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Date: Tuesday, 30 Sep 2014 18:26

People like to profess the virtue of ideas that are incompatible with each other. “Look before you leap,” yet, “he who hesitates is lost.”

Sometimes these contradictions contain a more nuanced explanation. I believe that learning things spaced over time results in greater retention, yet I do short-term learning projects. But I follow those fast projects with slow habits, so it’s not as contradictory as it seems.

Other times the contradiction has no resolution because the aphorisms were poorly thought out in the first place. Here are two popular ones:

Personal growth and change is important.


Consistency is important.

Normally these two thoughts aren’t placed side-by-side, but it seems evident to me that they contradict. How can you claim the virtues of being a consistent person, while also claim the virtues of being a changing one?

Choosing Growth or Consistency

I bring up this contradiction out of many possible ones (much of half-baked philosophy is self-contradictory) because it’s been very important for me.

The social allure of consistency is strong. People want and expect you to be the same person, with the same beliefs, attitudes, dispositions and behaviors that you always have. When you change, regardless of whether you deem the change a positive one or a negative one, people will resist that.

If you’ve always been the shy person, and you start going out more, trying to socialize and meet new friends, your existing friends will resist that. “You’re going out too much.” “You’re neglecting your existing friends.” “You’re becoming loud and obnoxious.”

If you’ve always been the party animal, and you stop drinking, people resist. “You’re no fun anymore.” “You’ve settled down and become boring.”

If you’re overweight and start getting in shape, your friends comment that you look gaunt and need to eat more. If you dress shabbily and start wearing nicer clothes, people gawk at your new wardrobe, “What are you dressed up for?”

People want consistency in their friends and associates. That’s not a sign of weakness, just a sign that they’re human. If I have friends who make abrupt changes, I react the same way as anyone else—with suspicion and unease. I associated with them because of certain qualities, and now those qualities are changing. The instinctual reaction is to resist.

But inconsistency is often a small price to pay for improving your life. Staying out of shape because your friends look at you funny when you start eating salads seems like a pretty trivial excuse, but it is a powerful one.

Choose Growth

I’ve always leaned heavily in favor of choosing growth in my own life. Part of that reflects my age. Young people should almost always choose growth over consistency because their relationships are more fluid, inconsistency is more easily excused when you’re young and there is enormous potential that can possibly be wasted.

But youth isn’t a requirement. I’ve had the pleasure of receiving emails from thousands of people in their 40s, 50s and 70s who see how consistency has held them back. Expectations for who they are calcified decades ago, and now they recognize that it’s not who they want to be. Choosing growth is hard.

Yet, choosing growth is a muscle. As you flex, you become stronger. If you regularly change, the people around you come to expect it. Those who can’t handle it leave.

But remember it is always a choice.

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Date: Monday, 22 Sep 2014 17:00

Learning on Steroids is a program I’ve been building over the last five years to help students, professionals and self-educators learn better. I only offer it once a year, after which I close registration.

If you’ve been following anything I’ve been writing about the MIT Challenge, the year without English or my other learning advice, and you’re interested in seeing how you could do it yourself, this program shows you how.

Click here to learn more about the program.

After September 29th, the program will be closed again, so make sure you check it out before then.

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Date: Monday, 15 Sep 2014 19:06

This is the first day in a one-week, free, rapid-learning bootcamp. Every day, for the next seven days, I’m going to be sending a new email with a strategy you can use to learn more effectively.

However, this first email is the only one I’m making publicly available on the blog. What’s more, once the bootcamp is over, there will be no archive of the content, and you have to wait until next year, when I do a new one.

If you’re interested in getting the free bootcamp emails, sign up for the newsletter. If you’re already on my newsletter, you don’t have to do anything to get the emails, you’ll get them automatically.

After the week is over, I’m going to temporarily reopen Learning on Steroids for new students. Learning on Steroids is a program I run with the goal of teaching you new learning skills and changing your studying habits permanently, so you can do better in school, advance in your career and train yourself to be smarter.

I could do a lengthy sales pitch, but that would be boring. Instead, I prefer to give away some of the best ideas from the program, so you can try them out yourself. That way, even if you don’t sign up when the week is over, hopefully you’ll have some new tools you can experiment with.

Now, back to the strategy I mentioned for increasing your focus…

The Book That Changed My Thinking about Productivity

The origin of this idea comes from a book that flipped my thinking about productivity. The book is called The Power of Full Engagement, by Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr. In it, the authors explain why people have difficulty focusing.

The answer, surprisingly, is time management.

No, not poor time management, but the fact that people prioritize managing their time at all. Let me explain.

People often complain that there just aren’t enough hours in the day. That they have too many things to do, and not enough time to complete all of the work. The proposed solution is better time management: organize the hours in your day better and you’ll get more done.

