Monday, June 29, 2015

It's time to come back

I have so little time to write - workload increases, etc.

Perhaps this will allow those little bitty creative juices to flow.

See you again, soon.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Secrets of Language Learning (2)



In my first fieldwork, right after graduating college, I was faced with learning two languages. Fortunately, Peace Corps taught us Pijin, but we had to learn Kwaio on our own. There were no textbooks, it was not a written language (although missionaries had devised a phonetic writing system), and the dictionary was by an anthropologist, so not all that useful for everyday usage.

Fortunately those missionary linguists who develop writing systems for languages around the world so that they could have potential converts read the Bible are darned good linguists. One of them gave us lovely little book about how to learn an unwritten language. We followed that book like, well, the bible.  And we learned Kwaio. We not only learned Kwaio, I developed a literacy program for the Kwaio-initiated schools. (As far as I can recall the book was Alan Healey, editor. 1975. Language Learner’s Field Guide. Ukarumpa, EHD, Papua New Guinea: Summer Institute of Linguistics Printing Department.)   

Your basic problem with language is increasing your vocabulary and that requires memorization. Obviously, you should use flashcards, but those do not work. Why? Because you are not moving your vocabulary from short-term to long-term memory. If you memorize a hundred words for the weekly quiz, great, but do you remember those in 2 weeks? Maybe, maybe not.  It’s very frustrating. It is not sticking in your long-term memory.  How do you get it there?

The Secret is to stagger your flashcards. 

The technical term, it turns out, is called spaced repetition

This is what I do (I have used it for every single language I have learned since I learned Kwaio, btw).

Each day, select a set of 10 (not more!) vocabularies words to memorize. That’s Set 1.

When you make up Set 1, make a cover card with dates. The dates will be Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 5, Day 10, Day 17, Day 41, Day 71, Day 131 … and that’s it.  If there are any words in that set that you do not remember at the end of that time, you can cycle them back into a new set at the end of that time. [nb, you can add in a day after Day 17, on Day 28, in which case your schedule will be 17, 28, 58, 128, 218.]

Only 10 cards?  What?  You have way more to memorize than that, don’t you? Yup.

So, on Day 2, you make up another set and you label that Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 6, Day 11, Day 18, Day 42, Day 72, Day 132.

On Day 3, you make up yet another set and you label that Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 7, Day 12, Day 19, Day 43, Day 73, Day 133.

On Day 4, the set is Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 8, Day 13, Day 20, Day 44, Day 74, Day 134.

Day 5, the set is Day 5, 6, 7, 9, 14, 21, 45, 75, 135.
Day 6, the set is Day 6, 7, 8, 10, 15, 22, 46, 76, 136.

Obviously, you need to figure this out with a calendar – I put the actual dates on the covers for the flashcard, otherwise it’s confusing.

It will look like this (sort of – in fact, doing it this way is a bit confusing, I am sure I missed some dates. The point is to let you see what your flashcard exercises will look like from week to week).  

March 1
Set 1
March 2
Set 1
Set 2
March 3
Set 1
Set 2
Set 3
March 4
Set 2
Set 3
Set 4
March 5
Set 1
Set 3
Set 4
Set 5
March 6
Set 2
Set 4
Set 5
Set 6
March 7
Set 3
Set 5
Set 6
Set 7
March 8
Set 4
Set 6
Set 7
Set 8

March 9
Set 5
Set 7
Set 8
Set 9

March 10
Set 1
Set 6
Set 8
Set 9
Set 10
March 11
Set 2
Set 7
Set 9
Set 10
Set 11
March 12
Set 3
Set 8
Set 10
Set 11
Set 12
March 13
Set 4
Set 9
Set 11
Set 12
Set 13
March 14
Set 5
Set 10
Set 12
Set 13
Set 14
March 15
Set 6
Set 11
Set 13
Set 14
Set 15

March 16
Set 7
Set 12
Set 14
Set 15
Set 16

March 17
Set 1
Set 8
Set 13
Set 15
Set 16
Set 17
March 18
Set 2
Set 14
Set 17
Set 18

March 19
Set 3
Set 15
Set 17
Set 18
Set 19
March 20
Set 4
Set 11
Set 16
Set 18
Set 19
Set 20
March 21
Set 5
Set 12
Set 17
Set 19
Set 20
Set 21
March 22
Set 6
Set 13
Set 18
Set 20
Set 21
Set 22
March 23
Set 7
Set 14
Set 19
Set 21
Set 22
Set 23
March 24
Set 8
Set 15
Set 20
Set 22
Set 23
Set 24
March 25
Set 9
Set 16
Set 21
Set 23
Set 24
Set 25
March 26
Set 10
Set 17
Set 22
Set 24
Set 25
Set 26
March 27
Set 11
Set 18
Set 23
Set 25
Set 26
Set 27
March 28
Set 12
Set 19
Set 24
Set 26
Set 27
Set 28
March 30
Set 13
Set 20
Set 25
Set 27
Set 28
Set 29
March 31
Set 14
Set 21
Set 26
Set 28
Set 29
Set 30
April 1
Set 15
Set 22
Set 27
Set 29
Set 30
Set 31
April 2
Set 16
Set 23
Set 28
Set 30
Set 31
Set 32
April 3
Set 17
Set 24
Set 29
Set 31
Set 32
Set 33
April 4
Set 18
Set 25
Set 30
Set 32
Set 33
Set 34
April 5
Set 19
Set 26
Set 31
Set 33
Set 34
Set 35
April 6
Set 20
Set 27
Set 32
Set 34
Set 35
Set 36
April 7
Set 21
Set 28
Set 33
Set 35
Set 36
Set 37
April 8
Set 22
Set 29
Set 34
Set 36
Set 37
Set 38
April 9
Set 23
Set 30
Set 35
Set 37
Set 38
Set 39
April 10
Set 1
Set 24
Set 31
Set 36
Set 38
Set 39
Set 40
April 11
Set 2
Set 25
Set 32
Set 37
Set 39
Set 40
Set 41
April 12
Set 3
Set 26
Set 33
Set 38
Set 40
Set 41
Set 42
April 13
Set 4
Set 27
Set 34
Set 39
Set 41
Set 42
Set 43
April 14
Set 5
Set 28
Set 35
Set 40
Set 42
Set 43
Set 44
April 15
Set 6
Set 29
Set 36
Set 41
Set 43
Set 44
Set 45
April 16
Set 7
Set 30
Set 37
Set 42
Set 44
Set 45
Set 46
April 17
Set 8
Set 31
Set 38
Set 43
Set 45
Set 46
Set 47
April 18
Set 9
Set 32
Set 39
Set 44
Set 46
Set 47
Set 48
April 19
Set 10
Set 33
Set 40
Set 45
Set 47
Set 48
Set 49
April 20
Set 11
Set 34
Set 41
Set 46
Set 48
Set 49
Set 50
… and so on
April 21
Set 12
Set 35
Set 42
Set 47
Set 49
Set 50
April 22
Set 13
Set 36
Set 43
Set 48
Set 50
April 23
Set 14
Set 37
Set 44
Set 49
April 24
Set 15
Set 38
Set 45
Set 50

