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

How to master many fields of knowledge

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Why You Should Master Many Fields of Knowledge

 

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

~ Robert Anson Heinlein

 

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

 

How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – the Pareto Principle

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

How much time is needed to be good?

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Working smarter – The Pareto Principle of the Pareto Principle

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

Example 1

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

Easy, it’s enough that you learn:

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

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

 

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

 

Example 2

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

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

  • 1) six dimensions of appearance

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

  • 2) ten dimensions of texture:

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

  • 3) and fourteen dimensions of flavor split among three

subgroups:

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

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

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

 

Example 3

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

A famous quote by Bruce Lee echoes that thought:

 

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

 

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

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

 

Your Action Plan

 

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

 

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

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

 

2. Make sure they are potentially applicable to your life

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

4. Determine what you should learn

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

 

5. Get your learning materials

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

 

How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Recommended Strategies

 

Your action plan and basic strategies

 

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

 

1. Use deliberate practice

 

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

 

Common characteristics of deep learning:

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

 

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

2. Combine skills (aka laddering, skill transfer)

 

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

 

For example, you can:

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

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

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

 

3. Use and automate your knowledge 

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

 

4. Do interesting things / choose difficult projects

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

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

 

5. Help others

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

 

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

 

Why?

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

 

How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Summary

 

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

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

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

 

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.

The Purpose Of Passive Learning – How And When To Use Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress

 

Even though much has been written about how to use passive learning, i.e. reading and listening, in language learning, many language learners still puzzle over the following question, “How can I leverage it in order to speed up my learning progress?”

This question is extremely important because the way you combine passive and active learning is actually the key to learning a language fluently.

The purpose of passive learning – it helps to memorize

 

Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress

 

One of the most frequent claims in the language learning community is that passive learning (i.e. reading and listening) is very helpful with memorizing new vocabulary.

Is it true?

The answer is, surprisingly, yes and no. It simply depends on your current language level.

When is Passive learning useful for memorization?

 

If we take a look at the scientific literature, we can learn that there are two important milestones concerning your ability to learn from the context:

When is passive learning useful for memorization?

 1) 3000 words (B1/B2 level)

3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). It seems like a lot.

Sure, on this level, you will be able to hold a decent conversation. You will also be able to get the general ideas and concepts of most of the articles.

This milestone is also important because it’s so-called the minimal threshold for passive learning. It means that reading and listening start making sense only at this level (read more about how many words you need to know for every language level).

2) 5000 words (B2, B2/C1 level)

5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).

Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing  (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).

For exactly that reason this milestone is called the optimal threshold for passive learning.

What’s more, the body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times in order to put it into your long-term memory (i.e. be able to activate it without any conscious effort).

As a sidenote, my personal experience is this – even 5000 words are not enough to start memorizing words. You should aim for at least 8000 in order to do it efficiently.

The conclusion from the above is simple.

Passive learning can be an effective tool for memorization when you know at least 5000 words. But it doesn’t mean that reading or listening is useless before that.

The purpose of passive learning – it complements active learning

 

In order to understand well the function of passive learning in the learning process, we need to start at the source – the simple model of memorization.

The simple model of memorization:

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

This sexy model tells us that in order to acquire knowledge quickly and efficiently, you need to encode information. In other words, you need to manipulate the information in a meaningful way.

Is the element of encoding present in passive learning (i.e. reading or listening)?

Of course not!

That’s the reason why active learning is much better suited for learning material fast.

However, the problem with active learning is that it’s tiring as hell even though it doesn’t take a lot of time. At the end of your learning session, you should feel as if you have been mauled and teabagged by a bear at the same time.

It’s not pretty.

Ok, so you already know that active learning is:

  1. more effective
  2. energy-consuming

What it tells us is that you can do learn actively only for the limited period of time before you run out of steam. In other words, active learning is not sustainable long-term.

What happens then? Do you just call it a day? Nope. You switch to passive learning.

active learning + passive learning = optimal learning

If you stick to this formula, you are guaranteed to learn relatively fast.

