Regardless of whether you use Spaced Repetition Apps or not, you can’t deny that there is some controversy among language learners whether such programs are truly effective. Some people swear by it while others prefer more old-fashioned pen-centered strategies. It gets even better! Even among SRS enthusiasts, you can find different militant fractions. Some claim that Memrise is the best. Other that Quizlet is the way to go.
For many, it can be quite difficult to wrap their head around what’s true and what’s not. Let’s sort it out so you can finally know the answer.
What’s the scientific consensus about Spaced Repetition Apps
If you have ever seen one of the aforementioned squabbles online, the first thing you need to know is that opinions that SRS is ineffective are completely detached from reality. Spaced repetition is among the most thoroughly researched memory-related phenomena in the world. Its efficacy has been replicated in hundreds of comprehensive and extensive studies (read more about choosing the best language learning methods).
It is effective on a variety of academic fields and mediums.
Spacing effects can be found in:
various domains (e.g., learning perceptual motor tasks or learning lists of words) such as spatial44
across species (e.g., rats, pigeons, and humans [or flies or bumblebees, and sea slugs, Carew et al 1972 & Sutton et al 2002])
across age groups [infancy, childhood, adulthood, the elderly] and individuals with different memory impairments
and across retention intervals of seconds [to days] to months (we have already seen studies using years)
Source(probably the best article online about the spaced repetition, well worth checking out)
The benefits of spaced study had been apparent in an array of motor learning tasks, including:
maze learning (Culler 1912)
typewriting (Pyle 1915)
archery (Lashley 1915)
javelin throwing (Murphy 1916; see Ruch 1928, for a larger review of the motor learning tasks which reap benefits from spacing; see also Moss 1996, for a more recent review of motor learning tasks).
Heck, there are almost no exceptions to this phenomenon. Sure, there is maybe 5% of studies which haven’t replicated these findings. But upon reading more about their design and methodologies used, one might conclude that they are often an example of bad science.
The only notable exception I have seen so far is that children can often fail to exhibit a spacing effect unless they process learning material in a certain way. This, however, is a topic for another article.
Where does all this controversy about the effectiveness of SRS programs come from then? I will get to it soon.
First, let’s concentrate on what makes learning truly fast and effective.
Encoding – the most important criterion for effective learning
A simple model of memory
The process of memorization can be depicted in the four following steps:
Encoding – involves initial processing of information which leads to the construction of its mental representation in memory
Storage – is the retention of encoded information in the short-term or long-term memory
Recall – is the retrieval of stored information from memory
Let’s concentrate on the second step of this process. Clearly, you can see that it’s a gateway to the land of remembering. But what does encoding really mean?
“Encoding is any kind of attempt of manipulating a piece of information in order to increase your chances of memorizing it.”
What’s more, there are two kinds of encoding.
Two types of encoding
Shallow encoding doesn’t help you to connect the piece of information with other meaningful information nor does it help you to further your understanding of it. It usually concentrates on meaningless banalities.
Example: you are trying to memorize the word “skada” (Swedish for “to damage”). The prime example of shallow encoding would be to start counting the number of vowels or consonants in this word.
The absolute opposite of shallow encoding. This time you are trying to make a meaningful connection between different items. The more the better.
Deep encoding is so powerful for your learning that it even shows up in brain scans as increased activity in key brain areas associated with memory. It is this activity that appears to give deep processing its memory advantage. (source: How Memory Works–and How to Make It Work for You).
So what’s the example of deep encoding in the world of language learning? Creating sentences or saying them out loud, to be more precise.
Interestingly, every time I say it, there is always someone who seems surprised. I guess the reason being that we don’t appreciate enough how complicated it is for our brains to create a sentence.
Why creating sentences is so complicated
In order to create even the simplest of sentences you have to:
remember actively the words you are currently learning
remember all the other words in the sentence actively
connect them in a meaningful way
apply all the known grammar rules
choose the appropriate register of the sentences (i.e. a form of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting)
remember the pronunciation of all the words in the sentences
pronounce all the said words by using your muscles
As you can see, it’s not that trivial to produce a sentence. And that’s why this process is so meaningful and memorable for your brain.
Initially, a lot of my students grumble about having to create many sentences. They say it’s too exhausting. I agree. The thing is that producing sentences equals knowing and being able to use a language!
To make your inner geek happy, it’s worth mentioning that encoding is very often connected with two other principles of memory which make your learning even more effective:
Interesting, right? Now it’s time to answer the most important question – what if somebody is too lazy to actually go through all the trouble of producing sentences?
Consequences Of Lack Of Encoding (i.e. why most Spaced Repetition Apps don’t work)
I hope that the following paragraph will help you make a very important decision – never ever use or buy any learning app. I don’t care that you read that Gabriel Wyner is working on a revolutionary app or that Memrise has a better algorithm now.
The most important and effective thing you can do for your learning is to create multiple contexts (i.e. sentences) for a word you want to learn. Simply repeating ready-to-use flashcards, especially the ones without any context, won’t work well. This simple fact renders all the memory apps combined useless. ANKI is really all you need.
Think for a second about the solution those apps dish out to you. Most of the time they simply give you ready-to-use flashcards, often without any context! Or meaningless games which perpetuate shallow encoding. Or even when you see a flashcard with a word in the context, it was not encoded by you and thus it will be way harder to remember.
Time to stop looking for magical solutions. You won’t find them in apps.
To my chagrin, I don’t see any big company talking about this. Of course, the reason is obvious. If you pay for an app, you have to be convinced that it’s truly magical and life-changing. I don’t think they would sell well if the owners started screaming from the rooftops “They are sh*t! What’s truly magical is the effort you put into encoding your vocabulary”!
The right way of thinking about such programs is seeing them as a white canvas.
Algorithms underpinning them are close to perfect in themselves. Unfortunately, some people crap in their hand and insist on smearing it until they get a one-eyed unicorn. The next thing you know is they are running around the internet and screaming that SRS programs don’t work. You can’t be lazy when you learn.
I know that doing ready-to-use flashcards seems “quicker” to use because you don’t have to invest too much energy into producing them. However, in reality, they are more time-consuming in the long run because you need to spend more time repeating words unnecessarily.
It has to do with the mechanism of passive rehearsal which is simply a mindless act of rattling off a cluster of pre-prepared information. Many years ago it was actually proven that it has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).
If you ever want to use such flashcards, simply treat them as a source of vocabulary to learn. Other than that, simply encode your vocabulary and you will be fine. All ready-to-use flashcards can do is create the illusion of time-efficiency while slowing your progress down at the same time.
I love how paradoxical the modern world is. You are just a click away from accessing almost every imaginable piece of information ever created. If you could acquire just some of it, you would be able to dominate almost every possible area of life. However, it seems like there is a glass wall holding you back. You can lick it all you want but you can’t get through it.
Why is it so? Why is it so difficult to master even one field of knowledge?
My guess is that most people are notoriously bad at tying information together. What’s more, we are also easily overwhelmed by the sea of information. All the facts that we face usually take a form of an impenetrable tangle.
In this article, I would like to show you a way out of this maddening maze. It’s not a complete map but it should be enough to help you wrap your head around any discipline. With some time and dedication, of course.
The remedy is a method of mine which I dubbed course-oriented thinking. Not only will it help you to create or consolidate your expertise but it’ll also, hopefully, give you lots of ideas on writing a book or a course.
Knowledge coherence – the best predictor of one’s expertise
Do you know what the biggest predictor of one’s expertise is?
Knowledge coherence, or in other words the way we structure information we acquire. And we suck badly at it.
Why wouldn’t we?
Throughout our entire education, everything is served to you on a silver platter. It’s always the same dish – the prechewed and predigested informational spaghetti. God forbid that you put more effort into your learning than it’s necessary.
And then comes the day when you need to recall and apply all this knowledge. You reach for emptiness. There is nothing there.
Why is that?
After all, the knowledge presented to you was structured.
What went wrong that you couldn’t remember it? The answer is “Easy come, easy go”.
Learning takes effort.
There is no way around it. It doesn’t matter how many people you will meet on your path who scream otherwise. You need to put in a lot of effort.
And let’s be honest here. If you receive knowledge in a form of a fully digested pulp, you won’t know how to use it. You won’t understand it either.
The truth is that nobody can structure and organize your knowledge for you.
And this is where course-oriented thinking enters the scene.
Course-oriented thinking – a general overview
In the simplest of terms, course-oriented thinking is based on one principle. You should approach every domain you want to master with a single goal in your mind.
You will create a course to teach someone all there is to know about a given subject.
It’s not going to be any course. It will be the best in the world. No other course will come even close. However,
keep in mind that your course won’t be any good in the beginning. Being the best is the end goal. It’s a journey.
Initially, it will rather resemble a steaming pile of manure. With time, however, you will turn into your own version of David Statue. The one made of marble, not s**t. I better add it so there is no misunderstanding here.
2. The most comprehensive course in the world
If you want to go in, go all in. Create a course which will teach you every aspect of your field of choice.
3. It has to be structured and organized
Keep in mind that the course should be able to teach a complete beginner how to master a given field of science. If you want to teach somebody how to invest, even a retarded, three-headed shrimp which survived a nuclear apocalypse will succeed.
Ask yourself this while working on your project – “How can you make a layman understand what you want to convey?”.
Another important assumption is that you’re going to sell it. Of course, it doesn’t really matter whether you do it or not. What matters is that this approach will give you some mental incentive to devote as much attention to it as it’s needed.
You wouldn’t sell people crap, right? Exactly. This way of thinking should help you keep your focus on the right track.
Another self-evident advantage of this rationale is actually creating something of value. You might be doing it for yourself right now. However, as the time goes by, you might be struck by a curious thought, “Why won’t I create an actual course or a book?”. And come it will. Trust me.
I still remember my bewilderment in college every time I saw an author publish a book. I couldn’t grasp how it’s possible to amass such vastness of information, structure it, and package it as a complete product.
The secret seems to be disappointingly easy. You start with a product in your mind and you learn as you create it.
5. It’s going to be YOUR course
If you set off on this journey with an intention of just copying a curriculum of already existing courses, you might as well stop reading right now. The course has to be your creation. Sure, you might borrow different concepts, methods or solutions from other authors in the field, but it has to be yours. Only this way will you be able to fully understand the scope of a given domain. Trust me, knowing how most of the puzzles fit together is amazingly empowering.
It also means that you can add whatever you want to the course. Dollop some funny pictures or a bucketful of ridiculousness on top of each module. Appreciate all those little peccadilloes that only you can bring to the table.
In my “investing course”, I find myself frequently quoting a lot of prominent figures from the investing world. Sometimes one quote is more than enough to help a give rule to sink in.
Here is the one by Warren Buffet which I use on a daily basis:
“The stock market is a device for transferring money from the impatient to the patient.”
Sure, I also include some scientific data to back up this idea. However, I don’t find it even half as powerful as the aforementioned quote.
Course-oriented thinking – how to structure your course
1. Tips for rookies
If you are new to some area of expertise, you may find it extremely difficult to create any curriculum. After all, what do you know?
Don’t worry. You don’t have to do all the heavy lifting on your own. Simply pick up any book, or google an online course which is similar to the one you want to create and copy its rough outline.
I would like to remind you that it’s just a place to start. You shouldn’t copy everything. Without the effort of creating a schedule, you won’t be able to learn nearly as fast.
2. Tips for old-timers
If you already possess a wealth of knowledge about some domain, you’re in a great place. You already did the bulk of work in the past. Now, muster all you know and start structuring it from A to Z.
Your mental framework for approaching new information
1. Be critical
Don’t take facts or information at face value. Pay attention whether the opinions are rooted in anything trustworthy.
As a rule of thumb, my bullshitometer buzzes like crazy anytime I hear that “there is a study proving …”, or better yet, “everyone knows that …”.
Have you read this study yourself? No, not an abstract, an entire study. If not, remain skeptical. As yet another rule of thumb, anyone quoting documentaries as a source of knowledge, especially about health-related issues should be slapped six feet deep into the ground by the mighty gauntlet of knowledge.
Sometimes I waive this rule temporarily if I respect a given expert enough. However, that’s an exception.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s hard. And I fully agree. Nobody said that forming your own opinion and knowledge is easy.
It’s confusing, I know. Can you be critical and open-minded at the same time? You can, and you should be.
The principle is best encapsulated by Stanford University professor Paul Saffo.
Strong opinions loosely held
At no point in time will you have a complete picture of a given domain. Hence, you are bound to hear lots of different opinions and theories which might contradict your present knowledge.
Don’t discard them just because they don’t sound right. Analyze their conclusions. And don’t stop there. Analyze the rationale which led to those conclusions as well.
A great example is a way in which I approach rapid language learning as described in a case study of mine.
After learning and analyzing hundreds of linguistic studies and memory-related books and papers, it wasn’t hard to see why a typical approach can’t work well. What’s more, it wasn’t too difficult to see why extensive reading and other passive learning approaches are usually terrible ideas. Yet, a couple of years ago there weren’t many people who shared this belief. Luckily, language learning is one of those fields where usually results speak for themselves.
What to do with the contradictory information
If I encounter some evidence which is either flaky or contradictory to what I already know, I still try to place it somewhere in the course. However, I always place an extra note saying “to be verified”.
You can choose to copy my methodology or think up some other way to mark uncertain information. Whatever works for you.
Upon doing so, you are left with two choices. You can either set off on a revelatory journey to discover what the truth in this particular case is, or leave it for time being. As you acquire more knowledge, the problem will most probably sort itself out.
The best program to structure your knowledge
In my book, there is only one clear winner – Evernote. It’s everything you will ever need to write a book, a course or anything else for that matter.
Of course, I might be biased as I don’t know many other programs of this kind.
Evernote makes it very easy to create module and units for every single folder (i.e. your course idea).
Course-oriented thinking – a long-term perspective
If you have ever dreamt of mastering many fields of expertise, course-oriented thinking should also be right up your alley.
Once you read this article, you can download Evernote right away and start creating course outlines for every single domain that interests you.
Will you be able to pursue them all at the same time with smoldering passion? Definitely not.
Will you be able to work on them for years to come until you achieve mastery? Absolutely.
You can think of every field of expertise you want to master as a journey. Maybe you won’t make too many steps in the forthcoming months. But you will keep on going and you will keep on getting better.
What’s more, the mere awareness of having a course which you can expand should keep your eyes wide open to all the wonderful facts and information you stumble upon.
They all will become a welcome addition to your creation. And as with learning intensely, the more courses you create, the easier it will be to master any other domain.
I am pretty sure that you already have a rough idea of which areas of expertise you want to explore. Regardless, I’ve wanted to show you some examples of the courses I have created so far. Of course, they are work in progress. Knowing me, I will keep on expanding them till the day I die. You might use them as a source of inspiration.
toxins in plants and fruits which affect our health (it got so big that I am actually turning it into a book)
common diseases like diabetes, thyroid disorders
visual diagnosis of diseases and micronutrient deficiencies
environmental hormonal disruptors
building online courses
muscle building program
The list is certainly not complete but it should give you a general idea of what to gun for. Remember to think long-term. Your course (i.e. knowledge) doesn’t have to be perfect from the get-go. The mere action of having such a project in place will help you put any piece of information in the right context.
Approaching learning in this manner can lead to truly spectacular results. You might discover that after some time, some of your projects will come to life and will become an inseparable part of your existence.
For example, I have never thought of myself as an investor. However, just a couple of weeks upon creating a rough curriculum of my investing course, I dipped my toes in the financial waters. Surprisingly, it turned out that I am really good at it. These days trading is a part of my everyday ritual.
So what do I think? I think you should give it a shot.
One of the most important factors affecting your ability to remember things is the coherence of your knowledge. Course-oriented thinking can provide you with an excellent framework for structuring your knowledge. What’s more, your potential courses can turn into real-life products which might benefit you in the future.
Keep in mind that your projects don’t have to be perfect from the very beginning. They will probably suck. Only working on them systematically and methodically can guarantee that they will become world-class products.
Don’t treat them dead-serious and don’t be too formal. Sprinkle them with silly memes, anecdotes or quotes. Your courses should be a natural extension of your character. Let your personality shine through the quality information. With time, you might be truly surprised how much this approach can change your life.
Listening comprehension is quite universally known to be one of the most, if not the most, demanding language skill.
A lot of learners struggle for many years to be able to understand even 90% of a conversation. And it gets worse. The number of language learners who are capable of understanding almost every word they hear amounts to a few percents.
And thus the question arises: is listening really that difficult or maybe there is something else at play here?
To answer this question we first have to take a look at all the most important factors affecting your listening comprehension.
All The Factors That Affect Your Listening Comprehension
Listening comprehension is a quite complex beast as it consists of lots of smaller sub-beasts, or sub-skills if you will.
As you will see in a moment, almost everything can affect your level of listening comprehension.
1. Your pronunciation
For every word you encounter, you create your internal phonetic representations (i.e. how you think that a word should be pronounced). Next, you confront them with the external representations (i.e. how the words are really pronounced).
If they overlap considerably or are identical, and you can fish them out from the recording, you should be able to understand a given word.
This is the exact reason why you might understand a typical accent from a given country but you will struggle with a dialect. Simply, at this point, your internal representations are not broad enough to encompass new external representations.
It’s much more difficult to understand the deeper meaning of an utterance if you don’t know how different words come together. Don’t worry. You don’t have to concentrate on learning every single grammar construction in your target language. Simply start with functional grammar.
