The Rules of MasterY Pt.2 (Familiarity)


As always I must emphasize that there are two disadvantages we as adult learners primarily have. One is that we do not have the luxury of the staggered learning approach that a child has where they learn the bulk of their vocabulary and higher level grammar over a period of ten years. We also do not have the luxury of the time to learn words and grammar incidentally through context over this same period of years. We must accelerate our process logically, but in a manner that also allows us the ability to use and process the data we are learning. This means that to be effective in this strategy, we must highly prioritize certain actions and information and highly avoid certain tasks until much later on. In learning a language, our one major goal is RECALL.

But recall really represents: The recall of hundreds of memorized grammar patterns, thousands of words and phonetic recall and recognition of these types of words and phrases in realtime. 

For Japanese, where based on our initial set of Kanji which is 2,136 Kanji, at 1.8 readings per Kanji, we have a minimum of 3,844 high frequency common words to learn as a base for our language acquisition. These words lay the concrete for everything else. Naturally, upon learning this information, many people become quite intimidated by the data. Even if you break it down and say, at 50 words pre day you’ll learn 1500 per month and hit 5,000 in around four months, just the mention of “four months” at one task for many is also equally daunting.

A large part of our mastery mentality is to get extremely comfortable with the idea of learning large sets of data, but by understanding that the data is not really as “large” as we thinking it is. A fluent English speaker can have a working vocabulary of around 100,000 words, an incredible number. For Japanese, most adults have a working vocabulary of 20,000-35,000 words. Our based of 3,844 words represents about1 19% o n the low end and  109% on the high end. So technically speaking 3,844 words actually isn’t “that much” and to become a real boss, the estimates are a vocabulary of 8-15,000 words really puts you at an unusual level. Obviously many of these words (thousands of them) are words that we probably never use. Things like Windmill, knick knack, brickabrack and so on. The point is, our goal is not as gargantuan as we think. We do not need to know 35,000 words to speak the language, most studies point to knowing 5,000 as the holy grail and the rest of words are really for reading novels or studying certain things to a high degree. So a working familiarity with 3,844 words gives us full access to the language and we can work our way up to five or eight thousand at our leisure. But this base, this 19%, represents for us an unusual ability to grow in the language.

In our languages we have a working vocabulary, that I say we have a “working familiarity” with. We know certain words are used in certain scenarios and settings and we have trained our minds to recognize those uses. It is the same with “basic” vocabulary (even though 3,844 words is certainly not ‘basic’). The perceptual block is the number of words and our perception of our ability to learn these words (and recall them with ease from memory). People do not realize there in individuals, who have no problems revising three to five hundred words per day. This means that this person, in ten days will expose themselves to three thousand words. Let’s say this person repeated this process with an effective means of memorization three times for the month. This means they would revise three thousands words, three times in a month. This is a far cry from someone learning 10 words a day bawling at the the 11 months it will take them to hit 3,500 words!

I mention this extreme for a reason: At 100 words per day, you can hit 3,000 in a month and 6,000 in two. Using regular methods of study, I estimate memorization of about 75% of that, with a working familiarity (shorter term memory) of the remaining 25% which can be trained. So after two months, you should be quite comfortable with 4,500 words, which puts you at that near enviable 98% comprehension mark in both reading and listening.

Extreme revision and word training develop what we can an extreme familiarity with the language you are pursuing. I’ve already spoken at length about how the brain operates and auto organizes. We all already have the software in our brains that allow us to learn any language on the planet, given the right data under the right conditions. When you expose yourself to thousands of words with the intention of familiarizing yourself with them (while doing immersive studies) the language will being to unfold on its own. This “forced familiarity” which make what seems foreign and scary before become quite welcoming. So it is important that we become very comfortable with what we perceive as “large data”. This is why I prefer doing things in shorter windows of time, to close the perceptual psychological gap. Of course it takes incredible work, but I know what the reward is.

This approach is also massively self-reinforcing. By learning thousands of words, you must learn by proxy thousands of sentences. By learning thousands of sentences, you are automatically exposed to grammar patterns thousands of times. Then, by selectively adding new grammar partners to your learning sentences, you being to incrementally master the recognition of both vocabulary and grammar with the guarantee of thousands of exposures.

Remember, we must get these exposures anyways, and doing them consciously only guarantees we reach our goal faster. 

Assuming we learn 1-3 cards per word (using an Anki deck to track our progress) this means our deck will contain around 4,500 cards for our first 3,000 words. These cards must be revised continuously. Let us assume we need 10 exposures to memorize the card. This means we get 45,000 exposures to these words and grammar patterns (audio as well if you set your deck up in this way). By the time we reach 6,000 cards, we’ve crossed over 100,000 exposures. Ask yourself, it is possible to get this much exposure done strategically and not make progress? Of course not. When viewed from this angle, understanding the value of exposure, it become very clear why these things work. Ignore the idea of “thousands of words” being a bad thing. Rather, look at the learning process as guaranteeing that you get tens of thousands of exposures to your target language.

Presently my “phase one” writing and loci-based memorization strategy has given more around 120,000 exposures to the Kanji i’ve learned. But ensuring I get another 100,000 exposures to word and phrases I will take that number of the exposures to Kanji up to almost a 250,000 mark. We do this normally in life, but we do not track it or count it. I do. You can’t fail with massive exposure done strategically.

Working with groups of hundreds of words over and over builds familiarity and you’ll find when you consume native media that certain words are almost always used in the same context, your brain will organize that on its own, and what is fascinating, come time for you to speak, you will be able to say the same things, in the same way, even if you didn’t really practice that much. Remember our brains already have this software. Once you deliver the data in the right way at the right volume, the brain takes over. 

This kind of work is not easy. It is not simple. It is super hardcore high level strategy, but it also promises and incredible reward. It requires unusual patience, but as i’ve said in a previous post. After your 8-10 weeks of pain, you start seeing your first major breakthrough in comprehension. You’ll be able to read sentences, you’ll be less intimidated by seeing a page full of Kanji and you’ll have the confidence to carry on to the next step. After crossing the 1,500 word barrier, you’ll be amazed at how you start to hear way more. At 3,000 your language ability starts to explode. You will be able to understand hundreds of “short chain” dialogue that uses these words. Immersion will begin to self-reinforce, then at 4,500 you will find that you will be able to anticipate things in speech and you’ll be able to start automating words and phrases on your own. When you put active focus on this, your abilities increase rapidly. This is when fluency begins to appear on its own as everything overlaps. This can all be triggered by YOU but it takes massive action and incredible patience and dedication.

I am about to enter phase 2 for this experiment, but I already know where the data will take me. There’s not way I can study 4,500 words get by proxy 45,000-75,000 exposures to these words and phrases and NOT improve my Japanese. Add that to the fact that i’ve already had 120,000 written exposures, these will just add more cement onto what i’ve already learned. This “massive familiarity” will orient the brain to do its thing, so when I dial down on grammar it will auto-reinforce and then the holy grail will be reached.

I’ll talk more on how immersion fits into this later as I expand more on the Golden Number theory. As I’ve explained i’ve actually been going through this process while not being physically well (which has revealed my own level of dedication to myself). My first month was a blast and then I started to falter due to health issues, but I stuck to the program. Phase II should be fun but I know the “100 words per day hammer” is pretty grisly. You have to mentally prepare to get into that rhythm, but after a week it gets pretty smooth. My milestone day is always day 10, when I know i’ve hit 1000 words.

This is definitely the work of “mad men” as this is such a delicate mix of madness, obsession and fortitude but I don’t think there are many things as complex and rewarding as language acquisition.





About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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