Always push yourself to the limit while learning actively and when you are about to black out switch to passive learning.

Of course, this isn’t the only benefit of reading and listening.

The purpose of passive learning – it primes your memory

 

The Purpose Of Passive Learning - Learn How To Use Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress

What is priming?

 

Before I move on, let’s clarify what priming is.

Priming is a technique whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.

Linguistic priming is one of the main factors that influence the accessibility of information in memory (read more about why it is difficult to recall words and how to fix it). The activation of stored knowledge through experiences in the immediate context can make prime-relevant information more accessible in memory, and such recent construct activation can influence inferences, evaluations, and decisions on subsequent tasks. – The SAGE Handbook of Social Psychology: Concise Student Edition

In other words, priming can provide for sets of actions, or, in the lexical field, sets of words.

So, for example, a listener, hearing the word bread will recognize words like baker, butter, knife more quickly than unrelated words like a doctor, mortar, radiator.

One of the prime researchers in this field, Hoey, states: (…) Priming is the result of a speaker encountering evidence and generalising from it. [Primings come] from single focussed and generalising encounters. Language teaching materials and language teachers can provide essential shortcuts to primings. (Hoey 2005: 185f.)

Now that you know what priming is, it’s time to take a look how it affects our memory.

How does priming affect our memory?

 

There is one main effect of priming on our memory.

We process frequent collocations faster than infrequent ones.

In other words, it’s much easier for us, foreign language learners, to understand speech which consists of logical and frequently ocurring collocations. It’s much easier to process a sentence like “I am cutting an onion with a knife” than “I am cutting an onion with a German Shepherd”.

How is it possible?

Because our memories are organized into something called “schemas”.

Schema” is used as a general term to cover all kinds of general knowledge. More closely specified versions of schemas are called scripts, which consist of general knowledge about particular kinds of events, or frames, which consist of knowledge about the properties of particular objects or locations.

It means that with every new collocation e.g. “cut with a knife”, “a sharp knife”, “stab with a knife”, your time of reaction when it comes to understand gets decreased.

If your scripts are rich enough, you can actually predict, even though it’s mostly imperceptible for us, what somebody is going to say (read more about how we process speech here).

What’s fascinating, auditory word priming does not require access to word meaning, it may reflect the process whereby listeners build and use presemantic auditory representations. (Trofimovich 2005: 482)

What is a likely mechanism supporting spoken-word processing and learning?

I will tell you a little bit more practical consequences of this phenomenon later.

Fun fact about priming

 

Priming can take many different forms and shapes. One which you might find really interesting is syntactic priming.

Syntactic priming is the phenomenon in which participants adopt the linguistic behaviour of their partner.

Yes. The more time you spend with somebody, the more likely it is that you will understand this person’s idiolect (or that you will adapt it).

Idiolect is an individual’s distinctive and unique use of language, including speech.

The extent of priming

 

Referring to their earlier (1981) work, Ratcliff and McKoon (1988: 389) point out that “they have shown that priming can be obtained between concepts that are much more than four words apart.”

They (and others) therefore raise an important issue about collocation, since it appears to contradict Sinclair’s (1991) claim that there are no valid collocations beyond the five-word mark on either side. The concept of lexical access appears to be very close to lexical priming.

De Mornay Davies is more explicit when he states: Even if two words are not ‘semantically related’ in the strictest sense (i.e. they do not come from the same superordinate category), their frequent association produces a relationship at the “meaning” level. (de Mornay Davies 1998: 394). Source: The concept of Lexical Priming in the context of language use, Michael Pace-Sigge

As you can see, priming is a truly powerful weapon as it relates to concepts which are not in their direct proximity.

What it means practically is that your brain will still be able to understand a collocation even if you interject an extra thought into a sentence.

Here is an example of this phenomenon: “I wanted to cook a dinner so I started to cut an onion, you know, with, like, a really sharp knife

How long can priming last?