Lack of understanding how sounds merge or get reduced
Unfortunately, not everything is what it seems. It certainly seems to be the case with sounds. In almost any language there is a tendency of different sounds to be reduced (e.g. vowel reduction) or to be merged (read more about phonological changes).
If you don’t grasp how these changes happen, it will take you much longer to decipher the ongoing stream of speech.
It happens way too often that I get an e-mail for one of my readers who complains about their listening skills. Asked how much time they devote to their listening practice, I get a shy “10 minutes per day”.
What an amazing pace and dedication! Call me in 2045 to tell me whether you can finally understand your first movie dialogue.
Listening takes a lot of time. That’s just the way it is.
Lack of visual support
Listening becomes much easier once you can see somebody’s body language. A lot of things which would simply get lost in the tangle of speech seem more understandable on the screen once you catch a glimpse of an ironic smirk.
Plus, nobody can take away from you the pleasure of fantasizing about starting a new life with a main actor/actress. And calling your first child “Chad”. What? No, obviously it has never happened to me. Mind your own business.
It’s as clear as day. The more words you know, the easier it is to fish them out of a recording. If your current vocabulary is, say, 1000 words and you can’t figure out why you don’t understand much, this might be the reason.
As much as I like the idea of listening to recordings in the background, you won’t get far if you can’t focus on the activity at hand. You have to strap your butt to a chair and listen.
Just for the record, I want you to know that in the literature you can find a couple of other factors which affect your listening comprehension. For example, problems with interpretation, inability to identify signals and such. I decided to skip them as they have so little bearing your ability to understand. I don’t want to artificially expand this article.
Let’s now take a look at what are the two most important factor that affects your listening comprehension.
The Two Most Important Factors That Affect Your Listening Comprehension
It’s always crucial to know what constituent of some skill is the most important. Skills are difficult enough as they are. However, without any semblance of prioritization, you might spend too much time floundering about desperately.
You might think about what I am about to propose you as yet another application of the Pareto principle.
As a reminder:
The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
In order to increase your comprehension, you have to spend a lot of time listening to people or recordings. The more often you do it, the faster you can expect to progress.
However, is the total amount of listening practice really the ultimate answer? I doubt it. If that was the case, there wouldn’t be that many people who live abroad surrounded by a language who still struggle with comprehension.
Actually, I have a good friend of mine who watches everything in English passionately. TV series, movies, news, you name it. Yet, after all these years, his comprehension hasn’t changed that drastically. And it would be surprising if it wasn’t for the fact that he doesn’t have any kind of vocabulary acquisition system in place.
And that leads me to the factor no 2.
2. The size of your vocabulary
There is a very good reason why the name of my language learning course is Vocabulary Labs and not something else.
The size of your vocabulary is the most reliable predictor of language progress there is. Without knowing a lot of words, improving your listening comprehension will prove very difficult.
Let me demonstrate it.
First of all, improving your listening comprehension can be understood as:
picking up words you know from the ongoing stream of speech
What’s more, we know from the literature that for the most languages, 3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). 5000 words, in its turn, allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997))(read more about levels of comprehension and your vocabulary size).
It’s rather agreed upon that getting accustomed to the prosody doesn’t take that much time.That leaves us with the second task you have to face: fishing out words from the stream of speech.
If your vocabulary size is 200, how many percents of words are you able to pick up?
Calculate Your Listening Effectiveness
Let’s calculate this and let’s treat 5000 words as our perfect reference point as this number of words would allow you to understand most of the things you would hear.
200/5000 = 0.040 = 4%
We have arrived at the number 4% but what does it really tell us?
It means that your listening effectiveness per 1 minute or hour of listening practice is 4%.
So yeah, you can spend hundreds of hours trying to improve your comprehension but it may turnout that it won’t change too much.
What if you started listening to recordings with the vocabulary of 1000 words?
1000/5000 = 0.20.= 20%
At this point, your listening effectiveness would increase fivefold! Let me formulate it slightly differently – learning just 800 words can greatly increase your listening comprehension.
And this is the exact reason why I advocate listening practice only once you master at least 2000 words (or even more). Having such a vocabulary optimizes your learning time and allows you to progress much faster than others without having to waste more hours.
I forbade Mathew to read and listen to anything for first three months. 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.
And I get it. This piece of advice went against everything most people have been taught in schools. It also contradicted almost every strategy proposed by my fellow polyglots. However, as the time goes by, there seems to be more and more studies which confirm this theory.
[[ … ]] it was revealed that the ability of learners to make connections between highly common English words appears to be dependent on the number of words they know. The more words they know, the more connections they are able to identify. At present, it is not known whether this ability to make connections is a cause or a result of knowing the meanings of more words, or if it is a combination of both.
[[ … ]] it is also hoped that new avenues shall be explored that focus more deeply on what it means to know a word and the role of lexical retrieval and memory in L2 lexical processing. At present, to its detriment, the field of L2 vocabulary studies remains remarkably insular.
The conclusion is as follows – if you want to improve your listening comprehension asap you have to, first of all, increase your vocabulary size. Only then does it make sense to devote a lot of time to listening practice.
My advice to you is this – if you want to improve your listening comprehension, you should concentrate on expanding your vocabulary size first (don’t forget about mastering functional grammar). Only then should you gradually increase your overall listening time while still increasing the numbers of words you know.
Do you agree with my theory that the vocabulary size is the most important factor that affects your listening comprehension? Let me know in the comments!
I often talk about what effective learning methods are all about but I have almost never mentioned all the memory experiments I have run which have failed miserably. It might give you the impression that this is the knowledge which came to me easily. On the contrary.
It was like wading through the puddle of crap to pick up something which seemed to be the gem of wisdom. Only to realize later that it was actually a fossilized chunk of crap. Only to realize a couple of months down the road that it was actually a beautiful diamond hidden beneath the dry shell.
I think you get my point. It was a confusing process where I had to rediscover time and time again different truths in different contents.
Of course, my process of reasoning wasn’t very rigorous at the beginning. Neither were my memory experiments. I was kind of going with my gut and trying to notice whether I remember more or less.
Only later did I start to actually construct hypotheses and test them. Everything got even easier when I started learning more about memory and reading studies related to this area of knowledge.
Before I share with you my conclusions and failures, let’s start with how my experiments were run.
2. set yourself a suitable deadline to test the idea (ideally, at least 3 weeks – 1 month)
3. test it
4. measure the results at the end of your memory experiment
5. draw conclusions
6. rinse and repeat
How did I choose words for my memory experiments?
This is a very important question. Some people think that any words will do. That’s far from the truth.
If you want to run a meaningful memory experiment you need to make sure that the words tested are as different from any other words and concepts you know as it’s only possible.
The reason is that your current knowledge modulates the new knowledge you want to acquire.
If you know English and you’re learning French your results will be immediately distorted. Depending on a source, 40-50% of English words originate from French.
If you want to get unbiased results you need to test the words from languages you know nothing of.
In my case, I frequently tried to memorize words from languages like Basque, Finnish, and Hungarian. They were absolutely foreign to me and I couldn’t associate them in any way with my background knowledge.
“Collectively, these findings provide strong evidence that pre-experimental stimulus familiarity determines the relative costs and benefits of experimental item repetition on the encoding of new item-source associations. By demonstrating the interaction between different types of stimulus familiarity, the present findings advance our understanding of how prior experience affects the formation of new episodic memories.” – Pre-experimental stimulus familiarity modulates the effects of item repetition on source memory – Hongmi Lee, Kyungmi Kim, Do-Joon Yi, 2018
Also, it’s worth noting that a typical batch of items which I tried to commit to my memory was 20. Typically, I tried to memorize between 3-5 batches.
What did I test?
Time to get to the nitty-gritty of my memory experiments. As you already know, I experimented almost exclusively with words which were completely foreign to me in order to minimize my background knowledge interference.
Another important part is the methods I used to test my knowledge. I always tested my recalls using the following methods:
Free recall describes the process in which a person is given a list of items to remember and then is tested by being asked to recall them in any order. Free recall often displays evidence of primacy and recency effects.
Primacy effects are displayed when the person recalls items presented at the beginning of the list earlier and more often. The recency effect is when the person recalls items presented at the end of the list earlier and more often. Free recall often begins with the end of the list and then moves to the beginning and middle of the list.
For that reason, I always tried to recall all the batches at once in order to minimize the number of learning sessions. That gave me the certainty that my results were warped.
Cued recall is when a person is given a list of items to remember and is then tested with cues to remember the material.
There are two basic experimental methods used to conduct cued recall, the study-test method, and the anticipation method. In the study-test method participants study a list of word pairs presented individually.
Immediately after or after a time delay, participants are tested in the study phase of the experiment on the word pairs just previously studied.
One word of each pair is presented in a random order and the participant is asked to recall the item with which it was originally paired. The participant can be tested for either forward recall, Ai is presented as a cue for Bi, or backward recall, Bi is presented as a cue for Ai.
In the anticipation method, participants are shown Ai and are asked to anticipate the word paired with it, Bi. If the participant cannot recall the word, the answer is revealed.
During an experiment using the anticipation method, the list of words is repeated until a certain percentage of Bi words are recalled. – Wikipedia.
The learning curve for cued recall increases systematically with the number of trials completed. This result has caused a debate about whether or not learning is all-or-none.
Why did I use both methods? Because they both show you different things.
“Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009). However, transfer tasks, such as the written fill-in-the-blank activity and the problem-solving task are perhaps better measures of true learning (Mayer, 2009).”
Many people have argued with me that just because they are able to recall words after using some method, it surely means that it’s effective. As you can see, it’s only a part of the story.
That’s why it’s also so important to test any method for the prolonged period of time. Always give yourself at least 3 weeks to test your hypothesis. Then measure the results (here are examples of the things you can measure in language learning).
“There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.” – Enrico Fermi
Why even measure it at all?
Measuring your results certainly doesn’t sound sexy but it’s absolutely necessary. You can’t know for sure that one method is better than the other if you don’t verify it and you don’t control your variables.
What’s more, if you don’t measure, you can’t improve. And that means a great deal in the world of language learning. Using ineffective methods can literally mean that you will have wasted thousands of hours by the end of your life.
I am not that loco and I was never willing to take such a risk. And I am pretty sure you also don’t want to be the guy with a tombstone saying, “It took him 20 years to learn a language to an A2 level, what a moron. Love, family.”
Whenever you’re in doubt – measure your results. It will help you get to the truth.
What does it mean that the experiment failed?
Under every experiment, you will find an explanation of why a given experiment failed or not.
What do I mean by that?
Most of the time it means that it either didn’t provide me with the results I expected or it wasn’t more effective than the method I tested it against.
Of course, in a sense, none of them failed. They all helped me to understand the science of memory better and to improve my memorization skills. Or in more elegant words of Thomas Edison, I can say that:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison
The list of methods I have tested
Below you will find a long list of methods I have tested throughout the years. I can’t vouch that I have included all of them. I have a nasty habit of throwing away everything I don’t need. Unfortunately, in many instances, the victim of my habit was a bunch of notes documenting my experiment.
All my experiments are accompanied by the main conclusions and complementary articles when needed. Enjoy!
Chapter 0 – The typical school stuff
I guess this is the type of learning which is a baseline for many people. All you do is what they tell you to during a class. You read something, do some grammar exercises, write an essay and so on.
Why did it fail? What you give is what you get. I think I simply didn’t apply myself to learning hence my results were just terrible.
The main takeaway:
Apply yourself? Learn regularly? Take your pick.
Chapter 1 – Using a notebook
The first learning system of my own devising was fairly uncomplicated. Ready for it? Every time when I used to encounter any English words I didn’t know, I jotted them down.
Next, I rewrote ALL their meanings, collocations and such from an Oxford Dictionary into my notebook. Then I read my notes on my way to school.
You’re probably wondering why I didn’t just mark these words in a dictionary and read them there, huh?
Well, maybe because I was fed with a lead spoon as a child. Or it has something to do with repeatedly falling down headfirst from a tree.
I don’t know. But these are some of the excuses I use. If it wasn’t bad enough I used this method for at least 3 or years when I was about 18-22.
Why did it fail?
The method was clearly unsustainable. It took me a lot of time to rewrite all the words I needed. What’s worse, there were so many of them that I couldn’t review them in any regular way.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
This was my first system. It was really bad but it also taught me an important lesson. You will always progress, no matter how slow, if you have any kind of learning system in place. Sure, this one sucked but at least it gave me a systematized way of learning new words and their meanings.
The first program of this kind which I bought was called SuperMemo Advanced. It was a brilliant creation which ushered in the new era in the world of my personal learning.
Back then, I already spoke quite good English. Or at least that’s what I thought. To my surprise, it quickly turned out that out of over 10k words which this program contained, I knew almost none.
My grind started. I started slogging through all these words with dogged determination. I was terrified by the number of reviews I soon amassed but somehow I pulled through. I think it took me about 18 months to cover all the words.
What about the final result?
My vocabulary certainly expanded. Initially, I could recall a lot of words but after some time, the novelty effect wore off. I soon found myself forgetting more and more words despite working my butt off every day.
And thus, I decided to keep on searching for my Holy Grail.
it kinda failed
Why did it kinda fail?
The main reason why my experiment failed to some degree is that I didn’t create my own sentences. Most programs of this kind give you ready-to-learn sentences.
Unfortunately, if you don’t actively encode words on your own, they will slip your memory anyway. The optimization algorithm which programs of this kind use is an extremely powerful tool.
Maybe even the most universal shield against forgetting we currently have. However, no amount of reviews can guarantee that the words you learn will be transferred into your long-term memory if you don’t encode them (Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Craik & Tulving, 1975).
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
The optimization algorithms are your best friend learning-wise. It doesn’t matter how much you delude yourself into thinking that you can learn faster by reading, listening or other means.
It won’t happen.
Having a ready-to-use wordlist is extremely convenient and can speed up your learning. You won’t have to waste your time scratching your head and thinking what’s the next word you should learn.
I enrolled in a language school to master German and after about four years I was ready to sit the Goethe-Zertifikat B2 exam. The last trial before the real thing was a mock exam. I took it, I passed it and life felt great.
I felt so proud of myself as I was leaving my language school, “Now I know English, German and Polish, there are 7 languages to go”.
The life had different plans for me. Just as I was ambling down the street I was approached by an elderly German couple asking me if I speak any German.
“I do”, I replied proudly.
“Do you know any good restaurants around here?”, they asked.
As they were finishing their question something terrible happened. I froze. I couldn’t spew out any coherent answer. I huffed and puffed and floundered until I managed to form some vague answer.
As they were leaving I felt devastated. I spent 4 damn years in a language school and couldn’t even hold a simple conversation! On top of this, I just passed a B2 certificate.
Frustrated by this experience I decided to simply pick up a Polish-German dictionary, mark the works I didn’t know but I found useful and start creating short sentences with them.
I used to take this dictionary everywhere with me. I kept my nose in it and wandered around oblivious to my surroundings.
I definitely looked strange but at least I had my pants on most of the time and didn’t yell “repent sinners” so that’s nice.
it kinda failed
Why did it kinda fail?
The problem with this method was that it didn’t allow me to review my vocabulary in any meaningful way. I was jumping from one word to another.
Oftentimes, I spent way too much time concentrating on the words I already knew. Considering that your average pocket dictionary has usually at least 15k words, it was the problem of considerable size.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
1. Even though this method didn’t seem like much, I consider it a big success to some degree. It was then that I realized that creating my own sentences with virtually any word can boost my vocabulary retention.
Contrary to the common wisdom, it doesn’t matter if your sentences don’t sound like something that could originate from the silky smooth lips of a native speaker.
You need to encode words on your own and you need many words in order to convey your thoughts.
2. This method further reinforced my conviction that having a ready-to-use word list can positively affect my learning rate.
Up to this day, I remain a huge fan of pocket dictionaries. Even on the days, when I don’t have much time, I can encode and learn up to 30 words in 15 minutes simply by picking them up from a dictionary.
Trust me, no other method comes even close to this.
I stumbled across the first mentions about mnemonics in an article when I was about 20-21. Even though I was fascinated by the general idea behind mnemonics, I quickly forgot about it.
A couple of months later, by fate, I discovered a small book about mnemonics. It turned out to be a copy of Harry Lorayne’s classic “* How To Develop a Super Power Memory (1957)”.
One week later, I was a full-time mnemonics preacher.
How could I not?
Any person, who tried to learn anything with help of mnemonics can attest to their effectiveness. And that’s true. Compared to your typical “cram and forget” approach, mnemonics work very well.
It takes some time and objectivity to discover that perhaps mnemonics are not as great as many experts like to believe. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here is a list of different memory systems I have tried.
If you have never heard of mnemonics, here is, more or less, how they work:
1. Find a word you want to learn. 2. Inspect it thoroughly and try to spot any associations or familiar word in it. 3. Create a funny/absurd picture based on these words or associations. 4. Place the picture in some location which is well-known to you (e.g. your home). 5. Repeat this process for many words and make sure to connect your pictures with each other. 6. Take a mental walk and decode these words.
Example: Let’s say that you want to learn a Spanish word for “trabajar”. Upon a closer inspection, you notice that:
a) “traba” looks a lot like “drab” b) “jar”, well, it looks like a “jar”.
Next, you combine those words into a short story: you work as a slave at the desk in your room producing enormous “drab jars”.
Can you see it?
The only thing left is to retrieve these words by imagining this entire situation.
If you have never tried this method, it can be quite effective. And, as you can probably guess, that was my initial impression as well.
Why did it fail?
