A vast array of colourful baubles, as varied as your own mass sentences can be. (Picture from freeimages.com)

DIY mass sentences technique : self-made repetitions for grammar mastery

I’ve talked about the utility of mass sentences previously, including the vast resources at Tatoeba and Glossika. It can be particularly helpful in drilling language patterns through high exposure to model content and multiple repetitions. However, it’s possible to replicate some of that power under your own steam.

I got the following idea from a fellow member of a Facebook language challenge group I’m a member of. Now, his particular sticking point was German cases, but the idea lends itself to all sorts of material you need to master.

With the help of his teacher, he created a set of ‘model sentences’ as a corpus of focussed learning material. In this case, the sentences chosen covered all of the permutations for cases with articles, for example. Fellow Germanists will recognise the challenge of learning those as a beginner! For instance, this set could include:

  • Der Hund kommt. (The dog is coming – nominative)
  • Ich sehe den Hund. (I see the dog – accusative)
  • Ich gebe dem Hund ein Eis. (I give the dog an ice cream – dative)
  • Das ist der Korb des Hundes. (That is the dog’s basket – genitive)

They can be much more complex than that, of course, including adjectives, prepositions that take certain cases, and so on. The important thing is that they are clear examples of the grammatical points the learner is finding tricky.

Drilling your mass sentences

Once the set is complete, the sentences can be added to your drill tool of choice. That is, unsurprisingly, Anki in most of our cases in the group (it helps having an Anki wizard as the group founder!). You could equally well use a tool like Quizlet or Educandy.

Of course, they can be a ‘mass’ as you like, incorporating from just a few sentences to hundreds. But you should have at least one sentence per grammatical point you’re trying to drill. The only golden rule is to check your sentences with a teacher before you start to drill them. You want an error-free collection of source material!

Conquering the foothills

Since I am currently learning Icelandic, I had plenty of opportunity to put this into practice recently. Four cases, definite and indefinite forms of nouns and both strong and weak adjective declensions had me pretty much stumped for months. The perfect testing ground.

Having started with my sentence stash a couple of weeks ago, I can already see significant progress. Finally, I’m latching on to some of the patterns thanks to repetition. Somehow, those cases are sticking!

Example of DIY mass sentences in Icelandic drilling masculine nouns in the dative case.

Sample of my DIY mass sentences in Icelandic (here, drilling masculine nouns and adjectives in the dative case).

Like all techniques, naturally, it is no magic pill. It can be a gradual and sometimes uneven process, for many reasons. For one thing, our brains are attracted to certain elements first and foremost, partly due to links to other material we’ve happened across. Mine particularly likes the masculine indefinite accusative adjective ending, which reminds me of the German -en ending (German is my first and strongest foreign language). The Icelandic nýr > nýjan (new) maps pretty neatly onto the German neu > neuen.

Whatever the cause, though, that tiny victory is a little foothill of the vast mountain range of Icelandic that I’ve managed to conquer. I now proudly seize upon any chance to use masculine nouns in the accusative when chatting to my tutors! (I know – I will have to move on from that habit at some point…) With a bit more mass sentences graft, I’m hoping that they all start to fall into place soon.

If you’ve not done so before, have a go at making your own sentence corpus to learn from. Incorporate your own most fiendishly difficult grammatical sticking points. You can reap some of the benefits of a mass sentences technique without relying on third-party word banks or subscription sites. Not only that, but you’ll increase your recall power through this hands-on approach to making your own materials.

Adding a language is like adding another colour to your communication swatch! (Picture from freeimages.com)

Language learning, fast and slow : one-track hack or polyglot glutton?

As a language learning addict, the idea of having multiple projects on the go at the same time is always appealing. But is there a sensible maximum to the number of languages we should be studying simultaneously?

The topic came up on a very interesting recent Hangout with Benny Lewis, the mastermind behind the Add One Challenge. Quite rightly, the general advice was that progress will be faster if you focus on one at a time. It stands to reason – we only have a finite mental capacity, and if you want to see results fast, you should direct it all in one direction.

