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

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

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

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

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

It is all confusing and disheartening.

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

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

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

Why bother with choosing the right method?

1) It saves time

 

choose the best learning methods

 

Nothing is our in this world but time – Seneca

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine what you could do with all that saved time!

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

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

2) It boosts motivation

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

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

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

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

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

3) It solves most of other learning problems

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

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

Keep on forgetting words?
Wrong learning methods.

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

The next thing on the agenda – learning fallacies.

The Most Widespread Learning Fallacies

 

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

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

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

Fallacy #1 – My method works

 

how to choose the best learning methods

 

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

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

Absolutely all learning methods work.

It comes as a shock, right?

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

Even the worst of the worst methods work.

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

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

In other words, I was rewriting a dictionary.

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

how to choose the best learning methods

 

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

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

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

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

However, let me repeat for dramatic effect.

Learning styles don’t exist*

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

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

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

PREFER is the key word here.

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

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

But there is some silver lining here.

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

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

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

Fallacy #3 – Everybody learns differently

 

how to choose the right learning methods

 

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

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

learning differently =/ learning effectively.

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

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

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

The list goes on and on.

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

Main takeawayour brains absorb information in a very similar way. 

Fallacy #4 – It’s based on science

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

Yes, it is crucial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can guarantee you that almost every method is based on some research paper.
Whether its creator knows it or not.

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

Fallacy #5 – There is one method

 

choose the best learning methods

There is no perfect learning method. 

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

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

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

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

Important factors in choosing right learning methods

 

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

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

A good method should

a) be based on science

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

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

As Aristotle once said

“The fact is our starting point.” 

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

b) sustainable (easy to use)

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

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

c) be engaging

The Marines have a great motto

Learn how you fight

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

d) be tested

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

Most people don’t challenge their assumptions.

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

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

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

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

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

e) give you feedback

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

Final Words

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

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

Good luck!

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

How To Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading (Which Sucks Anyway)

Reading fast is certainly an amazing skill. And the very tempting one.

Can you feel the thrill of endless possibilities? If you just knew how to do it, you could read, like, 10 books per week!

No wonder speed reading is a huge business.

There are probably thousands of books written on the subject.
And 99% percent are crap. Promises-flavored crap.

Sure, everyone would like to be the guy who picks up a thick book, thumbs it through in two minutes just to say, “Do they have to dumb down everything these days?”.

Can you become such a person? Definitely no.

Can you become a person who reads very fast? Yes.

However, if you are looking for a quick and easy solution, you will get severely disappointed.
Let’s start with some basic fact to help you read books fast without speed-reading.

0) Speed Reading Is Bullshit

 

Read Books Quickly Without Speed-Reading

 

I know that some might take this statements very personally, or even be offended.
“How dare you smear the good name of the speed-reading community?!”

However, it has to be said as it frustrates me endlessly.

Almost anywhere I go, I encounter opinions that it is perfectly possible.
From Tony Buzan’s classic to Tim Ferris’ article, everyone claims that reading with a speed of 1000 words/min is perfectly achievable.

Some even go a step further. Comments under any article on speed-reading usually spiral into some bizarre contest.

“800 wpm (words per minute)? That’s laughable, man.
Try getting to 2000 wpm, like me, to see what REAL speed reading is!”

Sounds great, right? Doesn’t work.

Before we get to the specific methods, I think you should know a thing or two about …

 

MY EXPERIENCE WITH SPEED-READING

I started my speed reading journey about 12 years ago.
I have always been a great believer in capabilities of a human mind.

No wonder, I quickly got sucked into the speed-reading world.

Initially, I thought that I was a very fast reader
It quickly turned out that my typical reading speed of >300 wpm was pitiful.

Wouldn’t you feel that way?

You start reading about people who underwent a special kind of speed-reading training.
About some sort of super-geniuses, or so I thought, who can read with 3000 wpm or even 8000 wpm?

I felt inadequate.

I started reading every speed reading book I could ferret out.
There were good books and there were terrible books.

Ok, mostly they were terrible.

Some titles sound as if they were concocted by a shitfaced magician.

Here are some of them. But just a word of warning. Don’t buy them.
They are crap. Go get yourself drunk instead. Or buy your horse a three-piece suit, It will be better use of your money

  • A Course in Light Speed Reading A Return to Natural Intuitive Reading
  • The Alpha-Netics Rapid Reading Program
  • The PhotoReading Whole Mind System

Did I get better?

Yep. At least in some way.

FIRST RESULTS

After a couple of weeks of training, I could read with a speed of 1000 words per minute.
Then I pushed myself even more and I got to 1400 wpm.

There was just one problem, I couldn’t spot back then. The speed was there but I understood almost nothing

I guess Woody Allen summarized it quite brilliantly when he said, ” I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

It was a very disappointing experience, I needed some time to digest the burden of this conclusion.

When I did, it became clear that

1) Nothing worth reading can/should be read fast.

and

2) You can read fast but you can’t understand and analyze information fast.

That’s why, as far as I am concerned, anyone who is selling “photographic reading courses” should be pilloried while a fat dude named Stanley sticks a tongue in his ear (so-called seashell).

Ok, we got this covered.
Let’s move on to the things which can actually help you read faster.

1) Know Thy Goal

 

Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading

 

    Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed,
    and some few to be chewed and digested. –

FRANCIS BACON (1561–1626)

When in doubt, trust in Bacon.
He was definitely onto something.

The very first thing you should do before you open a book, and a waft of paper hits your nostrils, is to decide why you want to read it.

It doesn’t sound sexy. I know. You are a bad boy and you’d rather slap that book open right away. However, you need to restrain yourself as it is an extremely important step.

You might not feel it, but your decision, subconscious or not, will weigh heavily on what your mind concentrates on. And on what you extract from the text.

You usually read for

  • knowledge
  • inspiration
  • relax

So try to choose one of the said purposes.

Of course, sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint the exact purpose of reading.
Nevertheless, you always do your best to determine it as precisely as you only can

2) Separate learning from reading

 

You are ambitious. That’s great. That’s admirable.

And very likely it is an invisible burden which hovers over your head and stops you from reading faster.

Why?

Let me guess.
You are trying to read and analyze information at the same time?

You see something thought-provoking, adjust your monocle and say, “Oh my, utterly marvelous. Let’s ponder over it for a while.”

Do you?

Then if your goal is to read faster, you are setting yourself up for failure.
There is one crucial lesson here, you need to understand.

Reading is not learning. Learning is not reading.*

*it’s a good tattoo idea if you ever need one

Your brain is not a computer.
It can’t switch effectively between two absolutely different activities.

Do it for a short period and you will burn through all the glucose stashed in your brain.

Result?

A headache, the feeling of general fatigue, malaise and so on.
After a while, your brain becomes impervious to new information.

This method of reading is simply not very sustainable.

Mind you that I am not saying that you can’t read and learn at the same time.
I am just stating a simple fact that it is not a very effective method of reading.

 

Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading

 

SOLUTION

To be honest, I have struggled with this problem for quite some time until the two beautiful words dawned on me.

*whispers sensually”

Batch working.

I am sure you are familiar with the term but just to be sure.

Batch working is a process of grouping items because they are similar, or because we plan to do something similar to them.

For instance, it wouldn’t make much sense to make a huge omelet without preparing products beforehand. Can you imagine how ineffective it would be?!

“I need twenty eggs to make this omelet”

*takes two and cracks them open into a bowl*

“I need two more”

*opens a fridge and takes another two*

Doesn’t it sound frustrating?

This is why you should always try to group similar tasks together.

This is what you should do – this is the method which, I am pretty sure, saved my sanity.

1) First mark/highlight

Whenever you stumble across something that is

  • interesting
  • thought-provoking
  • vague
  • incomprehensible
  • you don’t agree with

mark/highlight it in some way.

Jot it down on a margin or copy it into some file.

Don’t try to dismantle any of the concepts you have read about.
The time for that will come.

Done?
Good. Keep on reading.

Marked another fragment?
Good. Keep on reading.

2) Learn/analyze

After reading a certain number of pages, set aside some time for a more detailed analysis.
Go crazy, analyze the heck out of everything.

Refute, digest, criticize to your heart’s content.

Learning is demanding enough on its own.
Don’t mix it additionally with reading.

3) Learn what you read

 

Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading

 

This one comes from a very frustrating experience.

About two years ago I was binge reading even 3-4 books per week.
Of course, being a sensible learner, I took notes and scribbled my remarks about everything even mildly interesting.

In quite a short period, I amassed notes from over 40 books.
The bad luck had it that I hit a rough patch and didn’t have so much time anymore.

After everything settled, I came back to reading.

I didn’t do anything with the notes, mind you. They just sat soused in my notebook.

Fast forward year and a half, I was reading some interesting excerpt from a book on the cognitive neuroscience. My eyes lay on a particular sentence which solved one of the biggest obstacles I had at the time concerning my memory experiments.

I was freaking ecstatic!

The worst part?

A couple of months ago, I finally strapped myself to a chair and started going through the aforementioned notes.

A couple of minutes into the reading, I saw it. There it was. Guffawing blatantly at my helplessness.

The same damn fact.

The miracle solution was there all along. I just didn’t learn it.
In the process, I wasted myriads of hours on useless experimenting.

Lesson learned:

Before you move to the next book, learn what you read before.

It makes perfect sense. Even more so if you want to specialize in some area.
Your average author spends hundreds of hours researching his book or summarizing his knowledge.

Without notes, you will spend dozens of hours reading it and end up with almost no knowledge.
You will remember just a couple of main things. Nothing more.

And it would be a damn shame.

Thanks to this strategy, your ever-growing knowledge will help you go quickly through most of the books.

How quickly?

It’s not unusual for me to read a 400-page book in less than two days. That’s nothing unusual.
There is simply not enough new information for me to absorb.

4) Skim

 

Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading

 

You don’t have to read everything.

You can skim through some paragraphs or descriptions. Nobody will judge you.

I am yet to hear, “John is such a filthy, primitive animal, I have heard he skips paragraphs. He sickens me!”

What is important for an author might be meaningless to you.

Take this article as an example. I thought it was important to include my personal experiences.

But maybe you don’t care. That’s ok, skim through such passages until you catch a glimpse of something more interesting.

5) Learn core vocabulary

 

Every industry and area of specialization is permeated by a specific lingo.
Love it or hate it, it’s still something you must learn.

My main area of specialization is learning/memory and everything in-between, like productivity.

Not knowing what the hippocampus, the dentate gyrus or the Premack’s principle is, would have the paralyzing influence on my reading ability.

It would be tantamount to kneecapping myself and expecting to run.

If you care about being good in the area of your choice, always try to master every word you encounter.

6) Build Core Knowledge

 

In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you. – MORTIMER J. ADLER

I can safely assume that whatever you read, you read because you want to learn more about.
Or you want to master a given field of knowledge.

In any case, you should know that initially, your pace of reading will always be slow.
But that’s good.

Slow is new fast. This deceptive sluggishness is the speed of light in disguise.

Look at this excerpt.

In an imagery study by Okado and Stark (2003), increased PFC activity for false memories was localized to the right anterior cingulate gyrus. Given the role of the anterior cingulate in response competition and conflict (Kerns et al., 2004), the authors concluded that this reflects the increased effort involved in incorrectly endorsing an imagined item as “seen.” ERP studies also support the conclusion that frontal regions may distinguish between true and false memories, and be engaged in greater monitoring and evaluation associated with false retrieval (Curran et al., 2001; Fabiani, Stadler, and Wessels, 2000; Goldmann et al., 2003; Nessler, Mecklinger, and Penney, 2001; Wiese and Daum, 2006).

This is a typical excerpt from a book on neuroscience. If you have no scientific foundation, it can be hard for you to read even a couple of pages from such a book. Let alone an entire book.

This is precisely where building core vocabulary and knowledge comes together.

It’s one thing to get familiar with the nomenclature. But do you really understand how these terms interrelate?

Do you understand, at least superficially, what is their function?

If not, you have to analyze it. Only then can you move on.

It’s not fast. it takes time.
But there is not even one discipline in this world where you can skip basics

7) Read a lot

 

Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading

 

The more you read, the more efficient reader you become. The reader who knows ins and outs of different styles of writing. The one who knows when to skim and when to read deep into a text.

These benefits alone explain well why you should try to read as much as possible,
But there is one more reason.

The spiral theory of knowledge.

But what is it?

The spiral theory of knowledge describes a fascinating phenomenon.

First, when you encounter a certain idea, you might not notice or comprehend it. Not fully anyway. Then you move on to something else. You learn other subjects, read other books. Then, after some time, you encounter the same idea again and only then can you get your Eureka moment.

“How could I not understand it before?! That was so easy. The answer was there all along!”

And that’s a great question.

How come you didn’t understand this concept before?

Your knowledge was to blame.
At the time, it was patchy and full of gaps.

You were simply not ready to comprehend the full scope of the idea then.

The potential answer to whatever questions that might be bugging you, consciously or subconsciously, lies in yet another book.

Yes, there is a door behind the door.
But you will never know if it has the answer written on it until you open it.

8) Use the knowledge you learn

 

Many people love to brag about the number of books they read every month. They are like beautiful shiny badges. The phenomenon is so well-known that Issac Watts wrote about it in his book “The Improvement Of The Mind” in 1821!

Such persons are under a great temptation to practice these two follies. (1.) To heap up a great number of books at a greater expense than most of them can bear, and to furnish their libraries infinitely better than their understanding. And (2.) when they have gotten such rich treasures of knowledge upon their shelves, they imagine themselves men of learning, and take a pride in talking of the names of famous authors, and the subjects of which they treat, without any real improvement of their own minds in true science or wisdom. At best their learning reaches no further than the indexes and table of contents, while they know not how to judge or reason concerning the matters contained in those authors. And indeed how many volumes of learning soever a man possesses, he is still deplorably poor in his understanding, till he has made those several parts of learning his own property by reading and reasoning, by judging for himself, and remembering what he has read.

Don’t be one of those people.

Try to find even the slightest use, if it is only possible, for whatever that is you’re reading. 

Impress someone. Help a friend with some problem. Find a better job. Anything will do.

Just don’t let it go to waste,

As I did for such a long time.

Years ago I used to learn every single fact about anything. Literally anything. And I am sad to inform you that it was mostly wasted effort.

I don’t remember almost anything I learned.

Why would I?

My brain didn’t find this knowledge useful. I didn’t find it useful. And so it had to go.

Final Words

We are wired to follow the path of the least resistance. No wonder. We are drawn to, seemingly, easy solutions such as speed-reading.

But you already know the truth, don’t you? There are no easy fixes. There are no easy solutions.

And yet it is still possible to read fast. Even very fast.

But first, you have to put effort into building a foundation.

The very same effort which will make your newly acquired skill taste so sweet.

Enjoy it.

How To Learn German From The Scratch To 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 The Scratch To B2 Level

 

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 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 The Scratch To B2 LevelResults 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 the scratch to B2 level – our learning 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 The Scratch To B2 Level

 

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 The Scratch To B2 Level

 

  • 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 learning!

Is there anything that surprised you in this learning plan? Let me know!

How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

Not everyone is equal in the kingdom of languages.
There is one group which is mercilessly oppressed.

One group which suffers from a crippling disease called…

SOCIAL ANXIETY.