1. I have mentioned before that encoding your own vocabulary is extremely important. If that’s true, then why do mnemonics work so badly for long-term memorization and retention?
here are two types of encoding:
a) shallow encoding
Shallow encoding doesn’t help you to connect the piece of information with other meaningful information nor does it help you to further your understanding of it.
It usually concentrates on meaningless banalities.
Example: You are trying to memorize the word “skada” (Swedish for “to damage”). The prime example of shallow encoding would be to start counting the number of vowels or consonants in this word.
In our case, it would also be creating meaningless pictures based on abstract associations which has nothing to do with the actual use of the word.
b) deep encoding
The absolute opposite of shallow encoding. This time you are trying to make meaningful information between different items.
The more the better. In the case of language learning, it’s simply building sentences with the words you want to learn.
2. The other reason is fairly simple. Sometimes it takes a lot of time to find the right associations. Needless to say, spending 5 minutes on every word in order to do this is pointless.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
1. Even though this method didn’t seem like much, I consider it a big success to some degree. It was then that I realized that creating my own sentences with virtually any word can boost my vocabulary retention. You need to encode words on your own and you need many words in order to convey your thoughts.
2. This method further reinforced my conviction that having a ready-to-use word list can positively affect my learning rate.
After some time, I decided that the main problem was the time I needed to find my associations. I decided to identify the most important prefixes for any language I was concentrating on at that point.
Example: The prefix “ent” is fairly popular in German. I decided to substitute it with the word Ent which is a race of tree-resembling creatures from Tolkien’s fantasy world Middle-earth.
Every time I encountered some word starting with “ent” I could immediately create a picture involving the Ents.
How did this method affect my learning pace?
I started memorizing words lightning fast. Partly because I have created my own “mnemonic picture dictionary” which consisted of over 1000 syllables with their respective pictures.
And yet, once again.
Why did it fail?
Unfortunately, I failed to recognize that quick short-term memorization doesn’t equal successful long-term memorization.
Sure, I was memorizing word quicker but I still had problems using them in conversation and kept on forgetting them anyway.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.
Mnemonics and meditation
Another brilliant idea of mine was thinking that if I only improve the vividness and clarity of my pictures, I will be able to retain them much longer.
I decided to include a 30-minute meditation session to my learning schedule. During that time, the only thing I did was revisiting my mnemonic stories and making them more vivid.
Why did it fail?
No matter how clear your pictures are – if you don’t apply active encoding to your learning, you will inevitably fail.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.
Mnemonics with SRS
The next step for me was combining mnemonics with SR programs like ANKI. I figured out that if I only optimize my repetitions, my retention rate will go through the roof.
Even with this method, I was using a lot of variations. Among others I tried to:
a) use google map images to memorize thousands of words at the same time. b) use virtual and phantom locations and connect them into memory palaces. c) shrink my stories to squeeze even dozens of them into one room.
Why did it fail?
This is where I gave up on mnemonics. My stats and personal experience were very clear about this method of learning.
It doesn’t matter how much I tweak every tiny element of this method – it will always suck as it fails to encapture the very essence of learning – applying contextual learning and deep encoding.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.
I have always been a bookworm so this experiment was quite pleasant to me. In 2016 I decided to read about 60 Swedish articles in the span of about 2 months.
At that time I was already on a C1, or maybe C1 / C2 level. That means I could read without any problems.
In total, I read 52000 words, mainly from the major Swedish news outlets. At about 300 words/min, it took me about 17 hours to go through them all and about 2 hours to find something interesting to read.
I didn’t write down any words, I was just trying to memorize them while reading (without mnemonics).
The final result?
After a careful analysis of my vocabulary, I found out that I picked up 5 extra words.
In other words, I spend 19 hours and had nothing to show for. To fully showcase how ridiculously slow that pace it’s worth reminding you that on a bad day, I can encode and learn up to 30 words in 15 minutes simply by picking them up from a dictionary and encoding them in ANKI.
That experiment definitely echoes the experience of my students. Even though it’s only an anecdote.
Over one year ago, a student of mine who learned German decided to read the first two books of the Harry Potter series in German.
At the time, she was on a B1/B2 level. I tried to discourage her from doing it and direct her efforts to active learning but she put her foot down.
After about 4 months she told me that she finished reading them – in total about 1000 pages or so.
The result was once again quite depressing. Once she told me about her intention, I started jotting down EVERY NEW WORD which came up during our classes. It wasn’t difficult at all as I taught her from the very beginning. I knew exactly which words she already used.
After 4 months, countless hours, 1000 pages she managed to introduce 0 extra words to her parlance.
In my next experiment conducted in May 2018, I set off to check how many new words I can pick up from watching English movies with French subtitles. I was pretty sure that this method would be more effective since it involves more sensory channels.
In total, I watched about 60 hours worth of TV series. My level at that time was about B1. During that time I was able to pick up 11 words, most of which I was able to use spontaneously.
I haven’t been able to memorize other words than the ones I learned before. In other words, it allowed me to learn more.
it was a success and a failure at the same time.
Why did it fail/succeed?
1. The experiment was certainly a success because it confirmed something I have been telling for a long time. Passive learning can be an amazing tool if you use it as an adjacent method.
Every day you should do your best to concentrate on active learning. Once you’re done and you can’t din more words into your head, feel free to read or listen as much as you want.
Spontaneous activation of words is much easier once you already have these words in your head. This is definitely something my experiment confirmed.
Even though I avoided speaking for 2 months, my fluency was actually higher after 60 hours of reading. Mind you that I didn’t pick up almost any new words. But the ones I knew came to my mind much quicker.
2. The experiment also failed because clearly reading was subpar to basically any active learning method, I have ever tried.
The main takeaways (i.e. what I learned):
1. “Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009). However, transfer tasks, such as the written fill-in-the-blank activity and the problem-solving task are perhaps better measures of true learning (Mayer, 2009).”
Just because you have a general impression of remembering words after a reading session, it doesn’t mean that you’ve committed them to your memory. The only tests which can confirm involve the active use of the said words.
2. Acquisition of new vocabulary from reading will be terribly slow and ineffective until you learn about 5k words. 5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).
Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997). If you’re hell-bent on learning this way, make sure that you know at least 3k words as it’s the minimum threshold needed for contextual guessing. (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996).
3. Your ability to speak fluently and produce spontaneous speech is dependent to a high degree on the amount of input you expose yourself to.
As painful as it is for my analytical heart, I have never run any rigorous memory experiment involving extensive listening. All I have are my anecdotes concerning three main languages I teach (Swedish, English, German). For that reason, please take it with a grain of salt.
I haven’t done any form of extensive listening practice for any of those languages until I was at least at a B2 level. In other words, my vocabulary amounted to at least 5k words which warranted quite accurate contextual guessing.
Even though I can’t give you any specific number, we’re talking about thousands of hours of listening practice for English and hundreds of hours for both Swedish and German. My main listening activities concentrated mainly on watching TV series and movies.
Why did it succeed?
Despite the lack of detailed stats, I could definitely notice that my ability to produce spontaneous speech and to understand was greatly increased.
What’s more, vocabulary acquisition was also much higher compared to extensive reading. The probable reason is, once again, the wealth of stimuli, which is related to watching movies.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
1. Extensive listening is certainly the most useful form of passive learning. Especially up to a C1 level.
2. The vocabulary acquisition rate is also quite high provided that you build your core vocabulary first. I can only speculate that on earlier stages, it would be quite ineffective since the cognitive load would be too high to enable effective learning.
It’s worth keeping in mind that extensive listening is still quite a terrible tool of acquiring vocabulary compared to almost any active learning strategy. Once again, it can be treated as a perfect supplement to active learning.
Chapter 4 – Random memory experiments
All the experiments presented here reflect a very interesting stage in my memory journey. Back then, I was willing to run almost any memory experiment as long as there is at least one scientific paper behind it.
In hindsight, sometimes I don’t know what the hell I was thinking!
As you can see, it had nothing to do with language learning or memory improvement. Of course, that didn’t stop me. The experiment went on for 3 weeks. During that time I almost pissed myself a couple of time but it certainly did nothing for my retention rate.
a Dutch scientist conducting this study, Mirjam Tusk, was actually awarded Ig Nobel.
Why did it fail?
Because I was a silly and impressionable dummy. But hey! At least I have an anecdote to share!
There are a lot of studies which show that spending time in nature helps to boost your memory. Some of them even show that staring at a photo of trees or a brisk walk in the woods can improve your memory and attention performance by 20%.
And obviously, that was a good enough reason for me to try it.
For three weeks in 2014, I spend 1 hour per day learning Swedish in the nearby park. The results were quite clear – no advantage whatsoever compared to studying at home.
Why did it fail?
Because the memory experiment conducted in the lab are usually detached from reality and don’t carry over to real life? That would be my guess. Interestingly, I noticed that my attention performance dropped while learning in the park. I was constantly distracted by damn squirrels, dogs, and bawling children. The general conditions weren’t very conducive to studying.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Learn where there is a minimal amount of distraction in order to maximize your memory performance.
Emotional modulation of the learned material
One of the undeniable laws of learning says that we always remember better items which are emotionally salient. That gave me the idea that if I learn how to modulate this saliency, I could use it to my advantage to boost my retention.
I did lots of weird things to achieve this goal. I screamed foreign words out at the top of my lungs. I made myself furious or jealous with the help of my imagination and then proceeded to memorize short lists of words.
Why did it fail?
Truth be told, I was able to remember a lot of these words right away so the first impression suggests that the method works. But as I usually say, in order to truly discover whether something works you need to run delayed recall tests.
You have to wait at least 1 or 2 weeks before you retest your memory. Only then do you get a clear answer about whether a method works or not. This strategy failed.
In hindsight, the reason is simple – if everything stands out emotionally, nothing stands out emotionally.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Learning before going to sleep
Another great strategy which I have heard about was learning before going to sleep. Like all short memory experiments of mine, it lasted 3 weeks in September 2015. The idea for this experiment was sparked by research showing a correlation between time of studying and how it can potentially improve your recall.
The protocol was very simple. I tried to memorize 10 random words from languages I knew right before going to sleep.
How did I fare?
Not much better than usually. My retention rate was improved by about 4%.
Why did it fail?
I know that you might think that 4% is not too shabby and it’s worth something. However, in my case, I deemed the results less than impressive. Especially considering that I tried to memorize words from the languages I already knew which was a major mistake.
What’s more, if we include other co-founders, my results won’t be much better than the chance. I had definitely better results with practicing motor skills before going to bed.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Try at your own risk – I don’t see any super-duper benefits. It’s much more important to have a sound sleeping schedule than to practice at any specific time.
Combining learning with physical activity
There is plenty of research demonstrating the benefits of combining physical activity with learning. The general idea is to space your learning sessions and to interrupt them with bouts of vigorous exercise.
Here is a great excerpt from Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative (2011).
One immediate outcome of the research is a process known as spaced learning, in which teachers give short lessons, sometimes of less than ten minutes, before changing to physical activity and then repeating the lesson. In one trial, the pupils scored up to 90 percent in a science paper after one session involving three 20-minute bursts, interspersed with ten-minute breaks for physical activity. The pupils had not covered any part of the science syllabus before the lessons.
I started testing this idea in early 2016. Since I dislike gyms, I decided to weave in quick calisthenics workouts into my learning schedule.
Long story short, such an approach managed to significantly improve my attention span and slightly boosted my recall.
Why did it succeed?
Even though there is a lot of great science which explains in a detailed way how exercise can help you with studying, I think it has a lot to do with Serial-position effect.
Serial-position effect is the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst.
Why do I think so?
Because I have noticed similar improvements while taking so-called meaningful breaks i.e. taking a walk, or just lying down and breathing mindfully.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
Mixing work-outs with your learning is certainly worth replicating
John J. Ratey – Spark, The Revolutionary New Science Of The Brain And Exercise
Learning with pictures
1) a traditional approach
I am more than sure that even if you haven’t tried using pictures in your own studies, you at least heard how great of a method that is.
But the real question which many people seem to ignore is – how much does it really help?
My answer is – not that much. Most of the time you will be able to just remember a picture very well. Based on my experiments I can say that the overall benefit of using pictures in learning is not big and amounts to less than 5%. At least when you stick to a typical approach i.e. adding random pictures to your ANKI flashcards.
Is there a better way?
2) a different approach
Since my initial results with this method weren’t very satisfying I decided to step it up and tried to check how different kind of pictures affect my recall. What’s more, I also verified how using the same picture in many flashcards affects my learning.
What kind of pictures did I use?
I concentrated on pictures which are emotionally salient. I tried everything starting from gore pictures to porn pictures. The results, especially with the latter, weren’t very good. I was sitting there like a horny idiot and couldn’t concentrate even one bit on any of the words. It’s like having a sexy teacher in high school. You can’t wait till you get to your classes but once you do, you don’t hear any words.
Funny enough, I remember most of the pictures from this experiment to this day which only further proves to me that your typical approach won’t work here.
So what kind of pictures did work?
Pictures from my personal collection. I found out that if I use one picture in a lot of flashcards where every flashcard concentrates on one word, I am able to recall words extremely easily. In addition, my retention rate has also been improved, although not as significantly as my ability to retrieve words.
Why did it fail?
While it’s true that it’s really easy to memorize picture, I haven’t noticed any amazing benefits using a typical approach i.e. inserting a new picture into every flashcard.
Why did it succeed?
I think that my approach to using pictures in language learning is so effective because it mimics a lot how we normally acquire vocabulary as children. It’s much easier to memorize names of different objects and phenomena if the same situation occurs frequently.
I have never seen any scientific experiments in this vein so I hope that the linguistic community will pick it up one day.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
If you want to use pictures in your language studies, don’t waste time trying to find a new picture for every word. Choose one picture and use it multiple times in different flashcards. Each time try to memorize a different word.
Learning with GIFS
Don’t worry, this will be a short one. If you haven’t known this before, you can insert GIFs into your ANKI flashcards. Overall, it will give you an additional recall and retrieval boost.
Why did it succeed? GIFs are very similar to real life situation. There is some dynamism there connected with visual stimulus.
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned): It works provided that, once again, you use the same GIF for many flashcards.
Writing vs speaking
Another interesting experiment which I set out to conduct, in 2017 if I am not mistaken, was to settle once and for all what’s better for language learning memory-wise – writing or speaking?
I won’t elaborate about it since I have already written a full article about this problem (you can find the link below).
The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):
All in all, my opinion is that for the most people out there, speaking is the superior learning method as it allows you to practice what probably matters to you the most – being able to communicate. What’s more, writing offers almost no benefits memory-wise compare to speaking.
Having that said, you should remember that the ultimate answer might be more complex for you. Some learn a language to write, some to watch movies and some to talk. Choose your goal and choose your preferred learning method in accordance with it.
Even though conducting all these experiments might seem like a lot of work, I think it was more than worth it. Especially since I have always been more interested in how memory works than knowing many languages.
I thought that it might be interesting for you to see how my quest for better memory has influenced my learning speed throughout the years. However, please remember that using the right methods is one thing. Another is that with every next language, it’s getting easier and easier to learn the next ones.
Of course, even a layman might learn extremely fast if they know how to do it. I have managed to teach a lot of people to a B2 level in a couple of months with just 1 hour of classes per week so it can’t be that bad (read more). Heck, some people who took my course Vocabulary Labs managed to do it without any help whatsoever within that time frame.
Side note: the numbers below don’t represent my current levels, just how fast I learned these languages to a B2 level.
My learning pace over the years
The languages below are chronologically ordered starting with the ones which I learned first. I never bothered tracking how much time I needed to get a C1 level and beyond in most of these languages. The number below don’t represent my current levels, just how fast I learned these languages to a B2 level.
When did I start? When I was 12.
Time needed to get to a B2 level: 7 years
Was the level verified? Yes, an FCE certificate
When did I start? When I was 15.
Time needed to get to a B2 level: 10 years
Was the level verified? Yes, by a private tutor
When did I start? When I was 20.
Time needed to get to a B2 level: 4-5 years
Was the level verified? Yes, a mock Goethe-Zertifikat B2
When did I start? When I was 25.
Time needed to get to a B2 level: 1-1,5 year
Was the level verified? No
When did I start? When I was 26.
Time needed to get to a B1 level: 6 months
Time needed to get to a B2 level: about 2 years
Was the level verified? No
When did I start? When I was 27.
Time needed to get to a B2 level: 3,5 months
Was the level verified? Yes, a multifaceted, internal verification in one of the global corporations
Czech was also the last language I learned. About that time I decided to focus on other fields of science and improving my languages.
Right now, for the most European languages, I don’t think it would take me more than 6-8 weeks to learn them to a B2 level. When it comes to trickier languages like Hungarian or any Asian language it’s hard to say as I never looked into them deeply. Although probably if enough number of people are interested I will do another language mission in the future and will document my progress thoroughly.
Does it mean that these methods are bad?
As you have seen, I have classified quite many methods with which I have experimented as a failure. Does it mean they are inherently bad? Not necessarily. Depending on your current stage in language learning, many of them might boost your learning significantly provided that the one you’re using right now is bad.
Even my results which show modest boosts (e.g. 5%) in recall and retrieval rate should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, if you’re a person who is not very physically active, you might experience a significant increase in your ability to recall if just work out more.
Regardless of that, a lot of my experiments should show you rough effectiveness of many of these methods. I hope that one day I will find time to come back to this article and expand my lists of experiments including some others which I missed this time.