Learning: fast and slow

But there are two differing attitudes towards learning in competition, here. The key selling point to much of the language hacking approach is ‘results fast‘. There is nothing wrong with that. I have used it to great effect myself. Efficiency and speed are fantastic study skills to develop if you have particularly practical (or urgent) goals in language learning.

By contrast, there is also a much more gradual approach to languages. Instead of a focus on short-term working knowledge, it emphasises the joy of the learning process. It regards learning it as a gentler method of layering knowledge upon knowledge over time. It is about finding fun in the detail, revelling in the rules. Furthermore, the lower priority on speed means that it supports multiple language learning a little better, if that is what you want to do.

There is room for both of these methods in the same language learning life, of course. The learner can chop and change according to circumstance and need. Need working fluency for a trip? Choose the fast route. Greedy linguist who wants a taste of everything? The slowly-but-surely approach is an excellent option.

Back to school

After all, early experience of languages in school is frequently in the mould of the gradual grammar crammer. For example, at my own secondary school, all students studied French and German for their first two years. Later, when the time came to take our options, we selected the one language we wanted to continue with.

Practices are similar in other European schools, with Icelandic students learning English and Danish, for example, or German students learning English and Spanish. Learning a couple of languages at a time in your own time is no unusual feat – kids have been doing it for decades.

The more the better?

There is even an academic argument for adding multiple languages into your study routine. Closely related languages, for instance, can be part of a larger voyage of discovery, opening up a whole language family. The resulting bird’s eye view can give a truly deep understanding of each individual member of that family, as you begin to make connections and colour between the lines.

What’s more, human languages share particular characteristics, regardless of family. There are common, abstract concepts across them, like nouns, verbs, tenses, moods (although they may appear vastly different, and be given differing names and explanations). Experience with the mechanics and terminology in one tongue can support your understanding in the other(s).

With a bit of organisational panache and sensible separation, it’s quite possible to handle multiple language projects. As always with matters of the mind, though, avoiding burnout is paramount. Take care, and you can keep that long-term, polyglot passion a joy, rather than a drain. And there is no need to give up that lexical gluttony, if it floats your boat!

If a big draw of language learning is enjoying the process, does it necessarily matter how quickly you progress? As linguists, we have the tools for language learning, fast and slow. Employ – and enjoy – them both.

Sidenote: the title for this post was inspired by the utterly fascinating “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. Read it for an insight into our truly two-track brains!

Trying to complete a Rubik's Cube - a case for micromastery?

Micromastery: chunking and rationalising your language learning

Always on the lookout for new learning hacks and tips, I’ve been digging into Robert Twigger’s Micromastery this week. The premise of the book is simple: learn new skills by breaking them down into manageable chunks and deal with them in a systematic, gradual way.

Six steps to mastery

The system is not so much a concrete plan for learning, as a set of principles to break your learning into pieces, and conceptualise and organise your first steps with them. The author uses a six-part approach as a framework to your first steps in a skill:

  • The entry trick
  • Overcoming rub-pat barriers
  • Background support
  • Payoff
  • Repeatability
  • Experimentation

And, while a bit of this is reinventing the wheel, I found them to be a good reminder of the importance of a structured approach in learning. As a sometimes overeager linguist, a Micromastery approach could organise my educational nourishment into regular light bites, rather than a colic-inducing binge.

So how can these Micromastery tricks help us to learn languages? The book doesn’t explicitly deal with languages, so you’ll have to do a bit of rethinking. But those six conecpts can provide a handy guide your first steps in a new language. Here’s my take on just a couple of the six concepts above.

Entry trick

The ‘entry trick’ rang bells immediately. Specifically, Twigger describes this an easy way in to the skill that pays off immediately. For example, it could be learning to balance on a static board before launching into full-blown surfing.

Where have we heard that before? Well, in languages, it mirrors advice from Benny Lewis and others to start your language learning journey with simple, rote scripts. Like stabilisers on a bike, they support solid skills-building whilst protecting the student from the stress of full-blown grammar and vocab cramming.

The chunk-by-chunk system also lends itself well to thematic language learning like this. Rather than throwing yourself at an amorphous mass of grammar, focus on several, well defined themes to script out, week by week.

True to the author’s promise for these entry tricks, there is the immediate payoff with using scripts. You quickly learn something practical and useful straight away. The reward is both self-satisfaction, and, hopefully, the ability to impress target language speakers early on in your study.

