What image comes to mind when you hear the word “study”? Sitting with a group of friends in the library, quizzing each other on the core concepts of microeconomics? At a desk by yourself, stooped over a book with one hand clutching your unkempt hair, drilling definitions into your brain? Listening to the first chirps of morning as you finish comparing lecture notes with textbook content? Reviewing what you’ve learned each week in an organized fashion so you don’t have to cram?
More than likely, the image depends on the type of task requiring study. Preparing for a multiple choice assessment? That image is going to involve repetition–running facts and definitions over and over again in your mind until you have memorized them well enough to regurgitate them onto your test form. Studying for an essay response? The image shifts to include deeper comprehension of concepts, events, or practices. You may need to have facts memorized in this case, but it’s equally important to be able to think logically and make a sound argument about the material you’ve just learned.
These mental associations don’t lend the most positive connotation to the term “study.” Who actually enjoys studying, at least as much as they enjoy learning?
The scholar, that’s who. The scholar studies as a hobby, a pasttime, a living. She wears glasses on the end of her nose and makes a pot of hot tea in order to savor the experience. In the realm of the scholar, studying is the opposite of sacrifice–it’s exactly what you want to be doing, at least a good deal of the time…
So what’s the difference between these two images, aside from, well, the images? The answer lies in the relationship between motivation and knowledge retention. Pscyhological studies have shown time and time again that the more you enjoy what you’re learning, the less it feels like work, and the better you remember the information come test time–not to mention after the test is over.
Obviously, you can’t be excited by every fact you learn, but something is to be said for enjoying the act of studying itself. In other words, we can “learn to learn better” by changing our prespective on learning itself.
The key to effective learning is motivation. True, we often absorb information from our surroundings that we don’t consciously acknowledge learning at the time. Somehow you know the Prime Minister’s birthday, though you’ve never been told it. You must have heard it in passing on television and only really knew that you knew it when the topic came up in discussion. But your instructor is not interested in what you may have picked up on peripherally. Course tests are designed to measure how closely you paid attention to lectures and textbook materials, and how well you can retain that information.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a reasonably motivated student. But what can you do to increase your motivation to pay attention, retain, and remember? Maybe a little hard science will help.
Prior to the founding of psychology as a scientific discipline, attention was studied in the field of philosophy. Due to this, many of the discoveries in the field of attention were made by philosophers. Psychologist John Watson cites Juan Luis Vives as the Father of Modern Psychology due to his book De Anima et Vita in which Vives was the first to recognize the importance of empirical investigation. In his work on memory, Vives found that the more closely one attends to stimuli, the better they will be retained. Since then, the scientific study of attention has been an essential part of learning theory.
What you really need to know about attention is that divided attention can be improved with practice. Spelke, Hirst, and Niesser (1976) studied accuracy and response time of performance by participants reading short stories and writing down dictated words. The participants’ initial performance was very poor when both tasks were performed simultaneously, but after participants practiced the tasks 5 days a week for 85 sessions, their performance improved for both tasks.
Spelke and others have proposed that it is possible that controlled tasks can be automatized, thus using fewer attentional resources. For example, it is probably not a good idea to begin a class taking notes on a laptop when you are not a skilled typist or have only ever hand-written notes in the past. Once the typing process becomes automated, your attention will be less divided.
In addition, the strength of one’s divided attention relies on the perceptual domain being engaged (visual, auditory, verbal, etc). In early experiments with the dual-task paradigm, performance of two simultaneous tasks requiring the use of two separate perceptual domains (e.g. a visual and a verbal task) is nearly as efficient as performance of the tasks individually. But when a person tries to carry out two tasks simultaneously that use the same perceptual domain, performance is less efficient than when performing the tasks individually.
Still, with enough practice, performance on dual tasks engaging the same perceptual domain can be improved. Even great concert pianists, who engage both their right and left hands in separate but flawlessly executed patterns, once suffered from divided attention.
But not every task requires divided attention. In fact, sometimes the most difficult tasks to focus on are the ones that require our undivided attention. Below are a few classic ways to enhance attention on a single task:
- Get enough sleep to help your brain process information faster
- Drink enough water to help enhance body and brain function
- Focus on one thing at a time; don’t try to tackle several concepts at once
- “Kill the closest snake” (Whatever is within your reach and easily attainable, do that first; then move on to the next easily accomplished thing)
- Create a reward for yourself that can only be enjoyed once you’ve finished a task
- Place yourself in a setting where you won’t be distracted
- Don’t try to concentrate marathon-style; break up your study sessions into manageable blocks of hours
- Try to remain “in the moment”; enjoy what you are learning and push all other responsibilities aside
- Think about your study session or task not in terms of duty but as an opportunity for personal growth
- CHOOSE to pay attention; respect the assignment by respecting your freedom to decide what’s worth your time
In 1939, psychologist H. F. Spitzer tested the effects of ‘spaced’ studying on sixth-grade students learning science facts. Spitzer tested over 3600 students in Iowa and showed that a they retained new information better if they studied it repeatedly over time, rather than all at once.