You might also wonder why I haven’t covered many of the popular apps and learning systems in this article. The answer is very simple – I didn’t have to. There are dozens of principles of memory to master in order to learn effectively. Once you acquire them, you can simply disregard many popular solutions because you can spot all the mistakes they are perpetuating. Not every experiment is worth your time.
How many of these methods have you experimented with? Let me know.
Growing-up has to be one of the saddest things ever from the outside perspective. It’s like a backward evolution. You see how amazingly curious creatures turn into mindless corporate drones.
You see how the pursuit of knowledge turns into the pursuit for money.
I believe that curiosity and the power to create are the very things that can ward off all the negative in the world. However, in order for those qualities to survive, you have to feed them constantly. The problem is that the modern times actively discourage people from pursuing apolymath.
What’s more, we live in the conviction that there is not enough lifetime to master many areas of expertise.
I would like to show you that it’s definitely possible if you play your cards right. Within your lifetime you can become great at many things. But before we get to the specifics let’s start with a basic question:
Mastering many fields of knowledge – is it worth it?
I like to think of knowing many things as of the magical glasses – the more you know, the more you are able to see.
Being stuck in one field of specialty is nothing short of being blindfolded. You can go throughout the life without being able to spot all those enchanting intricacies coming from the expanded perspective.
Everything starts making sense. You know why leaves are green. You know why bread turns brown.
Unfortunately, being good at many things is not encouraged these days. We want everyone to be ultra-specialized which breeds ignorance in almost all other areas.
Kant elegantly touched upon it years ago:
“It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all.
I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.
The guardians who have kindly taken upon themselves the work of supervision will soon see to it that by far the largest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex) should consider the step forward to maturity not only as difficult but also as highly dangerous.
Having first infatuated their domesticated animals, and carefully prevented the docile creatures from daring to take a single step without the leading-strings to which they are tied, they next show them the danger which threatens them if they try to walk unaided.
Now this danger is not in fact so very great, for they would certainly learn to walk eventually after a few falls.
But an example of this kind is intimidating, and usually frightens them off from further attempts.”
It couldn’t be any truer. Of course, we don’t have to know everything. But will it hurt to learn just a little bit from many areas of knowledge?
Were we really created to be stuck in one groove all of our lives?
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
~ Robert Anson Heinlein
Even though it’s advisable to master at least one field of knowledge intimately. It’s usually not necessary to do it for more than one.
Mastering many fields of knowledge the smart way – The Pareto Principle
Once again – the Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. However, if you apply the Pareto principle to the Pareto principle you might see that roughly 64% of the effects come from 4% of the causes.
It means that if you are able to determine the absolute essentials, you will be able to become good at something while spending only 4% of your time / effort.
In other words, with just between 40-80 hours you will know your way around a given discipline.
For example, what if you don’t trust your endocrinologist and would like to, sort of, become one.
Easy, it’s enough that you learn:
what hormones are
how they function
what are the main hormones in our body
how they are produced
sprinkle on top some knowledge about Type 1 and 2 Diabetes, thyroid disorders and osteoporosis and you’re good to know.
As difficult as it’s to believe, most specialists deal with the same old cases day in, day out.
Remember – you don’t need to know every possible exception to every possible rule to be good.
What if you want to be a semi-professional gourmet? No problem. Memorize the scale for describing foods and start tasting!
Mayonnaise, for example, is supposed to be evaluated along:
1) six dimensions of appearance
(color, color intensity, chroma, shine, lumpiness, and bubbles)
2) ten dimensions of texture:
(adhesiveness to lips, firmness, denseness, and so on)
3) and fourteen dimensions of flavor split among three
a) aromatics (eggy, mustardy, and so forth);
b) basic tastes (salty, sour, and sweet);
c) chemical-feeling factors (burn, pungent, astringent).
What if you want to get good at persuading people (because manipulation is such a dirty word)? I would dare to say that reading Cialdini’s classic book should be enough to be at least decent at this craft. The rest is practice and the automation of those rules.
A famous quote by Bruce Lee echoes that thought:
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.
Oftentimes, you might discover that a slightly smaller knowledge which is automated is much better than knowing a lot of theory.
How to master many areas of expertise – your action plan
Even though we are talking about mastering potentially a lot of fields of knowledge we all have to start somewhere. Here is a simple list which might help you with the preparation process.
1. Make a list of all the things you want to learn and choose no more than 3
Once you master those fields of expertise, you will be able to move on to the next ones.
2. Make sure that they are potentially applicable to your life
I want to emphasize that you can learn whatever you want. However, if you choose useful skills at the beginning, you will find it much easier to find time to practice them.
Learning practical things is also extremely rewarding and can help you keep your motivation high.
3. Choose how much time you want to devote to them daily
I don’t want to be too lax in my calculations that’s why I am going to assume that being good enough at something requires 100 hours.
That tells us that with about 1 hour per day for each field of knowledge, you should be able to know them relatively well in a little bit over 3 months.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that the more you know, the easier it will be for you to acquire even more skills and knowledge (so-called the Snowball Effect).
Remember that you don’t have to religiously cling to these numbers – they are here to impose some general guidelines.
4. Determine what you should learn
You can try to google what are the essentials of the given area of specialty or simply contact somebody who does it for a living. That should do the trick.
5. Get your learning materials
Once you know what to learn this step shouldn’t be too difficult. The only thing I can add here is this – make sure that your source of knowledge is reliable. You don’t want to waste your time remembering things that have no reflection in reality.
How to master many fields of science – recommended strategies
Congratulations! Now you know roughly how to organize your learning. It’s time you familiarized yourself with the strategies which might help you achieve your goals faster and with less effort.
1. Use deliberate practice
Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance. – source.
Some common characteristics of deep learning include:
it gives you a specific goal
it requires your full attention
it’s energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming
it gives you feedback
In other words, deliberate practice gives you a goal and tells you to mercilessly concentrate on a given concept until you’re ready to move on to the next one.
I will be the first to admit that it’s not the most pleasant learning strategy. However, if you power through it, you will find out that it’s definitely the quickest one out there. For me, a little pain for a lot of gains is certainly a trade-off I am willing to make (read more about deliberate practice here).
2. Combine skills (aka laddering, skill transfer)
It’s important to realize that a lot of different skills might be combined with each other in order to save you time and make your practise sessions more productive.
you can exercise and listen to a lecture at the same time
you can learn a language and use it to master a certain area of specialty
you can learn how to negotiate to get a job in the different department where you will be able to use your newly acquired programming skills
The number of combinations is literally endless. Give it some thought and contemplate what kind of combinations might work for you.
Personally, I like to watch pointless YT videos from time to time but I never do it without a work-out session.
3. Use and automate your knowledge
Not every skill has to be useful but it’s certainly much easier to maintain it if you automate its use and you are able to use it. At least on a semi-regular basis (read more about automating your skills here).
4. Do interesting things / choose difficult projects
Simple tasks don’t require much brainpower – probably that’s why soon 50% of our planet will be replaced by multifunctional AI blenders.
If you really want to let your talents shine, always strive to take up difficult projects which involve the use of many different skills. It doesn’t matter whether they are a part of your job description or just a personal project. Try to make them relatively challenging relative to your current skill set (read more about doing the hard work here).
5. Help others
There are literally thousands of people in the world who might benefit from your knowledge. Find them and do your best to help them alleviate at least part of their problems.
Not only will you feel slightly better and decrease your chances of becoming a skull ashtray for all the hellish abominations below us but you will also consolidate your skills significantly better.
Because the more you’re able to embed your knowledge in the reality, the easier it is to remember it.
Share your thoughts with me – do you want to master many fields of knowledge – if yes, what are they?
Being creative is definitely one of the superpowers of modern times. Alas, various TV series and movies have warped this amazing skill beyond recognition.
There is always some charming and smug asshole who seems to deliver a brilliant solution after one glance at the piece of paper. I mean, how realistic is that?
Being creative is a hard work and more often than not, it’s a long process. And it’s certainly not easy.
Problems with coming up with creative solutions
I love to walk around the town and observe how new businesses prosper.
As in any big city (Wroclaw –see some pictures here), there is always a new shop or a restaurant cropping up around the corner.
And as in any big city, most of them go bankrupt. There is nothing weird about this.
What’s weird is that most of these businesses almost never try anything to stay afloat.
I know because I regularly check what they are trying to do in order to help themselves. The answer 99% of the time is “nothing”. They just establish their business, see that it doesn’t work and then put up the shutters.
And I die a little bit every time I see this.
Would it hurt them to think up a couple of things which will help to save their business? Would it hurt them to try just a little bit harder? Many of them just throw a towel and gracefully bend over and let their lack of creativity take most of their life savings.
That just goes to show that maybe being creative is not that easy. Maybe there are obstacles which you need to be aware of in order to overcome them.
Let’s go through them to see where the potential pitfalls lie.
1. Lack of system
I know plenty of really smart people but almost none of them have any system for being creative. When asked why they usually answer that:
“Since the only way you are going to find solutions to painful problems is by thinking deeply about them—i.e., reflecting.” – Ray Dalio
We like to think about being creative as of something magical. You know, the magic comes, rubs you gently on your arms and sticks the right words into your ears together with its tongue.
The reality is that it’s definitely more like pushing a boulder up the hill. If you drop it, you will probably never pick it up again.
And that means that
creativity is more about the process than anything else.
You need to constantly revisit the problem and constantly send the intention of solving it to the unconscious (read more about problem-solving).
What’s more, I believe that creative ideas come from accumulating many small insights. You can’t just settle for whatever knowledge you currently have – being creative is the process of curating the right ideas, tools, and facts (read more about why memorization is necessary to think effectively).
Now that you know what being creative is all about, let me explain how thinking work.
Thinking flashcards – how to make them
You can use any SR (spaced repetition) program to create thinking flashcards. The one I always recommend is ANKI. It gives you full control over your content. What’s more, you can be sure that it won’t disappear overnight or some company won’t block your knowledge database if you don’t give them your spleen or twerk.
1. Create a separate deck
Once you download it, create a separate deck and call it appropriately (like Bartosz’s Magical Idea Deck).
2. Select a problem you want to solve
It doesn’t matter how big a problem is as long as it is something that bothers you. If nothing comes to your mind right now but you would like to give this strategy a try, here are a couple of ideas which might help you:
help your friend solve a problem
come up with X ways to improve your life / earn more
come up with X ways to improve some product
think about how you can help develop your own / sb’s company
Once you’re done, put the name of the problem into the question field
3. Add two things into the answer field
I believe that placing some limitations on your ideas is one of the best ways to boost your creativity. It limits the general pool of possibilities and allows you to concentrate on the ones that count.
Put anything which can contribute even slightly to solving the problem. Facts, products, tools, people and so on.
A friend of mine runs a very successful pub (its motif is a pre-war Poland). He has been increasing his profit for many years now but it seems that he’s running out of steam.
Q: How to increase the profit of X pub? A:
easy and cheap to implement
it has a viral potential
Happy hour ideas
Original dish of the day
Ask people what they would like to buy there (surveys)
Organize wine/vodka/whiskey degustation
Come up with a new, weird holiday to promote the pub (e.g. Hate My Boss Mondays – you can win X for the best anecdote about your boss)
Buy stuff for X money and take a part in a lottery
As you can see, not every idea is original and let me be clear – it doesn’t have to be. Most of the time, a solution to almost every problem is already out there.
What’s more, you don’t have to flesh out all your ideas right away. You can add more details with every next review of your thinking flashcard.
You already know how to make thinking flashcards. Now, let me explain how they work. Don’t worry, it’s extremely easy.
1. Click “show answer” and brainstorm
Once you see the title of a flashcard, click “Show answer” so you can see your current list of ideas. Try to use whatever information you have there to come up with the solution. Nothing comes to your mind? Move on then.
2. Add another idea
Add at least one idea or limitation to your current list. You have to keep on stirring the cauldron of creativity!
3. Rinse and repeat
Repeat the process until you finally come up with something interesting.
Remember that the intervals between your brainstorming sessions shouldn’t be too long. Always click “again” if you’re afraid that’s happening.
Also, keep in mind that it’s unlikely that you will arrive at the solution while browsing or expanding these flashcards.
All they do is constantly keep a given problem at the forefront of your mind.
When your input reaches the critical mass, you will find yourself coming up with great ideas in the most unusual places. Although, it usually happens when you don’t concentrate on the problem at hand.
Creativity is truly sly, isn’t it?
Throughout the years, I have read about dozens of different creativity techniques but this is the only one which has allowed to be consistent. There are good reasons for that.
Thinking flashcards help you:
accumulate your input in an organized manner
attack a given problem regularly
are fully automated.
Especially, if you already use ANKI or other SRS program. What’s more, they don’t cost you much energy. If you have ever given up on your creativity in the past, maybe it’s time to reconsider!
It would be a shame to let this article go to waste. If you find this method appealing, choose one problem you have and get down to work.
Remember – it doesn’t have to be anything big. As always, the trickiest part is to start. Of course, if you decide to use it, please let me know how it went.
Even though much has been written about how to use passive learning, i.e. reading and listening, in language learning, many language learners still puzzle over the following question, “How can I leverage it in order to speed up my learning progress?”
5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).
Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).
For exactly that reason this milestone is called the optimal threshold for passive learning.
What’s more, the body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times in order to put it into your long-term memory (i.e. be able to activate it without any conscious effort).
As a sidenote, my personal experience is this – even 5000 words are not enough to start memorizing words. You should aim for at least 8000 in order to do it efficiently.
The conclusion from the above is simple.
Passive learning can be an effective tool for memorization when you know at least 5000 words. But it doesn’t mean that reading or listening is useless before that.
The purpose of passive learning – it complements active learning
In order to understand well the function of passive learning in the learning process, we need to start at the source – the simple model of memorization.
The simple model of memorization:
This sexy model tells us that in order to acquire knowledge quickly and efficiently, you need to encode information. In other words, you need to manipulate the information in a meaningful way.
Is the element of encoding present in passive learning (i.e. reading or listening)?
Of course not!
That’s the reason why active learning is much better suited for learning material fast.
However, the problem with active learning is that it’s tiring as hell even though it doesn’t take a lot of time. At the end of your learning session, you should feel as if you have been mauled and teabagged by a bear at the same time.
It’s not pretty.
Ok, so you already know that active learning is:
What it tells us is that you can do learn actively only for the limited period of time before you run out of steam. In other words, active learning is not sustainable long-term.
What happens then? Do you just call it a day? Nope. You switch to passive learning.
active learning + passive learning = optimal learning
If you stick to this formula, you are guaranteed to learn relatively fast.
Always push yourself to the limit while learning actively and when you are about to black out switch to passive learning.
Of course, this isn’t the only benefit of reading and listening.
The purpose of passive learning – it primes your memory
What is priming?
Before I move on, let’s clarify what priming is.
Primingis a technique whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.
In other words, priming can provide for sets of actions, or, in the lexical field, sets of words.
So, for example, a listener, hearing the word bread will recognize words like baker, butter, knife more quickly than unrelated words like a doctor, mortar, radiator.
One of the prime researchers in this field, Hoey, states: (…) Priming is the result of a speaker encountering evidence and generalising from it. [Primings come] from single focussed and generalising encounters. Language teaching materials and language teachers can provide essential shortcuts to primings. (Hoey 2005: 185f.)
Now that you know what priming is, it’s time to take a look how it affects our memory.
How does priming affect our memory?
There is one main effect of priming on our memory.
We process frequent collocations faster than infrequent ones.
In other words, it’s much easier for us, foreign language learners, to understand speech which consists of logical and frequently ocurring collocations. It’s much easier to process a sentence like “I am cutting an onion with a knife” than “I am cutting an onion with a German Shepherd”.
How is it possible?
Because our memories are organized into something called “schemas”.
“Schema” is used as a general term to cover all kinds of general knowledge. More closely specified versions of schemas are called scripts, which consist of general knowledge about particular kinds of events, or frames, which consist of knowledge about the properties of particular objects or locations.
It means that with every new collocation e.g. “cut with a knife”, “a sharp knife”, “stab with a knife”, your time of reaction when it comes to understand gets decreased.
If your scripts are rich enough, you can actually predict, even though it’s mostly imperceptible for us, what somebody is going to say (read more abouthow we process speech here).
What’s fascinating, auditory word priming does not require access to word meaning, it may reflect the process whereby listeners build and use presemantic auditory representations. (Trofimovich 2005: 482)
What is a likely mechanism supporting spoken-word processing and learning?
I will tell you a little bit more practical consequences of this phenomenon later.
Fun fact about priming
Priming can take many different forms and shapes. One which you might find really interesting is syntactic priming.
Syntactic priming is the phenomenon in which participants adopt the linguistic behaviour of their partner.
Yes. The more time you spend with somebody, the more likely it is that you will understand this person’s idiolect (or that you will adapt it).
Idiolectis an individual’s distinctive and unique use of language, including speech.
They (and others) therefore raise an important issue about collocation, since it appears to contradict Sinclair’s (1991) claim that there are no valid collocations beyond the five-word mark on either side. The concept of lexical access appears to be very close to lexical priming.
De Mornay Davies is more explicit when he states: Even if two words are not ‘semantically related’ in the strictest sense (i.e. they do not come from the same superordinate category), their frequent association produces a relationship at the “meaning” level. (de Mornay Davies 1998: 394). Source: The concept of Lexical Priming in the context of language use, Michael Pace-Sigge
As you can see, priming is a truly powerful weapon as it relates to concepts which are not in their direct proximity.
