How to learn Finnish Fast – from scratch to a B1 level in 3 months

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

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

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

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

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

Learn Finnish fast – the Pre-course Evaluation

The pre-course evaluation

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

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

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

Learn Finnish fast – Kate’s Progress!

Meet Kate!

Meet Kate!

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

Here are Kate’s e-mails.

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

Hi Bartosz,

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

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

Duolingo experiment

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

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

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

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

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

Read more about deep learning here.

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

Hi Bartosz,

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

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

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

Hungry for more

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

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

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

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

2800+ Finnish words

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

Plans to take the officialYKI test

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

Best wishes,
Kate

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

A short interview with Kate

A short interview with Kate

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

What do you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) ANKI. Needless to comment I suppose.

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

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

  • Are you planning to learn another language anytime soon?

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

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

Language strategies

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

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

Finnish learning resources

Kate only four things:

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

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

The best ANKI decks for Finnish vocabulary

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

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

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

And here are other noteworthy frequency lists of Finnish words:

How to talk with FInnish native speakers for free

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

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

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

The learning plan

Learn finnish fast

  1. Download ANKI
  2. Download a frequency list (e.g. in the form of ANKI decks)
  3. Calculate your daily goal.
It’s a number of words you need to learn daily in order to achieve your goal withing a certain timeframe. You should base your calculation on this article – how many words you should need for every language level.
  1. Start creating sentences with the words from your frequency list.
Don’t learn passively. Actually use the information you want to memorize.
  1. Be systematic
  2. Use deliberate practice to quickly acquire grammar
  3. Talk with yourself to consolidate grammar and vocabulary
  4. Once you learn 2000-2500 words, find a language partner if you want to.
Of course, the more words you know before your first conversation, the better for you.
  1. Don’t forget about listening. Try to start practicing your listening comprehension only once you learn at least 2000 words if you want to optimize your learning time.
Of course, there are many nuances to this strategy but this learning plan should allow you to learn Finnish fast.

Summary

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

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

The curse of a b2 level aka the language learning plateau – what it is and how to get unstuck

The curse of a B2 level might sound like a title of an F-rated horror movie but it’s a very real thing. In fact, it affects most language learners,

What is the curse of a b2 level (aka the language learning plateau)?

The language learning plateau is a phenomenon describing one’s inability to progress past the intermediate stages of language learning (i.e. a B1/B2 level). Typically, the main reasons are using inefficient learning strategies, or not using any learning system at all.

 

Let’s break down step-by-step why a B2 level is a final station for most language learners and what you can do to fix go beyond this mark. Time to break that curse.

 

What’s a B2 level is all about

 

What? You thought I would skip a dry, boring and theoretical part? No way! That’s where all the fun is!

Let’s take a look at requirements which one would have to meet in order to be classified at a B2 level. They are a part of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

 

Description of a B2 level (B2 INTERMEDIATE)

At this level, you can:

  • understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization.
  • interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
  • produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

 

Brief explanation: this level can be depicted as a FULL conversational fluency. You can have real conversations with native speakers about a variety of subjects.

Expected conversational depth level: you can discuss things at quite a deep level.

Expected vocabulary depth: you can convey most of your thoughts but you still, for the most part, lack precision. Compared to a B1 level, you can discuss more topics with more precise vocabulary.

Still, any topic that differs from typical, conversational standards will probably throw you off.

 

How many people master a language at a C1 or C2 level

The curse of a b2 level - what it's all about and how to get unstuck

 

English proficiency in the world

 

Now that you know what a B2 level is all about, let’s take a look at the level of English proficiency in different countries around the world. It’s only natural since this language is still the most popular choicem Our starting point is the EF English Proficiency Index. For brevity’s sake, I will skip the part where I lambaste the reliability of those results.

 

Countries with the highest English proficiency

 

Here is a list of countries which were classified as the ones with “very high proficiency” i.e. a C1-C2 level. Pay very close attention to the top dogs. Almost every country in the top 12 has either English as an official language (e.g. Singapore) or it’s a Germanic-speaking country.

 

Very High Proficiency

 

Why is it important? If you’re learning a language which is similar to your native tongue, it will be CONSIDERABLY easier for you to master it. Since English is also a Germanic language, it’s not difficult to notice a pattern here.

Of course, there are other factors at play here but this is the most important one for me from the memory standpoint. The way information familiarity modulates your working memory and increases your learning capacity can’t be ignored.

A good example is my mission from a couple of years ago where I learned Czech from scratch to a B1/B2 level in about 1 month., even though my learning system at that time was far from perfect. Yes, I specialize in memory, so I knew what I was doing but I also already spoke Polish, Russian and German. Those languages helped me establish my initial familiarity with Czech vocabulary at about 80%.

 

Countries with moderate English proficiency

 

Now it’s time for countries whose English proficiency can be characterized as about B2 level.

 

The curse of a b2 level aka the language learning plateau

 

As you can see, once we drop outliers like the top 12, the level drops to a B2 level and below. But let’s not stop there.

Here is an excerpt from one of the official Polish reports about German Proficiency in Poland. Let’s keep in mind that we’re talking about self-evaluation here of people who probably wouldn’t be able to describe language requirements for any level. The reality, in other words, is less rosy.

German proficiency at a B1+ level has been achieved by more than 53% of language learners., of which 22% mastered the language at a B2 level, 19% at a C1 level and 12.5% at a C2 level.

In other words, the amount of German learners who claim they have mastered this language amounts to about 16%.

 

The magical number 20

 

In different reports, the number 20 is the reoccurring theme. It seems that only less than 20% of learners of any language get past a B2 level. That is of course if you believe that these numbers are reliable.

Scientific studies are less forgiving in this department.

Long (2005, 2013) that the number of learners who achieve a C2 level is anywhere between 1-5%.

From that, we can only conclude that students who achieve a C1 are also relatively low (read more about in The Handbook of the Neuroscience of Multilingualism).

I rest my case. Let’s move on.

 

The curse of a B2 level – the two main reasons why you are stuck

1. No learning strategy and no system

 

One of the most surprising facts about how people learn is that most of them have no organized system of learning. You might think that’s an exaggeration but I assure you it’s not.

Here is an excerpt from a recent study (Schimanke, Mertens, Schmid 2019) about learning strategies at a German university.

To get a better insight on how students actually learn, we have conducted a survey among the students of our university (HSW – University of Applied Sciences) about their strategies and learning behaviors.

Overall, there were 135 students participating in this survey from all 6 semesters and between 18 and 31 years of age. 68.1% of the participants were male, 31.9% female.

