I am now returning, having received a moment ago a timely reminder from Victor Berrjod, to the discussion on the above diagram, and what it can show us of use to the learners of language.
In the earlier article, I wrote about how in reading and in listening the language user is passive – not having to generate his own grammatically correct language or have the right word at hand. Therefore reading and listening are intrinsically less challenging than writing or speaking. For someone not in an active state with his command of a foreign language, reading and listening creates less of a problem than writing or speaking. If he, or she, knows the word in their passive memory then it should be that they can deal with reading it or listening to it. In order to be able to speak or writing a person must find that word for themselves.
So we have compared the two rows in the diagram. Let us now compare the two columns.
In the leftmost column, the one containing reading as the passive skill or function and writing as the active skill, we can say that the learner is able to exercise more control over timing when reading and writing than when speaking and listening.
It is clear that listening with a pause button enables a similar control of timing as reading and speaking into a recording device that enables pauses, repetitions, breaks and then a later edit allows a similar control as in writing, and the use of recordings – making them as well as listening to them in that way – certain makes for an excellent bridge between the skills where we have all the time we need – reading and writing, and those skills where we don’t have all the time we need, such as conversing with someone who is not particularly inclined to wait around while we find the words we need.
In reading and writing there are also scenarios where we don’t control the time, for example reading subtitles in a foreign language cinema when an English language film is shown undubbed, or certain chatroom scenarios where if we are not careful we will not keep up with the flow and our contribution to the chat will look lame. These therefore are also bridging scenarios.
However, in the main if you are on your own and reading and writing for yourself, reading a book or writing the goldlist, you can control how fast you want to do it, therefore you can be relaxed and therefore you can more easily get into a state where the subconscious, long-term memory is the default information pantry and not the conscious memory, which switches on in states of nerves or stress and which remembers in a short-term way, recycling its hastily constructed synaptic pathways after only two weeks.
The unconscious memory may only sample 20-30% of what you cover and place in the short-term memory if it is activated, but then it will keep it for decades whereas the short term memory loses pretty much everything after two weeks. 100% of 2 is much less of course than 20% of 1,000, so a preference to use the long-term memory methods and avoid the short term memory methods should be a no-brainer for all of us.
The problem is of course that people want to be able to speak and listen, they want to be able to rely on their language knowledge in real life situations, and so people want to get to the point where they can speak at will. And language classes seem geared around the getting of students to speak phrases and be able to engage in conversations, as well as getting the students to repeat a lot and rote learn. All of these ways are short-term memory ways, they encourage the learner to feel as though he or she is making faster progress but it will prove to be an uphill struggle as the learner is always fighting against his two-week barrier, and later on blaming himself and not the teacher’s method for the fact that not much gets retained after class.
Now you can ask any polyglot you know, and even though some of them seem to take a delight in the act of activating their languages, and make no mistake about it, it is an extremely pleasant sensation to activate a language and to really start speaking and thinking in it for the first time, you will still learn from them that they do a lot of reading and writing and they take their time over it and do it alone at home. They don’t rely on the classes. If they use classes at all it would be for them just an adjunct, a social dimension to the real learning which they do alone, reading in the main and writing.
When reading and writing you can be as relaxed as you like and so the unconscious memory works nicely. It will work less nicely on listening if you feel stressed, but that is why good audio course such as Michel Thomas, Paul Noble, Pimsleur, all emphasise the use of the pause button. You have to have the feel that you are in control of the timing at which the language is coming at you and can repeat any part of the recording ad nauseam if necessary. However actually repeating things over and over is also something that calls forth the conscious memory because while doing that we are TRYING to remember. The long-term memory works when we are not trying to memorise.
The short-term memory methods used by language schools of course are in their interests as the teachers of languages are paid for their time and if they can feed you with an illusion that either you are progressing quickly or if you are not progressing it’s not their fault, then people carry on for much much longer than they would need to learning alone, and all the time paying for lessons. Paying for lessons is not bad if there is a language which needs a lot of explanations which the books are confusing you on, and you stay in control and ask the questions. If you have a teacher who lets you do that, then they deserve their money. If you have a teacher who coaches you in the proper use of your brain and in the selection of good materials and clear explanations, then again you have a teacher who deserves their money. The other 80% are ripping you off either consciously or unconsciously.