This early work went unnoticed, and the field was relatively quiet until the late 1960s, when cognitive psychologists explored manipulation of repetition timing as a means to improve recall. Around the same time, Pimsleur language courses pioneered the practical application of spaced repetition theory to language learning, and in 1973 Sebastian Leitner devised his “Leitner system,” an all-purpose spaced repetition learning system based on flashcards.
Going over your notes once a week instead of cramming before your mid-term is scientifically proven to be a more effective strategy.
At the time, spaced repetition learning was principally implemented via flashcard systems. These systems were unwieldy because, as you can imagine, any significant study base requires many thousands of flashcards. With the increase in access to personal computers in the 1980s, spaced repetition began to be implemented with computer-assisted language learning software-based solutions. The aim of these programs was to tailor the spaced repetition to learner performance.
To enable the user to reach a target level of achievement (e.g. 90% of all material correctly recalled at any given time point), the software adjusted the repetition spacing interval. Hard material appeared more often and easy material less often, with difficulty defined according to the ease with which each user was able to produce a correct response.
Going over your notes once a week instead of cramming before your mid-term is not just something instructors suggest in an attempt to create the perfect student–it is scientifically proven to be a more effective strategy.
Additional Memorization Strategies
Like spaced repetition, the following strategies and tips are backed by hard evidence. Save yourself some time and ward off stress by adding these to your regular studying routine:
- State-Dependent Recall: It is easiest to recall information when you are in a state similar to the one in which you initially learned the material. If you listen to music while you study for your online test, listen to the same music when you take it and your scores will go up.
- Chunking: A term referring to the process of taking individual units of information (chunks) and grouping them into larger units. Probably the most common example of chunking occurs in phone numbers. For example, a phone number sequence of 4-7-1-1-3-2-4 would be chunked into 471-1324. Chunking is often a useful tool when memorizing large amounts of information. By separating disparate individual elements into larger blocks, information becomes easier to retain and recall.
- The Method of Loci: A mnemonic device used in ancient Greek and Roman times wherein items to be remembered are mentally associated with specific physical locations. Examples include the various rooms of a house and paths through the forest. A great tool to help yourself memorize terms, related concepts, or anything else that can be “placed” as an image on a mental map.
- Interacting images: An item is much more likely to be remembered if it is imagined as being actively involved with another item in some way rather than sitting there doing nothing. When items are intertwined or associated they are said to be interacting and they become a single chunk or whole in memory.
- Priming: An effect in which exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus. For example, if a person reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word starting with tab, the probability that he or she will answer table is greater than if they had not been primed. Larry Ferlazzo uses priming with his students before tests, asking them to spend a few minutes writing on a topic covered in the quiz.
- Forgetting Curve: A graph that hypothesizes how information is lost over time when there is no attempt to retain it. A typical curve shows that humans tend to halve their memory of newly learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless they consciously review the learned material. More cognitive evidence for spaced repetition and weekly reviews of learned material. Forgetting happens fast—don’t just review before the test!
- Dual Coding: The ability to code a stimulus two different ways increases the chance of remembering that item compared to if the stimulus was only coded one way. For example, say a person has stored the stimulus concept, “dog” as both the word ‘dog’ and as the image of a dog. When asked to recall the stimulus, the person can retrieve either the word or the image individually or both, simultaneously. If the word is recalled, the image of the dog is not lost and can still be retrieved at a later point in time.
The most motivated of students–the ones who ace their tests–are confident not in their intelligence but in their ability to mentally organize new information. Performing well feels good, and further motivates you to perform well. Use these strategies to stay confident, successful, and therefore motivated.
You likely have your own system for taking notes, whether it’s recording every word, paraphrasing in your own words, writing down only the most important concepts, or avoiding notetaking altogether. Whatever works for you, do that.
It is prudent to keep in mind, though, that the executive attention function of your brain can only focus on so many stimuli at once. Granted, with enough practice you will be able to handle more, if you find yourself struggling to listen deeply to a lecture because you’re too busy scribbling notes on a Power Point, try focusing on the lecture and take notes on the Power Point later when you have no other distractions.
Keep in mind the memorization strategies mentioned above and you will learn to take notes in a way that enhances your chances of recalling information. Try chunking your notes into flashcards organized by subject instead of recording everything in an endless page-to-page narrative. Draw a thumbnail image next to concepts you need to remember in order to strengthen your brain’s retrieval cues. Turn your page into the blueprint of a house and place historical events on different levels according to chronology.
Again, these are just suggestions. Everyone learns differently, so if you have a system that works for you, keep it going.
A few take-it-or-leave-it suggestions for note taking:
- Record definitions directly on flashcards during a lecture or study session. This will help you recall them better than if you scribble them down somewhere amid a long page of notes.
- Use shorthand and symbols for efficiency, such as the delta sign for “change” and an arrow for “leads to.”
- Underline or draw a box around important points.
- Record your notes by hand. Studies have shown this improves memory.
- Read the assigned chapter or material before the lecture; this will trim down the amount of writing you have to do, since the material will already be familiar to you.
