Good morning! It’s been a very positive week for me. I’ve won my first writing award (more on that later) but this was taken a few days before I won the award and got two silver medals for my short story work, plus a merit award for a novel I submitted to the competition. This blog can’t be all about nerdy explorations of language learning theory can it? Okay, on to the article.
Trust Your Brain
If you are an active reader of this blog, you’ll see that I explore various themes in various ways. Our memory as a construct is not fully understood by neuroscientists even to this day.If we think of our brain like a map, we’ve charted very small regions of it with lots and lots of huge uncharted areas. We know a lot, but we don’t yet know how everything works. In many processes, there are “gaps” in our data or ability to explain certain phenomena. For me personally in my research over the years, I’ve come to understand that by approaching certain tasks relative to what is opitimal for the brain, you can get incredible results. It is how I was able to research and demonstrate writing all the JouYou Kanji (2,136) from memory with only English keywords as a reference point. By mastering some aspects of these activities, I have come to a very clear understanding that most of what we think isn’t always what ‘works’.
The question i’m posing to you is does our brain have its own secret mechanisms that once understood can be exploited and allow us to make drastic improvements relative to certain goals we want to achieve? I say yes.
What i’ve noticed as I expose myself to very large amounts of data when trying to learn something new, the brain does things on its own that makes this data begin to naturally self-organize itself. It puts the pieces together and usually in a way you are not immediately able to perceive (or quantify). Normally these things would slip by us as we learn and gain new skills, but for me, I wanted to know why these things happen so badly that on each journey into a new language I would take ridiculous amounts of notes. For my German studies, I took over 250 pages of notes (typed up). My goal was to observe what causeS “comprehension leaps”and “breakthroughs”. After a lot of observation I started to see what caused comprehension breakthrough and leaps.
Why Is This Important?
In language learning, the majority of people want to become fluent speakers of a language. In this pursuit, people are willing to spend years of their life trying to reach that coveted goal. The people that do it quickly are often hailed as geniuses, release programs and apps to help others learn languages. I have said on this blog that I fully agree these people are different (as am I). Individuals who can learn a language fluently in 3-6 months tend to be psychologically unusual, insofar as they have little issue with ungodly numbers of hours spent in pursuit of this goal, tend not to have a concept of ‘failure’ or an unperturbed by making mistakes and enjoy doing repetitive tasks thousands and thousands of times until they master them. What makes these people different, is their obsession to succeed in their pursuit with a practiced mastery of sustained effort. This means these individuals, in a variety of ways will reach their goals. However, many of these people cannot completely explain why what they do works. This is where I come in. Each time I tried a new method, course or did my research, I’d hit these “gaps” in explanation. My personal obsession was always to be able to figure out calculate variables behind what I call the TTF Time To Fluency. Real life data has demonstrated it is possible to do this in 3-6 months. But just knowing there were psychologically powerful individuals with endless energy and fearlessness to do anything to learn a language was not enough for me. So as I interacted more and more with these absolutely brilliant people I confirmed my suspicions of them being extremely smart, obsessive and driven people. When I say driven, I mean driven.
How does this relate to trusting your brain? Don’t worry i’m getting to it, but we have to set up some context.
The area of study relative to learning languages quickly is called R.L.A or Rapid Language Acquisition. Since language learning is essentially a giant memorization exercise, language acquisition (whether rapid or not) is a gradual exercise where we massively store and memorize large amounts of data. Across the four pillars of language (Vocabulary, Grammar, Speaking and Reading) let us assume a few minimums. To speak fluently, or to be able to handle your language at an advanced level usual requires:
500-1000 hours of listening time, a knowledge of 3,000-5,000 words, an awareness of grammar up to a B1, or B2 (second highest) level.
This is A LOT of data to learn in short order. You need to be very strong psychologically to even approach a task like this, as you know you will be spending hundreds of hours in this pursuit. What this means is that for a Rapid Language learner, by exposing themselves to very large amounts of data early on, they are short cutting aspects of our natural learning process.
We all are born with the ability to learn any language on earth. Any of us, placed in any country in our infancy, will speak the native language of whatever country we reside in fluently within four years. You can set your watch to it. Children usually start to speak by about two, and develop a strong command and understanding of language by around age four. Let us call this language learning ability “software”. This software within us, collects data in a certain way over these four years and gradually “self-organizes” the data into what we regard as speech, sentences and expression. Context, situations, socialization and thousands of other factors all add to this data pool, which eventually produces language. This is a process our brain does on auto-pilot, with perfect efficiency for every child that has ever been born. Make a note of this as it will be important shortly.