From what I have said so far, it is clear that reading is the least challenging function of the four as in reading most of the time you have control over the time, you can relax and make it a pleasant experience and you don’t have to waste time getting yourself into a continued state of activation in the language in order to do it. As a reminder to those who have read me before, or an aside to those who haven’t, activation from a non-active state takes three days.
Recently no less a language learner than the polyglot A-lister Steve Kaufman of Lingq.com, a great believer in the learning power of reading by the way, such that he doesn’t feel the need to keep a record by writing in the way the Goldlist works – he feels it slows him down – which is not necessarily wrong, but doing so has many other advantages we can come on to – wanted to test my three-day activation hypothesis by coming to Prague after learning at home in Canada for I think about a year. However, when he came, he was already very nicely active in less than three days – because he had been spending his time in Canada already on regular Skype calls to his Czech native speaker friends and therefore he didn’t come with a completely passive knowledge and so the results of his experiment were – unfortunately for me – not very conclusive. I would have been fascinated to see his reaction if he had come genuinely passive and seen the remarkable effect of immersion over a few days from a passive state. It really is quite exciting and I can recommend just trusting the Method and trying that one time.
Anyhow, one thing I do agree with Steve on, and this is by far not the only thing, is that reading is a great way to learn languages to a high degree of perfection having a great time and freeing the long-term memory. In my opinion, though, to get to the point where we can just comfortably read away in the literature needs quite a bit of groundwork. In the old UK way of doing things, literature was brought in at A-level, only after a vocabulary of some 2,000 of the most common words had been achieved along with a thorough grasp of all the required grammar, which if we are talking about French literature (the most commonly learned language in that old UK system) requires the subjunctive and the past historic, even though you could live a month in today’s France barely using either and nobody would think any the worse of you for it.
In a similar way both Steve and I love the Jaroslav Hasek classic “Osudy dobreho vojaka Svejka” – but even this, a twentieth century document unlike the works of Voltaire and Goethe, is written in something fairly removed from modern Czech and the idioms we can learn in it, the greatest jewel of the Czech literature, might not stand us in good stead in daily life.
This does still leave reams of modern things worth reading in Czech, and in most of the languages which are available to be learned, some of course more than others.
I would say that if the four functions diagram shows you that the easiest thing to do when learning is to read, but people nevertheless want to progress from reading to speaking, there has to be a route or a choice of routes by which we can get from reading to speaking also encompassing the other two skills or functions. namely the writing and the listening.
And how we do that will be the topic of the next in this series.
- Chinese from scratch – a 1260 hour work Programme optimising your result. (huliganov.tv)
- Mental Spring Cleaning (bar201050.wordpress.com)
- 8 Tips for Improving Your Memory At Work (tymebeatagencyin.wordpress.com)
- Popular myths in psychology (part 1) (gmbcblog.wordpress.com)
- Method (funnyeasyitalian.wordpress.com)
- Question from a Student (“Why Should I Learn to Read and Write Chinese?”) (cityhotpot.wordpress.com)
Goldlisting may or may not be from the very beginning of learning a language, but it’ll take you on as far as you like!
Neworldgirl78 wrote on my Goldlist lecture in Moscow film the following question:
I am learning Russian and have been using a variety of means such as Pimsleur, various apps, and your you tube videos of course. Should I narrow my studying to this method or add it to my current methods? Thanks, and love your videos
I started to answer this in the comments section but I thought that it needs more space than the comments section there allows.
Here’s the full answer:
I use Michel Thomas and Pimsleur myself, audio only as they are, at the beginning of learning a new language, but they eventually come to an end. You might for example work through MT first and even a very long course with all the available levels in still is only less than 20 hours of material, add on a full Pimsleur course with another 30 hours of material (much of it overlapping with the MT) that gives you 50 hours.
