Fluent Czech: On Going From PolyNot to PolyGlot

I don’t pay much attention to how-to-learn-languages material generally, figuring that my time is better spent actually doing Japanese; and on top of that I don’t like videos because it takes a lot less time to read the same information and it also sticks better, for me at any rate.

This nearly hour-long video, I have now watched three times.

If like me you’d prefer just to read it, just for you, I took notes (they’re fairly raw though, fair warning). Click through to read.

Why do some people use up their energy in a language learning session, whereas others are energized by it?

Peano Axiom: any number can be created by adding one to the previous number. you can count as far as you want as long as you can add one

Easiest way to be able to speak 10 foreign languages?

Step 1: Speak 9
Step 2: Add 1

Step 1 is the hardest! but once you’ve done that it’s much easier to add one more

You can keep going like that until you speak 0, then Step 2 is hard!

For mega-polyglots, adding 1 is easy. For ordinary people it’s really hard. Why?

Applied linguistics: the branch of linguistics dealing with actually learning languages

“Learning Vocabulary in Another Language” by I.S.P. Nation – surveys 600 studies, and finds that the main difference between polyglots and polynots is that polyglots are good at guessing.

They are good at guessing because they have better short-term memories. Not better long-term memory

Why is short term memory important? Short term memory supports three essential language skills

-noticing things
-processing things
-guessing things

Developing a better short-term memory allows you to develop these three skills, which allows you to use the methods polyglots use.

A few weeks of training can develop these skills.

Related to vocabulary

research has shown that in order to comprehend input vocabulary knowledge is much more important that grammatical knowledge or knowledge of the subject matter

people learn about 1000 words a year up till 20 years old

comprehension levels:

98% – pleasant free reading
95% – comprehensible
90% – serious studying
85% – heroes only
80% – gibberish

polynot approach to vocabulary:

believe in the existence of one magic strategy
seek confirmation for their method
stick with it despite the evidence
masses of rote learning of single words
lengthy cramming sessions
want to pin down one true meaning of a word
see dictionaries as authoritative over their own impression of a word’s meaning
either “know” a word or not

which words:
given in homework
thematic groups (e.g. a list of names of fish)
words that sound nice
vulgar or unusual

shun output as too painful, believe magic will happen once they reach a high level of vocabulary

polyglot approach to vocabulary:

vocabulary learning is not end goal
effective control of vocabulary for confident and fluent use
knowing a word is not all or nothing – repeated exposures in different contexts give different shades of meaning

see knowing a word as multidimensional: form, meaning, use

form: spelling, pronunciation, etc
meaning: central concept, diverse meanings, associations
use: frequency, formality, medium, collocations

balancing four strands of study:

intensive vocabulary study (polynots tend to over focus)
extensive listening and reading
speaking and writing
fluency development

intensive study:
choose words based on frequency (usefulness)

percent coverage:
87000 – 100%
20000 – 98%
4000 – 87%
2000 – 81%
1000 – 74%
100 – 49%
10 – 24%

intensely study the 2000 to 4000 most frequent words
polyglots have a general sense of what is high frequency – polynots do not, so should use frequency lists
then learn the 2000 most frequent words in your specialist field of personal interest
e.g. academic word list, conversational vocab, journalism, fiction
for example: just 34 specialist words covered 10% of a certain 300000-word macroeconomics textbook
beyond 6000 words frequency is too rare to make intensive study worth it

extensive reading:
helps you encounter low frequency words
enriches knowledge of high frequency words
master collocations
-to learn words from context you need 95% – 98% coverage

so do you need 20000 words before you can start? no – polyglots are masters at finding approachable material
e.g. graded readers that introduce high frequency words in order
objective is not to make it easy, but to develop vocabulary control by “eliminating the deleterious superfluity of very low frequency vocabulary” (such as, “deleterious superfluity”!)
hit words from many different angles to deepen understanding
after going through graded material you are ready for authentic material in your area of interest

to learn 1000 new low frequency words a year you need exposure to about 1 million words per year for sufficient repetition
equals one or two books per month or newsmagazine per week

how do you deal with unknown vocabulary?
polynots: rely on gloss or dictionary
polyglots: guess
guessing gives longer lasting and deeper meaning over time because you’ve thought it through
repeated encounters in different contexts
good guesses depend on good clues
knowing similar languages can help (cognates) but can also hinder (interference)
rely far more on a wide variety of contextual clues evaluated against each other
broadening scope to look for different clues until they feel their guess is sufficiently well founded
are happy to leave for another time what they cannot grasp now – polynots hate this
without strong short term memory you don’t notice the clues, you forget those you do notice, and so you can’t evaluate them against each other

short term memory can be trained (harder the older you get)
by gradually increasing reading span with recall
start with a couple words, look away, recall what you just read (not word for word but close)
broaden it and broaden it. do this for ten minutes a day for six weeks
then gradually widen guessing span in the same way until good guessing becomes automatic

strand 3: speaking and writing
activation is hard, learning many words does not mean you will be able to use them
speak early, speak often – 10 words is enough for a conversation!
colloquial spoken adult vocab is about 2000 words
rehearsing helps activation

book – “how to improve your foreign language immediately” by boris shekthman (he has video on just this book)
little research on activation – most research deals with classroom learning
rehearsing at home helps – talking to yourself, to the mirror, etc
repeating things you see in daily life – polynots do not do this, polyglots do this without even thinking (considering how they will use vocabulary as they are learning it)
summarise – with 400 words you can summarise just about anything
keep elaborating your summaries over time as you learn more
islands – write many things, keep elaborating them

strand 4: fluency development
fluency is not about sounding like a native or having large vocabulary, but being quick and in control with what you have – training for automaticity
“how do you think in a foreign language?” “the aim is not to think at all …”
thinking is too slow for real life!
practises shown essential
1 overlearning
2 high speed listening, reading, speaking, writing (don’t fear things that are native speed)
3 lots of real life encounters

automaticity with words is still not fast enough – you need automaticity with clusters of words (i.e. collocations – words that tend to go together in real life)
collocations are about more than speed – they deepen understanding of individual words, e.g. seemingly neutral words can be found to collocate with negative things, so it should be avoided with positive things e.g.2 words can be used as different parts of speech in different contexts
collocations are necessary to sound authentic – “we just don’t say it that way” e.g. no one says “i will get some speedy food”!
many collocations are technically grammatically incorrect e.g. “go to bed” – you don’t say “go to kitchen”!
fossilized collocations e.g. “by and large” not “by and big”
many have flexible collocations “entertain an idea”, “entertain a belief”, “entertain a thought”
polyglots favour (often without realizing) high frequency collocations over low frequency words
the greatest increases in fluency and authenticity come when learners switch focus to automaticity of high frequency collocations
native speakers know around 20000 individual words but several hundred thousand collocations
this is the reason for all that reading and listening


One response to “Fluent Czech: On Going From PolyNot to PolyGlot

  1. Thank you so much for this summary! I’ve already bought the newest addition of How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately at Anthony’s suggestion. I’m going to bookmark this blog post. Happy studying.