It’s a terrible, terrible malady.
It doesn’t matter how hard you try to keep your fears and anxiety in a padded cell of your brain.

They always scrape their way out just to feed your soul with poison.
Even if only through the cracks.

But does it mean that you can’t learn a language because of it?
Hell no!

I used to suffer from anxiety-induced panic attacks in the past.
I sat in my room for days with curtains closed until I ran out of food.

Those days are, luckily, long gone. Although anxiety still looms the dark corners of my mind.

So if you are also a victim of this condition – don’t worry.

Here is the list of six ideas which you can use to overcome your anxiety and learn how to speak your target language.

1) Don’t find a teacher, find a friend

 

How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

 

There is a good chance that you don’t want to talk with others because you don’t know them.
You don’t feel comfortable baring your soul in front of them.

Every cell in your brain send you warning signals – watch out, they are out to get you.

But you don’t feel this way around friends or people you trust, do you?

That’s why this is probably the best way to approach language learning for those anxiety stricken.

You won’t be able to get any panic attacks or feel anxious with a friend by your side.

Discussing anything becomes much easier when you grow attached to another person.
You don’t even have to suffer from anxiety to be able to benefit from such a relationship.

Having such a contact with another person drastically changes the way you experience lessons.
You don’t sit in front of a stranger who doesn’t give a shit about your day or well-being.

You sit in front of someone who cares.
Such a bond makes all the conversations much more meaningful and memorable as well.

That’s why you should pay close attention to a person who will become your language partner or your teacher.

Look for similarities. Try a lesson to make sure that this person is trustworthy.

And, what’s most important, don’t be a weirdo. “Hi, my name is Bartosz. Do you wanna be my friend?”.

Ugh.

2) Talk To Yourself

 

Talk to yourself in a foreign language

 

What 99% of people seem to miss is that you don’t necessarily need countless hours of talking with others to be able to communicate freely in your target language.

Why?

Because almost all hard work is done in solitude.
Learning vocabulary, grammar, listening. All that you can do on your own.

Of course, it’s great to have some private lessons from time to time to make sure that you are on the right track. But other than that – you will be fine on your own.

Actually, you can create your own feedback loops to make sure that you are speaking correctly.

But how can you practise speaking on your own

The basic technique goes like this

  1. visit iteslj.org/questions
  2. choose a subject you want to discuss
  3. start answering and do it out loud

Don’t know a word? Write it down.
Depending on your preferences you might look it up immediately or save it for later.

You can even scribble these questions on a piece of paper and write down needed vocabulary on the flip side. It will allow you to answer the same question again in the following days.

EXAMPLE:
Q: Why do you hate Kate? (translated into your target language)
A: (needed vocabulary) brainless chatterbox, pretentious

As you can see, you don’t need to be serious when you answer these questions.
Heck, the questions themselves don’t need to be serious!

Have fun!

Q: Have you ever tried eating with your feet?

Q: If you were a hot dog, what kind of hot dog would you be?

The greatest thing of all about learning to talk like this is that nobody judges you. You might mispronounce words in your first try. You might forget them.

And guess what?
Nothing. Nothing will happen.

And once you get good and confident enough, you can go and start talking with others.

I find it quite often to be more effective than the real conversations.

I know, I know.

On the surface, it might seem absurd.
There is no interaction after all.

However, if you look beyond the superficial, you will be able to see that self-talk offers you a lot of opportunities which real-life conversations can’t.

For example, self-talk gives you a chance to activate less frequent words.

I can talk for 20 minutes with myself about cervical cancer. Could I do it with someone else? 

I guess so. Let’s try to imagine such a conversation.

– “Hi Tom! Wanna talk about cervical cancer? Will be fun! I promise!”

– “Stay away, you weirdo!’

– “Cool! Some other time then”

3) Write instead of talking

 

How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

 

Talking doesn’t necessarily mean discussing philosophical treatises face-to-face.
It’s perfectly fine to stick to written communication.

In the era of the internet, you are just a few clicks aways from millions of potential language partners.

Here is the list of websites where you can find some language exchange partners:

Don’t want to talk with others?

Don’t worry. You still might activate your vocabulary. Simply start writing on a daily basis. Anything really will do. It can be a diary, a blog, some observations.

Make it difficult for yourself and choose some difficult subject to jog your mind.

it can even be some erotic novel! “The secret erotic life of ferns”, for example.

Yep. I definitely like this one.

4) Condition yourself

 

We might be the pinnacle of evolution but in some regards, we are no different from your average gopher or a sloth.
You can easily get conditioned to react to certain circumstances in a given way.

Why?
Habituation. That’s why.

Habituation is a form of learning in which an organism decreases or ceases to respond to a stimulus after repeated presentations. Essentially, the organism learns to stop responding to a stimulus which is no longer biologically relevant. For example, organisms may habituate to repeated sudden loud noises when they learn these have no consequences.

Habituation usually refers to a reduction in innate behaviours, rather than behaviours developed during conditioning in which the process is termed “extinction”. A progressive decline of a behavior in a habituation procedure may also reflect nonspecific effects such as fatigue, which must be ruled out when the interest is in habituation as a learning process. – Wikipedia

Once you learn that all that gloom and doom is only in your head, you can start modifying your behavior (you can read more about it in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn. Highly recommended!)

You can leverage this rule and condition yourself to become a braver version of yourself.
Maybe you won’t get I-will-slay-you-and-take-your-women brave in two weeks but it will get you started.

Your action plan is simple but not easy.

Find situations where you can expose yourself to stressors

As Oscar Wilde used to say, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

And only you know how deep you are stuck in this anxiety gutter.

Choose your first task accordingly and move your way up from there. Don’t make it too easy or too hard on yourself.

Some of the things you might do are:

HIGH ANXIETY LEVELS (dropping comments)

  • comment some post in one of FB language groups
  • comment a YT video
  • comment some tweet
  • comment an article on Reddit or some other website

In other words, just leave a comment somewhere.
You don’t even have to go back to check responses!

MEDIUM ANXIETY LEVELS (exchanging messages)

  • register at Italki.com and write to just one language exchange partner
  • download HelloTalk and write to someone

LOW ANXIETY LEVELS (face-to-face conversations)

  • go to a nearby language café and talk with others
  • find the nearest language meeting on MeetUp.com and go there

Any start is a good start as long as you start.

5) Reframe your thoughts

 

How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

 

There is a good chance that you have heard about reframing your thoughts.

The basic premise is very simple.

Every time you catch yourself being anxious about some situation, you should look at it from a different perspective.

Instead of saying, “Gosh, she sure wouldn’t like to talk with me”, you can change it to, “I bet she is bored right now and would love to have a nice chat with me”.

I know. It sounds corny.

The first time I heard this piece of advice, I felt as if a ragged hobo tried to jam a lump of guano in my hand saying, “Just pat it into your face and you will gain superpowers”.

Little did I know that this advice is as brilliant as it is simple.
Much water passed under the bridge before I finally started applying it.

But why does it work?
Because such is the nature of memories.

They are not set in stone and perennial.

Research conducted by Daniela Schiller, of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and her former colleagues from New York University shows us something truly amazing.

Schiller says that “memories are malleable constructs that are reconstructed with each recall. We all recognize that our memories are like Swiss cheese; what we now know is that they are more like processed cheese.

What we remember changes each time we recall the event. The slightly changed memory is now embedded as “real,” only to be reconstructed with the next recall. – Source 

So what does it all mean?

It simply means that adding new information to your memories or recalling them in a slightly different context might alter them.

How much?
Enough for you to recalibrate how you perceive the world around you!

It’s up to you how much you want to reshape your perception of the reality.

6) Decide whether you really need to speak a language

 

How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

 

It seems like a strange statement, doesn’t it?
But the truth is that not everyone needs to learn how to speak some language.

Before you dive into the language learning process, be sure that it’s something you really want. You shouldn’t feel pressured into doing so just because others do.

You don’t want to spend hundreds of extra hours on something you are not going to use.

Remember that every language, even the tiniest of them all, is a skeleton key to the vastness of materials – books, movies, anecdotes, etc.

It’s fine to learn a language just to be able to access them all.

Conclusion

Overcoming your language learning anxiety can be hard but it is certainly doable.
When in doubt, always keep in mind that our reality is negotiable to a large degree – if you believe you can change, it is definitely possible.

What’s more, you shouldn’t forget that the real work is always done in solitude.
Teachers or language partners might show you what to concentrate on but it’s up to you to put this knowledge into practice.

Lastly, you don’t have to limit yourself to activating your vocabulary only through speaking. Writing is also a very desirable option.

Back to you.

Can you share any tricks/methods which helped you overcome your language learning anxiety?

No advice is too small or trivial.

As always, feel free to comment or drop me a message.

How Much Time It Takes To Maintain And Improve Many Languages

Being a polyglot sounds like such an amazing thing, doesn’t it?
Admiration, fame, money, women throwing themselves at your feet.

All these things are not only great but also completely imaginary.

Ok, just a bad joke. It is pretty great.

But plenty of people notoriously underestimates how much time it takes to maintain and learn languages. I am sure you know the type.

They love to assume that the only prerequisite to master many languages is some unspecified talent.

I get it. If you say, “I envy you, I wish I could speak so many languages but I just don’t have a knack for it”, you don’t have to feel guilty.

That’s why they keep sucking the rationalization’s tit until they get all warm and blissful.

And who knows? Maybe they are right to some degree. We are all born different. Wiring in our little brains differs from one another.

Some people might actually have some head-start. But one thing is sure – no magical combinations of neural networks will ever make you a polyglot if you don’t put in the long hours.

How many?

It’s time to unveil the mystery.

For the past four weeks, I have been trying to track down how much time I devote to learning and maintaining my languages each week.

But before we get to that, let’s start with the baseline,

My Current Language Levels

Here are my current levels:

  • English: C2+ (C2 level + a couple of specializations)
  • Swedish: C1/C2
  • German: C1/C2
  • Russian: C1
  • Esperanto: C1
  • Czech: B2/C1
  • Spanish: B2
  • French: A2/B1

As a side note, I can’t understand why some people say that they know a language when they can barely string a sentence together. Your language is not dormant – it is mostly forgotten. Deal with it,

No one would go to an interview claiming that they know JavaScript but “not right now”.
Somehow, this practice seems to be quite widespread in the language learning world.

C1 level

You might notice that I learn my languages to at least C1 level. There is a very good reason for that – language attrition happens muuuch slower on this level than on the lower ones.

Once you get there, you can start taking breaks from that language to entertain yourself with other projects.

Time Breakdown

 

how much time to maintain and improve many languages

WORK

Let’s start with my unfair advantage – I teach / train people for a living. It allows me to spend considerable amounts of time while being surrounded by many languages.

Currently, I teach/coach 30+ people per week.

Main languages I teach are:

  • Swedish – 8-10 hours
  • German – 8-10 hours
  • English – 8-10 hours

These are not your usual conversations. I work almost exclusively with professionals. Each hour I spent with them is designed to jog their memory and bring them to the point of exhaustion.

That requires from me quite a considerable vocabulary which is awesome.

 

If we add to this mix a couple hours of consultations each week, we get a pretty decent number.

Total time: 24-35 hours

SPARE TIME – LEARNING PART

I am not sure whether it’s sad or not but I spend most of my waking hours learning and/or experimenting with memory systems. None of these activities are carried out in my mother tongue.

I figured out that since I know it pretty well it would be a waste of time.

Basically, it means, as absurd as it sounds, that Polish (my native tongue) and French are the least frequently used languages by me.

It leads to some bizarre and funny situations. Sometimes my brain plays with me and prompts me to conjugate Polish verbs in a really weird way – I have created monsters like “wypróbowywałem” instead of “wypróbowałem” more times than I would like to admit.

Quite a side-effect, huh?

Another interesting side-effect is dreaming in foreign languages. I have actually had dreams where people were speaking one foreign language and my brain was displaying subtitles in another.

Yep. Who needs drugs when you have languages.

Anyway, reading, talking, noting, writing are all done in various languages.

The rough breakdown looks more less like this. Mind you that these numbers reflect only a couple of last weeks and they are bound to change. They have to adjust to my needs, after all.

English – 15-hours. As much as I would like to suppress the use of this language throughout the week, it is impossible.

About 80% of e-mails I get are in English. 98% of all scientific papers I read are in English, no other language comes even close when it comes to their quality. I would say that I read at least 300+ pages per week in that language.

And let’s not forget about writing articles. Once again English prevails.

Czech – 5 hours per week. Mostly reading (10-15 articles per week) and learning/revising vocabulary.

Russian – 3-7 hours per week. Mostly revising and learning vocabulary. I read maybe 1-2 articles per week. Oh, and let’s throw about 2-4 episodes of TV series to this mix!

Esperanto – 1-2 hours per week Mostly revising and learning vocabulary. Unfortunately, there are not many websites in Esperanto which overlap with my interests. It means that I read maybe 0-2 pages in Esperanto per week.

Swedish – 4-6 hours. I need to maintain my Swedish skills at a high level because of my job. I tend to read 10-20 articles per week and tend to watch a fair share of YT in Swedish (I highly recommend I Just Want To Be Cool channel, if you are learning Swedish).

French – 0-1 hours per week. Currently, I am busy with many projects and the sole victim of this state of affairs is French. As a not so surprising result, my French is deteriorating rather fast.

German – 3-5 hours per week. Besides learning new words and revising old ones, I read about 5-10 articles per week and watch a bit of YT.

Spanish – 3-4 hours per week. Mostly revising and learning vocabulary with some articles here and there.

And just for the clarity’s sake – I learn and revise my vocabulary by talking in order to keep it active.

Total time: 34-40 hours per week.

SPARE TIME – ENTERTAINMENT

how much time to maintain and improve many languages

 

Now it really gets weird!

I tend to watch a lot of TV series with my girlfriend – about 15 hours per week. It’s great fun. However, it has bothered me for a long time that everything we watch is in English.

That’s a wrinkle I couldn’t iron out.

And then it dawned on me – why not turn this ordinary activity into another language learning exercise?
Why not translate everything actors say into one of the languages I am trying to improve?

As I thought so I did. I have been doing it for about 4 months now and it has really helped me improve my fluency in a couple of languages.

“What about words or phrases you don’t know?”, you might ask.

I have an easy but effective system which takes care of that problem. I memorize them with mnemonics on the fly and quickly note them down after each episode.

Next day I look them up and encode them. Quite an elegant solution, isn’t it?

Of course, it doesn’t work each time. Sometimes I am just too tired and I let myself get sucked into a TV whirlwind.

Total time: 5-15 hours

The Final Result

The results were beyond interesting. It was no secret to me that I learn a lot but I didn’t think that it’s that much!

Not even once did I sink below the level of 70 hours per week, although I am sure that it might happen in the future.

Thank God I am not a crack addict. Otherwise, I would be this guy who crawls through broken glass to lick other junkies’ nostrils to get his daily high.

Total time: 63-90 hours per week

Want to increase your weekly learning time? Read on. There is some food for thought for you there.

ACTIVE vs. PASSIVE LEARNING

Active use: 35-50 hours per week (talking to others or myself)
Semi-active use: about 15 hours per week (translating TV series in my mind)
Passive: 15-35 hours per week (reading + listening/watching)

CHALLENGES

how much time to maintain and improve many languages

 

Over 70 hours per week is certainly a lot of time. That’s why there is one important question which begs to be asked.