This 50 hours – the maximum currently available of quality audio-only beginners courses – when listened to a few times gives you 150 hours of audio time at the max, and if you use the pause button properly you could stretch that to 250. It’s great to do this at the beginning – use MT first as that method gives you the deep structures of the language and doesn’t shy away from grammatical explanations (which Pimsleur does to the point that it becomes misleading at times) and it gives you a good accent, but that 250 hours of work will only take you so far.
And let’s be clear that for many of the less popular languages there’s still no MT course – Hodder and Stoughton didn’t make much on the ones available so far as the activities of internauts were too impactful on the sales of the material, and so it may well be down to hobbyists rather than businesspeople to take Michel Thomas’ legacy to its full conclusion. So it the best case, something like Russian, you might be lucky and find 250 hours of useful work to do on audio only. If you were looking at Bulgarian you’d be hard pressed to find any – I found some in bookshops in Sofia, from an unknown method and author which I didn’t even start yet, but nothing on Amazon or the net.
So once you have finished with the audio only, or earlier if you are not an auditory learner and feel that you aren’t progressing so well with the audio only methods, you need to progress onto reading and writing. Read the rest of this entry
This is a link to a discussion on the Goldlist Method again by some pretty hardcore polyglots, most of whom seem to like the method, although unsurprisingly there are dissenting voices. After all, the people who have already learned a number of languages successfully will already in the main have their pet methods, and the fact that any people in that category are willing to add the method to their arsenal is a great boon. My main case for it rests however with the people who have written to me getting success for the first time in language learning by applying the method and understanding the underlying truths about language learning – which of course it doesn’t have any kind of monopoly on – which were the reasons they failed before with conventional classroom learning, and not from their own fault.
I don’t think I will join in the discussion on LingQ, one YT friend indicated that the discussion is there, but on previous occasions when this has been discussed and I’ve chimed in it has put the discussion to death a bit. And believe me it is a great pleasure for me to read intelligent, unfettered discussion about the method.
Please go and have a look. You don’t have to be a registered member of LingQ to review the site, although you might want to look around and see if a sub there is for you. I like Steve Kaufman and have no qualms about plugging his place. Most people spend a lot more on Language Learning than they’d need to spend to get a top-level membership on there, and be engaged in studying and teaching languages all day and every day.
Here are a handful of my favorite quotes from the discussion, by various people:
The method was first invented by an English guy living in Poland (I believe his name is David James.) He seems to be a little strange…
Perhaps he is simply living proof that human genius and human madness are very close together!?
Very possibly. Who knows?
Some of this videos are funny, some aren’t.
I have been using the Goldlist method since last December, and it seems indeed that on average I remember 30% of the words in each list. I have only done the first distillation so far, but it seems to work indeed, and it is faster than an SRS protocol.
I didn’t know about Mr James’ contribution to the polyglot book before Sebastian pointed it out in his post yesterday. I spent several hours last night reading most it, and I agree it makes pretty interesting (and unusual) reading.
I liked the way he describes learning Italian in classes at school, while teaching himself Russian at home using Linguaphone and the older version of “Teach Yourself”. The result: he got a top mark in the ‘O Level‘ Russian Exam, and a lower mark in the ‘O Level’ Italian exam – leaving his Italian teacher entirely perplexed! :-0
His recollections of having a little run-in with the KGB while on a student exchange in the old USSR during the 1980s is also quite funny in the telling (although the actual experience of a KGB-third-degree was doubtless anything other than ‘funny’ for a student 19 or 20 years of age!)
Those CANNOT be his own eyebrows
- Foreign Language Learning: Critical Skills for a Fast-Moving World (nafsa.org)
- Quiero aprender español. Es LingQ.com un buen sitio web para eso? (ask.metafilter.com)
- How to Learn Japanese in Five Easy Steps! Learning Japanese Online and for Free (socyberty.com)
- Learning language concepts from other languages (kaetslanguages.wordpress.com)
- An approach to language learning for reading literature (readingwithphilology.wordpress.com)