Only very few of them deliberately make use of learning strategies, such as spaced repetition or the Leitner system. 94.8% of the participants just repeat the learning topics randomly to have them available during a test.

The terrifying thing is that we’re not talking about a bunch of clueless people without any education. We’re talking about bright individuals who will shape the future of their nation.

And yet, almost all of them rely on something I call a let’s-hope-it-sticks strategy. It’s nothing more than spitting on a wall and hoping that something will set. But it rarely does, right?

You can read, reread and cram all you want. Most of the knowledge you gather this way will be forgotten by the end of the next week.

There can be no effective learning if you’re not optimizing your repetitions.

 

2. Concentrating on passive learning

 

Passive learning can be a very effective learning tool provided that you’re already at an advanced level (especially a B2 level and higher). It can also be relatively useful if, for one reason or another, you are already familiar with a language you want to master (e.g. because it’s a part of the same language family). However, passive learning is a terrible tool for language rookies.

The body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times in order to put it into your long-term memory (i.e. be able to activate it without any conscious effort). Other studies quote numbers between 7-60.

I will let it sink in!

That’s a lot. Of course, the number varies because it all depends on your background knowledge, emotional saliency of words and so on but it’s still a very big number.

Let’s delve into its consequences.

We know that in most languages 5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).

It means that as long as you are stubborn enough, eventually you will get to about a B2 level. It doesn’t matter how crappy your learning method is. As long as you soldier on, you will get to the finish line even if that takes you 10 years.

Why?

Because it’s almost guaranteed that you will amass a sufficient number of repetitions (7-60) of the words which occur in a language with a frequency of 98%! But what if you want to really master a language. Or two. Do you believe that you will be able to pull that number of repetitions for the words which occur with a frequency of about 2%? Of course not.

Think of any rare word from your native tongue like “cream puff” or “head physician”. How often do you hear them in your daily life? Not that often, right? And that’s the problem. C1-C2 levels consist of rare words like these. That’s why your chances of getting there if your default learning style is passive are very thin. Unless you have 20 years of spare time and are willing to spend most of your waking hours surrounding yourself with a language.

 

Real vocabulary gains from reading and listening at the early stages of language learning

 

 

 

Below you can find some findings which closely echo the results I have obtained from my experiments.

 

Vocabulary gains from reading

 

Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998) specifically looked at the number of words acquired from a simplified version of a novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, which had 21000 running words. The novel was read in class during six class periods. It was found that the average vocabulary pick-up was five words.

 

Lahav (1996) carried out a study of vocabulary learning from simplified readers. She tested students who read 4 readers, each one of about 20 000 words, and found an average learning rate of 3–4 words per book.

 

The above survey indicates that reading is not likely to be the main source of L2 learners’ vocabulary acquisition. If most words were acquired from reading, learners would have to read about as much as native children do – that is, a million words of text a year. This would require reading one or two books per week. If, however, teachers can expect only small quantities of reading, then word-focused activities should be regarded as a way of vocabulary learning.

 

Vocabulary gains from listening

 

Vidal explored incidental vocabulary acquisition from L2 listening (2003), and compared gains from listening with reading (2011). These studies analyzed the effect of a large number of variables (e.g. frequency of occurrence, predictability from word form and parts) on learning. Knowledge gains of 36 target words were measured with a modified version of the Vocabulary Knowledge Scale, on which learners could effectively score 0 to 5.

 

 

Out of the maximum score of 180, readers scored 40.85 (22.7%) on the immediate post-test and 19.14 (10.6%) on the one-month delayed test. Listeners scored 27.86 (15.5%) immediately after listening and 14.05 (7.8%) one month later. The main finding is that both reading and listening lead to vocabulary knowledge gains, with gains from reading being much larger than from listening. An effect of frequency occurrence (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 occurrences) was found in both modes but this was considerably stronger in reading. More repetitions were needed in listening (5 to 6) than in reading (2 to 3) for it to have a positive effect on learning.

 

Some caveats

 

At the risk of repeating myself, I would like to stress one more time that your learning capacity is affected by your background knowledge. If you’re a Frenchman learning Spanish, the aforementioned numbers won’t apply to you.

At the same time, there are just a few studies around which test long-term retention of vocabulary for almost any method. That’s a pity because 3 months is a cut-off point proving that words have truly been stored in your long-term memory. The studies quoted above also share this problem. Retesting the students of the above experiments at a 3-month mark would surely yield much worse, and realistic, results.

Anyway, the point I would like to drive home is that passive learning is an ineffective language acquisition tool for beginners.

 

The curse of a b2 level – how to get unstuck

 

The curse of a b2 level aka the language learning plateau

Photo by Tomas Tuma on Unsplash

 

The most important element you should concentrate on is to develop some kind of learning system. Ideally, it should encompass the following strategies:

 

Summary

A B2 level is achievable to almost anyone as long as you pursue your learning goal with dogged persistence. However, moving past this level requires from you the use of systems which will allow you to focus heavily on rare words which make up about 2-3% of a language since it’s almost impossible to master them just by learning organically (i.e. reading, listening and talking).

If you stick to smart learning methods, you will surely overcome this hurdle.

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

 

Over 30 things you can learn from all my failed and successful memory experiments

I often talk about what effective learning methods are all about but I have almost never mentioned all the memory experiments I have run which have failed miserably. It might give you the impression that this is the knowledge which came to me easily. On the contrary.

It was like wading through the puddle of crap to pick up something which seemed to be the gem of wisdom. Only to realize later that it was actually a fossilized chunk of crap. Only to realize a couple of months down the road that it was actually a beautiful diamond hidden beneath the dry shell.

I think you get my point. It was a confusing process where I had to rediscover time and time again different truths in different contents.

 

 

Of course, my process of reasoning wasn’t very rigorous at the beginning. Neither were my memory experiments. I was kind of going with my gut and trying to notice whether I remember more or less.

 

Only later did I start to actually construct hypotheses and test them. Everything got even easier when I started learning more about memory and reading studies related to this area of knowledge.

Before I share with you my conclusions and failures, let’s start with how my experiments were run.

What was the framework of my memory experiments?

 

 

This is a simple blueprint which I have used to run my memory experiments:

1. come up with hypotheses

2. set yourself a suitable deadline to test the idea (ideally, at least 3 weeks – 1 month)

3. test it

4. measure the results at the end of your memory experiment

5. draw conclusions

6. rinse and repeat

 

How did I choose words for my memory experiments?

 

This is a very important question. Some people think that any words will do. That’s far from the truth.