Does it all come easy? Or does it require some tremendous amount of will power? At the risk of rubbing some people the wrong way the answer is – It does come easy.

At this point of time in my life, I do most of those things without giving them much thought. But I had to work my way up to get there.

And believe me – it was a long walk and the slope was slippery.

There is definitely a number of challenges you need to face if you want to pump up your total learning time. Here are some of them.

CREATING HABITS

Definitely one of the most important things to master, if not the most important one. If you want to make sure that you will learn day in, day out, you need to build within yourself the urge to do it.

The urge that can only be built and fueled by habits.

Forget about the motivation. Motivation is for suckers. You have to show up every day until the habit of learning becomes the extension of yourself.

Only then will you be able to not only learn a lot without much effort but also crave it.

Read more about creating durable habits here.

ALTERNATING LANGUAGES

You can’t just choose one or two and toss the rest into some musty pit. They would rust away in the blink of an eye.

You need to introduce and invite every language you’re learning to your life. You have to make conscious effort to use them all constantly.

Beginnings are ugly and weird. It seems your guest is hammered and shits on your carpet and you don’t know what to do with him.

But once the dust settles, using a given language should become your second nature.

Here are more tips about juggling many languages.

SURROUNDING YOURSELF WITH LANGUAGES

Use every possible moment you get to learn a word or two. The chances to do it are everywhere around you:

And so on. Every little bit counts

AUTOMATING INPUT

The general of productivity is that the fewer decisions you have to make, the better your general efficiency is. It’s hard to argue with that.

Let’s say that you want to read something, How much time do you usually spend before you pick up an article? 5 minutes? 10 minutes?

It might not seem like a lot. However, it adds up very quickly.
Soon it may turn out that at least a dozen of hours per week is trickling between your fingers.

The same goes for choosing movies or YT videos.

Me?

I am hell-bent on not letting that happen.
I would rather spend this time weaving wicker baskets than losing it due to my indecision.

That’s why my input-gathering process is almost fully automated.

In the morning, when I arrive at my desk with a steamy mug of coffee, everything I need is already in my e-mail box. Scientific papers, videos, articles. Everything.

I don’t need to spend even one minute more than I should trying to find the necessary information.

And yet, as you can clearly seem  I still spend a lot of time learning and maitaning my languages which leads me to the last point.

WHY I WON’T LEARN NEW LANGUAGES ANYTIME SOON

how much time to maintain and improve many languages

People learn languages for different reasons.
Mine has always struck people as eccentric.

I haven’t learned languages because of my deep love for them.

No doubt I have fallen in love with them during the process of learning (except for French – f*** you French!) but my affection hasn’t been the main factor.

The main reason was always the pursuit of better memory.

And even though I know that I still have a lot to learn memory-wise, I know that learning languages won’t get me much further.

I don’t find languages challenging anymore. Sure, I haven’t learned Basque or even one of Asian languages. But I don’t need to.

The general principles of learning and memory improvement won’t change just because I switched to a new language.

And to be honest, what’s the difference between knowing 8 and 9 languages?
Or 10-12? Not that big, in my opinion.

However, the time you need to maintain them grows significantly with every new addition. Of course, some learners trade quality for quantity but I personally prefer to truly master the languages I know.

Languages vs other branches of knowledge

I have read in some scientific paper that learning a language to C1 level is tantamount to graduating from studies.

How come?

Both activities require thorough knowledge and understanding of about 10000 words/concepts.

But I don’t believe it to be true. I don’t know many college graduates who can use their knowledge as fluently and practically as C1 language learners can use their vocabulary.

And that is what bugs me. Why would I learn another language when there are so many other mysteries just waiting to be solved (I guess it’s the FOMO syndrome?

So many branches of knowledge which seem to lure me. Every day, I seem to find yet another thing which I don’t know much about.

The choice is simple – I can either excel at many other things or simply learn another language or 5.

The latter is infinitely more exciting and practical.

So what’s next?

Years ago I promised myself that I would master 10 languages till I turn 40.
Right now I am 31 and I still have plenty of time to achieve my goal.

But I think that this time I will take my time.and stick to learning some other things and hopefully running this blog full-time.

CONCLUSION

Not everyone needs to be a polyglot but if this is a path you decide to tread, you should be fully aware that it requires much time and effort.

The path is fraught with various obstacles. Get rid of one of them and soon you will realize that another one took its place.

But if there was just one thing, I would like you to take away from this article, it would be this one:

You have to make the languages you learn a central part of your life, only then will you be able to truly master them.

Question for you:

What stops you from learning your target language(s) more often?”

I would love to hear your opinion.

 

How To Master The Grammar Of Any Language And Why Deliberate Practice Is The Fastest Way To Do It

I don’t like waiting.
It’s not that I can’t be patient – quite often I just don’t see the point.

Especially in the world of language learning, the typical response to any question seems to be, “it will come with time” or “you will learn it subconsciously”.

It’s especially true for grammar.

If we exclude just a handful of enthusiasts, we can definitely say that learning is one of the least favorite activities of most language learners.

It’s a big, dark and ugly maze. You have to learn how to handle it.
Otherwise, it will chew you up and spit you out. And then crap on your face while you are sobbing pitifully.

The common knowledge has it that you need plenty of time in order to learn your way around it.
You have to fumble about in the dark until you finally crawl out of it.

It goes without saying that the whole process takes the heavy toll on the language learner’s motivation.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.

The entire process can be accelerated at least several times thanks to the deep learning (a.k.a. the deliberate practice).

It’s the methodology which has been used by the world’s top performers for over three decades. It can help you break grammar into the easily digestible chunks.

In other words, the deep learning provides you with a step-by-step blueprint to go through any grammar in the most efficient manner. It can replace any teacher if you know how to use it.

But let’s start with the basics.

Problems With Typical Approach To Learning Grammar

Feedback Is Not (Always) Enough

 

Master The Grammar Fast
Try to imagine your average lesson. Not even group lessons – those are terribly ineffective (though enjoyable for some). I mean 1-1 lessons.

Have you ever noticed that even though you often get feedback from your teacher, you still keep on making the same mistakes?

Here is why.

Learning almost always takes place in the chaotic and cluttered environment.
At any given moment there are dozens of dozens of pieces of information fighting for your attention.

During your typical lessons, your teacher might correct you dozens of times.
“Wrong pronunciation, wrong conjugation, wrong (…)”.

You are getting bitch slapped to a pulp by the feedback.

The problem is too much information. If you get too many pieces of information, it’s very difficult to choose the ones which you should concentrate on. The ones which you will try to act upon.

In other words, just to geek it up a bit:

The information overload which may hinder the integration of the new information into long-term memory. – source

“Why not correct a student about just one aspect of the language?”, you might think.

This thought sounds tempting.

And let’s be honest – yes, if you correct just one or two things, students will start correcting those mistakes much quicker.

But there is a huge downside to this.

If you don’t make a student aware of other mistakes he makes, he optimistically assumes that they are not there!

That’s even worse! By the time you get through previous grammar aspects, your student will already have consolidated dozens of other mistakes!

It’s like the grammar-hydra!
Eliminate one mistake and 10 others take its place!

Passive Learning Is Not Efficient

Passive learning (i.e. reading and writing) won’t help either unless you invest significant amounts of time. So yes, it is possible to acquire decent grammar this way. However, if you want to learn many languages, it gets harder and harder to keep up with this input-heavy schedule.

But most of the times, seeing or hearing correctly composed sentences, won’t make you utter the correct ones on your own. (read more about passive learning here)

Unless you think that reading about surgical procedures makes you a skilled surgeon.
In that case – I rest my case.

What you have to remember is that the deep understanding of most of the skills comes from using them. You won’t just wake up one day and suddenly start spewing beautiful sentences left and right.

Acquiring Rare Grammar Constructions

While it might not be a big deal for some, it is definitely annoying for me.

Some grammar constructions occur very rarely. So rarely that learning them through context seems almost absurd.

How long would I have to read to actually learn some of them? How many hundreds (thousands) of sentences would I have to read to find one or two written in, say, past perfect continuous?

Crapload. That’s how many.
But if I can replace all these hours of reading and listening with just 2-3 hours of the deliberate practice, why wouldn’t I?

What Is Deep Learning (a.k.a. Deliberate Practice)?

 

Master The Grammar Of Any Language

 

Before I move on and show you how you can use it to improve your language learning skills, let’s try to define what deep learning is:

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

Words, words, words!
But what does it all REALLY mean?

1) You need a specific goal

Choose a grammar construction you have problems with, and which is useful at the same time.
For the sake of this article, I will use declination of German definite articles. They are the stuff of nightmares for many and thus the perfect choice.

 

 

But that’s not over. There is one more thing which you have to remember about this goal.

If you can’t commit a given piece of grammar to your memory, it means that it’s too big.

Why?

Because the availability of working memory is crucial for implementing expectancy-based strategic actions. – source

If you fry your working memory, you can forget about effective learning.

The easiest test possible you can run in order to check whether this condition is met is to try to reproduce information you have just memorized.

If you can do it without the excessive number of groans then you are all set.

For the purpose of the article, let’s assume that I want to master the Akkusativ form for “der”, “die” and “das”. Let’s leave plural for some other time.

Quick sanity check confirms that I am able to comfortably reproduce the declination of the said forms.

2) it requires your full attention

As my beloved Hungarian proverb puts it:

“If you have one ass you can’t sit on two horses” .

You can’t do two things at once without sucking at both of them.

If you think that you can then you are definitely delusional.

But what does devoting your full attention really mean?

It means just one thing.

You should only pay attention to the correct use of the given piece of grammar.. If it happens that you make some other mistakes along the way – so be it.

“But doesn’t it mean that I will start consolidating some other grammar mistakes?”.

That’s a fair question but no – you won’t

The reason is painfully simple.

If you devote your full attention to using one grammar construction correctly, you won’t even notice other mistakes. This is how our attention works.

Here is a great video which exemplifies this phenomenon.

Have you seen that one already?
Watch that one know.

These vidoes have definitely a very sobering effect on all the people who claim to possess the superior concentration power.

And they definitely prove one thing – it’s hard to consolidate something you don’t see.

3) It’s energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming

I am not going to lie to you.
The deliberate practice is boring and tiring.

And that’s bad news because in the era of modern technologies, everything must be fun and hip.
However, if you want to achieve results quickly, I am sure that’s a trade-off you are willing to make.

In a nutshell, you build awareness of a given grammar construction by creating dozens upon dozens of sentences with it.

This is what Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, wrote in one of her articles:

“What I had done in learning Russian was to emphasize not just understanding of the language, but fluency. Fluency of something whole like a language requires a kind of familiarity that only repeated and varied interaction with the parts can develop.

Where my language classmates had often been content to concentrate on simply understanding Russian they heard or read, I instead tried to gain an internalized, deep-rooted fluency with the words and language structure. I wouldn’t just be satisfied to know that понимать meant “to understand.”

I’d practice with the verb—putting it through its paces by conjugating it repeatedly with all sorts of tenses, and then moving on to putting it into sentences, and then finally to understanding not only when to use this form of the verb, but also when not to use it. I practiced recalling all these aspects and variations quickly.

After all, through practice, you can understand and translate dozens—even thousands— of words in another language.

But if you aren’t fluent, when someone throws a bunch of words at you quickly, as with normal speaking (which always sounds horrifically fast when you’re learning a new language), you have no idea what they’re actually saying, even though technically you understand all the component words and structure. And you certainly can’t speak quickly enough yourself for native speakers to find it enjoyable to listen to you.” – source

So how should you exactly practise the deep learning?

What I usually recommend is to create at least 100 sentences with the given grammar construction within next 5-7 days. But as always – the more the better.

Make sure that every sentence is different from the previous one and that YOU are the one who comes up with these sentences.

Here are some examples:

  • Ich habe den grossen Hund gehabt.
  • Er hat mir das schöne Haus gekauft.
  • Wir stellen den Teller auf den Tisch.

And so on.
Rinse and repeat.

You have to become the grim grammar executioner.
You might not enjoy your job but you know it has to be done.

The great thing about this kind of practice is that you don’t need any fancy tools.
A piece of paper will do.

Below you can find the worksheet I use to teach this concept to my students.

It looks like this:

 

Master The Grammar Of Any Language

 

4) It gives you feedback

In the perfect world, there is always someone who can provide you with feedback.

However, if you stick to the aforementioned rules, you should be able to produce grammatically correct sentences without any, or with minimal, supervision.

It’s only logical – if you try to do just one thing correctly, it won’t take long before you are fully aware that the construction you are using is applied appropriately.

You are better at monitoring your progress than you think.

Research has showed that individuals are able to monitor, control and regulate their behaviors in learning contexts, but all depends on the resources and the pedagogical approach used by the educators (Agina et al., 2011)

Quick Summary:

1) Choose a small chunk of grammar

2) Create at least 100 sentences with it

3) Make sure that you can use it well enough

4) Move on to another grammar construction

Why The Deliberate Practice Is The Perfect Solution

 

Master The Grammar Of Any Language

 

I like to look at every field of knowledge like one might look at the deep lake.

It seems enigmatic and sinister. You want to cross it but you don’t know how.

It’s the same feeling most people get when they see monstrous grammar books. Helplessness, fear and doubt peek at you from every page of the book.

“How dare you think that you might ever learn all of this?!”, they seem to whisper.

And it’s true. Without any specific plan, learning grammar of a given language to a decent level might take ages.

The deep learning gives you this plan.

Here are some advantages of this kind of approach:

It concentrates your attention

Your attention is restless and gets bored easily. Like a small child or a merry drunk.
You need to learn to tame it.

And this is precisely what the deliberate practice does. It focuses your attention on one thing and one thing only. It is especially important because

“Attention constrains learning to relevant dimensions of the environment, while we learn what to attend to via trial and error.” – source

It’s Time-Efficient

Concentrating your efforts on just one thing means one more thing – you save a lot of time.
Don’t want to wait till your butt overgrows with moss and you look like Keith Richards?

Then the deliberate practice might be right up your alley.

Can I Use It For Other Things Than Grammar?

Heck yeah!

You can use it for anything language and non-language related.

Learn how to produce 2 tricky sounds from your target language. – Once you learn how to pronounce them in the isolation, try to pronounce them, say, 100 times in different words.

Done?

Start practising these words in full sentences until the muscle memory is created.

  • Trying to improve your creativity?

Come up with 10-15 ideas (more about being creative here) for every problem you encounter. After 1-2 months you will start noticing an enormous shift in your way of thinking.

I know I did.

Conclusion

Even if you wouldn’t consider yourself a grammar-savvy person, the deliberate practice has the potential to significantly accelerate your learning.

It’s not very complicated but don’t let the apparent simplicity of this method fool you. It’s just one of the few techniques I have seen in my life which has worked every time and with every student.

Why not try it yourself?

Question – what can you potentially use the deliberate practice for to improve the quality of your life?

Active Learning vs. Passive Learning – How To Create The Winning Combination (Optimize Your Language Learning – Part 3)

I zealously advocate active language learning.
This is definitely the most-effective and easily available remedy for frustratingly slow learning progress (read more about active learning here).

But advising you to only learn actively, or claiming that I do so, would be nothing more than denying our human nature.

