The Word Brain

Discussion in 'Product Reviews' started by Big_Dog, Dec 7, 2014.

  1. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    The Word Brain - A Short Guide to Fast Language Learning, by Bernd Sebastian Kamps

    I’ve decided to do a review of this free language learning guide, because over the years I’ve found it to be quite interesting and useful. I like his honesty and his work ethic. In a world where the most popular language guides promise easy progress and value encouragement over substance, this little guide is a breath of fresh air. Of course there are many things I disagree with, but overall I think this guide is a great resource for all language learners.

    My history with The Word Brain started several years ago, when kikenyoy showed it to me. I liked some things about it, but overall wasn’t terribly impressed and wrote a mostly negative review of it on HTLAL at the time. Over the years I’ve found myself coming back to it several times. For example, about 3 years ago in Thailand I used his review method for learning lists of words, and learned 50/day for 50 days. I recently came back to it to reread his estimates to become a good listener. So I think it deserves a thorough review here. I'll review it by chapter name.

    Goals
    On the contrary, this short guide for adults may appear harsh and rude as it is about determination, discipline, and perseverance. If these are dirty words to you, close this guide now.

    I love this forward, and especially quotes like this. He leaves no doubt that language learning takes effort.

    I would dedicate two consecutive years to learning my 7th language. Just to complicate matters, I accepted a triple challenge:
    1. Learn a language at an advanced age – at 50, the memory is not what it used to be at 20.
    2. Learn the language without teachers, using only books, CDs and TV.
    3. Learn a difficult language: Arabic.


    He sets the stage for this language learning effort, which made me think he was going to base the guide on this, but he never tells us the results. A little bit of a tease. Also, he’s left out a lot of detail. 2 years to learn Arabic is very short, since the level he describes in the rest of the guide is certainly C1/C2. I think it’s possible to accomplish that, but it would most likely require full time study and immersion.

    I define ‘speaking another language’ extensively. The definition includes the ability
    • to read essays or newspapers
    • to understand TV news or documentary programs
    • to imagine the correct spelling of words while listening to TV news or documentaries
    • to understand everyday conversation


    This is his definition of course, but I would add the ability to read novels, signs, menus and ads, understand movies and TV dramas, be able to handwrite and type messages. He’s obviously a pretty no-nonsense kind of guy, which we’ll see again later.

    the time estimated to accomplish your task is between one and five years.

    I think this is very realistic. Most guides severely underestimate it, and I remember someone saying it would take 15 years to get to a similar level in Korean.

    Words
    To be comfortable in another language you need roughly half of the words you possess in your native language – 25,000. As about 40 percent are variants of other words and can be easily inferred, a good estimate of truly unique words you need to start with is 15,000 words.

    I think this estimate is also very reasonable and he goes on to say because of transparency, the range is 5,000 – 15,000, which I agree with. But I’d like to point out that while synonyms are easier, they still require some work.

    At a conservative estimate of 10 words per hour, it will take you 500 hours to learn 5,000 words (French/Spanish) and 1,500 hours to learn 15,000 words (European/Arabic). Based on the number of hours you are prepared to invest on a daily basis, your total study time can be predicted with fairly good accuracy.

    His time estimates are probably ballpark, but I don’t think everybody needs to do isolated vocabulary study, or study in lists/flashcards. Personally, I find it very useful, so I’m grateful for the numbers, but lots of learners don’t seem to use them.

    language learning means daily learning. ‘2-hours-a-week’ schedules are likely to be insufficient…

    language learning is mostly a do-it-yourself job. The thousands of words you need to learn are currently outside your word brain and must get inside. Nobody, except you, can do this job…

    You are planning the final ascent to the 4,808 m summit of Mont Blanc, starting at the Gouter Hut at 3,800 m? As you know that it takes you 30 minutes to climb 100 meters, you can expect to reach the summit in about five hours. Some of your friends may get to the summit in 4 hours, others in 6 hours, but nobody will do it in 30 minutes.

    Well said.

    importing 5,000 to 15,000 new words into your brain in 500 to 1,500 hours turns out to be THE major battlefield in language learning, representing 60 to 80 percent of your total effort.

    I disagree. I think listening takes the most time. You’ll see later on that he considers listening to take a negligible amount of time because you can just replace watching TV in L1 with L2. In my mind, this is still language learning time, which is why I disagree with him.


    Listening
    At full speed, speech is unpardonable – a single instant of indecision makes you stumble and after getting onto your feet again, the sentence is gone.