 

If you want to run a meaningful memory experiment you need to make sure that the words tested are as different from any other words and concepts you know as it’s only possible.

The reason is that your current knowledge modulates the new knowledge you want to acquire.

If you know English and you’re learning French your results will be immediately distorted. Depending on a source, 40-50% of English words originate from French.

 

 

If you want to get unbiased results you need to test the words from languages you know nothing of.

 

In my case, I frequently tried to memorize words from languages like Basque, Finnish, and Hungarian. They were absolutely foreign to me and I couldn’t associate them in any way with my background knowledge.

 

 

“Collectively, these findings provide strong evidence that pre-experimental stimulus familiarity determines the relative costs and benefits of experimental item repetition on the encoding of new item-source associations. By demonstrating the interaction between different types of stimulus familiarity, the present findings advance our understanding of how prior experience affects the formation of new episodic memories.” – Pre-experimental stimulus familiarity modulates the effects of item repetition on source memory – Hongmi Lee, Kyungmi Kim, Do-Joon Yi, 2018

 

Also, it’s worth noting that a typical batch of items which I tried to commit to my memory was 20. Typically, I tried to memorize between 3-5 batches.

 

What did I test?

 

Over 30 things you can learn from all my failed

 

Time to get to the nitty-gritty of my memory experiments. As you already know, I experimented almost exclusively with words which were completely foreign to me in order to minimize my background knowledge interference.

Another important part is the methods I used to test my knowledge. I always tested my recalls using the following methods:

Free recall + cued recall

Free recall

 

 

Free recall describes the process in which a person is given a list of items to remember and then is tested by being asked to recall them in any order. Free recall often displays evidence of primacy and recency effects.

Primacy effects are displayed when the person recalls items presented at the beginning of the list earlier and more often. The recency effect is when the person recalls items presented at the end of the list earlier and more often. Free recall often begins with the end of the list and then moves to the beginning and middle of the list.

For that reason, I always tried to recall all the batches at once in order to minimize the number of learning sessions. That gave me the certainty that my results were warped.

 

Cued recall

 

 

Cued recall is when a person is given a list of items to remember and is then tested with cues to remember the material.

 

 

There are two basic experimental methods used to conduct cued recall, the study-test method, and the anticipation method. In the study-test method participants study a list of word pairs presented individually.

Immediately after or after a time delay, participants are tested in the study phase of the experiment on the word pairs just previously studied.

One word of each pair is presented in a random order and the participant is asked to recall the item with which it was originally paired. The participant can be tested for either forward recall, Ai is presented as a cue for Bi, or backward recall, Bi is presented as a cue for Ai.

In the anticipation method, participants are shown Ai and are asked to anticipate the word paired with it, Bi. If the participant cannot recall the word, the answer is revealed.

During an experiment using the anticipation method, the list of words is repeated until a certain percentage of Bi words are recalled. – Wikipedia.

 

 

The learning curve for cued recall increases systematically with the number of trials completed. This result has caused a debate about whether or not learning is all-or-none.

 

(un)succesful memory experiments

 

Why did I use both methods? Because they both show you different things.

“Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009). However, transfer tasks, such as the written fill-in-the-blank activity and the problem-solving task are perhaps better measures of true learning (Mayer, 2009).”

Many people have argued with me that just because they are able to recall words after using some method, it surely means that it’s effective. As you can see, it’s only a part of the story.

That’s why it’s also so important to test any method for the prolonged period of time. Always give yourself at least 3 weeks to test your hypothesis. Then measure the results (here are examples of the things you can measure in language learning).

 

 

“There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.” – Enrico Fermi

Why even measure it at all?

 

Measuring your results certainly doesn’t sound sexy but it’s absolutely necessary. You can’t know for sure that one method is better than the other if you don’t verify it and you don’t control your variables. 

What’s more, if you don’t measure, you can’t improve. And that means a great deal in the world of language learning.  Using ineffective methods can literally mean that you will have wasted thousands of hours by the end of your life.

I am not that loco and I was never willing to take such a risk. And I am pretty sure you also don’t want to be the guy with a tombstone saying, “It took him 20 years to learn a language to an A2 level, what a moron. Love, family.”

Whenever you’re in doubt – measure your results. It will help you get to the truth.

What does it mean that the experiment failed?

Under every experiment, you will find an explanation of why a given experiment failed or not. 

What do I mean by that?

Most of the time it means that it either didn’t provide me with the results I expected or it wasn’t more effective than the method I tested it against.

Of course, in a sense, none of them failed. They all helped me to understand the science of memory better and to improve my memorization skills. Or in more elegant words of Thomas Edison, I can say that:

 

 

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison

 

The list of methods I have tested

 

Below you will find a long list of methods I have tested throughout the years. I can’t vouch that I have included all of them. I have a nasty habit of throwing away everything I don’t need. Unfortunately, in many instances, the victim of my habit was a bunch of notes documenting my experiment.

All my experiments are accompanied by the main conclusions and complementary articles when needed. Enjoy!

 

Chapter 0 – The typical school stuff

I guess this is the type of learning which is a baseline for many people. All you do is what they tell you to during a class. You read something, do some grammar exercises, write an essay and so on.

Experiment status

It failed.

Why did it fail? What you give is what you get. I think I simply didn’t apply myself to learning hence my results were just terrible.

The main takeaway:

Apply yourself? Learn regularly? Take your pick. 

 

Chapter 1 – Using a notebook

 

 

The first learning system of my own devising was fairly uncomplicated. Ready for it? Every time when I used to encounter any English words I didn’t know, I jotted them down.

 

Next, I rewrote ALL their meanings, collocations and such from an Oxford Dictionary into my notebook. Then I read my notes on my way to school.

You’re probably wondering why I didn’t just mark these words in a dictionary and read them there, huh?

Well, maybe because I was fed with a lead spoon as a child. Or it has something to do with repeatedly falling down headfirst from a tree.

I don’t know. But these are some of the excuses I use. If it wasn’t bad enough I used this method for at least 3 or years when I was about 18-22.

 

Things you can learn from all my failed and successful memory experiments

 

Experiment status:

it failed

Why did it fail?

The method was clearly unsustainable. It took me a lot of time to rewrite all the words I needed. What’s worse, there were so many of them that I couldn’t review them in any regular way.

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

This was my first system. It was really bad but it also taught me an important lesson. You will always progress, no matter how slow, if you have any kind of learning system in place. Sure, this one sucked but at least it gave me a systematized way of learning new words and their meanings.