What it means practically is that your brain will still be able to understand a collocation even if you interject an extra thought into a sentence.
Here is an example of this phenomenon: “I wanted to cook a dinner so I started to cut an onion, you know, with, like, a really sharp knife”
How long can priming last?
Findings suggest that auditory word-priming effects have a long-term memory component and are long-lasting (Trofimovich 2005: 481).
What does it mean that they are long-lasting?
It’s speculated that these effects can last months or even years.
Practical consequences of priming
Speaking fluently is a really tricky thing.
Because you have to combine two things. First of all, you need to actively memorize new words, ideally, by creating a new context for them.
That will see the said words in your memory. The problem is that, as I have said before, unless you have a lot of contexts, you won’t be able to recall them fast.
Is the solution creating a lot of sentences for a given word?
Sure, it will work, but it’s too much consuming. However, if you start learning passively, you will be exposed to dozens of different contexts for almost every possible word you know.
Even though, you won’t feel it, these contexts will be generalized in your head into scripts and will start acting as triggers.
From then on, whenever you run into a situation which fits your script, your primed words will be right there at the top of your tongue.
If you have ever struggled with fluent speaking, I can guarantee you that you’re missing one of these puzzle pieces.
Problems with comprehension
Keep in mind that the richer your words of associations for a given word, the easier it is to understand it.
Reading and, especially, listening are amazing learning tools which will expand this network relatively effortlessly.
Passive learning is certainly a misunderstood language learning tool. Even though it’s often touted as a great tool for memorization, it’s actually pretty ineffective in this department unless you are already an advanced learner. Its real power lies in creating an extensive network of contexts and connections which allow you to both recall and understand words much faster.
Nootropics are certainly one of those things that capture your imagination. You pop a pill and everything becomes clear. You are more vigilant, more observant.
Sure, three months down the road you start resembling a patient with a full-blown neurological disorder. You catch yourself scratching your arms nervously while your eyes twitch.
And if your pill is nowhere to be found you drop on the floor and start rhythmically convulsing.
But hey man! Those moments of clarity!
In all seriousness – nootropics have definitely become a thing in the last couple of years. The appeal is understandable.
At the price of a pack of pills, you can become a better version of yourself.
Is it really the case? Nope.
If you ask me, it’s definitely more of a fantasy for the naive. Let me explain step-by-step why it is so and what you can do instead to become this sexy learning-machine.
WHAT ARE NOOTROPICS?
Not everyone is familiar with this notion. Since I don’t want to risk keeping you in the dark, let’s delve into it.
Nootropics are natural and synthetic compounds that can improve your general cognitive abilities, such as memory, attention, focus, and motivation.
As a rule of thumb, natural nootropics are much safer and can actually improve the brain’s health (see Suliman et al. 2016).
As you can see the definition is very far from being precise.
Let’s suppose you go into the panic mode before an important meeting and your colleague bitch-slaps you. You suddenly become more focused and sharper.
Can this backhander be treated as a nootropic?
Once again, the definition is unclear. What is clear is that, even though you might not realize it, you probably take some of them already.
SOME OF THE AVAILABLE NOOTROPICs
Our civilization can pride itself on having a long, rich history of drugging ourselves to feel better and smarter. Here are some of the weapons of the mass enlightening:
If your head bobs like a crazy pigeon if you don’t get your daily fix, you are probably not surprised to see it here.
These days, it can be found almost everywhere. Especially in soft drinks, dark chocolate and, of course, in coffee.
Effects: At normal doses, caffeine has variable effects on learning and memory, but it generally improves reaction time, wakefulness, concentration, and motor coordination. – Nehlig A (2010). “Is caffeine a cognitive enhancer?”. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
L-Theanine, or simply theanine, can generally be found in tea.
Effects: Offers neuroprotection via stimulation of PKC phosphorylation; upregulation of PKCepsilon mRNA; induction of Bcl-X(L), Bcl-w, and BDNF mRNAs; and downregulation of PKCgamma, Bad, and Bax mRNAs.
The CAF+ contains a combination of ingredients that have separately shown to boost cognitive performance, including caffeine, l-theanine, vinpocetine, l-tyrosine, and vitamin B6/B12.
It was supposed to be the next big thing in the world of nootropics. Alas, it turned out to be a flop.
Here is the conclusion:
We found that after 90 min, the delayed recall performance on the VLT after caffeine was better than after CAF+ treatment.
Further, caffeine, but not CAF+, improved the performance in a working memory task. In a complex choice reaction task caffeine improved the speed of responding.
Subjective alertness was increased as a result of CAF+ at 30 min after administration. Only caffeine increased diastolic blood pressure.
We conclude that in healthy young students, caffeine improves memory performance and sensorimotor speed, whereas CAF+ does not affect the cognitive performance at the dose tested.
And that’s exactly my point. A lot of those compounds which are being plugged shamelessly by different fancy-sounding brain websites are close to useless.
Do yourself a favor and stick to the devil you know.
It’s not uncommon to find comments on a Reddit about Nootropics saying that
“500$ for nootropics is not that much. This is just the price of admission for finding the one which is right for you.”
It doesn’t sound alarming at all. No sir. Don’t think of yourself as a cowardly version of a heroin addict. You’re a brave brain-explorer! On a more serious note – a lot of these nootropics are not only shady but expensive as well. Keep that in mind, if you decide to try them out.
Unkown long-term effects
Even though natural nootropics are potentially safe, or even very safe, it definitely can’t be said about synthetic nootropics. By taking them you automatically volunteer to become a guinea pig.
Many of the nootropics change your levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, GABA and many others.
The thing is that so do many drugs like cocaine.
The long-term effect is usually a strong imbalance of transmitter levels in order to compensate those extremes.
It reminds a lot of enthusiasts of brain-zapping couple of years ago. Even though there were almost no double-blind studies confirming its effectiveness, people glibly jumped on this bandwagon.
Call me old-fashioned but if somebody needs a pill every time they want to feel smart or sharp, maybe they are not that smart or sharp? After every use, it’s time for a cold and lonely wake-up call.
It’s a lazy solution
The important question to ask here is:
what kind of people would like to take such pills in the first place?
There are two groups
a) lazy-ass slackers and loafers
These are people who have probably never put effort into any of the things they have been doing in their life. I know that you’re not one of them because you can read. That takes us to the second group.
You know much, you’ve achieved much but you want more. That’s great. That’s admirable.
But as a high-achiever, you know that there is no such thing as a lunch for free. Things which are worth your time come with a price.
There are a lot of better, and more permanent, solutions to becoming a person with an extraordinary mind.
What to do instead of nootropics?
1) improve short-term memory
Your short-term memory is the bottleneck of your ability to acquire knowledge. By improving it, you can greatly accelerate your learning rate.
If you eat like crap (e.g. a lot of processed foods) and you look at a cucumber as if it touched you in your childhood, you should definitely take care of this problem.
3) fix your dietary indeficiencies
If you have problems with brain fog, concentration, and mental sharpness, there is a very good chance that your diet caused a lot of deficiencies. No nootropics will fix that for you.
Get your blood checked to see what minerals and vitamins you’re lacking.
Not sure if you lack anything? Check your nails.
Healthy nails should be smooth and have consistent (pinkish) coloring.
Any spots, discoloration and so on should be alarming.
What’s more, most of the time, you can basically assume that you lack Vitamin D3. Especially if you have an office job or don’t live in a sunny climate. You probably also lack magnesiumunless you’re a health buff.
4) improve your lifestyle
More sport and more physical interactions with people. Both these things will give you a nice dopamine and serotonin kick. If you suspect that nobody loves you, try hugging stray dogs. Even this will do.
5) learn how to learn faster
Call me biased but no pill will substitute this kind of knowledge. Let’s assume that you want to learn a language and you gobbled up a magical tablet. If you use bad learning strategies, you will still get nowhere. This time, however, a little bit faster than before.
Knowing how to learn is a permanent power.
6) learn how to be more productive and how to focus
Building habits is the best way to guarantee the long-term success. Having a habit means that your brain doesn’t have to spend much energy to perform a given activity. What’s more, the activity itself is usually the source of constant satisfaction. After all, you are doing something productive every day!
Normally, this is the best possible way to do something. You don’t huff and puff every day to achieve your goals. You are consistent and methodical. As great as this strategy is, it has one big disadvantage – it takes time. Not everyone has enough patience to do it. Not everyone wants to wait a couple of years to be great at something. That leads us to the second strategy.
Using external motivation
Even though the consistency is the key, a short sprint every now and then might help your progress skyrocket. This is what allows you to grow and develop fast – short spurts of concentrated focus.
Think about a physical development, for instance. If you do 20 push-ups per day, you will get bigger and fitter only for some time and then hit the wall. However, if you force yourself to put some more effort once per week, you will keep on growing and developing.
If you learn 5 words per day, then pushing yourself to do 50 words on just one day will more than double your learning pace. Will it frazzle you at the same time? Hell no. That’s just short sprint. You do it and then you’re back to your usual pace.
The thing is that usually it’s difficult to get a grip on yourself and actually do something.
That’s why you need a gentle reminder to get off your butt. A gentle kick, if you will. Actually, the truth is that you probably need a boot so far up your ass that it will act as a pacemaker.
And I am here to deliver this kick.
The Impossible Tuesday – What Is it All About?
The idea for the Impossible Tuesdays came to me over two years ago. I knew that I was doing a lot but I felt that I could much more. I just needed some reason. Something to force myself. This is how the idea of the Impossible Tuesdays came to be.
I decided that on this very day, I will always try to push myself to do something impossible. Something I would never do normally because it’s too tiring and uncomfortable.
Here are some of the things I managed to pull off on this day:
learning 800 words during one day
talking to myself for 6 hours in Russian
doing 400 push-ups
Unfortunately, somewhere in the turmoil of life I neglected this idea and stopped celebrating this day. Recently, however, I decided to revive it and to share it with you. The Impossible Tuesdays are our chance to claw our way through all the bullshit excuses straight to the finish line. This is one day per week when we will prove that we are not a weak, disgusting, spongy blob and
we can do things we have never thought we could.
We are damn tough and we will prove it. It can be one day a week which makes all the difference.
Bets as the primary tools of The Impossible Tuesdays
If you decide that you’re in. You should know how to properly push yourself to do the impossible. Bets are the perfect tool for this purpose. It doesn’t matter how much you love doing something, there is always some border which you won’t cross. It’s uncomfortable, after all. I sure love learning new words but usually, after getting to one hundred I call it quits.
If, on the other hand, you dislike doing something, you need a whip over your head to make you act. In other words, you need to put something at stake.
Here is how bets work:
Choose a GOAL you want to achieve
Determine your TIME HORIZON (1 day in our case)
BET with someone that you’ll achieve
Choose your PUNISHMENT in case you fail to deliver (20$ for example)
Keep in mind that bets are fully flexible. You can mold them and twist them as much as you like to fit your goals.
Now that you know how to flail yourself properly, it’s good to familiarize yourself with a couple of extra guidelines.
They will allow you to maximize your effort.
How To Make Your Effort Count
If you already do something, do 4-5 times as much as you usually do
Remember that the Impossible Tuesdays are all about doing the impossible. Demand from yourself.
If you normally do 10 pushups, do 40.
If you noramlly read 20 pages of a book, read one hundred. Make yourself sweat and squeal.
If you want to take up a new activity – just do it
If you have always wanted to do something but have been delaying it indefinitely – this is your day.
It doesn’t have to be anything huge as long as you start. Always wanted to learn Chinese but life got in the way? Do as little as 1 unit from a textbook.
Break it down into many sessions
Doing a lot of repetitions of any activity is straining.
That’s why make sure you always break the entire process into many chunks.
Don’t even think about knocking out 200 flashcards in one sitting. Try to do it in at least a couple of sessions.
Identify “the dead time” and use it
Dead time is the time spent doing activities which don’t absorb all of our attention.
Think about sitting on the subway or standing in line. These seemingly useless moments can usually be used to do some more productive stuff. Plan ahead and consider how you can incorporate dead time into your Impossible Tuesday.
What can you be on?
I can’t tell you what you should concentrate on. Only you know what’s important to you and what’s worth your blood and sweat and tears. I can tell you this – usually you should be doing the things you are actively avoiding. Brainstorm what that thing is for you.
Regardless of that, here are some proposals of the things you can bet on:
If you have any other suggestions, let me know in the comment.
The Final Words + The Invitation
Every idea needs a critical mass to gain motion. I don’t know if this will work out or maybe I will have to bury the hatchet in this idea. It’s up to you. However, if you decide to take part in, post your goals in the comments together with your bet.
If you can’t think of anything right now, think about it and post it later. On Wednesday come back and post your result as a reply to your original comment.
Who knows? Maybe this is the sign you have been waiting for!
If, however, you decide to bury this idea, know that you will have dirt on your hands. The dirt that is soaked in guilt and shame. The stains left by it will taint your soul permanently and they will never go away. They will keep growing until they spill onto your very existence polluting everyone you love. It will …
Ok, ok. No more guilt-tripping! Join me in the comments! We will see how it goes and hopefully, we will make it a permanent thing.
P.S. You can increase your chances of sticking to your plan even more by making yourself accountable. Tell somebody about the challenge or tweet #ImpossibleTuesday together with your goal!
Choosing the right learning methodshas always been one of the most daunting tasks for most language learners. No wonder. Around every corner, you can find yet another popular learning strategy.
But how do you know it’s effective? Is it actually based on any real science?
Most people can offer you just their opinions. I am here to show you step-by-step what are the biggest flaws of various language learning methods. In other words, I am going to scrutinize them and show you what their authors don’t know or don’t want to reveal.
The first position on the menu today is the GoldList method.
Before I start, it’s worth mentioning that this article is not meant to offend the author of the Goldlist method nor disparage anyone who is using it but to show one simple fact – it’s extremely easy to come up with a method but it doesn’t mean it’s effective memory-wise.
The Goldlist Method – What Is It All About?
Unless you are into experimenting with various learning methods, you may not have heard of the Goldlist Method. For that reason, I will try to outline what’s all about so we are on the same page.
First of all, here is a great video which sums up what this method is all about.
If you are old-fashioned, here is a description of how it works (the description has been borrowed from a great website called How To Get Fluent),
Get a large (A4 size) notebook. This is going to be your “bronze” book.
Prepare the materials (i.e. words) you’re interested in. The items you choose will go into your “headlist”.
Open your book and write the first twenty-five words or phrases down, one below the other, on the left-hand side of the individual page. Include any integral information such as gender or plural forms of nouns or irregular aspects of a verb’s conjugation. The list shouldn’t take you more than twenty minutes to do.
When the list is ready, read through it out loud, mindfully but without straining to remember.
When you start the next piece of the headlist, number it 26-50, then 51-75 and so on.
The first distillation – after at least two weeks open your notebook and cast your eye towards your first list of 1 to 25 (or, 26 to 50, or 9,975 to 10,000) depending on which double spread you’re at. The “two weeks plus” pause is important. It’s intended to allow any short-term memories of the information to fade completely so that you can be sure that things you think you’ve got into the long-term memory really are in there. Make sure, then, that you date each set of twenty-five headlist items (something I haven’t done in my illustrative photos for this article).
David James says that there is no upper limit to the gap between reviews, though suggests a maximum of two months, simply to keep up momentum.
Discard eight items, and carry the remaining seventeen into a new list, This will be your first “distillation”.
Repeat the process for the second and third distillations (the third and fourth list on your double spread). The interval should be at least 2 weeks.
For the fourth distillation, you start a new book, your “silver” book.
The “gold” notebook works the same way, the hardcore items from the “silver” notebook’s seventh distillation are carried over to the “gold” for new headlist of twenty-five lines (distillation number eight) and distillations nine (17 or so lines), ten (twelve or so) and eleven (nine or so).
Grab a notebook and write there 25 words which interest you.
After at least 2 weeks check if you remember them and discard 30% of all the words. The rest of the words becomes a part of the second “distillation”
Keep on repeating the same process over and over again. The only thing that changes is that the older “distillations” get rewritten to other notebooks.
The Goldlist Method – Claims
Photo by Bookblock on Unsplash
The author of the Goldlist method maintains that:
The method allows you to retain up to thirty percent of the words in your long-term memory.
It is also claimed that the process circumvents your short-term memory – you are expected to make no conscious effort to remember words. Thanks to this the information will be retained in your long-term memory.
The Goldlist Method – A Scientific Critique
1. It doesn’t circumvent short-term memory
One of the big claims of the Goldlist method is that it is able to circumvent your short-term memory. Somehow, thanks to it, you are able to place all the information straight in your long-term memory.
Is it possible? Not really. I have noticed that 99% of claims of this kind come from people who have never had much to do with the science of memory. That’s why let’s go briefly through what is required to “remember”.
According to the author of the Goldlist method, David James:
” [[ … ]] we are alternating in and out of these two systems the whole time, we switch ourselves into short-term mode by thinking about memorising and switch out of it by forgetting about memorising.”
Unfortunately, this is a bunch of hooey. This is what the actual science has to say about memorization.
The working memory consolidation
In order to memorize a piece of information, you have to store it in your short-term memory.
This process is initiated by allocating your attention to the stimuli you want to remember.
In other words, initiation of consolidation is under conscious control and requires the use of central attention. The mere fact of looking at a piece of paper and reading/writing words activates it.
Any stimuli that capture attention because of their intrinsic emotional salience appear to be consolidated into memory even when there is no task requirement to do so.
Next, the items you learn undergo working memory consolidation.