 

Findings suggest that auditory word-priming effects have a long-term memory component and are long-lasting (Trofimovich 2005: 481).

What does it mean that they are long-lasting?

It’s speculated that these effects can last months or even years.

Practical consequences of priming

 

The Purpose Of Passive Learning - Learn How To Use Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress

Speaking slower

 

Speaking fluently is a really tricky thing.

Why?

Because you have to combine two things.  First of all, you need to actively memorize new words, ideally, by creating a new context for them.

That will see the said words in your memory. The problem is that, as I have said before, unless you have a lot of contexts, you won’t be able to recall them fast.

Is the solution creating a lot of sentences for a given word?

Sure, it will work, but it’s too much consuming. However, if you start learning passively, you will be exposed to dozens of different contexts for almost every possible word you know.

Even though, you won’t feel it, these contexts will be generalized in your head into scripts and will start acting as triggers.

From then on, whenever you run into a situation which fits your script, your primed words will be right there at the top of your tongue.

If you have ever struggled with fluent speaking, I can guarantee you that you’re missing one of these puzzle pieces.

Problems with comprehension

 

Keep in mind that the richer your words of associations for a given word, the easier it is to understand it.

Reading and, especially, listening are amazing learning tools which will expand this network relatively effortlessly.

Final words

 

Passive learning is certainly a misunderstood language learning tool. Even though it’s often touted as a great tool for memorization, it’s actually pretty ineffective in this department unless you are already an advanced learner. Its real power lies in creating an extensive network of contexts and connections which allow you to both recall and understand words much faster.

Did you find this article interesting? Actually, it is one of over 150 units from my language learning course. Vocabulary Labs. Sounds interesting? Then why not jump on a waiting list?

 

9 Powerful Tips To Untap Your Memory’s Potential Using Rhymes

9 Powerful Tips To Untap Your Memorys Potential Using Rhymes

 

Did you know that Mark Twain used to memorize a lot of stuff thanks to (silly) rhymes? Well, now you know. And it’s the best recommendation and reason why you should do it as well. Actually, I should finish this article right now!

Ok, small rant first. So many people complain that learning is a drag. Do you know why learning is painful? Because it’s no fun. And it really does baffle me. As a society, we seem to place a high value on humor and wittiness.

Yet, almost everyone seems to ignore it when it comes to learning! A peculiar paradox I might say.
What about you? Are you guilty as well? Probably.

The chance is that you were stripped of the need to have fun while learning by the soulless system of education. But good news everyone! With some intentional effort, you can get it back!

First, let’s take a look at what you can use rhymes for:

Untap Your Memory’s Potential Using Rhymes

 

Here is one of the hundreds of rhymes I’ve used to learn vocabulary.

поэтому что всегда заявка когда ты звезда
на вес золота моя поездка

(because there’s always an order when you’re a star

my trip (ride) is worth its weight in gold)

le manque d’air sur (la) marche d’un escalier

(lack of air, on the step of stairs)

You see my friend how terrible my rhymes are. You might even feel sorry for me right now but I’m going to high-five myself anyway for this fine piece of art!

USE RHYMES TO MEMORIZE (FUN) FACTS

 

It’s one of the rhymes which I’ve used to memorize what Cecilia Payne became famous for.

Cecilia Payne doesn’t need mars
cause she discovered composition of stars

 

USE RHYMES TO MEMORIZE DATES

The Spanish Armada met its fate in fifteen hundred and eighty-eight

If I’m not mistaken this was actual rhyme used by Mark Twain

And of course, these are just a few of hundreds of possible application of rhymes. With a little bit of creativity, you can memorize anything this way.

SO WHY WOULD YOU DO IT?

For better recall

If you still recall alphabet by singing ABC Song then you KNOW how powerful rhymes (and melody) can be. No need to be ashamed, you’re not alone. We’re strong in numbers.

But don’t take my word for it. Look around to find some real-life examples. What would you remember better – a bunch of some unrelated words liar, pants and fire or a powerful rhyme: liar, liar pants on fire!