Sometimes you are sick. Sometimes you feel down for no particular reason.
Sometimes, you would rather get wasted than learn.

That’s why you should accept that you won’t be able to learn actively all the time.
Not that you shouldn’t try, of course!

It’s simply not sustainable in longer periods of time.

The (Only) Problem With Active Learning

 

We like to believe that the time we spend doing something is the main indicator of our progress.
It’s not. It’s the intensity of your training.

The more hard work you are able to condense into one hour of learning, the better.

That’s what makes active learning so highly efficient.

But there is just one problem.

The deep, active learning is tiring as hell.

Not time-consuming, mind you. Just energy-devouring.

That’s why we love to avoid it.
We don’t want anyone meddling with our energy deposits.

“F*ck off brain, will ya?! I need my glucose to come up with sarcastic retorts to situations that will never happen”.

Active learning vs. passive learningOnce you realize it, it should be easier to incorporate active learning into your daily learning schedule.
Simply find the time of the day when you are still energetic enough to do the hard work.

Always tired after work?
Wake up earlier and do the work.

Too sleepy in the morning?
Come back from, take a nap and do the work.

You get it. Just do the damn work.

Ok, so that one is clear.

So how does the passive learning fit into the “big picture?”

The Role Of Passive Learning

 

I will stress it one more time – active learning should be the foundation of your learning.

But the thing is that this foundation is never perfect.
It is scared by cracks and blemishes.

But you can still smuggle quite a bit of sand between the cracks.

Active learning vs. passive learning

This is the role of passive learning – it should fill all the voids throughout your day and complete your learning.

After all, each day consists of a considerable amount of “dead-time”.
Like standing in a line or going for a walk.

Why not listen to some podcasts or music in your target language?

Of course, I am not suggesting that you go mental.
Don’t try to fill every moment of your day with some learning (unless you really want to!).

Remember that we all need some down-time to remember information better.

Optimize Your Day For Passive Learning

 

There are four categories of things you can optimize for language learning

  1. People
  2. Surroundings
  3. Tools
  4. Things you do

1) People

“Optimizing” people sounds more than bad. I know.
But you talk to people anyway.

Why not find some language partners to talk to throughout the day?

After all, they are only a click away from you in this wireless era.

Here are some places to get you started:

– Facebook groups
meetup.com
Craig’s List
Italki. com
Hello Talk

2) Surroundings

Any place where you spend quite some time can be optimized for language learning.

Simple stick-it notes can transform any dusty desk into a learning battle station.

But don’t make them boring!. You know what I mean.

Don’t just write “desk = der Tisch” and stick it in its respective place.
Make it memorable. Make it fun!

Write “Ich lecke meinen Tisch, wenn ich blaun bin” (I lick my desk when I am sloshed).
That’s something to remember!

Or even better – make yourself a poster while we’re at it.
Here is a quick example:

Active learning vs. passive learning

3) Tools

Even though you might not fully realize it, you use at least dozens of tools every day.
A fair share of them is electronic – search engines,  mobile phones, browsers, Windows, Excel, etc. – you name it.

But why on Earth would you want to use them in your native tongue?!

Make a list of all the most important software / websites / etc. you use and change the language to your target language!

4) Things you do

Our days are marked by myriads of repetitive activities – commuting, cleaning a flat, going to a gym.
Once again, this is something you might use to your advantage.

You can prepare a playlist beforehand and listen to your favorite bands / podcasts / videos during that time.

I hope that these ideas will set you on the right path.

Now, let’s take a look at how the hypothetical “optimized” day might look like!

How The Perfect Learning Day Might Look Like

Ordinary Morning

You wake up at 7 am sharp.

Your alarm clock starts blaring.
Beep, beEP, BEEP!!!

“It’s another shitty today”, you think to yourself as you step into the bathroom.

You look at your comatose self in the mirror, sigh heavily, brush your teeth and try to shape yourself into something which resembles human form.

Then breakfast, dull as Kristen Stewart’s acting, and you kiss your wife. Your eyes utter mute “help me” as you pass her by and leave.

Ugh! Boring!
But it could look like this:

Morning On Language Learning Steroids

Your alarm clock gently jars you out of sleep.
You open your eyes and light an entire room with your beaming smile.

No wonder.
This time you haven’t been ear-raped by some mechanical rattle.

No. This time you wake up to the sounds of your favorite song in your target language.
You graciously jump out of bed and leap towards the bathroom.

You look at yourself and think, “Gee, I really do look amazing today!”, as the next song in your target language starts playing.

You dig into your breakfast.

It tastes like a nectar made by Zeus himself.

What to do:

Prepare in advance the playlist of songs in your target language.
Delete all the other songs in your mother tongue.

Leave yourself no other choice but to listen to the language you want to improve.

Of course, if a part of your morning routine is to listen to news or the radio, you don’t have to change it.
Find radio stations in your target language on my other website and simply listen to them instead.

Ordinary Commute

You slowly drag your feet toward the train station.
“It’s funny”, you notice.

The pavement tiles strangely resemble your life.
They are gray and shattered.

Active learning vs. passive learning

 

Once you take a sit, you try to pass the time by rating the miserableness of your co-passengers. But there are no winners in this game.

Pretty bad, right? But it could look like this:

Commute On Language Learning Steroids

You maniacally run towards your train station.
You can’t wait to hop on the train!

This is one of your favorite parts of the day.

You take a seat and fire off your favorite YT channel.
The fascinating interview about … completely pulls you in.

“Already my station?”, you think to yourself.
“I completely lost track of time!”.

What to do:

Always have some resources handy on your mobile / tablet / notebook.
Not too many of them – it leads to decision fatigue.
Ideally, it should be something that really interests you.

You should aim at energizing yourself before you start work.
If you wear yourself off mentally, you will send signal to your brain to actually start avoiding this activity in a future.

Aim at interviews or some funny, easily digestible shows.
Unless you are really into politics or some “heavier” topics – then go ahead and listen to them as well.

Ordinary Day At The Office

You enter the office and gaze absently at your coworkers.
Then you head toward the kitchen to fix yourself a cup of instant enthusiasm.
Not that it helps. It’s just a thing you do to pull yourself faster through the day.

All the breaks and conversations turn into one big blur.
Even some breaks in-between don’t deliver any relief.

Nightmare, ain’t it? But what about this:

Day At The Office On Language Learning Steroids

You rush into a kitchen and pour yourself a delicious cup of caffeine goodness.
You sit comfortably in your cubicle.

Not an ordinary cubicle mind you but a language optimized cubicle.
All around you there are stick-it notes with interesting quotes or jokes in your target language.

After you dig yourself up out of the weekend’s backlog, you start reading newspapers in your target language.

What to do:
It’s a very good habit to change interface of every possible app or website you use to your target language. However don’t feel pressured to do so right away, If you are a beginner.

You might dip your toes first.

Write down where to change language settings and then switch interface to your target language.

Start translating any useful words you might need and switch the language back on.
After a couple of such sessions you should be able to comfortably navigate through any website / app.

What’s more, you can always put some stick-it knows with useful phrases or quotes around you.

Why phrases or quotes?

Because learning is always more efficient when there is context.

Why only put a note on your plant called “plant”, when you can write “a green and beautiful plant!”.
Or “watering plants causes diarrhea”.

I know, I know – it sounds absolutely childish.

The thing is that the absurd information is absorbed more effectively.
So why don’t you help your brain a little bit?

Come-Back Home

That was one hell of the day!
You’re absolutely ecstatic! You finish your job, catch the train back and come-back home.

You open the door to your flat and suddenly everything goes totally silent.
You know what you have to do know.
The damn work.

5 Fun Ways of Improving Your Spanish Pronunciation


Today we have a fantastic post from Sean Hopwood, MBA – founder and President of Day Translations, Inc., an online localization and Spanish translation services. Check out his website, and enjoy the post!

As one of the most spoken languages in the world, Spanish deserves a place on your list of languages to master.

Many a native English speaker, however, has struggled with the Spanish tongue because it requires a greater level of flexibility than English. You’ll have to work hard at polishing your pronunciation if you want to be able to speak with a solidly good Spanish accent.

It also means not despairing or quitting on your dream of speaking Spanish like a native when yet another Spanish speaker fails to understand you.

If you’re aiming to take your Spanish skills to a higher level, read the following 5 fun ways of improving your Spanish pronunciation to find out innovative ways of speaking more like a local.

1. Pick Your Accent

 

If you’re just starting to learn Spanish, you may be having problems distinguishing between different Spanish accents. Argentina, Spain, Mexico, Cuba and all other Spanish speaking countries in the world speak their own version of Spanish.

Some are so dramatically different, they may not even sound like Spanish to you.

Improving Your Spanish Pronunciation
However, don’t feel overwhelmed. The first step in improving your accent is to pick a Spanish speaking country whose accent and dialect you want to focus on.

Does Spain resonate with you because it is in Europe? Or Mexico due to the dominance of Mexican Spanish in the United States? Simply listen to the dialects that are out there and choose one that works for you and stick with it.

Once you adopt the following fun ways of improving your Spanish pronunciation and perfect your accent, adapting it to the Spanish speaking country you are in will not be so difficult.

2. Monitor Your “B’s” and “V’s”

 

Many students of Spanish tend to have problems differentiating the Spanish ‘b’ from ‘v’. To the untrained ear, these two letters can sound very similar – so similar you might think someone asked you for a ‘beso‘ (kiss) when what they really said is ‘vaso‘ (glass).

Let’s take this step by step: to emit the perfect Spanish pronunciation of ‘v’, for a second let your teeth rest on your bottom lip as if you are going to say the word ‘vest‘ and practice pairing this ‘v’ with the Spanish vowels of ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’ and ‘u’.

The Spanish ‘b’ is similar to the English ‘b’, as in ‘break’ or ‘berries’ and you may also practice pairing the Spanish ‘b’ with the language’s vowels.

Switch back and forth between these mouth positions when you pronounce words like ‘viento‘ (wind) and ‘bella‘ (pretty). If the two sounds sound similar, then you are doing something right.

3. Pronounce those Accents

 

Amongst the fun ways of improving your Spanish pronunciation is emphasizing Spanish accents. It may be all right for someone who is new to the Spanish language to ignore the little dashes written above a certain syllable in a Spanish word, but if you really want to perfect your Spanish pronunciation, it’s time you paid attention.

Word accents are especially important in Spanish because not only do they alter the meaning of the word, they can make all the difference on whether or not you’ll be understood.

For example, the word for ‘father’ is written as ‘papá’ with the accent on the last letter meaning you should emphasize the last bit of the word more. When you miss the accent, you have the evenly pronounced word ‘papa,’ which means ‘potato.’

Don’t make the mistake of calling someone’s father a potato by paying attention to word accents! One of the best ways to practice your accented words is to read out loud a lot. With practice, you will visually recall the words in your head as you hear yourself and others speak the accented words.

4. Tongue Twist Your Way to Good Pronunciation

Improving Your Spanish Pronunciation
Tongue twisters or ‘trabalenguas‘ is a wonderful way to improve your Spanish accent and pronunciation. The repetitive aspect of tongue twisters may make it hard for you to say the tongue twisting phrase quickly but they are relatively easy to commit to memory.

Each tongue twister gives your tongue a good workout and helps loosen it up so that it can easily adapt to Spanish pronunciation. Online, you can find a good many ‘trabalenguas’ that you can say daily to practice your pronunciation. Not only that, you will also be adding to your vocabulary. Here’s an example:

Tres tigres tragaban trigo, tres tigres en un tribal. ¿Que tigre tragaba mas..? Los tres igual.

Do you want to give it a try? Here are some websites with challenging ‘trabalenguas’:

5. Link Your Words

 

When you’ve been around Spanish speakers long enough, you’ll notice they tend to occasionally link or blend words together.

When will they do this?

When the last letter of a certain word matches the first letter of the following word. For instance, the phrase ‘dos sacos’ (two coats) would sound like ‘dosacos.’

 

Improving Your Spanish Pronunciation

 

Spanish speakers also link words when the last letter of a certain word is a consonant and the first letter of the following word is a vowel. The question “¿Estás enamorado?” (Are you in love?) would sound linked, as in “¿Estásenamorado?”

Another instance of linking words happens when the last letter of a word and the first letter of the following word are both vowels, such as in the sentence: “Ella está enfadada.” (She’s angry.) The untrained ear would hear it as one long word: “ellaestáenfadada.”

Learning how to link words is one of the fun ways of improving your Spanish pronunciation. Developing an ear for linked words also improves your listening skills and better prepares you as you practice linking and blending your words.

In the end, the goal is to comprehend what Spanish speakers are saying when they blend words.

Conclusion

These 5 tips are certain to help you perfect your accent so that you can communicate more clearly with your fellow Spanish speakers.

While focusing on your pronunciation is one aspect of improving your command of the language, don’t forget to keep up with the other aspects of language learning such as grammar, reading, vocabulary, and speaking.

Focusing your full attention on Spanish learning while tackling all aspects of the language will gradually help you achieve your dream of speaking the language fluently.

Author Bio:


Sean Hopwood

 

Sean Hopwood, MBA is founder and President of Day Translations, Inc., an online localization and Spanish translation services provider, dedicated to the improvement of global communications. By helping both corporations and the individual, Day Translations provides a necessary service at the same time as developing opportunities for greater sympathy and understanding worldwide.


 

How To Build Durable Habits In 4 Easy Steps Even If Your Motivation Is At An All Time Low

If you ask almost anyone, he will tell you this – “Building durable habits is damn hard”.

I find it really fascinating!
We have literally dozens of automated routines which we carry out throughout the day.

You wake up – you brush your teeth.
You hear your mobile buzzing – you reach for it to check a new text message.
You pass the confectionery, start drooling, run inside and shove your head into the nearest cake.

Yet, just a few of them are truly positive and life-changing.
I mean, it is understandable if you really think about it.

Our default mode is energy conservation.
My brain, your brain, every brain is the same.

It doesn’t give a flying f* about coming up with new ideas or creating new learning systems.
You have to trick it into doing it.

What Habits Really Are

 

Once again – your brain couldn’t be bothered less to learn Swahili or other language which you don’t have any contact with. That requires energy. And energy is in short supply.

Basically, any new activity which you take up is very energy-consuming.
There are no established, efficient neural networks which are able to diminish the energy costs.

Because this is exactly how you should start thinking about habits.

Habits are simply neural pathways. The more you strain them, the thicker they becomeIf they become thick enough, carrying out a giving activity goes into an autopilot mode.

It’s true for any kind of activity. Lick your foot every time you have a glass of water and soon enough you will find yourself doing it in the most unusual places.

How To Create Durable Habits

 

One of the frameworks which I teach my students is this (interested in other super-effective way of creating habits? – click here):

  • 0) Be brutally honest with yourself
  • 1) Decrease activation energy of an activity
  • 2) Remove / minimize distractions
  • 3) Set goals at the absolute minimal level
  • 4) Tie a new habit to the preexisting routine / habit

Let’s see how these elements come together.

Be Brutally Honest With Yourself

 

How To Build Durable Habits

 

Although it is not really a part of the framework, it is definitely a prerequisite.

You know that feeling when a person close to you regularly does something stupid?

You try to beg, plead and bargain to prevent him from doing it.
You appeal to his common sense. All in vain.