 

Chapter 2 – SRS programs

 

I must have been about 19 or 20 when I discovered Spaced Repetition Software.

The first program of this kind which I bought was called SuperMemo Advanced. It was a brilliant creation which ushered in the new era in the world of my personal learning.

 

SRS Programs

 

Back then, I already spoke quite good English. Or at least that’s what I thought. To my surprise, it quickly turned out that out of over 10k words which this program contained, I knew almost none.

My grind started. I started slogging through all these words with dogged determination. I was terrified by the number of reviews I soon amassed but somehow I pulled through. I think it took me about 18 months to cover all the words.

What about the final result?

My vocabulary certainly expanded. Initially, I could recall a lot of words but after some time, the novelty effect wore off. I soon found myself forgetting more and more words despite working my butt off every day.

And thus, I decided to keep on searching for my Holy Grail.

Experiment status:

it kinda failed

Why did it kinda fail?

 

 

The main reason why my experiment failed to some degree is that I didn’t create my own sentences. Most programs of this kind give you ready-to-learn sentences.

 

Unfortunately, if you don’t actively encode words on your own, they will slip your memory anyway. The optimization algorithm which programs of this kind use is an extremely powerful tool.

Maybe even the most universal shield against forgetting we currently have. However, no amount of reviews can guarantee that the words you learn will be transferred into your long-term memory if you don’t encode them (Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Craik & Tulving, 1975).

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

The optimization algorithms are your best friend learning-wise. It doesn’t matter how much you delude yourself into thinking that you can learn faster by reading, listening or other means.

It won’t happen.

 

 

Having a ready-to-use wordlist is extremely convenient and can speed up your learning. You won’t have to waste your time scratching your head and thinking what’s the next word you should learn.

 

A good idea is to start with frequency lists.

Read more:

Here is a fascinating article about Super Memo’s creator, Piotr Wozniak. One of the most fascinating characters I had a pleasure to read about.

 

Chapter 3 – Using a dictionary

 

I enrolled in a language school to master German and after about four years I was ready to sit the Goethe-Zertifikat B2 exam. The last trial before the real thing was a mock exam. I took it, I passed it and life felt great.

 

 

I felt so proud of myself as I was leaving my language school, “Now I know English, German and Polish, there are 7 languages to go”.

 

The life had different plans for me. Just as I was ambling down the street I was approached by an elderly German couple asking me if I speak any German.

“I do”, I replied proudly.

“Do you know any good restaurants around here?”, they asked.

As they were finishing their question something terrible happened. I froze. I couldn’t spew out any coherent answer. I huffed and puffed and floundered until I managed to form some vague answer.

 

 

As they were leaving I felt devastated. I spent 4 damn years in a language school and couldn’t even hold a simple conversation! On top of this, I just passed a B2 certificate.

 

Frustrated by this experience I decided to simply pick up a Polish-German dictionary, mark the works I didn’t know but I found useful and start creating short sentences with them.

I used to take this dictionary everywhere with me. I kept my nose in it and wandered around oblivious to my surroundings.

I definitely looked strange but at least I had my pants on most of the time and didn’t yell “repent sinners” so that’s nice.

Experiment status:

it kinda failed

Why did it kinda fail?

The problem with this method was that it didn’t allow me to review my vocabulary in any meaningful way. I was jumping from one word to another.

Oftentimes, I spent way too much time concentrating on the words I already knew. Considering that your average pocket dictionary has usually at least 15k words, it was the problem of considerable size.

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

1. Even though this method didn’t seem like much, I consider it a big success to some degree. It was then that I realized that creating my own sentences with virtually any word can boost my vocabulary retention.

 

 

Contrary to the common wisdom, it doesn’t matter if your sentences don’t sound like something that could originate from the silky smooth lips of a native speaker.

 

You need to encode words on your own and you need many words in order to convey your thoughts.

2. This method further reinforced my conviction that having a ready-to-use word list can positively affect my learning rate.

Up to this day, I remain a huge fan of pocket dictionaries. Even on the days, when I don’t have much time, I can encode and learn up to 30 words in 15 minutes simply by picking them up from a dictionary.

Trust me, no other method comes even close to this.

 

Chapter 4 – Mnemonics

 

My learning false starts

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

 

I stumbled across the first mentions about mnemonics in an article when I was about 20-21. Even though I was fascinated by the general idea behind mnemonics, I quickly forgot about it.

A couple of months later, by fate, I discovered a small book about mnemonics. It turned out to be a copy of Harry Lorayne’s classic “* How To Develop a Super Power Memory (1957)”.

One week later, I was a full-time mnemonics preacher.

How could I not?

Any person, who tried to learn anything with help of mnemonics can attest to their effectiveness. And that’s true. Compared to your typical “cram and forget” approach, mnemonics work very well.

It takes some time and objectivity to discover that perhaps mnemonics are not as great as many experts like to believe. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Here is a list of different memory systems I have tried.

 

Classic mnemonics

 

If you have never heard of mnemonics, here is, more or less, how they work:

1. Find a word you want to learn.
2. Inspect it thoroughly and try to spot any associations or familiar word in it.
3. Create a funny/absurd picture based on these words or associations.
4. Place the picture in some location which is well-known to you (e.g. your home).
5. Repeat this process for many words and make sure to connect your pictures with each other.
6. Take a mental walk and decode these words.

Example:
Let’s say that you want to learn a Spanish word for “trabajar”. Upon a closer inspection, you notice that:

a) “traba” looks a lot like “drab”
b) “jar”, well, it looks like a “jar”.

 

 

Next, you combine those words into a short story: you work as a slave at the desk in your room producing enormous “drab jars”.

 

Can you see it?

Great.

The only thing left is to retrieve these words by imagining this entire situation.

If you have never tried this method, it can be quite effective. And, as you can probably guess, that was my initial impression as well.

Status:

it failed

Why did it fail?

1. I have mentioned before that encoding your own vocabulary is extremely important. If that’s true, then why do mnemonics work so badly for long-term memorization and retention?

here are two types of encoding:

a) shallow encoding

Shallow encoding doesn’t help you to connect the piece of information with other meaningful information nor does it help you to further your understanding of it.

It usually concentrates on meaningless banalities.

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

 

 

In our case, it would also be creating meaningless pictures based on abstract associations which has nothing to do with the actual use of the word.

 
b) deep encoding

The absolute opposite of shallow encoding. This time you are trying to make meaningful information between different items.

 

 

The more the better. In the case of language learning, it’s simply building sentences with the words you want to learn.

 

2. The other reason is fairly simple. Sometimes it takes a lot of time to find the right associations. Needless to say, spending 5 minutes on every word in order to do this is pointless.