Because it’s fun!

You can basically come up with any silly rhymes you want. There is no judging. You don’t have to show them to anyone!

Learning must go through your emotional filter in order to be processed effectively. That’s why emotional memory is a critical component for the learning process.

When you have fun, your brain not only learns faster but also keeps you more interested in what you learn. Thus, increasing your attention span.

To save time

Sure, rhyming some words might seem time-consuming. And I guess it in comparison with mindless cramming. But in the long run, you can actually save a lot of time.

I can guarantee you that there’ll be many situations when you memorize some words after rhyming them and you won’t have to review them ever again! They will be etched in your memory.

For experimentations’ sake

Come on, you’re basically talking to yourself right now reading this. Writing some kick-ass rhymes won’t harm your respect in the ‘hood! Who knows, maybe you’ll develop some mad rap skills as a bonus after some time?!

So why not try it just to see if it’s a good fit for you?

HOW TO DO IT?

 

I know. These are just simple rhymes. Nothing too fancy. Regardless of that, it’s worth taking these tips into consideration.

1) don’t be afraid and let go of any inhibitions

I rhyme frequently about stuff which I’m not comfortable with sharing. And that’s perfectly ok.

2) start small

Regardless of what you want to memorize, you don’t have to start creating lengthy poems in order to do this. Choose two or three pieces of information and bind them with some nice rhyme.

Once you feel comfortable using rhymes, you can start writing entire poems to memorize bigger chunks of knowledge.

3) add them to Anki

Adding such rhymes to Anki will increase your recall even further.
It’s like using gauntlet instead of a fist to make your brain understand that YOU MUST learn it by heart.

4) use emotions

Do you remember one of the rules from my mnemonics course? Involve emotions, make your rhymes disgusting or funny. Just to give you an embarrassing example -I disliked my ex-boss.

That’s why I have a short rhyme involving words (ugh) “blade” and “anal insertion” in Russian, and his name. Result: some chuckling and a powerful recall rate of a couple of words.

5) choose a melody from some song (karaoke YT version) and sing your rhymes

 

6) rhymes can include vocabulary from many languages

Rhymes don’t have to consist only of the vocabulary from the target language, mix it with some words from your native language. For example:

It’s not easy to borrar (Spanish – erase), when yo’re a handsome rock star

7) brag about it

Read your rhymes to others, if you feel comfortable with it. It will make the information even more memorable.

8) choose your style

What’s your style? Do you want to write limericks or maybe like Dr. Seuss?

I’m not a fan of rap so I prefer (actually LOVE) cheesy rock lyrics and rhymes. And that’s basically how my rhymes sound – cheap and cheesy. But if you prefer something more sophisticated e.g. Eminem’s lyrics, go for it. Try to imitate them. Or simply copy them, throw away some word and insert your own!

BONUS TIP: And remember – you are not allowed under any circumstances to call your friends homies!

9) what’s most important – have fun

Because that’s the point!

 

How pretending to be an assassin can help you remember poisons in food better

remember poisons in food better

Wouldn’t it be great to be an actual assassin? 

Not to mutilate anyone, of course, but to have his confidence, strength, KNOWLEDGE… (and it’s sure as hell more interesting than being “Jeff, an IT guy.”)

And we all know that no assassin would be complete without secret knowledge of poisons. With knowledge like that – who would ever tread on you?

But what does it have to do with learning?! I rush to explain.

Usefulness In Learning

There are many principles which help us to understand how to memorize more effectively.
But there is one which has a key function in our lives.

USEFULNESS

Your brain discards most of the information you come into contact with.
It is useless. Why would you remember some date or a name of an obscure plant?

SURVIVAL – that’s what important.

And needless to say, your profession is indispensable to your survival. Cooks remember recipes better than most non-cooks. Programmers have a better memory of code than people who simply dabble in coding.

Sure, there are factors which come into play:

And the list goes on… But let’s concentrate on USEFULNESS.

Who Would You Like To Be?