No one knows what you can accomplish in a given amount of time, given your mood and motivation level, better than you. Most of us can manage to stay generally responsible and organized with our studies, but we’ve all procrastinated now and then. In fact, procrastination is normal. It gives our brains a much-needed break and introduces us to the greatest motivator of all: the clock. What’s hard to see is what we might gain from not procrastinating.
The University of Adelaide estimates that its 2nd year students should be spending an average of 14 hours writing a 2,000-2,5000 word essay. Most students, in fact, spend 2-5 hours on such an assignment, often in one sitting.
The University of Adelaide estimates that its 2nd year students should be spending an average of 14 hours writing a 2,000-2,5000 word essay. Most students, in fact, spend 2-5 hours on such an assignment, often in one sitting. Here’s the interesting part: While those 2 hours may well be spent in intense concentration, 14 hours of work spaced out over the course of a week or two will result in a far more coherent essay, simply because you’re giving your brain a break and allowing it to process your topic in subtle, often subconscious ways–even while you’re sleeping.
Give yourself the amount of time you think you need to complete an assignment, but keep in mind that your brain actually needs more time than “you” do.
The following applications of time management have proven to be effective as good study habits:
1. Blocks of study time and breaks
As your school term begins and your course schedule is set, develop and plan for blocks of study time in a typical week. Blocks ideally are around 50 minutes, but perhaps you become restless after only 30 minutes? Some difficult material may require more frequent breaks. Shorten your study blocks if necessary, but don’t forget to return to the task at hand. What you do during your break should give you an opportunity to have a snack, relax, or otherwise refresh or re-energize yourself. For example, place blocks of time when you are most productive: are you a morning person or a night owl?
2. Dedicated study spaces
Determine a place free from distraction (no cell phone or text messaging) where you can maximize your concentration and be free of the distractions that friends or hobbies can bring. You should also have a back-up space that you can escape to, like the library, departmental study center, even a coffee shop where you can be anonymous. A change of venue may also supply extra resources.
3. Weekly reviews
Weekly reviews and updates are also an important strategy. Each week, like a Sunday night, review your assignments, your notes, your calendar. Be mindful that as deadlines and exams approach, your weekly routine must adapt to them.
4. Prioritize your assignments
When studying, get in the habit of beginning with the most difficult subject or task. You’ll be fresh, and have more energy to take them on when you are at your best. For more difficult courses of study, try to be flexible: for example, build in reaction time when you can get feedback on assignments before they are due.
5. Put one foot in front of the other
The Chinese adage of the longest journey starting with a single step has a couple of meanings: First, you launch the project. Second, by starting, you may realize that there are some things you have not planned for in your process. Details of an assignment are not always evident until you begin the assignment. Another adage is that “perfection is the enemy of good,” especially when it prevents you from starting. Given that you build in review, roughly draft your idea and get going. You will have time to edit and develop later.
7. Postpone unnecessary activities until the work is done!
Postpone tasks or routines that can be put off until your school work is finished. This can be the most difficult challenge of time management. As learners we always meet unexpected opportunities that look appealing, then result in poor performance on a test, on a paper, or in preparation for a task. Distracting activities will be more enjoyable later without the pressure of the test, assignment, etc. hanging over your head. Think in terms of pride of accomplishment. Instead of saying “no,” learn to say “later.”
8. Identify resources to help you
Are there tutors? An expert friend? Have you tried a keyword search on the Internet to get better explanations? Are there specialists in the library that can point you to resources? What about professionals and professional organizations. Using outside resources can save you time and energy, and solve problems.
9. Use your free time wisely
Think of times when you can study “bits” as when walking, riding the bus, etc. Perhaps you’ve got music to listen to for your course in music appreciation, or drills in language learning? If you are walking or biking to school, when best to listen? Perhaps you are in a line waiting? Perfect for routine tasks like flash cards, or if you can concentrate, to read or review a chapter. The bottom line is to put your time to good use.
10. Review notes and readings just before class
This may prompt a question or two about something you don’t quite understand, to ask about in class, or after. It also demonstrates to your teacher that you are interested and have prepared.
11. Review lecture notes just after class
Then review lecture material immediately after class. The first 24 hours are critical. Forgetting is greatest within 24 hours without review.
Easier said than done, no doubt, but it can be done. First, stop labeling yourself as a “procrastinator” if you have a bad habit. Instead, ask yourself the following questions when you’re feeling overwhelmed or tempted to postpone a study session:
- What do you need to do?
- What is the final objective, the end result?
- What are the major steps to get there?
- What have you done so far? Acknowledge that you are already part of the way, even if it is through thinking!
- Why do you need to do this?
- What is your biggest motivation?
- What stands in the way of your success?
- What is in your power to change?
- What resources outside yourself do you need?
To get yourself started on the right path, create a simple “To Do” list to help identify a few tasks, your reasons for doing them, a timeline for getting them done, and remind yourself in the form of a visible post-it note or alert system.