    Well said. The reason I like this quote is that it drives in the point that it’s better to speak fluidly, even if you make some mistakes. Native speakers will forgive mistakes much more readily than pauses, and you don’t read this information in many guides.

    Thorough training is paramount. In my experience, it took around 1,500 to 2,000 hours of intense listening to achieve ‘semi-perfect sequencing abilities’, both in French and Italian. Amazingly, the results were similar for Arabic, a language so totally different from everything I had learned before. This seems counterintuitive because in Arabic, I needed to learn at least three times as many words as in Italian, and raises a couple of questions: Could the time of exposure that is needed to achieve full sequencing abilities (1,500 hours would translate into 6, 4, and 2 hours per day over a period of 9, 12, and 24 months, respectively) be a human constant?

    I like the idea that the time to become a good listener could be a constant, but the thing I like most about this quote is that he gives some solid numbers, 1500-2000 hrs, that I can use for planning. For example, it would take a good 2 years at 2 hours a day to become a good listener in a language. This drives home the point that we have to listen, and we have to listen a lot, nearly every day when we are learning a language. I don’t like that he stops short of calling this listening, and opts for "speech recognition" instead, I guess because that’s what all the science spelled out here is based on. My takeaway is “it takes 1500-2000 hours of listening practice to become a good listener in a language”.

    As listening can easily be done in parallel to other activities – commuting, doing sport, cooking, etc. – you will manage to dissolve the bulk of your speech recognition program in daily life (like a murderer who dissolves a corpse in an acid bath!).

    I already commented that I still consider this time as study. That’s not why I posted this quote. Are you thinking of Breaking Bad right now? Keep in mind this was well before that. What kind of a maniac would come up with this? Maybe he had more hobbies that just languages growing up? I love this guy!

    1) During the first year of your training, never read a text without hearing the sound. 2) Only listen to audio sources if you have the corresponding text at hand.

    This would be nice, but hard advice to follow for many. Often such resources aren’t available.

    The immediate consequence is that it is imperative that your first language manual comes with a CD-ROM (CD). During the 100 hours of extra study just mentioned, listen to the CD.

    This isn’t bad advice, but I would take a good text without a CD over a bad one with. Listening practice at an early stage can be obtained from other sources.

    In these cases, take single sentences or even single words, put them in an audio loop and listen to them 5, 10, or 15 times.

    This is overkill, imo, or at the very least I wouldn’t enjoy it. On the other hand, maybe because I always start with Pimsleur I don’t know what people have to go through with other methods.

    Insomnia, too, is an excellent moment for donning your earphones. Some people will discover that the incomprehensible sounds will lull them into sleep. Finally, don’t be afraid of unconventional behaviour. If you are used to having a siesta, put your earphones on and activate the loop mode. It is certainly impossible to learn words during sleep, but the sound and music of the new language will certainly enter your brain.

    I’m against having any electronic devices on when I sleep, because it interferes at some level. Never worth it, imo.

    Apart from high-quality documentaries, which are rare, TV is a poor source of content, and most of us would prefer reading books or scientific journals.

    This is certainly personal opinion. I like comedies, for example.

    Persist, even if you don't understand a single word. Remember: it is all about word boundaries

    Maybe if all you’re trying to do is distinguish boundaries, but I develop that skill quite quickly. What takes time is understanding, and imo listing when you don’t know a single word has limited usefulness. I’m a believer in i+1, even though it’s hard to get nicely graduated material for this. So I listen to really hard stuff less in the beginning, and gradually build up to it over the years.

    There are good reasons to restrain your desire to communicate. As you are a virgin – linguistically speaking – you might prefer to stay that way for a while. If you accept patience, my favourite prescription is a monastic ‘3-month silence’.

    Often when people say “don’t start speaking for 3 months”, they are talking about conversation. They often think pronunciation practice is fine from the beginning. But he is talking about not speaking at all for 3 months, which I strongly disagree with. I think you should start pronouncing from the very beginning, and have a good handle on it before you do much in the other skills, like reading, or you will fossilize errors and most likely not reach your full potential in pronunciation.

    Reading
    As a consequence, reading, which is supposed to support you during the learning process, is frequently of no help at all, because you actually need to know what you are learning before you can read it.

    He’s talking about learning a language that doesn’t use Latin script here. I agree with him, which is why I recommend learning the script before anything else, along with pronunciation. Unfortunately he doesn’t talk much about the order to do things in this guide.

    I recommend that you start studying classical language manuals.