The rub-pat barrier

Twigger’s second point is particularly pertinent to language learning, too. Essentially, the rub-pat barrier is the author’s way of describing things that are difficult to do together (as in rubbing your tummy and patting your head simultaneously).

Now, language learning is full of these moments to overcome. If you’re anything like me, then conversing and not panicking is a pretty important multitasking trick to master in the early stages! You can probably think of many more, such as speaking without pause and not getting verb / case endings wrong, for example.

By anticipating these ‘rub-pat barriers’ before we come up against them, we can prepare ourselves. For example, speaking crib sheets help me to feel I have a safety net in target language conversation. Moreover, mindfulness techniques can be great anxiety-busters – I’ve had great success with the excellent Headspace.

The real rub (!) is that you usually have to experience these barriers before you know they’re there. And you only find that out by throwing yourself into the skill. Sometimes it might be possible to foresee these kinds of difficulty when planning a new skill routine, but you’re a gifted learner if you can spot them all before they rear their ugly heads.

Background support

New skills require more than just a learner – they take materials, other people, paraphernalia and so on. Precisely these things are what the book dubs background support. This encompasses the resources – human and otherwise – that will form the scaffolding around your language project.

I did appreciate the nod to individual circumstances here. The truth is, sadly, that not everyone can afford the equipment to learn certain skills (the author uses surfing as an example). Fortunately for linguists, materials need not cost the earth; sometimes, they cost nothing at all.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, other people can form our background support as linguists. Making sure you have a good buddy network to check in on you – even recruiting family and friends who aren’t learning with you – can help keep you accountable and on track.

Repeatability and Experimentation

And then, we have two of the most vital skills in the set for linguists: repeatability and experimentation. The ability to repeat a skill is the end goal of the linguist: to communicate, to perform language X/Y/Z countless times in the future. And, with each act of recall and review, those neural pathways strengthen and extend. If anything, the notion of repeatability is a reminder to work very regular, active use of the language into your daily routine.

Experimentation goes hand in hand with this, and maps onto the particularly exciting stage of language learning: linguistic creativity. It’s that moment when you start to substitute words in your rote sentences to create brand new, unique utterances. In Twigger’s example of baking, you might start to play around with new ingredients. In languages, you push yourself to geek and tweak the framework material you learnt in your scripts.

Micromastery – a starting point for your own approach

Clearly, the book’s core principles have offer a guiding hand when devising your study plan. Choose your chunks carefully and plan your study calendar bearing the six points in mind, and the system could really be of benefit. Bear in mind, however, that language learning is a cumulative process; at some point, these individual chunks need to join up. The approach is perhaps a little sketchy on forming the whole skill from the constituent parts.

However, the whole idea does speak to the polymath in me. As a general framework for learning multiple, cross-curricular skills, it’s concise and based on common sense. There are elements in there that lend themselves to any kind of learning.

The book has received mixed reviews on Amazon. In part, this might be down to the slightly woolly examples the author uses to illustrate the system. Drawing circles, surfing and baking somehow fail to light the imagination, and a bit of extrapolation to your own world is necessary.

With a bit of effort to graft the ideas onto your own learning goals, Micromastery is well worth a read. There’s much to motivate here, if only to reiterate the importance of clear objectives at the start of your journey.

Real-life language can be unpredictable, like this tangle of colourful liquorice sweeties!

Preparing for the unpredictable – developing flexible language thinking

We’ve all been there. You’ve learnt the tenses. Have the vocab down pat. You have a head full of model questions and answers. You are totally ready for to be unleashed onto the target language streets. But – agh – what was that answer that came back at you? What was that word again, and why can’t you remember it now? And why is this so much harder than when you were learning it? Conversation so often doesn’t stick to the script, and we can be totally thrown by the responses to your perfectly practised communication attempts. Real life is just so darn unpredictable!

Well, rest assured that it isn’t just you. There is a psychological phenomenon dubbed ‘context reinstatement’ that explains just what on Earth is going on. It’s a fancy name for something many of us intuitively know anyway – that being perfect in a learn-and-drill situation does not prepare you for the unpredictability of real life.