While creating your list, write down major, realistic steps; start with small, concrete goals; and add detail and complexity as you achieve and grow. Make sure to dedicate certain hours or days to particular tasks. Build in time for review and find a trusted friend or expert to help you motivate yourself or monitor your progress.
Finally, don’t be afraid to admit your own false starts and mistakes. You know what kinds of things distract your attention: accept them but focus on the rewards of the task at hand, however eventual.
More often than not, unnecessary stress causes us to perform worse on tests and assignments. To get at the root of your issue with stress, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does your time allocation reflect the priority of your goals?
- Can you change your hourly commitments to meet your priorities?
- Where do you have the most flexibility: weekdays or weekends? Can you change one or the other? Both?
- Can you change your goals? What are your options?
- Can you postpone any goals until school breaks?
- How will assignments and tests affect your time allocation?
- What can you change to meet your class responsibilities?
Once you begin learning how to deal with the stress in your life, it becomes much easier to avoid it in the first place.
It’s truly fulfilling to be able to declare a day–or even an hour– a productive one. But why is it such a rare thrill? Laziness, distraction, and cognitive overload are among the most common culprits, and a small dose of each is natural. But when we want to study and can’t–well, that may be worse even than procrastination.
To remain focused, sometimes all we need is a cup of coffee, a good night’s sleep, a motivating song. For more serious dilemmas, there’s everything from self-help guides to therapy to medication. What lies at the heart of successful study habits is self-discipline, and cultivating a healthy dose of it may not be as difficult as you think.
- First, view self-discipline as positive effort rather than one of denial. Self-discipline doesn’t have to be draconian; it can be extremely rewarding, and you can derive a lot of pride from it.
- To get yourself started, schedule a particular task in the morning and once in the evening. The task should not take more than 15 minutes. Wait for the exact scheduled time. When the schedule time is due, start the task. Stick to the schedule for at least two months. This will help you develop a natural habit of focusing on your priorities and avoiding procrastination.
- Track your progress. At the end of the allotted time, keep a record of accomplishment that builds over time to remind you of how far you’ve come. Building a record will also help you track how much time tasks take.
- Harness the power of routine. Instead of devoting a lot of hours one day, none the other, and then a few on an another day and so on, allocate a specific time period each day of the week for that task.
- Hold firm. Don’t set a goal other than time allocation; simply set the habit of routine. Apply this technique to your homework or your projects and you will be on your way to getting things done.
- Maintain a self-discipline log book. Record the start and end times of the tasks. Review for feedback on your progress.This log book can be a valuable tool to get a better picture over your activities in order to prioritize activities, and realize what is important and not important on how you spend your time.
- Schedule your work day and studies. When you first begin your work day, or going to work take a few minutes and write down on a piece of paper the tasks that you want to accomplish for that day.
- Prioritize the list. Immediately start working on the most important one. Try it for a few days to see if the habit works for you. Habits form over time: how much time depends on you and the habit. When you have a clear idea as to what you want to achieve for the day at its start, the chances are very high that you will be able to proactively accomplish the tasks. Writing or sketching out the day helps.
- Associate a new habit with an old one. If you drink coffee, make that first cup the time to write out and prioritize your tasks. Association facilitates neural connections.
- Observe the people in your life and see to what extent self discipline and habits help them accomplish goals. Ask them for advice on what works, what does not.
Learning a language requires a huge effort. But there are ways, how you can speed up your progress. The list of the 10 most effective learning strategies of learning a language can give you a head start and will prevent you from taking unnecessary detours. If you decide to embark on such a journey of expanding your mind, trying to understand another language and culture and people, make it as effective and efficient as possible.
Here are the contents of this article:
- Have a clear motivation
- Immerse yourself
- Listen frequently
- Learn vocabulary in a smart way
- Think in the foreign language
- Use spaced repetition to build up vocabulary
- Learn words and phrases
- Make many mistakes
- Read and write as much as you can in the foreign language
- Do short but regular learning sessions.
1 Have a clear motivation
Learning a language is a huge task. And no matter what kind of advertizing frenzy you might have heard or read – it takes time – don’t believe anybody who claims they will make you learn a language in 30 or 90 days. Depending on your goal (see Can you learn a language in 10 days, 30 days or 90 days?) you will have possibly hundreds of hours of language learning ahead.
As with every big venture you have to be very clear that it is really what you want. If you don’t have a clear motivation then the chance of you abandoning your language learning efforts is very high. Most people drop out of language learning classes or their self-learning before reaching even an intermediate level. Don’t be one of them. Be smarter!
Use your brain first to determine if at all you are willing and able to commit to learning another language. If you determine that you are – congratulations!
Now for the motivation part. In every project that takes that long you will have phases where you don’t want to continue learning, and where you are tempted to let everything go down the river. For these moments it really pays off to know exactly why you have decided to learn that language. Although you might have a clear idea when you start, you should write your motivation down. This will make your thoughts about the whole project much clearer. And it will be a life saver for the down times, which will inevitably occur. Then, simply go back to what you have written down to make sure that you will stay on course, to refresh your motivation and your enthusiasm. It’s a “Hey, hang in there” note from you to your future self.
