Learning Languages Revisited

I’m making vague plans to go to Argentina in August, so I’ve started brushing up on my Spanish. I’d learnt Spanish for a month before going to Peru in 2001, but haven’t used it since, and have forgotten everything but Hola and, of course, Hasta la vista, Baby.

I’ve been considering how my personal language learning experiences tie up with advances in language theory, what with greater access to this knowledge thanks to the internet.

I studied French for two years at university. During the classes no English was spoken, and I also didn’t practise daily. I didn’t speak it again from the end of 1995 until 2000, when I travelled to Madagascar for a month. I did some very superficial revision before I went, but found I recalled it reasonably well, and Madagascar was a great place to learn, since almost no one spoke a word of English. By the end of my month there, I was comfortably able to spend my last penniless day in reasonable conversation on a park bench.

As Tim Ferris points out, it’s a much better use of time to re-learn a language when you need it, rather than try to keep it up when you don’t. My lesson from this experience was that, if we know something reasonably well, that knowledge can be recalled with minimal effort when needed.

I learnt Spanish for one month before going to Peru in 2001, practising an hour a day. The software I used back then, Learn Spanish by Knowledge Adventure, impressed me at the time. I learnt enough Spanish in a month to bumble around Peru, assisted by enough shared English, Afrikaans and French vocabulary to speed things along, and, probably most importantly, was aided by the average Peruvian’s enthusiasm and fluency in English. However, it didn’t take long for me to forget all my Spanish, while retaining some smidgins of French, which I hadn’t spoken for much longer.

From this I learnt that, with regular progress, we can achieve a lot in little time. My month of learning Spanish was vastly more efficient than the 16 or so learning French. However, because I didn’t persist beyond this month and the month of travel, I never got to as good a level as with my French, and my recall was much poorer.

One of the great debates in language learning was between systems that advocate almost exclusively using the language being learnt, mimicking how a child would learn their first language, and using English (or the home language) fairly extensively as you learn the new language.

My French learning was the former, and, although quite effective, since the extreme alternative of translating everything as you learn, memorising grammar rules and so on, is extremely slow and inefficient, I found it frustrating not being able to use English to understand the concept. Perhaps I understood a cartoon showing a man extending his hand to another as a greeting, when in fact it was a fight. I’d then wasted the time making a false association, which then had to be unlearnt. Limited English to clarify context would have been useful.

There’s been much progress since 2001, and learning a language, with all the tools and information available online, is much easier than it used to be. Resources I’ve found useful include Tim Ferris’s How to Learn Any Language in Three Months, Why Language Classes Don’t Work: How to Cut Classes and Double Your Learning Rate (Plus: Madrid Update),
How to Resurrect Your High School Spanish… or Any Language and Wikibook’s How to Learn a Language.

Today, however, I discovered something potentially much more useful. The concept of Spaced Repetition (also discussed on the interesting Glowing Face Man blog.

In my language learning experiences to date, I’ve been frustrated by the amount of time wasted on repetition. I never seemed to get the balance right. I was either waiting too long between repeating work, and then recalling it poorly, or wasting time repeating work I knew well too frequently.

Of course theres an optimum period for repeating new information in order to best memorise it. The spacing effect indicates that we best remember when we study a few things over a long period of time, rather than a lot in a short space of time.

So, as an example, spending three hours today learning 20 basic phrases, and then nothing for two weeks, could result in less recall, and more time spent, than spending 10 minutes every day.

It also indicates that there’s a diminishing return the more time we spend. So although spending 3 hours a day will result in a better outcome than 10 minutes a day, the returns per minute spent will be higher in the latter.

One of the difficulties with most books, CD’s, flash cards or software is that you will too often be covering work you know well, and too infrequently be covering work you don’t know well. You have to listen to the whole piece of audio to get the benefit of the three words you don’t know. If I know the word for dog really well, repeatedly being tested on this, or hearing this, is a waste of time, albeit good for your ego. Not being tested on the word cat, if I don’t know it, is also a missed opportunity.

Hence the concept of spaced repetition. Topics well known are repeated infrequently, and topics poorly known are covered more frequently, with the magic being in the algorithm to determine this. Of course, this is a perfect opportunity for software to assist. I’m aware of two Free software spaced repetition applications – Anki and Mnemosyne.

I’ve only used Anki, and although it’s as buggy as a swarm of midges on my setup, regularly crashing when loading or editing text, that’s a minor inconvenience, and I’ve found it very useful. The only comparison I could find between the two was Anki vs. Mnemosyne, on Glowing Face Man, with Anki getting the nod. Anki seems to cater particularly well for learning Chinese or Japanese.

