Why do I improve after long study breaks? Bow wave!

Discussion in 'The language learning methods of Big_Dog' started by Big_Dog, Apr 23, 2014.

  1. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Description of the phenomenon
    . Here's something I mentioned in my post about reading. Have you ever noticed a significant improvement in your language level after a long break in your studies? I have. Why does this happen? Are there ways you can use this to your advantage? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I have some theories and suggestions, but first let me give you an account of my experiences to let you know how I came to these conclusions.

    The first time I noticed such a phenomenon was when I was studying Thai. After my third trip to Thailand, I broke up with my Thai girlfriend, started to learn Japanese, and decided never to speak Thai again. About six months into my Japanese studies, I got interested in Thai again. Not really sure why, but there was probably a girl involved. Anyway, when I got to Thailand, I was really rusty, as I expected. But even though I didn’t do anything outside of conversation, about a week into the trip I noticed my Thai was actually better than when I dropped it! I was shocked.

    About a year later, I was disgusted with Japanese. I’d been learning it forever, spending all my free time, and I wanted my life back. So I just stopped learning it completely for a few months, then started learning Chinese. One day I decided I missed Japanese, and took a short trip to Japan. Once again – it had actually improved, despite of the time I’d spent away from it.

    Then something happened that totally blew me away. First some background. I have been “learning” Spanish since I was 11. I lived in Ecuador for 2 years as a child, and never really caught on because I was in an American school and all my friends were Americans. I took Spanish in high school for the easy grades. Still, my level was quite low. I married a Panamanian when I was 36 years old. I spoke Spanish with her all the time, and watched some Mexican TV shows with her. And yet my spoken Spanish was pretty rough, and I only understood about half of what I watched on TV. We were divorced 2 years later, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with Spanish. I took a 3 year break to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania, learning Swahili, amongst other things. I took a short vacation to Costa Rica shortly after getting back. I felt my level was about the same as before. Then I started learning Thai and all my other languages, not even touching my Spanish.

    Now here’s the shocker. One fine day, I can’t remember the exact date, but I think it was after I started studying Mandarin, I was clicking through the TV cannels and stopped on some Mexican movie. I watched it for a minute, wasn’t really interested, and kept going. Then it occurred to me that I understood it well enough to know what was going on. I thought “that’s funny”, and I guess it was my new desire to become a polyglot that made me go back to check my level. So I went back, and was amazed to understand everything that was being said. Certainly, I missed words here and there, but my comprehension had gone from about 50% to over 90% with what I would call an insignificant amount of study or maintenance.

    Those were some examples of big gaps in study that resulted in improvements. There is another phenomenon which I think is related. When I go on all these wonderful trips to target countries, I often study pretty hard, but don’t see huge gains when I’m there. However, on many occasions, a week or more after leaving, my level reaches it’s highest point ever.

    So those are some things that have happened to me, but I’d like to point out that I’m not the only one who has experienced this. For example, when Steve Kaufmann was interviewed on Canadian TV, he mentioned that after years of doing nothing with Chinese, he began to converse again, and realized his level was higher than it had ever been.


    My big mistake. Originally, I felt like I had discovered something very useful about language learning, and I wanted to capitalize on it. It seemed like I was steadily improving in my languages whether or not I worked on them. Maybe this was the secret that allowed super polyglots to learn so many languages so quickly. Obviously, a big initial effort was needed, to get enough input if for no other reason, but after that it seemed like no further work was required. Or perhaps only very limited work, occasional immersion, etc. So that was my line of reasoning when I stopped learning or maintaining my old languages.

    But it didn’t work. Those initial occurrences I wrote about above stopped happening not long after I stopped studying. All my levels dropped, and in some areas, like reading and writing Chinese characters, drastically. That’s when I got more serious about maintaining my languages. And the mistake was made even bigger by the fact that I added more languages in the meantime, thinking there would be no ill effect. As I’ve said before, now I’m stuck with 5 languages in the B’s, and it’s no picnic to maintain them.


    The bow wave. So why did all that improvement take place? And what about the huge improvement in my Spanish? Can it be explained, and more importantly, can we somehow use what appears to be the amazing power of these phenomena to reduce our workload and improve our language learning?

    I used to work for a certain large aircraft company that shall remain nameless, and they had thousands of drawings to release in a short period of time. There was always a great rush to meet release dates, so they had to put a huge number of people on the effort, all of which were on overtime, and most of which were working on several drawings at once. Due to all the confusion, and all the demands on peoples’ time, the organization actually became less efficient during this effort. I heard one manager describe the actual release curve lagging the scheduled release curve as a “bow wave”. As a boat sails through the water, it creates a bow wave – a wave that proceeds the front of the boat. As the boat speeds up, the wave gets bigger. I’ve decided to name the phenomenon I’ve been talking about bow wave, because some of the properties are similar.