2 Immerse yourself
The more points of interest you have to a language and the culture of the people who speak it the easier you will find the motivation to keep learning. The more you want to know what people say, how they say things and what kind of views they have the more you will be driven to keep learning the language. The best way, of course, to learn a language is to be totally immersed in it by actually living in a country where they speak only that language. But this is not enough. There are plenty of examples of people who live years and years abroad without being able to hold even the most elementary conversation in the foreign language. Those people create a language bubble to shield themselves from the foreign tongue. So, if you plan to learn a language abroad then commit yourself to learning it. Expose yourself to the foreign tongue and shield yourself from your own mother tongue.
Although it is more difficult to learn another language in your home country it is nevertheless quite possible. Simply do the inverse of the language bubble and at least for a certain amount of time per day create a foreign language bubble where you try to see, think and express everything you do in the language you are learning.
It helps tremendously if you have access to TV and radio as well as newspapers in the foreign language. Check the Internet. Many radio and TV stations have streaming content, which you can watch in your browser.
Try to find as many native speakers as possible and communicate with them. Foreigners living in your country are most often flattered if you make the effort to learn their language and will be helpful in teaching you the correct pronunciation and also the slang, which you will most-likely not find in any language course.
3 Listen frequently
Language is by definition first a spoken medium. It therefore is absolutely important that you keep listening to the foreign language as much as possible. This will form your ear so that you slowly start understanding what is being said.
Try to find as many radio programs, broadcasts, podcasts, TV programs, audio books, songs, musics or what have you in the foreign language. The more you listen to the language the more your brain will start picking up words from the context and start making connections.
Your success in speaking a language fluently will be very much dependent by how well you can pick up and understand spoken language and accordingly imitate it.
Forming the ear is a very slow process. It can take weeks and months until you fully understand even moderately slowly spoken language. Therefore it is beneficial if you start listening early in your language learning adventure. It does not matter if you don’t understand anything yet.
The important part about listening to spoken language however is that you actively listen – that is your focus and your concentration is on the language and not on something else. The brain is very good at ignoring things – so you will not benefit greatly if you put on a language tape in the background while thinking about other things or browsing the Internet.
Listening means actively focusing on what you hear. That’s how you tell your brain that this is important.
4 Learn vocabulary in a smart way.
Not all words of a language are equal. Some occur much more frequently than others. Therefore it proves beneficial if you focus your attention on the more frequently occurring words first. You will save yourself countless hours by structuring you learning efforts such that you select the important words first. There is no benefit to learn a dictionary starting with the letter A until you reached the letter Z. Be smarter than that!
Did you know that in English you can cover 25% of whatever is said or written by only 9 words: and, be, have, it, of , the, to, will, you.
If you include 43 words you will have covered already 50% of the spoken language.
By learning the 1000 most frequent words you will be able to cover about 80% of almost any language.
Or so the statistics will tell you…
There is however a wide spread error: You will not understand 50% (at 43 words) or 80% (at 1000 words) of a text by learning those words.
Make no mistake, these 1000 words are absolutely essential and necessary to learn. But those words are simply filler material, which you need to know. The actual meaning of any spoken or written text stems from the other 15-20%.
The conclusion of this statistical view is that while you can learn indeed about 1000 words and cover 80% of the words occurring, the sad truth is that your understanding of the text is still painfully close to 0%.
It is the rest of the words, which will convey the meaning and give you the understanding and so you will have to learn many more that simply 1000 words to actually understand and communicate in a meaningful way.
You can go on with the statistics game and you will find that in almost every language you will cover about 90-95% of all the words with 3000-4000 words. These form your foundation. These are the words, which you absolutely need to know to get at least an idea of what is written or said.
Will you be OK with those 3000-4000 words? Most definitely not. The actual meaning of the texts will be again mostly transmitted in the remaining 5-10% and you will have to learn many more words until you will be able to actually really understand what is being talked about.
So to sum up: with about 3000 to 4000 words you will be able to start reading “native”, non-language-course material. Be prepared however that you will have to look up about 2-3 words per sentence to understand its meaning.
If you keep looking up and adding them to your database you will increase your vocabulary and your understanding from 90% to 99%. Knowing about 6000-8000 words, you will start to actually have a command of the foreign language.
You will notice also that you can read longer and longer passages without looking up any word. This is the time when it really starts to be fun.
5 Think in the foreign language
While reading and listening to a foreign language helps you tremendously in your efforts to actually understand the language, it does not teach you how to speak, left alone to speak fluently and understandably.
While you listen or read you are forced to wait until a certain word shows up to recognize it although you might prefer to see it more often or use it more frequently.
Most language courses teach you a general and not very useful basic vocabulary. They will never cover the things you care about. So don’t wait for it, build the vocabulary yourself.
You have a very specific and individual way of expressing yourself in your mother tongue. Although there are differences in how to say things in a foreign language the concepts and ideas you will want to communicate will stay essentially the sames. Therefore in order to be yourself, you will have to look up the words and ideas, which are essential and important to you.
