The Most Effective Language Learning Method
I want to talk today, in the subject of language learning, about something that’s kind of been running around in my mind. I come up with all these things that are the key to language learning and I may have used this before, I don’t know, but it suddenly dawned on me that the most important thing is, is it fun. Do you enjoy doing it? I mentioned this in my 7 Secrets to Language Learning, I think the first one was spend the time and the second was to do things that you enjoy doing.
The subject came up because at a forum at LingQ someone mentioned the Gold List, which is sort of a form of handwritten spaced repetition devised by David James who is a wonderful polyglot Englishman who lives in Poland and speaks however many languages and speaks at least five of them very, very fluently, including Russian and German, I believe, and I’m not such which others. He has a variety of persona at YouTube, one of which is Viktor Huliganov. So you can easily find him.
He has a lot of useful information on language learning, I’ve watched some of his stuff and I agree with a lot of what he says. He has devised this system which he calls the Gold List and the Gold List consists, essentially, of the following and that is to maintain lists of words and phrases, to write them out longhand, in writing therefore, to write the target language down one side and the translated meaning on the other side and, typically, have a list of 25 or 30 of such words.
I might get this wrong, you’re best to go off and see one of his videos or Google for Gold List, but the idea is that you write these out and then forget about them for 14 days. That the mere fact of writing them down is good for you and it puts them somewhere in your brain. If you look at them 14 days later, you will probably remember about a third of them. So then you take the remaining two thirds and create another list with these and then you look at it 14 days later.
What’s interesting in all of this is (A) that you’re writing, which I think is a good thing to do, (B) you’re not deliberately trying to learn it, cram it. This is one of the points where I very much agree with David James and that is that a lot of our deliberate learning activity, forcing ourselves to learn a declension table or a grammar rule, even answering questions, any of this stuff that’s hard work, basically, just puts things into our short-term memory.
That’s what they do in French classes here in Canada and that’s why kids graduate and can’t speak French, even though they pass their French every year. Some of them did quite well in French, but they were cramming stuff into their short-term memory and now 10 or 20 years after graduating they don’t remember a thing, or very little.
So his thing is just write them down, look at them two weeks later, so I decided that I would try to do this. I said I would do this for my reading that I do away from LingQ, away from the computer in Czech and also with some of the words that I can take from a random vocabulary list from our vocab section or a tagged list of connected words in Czech, dative case or whatever I want to do, and start writing them out. So I’ve started doing this.
Then there was much discussion at our forum at LingQ about what’s effective in language learning and what’s not effective. Some people thought that the Gold List was a good idea and some people thought it wasn’t a good idea and some people said yeah, I’ve been doing it and, basically, it works. Basically, something clicked in my brain and I realized that most things work. Anki works, SuperMemo works, these flashcard SRS systems work. Probably, Benny’s ‘go out and walk around and talk to people’ works, at least for him some of the time. I don’t know.
Everything can work if you enjoy doing it, but there’s no point in telling someone who doesn’t like to do flashcards that he should do flashcards because it works. Any evaluation of how well things work is necessarily subjective. We think it works because we do it and we’re improving, so it must work. Does it work better than something else? Well, somebody else is doing something else, so how do you evaluate.
The big thing is do you want to spend your time? In language, unless you’ve got unlimited time to spend on language learning, most of us have a limited amount of time. Unless you’re a full-time language learner, as I was with Chinese back 40 odd years ago, most of the time you’ve got an hour or so a day to spend, so where do you want to spend your time. That, to me, becomes the most important criterion.
Now, I’ve been going at this Gold List thing and I quickly discovered that I was not at all interested in creating a list of words that I didn’t know the meaning of in my reading away from the computer because it distracted me from reading. I didn’t want to do it. Even if there are 15 words on the page that I don’t understand, I’d rather just read through and have an imperfect understanding of what I’m reading rather than each time being distracted from my reading and have to write this down and either then or subsequently looking the word up in a dictionary.
I don’t want to do it, so if I don’t want to do it my new definition is it’s not effective because I don’t want to do it. How long would I keep doing something that I don’t want to do? Even if you’re in school and the teacher is going to force you to do something, I don’t think things that you are forced to do are going to be that effective.
I notice, for example, another subject that comes up is how often should you listen to content? I find it boring to listen to the same thing over and over again. Is it effective to listen over and over again or should you be constantly going on to new stuff? Again, it depends on what you like to do. If it’s interesting content and if it’s a nice voice, such as this Czech material I’ve found here on history, I can listen over and over again. Whereas the news from Radio Prague I can only listen to once because it’s read in a very deadpan voice by the newscaster. I cannot listen to it more than once.