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

1. Even though this method didn’t seem like much, I consider it a big success to some degree. It was then that I realized that creating my own sentences with virtually any word can boost my vocabulary retention. You need to encode words on your own and you need many words in order to convey your thoughts.

2. This method further reinforced my conviction that having a ready-to-use word list can positively affect my learning rate.

Read more:
The truth about the effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics in learning.
Why is it difficult to recall vocabulary and how to fix it?

 

My system of mnemonics

 

After some time, I decided that the main problem was the time I needed to find my associations. I decided to identify the most important prefixes for any language I was concentrating on at that point.

Example:
The prefix “ent” is fairly popular in German. I decided to substitute it with the word Ent which is a race of tree-resembling creatures from Tolkien’s fantasy world Middle-earth.

 

Learning experiments

 

Every time I encountered some word starting with “ent” I could immediately create a picture involving the Ents.

How did this method affect my learning pace?

 

 

I started memorizing words lightning fast. Partly because I have created my own “mnemonic picture dictionary” which consisted of over 1000 syllables with their respective pictures.

 

And yet, once again.

Experiment status:

it failed

Why did it fail?

Unfortunately, I failed to recognize that quick short-term memorization doesn’t equal successful long-term memorization.

Sure, I was memorizing word quicker but I still had problems using them in conversation and kept on forgetting them anyway.

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

Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.

 

Mnemonics and meditation

 

Another brilliant idea of mine was thinking that if I only improve the vividness and clarity of my pictures, I will be able to retain them much longer.

I decided to include a 30-minute meditation session to my learning schedule. During that time, the only thing I did was revisiting my mnemonic stories and making them more vivid.

Experiment status:

it failed

Why did it fail?

No matter how clear your pictures are – if you don’t apply active encoding to your learning, you will inevitably fail.

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

Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.

 

Mnemonics with SRS

 

The next step for me was combining mnemonics with SR programs like ANKI.
I figured out that if I only optimize my repetitions, my retention rate will go through the roof.

Even with this method, I was using a lot of variations. Among others I tried to:

a) use google map images to memorize thousands of words at the same time.
b) use  virtual and phantom locations and connect them into memory palaces.
c) shrink my stories to squeeze even dozens of them into one room.

Experiment status:

it failed

Why did it fail?

This is where I gave up on mnemonics. My stats and personal experience were very clear about this method of learning.

It doesn’t matter how much I tweak every tiny element of this method – it will always suck as it fails to encapture the very essence of learning – applying contextual learning and deep encoding.

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

Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.

Read more:

Optimize Your Language Learning – Optimize Your Repetitions (Part 2)

 

Chapter 4 – Traditional approaches

 

I started looking into passive learning years after I started my language learning/memory journey. I didn’t do it because I believed they are very effective.

On the contrary, I have never been a fan of passive learning and I don’t understand why so many language bloggers promote them.

Passive learning, as appealing as it might be, has been found, time and time again, terribly ineffective compared to active learning. 

The best argumentation for this line of learning I have seen so far is quoting the misbegotten theory of Krashen who was debunked one year after it was published.

As negative as this introduction may sound, I still was very curious how many words I can pick up and activate from passive learning.

 

Extensive reading

 

 

Experiment 1:

I have always been a bookworm so this experiment was quite pleasant to me. In 2016 I decided to read about 60 Swedish articles in the span of about 2 months.

At that time I was already on a C1, or maybe C1 / C2 level. That means I could read without any problems.

 

 

In total, I read 52000 words, mainly from the major Swedish news outlets. At about 300 words/min, it took me about 17 hours to go through them all and about 2 hours to find something interesting to read.

 

I didn’t write down any words, I was just trying to memorize them while reading (without mnemonics).

The final result?

After a careful analysis of my vocabulary, I found out that I picked up 5 extra words.

 

 

In other words, I spend 19 hours and had nothing to show for. To fully showcase how ridiculously slow that pace it’s worth reminding you that on a bad day, I can encode and learn up to 30 words in 15 minutes simply by picking them up from a dictionary and encoding them in ANKI.

 

That experiment definitely echoes the experience of my students. Even though it’s only an anecdote.

Over one year ago, a student of mine who learned German decided to read the first two books of the Harry Potter series in German.

At the time, she was on a B1/B2 level. I tried to discourage her from doing it and direct her efforts to active learning but she put her foot down.

After about 4 months she told me that she finished reading them – in total about 1000 pages or so.

The result was once again quite depressing. Once she told me about her intention, I started jotting down EVERY NEW WORD which came up during our classes. It wasn’t difficult at all as I taught her from the very beginning. I knew exactly which words she already used.

 

After 4 months, countless hours, 1000 pages she managed to introduce 0 extra words to her parlance.

 

All my failed and successful memory experiments

 

Experiment 2:

In my next experiment conducted in May 2018, I set off to check how many new words I can pick up from watching English movies with French subtitles. I was pretty sure that this method would be more effective since it involves more sensory channels.

 

 

In total, I watched about 60 hours worth of TV series. My level at that time was about B1. During that time I was able to pick up 11 words, most of which I was able to use spontaneously.

 

I haven’t been able to memorize other words than the ones I learned before. In other words, it allowed me to learn more.

Experiment status:

it was a success and a failure at the same time.

Why did it fail/succeed?

1. The experiment was certainly a success because it confirmed something I have been telling for a long time. Passive learning can be an amazing tool if you use it as an adjacent method.

Every day you should do your best to concentrate on active learning. Once you’re done and you can’t din more words into your head, feel free to read or listen as much as you want.

Spontaneous activation of words is much easier once you already have these words in your head. This is definitely something my experiment confirmed.

 

 

Even though I avoided speaking for 2 months, my fluency was actually higher after 60 hours of reading. Mind you that I didn’t pick up almost any new words. But the ones I knew came to my mind much quicker.

 

2. The experiment also failed because clearly reading was subpar to basically any active learning method, I have ever tried.

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

 

1. “Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009). However, transfer tasks, such as the written fill-in-the-blank activity and the problem-solving task are perhaps better measures of true learning (Mayer, 2009).”

 

Just because you have a general impression of remembering words after a reading session, it doesn’t mean that you’ve committed them to your memory. The only tests which can confirm involve the active use of the said words.

2. Acquisition of new vocabulary from reading will be terribly slow and ineffective until you learn about 5k words. 5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).

Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing  (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997). If you’re hell-bent on learning this way, make sure that you know at least 3k words as it’s the minimum threshold needed for contextual guessing. (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996).