Underwater understanding

Classic memory research by Godden and Baddeley shows how we find retrieval easier when the context is the same as the original learning environment. The psychologist duo split their subjects into two groups. One group learnt a list of 40 words underwater, and the other group learnt them on the beach. Then, they tested each participant’s recall of the words in either the same, or the alternative environment.

The result? On average, subjects remembered 40% more when tested in the same environment that learning took place in.

The lesson from this is not – disappointingly – that we should all buy scuba gear and go and learn languages in the water. Rather, we can assume that vocabulary and structures will be easier to recall in a classroom if they were first learnt in a classroom. The familiar surroundings contain lots of cues, networked to those original memories, that help them bubble up to the surface. This explains why you may perform brilliantly in a vocab test in class, but struggle to find a word in a shop or restaurant in your target language country.

Context – a blessing and a curse

Superficially, the effect of context on recall can sometimes be a useful tool. If you want to improve recall, then you can attempt to recreate the environment where you first learnt the material. Taking a French/German/Spanish exam? Then take in some familiar objects, like your favourite pencil case or pen. Maybe sit in the same desk for class tests, or even wear the same clothes. There really is some psycho-science behind having ‘lucky’ clothes in this case!

The trouble with extending these techniques is the impracticality, or often, sheer impossibility of them in real life. In reality, we have very little control over scenarios where we want to speak a foreign language! Language happens anywhere and everywhere – by its nature, it is unpredictable.

Training for the unpredictable

So, how can you prepare yourself for, literally, anything that could happen in a target language situation? First off, nobody will be able to do that. That is half the fun and excitement of speaking foreign languages – it’s a rollercoaster ride of social surprises. But you can increase your chances of coping well with that. The trick is to promote flexible, rather than fixed thinking in your learning routines.

Vary your study settings

There is a common study tip based on busting the context-dependency of Godden and Baddeley’s experiment. It is, quite simply, to vary the environment that you learn in. In theory, this prevents specific language memories from becoming too attached to elements that won’t be present in the field.

You can extend this idea of  ‘environment’ to the whole ecosystem you use to learn – the apps, websites and materials that you form your learning materials. Find yourself exclusively using Duolingo to practise languages? Then give Anki a try, and build some custom vocabulary lists. Only using fixed listening material from language courses? Then maybe it’s time to try some podcasts. Take the predictability out of your learning, and you may increase your ability to cope with it in the real world.

Fluid notes

It’s also worth addressing how you keep your phrase lists, crib notes and vocab records, too. A rigid, fixed, linear structure to memorising dialogues, for example, leaves little room for digression in actual conversations. A static list of ten words that you learn in order will, likewise, not really promote flexible use in the day-to-day.

Instead, think about creating frameworks for your vocabulary instead. Rather than complete sentences, learn structures that you can fit many different words into, depending on the situation. I should have…I’ve already … and so on – frames you can grab and fill in your head on the go.

Recycling material in different ways is key here, too. Maybe learning discrete lists of ten words is an effective memorisation technique for you. Stick with that if so, but introduce some variety to the way you practise them. Run through the words in a different order – maybe using a flashcard app like Anki – and challenge yourself to make different, even whacky, sentences with them each time you revise. Mix it up – make sure that no learning session is the same.

Speaking is supreme

Finally, books and static materials will never suffice for training for the unpredictable. Even the immersive, language-in-situ nature of podcasts won’t mimic the two-way dynamic of real-life conversation.

For that end, the old adage always applies: speaking is supreme in language learning. I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of iTalki for face-to-face language practise. I’ve been finding lots of extra time for regular Skype lessons, simply to chat with a real person. It can be hard, and it’s natural to feel an aversion to difficult things and hide from them. But if you stick at it, you’ll reap the confidence rewards of coping better and better with natural language.

Embrace the unpredictable

Human beings are creatures of habit, and love routine. That’s why these techniques might sometimes feel so hard to adopt, even though they seem like common sense. It can be disconcerting to mix up your learning approaches ceaselessly, or throw yourself into environments where you are tested on the spot. But in the long run, you’ll thank yourself for it. Embrace change and variety, and become a more dynamic linguist for it!