Both are effective, getting a new article from Radio Prague on what’s happening in the Czech Republic politically or whatever is adding to my vocabulary, by the same token listening more than once to this other material which is really making me familiar with the language is effective, too. So, again, it’s whatever you find fun. It’s kind of easy.
When you look at all of the research that’s done by second language acquisition experts that study the effect of studying word lists or doing this or doing that, it really doesn’t matter. The only thing, if you’re a teacher, is what can you find that the student actually likes to do? I must say, some of the time I like flipping through my flashcards, but I now do them the easiest way possible. In other words, I put on the flashcard the new word, the translation into English and the captured phrase from LingQ and I just go through them, bing, bing, bing, bing.
I don’t want to wrack my brain to try and think what the meaning is. I would rather just expose myself to the flashcards. It’s a break from reading. It’s something I can do while I’m waiting somewhere. I just open up my iPhone or whatever and I just go through the flashcards. I don’t look to the other side because I’ve got everything on the one side and all I do is change the status of them. So if I move it status 4 it won’t come back and it’s a status 2 or 3 that determines how frequently it comes back into my deck, but I just go through them as quickly as I can.
Again, people say writing something out in longhand is good for you. That’s one of the things that David James says and I’m sure that’s true. I’m going to continue with this Gold List, at least for a while. I created four lists yesterday and four lists today, but I time myself. If I write 25 words down, it takes me eight minutes to do that for one list. That’s only 25 words, so if I wanted to get up to 100 words a day that’s a half hour now. I don’t know. Do I want to spend maybe one-third of all my available learning time on making these lists that I’ll look at in 14 days? Then I’ll have to make another list with two-thirds of them, plus the new words that I’m adding. Pretty soon it won’t be 30 minutes a day it will be more than that.
So it’s probably effective, but is that where I choose to spend my time. I suspect the minute I leave those lists and go back to reading about what’s happening in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 1850s, reading about it in Czech, learning all those new words, then listening in my car to the same thing that I read and acquiring vocabulary from, I just find that more enjoyable. So I think they can both be effective and, ultimately, what matters is which do you find more enjoyable?
One other thing that David James said I thought was very interesting. I didn’t have time to hear the whole video, but he has this video where he talks with a girl from Manitoba, actually, who asks him five or seven questions about his system. One of the questions is, how do you get from passive vocabulary to active vocabulary? His first question is well, why do you want to activate your vocabulary?
I think that’s a very important question. If you are happy listening, reading and enjoying the language, as I’m doing, then activate. One day I will, but there’s no panic. I have started speaking with my tutors in Czech. I’ve probably had 15 or 20 sessions with them and I enjoy it and it’s good, but there’s no panic, there’s no pressure. He says if you have enough of a passive vocabulary, when you are put in a situation where you need to activate that vocabulary it will activate within three days. I don’t know what basis he has for saying that. I expect to go to Prague in October, we’ll see if all my passive vocabulary activates in three days.
But I think the big point is when you need to use the language, when you need to speak more, if you have a large passive vocabulary you will be able to speak. It will come quite quickly, but again, it will be something that you want to do. So if you want to speak early, speak. If you don’t want to speak early, don’t worry about it. I was speaking to a student in Japan who has a job interview and she wants to improve her spoken English. Okay, now you have to really focus on improving your spoken English. There are things that you do and you’re motivated to do it now, so that’s fine.
I made some notes. I wonder if I left anything out that I wanted to talk about. Yeah, there was just the thing that David James speaks about short-term and long-term memory. I don’t understand all these things about short-term and long-term memory, I just think a lot of these things don’t matter. I think there’s only one rule and I’m more and more convinced of this, do what you like doing. In my case, it’s listening and reading to things of interest and, occasionally, taking a break from it to review words and phrases and, slowly, when I get the urge, occasionally, here and there speaking to people in the language.
Now, it is important to find content that you enjoy, where you enjoy the voice, where you enjoy the subject matter, you enjoy the way words are used. I’ve been lucky because in Russian there’s lots of stuff available between literature and audio books and Ekho Moskvy — which now is under some threat, by the way, in Russia, it looks like Putin is going to try to shackle them, to some extent — and this wonderful material that I’ve found in Czech.
So, again, something we have to do a better job of at LingQ is make people aware of not only all the good content that are members are creating in our library, but also, as they progress, the kind of content that’s available from the Internet. Now, we do list quite a few of these resources, but I’m not sure everybody knows where to find them. We were talking about that today and maybe we have to do a better job there.
Anyway, just to leave you with a thought, if you can find a way to enjoy your language learning, whatever that way is, that’s going to be the effective way for you. So that’s my thought for today. I kind of went on a bit too long, but there you have it. I look forward to your comments, thank you for listening.