I’m going to make an equation here to illustrate this simply. Let’s call language exposure the constant E, where E represents speaking, reading, context, situations, social cues and all the other factors relative to learning. T will represent Time and L will be Language.
T(E) = L
So Time multiplied by Exposure equals Language. Pretty straightforward right?
What’s interesting here is that the constant ‘T’ doesn’t need to be fixed as we’ve observed with people who are good at R.L.A. They don’t need more than 3-6 months. Taking the average of this time (4.5) we can come up with another very basic equation for fluency in a very short period of time.
4.5(E) = L.
So it isn’t really Time, but E (exposure) and the factors associated with it that are the most important part of this equation. I’ll write another article that focuses more deeply on that constant at another time. In terms of todays’ theme, Trusting Your Brain and Self Organizing data, there is something that happens when you have E (the exposure constant) organized properly. It is something the brain does on its own, with great efficiency and predictable results. It is why when I was studying German, at some point I started understanding some things I hadn’t really studied and why I was able to improve my speaking without ever speaking to a native speaker. My brain was doing its thing for one reason:
It had all the right data, fed to it in the right portions in the right order.
Now i’ll explain why I brought up R.L.A (Rapid Language Acquisition). You see when someone learns a language fluently in 2 years, even a year, it becomes much harder to trace what worked for them and why it worked. Was it their listening, speaking, or reading that the did efficiently? What did they do to eventually trigger fluency. From our equation as the constant T gets larger, it becomes harder to understand what in E (exposure) leads to language ability. Through R.L.A In a shorter time frame, we are able to trace data far more accurately. It was how I was able to make extremely clear observations about learning German and understanding what had caused certain leaps in comprehension and more importantly why these things happened. You see the same thing happens over a four year period for a child that happens with a six month period for a RLA learner.
You (a) feed the brain the right amount of data in the right way and order and (b) the brain does its thing and you will naturally gain comprehension.
This is what my entire article is based on. Trust Your Brain is understanding that when you do things in the right order for a certain length of time, the brain does the rest automatically. I am presently at 400+ hours of listening with my Japanese and the same thing is happening that happened with German. After a certain number of hours (mixed with a certain number of hours of exposure to learning words etc) everything you hear starts to get “clearer” and some chains of dialogue are 100% comprehensible. It is not complete comprehension, but light years from understanding nothing only 90 days prior.
Why is this important? (Part II)
This is incredibly important because in the past, I had no idea when this comprehension would ever happen, and it made all my studies feel like diving deeper and deeper into an endless pool. Knowing that my efforts will trigger certain levels of comprehension (in a predictable window of time) allows me to drastically improve my consistency. Sustained consistency is the hallmark of elite learners. A person who studies “badly” that can keep at it, will always hit their goal, more so than the learner with a “perfect system” and no motivation.
This means I put my efforts into the research that works, that is, hit 500-1000 hours of listening, expose myself to 3,500-5,000 words and then focus more directly grammar at a certain word saturation point (3,000 usually) I just let the brain do the rest. Trusting my brain allows me to put faith into what my actions will give me, which allows me to keep doing them.
Learning thousands of words requires incredible effort and motivation. Listening to or watching TV shows, movies, podcasts and series in your target language without knowing the language at all requires incredible effort and motivation. Mastering speaking by trying and failing at making constructions thousands of times requires incredible effort and motivation. This is why a child takes a leisurely to gain basic fluency and a full ten to twelve years to reach full grammatical expression. This is also why the average person cannot even fathom learning all this information in 3-6 months.
Our brains are built to self-organize this data over 4-10 years, but can do the same process in 4-6months.
Your brain can handle this task. Remember, your brain has near unlimited storage capacity. In I found some research stating that our brains do not tire, it is our perception of fatigue that makes us tired (i’ll have to find the exact source, I think it was in a book i read a while back).