Usually, you get lackluster, “sure, I think I will try it”, in return.
Which, of course, is just another way of saying, “no way in hell I am doing that”.

But it’s easy to notice such a headstrong attitude in others.

But what about you and me?
Isn’t that just the typical the-pot-calling-the-cattle-black attitude?

It is. It always is.

We are masters of rationalizations. 

Warlocks of bullshit excuses.

I know I am.
I consider myself very good at creating habits.

Still, every now and then I discover that I am feeding myself beautifully packed lies and excuses.

Example?

My writing. In last 3 months, I wrote 3 articles

3 articles. This is a joke.
And the joke is definitely on me.

I have tried to justify it in dozens of ways.
And they all sound so right.

“I would like to write more but I …

  • have to concentrate on my learning
  • on my composing
  • go out more often and meet people
  • concentrate on reading more
  • concentrate on my company
  • don’t have enough time.

The list goes on and on.
I feel sick when I just look at it.

Only recently did I grab the hammer of truth and tear down this wall of mendacity.
In the last few weeks, I have been writing at least 4-5 times per week.
And it feels great!

How did I do it?

I followed my own advice!

It doesn’t matter what problem you have. The following framework should help you solve it. As long as you are honest, that is.

It’s also worth mentioning that some of them require some planning in advance.
But you know – it’s well worth it.

Decrease Activation Energy Of An Activity

 

Would you jump 5 times right now if you wanted to, or if there was some reward involved?
No doubt you would.

And one of the reasons why it would be so easy is the low activation energy of this activity.

The activation energy is the energy you need to start carrying out a given activity.
The lower the energy, the easier it is to start doing it.

But how does it exactly work?

Imagine that you live on the fifth floor and you would like to start running 4 times per week.
There is just one problem – your running shoes are in the basement.

Would you go up and down the stairs 4 times per week just to have a run?
Highly unlikely.

That’s why, your first task is to eliminate superfluous obstacles which prevent you from taking up your desired activity.

Would you like to read a book in your target language 4 times per week?
Great. Then always keep it handy.

Would you like to listen to songs in your target language every day?

Great, then download a truckload of songs on your mobile.
It’s much easier to play them if they are just one click away.

Remove Distractions

 

How To Build Durable Habits

 

Decreasing the activation energy of your future habits is a good start.
But it is not enough.

You also have to make sure that you either eliminate all the distractions or increase their activation energy.

I know. It sounds very basic and you have heard about it 3472 times before.
But this time, don’t just nod and do the things the old way.

This time, be a bit more strategic.
Plan ahead the plan of actions.

Distractions usually fall into one of 3 categories:

1) Technological distractions

 

The main culprits which pull you away from your work are mobile phones and the internet.
Shock, surprise, and astonishment! I know. It was hard to envision.

Turn off your mobile phone.

Block the time-devouring websites or temporarily disconnect your internet.
If it happens that you zone out and suddenly find yourself looking at the writing:

“Check your internet connection”

You will know that you tried to visit facebook or other websites of this kind.

2) People

 

It always sounds wrong and cold but, anyway, here it is: people should also be classified and treated as distractions.

I know you love your wife/girlfriend very much but if she can’t help but interrupt you every couple of minutes, you should have a talk with her.

Negotiate some distraction-free time so you can learn peacefully.

3) Environment

 

How To Build Durable Habits

 

It is definitely good to learn in as many places as it is possible – it is beneficial for your memory, after all.
Just make sure that they aren’t too noisy so you concentrate on the task at hand.

How Effective Is Increasing of The Activation Energy?

 

I get it – you probably still have some doubts.

Is increasing the activation energy of activities really that effective?
Can it really help me eliminate the pesky habits?

Yes and yes!

Just take a look at the results of this research:

Walking one-third of a mile longer from home to the nearest tobacco shop to buy cigarettes was associated with increased odds that smokers would quit the habit in an analysis of data in Finnish studies, according to an article published online by JAMA Internal Medicine.

Another great example of increasing activation energy to get rid of the unwanted behaviors is … donating organs.

Here is the excerpt from Money – Master The Game by Tony Robbins:

If you are in Germany, there’s about a one-in-eight chance you’ll donate your organs—about 12% of the population does. Whereas in Austria, Germany’s next-door neighbor, 99% of people donate their organs. In Sweden, 89% donate, but in Denmark, the rate is only 4%. What gives? Why such a disparity?

If you expect to hear some Jedi mind tricks which are used to manipulate the minds of Swedish and Austrian citizens, think again!
The secret lies in the wording on the form.

In countries with the lowest donor rates, like Denmark, there is a small box that says, “Check here if you want to participate in the organ donor program.” In countries with the highest rates, like Sweden, the form says, “Check here if you don’t want to participate in the organ donor program.”
That’s the secret! Nobody likes to check boxes. It’s not that we don’t want to donate our organs. That little bit of inertia makes all the difference in the world!

I hope you are convinced by now!
Let’s move on!

Set goals at the absolute minimal level

 

Being ambitious is good. No, it’s great!

But here is the uncomfortable truth which we all have to face – we suck at predicting pretty much anything.

We can’t reliably fathom how much time we will spend doing something.
We have no idea how much money we will spend the next month.

And we are terrible at predicting how difficult our goals are.

Example?

At the turn of each year, the flock of uber motivated people hit the gym.

Goal?
Work out at least 2…, no! 4 Times per week!

It doesn’t matter that the last time they worked out was about 4 years ago.
There is simply no time to f*ck around!

Of course, after about 1-3 months, depending on their motivation, they run out of steam.
Going to the gym becomes a thing of the past.

It happens to the best of us.
But why exactly?

Setting goals is, without any doubt, useful.

But goal-oriented productivity has one, gigantic flaw – It rarely acknowledges that you and I are human beings.

You have bad days. Days when just a mere thought of doing anything productive revolts you.

So you come back from work.

Instead of starting your language learning session, you put on your I-am-a-lazy-and-disgusting-slob pants and start watching The Game of Thrones with a bag of chips.

 

How To Build Durable Habits

 

And, needless to say, you feel like “sh*t”.

Repeat the above scenario a couple of times and you will find yourself ditching any budding habit.

Even though I have nothing against SMART goals, I don’t believe that the productivity based on ambitious goals will get you far.

The most effective learners rely on systems.

Systems, on the other hand, are built of habits.

In order to create a durable habit, you should start with being consistent.
And there is no easier way to become consistent than choosing absolutely minimal goals.

How To Choose Your Minimal Goal

 

What I would suggest is:

1) Choose the frequency of your habit
2) Carefully examine your resistance to a potential intensity of your soon-to-be habit

Do you know that overwhelming feeling of resistance when you think about some very ambitious goals?
That’s you brain saying, “Nah, thanks. We need energy – let’s pulverize some chocolate pretzels and snort them!”.

It’s really easy to evoke this feeling. Test it yourself!

Imagine that your goal is to run 4 km 5 times per week.
Or learn 150 new words every day.

Try to analyze incoming feelings and thoughts.

If these activities are beyond your current reach, you will experience the overall feeling of anxiety. The more ambitious the goal, the more resistance you feel.

That’s why, first of all, you should concentrate on being consistent in order to create durable habits
The rest will come.

Here are some practical examples.

1) I want to learn a foreign language regularly

 

How To Build Durable Habits
Depending on your current needs, you may choose one of the following goals:

Read one page of a book of your choice per day.
Learn 3 new words per day.
Listen to 5 minutes of radio.

If you feel the slightest prickle of anxiety, lower the bar even more.

2) If you want to run 3 times per week

 

Put on your shoes and walk at least 300 m away from your home.
Don’t run. Just walk

If you still feel like running after covering this distance – go for it. If not, just call it a day. You did your job for today.

How Minimal Goals Turn Into Durable Habits

 

As you can see, these are not ambitious goals.
You don’t set a bar. You basically put it on the damn ground.

That’s why you brain is really ok with it.

After all, such activities require almost no energy – hence the lack of resistance.

And this is where the gist of this method lies.
You should choose your goals so that they don’t trigger “No way in hell” response.

But am I really suggesting that you only do these tiny things throughout the day?
Of course not.

I love pushing the boundaries.

800 words per day? Hell yeah!
Getting headaches because of overlearning? Yes, please.

The thing is that the secret about doing anything regularly is showing up.

You have to let your neural networks strengthen enough so you don’t have to even think about doing something anymore.

Happen what may – just don’t break the chain.

Because this one day break is not a separate point in time, nor is it an unconnected incident. It actually affects the person you are trying to become.

Here is the amazing thing about being consistent – you build your endurance over time.

Even if you do as little as learning 3 words per day. Even if you run just 60 meters.

After some time, you get used to the intensity of your actions. And with the same amount of effort you can actually learn 6 words. And then 10. And then 50!

I still remember vividly the feeling of terror I felt when I thought about learning 20 words per day! It seemed like an impossible thing to do.

Many years have passed and these days, I consider myself lazy if I do less than 40-50 words per day.

Here is the quote to ponder:

‘We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training” – Archilochus

I will repeat once again. We suck at predicting almost everything.

Most of the time you might be convinced that you will perform some action. However, when push comes to the shove you fall flat like a hockey puck.

But if you do just a tiny bit day by day, you will create the system.

And make no mistake – having a learning system based on habits makes you a truly unstoppable human being.

Why?

Because systems are, most of the time, immune to any internal and external obstacles.

Years ago when I used to spend a lot of time at work.

You know the scenario. 10 hours at work, 2-hour commute.

You come home angry because the public transport sucks and a bunch of semi-retarded teenagers were blasting music through their mobile phones.

What’s fascinating is that even then, I grabbed a quick bite and started poring over books.

I didn’t really think about it. It was an impulse.
As if a little geek inside me was telling me to do it.

It’s admirable but it’s not as difficult as you might think. It’s just a habit.

The one which took some time, of course. The habit nonetheless.

In fact, according to a Duke University study, 45 percent of a person’s behavior stems from habit alone. And it’s difficult to change a habit if you don’t even think about it any more! – The Coaching Habit – Michael Bungay Stanier

The beautiful part of forming durable habits is that you actually learn to love whatever you do. The habit actually becomes a part of your self-concept!

Tie a new habit to preexisting routine/habit

Here is not so complicated logical loop:

Building a habit takes some time. And until a given activity becomes a habit, it’s not automatic. And if it’s not automatic, there is no certainty that you will remember to do it.

The solution?

Tie your new habit to preexisting routines.

Of course, you can try to rely on your willpower but such a strategy is rarely successful.
You don’t want to drive yourself to the point of decision fatigue.

Example?

Let’s say that you drink a cup of tea when you go back from work.
It might be a trigger for your new habit.

Learn a couple of words every time you grab your cup of tea. In no time, you will discover that learning new vocabulary has become an indispensable part of your tea-drinking ritual.

 

How To Build Durable Habits

 

Once you get used to learning new words every day, you can expand this mini-habit and tie it to other routines.

Although most of the time it won’t be necessary. Usually, after a couple of weeks, you will discover that your mini-habit turned into a durable habit!

You might actually start feeling anxious when you can’t indulge yourself in performing a habit of your choice!

Back To You

So what about you?

Are there any habits you are trying to build?

Let me know!

 

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

It’s time for the part two of my miniseries on optimizing your learning!
If you haven’t read the first part – click here. This time I will show you how to optimize your repetitions.

People like to see effective language learning, or any learning for that matter, as something really mysterious.

In fact, the opposite is true. There are just a couple of essential principles which you should follow if you want to become a quick learner.

Don’t get me wrong – effective learning gets more complicated the faster you want to learn. And the more durable memories you want to create.

Still, these principle can be applied by anyone, regardless of his sex, or age.

Because the very little known truth is that we all learn, more less, the same.

That’s right. Learning styles do not exist.
I know. It sounds shocking.

And it is probably even more shocking than you can imagine – one study showed that 93% of British teachers believe it to be true!

But you and I, my friend, are not glittery and special snow-flakes.

There are rules. And they are not to be treated lightly.

Let’s dig in.

How To Maximize Effectiveness Of Your Learning

 

Optimized Repetitions In Language Learning

 

Below you can find my list of the most important rules affecting your language learning progress. Obviously, it’s far from being complete.

There are other rules and limitations, but the ones below are definitely one of the easiest ones to implement.

In order to maximize your learning, you should make sure that:

1) Your learning is active (click here to learn more) 

 

If you only concentrate on reading and listening, you won’t get far. Your brain is terrible at memorizing things which you encounter occasionally.

Why?

I will get to this in a moment.

But first, let’s start with basics – the process of memorizing can be depicted in the following three steps.

1) Encoding – involves initial processing of information which leads to construction of its
mental representation in memory

2) Storage – is the retention of encoded information in the short-term or long-term memory

3) Recall – is retrieval of stored information from memory

As you can see, the first step in this process is encoding.

I can’t stress this enough – if you don’t encode the information you learn, probably you won’t retain them. You should always, ALWAYS do your best to manipulate the information you try to learn.

Let’s try to prove it quickly.

If I told you right now to draw the image of your watch, would you be able to do it?

Would you be able to reproduce the exact look of the building you work in?

Of course not. Even though you come into contact with these things multiple times per day.

You simply do not try to encode such information in any way! If human brain was capable of doing it, we would all go crazy.

It would mean that we would memorize almost every piece of information which we encounter.

But this is far from the truth. Our brain is very selective.

It absorbs mostly the information which:

a) Occurs frequently in different contexts

b) We process (encode)  – in the domain of language learning, the simplest form of processing a give piece of information is actually creating a sentence with it

c) Is used actively

2) Your learning (repetitions) are optimized

 

And one of the best ways to optimize your repetitions is by using SRS programs.

But what is Spaced Repetition?

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.

Alternative names include spaced rehearsal, expanding rehearsal,graduated intervals, repetition spacing, repetition scheduling, spaced retrieval and expanded retrieval.

The science behind SSR

 

How does the program know when to review given words?

Most of such programs base (more or less) their algorithms on Ebbinghaus forgetting curve (side note: it has been replicated many times in the last 50 years)

The curve presents decline of memory retention in time, or if you look at it from the different perspective, it demonstrates the critical moments when the repetition of the given information should occur.

 

Curve Of Optimized Vocabulary Repetitions

 

In theory, it takes about 5 optimized repetitions to transfer a word into the long-term memory.
But come on! Learning would be damn easy if this rule would be true for most of the people!

There are actually a lot of other variables which come into play:

 

  • difficulty of the learned material
  • understanding of the material
  • how meaningful it is
  • representation of the material
  • physiological factors: stress and sleep (among others)
  • the size of the material
  • processing of the material

 

And many others.
Still, SRS programs give you the unparalleled upper hand in language learning!

3) You constantly step out of your comfort zone.

 

Why use the words which you already know, when you can use dozens of synonyms? You should always try to find some gaps in your knowledge. Click here to learn more.

 

Of course, using SRS programs like ANKI is not to everyone’s liking. I get it.

But let’s look at the list of alternatives, shall we?

Alternatives To Using SRS programs

 

Optimize Your Repetitions

 

Every learner has to face the following problems in order to learn new words (effectively).

 

  • What process do you go through to learn a new word?
  • Do you write it down? Where?
  • How do you revise it later?
  • How long does it take you to learn it?
  • How many times do you have to see it before you know it?
  • And how do you know when you really have learned it?