Working memory consolidation refers to the: transformation of transient sensory input into a stable memory representation that can be manipulated and recalled after a delay.
Contrary to what the creator of the Goldlist method believes, after this process is complete, be it 2 weeks or more, the short-term memories are not gone. They are simply not easily accessible.
Our brains make two copies of each memoryin the moment they are formed. One is filed away in the hippocampus, the center of short-term memories, while the other is stored in cortex, where our long-term memories reside.
You probably have experienced this phenomenon yourself many times. You learned something in the past. Then, after some years, you took it up again and were able to regain your ability relatively quickly. It was possible because your memories were still there. They just became “neuronally disconnected” and thus inaccessible.
The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve
There is one more proof which shows clearly that the method doesn’t circumvent short-term memory. The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve shows us how fast the incoherent information is forgotten.
What we mean by incoherent is that this is not the information which you can associate with your background knowledge.
This is very often the case when you learn a new language or when you’re at a lower intermediate level.
What’s more, the Ebbinghaus curve’s numbers are based on the assumption that the learned material :
means nothing to you
has no relevance to your life
has no emotional load and meaning for you
On the curve, you can see that if you memorize information now and try to recall after 14 days, you will be able to retrieve about 21-23% of the previously memorized knowledge. Mind you that this is the knowledge which is incoherent, bears no emotional load and means nothing to you.
What happens when you start manually writing down words which interest you or when you are able to establish some connection between them and your life? Well, this number can definitely go up.
Keep in mind that your recall rate will also be affected by:
frequency of occurrence
prior vocabulary knowledge
So is there anything nothing magical about the Goldlist method and the number “30”? Nope. It follows very preciselythe Ebbinghaus forgetting curve which takes into account your short-term memory. Sometimes this number will be higher, sometimes it will be lower depending on your choice of words.
You can check it yourself how low this number can get. Simply choose a language which is from the different linguistic family than the ones you already know. Track your progress and see how this number inevitably goes down.
The Goldlist Method is just a spaced repetition method with bigger intervals. That makes it less effective than most spaced repetition program right off the bat.
2. Impractical and time-consuming
Relatively high activation energy and time-consuming
One of the most important concepts in productivity is the activation energy.
The activation energy is the amount of energy needed to start conducting a given activity.
Even though the Goldlist Method has initially the low activation energy, it starts growing considerably with each and every distillation. Having to carry with you a couple of A4 notebooks seems also very impractical to me.
Limited usefulness vocabulary-wise
However, the biggest problem I have with this method in this department is that it suggests I only learn words I am interested in. There are hundreds of situations where one has to learn words which they are not interested in.
And they should work particularly well for the vocabulary you’re interested in.
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash
This is one of the methods which collapse under their own weight i.e. it’s inflexible. The Goldlist method suggests that you learn vocabulary in 25-word batches.
What If I need to master a language quickly and I want to learn at least 40-50 words per day? After 10 days I will be forced to go through 20 distillations. After one month this number will start hitting insane heights. More and more of my attention will be required to keep up with all the reviews. This seems very off-putting.
Another important quality of effective learning methods is that they should automate the learning process. The method which necessitates more and more conscious decisions on your part the more you want to learn simply doesn’t fit the bill.
4. Lack of context
The enormous red flag for any language learning method is the exclusion of context from the learning process.
Simply repeating information in a mindless manner is called passive rehearsal. Many years ago it was actually proven that passive rehearsal has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).
This is just the first problem with the lack of context.
The other one is that almost all the knowledge you possess is activated contextually. If there is no context, it will be extremely difficult for you to retrieve a word when you need it.
In other words – you will remember the information but you will have a hard time using it in a conversation.
As a result, soon enough you will forget a word because there will be no network of other information holding it in your head.
5. Detached from reality
The problem with the GoldList Method is encapsulated in a famous adage used by Marines:
‘Train as you fight, fight as you train’
I can’t stress enough how important these words are.
Always try to train for reality in a manner that mimics the unpredictability and conditions of real life. Anything else than that is simply a filler. A waste of time. It gives you this warm feeling inside, “I have done my job for today”, but it doesn’t deliver results.
Tell me, is rewriting words from one notebook to another actually close to using your target language?
6. Lack of retention intention
Another elementary mistake which we tend to make way too often when we fail to retain a word is actually not trying at all to memorize something.
You see, everything starts with a retention intention.
This fact is even reflected in the simplified model of acquiring information:
A retention intention sets the stage for good remembering. It is a conscious commitment to acquire a memory and a plan for holding on to it. As soon as you commit to a memory goal, attention locks on to what you want to remember.
This is how attention works—it serves the goal of the moment. And the stronger the motivation for the goal, the more laserlike attention becomes and the greater its memory benefits.
In other words, you can watch as many TV series and read as many books as you like. It will still have almost zero effect if you don’t try to memorize the things you don’t know. The same goes for the GoldList method.
A key feature of a retention intention is the plan for holding on to the material. It might be as simple as rehearsing the memory, or it might involve one of the memory strategies described later. Whatever the plan, when you are clear about how you intend to retain the material, it is more likely you will actually carry out the plan, and this can make all the difference between a weak and a strong memory.
7. Lack of encoding
Take a peek once again at the simplified model of acquiring information.
What you can see is that the second most important part of the process of memorization is encoding.
Encoding is any attempt to manipulate the information you are trying to memorize in order to remember it better.
Encoding can be further divided into shallow and deep encoding.
In the world of language learning, deep encoding is nothing more than creating sentences with the words you intend to memorize. In other words, it’s creating contexts for the items you want to learn.
Shadow encoding encompasses almost everything else. Counting vowels, writing down the said items and so on.
Deep encoding is the fastest and the most certain way of memorizing information and maximizing your chances of retrieving it.
If you skip encoding, like the GoldList method does, you immediately revert to mindless repetitions of words (i.e. passive rehearsal).
And we all know how it ends.
Mindless repetition of words has almost zero effect on your learning. If you want to increase your chances of memorizing them permanently you need to use the new words actively in a task (Laufer & Hulstijn (2001:14).
To be honest, I could add some more mistakes which this method perpetuates. However, I think enough is enough – I think I have pointed out all the most glaring ones.
There are two things I like about the Goldlist method
It gives you a system which you can follow. This is certainly the foundation of any effective learning.
It jogs your motor memory by making you write words.
The Goldlist method is too flawed to fix it in a considerable manner but let me offer you this suggestion.
Instead of rewriting words, start building sentences with them for every distillation.
This way you will incorporate some deep encoding into your learning process. You should see the difference progress-wise almost immediately.
The Overall Assessment
There is no point in beating around the bush – this is one of the worst learning methods I have ever encountered. It violates almost every major memory principle. If you were contemplating using it – just don’t.
If you have nothing against using apps and programs to learn, I would suggest you start your language learning journey with ANKI.
The Goldlist method is one of the best examples of something I have been saying for years – anyone can come up with a learning method. Sometimes it’s enough to sprinkle it with some scientific half-truths to convince thousands of people to try it.
My opinion is this – you’re much better off using many other methods. This is one of the few which seems to be violating almost all known memory principles.
The quality of your life depends mostly on your ability to make the right decisions and to solve problems. One could think that in the world of almost unlimited access to information our decision-making abilities should be getting better and better.
Is it really the case?
I don’t think so. There are many explanations for why it is so.
However, instead of delving into them, I would like you to show you how to improve the quality of your thinking and problem-solving skills with the concept of my own devising – The Magnet Theory.
But first things first. Let’s start with a structure of knowledge.
Bloom’s Taxonomy – The hierarchy of knowledge
Not a week goes by when I hear someone say – if you don’t understand something, don’t learn it. And some part of me crumbles away every time when I hear it.
Because nothing could be further from the truth.
Understanding is very often the by-product of all the information at your disposal.
Let me explain why.
Let’s start with fundamentals i.e. Bloom’s taxonomy. The Bloom’s taxonomy depicts the structure of knowledge and how it is organized.
Take a look at the foundation of this pyramid. Can you see it? That’s right. Understanding doesn’t seem to be the most important element of knowledge.
Why do you think it is so?
I will tell you why – because you can’t think without facts.
Facts are frequently the foundation of the good solutions and thinking.
Why understanding is overrated
My guess is that most of the time, on the surface, it is easier to understand something than to memorize dozens of different facts.
We like to assume that if A leads to D then it surely happens in a nice progression – A causes B. B causes C. C causes D.
The reality is that most of the time progression looks more like this.
A -> L -> B -> G -> C -> K -> X -> E -> D
It’s an interaction of dozens of different elements which we very often don’t see because of our limited knowledge. This phenomenon is called “The illusion of explanatory depth“.
“People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.”
“This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous,” Sloman and Fernbach observe.
The real reason why understanding starts with memorization
That doesn’t inspire much confidence comprehension-wise, does it?
How many concepts do you know that can be understood by knowing just 3-5 facts? I can tell you right away, that there are not many of them. And even if you find any, they probably won’t be worth your while.
In order to see the big picture, you need a lot of facts. Which, truth be told, can be problematic.
Because you don’t know how many puzzle pieces are needed to create it. That leaves you just one choice – you have to keep on memorizing things even if they don’t make any sense at the moment. You need to memorize facts before you understand what they mean.
If you memorize just the things you understand, you will never be able to look beyond the obvious.
The problem nowadays is that almost nobody is willing to do it. Why bother if all the knowledge you need is at your fingertips?
It is the tendency to forget information that can be found readily online by using Internet search engines such as Google. According to the first study about the Google effect, people are less likely to remember certain details they believe will be accessible online.
The thing is that if you want to be the best at something, you need all those pesky details.
My answer has always been the same and possibly disappointing to others – I try to memorize everything.
I don’t care how abstract or vague a given piece of information seems. I will commit it to my memory. I do it because I can’t possibly know which fact will tip the scale and raise the curtain to reveal the magnificence of understanding.
That’s why I can’t be picky.
At some point, the facts always come together to form a clear answer. Sometimes, you just have to wait for it.
For example, right now I can tell you quite exactly what science currently has to say about the process of working-memory consolidation. This knowledge includes even tiny facts about frequencies of different brain waves.
And I will be honest with you. I don’t know right now the purpose of this information. I am more than clueless. But I am pretty sure it will come handy one day. Maybe in one year, maybe in ten. Whenever it might be, I know that I will be ready.
It might not be the most pleasant way to acquire expertise. However, it’s sure as hell the fastest and the most certain way to do it.
The Magnet Theory – how to understand the process of effective thinking
Years ago, I was obsessing over the question – how come two smart individuals can arrive at the completely different conclusions?
I knew that asking good questions was important in that process. I also understood that you couldn’t think effectively without facts.
The effect of these cogitations turned into something I dubbed The Magnet Theory.
It’s a very elegant way of understanding the process of problem-solving and effective thinking.
Think of any question or problem you might have as a powerful magnet. The minute you encounter some riddle, the magnet starts doing its magic. It starts scouring your mind and attracting everything which might be useful in the process of cracking a given problem.
And I really do mean everything – anecdotes, scientific facts, your personal experiences and so on.
The whole comes together and creates a solution to the problem.
There is one more component of the magnet theory – your ego. It filters and potentially distorts all the potential conclusions you may reach. Even if all the facts are in favor of one solution, your ego might nudge you to reject them all.
The consequences of the magnet theory
1. Almost everyone has an opinion
How many people do you know who don’t have an opinion on some matter? Not many, right?
That’s the thing. Any question you ask or problem you state is a potential magnet for the mind of your interlocutor. The magnet will scrape up every little bit piece of information. As a consequence, this motley clue of assorted facts and anecdotes will form an opinion on a given topic.
Are these opinions worth much? You can answer this question yourself.
2. Your thinking is as good as the information you remember
Remember that you will always have an answer to almost every question. That doesn’t mean that the answer you come up with is any good. As the great and late Richard Feynman used to say –
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.
Don’t rush to the conclusions. Before you make a decision ask yourself this – how many good facts do I have at my disposal? Not opinions, not anecdotes but the cold scientific facts.
If the answer is “not many” then do your research to give your magnet some “better food”.
I routinely distrust anyone and double-check any kind of information myself. Maybe I am paranoid but my behavior is driven by one simple question – how many people appreciate the importance of memorization and treat it as an indispensable part of their expertise acquisition?
The answer is – close to zero.
That automatically renders the most of the opinions you will ever hear in your life invalid. Or at best they might be classified as half-truths. Sounds callous but it’s definitely true.
Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. – Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds | The New Yorker
3. Your ego can be the end of you
It’s worth keeping in mind that the more somebody holds himself in high esteem, the slimmer the chances that they will be swayed by facts that contradict their opinions.
What’s worse, everyone is affected by this bias. Especially all the people who think of themselves as experts or have fancy titles like Ph.D. or a professor.
Alas, the titles don’t mean diddly-squat if you don’t have vast knowledge.
If I invited you to a blind taste test of a $12 wine versus a $1,200 wine, could you tell the difference? I bet you $20 you couldn’t. In 2001, Frederic Brochet, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux, ran a study that sent shock waves through the wine industry. Determined to understand how wine drinkers decided which wines they liked, he invited fifty-seven recognized experts to evaluate two wines: one red, one white. After tasting the two wines, the experts described the red wine as intense, deep, and spicy—words commonly used to describe red wines. The white was described in equally standard terms: lively, fresh, and floral. But what none of these experts picked up on was that the two wines were exactly the same wine. Even more damning, the wines were actually both white wine—the “red wine” had been colored with food coloring. Think about that for a second. Fifty-seven wine experts couldn’t even tell they were drinking two identical wines. –I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi
Example 1 – Vitamin C
It reminds me of a great story. A couple of years ago, there was a lot of controversy in Poland around the man called Jerzy Zieba. What did he do, you might ask?
He wrote the book called “The Hidden Therapies – What your doctor won’t tell you“. The books shook the medical world in Poland to its core as it exposed incompetence and rigidness of the Polish health care. In one of the chapters, he described wonderful qualities of Vitamin C which can be used among others to:
treat cancer and various diseases
lower blood sugar
substitute anti-allergic medicine
As a result, the real shitstorm ensued. He was publically flailed and tarred and feathered at the altar of science. There were literally thousands of medical professionals who mocked him to no end.
After all, he was not a doctor. So what that in his book he quoted hundreds of scientific studies from all over the world to back up his claims. He was no one and had no say in the matter.
I saw professors of medicine and oncologists saying straight to the camera that this is scientific tosh and they haven’t seen even one scientific paper who proved it.
So why I am telling you all this?
Because each one of these detractors was dead wrong. There are actually hundreds of scientific studies proving the efficacy of vitamin C in treating almost every possible malady.
This anecdote is especially important for me because I have been personally interested in medicine for a long time now as it’s definitely one of the main fields of knowledge where you are only as good as your memory. Throughout the years I have read, gathered and memorized dozens upon dozens of articles and studies about vitamin C which confirm its effectiveness.
In the end, the professors were wrong. The ego got the best of them.
It’s an important reminder for all of us to never get too cocky. In other words – be humble or be humbled.
Example 2 – Losing Weight
Let’s ponder over the following problem. Let’s say that your aunt Elma wants to lose weight. She has been buying Vanity Fair for a long time so she knows that even though she accepts herself, she is fat and hideous, and needs to slim down.
The years of reading has equipped her with a truly powerful, intellectual toolkit.
She knows that she has to:
stop chugging gin before she gets to work
Is losing weight really that simple? It might seem so. After all, doing all those things takes us from point A to point B.
Before, I move on. ask yourself the same question. Be sure to follow the whirlwind of incoming thoughts. Can you feel how they are trying to organize themselves? Or do you maybe feel like you have a ready answer?
I can bet that your first instinct is to start spewing out all the facts in your head. I know that it is typically my first reaction.
However, what’s on the surface might be merely a tip of the iceberg. But only once you take a peek “under the hood”, will you be able to see the real complexity of the issue at hand.
If you want to lose weight, you have to:
improve fatty acid oxidation
manage blood sugar levels
Increase the breakdown of fat storage
Improve fat burning capacity
Increase insulin sensitivity
Of course, it would be just the beginning of your investigative journey. Next, you would have to learn what is responsible for each of these functions.
Only then will you be able to truly understand what is required to lose weight. And it would be a truly amazing journey because the truth is that there are thousands of possible solutions. If you dig long enough, I am sure you will be able to find the optimal one.
Do we have to understand all the things deeply?
I don’t mean to make you paranoid. Of course, you don’t have to possess a profound understanding of everything. Although I would suggest you do it for every area of knowledge which is of interest to you.
The Magnet Theory is an easy way to understand how the processes of thinking and problem-solving work. It can be summarized in the following way:
Problems and questions act as magnets
Those magnets attract every last scrap of information they can find to form an answer
The final answers can be potentially distorted by your ego
The theory leaves us with three conclusions which are applicable to every area of life.
(Almost) everyone has an opinion on anything. The magnet will always attract something which can be used to form a conclusion.
Your conclusions are only as good as the information at your disposal.
Your conclusions can be easily distorted by your biases and ego.
There you have it. I hope that you will be able to apply this theory to improve your quality of thinking.
Do you have anecdotes where some tiny piece of information helped you understand something? Please let me know in the comments.
The phenomenon of retrieving words at will seems to be almost magical. The mere intention of wanting to use any of them recalls them effortlessly and in no time.
Hah! You wish!
The truth is that most of us look like constipated capuchin monkeys trying to poop out a screwdriver when we try to retrieve vocab! It’s difficult and it sure as hell don’t come easy.