    While we are actively studying a language, we are improving, but this is never a perfect process, and certain issues can delay assimilation. According to Krashen’s affective filter hypothesis, certain emotions such as anxiety, self doubt, boredom, etc. prevent efficient processing of language input. I agree with this, and think that when you learn inefficiently, you’re creating a bow wave, or building up all this potential that isn’t immediately turned into progress. If you remove the sources of the bow wave, it will dissipate and turn into progress.

    That was a pretty simple statement of the theory, so let me apply it to some of the phenomena above. I’d studied Thai for a couple years, then quit. Trust me, there was a lot of frustration when I learned Thai, so that contributed to a bow wave. And I believe that learning itself, when I do it for an hour or more a day, even when it’s not particularly stressful, contributes to the bow wave. The longer I study, the bigger the bow wave. So when I quit Thai, the bow wave dissipated, and turned into progress.

    Now it should be noted that memory can limit the amount of time you have to notice your improvement. I had a pretty good size bow wave built up from Thai, and waiting 6 months or so worked out pretty well. But I’m guessing the sweet spot would have been a couple months earlier. If I had waited a year, my level probably would have been considerably lower. In fact, this wasn’t the first time I quit Thai. As I mentioned in my language maintenance post, I quit once early on, and my level dropped drastically. That makes sense, because I had a very small bow wave at that time.

    What about the huge improvement in my Spanish? This was due to the huge bow wave I built up over many, many years. Lots of frustrated learning. Tons of input. I divorced my Panamanian ex-wife and quit Spanish completely, eliminating the sources and allowing the bow wave to dissipate.

    Explaining my short trips to target countries, I build up a nice little bow wave, and the effect peaks out a week or two after I leave, because leaving removes the source and the bow wave dissipates.

    Finally, quitting my old languages didn’t result in their improvement because the bow wave effect had worn out. The bow wave effect doesn’t last forever.

    To summarize some important points about the bow wave:

    1) It’s caused by inefficient study. If you assimilate language quickly and efficiently, you will have little if any bow wave.

    2) Some things that cause inefficient study – too many hours per day, anxiety, self doubt, boredom, etc

    3) The more months or years you study, the bigger the bow wave.

    4) The bow wave effect, or improvement you notice after a break, takes some time to peak; the bigger the bow wave, the more time it takes. But it doesn’t last forever, and the effect will diminish if you don’t start using the language again.

    How to use this to our advantage. You can try to eliminate the bow wave. Obviously, it’s better to study efficiently and make progress in a language quickly. You can do this by reducing your affective filter. And a lot of time and energy these days goes into people trying to reduce their affective filters. I have seen so many articles telling me if I don’t have fun I’m doomed, and if I can’t relax and believe in myself I will fail. But these articles, while well meaning, aren’t very helpful to me. I’m sort of set in my ways, and I prefer to go through life without getting all bubbly and bouncing off walls and stuff. There are good days and there are bad days, and accepting that is a more useful goal than trying to drastically change my personality.

    I believe most people are going to have at least a little bow wave when they study a language, even if they try to reduce it. So I suggest you release your bow wave and reap the benefits. Yes, the only way to do this is to take breaks. Take a break, and (ideally) resume your studies when the bow wave effect is peaking. Ride the wave! Otherwise, that bow wave is going to keep growing and growing. You might get frustrated by your diminished progress with that big ol’ bow wave holding you back. So if you take a month or two off, you’ll lose all your frustration, and pick up your studies at a higher level than when you quit, maybe even higher than where you would have been if you hadn’t quit, and you will reach your long term goal just as quickly. I call this sort of periodic study learning in spurts.
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2014
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  2. sfuqua

    sfuqua New Member

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    About 30 years ago I did a masters degree in second language acquisition. One of the more surprising studies I remember reading was one about people in Europe, the Netherlands I believe, who studied a language up to an intermediate level and then had no exposure to it for a few months or a year. Most of them, who had continued to study other languages in the mean time, showed improvement in listening comprehension, and to a lesser extent, reading in the language they had not used or studied. The authors of the study were surprised to say the least. It matches your experience and may be the result of exactly what you say.

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  3. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Cool to hear I'm not the only one. Yeah, it's just another one of those seemingly illogical things about language learning. I'm going to try to figure out better ways to exploit this in the future.
  4. Bjorn

    Bjorn Active Member VIP member

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    An interesting read.
    With my personality, I think a create a bow wave regarding whatever methods I use.
    I'm quite project oriented, meaning I like to do one thing quite intensely for a period. I have problems doing small things regularly, like study for 15-30 minutes each day. I guess I like the intense feeling when doing a project and find it quite boring doing small things each day.

    So the question for me will be how to best utilize this bow wave.