3. Your ability to speak fluently and produce spontaneous speech is dependent to a high degree on the amount of input you expose yourself to.

Read more:

1. Optimize Your Language Learning – Limit Passive Learning Activities
2. Active and Passive Learning – How To Create The Winning Combination (Optimize Your Language Learning – Part 3)
3. The Rule of 2 – How Many Words You Should Know (For Every Language Level)
4. Why is it difficult to recall vocabulary and how to fix it?
5. The Purpose Of Passive Learning – How And When To Use Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress

Extensive listening

 

effective learning methods

Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash

 

As painful as it is for my analytical heart, I have never run any rigorous memory experiment involving extensive listening. All I have are my anecdotes concerning three main languages I teach (Swedish, English, German). For that reason, please take it with a grain of salt.

I haven’t done any form of extensive listening practice for any of those languages until I was at least at a B2 level. In other words, my vocabulary amounted to at least 5k words which warranted quite accurate contextual guessing.

Even though I can’t give you any specific number, we’re talking about thousands of hours of listening practice for English and hundreds of hours for both Swedish and German. My main listening activities concentrated mainly on watching TV series and movies.

Status:

it succeeded

Why did it succeed?

Despite the lack of detailed stats, I could definitely notice that my ability to produce spontaneous speech and to understand was greatly increased.

What’s more, vocabulary acquisition was also much higher compared to extensive reading. The probable reason is, once again, the wealth of stimuli, which is related to watching movies.

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

1. Extensive listening is certainly the most useful form of passive learning. Especially up to a C1 level. 

2. The vocabulary acquisition rate is also quite high provided that you build your core vocabulary first. I can only speculate that on earlier stages, it would be quite ineffective since the cognitive load would be too high to enable effective learning.

It’s worth keeping in mind that extensive listening is still quite a terrible tool of acquiring vocabulary compared to almost any active learning strategy. Once again, it can be treated as a perfect supplement to active learning.

 

Chapter 4 – Random memory experiments

 

All the experiments presented here reflect a very interesting stage in my memory journey. Back then, I was willing to run almost any memory experiment as long as there is at least one scientific paper behind it.

In hindsight, sometimes I don’t know what the hell I was thinking!

 

Holding my urine

 

Judge me all you want, I did it. Years ago I read this study whose conclusion was that holding your urine improves decision making before choosing an immediate or a delayed financial reward.

As you can see, it had nothing to do with language learning or memory improvement. Of course, that didn’t stop me. The experiment went on for 3 weeks. During that time I almost pissed myself a couple of time but it certainly did nothing for my retention rate.

Fun fact:

a Dutch scientist conducting this study, Mirjam Tusk, was actually awarded Ig Nobel.

Status:

a debacle

Why did it fail?

Because I was a silly and impressionable dummy. But hey! At least I have an anecdote to share!

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

Screw you Miriam and your research.

 

Learning in nature

 

failed and successful memory experiments

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

 

There are a lot of studies which show that spending time in nature helps to boost your memory. Some of them even show that staring at a photo of trees or a brisk walk in the woods can improve your memory and attention performance by 20%.

And obviously, that was a good enough reason for me to try it.

 

 

For three weeks in 2014, I spend 1 hour per day learning Swedish in the nearby park. The results were quite clear – no advantage whatsoever compared to studying at home.

 

Status:

it failed

Why did it fail?

Because the memory experiment conducted in the lab are usually detached from reality and don’t carry over to real life? That would be my guess. Interestingly, I noticed that my attention performance dropped while learning in the park. I was constantly distracted by damn squirrels, dogs, and bawling children. The general conditions weren’t very conducive to studying.

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

Learn where there is a minimal amount of distraction in order to maximize your memory performance.

 

Emotional modulation of the learned material

 

One of the undeniable laws of learning says that we always remember better items which are emotionally salient. That gave me the idea that if I learn how to modulate this saliency, I could use it to my advantage to boost my retention.

I did lots of weird things to achieve this goal. I screamed foreign words out at the top of my lungs. I made myself furious or jealous with the help of my imagination and then proceeded to memorize short lists of words.

Status:

it failed

Why did it fail?

Truth be told, I was able to remember a lot of these words right away so the first impression suggests that the method works. But as I usually say, in order to truly discover whether something works you need to run delayed recall tests.

You have to wait at least 1 or 2 weeks before you retest your memory. Only then do you get a clear answer about whether a method works or not. This strategy failed. 

In hindsight, the reason is simple – if everything stands out emotionally, nothing stands out emotionally.

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

Just don’t.

 

Learning before going to sleep

 

Another great strategy which I have heard about was learning before going to sleep. Like all short memory experiments of mine, it lasted 3 weeks in September 2015. The idea for this experiment was sparked by research showing a correlation between time of studying and how it can potentially improve your recall.

The protocol was very simple. I tried to memorize 10 random words from languages I knew right before going to sleep.

How did I fare?

Not much better than usually. My retention rate was improved by about 4%.

Status: Failure

Why did it fail?

I know that you might think that 4% is not too shabby and it’s worth something. However, in my case, I deemed the results less than impressive. Especially considering that I tried to memorize words from the languages I already knew which was a major mistake.

What’s more, if we include other co-founders, my results won’t be much better than the chance. I had definitely better results with practicing motor skills before going to bed.

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

Try at your own risk – I don’t see any super-duper benefits. It’s much more important to have a sound sleeping schedule than to practice at any specific time.

 

Combining learning with physical activity

 

Experiments

 

There is plenty of research demonstrating the benefits of combining physical activity with learning. The general idea is to space your learning sessions and to interrupt them with bouts of vigorous exercise.

Here is a great excerpt from Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative (2011).

 

One immediate outcome of the research is a process known as spaced learning, in which teachers give short lessons, sometimes of less than ten minutes, before changing to physical activity and then repeating the lesson. In one trial, the pupils scored up to 90 percent in a science paper after one session involving three 20-minute bursts, interspersed with ten-minute breaks for physical activity. The pupils had not covered any part of the science syllabus before the lessons.

 

I started testing this idea in early 2016. Since I dislike gyms, I decided to weave in quick calisthenics workouts into my learning schedule.

Long story short, such an approach managed to significantly improve my attention span and slightly boosted my recall.

Status: success

Why did it succeed?

Even though there is a lot of great science which explains in a detailed way how exercise can help you with studying, I think it has a lot to do with Serial-position effect.

 

 

Serial-position effect is the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst.

 

Why do I think so?