Why is it so?
Well, first of all, the universe is a cruel place and probably hates you. Other than that there are some other memory-related reasons for that state of affairs.
Since I can’t do anything about the universe, let’s concentrate on the latter.
Difference between remembering and retrieving a word
Let’s start with a very different distinction between remembering a piece of information and retrieving it. Contrary to the common knowledge and the intuition, they are not the same.
To explain this concept, let’s look at a simple model of memory.
As you can clearly see that first you have to encode (memorize) a piece of information and only then can you retrieve it.
It means that:
a) you can remember something but you might not be able to retrieve it.
b) if you can retrieve something you certainly remember it.
The infamous tip-of-the-tongue feeling refers to the so-called failure to retrieve error,
If you want to improve your chance of recalling an item you need to improve its retrievability.
What is retrievability?
Long-term memories can be characterized by two elements: Stability (S) and Retrievability (R) are part of the Two-component model of long-term memory.
Retrievability of memory is a variable of long-term memory that determines the probability of retrieving a memory at any given time since the last review/recall.
I would like to direct your attention to the word “probability”. You can never be certain that you will be able to retrieve a given memory. It all depends on a plethora of factors. But what you can do is increase your odds.
Let’s dig deeper.
Fundamentals – Retrieval Cues
Before we move on, you need to familiarize yourself with some basic memory concepts. Only then will you be able to fully understand why you can’t recall a word and how to change it.
Everything starts with a retrieval CUE.
A Retrieval Cue is a prompt that help us remember. When we make a new memory, we include certain information about the situation that act as a trigger to access the memory. Source: AlleyDog
As you can see, literally everything can be a cue! Let’s say that you meet a nice girl. The way she looks is a cue. Actually, every piece of her garment is a cue. The weather is a cue. The look of disgust on her face as you empty yet another cup of beer and whisper gently into her ear, ” Shh. Let the magic happen” is another great example of a cue.
The sound of your feet being dragged across the dirt by the security is yet another cue.
What? No. That did not happen to me! Mind your own business! Let’s get back to the science!
Saying that everything is a cue is a bit lazy, isn’t it? I think you will be able to understand them much better once you see how they are typically categorized.
And don’t worry. This is not an exercise in futility. This info will come handy.
External cues were ones that came from the environment.
Abstract (aka internal) cues were all thoughts or linguistic references to the original episode.
Sensory/perceptual cues were those that provided sensory/perceptual referents to the original episode.
Sensory cues can be further categorized as visual cues, auditory cues, haptic cues, olfactory cues, environmental cues, and so on.
State cues were physiological or emotional referents to the original episode
I hope that now it’s easier for you to understand that literally everything can be a cue – starting from a thought and ending with a smell.
Then, you might wonder, if there are so many of them, how come you still have trouble retrieving memories or words?
The easiest answer is that you need to use the right cues.
Memory principles governing recall
There are a couple of general rules which will help you with understanding when it is usually possible to retrieve a word.
1) The encoding specificity
Somewhere in the 70s, a psychologist by the name of Endel Tulving proposed a theory called the encoding specificity principle.
It states that:
” Successful recall relies on the overlap between the thing you are trying to remember and the situation in which you first encountered it, and the cues or prompts that are available when you are trying to recall it”.
This gives us our first rule:
The more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.
Let’s stress it one more time – it’s not guaranteed that you will recall desired words. Meeting the said conditions simply increases the likelihood of retrieving them.
Let’s say that you memorized (actively) a word “cat” in the following phrase: “a black cat”. If at any given time during a conversation, you decide to use this phrase, it will most likely come to the top of your mind.
But what happens if you decide to use this word in another phrase:”a wild cat”? Assuming that you already know actively the word “wild”, there is a chance that you will be able to string this sentence together. However, the likelihood of this is definitely smaller than in the previous example as you have probably never ever made such a mental connection before. This leads to problems with so-called “information transfer“.
If you memorized some word in only one context, your mind can cling to it so tightly that it won’t be able to transfer a given item into another context.
Any time you use a given word in one part of a conversation and then can’t use it in another one, you run into exactly this problem.
Interestingly, these rules stay true regardless of the relevance of the information you are trying to retrieve.
“When short-range contextual dependencies are preserved in nonsense material, the nonsense is as readily recalled as is meaningfull material.” – The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives
Side note: Now, when I am reading this sentence I think that I need to go out more often. I have a strange definition of “fun”.
2) The strength of associations
Another aspect of a successful retrieval is how strong your associations are. I think that it is intuitively understandable that the stronger the association between the cue and the target information the bigger your chance of retrieving an item is.
However, make no mistake:
The strength of your association is still not as important as the match between features of recall and features of encoding (Pansky et al., 2005; Roediger & Guynn, 1996).
Imagine that you are eating peacefully your breakfast in a hotel abroad and all of the sudden some cat jumps on a table and gracefully puts its paw into your cereal bowl.
You think for a second how to word your outrage in a language of your choice and then you finally cry out “I will skin you alive, you sack of fleas!”.
From now on, every time you decide to express your outrage in a similar situation the chance of using exactly this phrase increases.
Edward Vul and Nisheeth Srivastava presented another interesting perspective. Namely, the process of retrieval is the process of retrieving cues which anchor the said item.
From this it follows that:
recognition performance is superior to recall performance when the number of items is greater than the number of cues
recall performance is better than recognition when the converse holds.
It means that the bigger the number of words you want to memorize, the bigger the number of cues you need.
Don’t overdo it – a cue overload effect
There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing. If you decide to go over the top and insert too many cues into a piece of information you are trying to memorize you might notice that your recall rate didn’t change.
It happens so because:
If retrieval cues are not recognized as being distinct from one another, then cues are likely to become associated with more information, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of the cue in prompting the recall of target information (Watkins & Watkins, 1975).
Let’s say that you want to memorize a two-word phrase “a disgusting slob”. If you just create a flashcard and then try to din it into your head, there is a good chance you won’t succeed.
The number of cues is minimal here. You can just see these words visually.
In other words, you are using one sensory cue. But as you know now, there are quite many different kinds of cues.
You can dollop more of them on top of this one.
You can add a sound (another sensory cue)
You can say it out loud (internal and sensory cue)
You can modulate your emotions (state cues)
Instead of just saying a phrase, you can shout it out angrily. Win-win! Unless you shout it out on a bus, of course.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s a slight simplification of a problem as it doesn’t factor in the capacity of our short-term memory.
4) Distinctivity of cues
The last (important) piece of a puzzle is how distinct your cues are.
“In order to increase the likelihood of recalling a verbatim-based piece of information, you need distinct retrieval cues (Anderson, 1983a; Anderson & Reder, 1999; Tuckey 743 & Brewer, 2003).
But why do we need distinct retrieval cues?
Shortly, recall of one item can prompt further recall of semantically related items (Collins & Loftus, 1975). This occurs through the spread of activation through the associative links of the memory network. Gillian Cohen – Memory In the Real World
You can think about it as a domino effect. One element leads us to another.
How to build good cues
Good quality retrieval cues often have:
(1) constructability (cues generated at encoding can be reliably reproduced at recall);
(2) consistency between encoding and retrieval within a given context (i.e. an effective retrieval cue should be compatible with the memory trace created during encoding and show high cue-target match);
(3) strong associations with the target and the ability to be easily associated with newly learned information;
(4) bidirectionality of association (the cue recalling target information, and target information recalling the cue).
(5) It is also important that retrieval cues are distinctive or discriminable.
Think about those rules as guidelines. Applying them will definitely increase your odds of retrieving an item.
However, don’t go too crazy and try to apply all of them every time when you try to memorize something. If anything, you should increase the number of cues only for the words you have trouble remembering.
How to maximize your chances of recalling words – a summary
Time to recap everything you have learned so far about maximizing your chances of recalling something. But let’s do it in plain English this time.
1. You should be the person who generates cues
If you download ready-to-use flashcards or use apps like Duolingo and then whine that you can’t learn then there’s your explanation.
High levels of recall usually occur when the cue is self-generated (Hunt & Smith, 1996).
2. Retrieve vocabulary in different conditions
If you just sit at home and pore over a computer or books you are encoding and retrieving items in the same conditions and that clearly hinders their retrievability.
As you already know in order to retrieve a piece of information we need to use good cues.
Retrieval is a selective process, relying on a complex interaction between encoded information and features of the retrieval environment (Tulving & Thomson, 1973).
3. Memorize natural phrases / collocations
One more time – the more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.
Let’s say that you want to learn the word “a bike”. You decide to put it into the following phrase which you will later memorize “a bike made with light alloys”.
If you have never ever heard yourself saying such a phrase in your native tongue then what are you doing?! Use something simpler and more natural, for example, “a new bike”.
Let’s look at the quickest way to retrieve a word in a conversation.
PHRASE YOU LEARN PHRASE YOU RETRIEVE encoding cue -> retrieval cue (identical or similar to the encoding cue) = success
Quite straightforward, isn’t it?
Now here is the path of retrieval when you decide to use mnemonics:
a big cat -> looking for associations -> turning them into pictures -> placing them in some location -> decoding them -> retrieval
As you can see, we are adding a lot of unnecessary steps into the process of retrieval. The usual effect is that you:
a) don’t remember them after a couple of days/weeks
b) you remember them but can’t recall them since you have no real context for these items
Associations are certainly a useful learning tool. The problems occur when there are too many of them. In my line of work I have met people who were obsessed with finding an association for every possible piece of information.
The thing is that the associations, just like mnemonics, can at best help you with remembering the word but not retrieving it.
A couple of associations are great because they are distinct. However, there is nothing distinct and special about 100 associations.
Another problem is that once again you are lengthening the process of retrieving a word
encoding information -> building an association -> decoding an association -> retrieval
(a cat) -> (it sounds similar to a candy bar ” Kit Kat -> (now you want to use the word in a conversation) it was something connected with a candy bar -> I bought a new Snickers!
I have mentioned before in a couple of articles that learning styles don’t exist (read about it more here). Sure, you can have preferencesfor a giving style of learning but that does not mean that this style of learning will be more effective memory-wise.
Sure enough, there is a host of studies which suggest that even teaching styles have no influence on the students’ ability to recall information.
If you have ever had a teacher who hired a throng of merry and naked gnomes in order to sing you a lengthy list of historical dates then I have bad news for you.
Although, you have to appreciate the effort, right?
Question for you
How often does it happen to you that you can’t recall vocab when needed? Let me know in the comments!
What is better for learning new words – writing or speaking?. It is definitely one of the questions that come up frequently in different language-related discussions.
I have seen many different answers to this question. Some were quite right. Some were just plain wrong.
That’s why I decided to show you a memory-based/science-based answer to this question.
Let’s dive right in!
Why Both Speaking And Writing Are Great
I don’t want to be this terrible host who welcomes you with a creepy toothless smile and spits on your back as you walk in. I want you to feel nice and cozy!
That’s why I would like to begin on a positive note – both writing and speaking are great learning methods. There are many reasons for that but let’s start with the three which can be deemed as the most important.
1) The Production effect
The “production effect” was initially reported by Hopkins and Edwards in 1972. Unfortunately, for many, many years it has escaped the attention of the scientific world.
The production effect indicates the improved recall for any information which is produced actively compared to the one which is just heard or read silently.
2) Deep processing (aka The levels-of-processing effect)
This phenomenon was identified by Fergus I. M. Craik and Robert S. Lockhart in 1972,
The levels-of-processing effect suggests that information is better recalled when it has been actively and effortfully processed.
In other words, deeper levels of analysis produce more elaborate, longer-lasting, and stronger memory traces than shallow levels of analysis. Depth of processing falls on a shallow to deep continuum. Shallow processing (e.g., processing based on phonemic and orthographic components) leads to a fragile memory trace that is susceptible to rapid decay. Conversely, deep processing (e.g., semantic processing) results in a more durable memory trace. – Source.
In the world of language learning, creating sentences is actually one of the most meaningful ways of achieving deep processing of words. That’s one of many reasons why I am againstusing mnemonics in language learning (in most cases).
3) The reticular activating system (RAS)
Another cool advantage of both writing and speaking is that they activate a part of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS).
Why is it important?
Let me explain.
Even though the RAS is a small part of a brain, it plays a very important role – it’s the filter of information that is let into the conscious mind
Every second of every day, it tirelessly scours through the tons of information provided by your sensory organs in order to choose the one which is relevant. Without the RAS you would be constantly flooded with excessive amounts of information which would virtually overload your brain and impede thinking.
Fortunately, that doesn’t happen as the reticular activating system helps your brain capture what matters most to you and what is relevant to you based on your values, needs, interests, and goals.
As you can clearly see, both speaking and writing help put the words you use at the forefront of your mind.
Other Advantages Of Writing
The previously mentioned benefits are certainly great. However, let’s dive into some other advantages which are more specific to writing.
1) Writing is a great learning method for the advanced students.
Many people, once they move past the B1 level, tend to get stuck at the so-called intermediate plateaus. They use the same old grammar constructions, the same trite expressions and speech patterns.
It’s very hard to get out of this rut unless
a) you consume the staggering amount of input
b) start making effort to use new grammar constructions/words
Speaking with others, more often than not, requires keeping a conversation alive. You have to think “on your feet” to express your thoughts as quickly and precisely as you only can – if you flounder or stall too long, you might be able to notice a silent agony on your interlocutor’s face.
Writing, however, gives you all the time in the world to jigger your words into something resembling an elegant thought as opposed to the typical intellectuals slurry.
If you puke a little bit in your mouth every time you hear yourself saying “The movie was nice because actors were nice and it’s good that it was nice”, you know what I mean.
Memory benefits of writing
Some research suggests that writing seems to tickle the RAS and memory centers in your brain a tad harder than speaking.
Here are results of one of such studies
“The results show that on the immediate post-test, the Sentence-writing group performed the best, followed by Gap-fill, Comprehension-only, and Control. On the delayed post-test, the Sentence writing and Gap-fill groups equally outperformed the two other groups.” –ScienceDaily.
However, as you will soon discover, it’s only a half-truth.
As a side note, experiments which I have conducted regarding the efficiency of writing vs speaking show almost no difference between those two.
Longhand vs writing
Interestingly, most findings of research papers concern longhand writing not typing.That causes people to believe that the latter is actually an inferior method.
“When participants were given an opportunity to study with their notes before the final assessment, once again those who took longhand notes outperformed laptop participants. Because longhand notes contain students’ own words and handwriting, they may serve as more effective memory cues by recreating the context (e.g., thought processes, emotions, conclusions) as well as content (e.g., individual facts) from the original learning session.”
On the surface, it might seem true. After all, the cognitive and physical effort needed to write manually is bigger than the one needed for typing.
Most of these studies, however, measure effectiveness of writing/typing under pressure – the said study took place during lectures. It doesn’t have much to do with the organized process of composing an e-mail or an essay at home.
The extra time you have for deliberation and for a coherent formulation of your thoughts should equalize (more less) any potential difference between writing manually and typing.
That’s why you shouldn’t feel pressure to choose just one of them to reap memory benefits. Choose the one you feel most comfortable with.
Problems with writing
As with every method, there are some potential problems you might run into.
a) not everyone wants to / needs write
I would dare say that the vast majority of the population of almost any country in the world doesn’t write that much.
Why would they?
If your job is not strictly connected with this skill, you might not find it useful
b) learning a new writing system
If learning a new language system takes you half the time you needed to actually speak and understand your target language, it’s understandable that you might be reluctant to do so.
Writing – recommendations for learning
Best suited for:
advanced learners (B1-C2) level
anyone who likes (or needs) to write
Other benefits of speaking
Speaking is repetitive
When you write, the fruits of your labor are limited only by your imagination. You can contemplate different word combinations, weave brilliant thoughts.
However, when you speak, you have to be quick. You have to rely mostly on the automated speech patterns and words which are already well activated in your brain.
That’s why most of the things we say every day, even in our native tongue, are very far from being full of imagination. The point isn’t to unleash your inner Shakespeare but to get the point across.
For the same reason, sentences produced by native speakers are also simpler!
Speaking is more natural than writing
The world in which people would use the sophisticated language, which previously could be only found in books, would be a hilarious place!
“Alas, the chains of palpitating agony fell on my little toe as I rammed it into the mighty oakiness of a cupboard!”.
Compared with, “I f*** hit my toe against a cupboard.”
The truth is that we usually speak in a much less formal, less structured way. We do not always use full sentences and correct grammar. The vocabulary that we use is more familiar and may include slang. We usually speak in a spontaneous way, without preparation, so we have to make up what we say as we go.
That’s why if your goal is being able to communicate, speaking should definitely be your default language learning strategy. At least until you get to a B2 level.
Memory benefits of speaking
It involves many sensory channels (i.e. it’s great for your memory)
Speaking is a rich, sensory experience. It activates almost all sensory organs and thus creates more stable memories.
In one of the studies about the production effect, we can read that:
Many varieties of production can enhance memory. There is a production advantage for handwriting, for typing, and even for spelling, although none of these is as large as for speaking (Forrin, MacLeod, & Ozubko, 2012).
So what about some studies which say that writing is better for our memory than speaking? Well, they might be some truth in it:
As you can see, most of the benefits of writing usually disappear upon finishing this activity.
It is faster than writing
As I have mentioned earlier, even though there is some research that suggests that writing gives your memory some boost, this fact loses its importance once we factor in how much output we can produce with writing compared with speaking.