So how can you speed up your fluency?
There are two methods, which, in combination, are absolutely unbeatable and possibly the fastest way to make you a fluent speaker.
5.1 Talk to a native person.
Try to find natives who are willing to help you with your efforts to speak their language. Maybe you can offer them something in exchange, like cooking dinner, or helping them speaking your language. Make sure that the person corrects your mistakes and that you write them down immediately – since you are going to put all the newly learned words and your corrected mistakes into your learning database. Make a mistake once and by learning how to say it correctly never do the same mistake again (see strategy 8: Make many mistakes for more about making mistakes).
5.2 Talk to yourself.
You don’t always have direct access to native speakers. Maybe they need a break, too.
But you can always talk to yourself. You might worry that you won’t speak correctly and maybe even start ingraining bad speaking habits. Forget about that. The purpose of this exercise is not to speak correctly – the purpose is to activate the foreign words – even if you make the sentences wrong. You see, while speaking a foreign language you don’t have the luxury to think about a word, trying to remember it for several seconds. You either know it now or it’s over. Your brain must furnish you with the necessary words at the speed of a machine gun.
In order to train that, you don’t need anybody to help you.
The idea is simple: everybody has a constant inner monologue, an inner voice talking. And you can use this voice to your benefit. Instead of using your mother tongue simply switch to the foreign tongue and start talking – either out loud or just in your thoughts. You will benefit more if you speak it out loud since you will also train your muscles in the mouth and throat to pronounce and articulate the correct sounds. But this is not absolutely necessary. Since the main purpose is to tell your brain to activate and use your learned words.
Talk to yourself about everything that interests you. Nobody needs to hear it.
Now the important part: Whenever you stumble upon a word, which you do not know – look it up and add it immediately to your word list/database.
Describe things. Tell what you see. Say how things should be, will be, philosophize. Keep talking.
Make it a habit of talking at least 10 to 20 minutes a day to yourself describing what you see and what you think in the foreign language. Try to do this by the way, whenever you have a spare minute, when waiting for the bus or metro, while doing errands etc. Whenever you don’t know a word, stop and write it down. It does not matter if you say things wrongly, use wrong grammar structures etc. This exercise is here to teach you fluency. To make your brain provide the necessary foreign words in real time – without your conscious thinking and remembering. Then when you can rely on your memory to bring forward all the words in time you can focus on improving your sentences and make them more “native”. You will have time to think more about how you want to say things if you don’t constantly have to fight with your memory, trying to remember the words.
The best way to train the vocabulary is to actively use it.
6 Use spaced repetition to build up vocabulary
The spaced repetition method is the scientifically proven single most important step to make sure that you do not forget and loose again what you have acquired and learned. It makes sure that you invest as little time as possible to get the optimum profits from your learning efforts.
Indeed, our customers report that they spend on average about 60-80 hours to learn the first 4000 words of a new language with a retention rate of about 95%.
The spaced repetition software makes sure that your language learning stays on track and that you can proceed as fast as possible. In fact, only due to the most efficient repetition schedules you are able to learn anything, languages in particular in the shortest amount of time. Learning 10000-15000 words of a new language will require about 240-280 hours.
Learning a language to a high level of proficiency can be achieved in as little as 400-500 hours altogether. 250 hours will be spent on vocabulary acquisition (including phrases) and 250 hours in active speaking and exercising.
Compare this to normal expectations of a high school curriculum, which aims at an intermediate level understanding (about 4000 words) and very poor speaking skills in about 2000-2500 hours (8-9 years, 6 hours per week classes, home work).
If you are serious about language learning then give Flashcard Learner, our spaced repetition software a try. You can download Flashcard Learner here, it is free to try and has some example databases included. You will find that it will really boost your vocabulary learning and retention as well as drastically reduce your invested time for learning. In as little as half an hour per day you can build up the basic vocabulary of 4000 words for any language in 5 months. If you keep at it you will be able to learn about 8000 words in 9 months, simply by investing half an hour a day.
7 Learn words and phrases
It is a sad truth that learning a number of words (even if it is a large number) will not make you speak a language. While you will be able to understand most of what is being said or written a language contains much more than simple words. Sentences have specific structures and if you don’t make the structures as expected by the language you most likely will not be understood.
Language communication consists of sentences and phrases, inflection of words and conjugation of verbs. The specific combinations and sequences are the carrier of information and meaning, not only the individual words. Therefore it is important, that once you have acquired the most fundamental vocabulary in the language (say about 1000-2000 words) you start learning not only new words but example sentences, which will make you train “how one says things” in the target language. They will also illustrate in what context the newly learned words are used.
Some people are concerned and feel anxious when they do not learn “by the book”. Grammar books have their purpose, indeed. But if you are beginning to learn a language, you are not there yet. Think about it – you have learned at least one language perfectly without ever looking into a single grammar book. How did this happen?
1) You were picking up what was being said around you. Not the first time around, mind you, but after you have heard it for 10, 20 or 100 times it eventually started to stick.