Because I have noticed similar improvements while taking so-called meaningful breaks i.e. taking a walk, or just lying down and breathing mindfully.

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

Mixing work-outs with your learning is certainly worth replicating

Read more:

John J. Ratey – Spark, The Revolutionary New Science Of The Brain And Exercise

 

Learning with pictures

 

1) a traditional approach
 
I am more than sure that even if you haven’t tried using pictures in your own studies, you at least heard how great of a method that is.
 
Is there any truth to it?
 
First of all, it’s slightly easier to memorize words which are accompanied by pictures. It’s related to so-called “Jennnifer Aniston neurons” (I am not making it up!) – the firing of a single neuron for a single image to form a concept.
 
That’s why you definitely increase your chances of memorizing a word by adding pictures (read more about the picture superiority effect).
 
But the real question which many people seem to ignore is – how much does it really help?
 
 
My answer is – not that much. Most of the time you will be able to just remember a picture very well. Based on my experiments I can say that the overall benefit of using pictures in learning is not big and amounts to less than 5%. At least when you stick to a typical approach i.e. adding random pictures to your ANKI flashcards.
 
 
Is there a better way?
2) a different approach
 
Since my initial results with this method weren’t very satisfying I decided to step it up and tried to check how different kind of pictures affect my recall. What’s more, I also verified how using the same picture in many flashcards affects my learning.
 
What kind of pictures did I use?
 
I concentrated on pictures which are emotionally salient. I tried everything starting from gore pictures to porn pictures. The results, especially with the latter, weren’t very good. I was sitting there like a horny idiot and couldn’t concentrate even one bit on any of the words. It’s like having a sexy teacher in high school. You can’t wait till you get to your classes but once you do, you don’t hear any words.
 
Funny enough, I remember most of the pictures from this experiment to this day which only further proves to me that your typical approach won’t work here.
 
So what kind of pictures did work?
 
Pictures from my personal collection. I found out that if I use one picture in a lot of flashcards where every flashcard concentrates on one word, I am able to recall words extremely easily. In addition, my retention rate has also been improved, although not as significantly as my ability to retrieve words.

Status: failure/success

Why did it fail?

While it’s true that it’s really easy to memorize picture, I haven’t noticed any amazing benefits using a typical approach i.e. inserting a new picture into every flashcard.

Why did it succeed?

I think that my approach to using pictures in language learning is so effective because it mimics a lot how we normally acquire vocabulary as children. It’s much easier to memorize names of different objects and phenomena if the same situation occurs frequently.

I have never seen any scientific experiments in this vein so I hope that the linguistic community will pick it up one day.

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

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

 

Learning with GIFS

 

Learning with GIFS

 

Don’t worry, this will be a short one. If you haven’t known this before, you can insert GIFs into your ANKI flashcards. Overall, it will give you an additional recall and retrieval boost.

Status: success

Why did it succeed? GIFs are very similar to real life situation. There is some dynamism there connected with visual stimulus.

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned): It works provided that, once again, you use the same GIF for many flashcards.

 

Writing vs speaking

 

Another interesting experiment which I set out to conduct, in 2017 if I am not mistaken, was to settle once and for all what’s better for language learning memory-wise – writing or speaking?

I won’t elaborate about it since I have already written a full article about this problem (you can find the link below).

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

All in all, my opinion is that for the most people out there, speaking is the superior learning method as it allows you to practice what probably matters to you the most – being able to communicate. What’s more, writing offers almost no benefits memory-wise compare to speaking.

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

Read more: 

Writing or speaking – what’s better memory-wise for language learning?

How my learning pace changed over the years

 

Even though conducting all these experiments might seem like a lot of work, I think it was more than worth it. Especially since I have always been more interested in how memory works than knowing many languages.

I thought that it might be interesting for you to see how my quest for better memory has influenced my learning speed throughout the years. However, please remember that using the right methods is one thing. Another is that with every next language, it’s getting easier and easier to learn the next ones.

Of course, even a layman might learn extremely fast if they know how to do it. I have managed to teach a lot of people to a B2 level in a couple of months with just 1 hour of classes per week so it can’t be that bad (read more). Heck, some people who took my course Vocabulary Labs managed to do it without any help whatsoever within that time frame.

Side note: the numbers below don’t represent my current levels, just how fast I learned these languages to a B2 level.

My learning pace over the years

The languages below are chronologically ordered starting with the ones which I learned first. I never bothered tracking how much time I needed to get a C1 level and beyond in most of these languages. The number below don’t represent my current levels, just how fast I learned these languages to a B2 level.

Learning English

When did I start? When I was 12.

Time needed to get to a B2 level: 7  years

Was the level verified? Yes, an FCE certificate

Learning Russian

When did I start? When I was 15.

Time needed to get to a B2 level: 10 years

Was the level verified? Yes, by a private tutor

Learning German

When did I start? When I was 20.

Time needed to get to a B2 level: 4-5 years

Was the level verified? Yes, a mock Goethe-Zertifikat B2

Learning Spanish

When did I start? When I was 25.

Time needed to get to a B2 level: 1-1,5 year

Was the level verified? No

Learning French

When did I start? When I was 26.

Time needed to get to a B1 level: 6 months

Time needed to get to a B2 level: about 2 years

Was the level verified? No

Learning Swedish

When did I start? When I was 27.

Time needed to get to a B2 level: 3,5 months

Was the level verified? Yes, a multifaceted, internal verification in one of the global corporations

Read more about this missionLearn by talking to yourself.

Learning Esperanto

When did I start? When I was 28.

Time needed to get to a B1 level: 3 weeks

Time needed to get to a B2 level: ???

Was the level verified? Yes, by my Esperanto teacher

Learning  Czech

When did I start? When I was 29.

Time needed to get to a B1/B2: 4 weeks

Was the level verified? Yes, two separate online placement tests

Read more about this mission: How to learn communicative Czech in one month

Czech was also the last language I learned. About that time I decided to focus on other fields of science and improving my languages.

Right now, for the most European languages, I don’t think it would take me more than 6-8 weeks to learn them to a B2 level. When it comes to trickier languages like Hungarian or any Asian language it’s hard to say as I never looked into them deeply. Although probably if enough number of people are interested I will do another language mission in the future and will document my progress thoroughly.

Does it mean that these methods are bad?

 

failed memory experiments

 

As you have seen, I have classified quite many methods with which I have experimented as a failure. Does it mean they are inherently bad? Not necessarily. Depending on your current stage in language learning, many of them might boost your learning significantly provided that the one you’re using right now is bad.