    His link points to traditional language courses like Teach Yourself. These a generally pretty good, but there are many good resources that he didn’t mention, some of then traditional courses, some not so traditional, some of them free courses online, etc.

    After the first manual, you may consider studying a second one, but then you should change strategy. An appropriate strategy for adults is to read what they usually read in their native language.

    Similar to what he suggested in listening, this is a big step, and doesn’t take advantage of i+1. I think most students will benefit from getting comfortable with intermediate material before going to advanced.

    Now take a text of your choice, underline the new words, search for them in your dictionary, write them down in a neat, hand-written list or in a computer document, and learn them.

    He describes what seems to be a pretty good method for using paper dictionaries, but many people, including myself, don’t use them. And his reading program doesn’t involve the computer at all. It’s also unfortunate that he didn’t talk about reading out loud.

    Training the visual brain areas at the back of the head (see Figure 3.3) has little influence on the performance of the auditory brain areas.

    This was interesting to me, and it makes sense.

    Teachers
    He suggests using teachers to learn grammar, so this whole chapter isn’t very useful for me since I think it’s more efficient to learn it from a textbook. He warns about using teachers who’ve never learned a foreign language:

    You wouldn’t want to learn sex with nuns and priests.

    I don’t know – sounds kind fun to me.

    this will not demand more than 50 hours of extra training

    I strongly disagree with this. I think it depends on the language. For example, I’ve spent several hundred hours studying grammar of both Japanese and Russian, and am still not “finished”.

    Just recognizing grammar requires 10 times less training than producing grammar.

    Another interesting and useful point I rarely see in guides.

    Make sure that you receive grammar lessons in your native language.

    This is good advice for me, but laddering is very popular these days, and he should probably be more supportive.

    In today’s environment, the best role for a language teacher is probably that of a coach. Depending on your previous exposure to your native and subsequent languages, your coach will prepare an individual time schedule for your project; recommend books, podcasts, audio books, and broadcasts; provide the first round of grammar; advise you on how to manage your daily word quota; teach you how to check that new words have arrived in your long-term memory; and demonstrate common pronunciation pitfalls.

    Nice paragraph, in contrast to the previous declarations that teachers should only be used to learn grammar.

    Speaking
    The day you utter your first words in a new language is not always a happy day.

    Lol – funny, but true.

    listen to your favorite language CDs and repeat the now familiar words and sentences

    This is good advice – shadowing. But he makes no mention of working on individual sounds. I find learning pronunciation of individual sounds, at the same time you are learning the alphabet, crucial.

    You will notice that over the years (yes, we are now talking about years and not about weeks or months), speech production will become increasingly unconscious.

    I just love it when he reminds people how long it will take. Like I said, a breath of fresh air.

    For your initial training sessions, we generously allocate 50 extra hours.

    This is way too low. It takes hundreds of hours to become a good speaker.

    Memory
    Most of this chapter falls into the category of “interesting background information”. I read it, but let a lot of it flow over my head. What I found interesting was his discussion on spaced repetition.

    If you meet a word for the first time on Day 0, repeat it on Day 1, 3, 6, 10, 17, and 31.

    He goes on to say that you should memorize wordlists of 20-50 words per day, but you’ll probably get overloaded, and finally recommends 20 per day, 5 days a week. The concept appealed to me, because after a month you’re finished, so there is a always finite number of reps, and words are always fairly new, meaning it might be possible to get better turnover than with a standard SRS.

    As I said before, I tried this using 50 words per day studying Thai for a couple months. I did it every day, which means after the first month my reps maxed out at 7 wordlists per day. To make a long story short, it was a useful method, but I prefer a standard SRS.

    Another point - elsewhere he doesn’t do any writing, so he’s getting more benefit out of doing handwritten wordlists than people who already have writing components in their methods.

    If your teacher tells you that you can do without word lists, fire him.

    Why not just dissolve his body in acid? There are people who learn languages quite quickly without wordlists, SRS’s, etc, so this advice seems a little harsh.


    Nailing
    I don’t know why he chose to say “nailing” rather than “memorizing”, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. In this chapter he describes the spaced repetition process that I already commented on. He goes into some detail about how to memorize a list for the first time, which is fairly well done.

    There is one acceptable solution: nailing carefully selected word compilations that are grouped by topic and divided into basic and advanced vocabulary.

    He seems to really like isolated lists, which I don’t recommend.

    Epilogue
    Youth, high levels of sex hormones, and the desire to find mates, are mighty communication catalysers.

