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!

 

Pictures and images in flashcards – are they even useful?

 

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

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

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

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

 

Potential benefits of learning with pictures

 

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

 

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

 

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

Photo by pine watt on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Boosting your recall

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Aniston neurons

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

How effective are pictures at helping you memorize and recall vocabulary

 

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

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

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

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

 

Effect of pairing words and pictures on memory

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Test it for yourself!

 

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

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

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

How to use picture more effectively in your learning

 

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

What kind of pictures did I use?

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

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

So what kind of pictures did work?

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Summary

 

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

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

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

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

 

How to master many fields of knowledge – your action plan and recommended strategies

How to master many fields of knowledge

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

You see how the pursuit of knowledge turns into the pursuit for money.

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

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

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

Mastering many fields of knowledge – is it worth it?

 

 

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

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

Everything starts making sense. You know why leaves are green. You know why bread turns brown.

Unfortunately, being good at many things is not encouraged these days. We want everyone to be ultra-specialized which breeds ignorance in almost all other areas.

Kant elegantly touched upon it years ago:

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

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

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

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

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

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

It couldn’t be any truer. Of course, we don’t have to know everything. But will it hurt to learn just a little bit from many areas of knowledge?

Were we really created to be stuck in one groove all of our lives?

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

~ Robert Anson Heinlein

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

Mastering many fields of knowledge the smart way  – The Pareto Principle

 

 

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

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

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

How much time is needed to be good?

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

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

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

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

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

If you apply the Pareto Principle to this number, you will see that with just 200-400 hours of your time you will be able to understand most of the things in this field.

Yikes. Maybe that still looks way to scary. But there is one more thing you can do to learn even smarter.

Working smarter – The Pareto Principle of the Pareto Principle

 

 

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

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

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

Example 1

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

Easy, it’s enough that you learn:

  • what hormones are
  • how they function
  • what are the main hormones in our body
  • how they are produced
  • sprinkle on top some knowledge about Type 1 and 2 Diabetes, thyroid disorders and osteoporosis and you’re good to know.

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

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

 

Example 2

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

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

  • 1) six dimensions of appearance

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

  • 2) ten dimensions of texture:

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

  • 3) and fourteen dimensions of flavor split among three

subgroups:

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

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

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

 

Example 3

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

A famous quote by Bruce Lee echoes that thought:

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

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

How to master many areas of expertise – your action plan

 

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

 

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

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

 

2. Make sure that they are potentially applicable to your life

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

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

 

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

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

That tells us that with about 1 hour per day for each field of knowledge, you should be able to know them relatively well in a little bit over 3 months.

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

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

 

4. Determine what you should learn

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

 

5. Get your learning materials

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

How to master many fields of science – recommended strategies

 

Your action plan and basic strategies

 

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

 

1. Use deliberate practice

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

Some common characteristics of deep learning include:

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

2. Combine skills (aka laddering, skill transfer)

It’s important to realize that a lot of different skills might be combined with each other in order to save you time and make your practise sessions more productive.

For example:

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

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

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

 

3. Use and automate your knowledge 

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

 

4. Do interesting things / choose difficult projects

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

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

 

5. Help others

There are literally thousands of people in the world who might benefit from your knowledge. Find them and do your best to help them alleviate at least part of their problems.

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

 

Why?

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

Share your thoughts with me – do you want to master many fields of knowledge – if yes, what are they?

How To Learn German From Scratch To a B2 Level In 5 Months: A Case Study

It’s amazing to see what kind of a heated debate a potential speed of learning can sparkle.
A couple of weeks ago I was reading a post on Reddit titled:

How much do you expect a student to learn and be able to speak a new language in one semester with classes once or twice a week? (September to November)

Here are some of the answers.

Not a lot. Maybe half way to the A1 exam?

Depends wholly on the language. Without any language transfer (lexically/historically related languages) I’d expect the speaking skill to be exactly zero. If one only takes

classes once or twice a week they’re going to forget everything between classes.

You need to speak with native speakers. The only way to truly advance in a language is to speak with people. Taking classes can help you form a base but to advance to a level of proficiency you need to study and practice everyday in your own life. Most of the time, I feel language classes are too slow.

This discussion is nothing new. It pops up every now and then on different websites and fora. Almost with no exceptions, answers tend to fall into one of the following categories.

In order to learn a language in 6 months, you have to

a) Live, breathe and sniff a language around the clock.

Advice as great as it is unrealistic. Unless you want to get a first class ticket to the “burnout” town with intermediate stations at “I-start-hating-languages” and “No-I-can’t-grab-a-beer-with-you-because-I-must-learn”, of course.

b) Be an experienced learner 

It’s impossible not to agree with this point. Language learning veterans certainly enjoy a faster learning curve with every next language they learn. However, I would argue that often it is so, simply because they have developed a language learning routine.

c) Give up and cry deeply

But what about an average language learner?