I know that you have your profession. This is what you’re great at and you stick to it – fully understandable. But what if you could create a set of characters to improve your life (and your learning curve)? Just like in role-playing games (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons).

You could be anyone you want, even if just for a day!

The Power Of Belief

But does pretending to be someone you’re not make some knowledge useful? Yes, it does. It does if you choose to believe that you can be that person. Our brain is the most magnificent thing in the whole universe. And it has a truly breath-taking quality.

It can’t tell fiction from reality. Just look at what power of belief can do to you:

  • Memory Implantation – Does the thing you remember really happened?
  • Stress – very often the biochemical reactions of our body depend on our perception of this situation
  • Rationalization – we can justify even the stupidest decisions or choices and remain convinced that we’re right
  • The Placebo Effect
  • Multiples Personalities Disorders – where one of the personalities is allergic to some specific food while others are not
  • Mental training in sports

So are you ready to become an assassin?!

Remember poisons in food better

I’ve prepared a list of 5 popular food products which contain various poisons. Of course, such products would be lethal only in extreme situations (and large doses) so take it with a grain of salt!

cherries – contain cyanogenic glycosides

Cherry (Prunus cerasus), as well as other Prunus species such as peach (Prunus persica), plum (Prunus domestica), almond (Prunus dulcis), and apricot (Prunus armeniaca). Leaves and seeds contain cyanogenic glycosides. (Wiki)

“When the seeds of cherries are crushed, chewed, or even slightly injured, they produce prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide). Next time you are eating cherries, remember not to suck on or chew the pip” (http://listverse.com).

apples – their seeds contain cyanide

“Apple seeds are very often eaten accidentally but you would need to chew and consume a fairly high number to get sick.

There are not enough seeds in one apple to kill, but it is absolutely possible to eat enough to die. I recommend avoiding apple eating competitions!” (http://listverse.com).

tuna – contains high levels of mercury and frequent source of salmonella poisoning

marlin – contains high levels of mercury

“Most people are unaware that marlin has been documented to accumulate harmful levels of mercury.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health guidelines for fish consumption indicate that any fish with a mercury level greater than 1.5 parts per million (ppm) should not be consumed in any amount.

Marlin, especially large specimens, have been found to contain mercury levels as high as 15 ppm, or 10 times the EPA limit.” (Source: http://takemarlinoffthemenu.org)

potatoes – contain poisonous glycoalkaloids

Potatoes contain toxic compounds known as glycoalkaloids, of which the most prevalent are solanine and chaconine. Solanine is also found in other members of the Solanaceae plant family, which includes Atropa belladonna (“deadly nightshade”) and Hyoscyamus niger (“henbane”) (see entries below). The concentration of glycoalkaloid in wild potatoes suffices to produce toxic effects in humans. (Wiki)

“Potatoes (like tomatoes) contain poison in the stems and leaves – and even in the potato itself if left to turn green (the green is due to a high concentration of the glycoalkaloid poison).

Potato poisoning is rare, but it does happen from time to time. Death normally comes after a period of weakness and confusion, followed by a coma.

The majority of cases of death by potato in the last fifty years in the USA have been the result of eating green potatoes or drinking potato-leaf tea”. (http://listverse.com)

Prepare “The Action Plan” – A Story That Is

We also tend to remember stories better than facts. That’s why, to remember these poisons better, we can come up with some interesting story.

Let’s say that you have an imaginary enemy called Bob. And, to put it gently, you’re not the biggest fan of his. Why not invite him for a fancy dinner?

Compose the aforementioned products into the meal which Bob won’t ever forget. Let it be a reminder to him that nobody messes with the assassin!

Conclusion

The huge takeaway from this article is that our brain creates its own realityIf you believe it – it’s true.

So try to be creative – come up with your secret alter egos which can help you to memorize information better from the fields of your interest. Fake it until you make it.

And remember to put your knowledge to good use! I guess to balance this article, next time I should write about being a druid and healing…!

What other poisonous food ingredients do you know?