2) You were imitating what you have heard. Simply repeating sentences, maybe slightly altered made you easily understood.
3) You heard similar phrases and sentences many times in different variations and somehow your brain started to figure out all by itself how to say things.
You can use the same technique as an adult – but this time you will learn with the same system much, much faster. The biggest part of your childhood is not actually spent learning the language but learning concepts, which can be described by language (be it things like a ball, a chair etc. or abstractions like love, idealism and so on).
But you know all these concepts already – all you have to learn now is simply how to express these concepts in a different language.
Forget about grammar books. Learn example sentences. If you can’t live without grammar book ask native speakers to give you at least 10 sentences for each grammatical concept. Then throw away the book (or at least hide it in a bookshelf, since you won’t need it any more).
By learning the examples your brain will infer the necessary rules all by itself. The only important thing to remember is to give it a sufficient number of examples so that it can generalize.
Also, learn the exceptions. They are as important.
Like that you will build up an intuitive feeling of the language, what sounds right and what sounds wrong.
And pretty soon after you started learning the example sentences you will find yourself using them in whatever you want to express. All you have to do is pick a sentence, which is kind of meaningful in a particular situation and you change some minor details or words to adapt to what you want to say. And in most cases, your brain picks up an adequate sentence all by itself, you don’t have to think consciously about that any more.
Why does this work? Because your brain does not have to concentrate to build sentences from scratch. If example sentences are stored in you long term memory rather than you having to compose them on the fly you will gain fluency very easily.
In fact the exercises in strategy 5: Think in the foreign language together with learning and using example sentences are the key to your language mastery: activation of the learned vocabulary and embedding it into correctly learned phrases and example sentences in the target language.
8 Make many mistakes
Most people fear to make mistakes. And this is only natural. Since childhood we have been told that making mistakes is bad. It must be perfect the first time around, or otherwise you will have failed. Sounds familiar? Well, here is a simple truth: if you don’t start speaking in the foreign language – and necessarily making mistakes – you will simply delay being able to speak. Many people delay it forever. Don’t be one of them.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you talk to natives they will most likely encourage you. And besides, you can be certain that this is a temporary stage. Once you go through it you will be speaking with very few mistakes and an enormous gain in confidence.
Learning to speak is important – and there is no way around making mistakes. Accepting this simple truth can make your life much easier: start making mistakes already very early in your language learning adventure.
You can look at it this way: in order to speak a language properly everybody must make a certain number of spoken out loud mistakes. For the example’s sake let’s assume about 10000. It is completely up to you to make those mistakes in the first half a year of your efforts or in the first 20 years of your efforts or never. Guess who will be speaking fluently after a year or two.
There is a trick in reducing the number of mistakes you make, of course :
Make every mistake only once!
That sounds logical, doesn’t it? However, it is not that simple to adhere to. But if you implement the following strategy you can cut down your language learning efforts by a large number of hours.
Every time you realize that you made a mistake or some native speaker or your teacher pointed out that you made a mistake: Write it down! Add every single (corrected) mistake to your spaced repetition database and start learning. That’s how you make sure that you erase the erroneous memory trace by learning and overwriting it with the correct one.
In the beginning you will be writing down a lot. Depending on your zeal and the time you put into learning maybe 20-30 mistakes per day. But after only one or two weeks you will notice that the number is steadily reducing up to the point where you write down maybe one or two mistakes per day.
Using this strategy pays off in great ways. You make sure that you learn the language correctly and build up your store of example sentences.
9 Read and write as much as you can in the foreign language
You can help your brain and your memory a lot by activating different ways of remembering the foreign words. The most important one is the use of spaced repetition (for example by using our software Flashcard Learner). This makes sure that you won’t forget any of the words and example sentences any more.
However, additionally to that, you should be reading a lot of native texts. The Internet is your friend. Find newspapers, blogs, chat rooms in your target language. Reading provides you with context. While spaced repetition makes sure that your learned words won’t disappear, it is through reading and listening that your learned words and sentences will be placed in an appropriate context, which will enable you to build correct memory traces.
Also activating your motor memory by learning how to write in the foreign language will greatly intensify your ability to remember words correctly.
The more different memory modes you can activate such as remembering through hearing, reading, visualizing in your mind how a word is written (especially in languages, which do not have a fully phonetic writing system or even a pictographic writing system such as Chinese, Japanese or Korean) this is very important.
Use your senses, activate them with appropriate words. Use touch, smell, etc. to intensify the memory traces.
Lastly, reading gives you access to the grand scheme of how one expresses thoughts in your target language. While listening to radio will definitely form your ear, it will not go so much into depth because the written language is in most cases deeper and more complex than the spoken language.
By reading you can attack advanced topics such as science and philosophy or religion. And you will reach a high level of proficiency by expanding your vocabulary and understanding of the text and the culture of the language.
Start a habit of writing in the target language in order to learn to express more complex thoughts than you would in an every day conversation. Write a diary or a blog or whatever form of written communication you prefer either with others such as letters or only for yourself. Do whatever you are comfortable with, but try to stretch yourself frequently to get out of your comfort zone.