On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with this advice. But, why then, is it so hard to implement? Why do we incessantly procrastinate and waste time? Why do so many time management attempts burn out after only a few weeks?

The failed idea here, according to Schwartz and Loehr, is that we’re managing the wrong resource. Time isn’t what’s limited in the day (otherwise you wouldn’t waste so much of it) but your energy is. Energy runs out faster than time, which is why it’s easy to procrastinate, even when you have a lot of work to do.

This theory explains personal productivity much better than time management. If time were the limited resource, procrastination wouldn’t be an issue, only scheduling would be. It also explains why many new productivity systems work for a couple weeks and then fail. You can burn your energy reserves intensely for some time before they get used up and you slide back to a lower operating efficiency.

This also explains why focusing is so difficult. Focus requires a lot of energy to be used in a short burst. Learning is tough mental work, just as sprinting is tough physical work. Just as you can only sprint so long before needing to stop, or slow to a light jog, you can only learn intensely for a short period before you start getting distracted.

What Does This Mean for Improving Your Focus?

Well, once again, comparing focusing to sprinting is a good analogy. Nobody can focus indefinitely; you need breaks. You can improve your ability to focus through progressive training. Time spent relaxing isn’t wasteful; it improves your focus long-term, just as resting your legs helps the muscles build after a sprint.

Let’s consider each idea in turn, and then I’ll end with some specific actions for improving your focus both in the short and long-term.

First, just as sprinting non-stop is impossible, sustaining a truly deep focus perpetually is also impossible. You need to take breaks. However, how you take breaks can make a huge difference in your overall efficiency.

Good breaks are short, mentally disengaging and boring. Going for a walk, sitting quietly and drinking a glass of water or even a 15-minute nap are good breaks. Going onto Facebook, checking text messages or watching television are not.

Breaks are not substitutes for time off studying and work. During the MIT Challenge, even when I had to complete a class in as little as five days, I always made sure I never studied on the weekend or evenings. This wasn’t to preserve life balance, but out of necessity. Had I not allowed myself large chunks of time away from studying (not just procrastinating, but genuine, guilt-free relaxation) I would have burned myself out by the first month.

Improve Focus through Progressive Training

Second, focus can be improved through progressive training. That means your current ability to focus can be built up, in the same way that a bodybuilder gets bigger biceps.

When I was learning Chinese, I would often study for around 4-5 hours straight, without breaks. That’s not something I would advise, because the studying session would quickly devolve into a haze of distractions for most people.

But I haven’t always been able to focus like this. It’s something trained through years of practice. I started with a lot more procrastination and distraction, and I pushed myself to focus harder through tackling progressively harder increments.

A good starting point is doing twenty minutes of hard focus. The Pomodoro technique, is a good starting point: set a timer for twenty minutes and commit to working for only that length of time. Afterwards, take a short break and relax a bit before attempting another one.

To improve your focus, you can try adding more “weight”. Pick tasks of harder mental difficulty, which require increased focus to succeed. Alternatively, you can slightly increase the amount of time you’ll need to focus for: go for 25 minutes instead of 20.

There is a limit to focus, just as there’s a limit to muscular growth, that may differ for each person. I don’t believe the goal is to sustain 12-hour studying sessions without breaks. Depending on the type of learning involved, studying four hours a day, divided into 20-minute chunks with 10-minute rest periods, may be the optimum for you. Particularly if the quality of focus is quite high.

However, if you currently feel your ability to focus is underdeveloped, it can be improved through training, in exactly this method.

Rest is Just as Important as Focus

Finally, time spent not focusing is equally important as time spent focusing. Muscles need downtime in order to repair and grow stronger. Your mind needs downtime too, in order to maintain high quality focus for the next day.

If you’re studying full-time, I recommend establishing a policy of not doing any studying on one weekend day and on evenings, after a certain hour. If you’re juggling a job and learning, I recommend picking specific hours to learn, in advance, and don’t study outside of them. Many people I’ve spoken with have found early morning most efficient, since they’re not exhausted from the day’s work yet.

Learning, when done well, is like a series of sprints, not a marathon. That means you have bursts of focus, followed by periods of rest. Both are essential.

Take Action!

Okay, so you understand the idea, now it’s time to actually take action on it.

In this bootcamp, as in Learning on Steroids, I’m not going to just give you ideas. I’m going to give you specific homework to start making use of it. If you don’t take action immediately on this idea, then it won’t result in behavior change. No behavior change, no results.

I’ll keep it real simple, so you’ll have no excuse not to try it:

For right now…

Open your calendar or scheduler and write down exactly which hours you’ll use for studying in the next day. Don’t be ambitious. Pick an amount that makes you slightly anxious you might not get all of your work done. If you don’t feel that anxiety, you’re trying to do too much.