Even my results which show modest boosts (e.g. 5%) in recall and retrieval rate should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, if you’re a person who is not very physically active, you might experience a significant increase in your ability to recall if just work out more.

 

Regardless of that, a lot of my experiments should show you rough effectiveness of many of these methods. I hope that one day I will find time to come back to this article and expand my lists of experiments including some others which I missed this time.

 

You might also wonder why I haven’t covered many of the popular apps and learning systems in this article. The answer is very simple – I didn’t have to. There are dozens of principles of memory to master in order to learn effectively. Once you acquire them, you can simply disregard many popular solutions because you can spot all the mistakes they are perpetuating. Not every experiment is worth your time.

How many of these methods have you experimented with? Let me know.

 

 

Fail Fast and Fail Epicly – The Best Way Of Learning Languages

Fail Fast and Fail Epicly - The Best Way Of Learning Languages

Do you know what all the people who fail in language learning have in common? They don’t think. They are dull and unoriginal. Actually, being “creatively challenged” is probably the main reason of failure in about anything you do.

Take a hard, good look at yourself. Are you one of them?

I know I was. For way too many years. I used to buy almost every memory book I could find. I was looking for the ultimate method to remember everything. To my disappointment, almost every book was the same. It took me a lot of time to come to realize that all the solutions are in my head. I just haven’t discovered them yet!

Fail Fast and Fail Epicly – How To Do It Step By Step

 

Usually, there are three steps most people go through.

1) The First Stage – The Sleeping Giant

 

How can you tell if that’s you? It’s extremely easy to diagnose yourself. I’ve prepared a checklist for you. Or rather The Loser’s Credo. If you tick more than one field, I have bad news for you…

  • you don’t like to ask questions
  • you don’t like to think about problems
  • you think that the old way is the only way
  • you are happy where you are currently at
  • you can’t take criticism
  • people who are better than you in any way are either lying or born special
  • you don’t see anything funny in this joke: “Dad what’s ignorance?”, “I don’t know and I don’t care”
  • you never question authority (The Big Lebowski anyone?)
  • you like to wait for the inspiration to act
  • you think that calling somebody “weird” is offensive
  • you try once, fail and never get back up

Frankly, I don’t believe that any of you fall into this category. At least, not when it comes to learning.
But we’re all there when it comes to other areas of life – relationships, the way we work, etc.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

But what if you know anyone who falls into this category? How can you help him? Well, you can suggest it as subtly as you can. After all, understanding the problem is half of the solution.
What’s the next step? There is none. I’m sorry.

We generally change ourselves for one of two reasons: inspiration or desperation” – Jim Rohn

I changed my approach to learning due to desperation.

Many moons ago I was attending a German course at one of the local language schools. I felt very proud. It was my second language and after three years, the school classified my level as B1.

It was an amazing feeling. WAS.

After the first conversation with a native speaker The Evil Bubble of Hubris burst. I didn’t understand much. I started stuttering madly. Much like a retarded version of Mr. Snuffalufagus.

So yeah. I was desperate. This soul-crushing experience helped me advance to the second category.

2) The Second Stage – The Awakened Mind

 

You read. Maybe a lot. Maybe a little. But definitely enough to know that there are many strategies to achieve your goal(s). So you read and read. And then read some more. But the moment comes when you get stuck. And you’re desperately looking for people who might give you the answer.

But why would most people give you their best ideas. They spent years trying to come up with them!
Haven’t you heard of the rule?

 

Fail Fast and Fail Epicly - The Best Way Of Learning Languages

 

I hit this stage about 17 months ago. I can’t recall any specific situation which led to it. I simply knew that I had to change the way I approach learning. And then I found myself in the third stage.

3) Third stage – The Creative Behemoth

 

There are three characteristic qualities of all the people in this category:

  • you question most of the things until proved otherwise
  • you start coming up with dozens of potential solutions to your problems
  • you never feel fully satisfied with your ideas

It’s like the mental hunger you can’t satisfy. You can only alleviate it with new ideas and concepts. Once I started coming up with new hypotheses on how to memorize faster, it took me less than half a year to achieve such results. And I’m not done yet.

The beauty of this stage is that you can question almost anything.

For example – why do we shave with foam or gel? Hell, I started to do it with a mix of shampoo and soap. And believe me – it’s much more effective way to shave (try it and thank me later).

Fail Fast and Fail Epicly – How To Do It

 

There are two steps in this strategy.

1) Create the hypothesis.

The planning process looks more less like this:

  • Define what the problem is

This is the question you have to start with. Let your brain know that there is some obstacle to overcome.
From that moment on, you’ll start cracking it both consciously and subconsciously.

  • Learn the essentials of the subject you’re trying to master

It’s very important step. If you skip it, you might find yourself reinventing a wheel.
No need to waste your time like this.

Start with mastering the rules. Find out how others approach solving your problem.

  • Train your ability to observe

Start paying close attention to things which might contribute to the solution of the problem.

  • Create a hypothesis based on your observations

It doesn’t always have to be very logical. Go with your gut feeling.

For example. It’s generally proven that intensive emotions help us to remember better.

Start shouting out loud 4 random words everyday with your best furious voice. Or go to the graveyard and check if the general sadness of this place contributes to better learning.

2) Perform an experiment to test those predictions

Give yourself one week to test your hypothesis. Then measure the results (here are examples of the things you can measure in language learning).

There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.” – Enrico Fermi

In our case, a discovery simply means that the hypothesis wasn’t very good. It’s also great news.
Simply move to the next hypothesis.

If the results are better than the ones you got before, it’s even better news.
You can start using YOUR new strategy right away. You don’t need the old one anymore.

Final Thoughts

 

As you can see, the essentials of my method can be encapsulated in three points:

  1. come up with hypotheses as quickly as possible.
  2. set yourself a suitable deadline to test the idea (for me it’s almost always one week, but feel free to experiment with it as well)
  3. test it
  4. measure the results at the end of the experiment
  5. draw conclusions
  6. rinse and repeat

The faster you fail, the faster you can move to another potential solution.

Of course, there is one more thing to bear in mind. Before you start experimenting, measure your current pace of learning words or whatever else you’re trying to do.

I failed more times than I succeeded. But the moments of victory brought me unbelievable results. And believe me – once you experience the thrill of discovering, you will never stop experimenting.

I see it that way:
If you want to be mediocre – stick with one method.
If you want to be effective language learner – try at least few methods.
If you want to be exceptional – try A LOT of them.

Fail fast and fail epicly.

Now, I want you to come up with your own method of learning and test it within next 10 days.

And as always, let me know how it goes.