Here are results of one of the studies which took this seemingly irrelevant fact into consideration
The written group produced almost 75% less language than the spoken group did in the time available. This complements previous research discussed in section 3.6 which found more opportunities for language learning in the spoken mode compared to the written mode (e.g., Brown, Sagers, & Laporte, 1999).
Problems with speaking
a) it requires a relatively good activation of your target language
Even though I am a big proponent of learning a language via speaking there is just one small hiccup. If you want to chat with foreigners, your command of your target language should already be good.
What would be the easiest way of circumventing this problem?
If you want to increase your oral output without having to speak with native speakers, you can simply start talking with yourself (learn more about here and here).
Speaking – recommendations for learning
Best suited for
anyone who learns to communicate
Relatively-well suited for:
anyone who learns to consume media in his target language
Even if you only learn a language to watch media in your target language, you should still spend some time on learning how to speak. It will help you to understand language much quicker due to your improved mastery of grammar and vocabulary and their interrelations, which will in its turn increase your language comprehension.
This is one of the cases where you get two for the price of one.
And the winner is …
All in all, my opinion is that for the most people out there, speaking is the superior learning method as it allows you to practise what probably matters to you the most – being able to communicate.
What’s more, writing offers almost no benefits memory-wise compare to speaking.
Having that said, you should remember that the ultimate answer might be more complex for you. Some learn a language to write, some to watch movies and some to talk. Choose your goal and choose your preferred learning method in accordance with it.
Question for you:
What is your preferred way of using a language – speaking or writing? And why?
There is this persistent belief in the world of language learning that seeing a word a couple of times will allow the information to effortlessly sink in.
If you don’t know anything about memory it might seem like a logical and tempting concept.
After all, the repetition is the mother of all learning.
Laying your eyes on some piece of information time after time should make remembering easy, right?
Not that learning can’t happen then. It can. It’s just excruciatingly slow (read more about passive learning).
I would like to show you a couple of experiments which, hopefully, will help you realize that a number of passive repetitions don’t have that much of influence on your ability to recall information actively.
Let’s start with a great experiment which went viral recently.
Drawing logos from memory
Signs.com has conducted a fascinating experiment, asking 156 Americans between the ages of 20 and 70, to draw 10 famous logos as accurately as possible. The only trick was, that they have to do it without any visual aids, simply from their memory (source – BoredPanda).
How did participants do?
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
The apple logo, which one could argue is very simple, was somewhat correctly drawn by 20% of participants. If you are having a bad day, here are some of the less successful attempts.
The Adidas logo was correctly recalled only by 12% of participants.
Ok, I know that all this begs a question – what does it have to do with memory?
Implications of the experiment
The experiment’s original intent was very interesting on its own. However, if you take a good look and prick up your ears you will soon discover that there is more to it! The experiment is trying to tell us something!
What’s that, Mr. Experiment? What are you trying to tell us? –passive learning sucks!
Come again, please? – passive learning sucks!!!!
Now, why would Mr. Experiment say such a thing?
How many times would you say that you have seen, so far, Apple’s or Starbuck’s logos?
50? Don’t think so. 100? Highly doubt it. 1000+ ? That’s more like it.
It’s a safe bet that an average participant in this experiments has seen each logo at least several thousand times. Several. Thousand. Times.
That’s a lot, to say the least.
Let’s look at their final results. Surely, with that many “reviews” they must have remembered logos quite well.
Don’t know how about you but it’s one of the sadder things I have seen in my life. And I have seen a cute kitten getting soaked by the rain and crapped on by a pigeon.
But it’s all good because there is a lesson or two in all that doom and gloom.
1) Retention intention matters
It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t mention this – one of the main reasons why people don’t remember information is that they are not even trying.
If you have a neighbor called Rick who you hate, you won’t care much if he is sick. Rick can eat a d*** as far as you are concerned. You don’t want to remember anything about the guy.
The chance of remembering anything if you have no intention of conserving that information is close to zero. It was clearly a case in that study. Who is warped enough to deliberately memorize logos?
2) Number of passive repetitions has limited influence on our ability to remember
This is likely to be the most important lesson of all. Sometimes even dozens of repetitions of a given word won’t make you remember it!
3) Complexity of information matters
If you look at the table, you will notice another interesting, and logical, thing. The more complicated the logo the less accuracy we could observe.
Arguably, Starbucks’ logo is the most complex of them all. Not surprisingly it could only boast a recall rate of 6%.
It stands true for words as well.
The longer or the more difficult to pronounce a word is the harder it is to commit it to your memory.
Interestingly, some comments suggested that all those companies failed at marketing. It is clearly not the case. Above all, companies aim at improving our recognition of their brands and products. And that we do without the slightest doubt.
Other experiments to test your ability to recall
The experiment conducted by sings.com had its charm. However, you don’t need to make inroads into other areas of knowledge in order to carry out a similar study.
It’s enough to look around.
1) A mobile phone test
According to comScore’s 2017 Cross Platform Future in Focus report, the average American adult (18+) spends 2 hours, 51 minutes on their smartphone every day.
Another study, conducted by Flurry, shows U.S. consumers actually spend over 5 hours a day on mobile devices! About 86% of that time was taken up by smartphones, meaning we spend about 4 hours, 15 minutes on our mobile phones every day.
It means that you take a peek at your mobile phone at least 40-50 times per day or over 10000 times per year.
Now a question for you – how confident are you that you would be able to draw your mobile phone without looking at it?
2) A watch test
It’s safe to assume that if you have a watch, you look at it dozens of times per day. Most people hold their watches dear and carry them around for years. That would make it quite plausible that you have seen your watch thousands of times.
The question stays the same – how confident are you that you would be able to precisely draw your watch without looking at it?
3) A coin test
Yet another object which we tend to see frequently.
Choose a coin of some common denomination and do your best to replicate it on a piece of paper. Results might be hilarious!
What’s that? Your curiosity is still not satiated?
Then you mightdesign an experiment and run it to see how much you can remember after one hour of reading compared to one hour of learning actively some random words (i.e. using them in sentences),
Let me know in the comment about your results if you decide to run any of those tests! Especially the last one!
Why is passive learning so ineffective?
1) You think your memory is extraordinary
This is an interesting assumption behind passive learning which you might do unconsciously.You see your brain like a humongous harvester of information.
Wham-bam! You reap them one by one. The assumption, as beautiful as it is, is plain wrong.
Your brain is more like a bedraggled peasant with two baskets. There is only so much crap he can pick up throughout the day,
2) Brains want to forget
You see, your brain constantly works on forgetting most of the thing you come into contact with. Reasons are simple
Why should your brain care about some words if many of them don’t occur that often in everyday language?
3) No attention and no encoding
The simple memory model looks more less like this:
The amount of attention you devote to a piece of information you want to acquire is almost non-existent. Just a glimpse and your roving eye is already elsewhere.
And since almost no attention is allocated to your learning, there can be no encoding as well (more about encoding here).
Passive learning and the illusion of knowledge
Did you know that research estimates that about 50% of the primate cerebral cortex is dedicated to processing visual information? That makes a vision the most important sensory system.
No wonder that our vision is the closest thing we have to the perfect memory.
In one of the most famous memory experiments of all times (1973), Lionel Standing proved that it is hard to rival vision in terms of capacity to retain information (Standing, L. (1973). Learning 10000 pictures. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 25(2), 207-222.)
Learning 10000 pictures
Lionel Standing, a British researcher, asked young adults to view 10,000 snapshots of common scenes and situations. Two days later he gave them a recognition test in which the original pictures were mixed in with new pictures they hadn’t seen. The participants picked out the original pictures with an accuracy of eighty-three percent, a jaw-dropping performance. – Robert Madigan – How Memory Works–and How to Make It Work for You.
The thing is that this information is not something you know actively. You can recognize it but cannot retrieve it most of the time.
Don’t get me wrong. Knowing something passively has its advantages and can be a really powerful factor in creative and thinking processes. But if you want to speak a language you have to know vocabulary explicitly.
Energetic nodding and grumbling worthy of a winner of the one-chromosome lottery don’t count as a conversation.
Why passive learning makes us believe that we “know”?
In another famous experiment, memory researcher Jennifer McCabe showed why students think that cramming and reading are superior to studying by recalling (which has been proven time and time again to be a better learning method).
In the said experiment, students from two different groups had to read the same one-page essay.
The first group was supposed to recall and write down as much information as they could upon finishing.
The second group was given a chance to restudy the passage after they finished.
One week later both groups were tested on their memory for the passage. Not surprisingly, the second group crashed and burned. Its performance was far worse than the one of the first group.
What’s more, students from the second group were actually quite confident that they would fare better.
“How could they be so wrong?”, you might ask.
Most likely, they based their answers on their own experience. They knew that when they finished reading material over and over, they felt confident in their memory. The facts seemed clear and fresh. They popped into mind quickly and easily as the students reviewed them. This is not always so when recalling facts in a self-test—more effort is often required to bring the facts to mind, so they don’t seem as solid. From a student’s point of view, it can seem obvious which method—restudying—produces better learning. Robert Bjork refers to this as an “illusion of competence” after restudying. The student concludes that she knows the material well based on the confident mastery she feels at that moment.
And she expects that the same mastery will be there several days later when the exam takes place. But this is unlikely. The same illusion of competence is at work during cramming, when the facts feel secure and firmly grasped. While that is indeed true at the time, it’s a mistake to assume that long-lasting memory strength has been created. – Robert Madigan – How Memory Works
Illusions of competence are certainly seductive. They can easily trick people into misjudging the strength of their memory as easily as they can encourage students to choose learning methods that undermine long-term retention.
The best defense is to use proven memory techniques and to be leery of making predictions about future memory strength based on how solid the memory seems right now!
As a long-life learner, you should understand that passive learning is one of the slowest ways to acquire knowledge. Adopting such a learning style creates the illusion of knowledge which further perpetuates this vicious circle.
The best way to approach passive learning is to treat it as a complementary method to active learning. The rule is simple – once you are too tired to keep learning actively, you can switch to passive learning.
1000 words allow you to understand about 80% of the language which surrounds you, as long as they are not fancy.
3000 words (B1/B2)
3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996).
5000 words (B2)
5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).
10000 words (C1 / C2)
10000 words allow you to understand about 99% of most texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).
Depending on a choice of words, you can deduct or add 20% of a given number.
Keep those numbers in mind. We will come back to them soon. But for now, since nobody like party-poopers. let’s concentrate on positive aspects of speaking.
When is it a good idea to speak?
Speaking is certainly a GREAT idea, if not the best one, if you start learning a language.
Before I get to “why”, let’s look at other options.
Reading? Useless. Let’s be honest – what can you read at this point that has any deeper meaning or sense and resonates with you? “Judy likes potatoes. She eats potatoes. Potatoes are sweet and tasty”.
Ugh, shoot me in the face already.
Listening? Mostly useless. You don’t know enough words anyway to make head nor tail out of the constant stream of speech. “Dfsdfsdfs “I” ……..(wall of noise) …” says” ………. “hide the body”.
Speaking? Yes, please! In every possible amount. Not reading, not listening – speaking is one of the best things you can do at the beginning of your learning.
Speaking is the ” Ultimate Integrator”
It’s breath-taking how complicated it is to utter even one correctish sentence. There are so many things to remember! The best thing about speaking is that it helps you integrate ALL of them.
1. It activates vocabulary.
2. It starts building your muscle memory.
3. It helps you understand the relationship between grammar and words.
4. It activates grammar and automates its use.
And so on.
Speaking is relatively easy.
It can be as simple as uttering short sentences over and over again. You don’t need to talk with anyone really. You can just talk to yourself.
What’s more. Your sentences don’t have to be correct every time. It’s enough that your language partner understands what you mean.
Speaking = active learning
Last but not least, the main rule which contributes to the rapid learning is using your knowledge actively. So it happens that speaking is the pinnacle of active language use.
Of course, you can choose to ignore active learning but I can tell you right now what will happen:
a) you will succeed after a long time
b) your progress will be so slow that you will start backhanding old ladies at bus stops. Finally, you will give up and move on to another language. Inevitably, after some time you will arrive at the same crossroads with your new language.
So do yourself a favor and start talking as quickly as you can. Remember. You don’t have to talk to others. You can just start with uttering short sentences under your breath.
Other perks of self-talk include
a) not being judged by others
b) you can behave like a Tourette’s-ridden geezer. Bash people in your head all you want!
When it’s a bad idea to “just speak”
Nothing good lasts forever. Speaking has also its expiration date efficiency-wise.
So when does the fun-ride end? Around a B2 mark (i.e. 4000 / 5000 words.).
There are two very important reasons for that.
1) You are already (quite) fluent grammar-wise
By this level, you should have your basic grammar fluency. You have produced enough sentences to automate dozens of different grammar patterns and constructions. Uttering more sentences won’t bring you much closer to your goal of being fully fluent.
At this point, you need to expand your vocabulary more in order to achieve your goal.
2) You keep on repeating the same things over and over
Remember previously mentioned numbers? They will come handy now.
We established that knowing about 5 k words grants us the understanding of about 98% of all the things we hear on a daily basis.
What this number is trying to tell us is this:
If you just talk and don’t challenge yourself, you repeat things you already know 95-98% of the time.
Let me rephrase it – out of every 100 words you use only about 2-5 of them can be considered learning.
Even better! Think about like this.
Out of every hour, you only practise for 36 seconds to 3 minutes. Let’s go crazy and say that it is 5 minutes.
How would you react if your buddy told you about a friend of his who is a little bit “special”. Jeff works as a car dealer and every day he calls the same 95 people, who already bought a car, to sell them the very same car.
I guess you would imagine that he is the kind of guy who gets his pay in sugar cubes and wears a bib instead of a tie. That’s how special he is.
Don’t be like Jeff.
Of course, if your goal is to learn just one language or have a lot of time, keep at it. However, for any other goal, I would suggest you start fixing your learning schedule.
How do I know it applies to me?
There is a simple rule for that.
If you can already spend an hour or two talking without finding blood stains under your armpits and seeing black blobs in the corner of your eyes it means you’re not learning anymore.
You’re just repeating the same ol’ things over and over again and most of your time and effort is wasted.
I am willing to bet that you already know it deep inside. Try to tune your ears to conversations you typically have in your target language. Aren’t you using the same phrases all the time?
If yes, you need to step it up and stop wasting time on lessons that don’t contribute much to your language development.
The higher your level, the bigger the problem
It’s worth noting that the more advanced you get, the bigger the said problem becomes.
At a C1 level, you know about 99 % of all the words that can be encountered in everyday conversations. Speaking more is clearly not an effective solution here.
Solution – fixing your learning schedule
Before I move on, keep in mind that all the advice in this article aims at improving your learning effectiveness regardless of whether you are learning on your own or by having privates lessons or language exchanges.
By no means am I suggesting that you should cut off your friends and leave them high and dry just because this kind of talking is not the most effective learning option out there.
“Sorry Suzie, this random dude on the internet helped me realize that you’re wasting my time. Good riddance and farewell!”.
If you are talking to your friends on a daily basis, there is no reason to give it up. You will learn something every day anyway.
Now that we’ve gotten this hurdle out of the way, let me repeat again – If you want to get out of this gruesome rut and fix your language learning schedule, you need to concentrate on words/phrases you don’t know well.
There are a couple of ways to do it but they all share one feature.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln
Making the best use out of your lesson is all about the proper preparation.
As a rule of thumb, I recommend most people at a B2 level or higher to put in 4-5 hours of preparation before each lesson.
Of course, if you learn on your own, feel free to use those techniques whenever your heart desires.
Discuss a topic beforehand
If you use structured lessons, usually there is some subject or article that will be discussed. In that case, always make sure that you discuss it with yourself or your friends in advance.
Here is a great website with over 100 topics and thousands of questions which you might use to test yourself.
Remember – if you catch yourself not knowing some word, always write it down and learn it.
Think about words like “bodkin”, “grovel” or “coppice”. Most people don’t use them that often in their native tongues, let alone in their target language.
That’s why you always should have a system in place to master such words. Otherwise, they quickly fall into oblivion.
As always I recommend ANKI as your go-to program for learning new vocab.
Look up new phrases/words
While discussing a given subject beforehand is a foolproof method to quickly discover gaps in your knowledge, there is a method that’s much quicker – open a dictionary.
After all, there are potentially thousands of words there which you don’t know and use. Pick the ones you find useful, learn them and start using them during your next language learning session.
And don’t worry too much about using them incorrectly. If it happens, your teacher/language partner will quickly correct your mistake. Not a big deal, right?
Read a lot about a given subject
Another good idea, although much more time-consuming compared to the previous ones is to simply read a lot about a subject you’re going to discuss during your next lesson.
Find 5-10 articles and start slogging through them!
Make a conscious effort to use new words/phrases
Your brain is wired to use the most efficient neural pathways i.e. the words you already know very well. That’s why you need to put conscious effort into avoiding them.
It can be as simple as writing down a couple of new phrases on a piece of paper as a reminder of what you can say instead. That’s why Thesaurusis going to be your new best friend.
Why change a subject every 2-3 days? By discussing the same subject for a longer period of time, you will be able to activate your topical vocabulary much better and understand it much deeper.
Speaking is not the ultimate remedy for all your language problems. While it’s a great strategy at the beginning of your language journey, it gets progressively less effective the more advanced you become.
If you hope to keep on progressing fast, you need to start using some strategies for activating less frequent vocabulary. Once you incorporate them into your language learning schedule, you should see a huge difference.