So trusting your brain is an amazing component of this process. It allows me to track the incremental gains I make and show me that i’m making improvements. These small wins keep you going. However, these “wins” are much harder to notice if you are going at a slower pace which kills the motivation of many a learner. It is also interesting to note, that I have noticed that many Polyglots (who don’t necessarily try to learn languages quickly) are incredibly patient people. They have no issues spending eight months mastering one part of the language before moving on to anther. This is another psychological super power. I’ve always personally tried to find a middle ground that the average person can manage. We don’t all have disposable time to learn a language in 90 days, and we do not necessarily possess the discipline to very slowly master a part of a language over eight to twelve months.
What’s cool is that if you were to track the progress of the person doing a twelve month stretch of learning versus four, you’d start to see that its pretty much the same data, albeit absorbed more slowly. You’d still have to learn the 5,000 words, do the 1,000 hours of listening, etc.
That said I have nothing against either style. Personally I’ve always wanted to know how to learn a language quickly in a short time. This is merely relative to convenience and life. We have finite time here on earth. I’d rather learn 2,136 Japanese Kanji in 3 months versus 2-4 years. Learning an advanced level of German in 4.5 months showed me that we can ‘compress time’ and literally bend reality. Why not bend reality especially if you understand the data behind it? Remember, life isn’t binary. It isn’t just language learning and nothing else. People get sick, have stresses, financial demands and other life goals. Pursuing language (the most challenging thing to learn possibly) isn’t a desire for the faint of heart and requires Herculean organization and execution. I know its possible to learn a language quickly, and wanted to get as detailed as possible about the process. Learning to trust my brain relative to this data, has allowed me to accept a truism relative to my efforts. That information learned in a certain way for a certain time, activates the natural brain software, which leads to increased comprehension. The more one focuses on these actions, the brain naturally expands its own parameters and you learn more and more whether conscious or not.
As you increase the data, context and practice its implementation (speech, reading and immersion) your brain learns more and more (by itself) and your abilities increase. But this must be done a certain way. It is not just listening in isolation, or learning thousands of words in isolation. Nor is it just trying to speak with no knowledge of the phonetics of your language. Trust me, with enough effort a person can “blunder through” and be a language superstar, but this (to me) is mostly a psychological advantage, and is not duplicatable. Everything I am describing conceptually the average person can do. You do not need to be a “genius” to execute this, as your brain already can do this. It just needs the data in a certain quantity in a certain way, where it overlaps and creates the parameters for the brain to advance its own ability.
You will need patience and an advanced psychology. You will need fortitude and a massive goal. You can’t just “want to chat to German girls” or “order food in Spanish”. If you really really want this, you’ll have to change your entire way of being, if only for a few hardcore months. Theory is one thing, but testing it in real life is a whole other ball game. The gains in the beginning are small and exciting, but you don’t start to get serious “ability based gains” for three to four months. I am not one of those types to study for ten hours a day. I’m not presently built like that. I know how to utilize my day to get several hours a day of immersion and several hours of work, but my goal is to finish without burning out. The people who do it in 90 days are champions of consistency, mental fortitude and stamina.
But remember, if it takes 5-10 years for a child to grasp a language. 8 months to fluency or advanced ability is going at warp speed. So 4-6 months is also warp speed. With my current research, My next major experiment will be to test where I can take my French in 8 weeks based on these new metrics, but that’s a test I’ll have to do in 2022 after I see what results I get from Japanese.
We must do every action understanding that the minimum benchmarks for “advanced ability” are (i.e 3-5,000 words, 500-1000 hours listening time, about 100 hours of grammar study after hitting 3,000 words). We should not ‘expect’ ability beyond these minimums (obviously it is possible, but this is a general guideline i operate within). Once we understand these minimums, we do everything in our power to get here quickly and efficiently, because once these things overlap, the brain kicks in and does its thing.
By operating in this way and trusting your brain will allow you to develop a very powerful thing, which is expectancy.The majority of learners do not know when to expect changes or growth. They don’t know when they’ll get better and understanding speech, reading or when their own abilities will increase. They know they need to put “effort” into it, but what does “effort” entail? This is where my research has really gone into high detail. “effort”, or the constant E (exposure) which we saw earlier, requires several very careful steps that are quite detailed and have their own energy requirements, that done properly inevitably lead you to advanced comprehension.
Can you image starting a new language with the knowledge that within 8-10 weeks you will have a guaranteed advanced speaking and comprehensive ability? That’s part of my aim as I keep doing my research with my presently awareness based on my research over the years.
Interesting times ahead! I’ll be posting another article soon.