Example 1: I’m a law student, with a lot of reading. I’ve picked 10am-12pm and 2pm-4pm to work on it tomorrow. Outside of that time tomorrow, I can’t pick up the textbook.

Example 2: I’m working full-time and preparing for professional exam. I’ve decided to wake up an hour earlier and put in 60 minutes of studying in the morning and another 30 minutes during my lunch break. No studying after work finishes.

Example 3: I’m studying Japanese at home. I’ve decided to put in 4pm-7pm to spend on active studying of the kanji. Outside of that time, I can do passive learning (watching television, socializing in Japanese), but no studying.

For the next time you work…

Begin your working time with a Pomodoro. That means set a timer for twenty minutes and focus exclusively for that time, followed by a mandatory break. When you take a break, take a helpful one: drink a glass of water, sit quietly, go for a walk, do some pushups, meditate, take a short nap. Don’t watch television, use your phone or go on reddit.

That’s it for today. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about how you should be investing these structured periods of focus in order to learn far more effectively. That way, even if you’re studying half as much, you can still learn more than you do right now.

As mentioned, this was the first in a series of seven free lessons designed to help you learn more efficiently and effectively. If you want to get the rest, you have to join the newsletter.

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Author: "Scott Young" Tags: "Personal Development"
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Date: Wednesday, 10 Sep 2014 19:05

Last week, Vat and I left Korea and ended this year without English. I’ve already written an article summarizing the entire trip. I had hoped to put up the Korean final update first, but we had some delays processing the interviews (unfortunately only one is ready now, so the other will have to wait until Vat finishes the final video as well).

In this article, I’ll talk about defining the level Vat and I reached in Korean as well as the experience of the last country on our trip.

How Good is Our Korean?

Korea was definitely the hardest country for me of the four. I pushed myself hard on Chinese, so I didn’t have the energy to put in 50+ hours per week on a completely new language. Second, some of the random misfortunes of travel hit while traveling: bedbugs, spotty internet, our storage company back in Canada going out of business and being days away from selling all our stuff.

I hadn’t expected to reach the same level with Korean as I did in Chinese, but I still set a high bar: conversational fluency in three months.

Conversational fluency isn’t an exam, so its always going to be a little hard to define exactly. My feeling is that I should be able to regularly have conversations of over an hour without strain for either myself or the other party to count. That doesn’t mean I’ll understand everything perfectly or will forget a word, just that they’ll happen infrequently enough that neither of us feels strained by the conversation.

I’m confident that I have this level in Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese. None of these are perfectly fluent, but using the benchmark established above, I can confidently meet them in each of those languages. (Chinese I also passed the HSK 4, which is a more precise benchmark.)

My Korean doesn’t currently meet that mark. I can definitely have conversations in Korean, but I usually have to ask people to repeat things or explain words and terms I don’t understand with some frequency.

This video is perhaps slightly too favorable to my Korean, as I had no trouble conversing with Will. We have another interview with a native Korean speaker I plan to upload soon which has a couple moments where I’m not able to understand the flow of conversation, the first time for this series of short interviews we did at the end of each country.

My Korean is still enough for traveling in Korea and having shorter conversations with strangers without difficulty. But I’d say, at my current pace, I’m probably another month or so of practice away from being able to consistently reduce the conversational friction down to a level where neither party feels it is holding back our communication.

I should note that Vat’s Korean is better than mine. He was more eager to learn Korean and he wasn’t as aggressive in learning Chinese, so he pushed himself hard on learning Korean. While I wouldn’t be confident in asserting my Korean is conversational, I feel Vat has likely reached that bar.

Did I Fail in Korea?

I believe in setting firm standards and evaluating yourself against them. So in that sense, I didn’t meet my goal for Korean. I failed to get to the level I had planned to.

But, that benchmark is also somewhat arbitrary. It’s not as if, in failing to reach that predetermined goal, I can’t use my Korean at all. As I continue to do weekly classes in each of these languages, meet friends and use them all regularly in Canada, I imagine the only long-term impact is that I have to do a bit more work in Canada before my Korean could be on par with my Chinese.

What Went Wrong, What Went Well

Evaluating my Korean, the deficit in comparison to my Chinese was less listening practice and a smaller vocabulary.

With my Chinese MCC Anki decks, I learned roughly 8000 cards. Since I’m doing full-sentence decks, that doesn’t translate exactly to a vocabulary size (not to mention likely half my vocabulary being learned outside of Anki). However, my Korean decks were only 3000 cards learned, and many of those were teaching grammar patterns rather than new words. It wouldn’t be unfair to say my Korean vocabulary is only a third of the size of my Chinese vocabulary.

What that means is that I tend to stumble with the lower-frequency intermediate words in Korean a lot more than Chinese. Recalling from recent conversations I had in Korean, some words I tripped on were “slippery”, “airport” and “personality” all of which I know in Chinese.