 

These aren’t some petty, meaningless decisions.
These are the decisions which will heavily influence your progress curve.

Here’s an idea that a lot of people have: when you learn a new word, you write it down in a notebook. Then, every few days, you open the notebook and review all the words that you have learned so far.

This works well at first — you’re no longer forgetting everything you learn. But very soon it becomes a nightmare.

After you exceed about 1000 words, reviewing your vocabulary starts taking more and more time. And how do you know EXACTLY which words you should review or pay more attention to?

Usually after no more than a few months, you throw your notebook into the darkest corner of your room and try to swallow the bitter taste of defeat.

That’s why, it has to be said aloud and with confidence: you will never be as effective as programs in executing algorithms. And choosing when to review a word is nothing more than that – an algorithm.

There are many who oppose this idea of using SRS programs.
And it is indeed mind-boggling why. At least for me.

The results speak for themselves.
Currently I teach over 30 people – from students, top-level managers to academics.

And one of many regularities I have observed is this:
Students of mine who use SRS programs regularly beat students who don’t.

How big is the difference?

 

Optimize Your Repetitions in Language Learning

 

One student of mine, Mathew, quite a recent graduate of Medicine faculty, passed a B2 German exam in just 5 months. He started from the scratch and only knew one language prior to our cooperation.

In the same time, the PhD from the local university, barely moved one level up the language learning ladder.

The only difference between them is that Mathew was very consistent with using ANKI (and other strategies).

Really,. That’s it.

And it is not really that surprising.

The technology has been topping the greatest human minds for years now.

Different AI programs have beaten top players at games like: chess, scrabble and quite recently Go.
Last year, deep learning machine beat humans in IQ Test.

It might seem scary. But only if we treat such a phenomenon as a threat.
But why not use computational powers of computer to our advantage?

It would be ridiculous to wrestle with Terminator.
It’s just as ridiculous trying to beat computers at optimizing repetitions.

But should everyone use such programs?

 

Should You Use SRS programs?

 

Optimize Your Repetitions in Language Learning

 

I know that you can still be unsure whether or not you should be using SRS programs.
That’s why I have decided to create the list of profiles to help you identify your language learning needs:

1) I am learning only one language

If you are learning only one language, it’s reasonable to assume that you can surround yourself with it.
In this case, using Anki is definitely not that necessary.

However, things change quite a bit if you are learning your first language and you have NO previous experience with language learning.

In that case, better save yourself a lot of frustration and download ANKI.

2) I am a translator / interpreter (or pursue any language-related profession)

My imagination certainly has its limits since I can’t imagine a representative of any language-related profession who shouldn’t use SRS programs.

The risk of letting even one word slip your mind is too great.

Just the material I have covered during my postgraduates studies in legal translation and interpreting amounts to more than 5000 specialized words.

If I wanted to rely on surrounding myself with language in order to learn them I would go batshit crazy long time ago.

Honestly, who reads legal documents for fun?!

Even if you are not a translator / interpreter yet, but would like to become one in the future, do yourself a favor and download ANKI.

3) I learn 2 or more languages

Then I would strongly suggest using ANKI. Especially if you would like to become fully fluent in them.

The math is quite easy. Getting to C1 level in 2 languages, requires you to have a knowledge of about 20 thousands words. Of course, you should know at least 50-60% them actively.

This number might sound quite abstract, or maybe not that impressive, so let me put it in another way.

Knowing about 10 thousand words in a foreign language is tantamount to having an additional master’s degree.

And you know damn well how much time it takes to accumulate this kind of knowledge!

Of course, you can find an exception to every rule. It is not that mentally taxing to imagine a situation where somebody uses one language at work, and then another foreign language once he leaves the office.

Then maybe, just maybe, you can do without SRS programs.

Like what you have read? Read the first part of the series.

What do you think about SRS programs? Have you ever used any? Let me know, your opinion is important to me!

 

Optimize Your Language Learning – Limit Passive Learning Activities

“Repeat after me!”

Repetitio mater studiorum est

Spending time with my grandfather was always a little bit weird.
He didn’t want to talk much or play some stupid games.

Oh no.
He used to sit me in front of him and grill me about different school subjects.
Physics. Math. History.

But his personal favorite was teaching me Latin proverbs.

Most of them slipped my mind.
But among all those which stuck with me, this is the one I cherish the most:

Repetitio mater studiorum est – repetition is a mother of studying

These four words contain the wealth of wisdom, if you only interpret them in the right way.

On the surface, the problem with learning doesn’t seem that complex, right?

As long as you repeat things you want to learn, everything is fine and dandy.

But let’s be honest for a second. Like, really honest.

How easily can you recall words during conversations in your target language?
How often does your mind goes blank?

You desperately try to recall the word you need but there is nothing there.
Just the depressing nothingness.

Rings true?

There you have it!

So the problem might a bit more complex than we have thought after all.
Put on your “learning overalls” and let’s dig a little bit deeper to explain why repetition is simply not enough.

Let me start with basics.

Two Kinds Of Repetition

Optimize Your Language Learning

 

In its most basic form, the repetition can adapt two forms.

It can be either:

1) active

or

2) passive

But what does “passive” mean, especially in the context of language learning?

It means that you don’t engage with the information you get.

You don’t do it actively (duh).

That’s why activities like reading and listening fall into this category.

What terrifies me the most, is that the default style of learning, for most of the people, is passive learning.

“But why does passive learning suck donkey balls?”, you might ask.
Let’s get to it.

Why Passive Repetition Sucks and Hinders Your Progress

 

Before I get to the science, let me tell you about one friend of mine.
This story might sound familiar for you.
Actually, problems of about 90% people who write to me fit perfectly into the following scenario.

Anyway. So this friend of mine has been learning Russian for over two years now.

I haven’t heard her talk for a long time but I thought that her level should be at least decent.
Russian is not that different from Polish after all.

So imagine my surprise when I heard her speak Russian a few weeks ago.
She barely scratched B1 level.

My first reaction?
“No f***ing way”.

She’s been learning systematically for over 2 years and she can barely string a sentence together?

After some investigation, I got to the bottom of it.

Yes, her teacher visited her every week.
Yes, they did learn.

Or should I say, “learn”?

Because the process they went through barely resembled any kind of real learning.

They basically read some articles together.
For entire hour.

Almost no speaking at all. No meaningful conversations.
No active learning.

Nada. Null. Nothing.

If at any point of reading this description you told yourself, “Hey, this is pretty much how my lessons look like!”, then run.

Run the hell away from your teacher or language school.

A visit at the local strip-club seems to be a better investment than this.
At least you will know what you pay for.

The pyramid of effective learning

 

Science is very clear about passive learning.

It was proven long time ago that passive learning has very little effect on whether information is later recalled from long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).

Many other studies have managed to successfully replicate the results of the aforementioned research.

So how does effective learning look like?

Take a look at the pyramid of effective learning.

 

Optimize Your Language Learning

 

There is a good reason why learning and listening are at the absolute bottom of retention rates.

Effective learning requires , so-called, effortful recall.

This should be the mantra of every learner. If you want to learn fast, you have to take control of your learning.

Without the control, your learning is like a boat with no sails in the middle of the storm.

You go one way and then the other without any sense of direction.

That damn boat needs a captain! You, that is!

Ok, so what does the effortful recall mean?

It means that the more effort you put into recalling a piece of information or to execute a skill, the more this act benefits the learning. (Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel).

Once again, there are a lot of studies which confirm effectiveness of active learning.
Here are results of some of the recent results.

“Tests that require effortful retrieval of information (e.g., short-answer) promote better retention than tests that require recognition (Larsen et al. 2008).”

Effortful retrieval of information improves recall 1-month later, compared with no test (butler and Roediger 2007)

It’s worth mentioning that you can mix these strategies together.
Why not reap the benefits from the synergy effect?

How does this information transplant onto your learning ground?

 

First of all, let’s do some simple math.
Considering the said effectiveness of given learning strategies, we might conclude that:

1 minute of talking is worth of 5-7 minutes of reading / listening. (read more about benefits of talking to yourself).

I know that reading and listening might feel productive but they are clearly not.
These are so-called feel-good activities.

I constantly shock students of mine by telling them not to listen to anything for the first 8-10 weeks of learning. Instead, I help them concentrate on active learning.

Only after this period of time do they start listening practice.
And the gains always amaze them.

There is also one, very little known fact, about your potential choice of learning strategy.
You see, if you don’t learn actively, you automatically condemn yourself to…

UNINTENTIONAL LEARNING

*gasp*

What Is Unintentional Learning?

 

Optimize Your Language Learning

Picture by: Zack Cannon

Now this is a truly fascinating type of learning.

Unintentional learning takes place when you acquire vocabulary accidentally. it is a by-product of repeating a given piece of information a certain number of times.

It’s worth mentioning that is it also one of the default and (most useless) strategies of almost every language learner.

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. 20 to 50 times! (one of many sources)

Needless to say, it takes way too much time. And time is the luxury a few of us can afford.

Of course, One might argue that 20-50 repetitions are not that many.
After all, if you read extensively and listen, you should get to this number of repetitions after some time.

Right?

No.

Here comes another plot twist.

Unless you learn three thousands words, reading is a veeery slow and inefficient activity.

And until you reach this number, your odds of learning words contextually are slight.

Sure, you can infer the meaning, but there is a good chance that your guess will be incorrect.

And what about rare words which you might find useful?
What If I need to know the word “thimble” because that was my dog’s name and I feel the need to share it with English speakers?

How many thousands pages must I read to stumble across this word,say, 10 times?
Hell, I don’t remember when was the last time I heard this word in my native tongue!

What about other like: tang, udder, piston and so on?

I need such words frequently during interpreting or teaching. Relying only on passive acquisition would make me a terribly inefficient teacher / coach / interpreter.

So here you have it.
L2 Learners are simply at disadvantage as for number of repetitions of words.

Of course, every problems begs for the solution.

We will get to it later.

Is the incidental learning that bad?

 

No. Of course not.
Incidental vocabulary acquisition makes some sense.

Maybe even a lot.
But only on one condition.

You already know enough words (and grammar) to learn from context.
Typically, that’s about 5000 words for most of the languages.

But the problem is to learn these 5000 words before you run out of motivation…!

Final Thoughts

 

As you can see, the passive learning is a cardinal sin of most language learners.
The chance is that if you take a good, hard look on your learning habits, you will discover why your progress is so unsatisfying.

It still plays important roles in the learning process but only if you go through the critical phase of deliberate and active learning.

What about you?

How heavily do your rely on listening and relying in your language learning routine?

Grammar Cheat Sheet – 6 Reasons Why Every Language Learner MUST Have One

I love how language learners usually approach grammar.
Or grammar books to be more precise!

These vademecums seem to adapt the form of slimy, leprosy-ridden yet magical gnome.

You know that if you rub its butt long enough, it will grant you your wish.
You will be bestowed with knowledge and wisdom of the language of your choice.

The ultimate prize sounds great.
But somehow, it doesn’t really entice you to lay your hands on this filthy creature.
Not too often anyway.

No wonder.
One look at any enormous grammar book sends shivers down my spine.

Why?

Because opening a grammar book is like teleporting yourself into the middle of a language maze.
It’s hard to find your way out. Everything seems to be so random and chaotic.

Rules. Rules. More rules.
You take a left turn and you get punched in the stomach.
You tun to your right and you get kicked in the head.

Only when you take a few steps back and leave the maze, you begin to see things differently.
There are patterns. A lot of patterns.

And there is one object, almost the artifact, that can grant you this kind of perspective.

The Grammar Cheat Sheet.

A Case For Grammar Cheat Sheets

 

It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner in language learning or a mean linguistic son-of-a-gun.

Grammar cheats sheets should be an indispensable part of your learning arsenal.

Before I dive into some of the main reasons why you should embrace grammar cheat sheets, I want to share with you a story about my youngest student.

Normally I don’t teach kids. It’s really a frustrating experience.
I am sure that most parents can relate!

Anyway, Adrian is 10 years old and really bright kid. Although amazingly lazy.

Our first lesson revealed that his collective vocabulary amounted to about 40-70 words.

After 4 damn years of his official English education he couldn’t say, well, anything.
Of course, he couldn’t even use the words he knew in a sentence.

Not a very encouraging beginning, right?

However, after explaining the most basic English and writing them on his grammar cheat sheet, something seemingly impossible happened.

He got it. I didn’t even expect it. But he got it.

11 hours into our English adventure, he is already able to build basic sentences in 4 tenses he knows.
Sure, it takes him some time. The sentences are far from perfect.

He still needs to resort to the grammar cheat sheet every now and then.
But still – 10 hours of directed learning beat 4 years of education.

I’ve had a chance to see more of such success stories with adults. But somehow, this story is the one that stuck with me.

6 Reasons To Create A Grammar Cheat Sheet

 

1) It gives you clarity

 

Grammar doesn’t look half as scary when it is on one piece of paper, does it?
Just take a look at the Japanese grammar cheat sheet (don’t worry if you don’t know Japanese – neither do I.)

 

Grammar Cheat Sheet

Source: Cheat Sheets

 

Everything is presented in a very clear and transparent form. One glance at this page actually makes we want to learn this language!

It also helps you to concentrate on all the most important aspects of the language.

It’s much easier to notice different patterns. And pattern recognition is something of tremendous value in enhancing memory, mind you!

2) It decreases activation energy

 

Activation energy is the initial energy needed to start performing an action.
The more time and steps it takes to start doing something, the greater the chance you won’t do it.

Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.

Source: The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work

Guess what? It’s much easier to look up a couple of grammar constructions if they are on one piece of paper than:

  • a) recall the location of one of x grammar books you have
  • b) thumb though it just to realize that it’s not the right one
  • c) chew off a couple of pages in an outburst of rage
  • d) sit in the corner and cry deeply

3) It changes your approach to grammar learning

 

Most language learners flinch at the mere thought of browsing a grammar book.
Because it’s dull. Oh so stupefyingly dull.

The thing is that the more times you experience this unpleasantness the more you condition yourself to dislike opening grammar books.

The peak-end rule says that:

People exhibit better memory for more intensely emotional events than less intensely emotional events (…), the atypicality of extreme memories can lead people to believe those extreme moments are representative of the “set” being judged.

Repeat this ritual sufficient number of times and you end up with the full-blown I-f**ing-hate-grammar syndrome.

Cheat sheets are clear and simple and thus should actually encourage you to learn grammar.

4) It promotes learning independence

Grammar Cheat Sheet

Having just a one piece of paper which provides you with the most important information about the languages can help you become more effective independent learner.

Whenever one of my students doesn’t know how to create some grammar construction, I always refer them to their cheat sheets.

On the surface, it might seem bizarre.
“What the hell is this dude getting money for?”

But the thing is that building a sentence is like doing puzzles.
Every piece of a puzzle is a word. Grammar tells us where the give piece should be placed.

That’s why, after taking a look at the cheat sheet a couple of times, every student becomes intimately familiar with it.

Using the language ceases to be some kind of voodoo magic.
It becomes a logical step-by-step process of putting puzzle pieces into their rightful place.

That’s also the reason why it’s much easier to convince my students to talk with themselves.

They don’t need me so desperately anymore.
The said piece of paper can actually substitute a teacher to some degree!

5) It helps you to relearn languages much faster

 

A lot of knowledge we acquire throughout our lives gets forgotten.

