Further Thoughts on the Four Function Diagram


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.

Should be.

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.

Steve Kaufman meets Viktor Huliganov in Prague
Steve Kaufman meets Viktor Huliganov in Prague

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.

14 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on the Four Function Diagram

  1. I first discovered it when reactivating Russian which I knew well but which had gone really passive in the 90s because I had to push it right down to avoid interference in Polish. Also Polish people didn’t want to hear Russian at that time. When I went for several days to teach auditing to some Russians in a German spa town called Scharbeutz, I found that the first three days were a real drag and then I could manage fine. In fact it then became hard to get back into Polish without lapsing into Russian when I went back to Poland.

    I also have the same thing happen all the time when going to the Czech Republic for three or more days, and also I had this happen in Romania and Hungary and Spain/Dominican Rep and also in Italy one time. It has never failed to occur, in fact, as long as I am allowed to mingle with natives and the environment and am not cooped up with people who want to speak another language.

    1. That is really inspiring! In the past when I read about this activation thing, I thought it was a once-per-language thing, but it all makes sense now! I suppose the first time is still special, though!

      1. That’s for sure. You don’t get that amazing tingling all over the body ever again, but you always hanker after it. It’s like an intellectual orgasm that only happens once in this life.

          1. I was still at school, but I’d taught Russian to myself. It was before the fall of communism so there were no native speakers around. And finally I met one, after a year and a half of just teaching myself. It felt someone had poured a cold drink over me when I had been too hot.

  2. From one of the pingbacks, I see that what we call “short-term memory” in goldlistese is not the same as what psychologists call “short-term memory”, which only lasts for 20 seconds. Since they don’t distinguish any type of memory after that than “long-term memory”, I wonder what they think about the goldlist method and the results it produces.

    1. Their knowledge is in its infancy. Any memory system which only lasts 20 seconds has no place in the arsenal of a serious learner. It would be great for the language teaching business, though.

      What the father of memory science, Ebbinghaus, proposed is a forgetting curve and many SRSs try to invoke this. In a computerised environment you can do this. That’s why supermemo works. But for the purposes of the Goldlist we select a point on the curve for practical purposes. And we discover that then we can take a course of distilling and achieve the same results in less time.

  3. salam fahimvaghean chera hame chi tahkle hawij tahkle , khargoosh tahkle, zeraat va keshawarzi tahkle, ab dadan be baghche tahkle. va az hame badtaaar shirin tarin khateraat tahkle , chera be naslemoon sha ..?chera?,فکر نمیکردم گذرت به اینجا بخوره:)

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