Is it impossible for him to learn a language fast? Do you need to renounce the material world and live in a ram-shackled hut in the Himalayas in order to pull it off?

If I didn’t know a thing or two things about rapid learning, I would probably get this impression.
And I would be wrong.

I am more than sure that the main reason people fail to learn quickly is that they do not know how to do it. And thus, they do not realize what kind of feats they are capable of.

What if I could actually show you specific techniques you should use?

How quickly could you learn a language then?

Mateusz (or Mathew, if you prefer an americanized version) is a student of mine and a rookie in the world of language learning who learned German from the scratch to B2/C1 level in 5 months.

To top it off, after 5 months he had taken the Goethe-Zertifikat B2 exam and passed it

How?

I will get to that.

I will try to share our learning plan and what we did in as many details as I can in the hope that you will try to replicate these results.

Some background and introduction

Initially, I wanted to write this article in the form of an interview. However, I quickly changed my mind.

It would leave dozens of bigger and smaller questions unanswered. Not to mention – most interviews are simply boring. So it’s more of a hybrid.

I think that this format should allow you to get the most value out of it.

Let’s get to know a bit of something about our language hero.

Mateusz
1) Tell us first about yourself: I am 26 years old and a doctor intern (a soon-to-be hematologist).

2) What was your previous experience with languages before our mutual challenge – Learning English from the age of 12 – private and normal school lessons. It definitely didn’t go swimmingly. I actually considered myself to be linguistically retarded. Sometimes even my native tongue (Polish) seems to be problematic.

3) How much time did you need to achieve B2 level in English – Over 10 years, I think.

As you can see, Mathew had almost no language experience. What’s worse, he considered himself to be bad at learning languages.

What’s even worse, when I asked him if he knew something about rapid learning strategies he just answered, “Kind of, but somehow I do not believe in these methods”.

Not the greatest beginning of our mission, huh?

As you can see, he had every reason to fail and yet, he succeeded.

One of the main reasons behind why he was able to pull it off was that he was a great student.

What makes a good student?

I have taught many students throughout the years. Even though most of them learn relatively fast and achieve B1/B2 level in about 12 months, just a few of them get to B2 level in 4-8 months.

There are some character traits which make them special.

1) being motivated

Without it, most people just wring their hands and give up upon suffering the first major setback. That’s why you need it so much at the beginning.

Mathew’s motivation was very clear and specific. He wanted to learn German asap to “have an opportunity of doing my medical specialization in Switzerland”.

That allowed to bounce back from every obstacle he encountered.

Of course, you should be aware that the motivation alone doesn’t suffice. You need to create habits and build learning systems as quickly as it is only possible.

Another trait which can definitely help you with that is …

2) being disciplined

It’s the prerequisite for effective learning.

I mean, how else are you going to follow through on our plan?
Luckily for you, you don’t need to be disciplined by nature.

You can actually awaken this trait by …. betting. (read more about it here).

Mathew’s workload was considerable. I knew that at some point he would say, “that’s enough. I deserve a break”. I mean, who wouldn’t?

I made sure that his motivation to keep maintaining his learning pace was sufficient.

How?

We made bets. Failing to do his daily tasks would cost him dearly. Understandably, he was able to resist the temptation to bum around.

The last character trait which a good student should possess is…

3) being coachable

Why is it so important?

Because of your ego.

Some people just can’t take advice. It doesn’t matter that I explain step-by-step why some strategy works and the other one doesn’t. After a short time, they backslide to their wicked ways.

I vividly remember one woman I taught. She was progressing really fast which, I thought naively, was a good sign. One day, out of the blue, she told me that, for now, she is going to put her German in the back-burner.

I knew that something was off about this situation.

“Why? Aren’t you happy with your progress?”, I asked.

“I am. I have never learned so fast in my life”.

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Uhm, honestly I just like my old methods better”.

Not that her methods were any easier or more pleasant, mind you. No.
She just preferred to learn how she always did.

It just shows that you can’t change every person’s approach to learning.

How much time was needed 

Learn German From Scratch

Before we move on to Mathew’s total learning time, let’s put things in perspective and answer the following question first.

How much time do you actually need to learn German to B2 level?

A quick google search shows that The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) suggests that you need about 750 hours to get to this level.

An offer of many German-language schools seems to confirm this number. Usually, you need to spend about 500 – 700 hours in a course and then add about 100-200 hours for learning at home.

Obviously, it’s worth remembering that these numbers may vary depending on your mother tongue and knowledge of other languages. But as for our case, they certainly look solid.

Vocabulary

People who take B2 exams are usually expected to know anywhere between 3 and 4,5 k words.

How much time did Mathew need to learn German to B2 level?