At least this is how we commonly refer to the phenomenon of not being able to recall information.
However, perhaps the more accurate word in this case is “inaccessible”.

The knowledge you have acquired probably still remains in your long-term memory.

Here is what the research conducted by Association for Psychological Science in 2009 has to say about it:

As it turned out, even though the volunteers showed no memory of the second language in the vocabulary test, they were able to quickly relearn and correctly identify phonemes that were spoken in the neglected language.

 

Psychologists Jeffrey Bowers, Sven L. Mattys, and Suzanne Gage from the University of Bristol found out in another research that:

(…) even though the volunteers showed no memory of the second language in the vocabulary test, they were able to quickly relearn and correctly identify phonemes that were spoken in the neglected language.

Maybe one day you will be forced to take a break from language learning. Maybe because of work, family, or general suckiness of life.

Either way, when all the bad things fade away, you will have your cheat sheet to quickly refresh your memory.

It will give you a nice, general overview of the most important parts of grammar.

6) It makes you a better speaker

Grammar Cheat Sheet

There is this great saying I love.

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The same goes for grammar.

We are cognitive misers. We don’t want to use our deposits of cognitive energy if it’s unnecessary.
That’s why we cling to the grammar constructions we feel warm and comfortable with.

Seeing all the other constructions, which you don’t use at the moment, in one place can be thought-provoking. It acts as a reminder of other possible ways to express yourself and jars you out of grammar lethargy.

Because, all in all, this is what grammar is – the scaffolding which enables us to build neat sentences.

And you can’t really build even a ramshackle hut if all you got are some measly sticks.

The Most Important Rule For Creating a Grammar Cheat Sheet

 

There is just one rule you should keep in mind if you decide to create your own grammar cheat.

 

Make it clear and concise

 

Your cheat sheet shouldn’t be bigger than one A4 page.

It should only contain all the essential grammar rules.

Resist the temptation to jot down all the grammar exceptions and constructions nobody even uses.
Blah, blah. It sounds obvious.

But very often, once you start creating your cheat sheet, the urge to include as much information as it is only possible sprouts uncontrollably.

All so well known voice whispers, “Dude, don’t forget to increase THIS rule. And THAT one as well! Screw it! Rewrite the book! Muahahaha.”

Next thing you see, is a 40 page behemoth.

If you REALLY need more information, you can always create a second grammar cheat sheet for more advanced concepts.

However, usually it is unnecessary. All you need are the essential rules.
You will pick up the rest once you start surrounding yourself with a language (and using it).

Conclusion

 

For reasons I am yet to grasp, grammar cheat sheets are underappreciated and underutilized tools in language learning.

While it may take some time to prepare one on your own, it is usually much better choice than buying one.

Reason? Most of paid ones suck big time.

Don’t be afraid to put some time upfront. You will reap benefits of this investments for months (or years) to come.

If you have any questions about this article or tips on using grammar cheat sheets more effectively, please share them in the comment section below.

Setting Big Goals In Language Learning: 5 Reasons Why You Should Try To Take On Crazy Learning Tasks

Setting big goals in language learning doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, right?

Especially learning, say, over 85o words per day!

After all, common sense tells you to do things step by step. Set small goals which are perfectly achievable. And learn systematically.

And I agree, at least at the beginning of the learning process.

But in past two years I have begun appreciating tasks which are so demanding that they require all my focus and energy.

I believe that you have to go through your own baptism of fire to understand yourself and your learning strategies better.

Such tasks are part of my personal learning project – Impossible Tuesdays.

Every Tuesday I am trying to choose tasks which I feel really uncomfortable with and which take me to the limits of my mental abilities and endurance.

What Are “Crazy” Tasks?

 

When I come up with a new crazy task I would like to take on, I use the following rule of thumb:

I multiply my usual learning tasks by at least 8-10 (I will get to “why” in a minute).

Sounds scary?

Good.

Your goals should be big enough to scare you.

For example,some of my previous challenges included:

Of course, we all start from different levels so you have to take it into consideration.

If you learn 5 words per day right now, go for 40 or 50.

Ok, so what is the logic behind becoming certifiably nuts?

5 Reasons Why You Should Take On Crazy Learning Tasks

 

1) They make you come up with new ideas / strategies

 

Coming up with original ideas is very difficult.
No. Scratch that.

Here is a novel idea – you should write a diary in a foreign language using a cucumber.

Original, right?
Effective? Not really.

So…coming up with GOOD original ideas is very difficult.

Cognitive resources are limited so it makes sense to use them wisely.
In everyday situations there is no necessity to stimulate our brain to be “original”.

Let’s be honest – how challenging is learning 5 new words per day?

Not very.

You can use any learning method and you will still succeed.

However, the situation changes when you don’t have much of a choice and you have to go  beyond your comfort zone.

When you have to learn more than you have ever done before.

Interestingly, even if you fail, you can still learn a lot by analyzing what went wrong.

2) They make you reevaluate strategies you have used so far

 

Setting Big Goals In Language Learning

 

When the push comes to shove, it shows which strategies suck and should be replaced.

If you are used to cramming vocabulary, such a number of words might seem overwhelming.

You might hear your inner voice saying, “I can’t do it this way!”
You’re right. You can’t.

Not by cramming anyway.

And only then you truly realize that you have to change your learning strategy.

Let’s take a look at the first of my challenges – learning over 850 words during one day,

If you had to learn just 20 or 30 words on a give day, would it change the way you approach learning vocabulary?

I highly doubt it.

It would be just another task which you can squeeze between checking your e-mail and watching a movie on Netflix.

However, learning 800 words is an absolutely different beast.
It poses a series of very interesting questions.

  • 1) Where should I take vocabulary from?
  • 2) How will I review the vocabulary over time?
  • 3) How will I find time to do it?
  • 4) How can I energize myself to stay focused?
  • 5) How should I break down the learning time?

Such questions can really make your brain sweat and question the effectiveness of strategies you’ve been using so far.

3) They make you use the strategies you have heard of but couldn’t be bothered to use

 

Be honest with yourself. How many articles about productivity and learning strategies have you read so far?

20, 50, 100?

And how many pieces of advice have you used practically?
I guess that this ratio doesn’t look favorably, right?

I know it all too well.

I tend to hoard hundreds of articles about different learning strategies. And then I struggle to use even just a few of them.

Because why bother?

After all, we are all set in our ways.

That’s why the period of preparation for such tasks gives me the opportunity to dust off the long list of mental tools I have gathered throughout the years.

Tools which I haven’t had motivation to use before or simply didn’t need at the time.

4) They push the borders of what you previously thought is possible

 

Challenge breeds inspiration.

If you force yourself to do things which are seemingly impossible or you have no skills for, you give yourself opportunity to push the boundaries of your comfort zone.

And more often than not, you will find the way to accomplish your goals

Choose one thing you´d like to try but are afraid to do wrong, and go for it!

5) They Boost Your General Life Satisfaction And Confidence

 

It’s time to be frank here. I didn’t enjoy these challenges.

Want to know what was the result of learning over 850 during one day?

Terrible headache. I have never had migraine in my life but I assume that it’s exactly what it feels like.

Just a slightest sound at the end of this day was sending surges of pain throughout my head and made me feel as if my brain was screwed by a nail-pawed hedgehog.

Did I hate it ? You betcha.
Did I feel damn proud the next day? Hell yeah!

You see, normally I am very self-conscious and critical about myself.

But I doubt that I’ll ever forget the pride I felt the next day after “over-850- words-per-day challenge”.
It was verging on unhealthy Johny Bravo-style self-love.

But I’ll be damned if I didn’t deserve it.

Conclusion

As weird as setting big goals in language learning might seem, I have found them time and time again to be one of the most reliable catalysts for self-improvement.

Sure, it´s comfy to do the same ol’, same ol’ day in and day out.

But if you don´t challenge yourself and try new things, how will you realize your true potential?

Now I would love to get to know your thought on this subject.

What do you think about using big goals as a way to optimize your learning strategies?

It is a “hell yeah” or “a little bit over-the-top”?

 

The Truth About Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics In Learning

Would you like to be able to memorize a whole book? What about those boring declination tables?

Silly question. Who wouldn’t?

One way or the other, you have heard of amazing memory feats of mnemonists – memorizing decks of cards or thousands of digits. And all this seemingly effortlessly.

Mnemonics definitely have power to stimulate imagination. And they definitely stimulated mine.

This dream, dream of being able to memorize anything I want, triggered the chain of events which made me embark on a bumpy journey/

Destination? To discover the true effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics and master my memory.

My First Experience With Mnemonics

 

I still remember the first time when I had to practically use mnemonics.

I failed one of my exams and I had to retake it. The problem was that I didn’t know when.
I was convinced that the day would be announced very soon.

The days went by and I didn’t even touch the course book. Somehow the notion of the retake blissfully slipped my mind.

One day I was sitting in the corridor, listening to the music and reading a book

Suddenly I heard a muffled voice, “aren’t you preparing for the exam?”.
“What exam?, I looked up just to see the grinning face of my good friend.

“It’s starting in 2 hours”, he replied. Somehow his grin turned into an evil smirk.

“That’s it”, I thought to myself.

“I will fail this exam and I will fail my studies. I will end up homeless and will have to fight sewer spiders for the food.”

After the first surge of panic passed, I started coming up with possible solutions.
I decided that my best chance is to use mnemonics.

I didn’t have much experience in using them. Sure, I had read two books up to that point but had almost no experience to back up the theory.

Desperate times call for drastic measures. I rolled up my sleeves and started learning.

A bit over 3 h later, I left the professor’s office.
I passed. I don’t know how, but I passed.

Thus my obsession with mnemonics was born.

My imagination was running wild. Where are the boundaries?

Is it possible for each one of us to become genius if we just learn to utilize mnemonic strategies?

I needed many years to learn the bitter truth.

No. Mnemonics will not make you a genius and allow you to effortlessly absorb tons of information.

“So are they useful at all?”, you might ask.
And what can they be used for?

I will get back to this in a moment.

What Are Mnemonics

 

Before we move on, it’s good to quickly explain what mnemonics are.

In short, mnemonics are devices to aid our overburdened memory.

They are used to facilitate effective encoding by associating new information with the knowledge which is already stored in your long-term memory (Johnson & Weber, 2006 as cited in Gibson, 2009).

Probably the most common mnemonic device is so-called keyword method coined by Atkinson (1975). It is used to make meaningful auditory and imagery links to remember a word.

For example, if you want to remember that “to buy” in Spanish is “comprar”, you might create a vivid picture of a man who compares prices of products before the purchase.

Not that complicated, right?

Let’s see now what science has to say about mnemonics.

What Science Thinks About Mnemonics

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

 

There is a large body of research about mnemonics.

However, probably the most interesting study up-to-date was led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky and released in April 2013 by the Association for Psychological Science.

In a comprehensive report, the group of authors closely examined 10 learning tactics and rated them from high to low utility based on the evidence they’ve gathered.

If you are expecting mnemonics to be among the most useful strategies, don’t hold your breath.
They didn’t even come close to the top of the list.

According to the authors, some commonly used techniques, such as underlining, rereading material, and using mnemonic devices, were found to be of surprisingly low utility.

Of surprisingly low utility?!

If you look at memory feats performed by mnemonics, you might reach a conclusion that scientists must be taking crazy pills.

For example, here is a video of  Dr Yip Swee Chooi.

 

 

What’s so special about him?

He learnt 1774-page Chinese-English dictionary by heart (in case you wonder – it took him almost 6 months to do it).

Another great example is  Simon Reinhard who memorized a deck of cards in 20.438 seconds.

 

 

Clearly people with untrained memory would not be able to even come close to these results.

Still, the report says clearly – mnemonics might not be the best use of your time.

Of course, I must be perfectly honest with you.
There are a lot of studies who show that using mnemonics might be very beneficial for (among others):

What’s even more important, some studies showed memory improvement with students with disabilities, as described by Fulk (1994) and Bulgren et al. (1994).

And these are just a few of them and they all state clearly – mnemonics are statistically more effective.

Effective than what?! And why didn’t I include these studies here then?

Problems With Studies On Effectiveness Of Mnemonics

 

Having read dozens of studies on mnemonics, I can divide flaws of these studies into following categories:

a) Statistical sample is not representative

 

Do you know how to recognize bad, bullshit science at the first glance? Look at the sample.

To generalize, any number below 100 participants means that researchers just threw your tax money into the gutter.

b) Control groups suck

 

Do you know what is the usual control group against mnemonics-using students?
Rote learning students.

Ugh, it’s like watching some bizarre boxing match.

“Ladies and gentleman, let’s gather around to enjoy this very duel – a retarded shrimp vs. quite an ordinary shrimp”.

c) Laboratory settings

 

99,9% of these studies are conducted in laboratory settings.

And there is quite a yawning gap between research in areas of everyday memory (i.e. field research) and lab-controlled research.

The Hawthorne effect is one of the things which comes to mind.

A type of reactivity in which individuals modify or improve an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed

It’s very hard to generalize such results to other settings

What’s more, so-called low ecological validity comes into play.

The laboratory is clearly an artificial situation.  People are directed by an ‘experimenter’ in a psychological experiment. They are removed from their usual social settings and asked to memorize different sets of data.

This is a very unusual experience which raises the question – how do this novel experience and settings really affect their behavior and memory?

Still, lab research is better than no research at all.

d) Time horizon

 

Most studies are conducted over relatively short period of time. It’s rarely spread over more than 3-4 weeks. As you will soon read, this is why most studies prove effectiveness of mnemonics.

e) Nature of the tasks

 

How would you feel about memorizing and recalling a list of unconnected words or digits? Seriously, be honest. How would you rate your willingness on the scale from “nope” to “never”?

The detachment of such tasks from everyday life, and their general lack of usefulness, have led some researchers to question whether their findings can be generalized to real life.

 

Am I saying that mnemonics are useless then?
Not at all. They can be insanely useful.

But you must understand what they are and what they aren’t.
I quoted the excerpt from John Dunlosky’s report for two reasons:

  • 1) It tested different learning strategies against one another.
  • 2) More importantly, it tested effects of those strategies in LONG-TERM learning.

And this is what mnemonics are not.

They are not a suitable tool for long-term learning. At least not in the form they are usually presented.

If you are not pressed for time, you can get by without any problems without using mnemonics

They are also not a panacea for all your memory problems.
This is just another tool in your learning arsenal.

If you have ever read anything by any author who promotes / sells anything mnemonics-related you might find it hard too believe.

Don’t worry, I also felt disillusioned. And I had good reasons.

(Results Of) My Experiments With Mnemonics

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

Picture by: Vlad

Since that pivotal moment of my life, my obsession with mnemonics had been growing in strength with each passing day.

There was no stopping me. I was the mnemonics preacher. Everybody HAD to know about how mnemonics are great,

After I won local memory championship, it only got worse.

I experimented with the ardor of meth-addicted junkie.

I created memory palaces holding thousands of words.

I tried to learn entire books by heart just to test effectiveness of mnemonics.

I have memorized tables, law regulations and tested my recall  at various intervals.

Effect was always the same.

Great recall rate at the beginning of my experiments. These early results were always accompanied by the feeling of overwhelming joy.

But it never lasted long.

