, and go for it!
5) They Boost Your General Life Satisfaction And Confidence
It’s time to be frank here. I didn’t enjoy these challenges. Want to know what was the result of learning over 850 during one day? A terrible headache. I have never had a migraine in my life but I assume that it’s exactly what it feels like.
Just the slightest sound at the end of this day was sending surges of pain throughout my head and made me feel as if my brain was screwed by a nail-pawed hedgehog.
Did I hate it? You betcha. Did I feel damn proud the next day? Hell yeah!
You see, normally I am very self-conscious and critical about myself.
But I doubt that I’ll ever forget the pride I felt the next day after “over-850- words-per-day challenge”. It was verging on unhealthy Johny Bravo-style self-love.
But I’ll be damned if I didn’t deserve it.
As weird as setting big goals in language learning might seem, I have found them time and time again to be one of the most reliable catalysts for self-improvement.
Sure, it´s comfy to do the same ol’, same ol’ day in and day out.
But if you don´t challenge yourself and try new things, how will you realize your true potential?
Now I would love to get to know your thought on this subject.
What do you think about using big goals as a way to optimize your learning strategies?
Is it a “hell yeah” or “a little bit over-the-top”?