For a period of 5 months, we met, on average, two hours per week.

Yes, just two hours per week. Funny enough, that contrasts starkly with intensive courses where you have to spend about 30 hours per week at your language school.

Of course, he also learned at home. On average, he learned about 3 hours each day (including our meetings).

The total time he needed to get to B2 level amounts to

150 x 3 = 450 hours.

For a rookie who knew just one foreign language before he decided to take on this challenge, it’s certainly impressive.

But what’s even more impressive is Mathew’s vocabulary size after 5 months. Altogether, he learned about 6700 words (yep, we counted).

That means that vocabulary-wise, he surpassed most of the requirements for this level. He could read most of the things he wanted to, including newspapers, and could also speak about a variety of subjects.

Although, it was very clear that his vocabulary wasn’t fully consolidated at this point since he had to struggle for quite a few words.

Mathew’s results

Initially, our goal was to get to a B2 level in 6 months so Mathew could take the B2 Goethe exam and ace it. Interestingly, he managed to do it in 5 months!

Here is his pride and joy:

Learn German From Scratch Results are not bad but, truth be told, I expected them to be much higher. Mathew definitely had a firm grasp of the language.

I guess that in the end, stress got to him as he had no previous experience with such exams.

Learn German from scratch to a B2 level

B2 German study plan

I decided to break everything down for you so you can, hopefully, follow this plan.

Materials

We only used four things

That’s it. There is power in simplicity.

First 2 weeks

During first four hours I taught Mathew

1 weird piece of advice

I think that the aforementioned things are quite clear. What might not be that obvious is why

I forbade Mathew to read and listen to anything for first three months.

“Why?!”, I can hear you screaming! It doesn’t make any sense!

Or does it?

Actually, if you know how to acquire vocabulary, you do not context to do it. You can learn first 3-5 thousand words simply from frequency lists. It allows you to save a lot of time simply by not being forced to go through all those crappy dialogs in textbooks.

What’s more, most people assume that you need to start listening to your target language right away. That’s, forgive me for being so blunt, moronic

If you only know 200 or 600 words and almost no grammar, how much of the return rate can you get from one hour of listening?

Sure, there is some value in it – you can get used to the prosody and so on but all in all, it’s not worth it.

Another weird thing – no conversational partners

Learn German From Scratch

Ok, so that might be another thing which might seem bizarre to you – Mathew had no other conversational partners besides me. Not that it was forbidden or anything, his schedule was simply too hectic to find any people who would be willing to conform to it.

So yes, as weird as it may be, there is a good explanation why it didn’t influence Mathew’s progress negatively.

What people fail to understand that conversations require two things from you:

1) Understanding

If you listen a lot, even without any magical techniques, the day will come when you will be able to understand what is being said (assuming that you practise your grammar and vocabulary).

2) Being able to express yourself

This is usually the resultant of two things

  • having a good command of grammar
  • learning and activating words

Do you need a lot of conversational partners to do it?

Of course not!

Weeks 2-12

  • speaking

After the first two weeks, we dove right into speaking. It was definitely something new for him as he said, ” our conversations started after just a few hours and surprisingly, they were not trivial but revolved around many topics”.

Usually, we started every lesson in the same way. First, I asked him to tell me what he did last week/weekend so he could activate past tenses. He had to also ask some questions using the grammar constructions we had covered so far.

Once again, it might seem strange but keep in mind that most of the time, students talk far more often than they ask questions. Thus, the imbalance ensues.

In the extreme cases, someone might be able to talk quite fluently and still not be able to ask a question without hesitation. This can cripple almost any conversation.

  • teaching Mathew how to activate his vocabulary

Of course, if Mathew had a chance only to speak with me, he wouldn’t get far. That’s why I taught him some other methods to activate his vocabulary and practise his fluency.

Among others, I taught him how he can talk with himself at home (more about it here).

  • main focus

The main focus during this period was learning as many words as possible. On average, Mathew learned between 35-40 words each day.

Weeks 12-16

Learn German From Scratch

  • Listening and writing

This is the time when Mathew started reading a couple of articles per week, as well as listening to News in Slow German for at least 30-40 minutes each day.

As you probably recall, he didn’t listen to anything or anyone else but me for the first months.

Understandably, his comprehension, at the very beginning, was very low. He could get only
about 20-25% of what he heard during the first couple of days.

But what happened next blew his mind.

His comprehension rose to about 80 % within 2-3 weeks. After that, he switched to listening to the normal German radio.

Were his listening skills perfect when he took his exam?

Of course not. They are always one of the most difficult things to improve. But as you could see, they were definitely good enough to pass a listening part of the test.

  • Utilizing passive learning

Active learning is certainly the most powerful language learning tool one might use. But it always works better when you combine it with passive learning.