So, in summary, to learn a language effectively we need:

  • the right material. At the beginning this should include the most widely-used vocabulary, broken up into right-size chunks, and as we advance the material should be of interest to us to keep our interest levels up.
  • regular practice. Small amounts of time, every day, are best.
  • efficient learning methodologies, which includes the concept of spaced repetition

I’m not quite as good as Cardinal Mezzofanti in learning languages just for the sake of it (he apparently spoke 38 languages and 40 dialects, in spite of never leaving Italy). My Mandarin studies petered out after a trip to Taiwan fell through, much as I like the idea of mastering the language. But, hopefully, if the South American trip stays on course, I’ll be up to a reasonable level of fluency in Spanish in no time.

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  1. Ian, very interesting post that caught my eye as I browsed through your blog for the first time in years. Having just returned from a trip to Buenos Aires, I can relate to the frustration and joy of putting to practical use what I have learnt in theory.

    First some background: I was fortunate to have grown up bilingual. My parents are Afrikaans, but I’m also a third generation Zimbabwean (my great-great-grandfather trekked up in the 1890’s). I started school at age five, hardly knowing a word of English, but picked it up and absorbed it like a sponge during that window period of language acquisition (according to critical period hypothesis).

    So, I attended English primary schools and then switched to Afrikaans high schools when we moved to Pretoria in 1981 (note the use of “when we”…), then went to an Afrikaans Technikon, and a while later to an English University (UCT). What was noticeable to me was how, during a few years of almost exclusively speaking Afrikaans, I had almost “forgotten” how to speak English, and then after a few years of speaking almost exclusively English it felt strange speaking Afrikaans again – I became aware of how much of an English accent I had developed as a result.

    I decided to start learning Spanish as a third language in my late twenties – so that I could travel to South America. Mainly due to financial and time constraints I wasn’t able to undertake my journey, but I decided to pursue my Spanish studies nevertheless – finally getting a BA degree in Spanish.

    There is a huge difference between learning Spanish as an adult, all by correspondence and without immersing myself in the language by living in a Spanish-speaking country, and learning English as a young child having been thrown in to the deep end.

    What caught my interest in your blog was the idea of pacing your learning. I found that, rather than try to cram us much as possible into a short period, I would undertake a long, formal study. I figured that, since I wasn’t surrounded by Spanish speakers, I could at least lay a solid foundation by learning the grammar.

    But I still found that I lacked something vital… I wasn’t immersed in the language as there are very few Spanish speakers in Africa.

    I think that to learn something really well, you need to do some conscious, focussed, disciplined study, interspersed with periods of unconscious, perhaps playful learning – which is what you get when you immerse yourself in a language: you’re not concentrating on the formal grammar rules all the time, but you are absorbing a lot by simply “being there” and taking in the sights and sounds around you that are only in that language.

    What I found helped a lot in between my formal studies (I studied on and off for years before finally getting my degree), was listening to audio cassettes. I lived in Scarborough for a while, and used to commute for 45 minutes each way every work day. While driving, I used to focus on my goal of getting to my destination, with the result that I was often angry and frustrated with other drivers. Then I made a conscious decision to “go with the flow” – to chill a bit and take my mind off the traffic. I started listening to my Spanish audio cassettes during my commute. While listening, I wasn’t actively studying, but I was absorbing a lot of vocabulary and training my ear to listening to spoken Spanish.

    I would occasionally find my mind wandering, and realize that I
    wasn’t concentrating on what I was listening to. But that didn’t bother me – I decided not to worry about it. I would simply play the same tapes over and over – sometimes listening intently, and other times allowing my mind to wander while filling the car with the sounds of spoken Spanish.

    Did it help? I believe it did – partly because I was able to “pace” myself unconsciously. Instead of working out a schedule and “study plan” and sticking rigidly to it as I did while reading grammar, I allowed myself to learn almost by osmosis.

    Yet, when I finally made it to Argentina, I felt as if I had struck a blank: I was tongue tied and couldn’t muster a basic conversation with anyone. However, during the 3 weeks I was there, things just seemed to pop into place. When I was relaxed, and in the company of someone who spoke slowly and audibly, I found myself having extended conversations with people in Spanish. It became easier and easier almost every day.

    I think it points to the mystery of the human mind: how we are constantly learning new things, some of which gets buried under newly acquired knowledge, yet we never forget completely as things learnt years ago start bubbling up to the surface once we start using what we learnt.

    And all this rambling has reminded me that I want to try my hand at Tai Chi again: to form neural pathways that will improve my Tango dancing – similar to the way that listening for hours on end to the “golden era” classics of tango music will ultimately improve my ability to lead in this fascinating dance.

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