My recall rate was still good after up to 2-4 weeks after creating mnemonic images and reviewing them. Although, I could notice some deterioration of my memories.

Inevitable drop in recall rate always came after more than 4 weeks.

And this is exactly why most scientific studies seemingly prove effectiveness of mnemonics.
They test them in labs in short periods of time.

Once again, I would like to stress that mnemonics can be immensely useful.

Useful both for recalling random information as well as helping you achieve high levels of expert performance. Just not for long-term learning.

Read on and I will show how they can be utilized best.

But first, to have a full picture of what you’re dealing with, take a look at limitations of mnemonics.

Limitations And Disadvantages Of Mnemonics

 

  • Gruneberg (1998) argues that the keyword method in general is inferior to rote learning in the longer-term retention of vocabulary.
  • “Campos and Gonzalez (2003) attribute ineffectiveness of keyword method to participants’ ‘lack of training. They investigated in four experiments the effectiveness of the mnemonic key word method using two groups of adults and adolescents. In all the experiments, the rote method was more effective than the keyword method for both adolescents and adults.”
  • Some people (especially adults) are reluctant to create vivid images and crazy stories.
  • Some people (especially adults) are unable and / or unwilling to resign from using previously learned strategies.
  • Using mnemonic devices in memorizing words is time-consuming (especially at the beginning).
  • Using mnemonics requires more effort (especially at the beginning) than rote-learning.
  • Mnemonics don’t guarantee understanding.
  • Learning with mnemonics lacks context.

 

So if mnemonics are not a great way for long-term learning, what are they good for?

How Mnemonics Affect Your Short-Term Memory

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

 

Short term memory has three key aspects:

  • 1. limited capacity (only about 7+-2 items can be stored at a time, or 3-4 chunks)
  • 2. limited duration (storage is very fragile and information can be lost with distraction or passage of time)
  • 3. encoding (primarily acoustic, even translating visual information into sounds).

 

And here is where the true power of mnemonics lies.

Mnemonic devices allow you to significantly boost all these three aspects of your short-term memory.

It might not seem like a big deal but it has tremendous implications for your (language) learning.

Why?

Because short-term memory is a necessary step toward the next stage of retention – long-term memory.

You can treat short-term memory as a bottleneck of your learning.

After all, if you can’t commit some information, even just for a few seconds, to your memory, how are you supposed to learn?

Some researchers claim that working-memory capacity reflects the efficiency of executive functions.

In other words, the ability to maintain and manipulate information in the face of distractions and other irrelevant information. ( Engle, R. W., September 1999).

 

That’s why the best way to think about mnemonics is to treat them as a relatively long-lived external memory with huge capacity.

 

I will get to the most effective use of mnemonics in a second.

First, I want to demonstrate you something. Let’s take a look at prodigies.

The Short-Term Memory Of Prodigies

 

Studies on the prodigies who reached professional-level performance in their domain (e.g., art, math, music) by the age of 10 show something very interesting.

When Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach administered an IQ test to nine prominent child prodigies (…) there were a wide range of IQ scores among the eight prodigies (from 108 to 147), and their cognitive profiles were uneven.

It turned out that the key to understanding their rapid learning in their domain was not their global intellectual functioning.

Most strikingly, every single prodigy in their sample scored off the charts (better than 99 percent of the general population) in working memory — the ability to simultaneously store incoming information while processing other information.

So how can you approach these levels of intellectual functioning?

Key Information Needed to Understand How To use Mnemonics Effectively

 

  • 2) Calling information to mind strengthens it and helps in future retrieval
  • 3) Understanding the difference between procedural and declarative knowledge.

 

According to Cohen and Squire (1980):

Procedural knowledge involves “knowing how” to do things. It includes skills, such as “knowing how” to play the piano, ride a bike; tie your shoes and other motor skills. It does not involve conscious thought (i.e. it’s unconscious – automatic). For example, we brush our teeth with little or no awareness of the skills involved.

Declarative knowledge involves “knowing that”. Knowing names of plants , dates, formulas – it’s all part of your declarative knowledge. Recalling information from declarative memory involves, so called, effortfull recall – i.e. information has to be consciously brought to mind and “declared”.

 

Knowing these things can help us stew perfect learning mix:

  • 1) Gather information 

It doesn’t matter whether you want to learn a language or how to master persuasion strategies. Gather the knowledge needed to achieve your goal.

  • 2) Memorize it with mnemonics

As I have written before, mnemonics can be treated as an extension of your short-term memory. Place as much information as you can on this external “hard-drive”.

  • 3) Start practising right away

Now that you know the theory of how to play piano or how to program, start putting your knowledge into practice.

Try to use as many pieces of information from your memory as you can.

Because every time you bring one of them to your mind, the magic happens. You start creating and strengthening neural networks responsible for the given action.

Repeat this action sufficient number of times and you will automate it. From that moment on, you will be able to perform it subconsciously and with minimal effort.

Let’s see how you can use it in language learning.

Mnemonics In Language Learning

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

Picture by: Shannon Kokoska

 

When I launched my Czech mission, I already had a rough plan of how to achieve my desired level in record time.

This is more less what I did:

  • 1) I got familiar with grammar
  • 2) I memorized basic declinations and conjugations with mnemonics
  • 3) I memorized about 50 basic words with mnemonics
  • 4) I started producing a lot of sentence  by talking to myself and by using the aforementioned words and grammar
  • 5) I “rinsed and repeated” points 2-4. Each time I increased the number of words and grammar constructions

Of course, there was also listening and reading practice. If someone asks me what is the quickest way to learn a language, I show them this plan.

Ok, I also tell them to use ANKI.

Since we have established that mnemonics can be treated as your external memory, take a look at other practical applications of mnemonics!

(Other) Practical Applications Of Mnemonics

 

Mnemonics are useful whenever you need to memorize a lot of information on the fly and remember them for at least a couple of hours.

That’s why, you can use them (among others):

  • during parties and meetings to memorize names and information about other participants
  • during last-minute panic before the exam or company presentation to make sure that the information stays  in your memory!
  • during speeches.
  • to impress your wife and show her that “you don’t need no damn shopping lists” to remember what you should buy
  • to memorize random information which emerges during conversations

And so on. I think you got it!

Conclusion

Mnemonics have to be one of the most misunderstood learning tools of all times.

They are usually sold as the ultimate solution for all kinds of learning problems which is far from the truth.

As you can see, they can be extremely useful but only provided that you exactly understand what they do.

And what they do is “inflate” your short-term memory for some time.

Manage to review the knowledge you acquired with mnemonics by performing some actions specific to that knowledge.and you can rest assured that your progress will know no boundaries.

You will become that “robo-weirdo”.

And this is what I sincerely wish you.

Have you ever used mnemonics? Let me know!

 

How To Prepare For A Foreign Language Interview And Ace It

You keep looking nervously at your phone.

It’ll be alright, you keep telling yourself.
Still, your body doesn’t seem very convinced.

Your palms leave sticky stains of sweat on the tabletop in a final cry for help.

Just one more leap and your dream job will be yours…

But what to do to make this leap count?

Is it even worth making it?

Let’s dig into numbers!

How Much Is Knowing a Foreign Language Worth

 

Learning languages has a lot of benefits.

Among others, it can:

  • improve your memory
  • increase your attention span
  • increase your verbal and non-verbal intelligence
  • boost your problem solving skills

The list goes on and on.

What’s more, it turns out that it is also a great decision money-wise!

 

Prepare For A Foreign Language Interview

” Assuming an average starting salary of almost $45,000, a 2% “language bonus” average over 40 years, and also a 1% raise annually, you’d have an extra $67,000 by the time you retire. Since you can learn a new language (or two) pretty quickly, that’s a pretty good investment of time “.                           Source: The Economist

Of course, not all languages have the same value. German and French are worth $128,000 and $77,000, respectively, compared to $51,000 for Spanish.

Do you know Japanese or Russian?

In that case, you can count on much more!

Not bad, right?

Now that we’ve established that knowing a language is actually worth something, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of acing the foreign language interview.

The first station?

Mindset.

Don’t Be Yourself, Be Your Better Self

 

I have never bought corny slogans like “be yourself”. That’s a lazy way of thinking.

If I were a pimply, adolescent and were after a girl out of my league, such advice would be useless.
If the girl I like is my dream company then I don’t want to be a pimply loser. Nor should you.

Be ready to step up your game.

Trust me, I know a thing or two about language interviews.

I’ve been at the both sides of the table. I have interviewed and have been interviewed dozens of times in 5 languages.

The first thing you need to know is that the pre-interview preparation is what really matters.
No amount of luck will shelter you from the unwillingness to put in some hours beforehand.

All the tips are ordered chronologically for your convenience.

From the ones you should use days before the interview to the ones which will be useful hours before it starts.

Prepare Answers To The Most Common Interview Questions

 

It never ceases to amaze me. There is an infinite number of questions an interviewer might ask.
Yet, these are the ones they tend to ask the most:

 

  • 1. Tell me about yourself
  • 2. What do you know about or company?
  • 3. What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • 4. Why did you leave your last job?
  • 5. What is the biggest challenge you have encountered so far?
  • 6. What do you do in your current role?
  • 7. Why would you like to work for us?
  • 8. Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?
  • 9. What kind of qualifications do you have?
  • 10. Why would you like to work for us? 

 

Yes, that’s really it. Preparing answers to just these 10 questions should drastically boost your chance of getting your dream job.

Of course, the chance is that some companies have slightly different questions sets.

If you don’t want to leave anything to chance, visit:

The website gathers all kinds of information about different companies – interview questions, salaries and so on.

Once you prepare the answers, rehearse them aloud. Do it as many times as necessary.

How many times exactly?

It depends on your current language level, of course.

The rule of thumb is that you should be able to recite these questions without any hesitation and unnecessary pauses.

And there is a good reason for that.

If you stutter in the stress-free conditions, at your home, imagine what will happen when the stress kicks in during the interview.

You will crash and burn.

Prepare all the pleasantries

 

Imagine eating a delicious cake. Your palate experiences a surge of exquisite sensations.
What a bliss!

But then the last bite turns out to be a lump of dung.

How do you think you would recall this event?
Negatively doesn’t even come close to describing this experience.

But how does it relate to a language interview?

Many candidates are relatively well-prepared when it comes to answering the questions.
Very often they don’t know how to exchange common pleasantries.

But why is this petty element of an interview so important?

Because it’s the end of a certain experience.

The peak-end rule says that:

People exhibit better memory for more intensely emotional events than less intensely emotional events (…), the atypicality of extreme memories can lead people to believe those extreme moments are representative of the “set” being judged.

If an interviewer sneezes, know how to say “bless you” in your target language.

If he says, “thank you for your time and have a wonderful day”, know how to say “likewise”.

Prepare Difficult Phrases To Trick The Interviewer

 

Prepare For A Foreign Language Interview

 

This step requires greater sophistication but it can be, without any doubt, called the secret sauce of acing the foreign language interviews.

I came up with this sneaky strategy years ago and have battle tested it many times.

Its implementation will immediately make you stand out from the crowd.

Prepare at least 10 phrases / idioms which are quite sophisticated. Next, repeat them aloud in the sentences until they become your second nature.

For example, instead of saying:

“I also think that …”, try saying, “Having said that, I would also like to add that … “.

Boring ? Maybe.

Does it sound more impressive? Hell yeah, it does!

The purpose of this strategy is very simple.
Such phrases are easily memorable. They distinguish you from others.

They will help to artificially boost your potential language level, regardless of how high it is currently.

What’s more, it doesn’t matter if you talk with a native speaker or not.

If the interviewer, who is a non-native speaker, doesn’t understand some phrase you say, 99 out of 100 he won’t ask you to explain it.

Why would he?

That’d be humiliating! He’s the guy who should know this stuff!

If you heard a guy saying:

“I don’t want to sound like a philodox* but I would dare to say that… ”

Would you ask him, what a philodox means?

I guess not.

If I didn’t know what the word means I would just start thinking why someone would fill some poor dogs**.

And what if you talk to a native speaker?

Even better, in this case, they will know what you said and would probably be in awe because of your amazing language skills.

* From the Greek philos, meaning love, and doxa, meaning glory, a philodox is a dogmatic person who is especially fond of his/her own opinions

** Phil dox? You know, it sounds like “fill dogs”, right? Anyone…? (Walks away disappointed). It was funny in my head!

Bear in mind that the aforementioned example is a little bit over the top since it’s a very rare word.

 

Prepare Difficult Grammar Constructions

 

Prepare a few sentences with more advanced grammar constructions which you don’t use normally and rehearse the hell out of them.

Try to build sentences which are as universal as it gets. You have to make sure you can use them at (almost) any point during the interview.

Determine Your Strengths and Weaknesses To Dominate The Interviewer

 

Ok, I admit. “Dominate” sounds somehow wrong. I don’t suggest  that you pee on your opponent to mark your territory and show dominance.

Definitely not.

You see, every language learner has one language competence which prevails. Be it listening or speaking since these are the ones which count the most during the interview.

By knowing which of them is your strong suit you can direct the interview into the direction desired by you.

Listening as a strength?

 

If you are a better listener, try to limit your speaking time by asking questions.

For example, the interviewer asks you, “Where do you see yourself in 3 years?”.

You give a short answer and then smoothly parry with, “Actually, I’ve been wondering… I would love to stay in this company as long as it’s only possible but can you tell me what other employees think about it?”.

You nod enthusiastically as you listen and then ask another question, “So what do they like the most about it?”.

People love to talk about themselves so you can try to ask the interviewer about his personal experience in this company.

Just a word of warning. Don’t be creepy and /or socially awkward.

You should try to come across as an enthusiastic and inquisitive person. Not a nosy weirdo.

Speaking as a strength?

 

If you’re more of the silver-tongued devil, you should minimize speaking time of the interviewer. Try to give lengthy answers to every question.

And don’t worry about talking too much. It’s a verification of your language level, not an ordinary interview in your native tongue.

Dazzle the poor bastard with your linguistic prowess!

For example:

“Hi. This is X from the Y company. Am I speaking with Mr. X?
“Yes, speaking”
“I am calling to verify your language level. Shall we start?”

“Of course. Let me introduce myself and say a few words about my previous job / life / other fillers.”

Obviously, you can’t talk all the time. But at least try to minimize the chance of not understanding the interviewer.

And if you’re feeling really unsure the question? Then you can alway salvage yourself by posing a question back.

“So you would like to know……is that correct?”
Just ask the interview to reformulate the question and you should be fine.

Immerse Yourself In A Language Prior To The Interview

 

Don’t dive head first into the dark water. At least dip your fingers first!

Warm up before the actual interview by surrounding yourself with your target language.

For example:

  • Listen to some music in the morning
  • Watch a movie or listen to the radio
  • Talk to yourself or to some other person in your target language

I would suggest doing it for at least 1 hour. But obviously everything depends on how much free time you have on your hands.

Bonus Advice: Apply For Other Positions With Your Target Language

If you’ve found your dream job at some company, it would be a shame if you failed you just because stress ate you up.

That’s why you can put some extra effort and apply for other positions with your target language. Sure, you don’t want to work in other companies but, at least, you’ll get some extra practice!

 

As you can see, acing the foreign language interview is not about luck or simply having a perfect command of your target language.

It’s more about having the right attitude, being prepared and using the right strategies. Once you understand it the world is your oyster!

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