    Right on!

    Closing comments
    As I’ve said, although I disagree with many of the things he’s said, this is a very useful guide. Particularly useful is his no-nonsense style, his complete honesty, his time estimates, the sections on listening, memory and nailing.

    There are two main drawbacks imo. Although this guide spells out a language learning method that could be used many years ago, and can be used many years into the future, it leaves out lots of modern tools which are very useful. The second issue is just a general lack of detail, which is mostly due to it’s size. He designed it to be read in 2 hours, so it’s necessarily limited.
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  2. Bob

    Bob Active Member VIP member

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    wow I love this quote on the front cover.

    I zeroed in on this as you might expect, because listening is always my problem. This is an interesting idea. Is there a "formula" I can follow? I'm willing to accept that it could take awhile. Wish there was some way to verify this. Also I'm not sure what all he might do when he is listening. I don't like that he has a "just do it" attitude for listening I find so common in these kind of books. Do some people really just listen and get it?

    also what he says about word boundaries coming out even when you don't know the words makes me wonder about all the Japanese anime I've watched in sub :p
  3. neofight78

    neofight78 Member VIP member

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    Doesn't sound like the book says a lot that's not already been said. But yes, it refreshing to hear some honesty about the time required. There is no magic formula, despite what some people claim. Here's an interesting quote from the conclusion of a report from the FSI:

    Why did learners learn almost as successfully in the early days of the long histories of FSI, the Defense Language Institute, Georgetown’s English Language Institute, and other comparable institutions, as they do today, despite the clear increases in the field’s understanding of teaching and learning?​

    Which seems to me to say methods don't matter all that much. Many people already realise this but still think and talk about methodology a lot. I suspect the illusion of an effective method is more to do with how much we enjoy it and how much it makes us *feel* like we are making progress.
  4. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Since he's said it takes at least 1500 hours, I don't think he expects you to just listen and get it. I'm expecting to need 1500 hrs to get to my goal, based on his statement. I'm about half way there (781 hrs), and it feels like I understand a little more than half of what I should, so maybe he's right. He talks about listening all the time, but paying attention too. I didn't get the impression that he counts passive listening towards the 1500.
  5. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    I recommend not just relying on my review, incase you haven't read it. I've never seen this combination elsewhere. It's actually a very robust, well rounded method. Other than a solid writing component, it's pretty complete for a 2 hour read. And I've never seen his particular vocabulary learning method or his estimations on listening hours anywhere else.

    It makes sense to me that proven polyglots of 50 years ago learned as quickly as modern ones; I'd have been surprised if a change in teaching methods made a big difference. As for tools, there are definitely benefits to using paper dictionaries and such that balance out the disadvantages. To a random group of skilled language learners, method probably isn't that important.

    However, there are methods out there that are lacking, and inexperienced learners should beware. Methods that leave out skills entirely, or that spend too much time building up a lop-sided skill set, which can be inefficient, depending on the goals of the learner. These are just some reasons I think it's worthwhile to talk about methodology.
  6. neofight78

    neofight78 Member VIP member

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    Well, yes TL;DR ;-p

    If I get time I'll have a read, as it probably is an interesting and useful book.

    Sure, there is still the potential for failure, but then if you're the kind of person to research and discuss methods then you're probably going to be the kind of person to avoid the worst problems. It's like taking care of your health, if you eat everything in moderation and exercise in moderation you can't go wrong. As you say it's the lopsided or extreme approaches that run the risk of disaster, the fad diets or exercise regimes if you will.

    Of course my comment is not saying that methodology is unimportant, but that it's importance is probably more to do with our psychology of motivation and sense of progress rather than theoretical efficiency. I could be talking nonsense of course, but that's how it seems to me at the moment.
  7. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    If that's how it seems, then for you it's true. Nicely done! :D
  8. Bob

    Bob Active Member VIP member

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    Hmm I tried to find something to back up the 2000 hour listening. What I found was another idea (applied to language) that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, and you can get 80% of the results in 20% of the time which would be 2000 hours.
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  9. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Nice. He based the 1500-2000 hours on his personal experience with French, Italian and Arabic. Apparently he kept good records.
  10. Bob

    Bob Active Member VIP member

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    He said those three languages took about the same amount of listening time. I wonder if it would be different if he was doing, say, Spanish and Portugese -- Something with closer sounds. French is kind of unique in the way you pronounce stuff. I listened my way quite quickly through FSI Portugese, but FSI French was kind of a punch in the face. I didn't finish it :p

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