That’s why I taught Mathew how to surround himself with a language to get even more out of his studies.

Weeks 16-20

This was definitely the most boring period of our preparation.

In addition to doing all the previously mentioned things, I started teaching Mathew how to solve and approach all the parts of the exam.

The only interesting part is that we used some basic mnemonics to improve his presentation skills.

Final words

As you can see, rapid learning is certainly doable. I have done it with dozens of students using the outlined strategy and results are always great.

Of course, it might not be easy to start applying it to your own learning right from the start. After all, it requires a little bit different approach to language learning than the one which is commonly accepted, but it works like a charm.

If you ever replicate this strategy, please drop me a message and let me know how it went.

Happy learnings!

A Simple 4-Step Learning Plan To Get The Most Out Of Your Study Time

You know that feeling, don’t you?

You have finally mustered motivation to sit down and learn. It’s better than that – you actually know what you want to learn! But somehow, you can’t get in the “right mood”.

There are so many things to do. Where should you start? Clock keeps ticking but you still gaze emptily at your book (or screen).

Another tick of the clock. You start getting anxious. Your initial excitement starts dwindling away.

Another tick. “Uhmm, maybe today is not the best day to learn.”

A few ticks later you find yourself spiraling down into the blame and shame of watching dozens of silly cat videos on YT.

The thing is – it’s not your fault.

You didn’t even notice that Chaos and his buddy Disorganization had snuck right behind you and silently strangled your will to learn.

The truth is that in order to learn effectively you need a learning plan.

And no – it doesn’t need to be overly sophisticated.

Here is the simple learning plan I like to use to explain how effective learning looks like.

1. Elimination of distractions

 

Let’s be honest for a second – you’re not a 17th century hermit.

Learning a language for 3 hours might not be as tempting as watching another “7 reasons why you should learn a foreign language” video on YT.

It’s perfectly understandable. It’s within our defective nature to be distracted.

If you’re delusional, you will try to rely only on your strong will.

For all the others – I would suggest that you turn off your mobile phone and block distracting websites with software.

Done? Great.

There is one more thing to take care of. Eliminate the human factor.

The true work is always done in solitude.

Take it from Franz Kafka. As much as he loved his lovely fiancée, he couldn’t stand her presence while he was working.

You once said that you would like to sit beside me while I write. Listen, in that case I could not write at all. For writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind.… That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.

 

2. Allocation of attention

 

Blocking or at least limiting the number of distractions allows you to focus more deeply on your learning task. On just one task. Not four or two – one is the number.

“But why, what about multitasking. I am really good at it!”

First of all – no, you are not.
Secondly, let me ask you a question.

Do you remember when you were little and you believed in Santa and elves?

Only when you grew up it turned out that your toys weren’t produced in a magic factory.
It was a filthy sweathouse somewhere in Asia.

Being able to multitask is just another myth we like to believe in.

The Math Of Attention

 

Let’s say that your attention equals 1.

What if you divide it between two tasks?
It seems reasonable to believe that each one of them would have an assigned value of 0,5, right?

RINGDINGINGING. Wrong.

It would be more like 0,3, at the very best.

We weren’t born to multitask. Especially when it comes to cognitively demanding tasks.
The sooner you come to terms with it, the better.

 

3. Encoding strategies

Simple Learning Plan

 

The next step is to actually define your preferred encoding strategies.

If the only encoding strategy you have used so far is mindless cramming – please stop. A small panda dies somewhere in the world every time you do that.

The choice might be difficult. There are myriads of strategies to choose from.

You should start experimenting with as many of them as you can to find the ones you prefer.

It might seem like a daunting task.

However, taking into consideration that you have 3-4 decades of professional learning ahead of you, I would strongly suggest that you at least get familiar with them.

You can use:

  • mnemonics
  • associations
  • metaphors
  • Mind Maps
  • distributed practice
  • stories
  • practice testing
  • visualization
  • acronyms
  • deep processing
  • visceralization
  • self-talk
  • chunking

And dozens of others.

They are not equally useful and their choice may depend on the subject you learn. But one thing is clear – the more methods you master, the more effective (and fun) your learning gets.

4. Evaluation

 

Good learners always evaluate their learning effectiveness. The common mistake many people do is saying, “This method works for me”.

But how can you tell?

Do you track your effectiveness?

Pay attention to how much you remember after a certain period of time after your studying session. Examine how this result is correlated to your encoding strategy.

The Good News

 

Learning is not just about finding motivation and simply sitting down. You and I live in the world which is hell-bent on distracting us. And it does that amazingly well.

What’s more, without reflecting on the effectiveness of the methods you use, you might find yourself spinning your wheels and doing the same silly mistakes time after time.

Having a solid plan, however simple it is, is definitely a step in the right direction.

Give it a try and let me know how it went!