You will find that through writing you will intensify your connection to and deepen your understanding of the language. It will make the language truly yours.
If you are poetically inclined try to write some poems. This will force you to think about structure and constraints and most importantly about synonyms and expanding your vocabulary even further.
10 Do short but regular sessions
You might be one of those people who want to achieve everything in as fast a time as possible. This is a commendable attitude, indeed, however in language learning (or learning in general) your are bound to invest much more time or conversely achieve much less results by putting in too much time. If this sound contradictory, bear with me just one minute.
You see, it all has to do with the way the brain is acquiring and storing information. Whatever you try to learn is first put into your short term memory. This is a very plastic area of your brain, which can store any kind of information very quickly. Unfortunately it is a bit of an easy-come-easy-go place. Since the storage capacity of your short term memory is quite limited it will flush out what you have put in previously with hardly a chance of recovery as soon as there are new or other things to store.
Let me give you an example: Try to learn by heart a phone number and keep it in your mind. That will work quite well as long as you keep repeating the phone number every minute or so for a while. Now let’s assume that you will be interrupted and have to work on an important task, which requires all your attention and concentration. Trying to remember the phone number after you have completed your task is hardly possible. It is simply flushed out of your short term memory.
Let’s summarize the facts:
- Whatever you learn will be first put into your short term memory.
- There is an upper limit of what you can keep in your short term memory.
What does it all mean? Well it simply means that learning many hours a day will not move you ahead as quickly as you thought it would.
Learning in large chunks will simply flush out whatever you have learned in the beginning and the middle of the chunk.
Don’t get me wrong: If you can learn every day 5 or 8 hours the situation looks quite different again. However the important thing is to do it every single day!
Usually you will not learn 5 hours each day, but maybe once in a week 5 hours. The forgetting curve shows that if you do that you will remember maybe around 25-30% of what you have learned in your session (read more about learning, repeating, knowing here).
Conversely, if you invest 1 hour each day for 5 days, repeating everything you have learned the day before, your retention rate will be as high as 85-95%.
So you see, the less time you invest per session, but doing regular sessions every day will yield to much better results (usually 4-5 times better) than learning in large chunks and then leaving it several days or weeks aside.
It is only through regular but relatively short sessions that you will be able to learn 4000 words in a couple of months in merely around 80 hours. Otherwise you will be putting in much more time since you will be relearning most of what you have learned previously. The secret is to repeat whatever you have learned just before you forget it. Then your time investment is minimal and your retention of the material maximal.
The brain is a strange device, indeed: learning a lot in one single learning session leaves the brain completely unimpressed. In fact even if you repeated many times during this session whatever you have learned – for the brain it would be almost the same as if you had learned and repeated it only once.
However, if you space your learning and repetition sessions over time you will be able to retain pretty much everything you have learned.
In order to make long term memory connections the brain first checks out how relevant the information you put in is. How does it do that?
- It is not the time you invest to learn it.
- It is not the number of times you repeat it either.
- It is the number of times the information occurs in a given time interval that counts.
You can try it for yourself. Learn a phone number by heart. Then repeat it 30 or 50 times in a row. You will be sure that you will not forget this number ever again. Then put it aside and don’t think about it any more for some days, maybe a week. You should be setting some kind of alarm or reminder to see if you still know the number after this time period.
Here is the most likely outcome: after this week, you will not be able to recall the phone number again, although you have learned and repeated the number 50 times in a row.
Now try a second experiment: Learn the phone number until you know it and then repeat it 3 times the first day, twice the second day, once the third day, and then every second day once.
You will be able to remember the phone number easily after 7 days – with a total number of 8 repetitions or even less.
The brain needs to make sure that the information you want to store in your long term memory is really useful – and that’s why it has to be repeated in regular (but in time, increasing) intervals.
You will be able to learn a language in the minimal amount of time by setting aside every day a certain amount of time (say half an hour or an hour). And after very few invested hours you will see the compounding effect of your efforts by using the right learning and repetition schedule.
These 10 learning strategies provide you possibly with the best learning tools to learn any language in the shortest amount of your invested time.
Learning a language takes time – but it is not so much your personal time: you have to give the brain time to incorporate all the words and sentences you learn in your long term memory, that is, you need to take breaks from learning and repeat what you have learned in regular intervals.
In order to learn a language well and to a high level of proficiency you will have to spend about one to two years. However this does not mean that you actually spend two years learning. The total invested time will be 300 to 600 hours spread over two years. The total hours awake in those two years (assuming 8 hours of sleep) are: (24-8)*365*2 = 11680 hours. Thus, 300-600 hours are roughly 2.5-5% of your waking time invested to learn a language to proficiency.
So, if you really want to learn a language, an hour a day will not be a big deal – given the prospect and guarantee that you will be fluent in 8 months to a year and proficient in pretty much any area in two years time.
Tags: learning strategies, limits of learning, spaced repetition, time needed to learn a language