    Yeah, I know, that is a thing called discipline :D
  5. Bob

    Bob Active Member VIP member

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    Sometimes I think my brain says this WILL take 3 days to figure something out, and it doesn't matter if I spend 30 minutes on it per day or 3 hours.
  6. Nobody

    Nobody Member

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    My experience is similar, albeit with fewer languages. I've responded by simply alternating between heavy Korean/casual Chinese, and heavy Chinese/casual Korean. It's worked all right.
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  7. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Agreed. I use the term “bow wave” to express the accumulated amount of time required for memory consolidation. In my theory, the bow wave is influenced by the affective filter. Many things increase the affective filter, including study itself. And the only way to receive all the benefits from your studies is to lower the affective filter. I might have been able to state all of that without inventing “bow wave”, but to me it’s very helpful to imagine this big wave accumulating and dissipating per the theory. Sometimes I imagine it full of time, sometimes full of inefficient study, but it still looks like a wave that wants to crash, but that frikken affective filter keeps getting in the way.

    Anything you can do to lower the affective filter will help, so probably not 100% essential in every case. In my theory, studying contributes to the filter. I think depending on the amount you study, and your individual sensitivity to it, it can be a major factor. Personally, I’m pretty sensitive to study, so I really need to take a break. And I advise people to take breaks too, because it has so many other benefits. Most people take breaks anyway, regardless of my dingy theory, so it probably makes them feel good when they hear yet another reason they are doing the right thing.

    I think you answered this one yourself. It takes time to consolidate, so if you are actively learning, you won’t get the full benefit until some time after you are finished.

    But maybe you mean “will the stuff I studied this week all be assimilated in the next few months, or will it stay in the bow wave until I eventually quit studying” or something like that. In that case, the stuff for this week will get assimilated in the next few months, but the bow wave doesn’t shrink because other stuff is added. So the make up of the bow wave (see how I switched from “time” to “material” – the bow wave is a pretty handy concept) changes, but it can still continue to grow. There’s a current in there. Sharks too.
    Last edited: Apr 29, 2014
  8. tastyonions

    tastyonions Member VIP member

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    I've never completely let a language fall by the wayside, but I have many significant periods of continued exposure without active study. I'm listening to things and reading things in the TL but not talking, not trying to memorize vocab or acquire new grammatical forms, or anything like that. Would you say that mere exposure to the language has an effect on the affective filter, or is it mainly active study that increases it?
  9. luke

    luke Member VIP member

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    I'm thinking of personally applying Bow Wave theory thusly....

    I'm currently doing an intensive run through Assimil Business French (C1 level). This involves primarily listening and reading at the C1 level. I'm probably B1 in French now.

    (A) wave (total 40-60 minutes / day)
    Intensive (Bow) Wave (20-30 minutes)
    Listen/Read French/English.
    Listen/Read French/French
    Listen and Read notes, look at cartoon, read "document" (unrecorded).
    Listen/Read French/French

    Yesterday's lesson and lesson from 7 days ago. (20-25 minutes)
    Listen/Read French/French
    Read document.

    (B) wave (5 minutes)
    Taking advantage of the Bow Wave (next time around). (low intensity)
    Listen/Read French/French lesson from about 40-50 days ago. (5 minutes).

    (C) wave
    Later intensive wave.
    Combination of Listen/Reading, re-reading documents, doing translation exercises and applications.

    So, the idea of that Wave B, although low intensity still brings the study of A to it's peak. Then, as Wave B concludes, start wave C with a new higher level of intensity than ever before.

    Also, during the lull in wave B, intensify some other study, such as FSI.

    I know this is a bastardization of Bow Wave, but it's what I'm thinking this morning.
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2014
  10. Cainntear

    Cainntear Active Member VIP member

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    I believe the results of the study sfuqua refers to have been revisited and re-examined frequently, and confirmed as valid.

    The last version I saw was a study with a simplified language invented purely for examining language learning. As I recall it, the language is composed of a couple of dozen elements at most, and can be learned in a few days. After the initial teaching, they left the learners for several weeks (a month, maybe?) with no contact with the language, and when tested at the end, their mastery of the syntax had improved over the end-of-course test.

    It's well accepted that the brain tends to sort things out "in the background" -- the big question is where the boundary occurs where the brain stops the background processing and simply concludes that the information is useless.....
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  11. biTsar

    biTsar Active Member VIP member

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    Cainntear is here, hurrah !
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  12. Cainntear

    Cainntear Active Member VIP member

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    No I'm not -- I'm just a figment of your imagination. Now go away and take your medication. :p
  13. biTsar

    biTsar Active Member VIP member

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    It's nice to have you back, Sir !
  14. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Yes, I think it has an effect, but probably less of one. I'll try to address this in the follow-up.

    That's ok. What you've taken away from this is that it's good to mix in some easy periods, which is correct, imo.

    Agreed. I would love to know just when to jump back in. I need to think about this before I write my follow-up.

    I second that! Legendary poster.
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2014
  15. tastyonions

    tastyonions Member VIP member

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    Welcome, Cainntear!
  16. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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