April 25
Set 16
Set 39
Set 46
April 26
Set 17
Set 40
Set 47
April 27
Set 18
Set 41
Set 48
April 28
Set 19
Set 42
Set 49
April 29
Set 20
Set 43
Set 50
April 30
Set 21
Set 44
May 1
Set 22
Set 45
May 2
Set 23
Set 46
May 3
Set 24
Set 47
May 4
Set 25
Set 48
May 5
Set 26
Set 49
May 6
Set 27
Set 50
May 7
Set 28
May 8
Set 29
May 9
Set 30
May 10
Set 31
May 11
Set 1
Set 32
May 12
Set 2
Set 33
May 13
Set 3
Set 34
May 14
Set 4
Set 35
May 15
Set 5
Set 36
May 16
Set 6
Set 37
May 17
Set 7
Set 38
May 18
Set 8
Set 39
May 19
Set 9
Set 40
May 20
Set 10
Set 41
May 21
Set 11
Set 42
May 22
Set 12
Set 43
May 23
Set 13
Set 44
May 24
Set 14
Set 45
May 25
Set 15
Set 46
May 26
Set 16
Set 47
May 27
Set 17
Set 48
May 28
Set 18
Set 49
May 29
Set 19
Set 50
May 31
Set 20
May 31
Set 21
June 1
Set 22
June 2
Set 23
June 3
Set 24
June 4
Set 25
June 5
Set 26
June 6
Set 27
June 7
Set 28
June 8
Set 29
June 9
Set 30
June 10
Set 31
June 11
Set 32
June 12
Set 33
June 13
Set 34
June 14
Set 35
June 15
Set 36
June 16
Set 37
June 17
Set 38
June 18
Set 39
June 19
Set 40
June 20
Set 41
June 21
Set 42
June 22
Set 43
June 23
Set 44
June 24
Set 45
June 25
Set 46
June 26
Set 47
June 27
Set 48
June 28
Set 49
June 29
Set 50
June 30
July 1
July 2
July 4
July 5
July 6
July 7
July 8
July 9
July 10
July 11
Set 1

July 12
Set 2

July 13
Set 3
… and so on

I laid this out so that you can see why you only have 10 flashcards in a group – they add up. On some days, you will be doing 70 words a night! But note that on some of those days, such as April 20, two of those sets are older sets and you will likely go through those pretty quickly. They might be words that you use fairly regularly in class, or just often enough for you to recognize them quite quickly.  You will likely have to work hardest at the newest flashcards on days 1-5. Still, you need to be aware of this scheduling so as not to overload yourself.

Another advantage of this system is that instead of memorizing a big batch of cards all together, these are split up. When you use a language, the words are not conveniently grouped according to your flashcard organization. You need to mix it up, learn the words in different contexts. This system helps with that. You will variously do Set 4 with Sets 2, 3, 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 16, 18, 19, 20, 27, 34, 39, 41, 42, 43, 35, 134 … This improves your ability to remember vocabulary in new contexts.  

Obviously this system is not in concordance with the semester schedule. For one thing, you probably focus on vocabulary memorization leading up to a quiz or test, whereas this is an everyday activity.  Every. Single. Day. This is regardless of how much new vocabulary is assigned in any given week.  Finally, the schedule goes beyond the semester. And who wants to study after the semester is over?

You do. The only way to learn a language (or at least pass your classes) is to memorize. Use a system and just plain memorize.  Keep going after the semester is over (even if you do not add new flashcard groups) so that you will start the second semester strong. 
A final hint: memorize as your last activity at night before going to sleep. That vastly improves your retention. 

This is my ‘secret.’ Devote a lot of time to memorization, especially in the first semester or two of language learning – schedule that time in – so that you will build up the vocabulary to comprehend the language.  There is no short-cut around this. You simply haven’t got the vocabulary to enjoy conversations or reading short stories, so build the vocabulary. But know that it’s just time, like a game. Get your vocabulary from short-term to long-term memory, and you will do better.

And, btw, you also need to be willing to make fool of yourself as you try to speak. But the language-learner as village idiot is a topic for another blog.