This problem is really only one that can be fixed with greater exposure. I had less exposure to Korean than Chinese before arriving in Asia, and while in the country I spent more hours listening and conversing in China than in Korea.

One area I was pleased with was Korean grammar. Korean has a complicated system of grammar that is almost entirely different from anything in European languages. Most students of Korean I’ve met tell me that understanding the grammar is what gives them the most pain. However, I found a good method for learning the grammar that I was pleased with.

Early on in Korea, I stumbled across this Anki deck which provides full-sentence audio examples. The advantage is that this deck is set up to show and contrast the various ways a sentence can be constructed and the different nuances of each. Doing these decks exposed me to hundreds of grammatical patterns so that I rarely encounter a situation where a Korean person is using a sentence pattern unfamiliar to me.

Grammar is hardly the only part of the language, but I was pleased that seemingly just by doing this deck alone, without any textbook study, I never felt the grammar was really holding me back from understanding natives speak. My spoken grammar still requires a lot of work, but that’s quite common. It’s much easier to correctly parse grammatically correct sentences than to generate your own.

Going Forward with Korean

My goal for all of the languages I’ve learned is to practice them at least once a week. Although there are plenty of ways of doing this, I’ve opted for continuing Skype tutoring/language exchanges through iTalki. This makes it easier to schedule and is more consistent than, let’s say, hoping to bump into people who speak these languages at parties.

With the other languages, having conversations is pretty easy, so it shouldn’t take too much energy to keep improving them. Korean, in contrast, will probably require a bit more effort until it is up to a level comparable with the other three.

It’s also important to give knowledge and skills time to sink in. Yes—giving up practice entirely is almost always matched with a corresponding loss of ability. But if you keep some minimal amount of practice, it allows some of the skills and information which were crammed to be remembered better. My hope is that by maintaining this minimum once-per-week investment, I may see my skills decline in the near term of the next few months, but will likely see them improve over the long-term of the next few years.

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Date: Tuesday, 02 Sep 2014 03:18

A few days ago I came back to Vancouver, marking the end of this project Vat and I started over a year ago. Together we lived in Spain, Brazil, China and Korea, all while trying to speak as little English as possible.

In this post, I’m going to recap the successes and stumbles of the project, along with what I think it means for travel and language learning.

Side note: I haven’t forgotten about the final update for Korea. I was hoping on releasing that article first, but we hit some delays editing the interviews, so I’m switching the order and putting this one first.

Was the Project a Success?

There were three dimensions of success I was interested in throughout the project. The first, was simply how well we avoided speaking English—the namesake and primary constraint of the project. Second, what level did we reach in each language? Finally, what was the overall experience of travel, did not speaking English improve the journey?

Did We Go a Year Without English?

No. I would have liked to report that we went an entire year without speaking any English. The idea was that I could come back to Canada, having removed myself from having conversations in English and really experienced different parts of the world completely in the language they use there.

From the beginning, Vat and I made exceptions to our rule. I was allowed to call my parents (Vat speaks Hindi with his parents, so he didn’t need the exception). I could handle necessary business calls in English. The restriction applied only to speaking. My work is in English, so eliminating writing and reading in English would have been impossible without simply abandoning my career.

Despite these exceptions, life in Spain nearly perfectly matched our original goal of not speaking English. Neither of us spoke a word of it to each other from the moment we arrived. Every friend we met was in Spanish, and I took the further step of changing most of my media to Spanish.

Brazil was a bit bumpier at the beginning. We had zero preparation for Portuguese, so despite its similarities to Spanish, we needed to use English during the first couple days. After the initial hiccups, however, it too was near our original conception of the year without English.

China was a mixed bag. I had done more prior preparation than Vat, so upon arrival, I was able to handle the transition to only speaking Chinese within the first few days. Vat oscillated between using English and Chinese, and although we spent less time together than in the previous countries, that also meant I frequently had to use English with him.

Korea was much worse than China. Neither of us had adequate preparation prior to arrival, so our method of avoiding speaking English became avoiding speaking entirely for the first month. Later on, we did speak more Korean, but we frequently switched back to English both in our conversations and with other Koreans. Struggling to find Korean-only friends in the beginning, Vat and I decided to cheat and do language exchanges as a means of making local friends.

The main takeaway I made from all of this was: Asian languages are hard, and attempting full-immersion without sufficient preparation is usually not going to work.

Still, even though we didn’t meet the rigor of our initial standard in Asia, we still achieved partial immersion—having full, lengthy conversations in each language and making friends with whom we only spoke that language.

How is Our Ability With Each Language?

The major justification for going without English was language learning. That is, we could learn the languages faster and better if we weren’t using English as a crutch. How did we do on that front?

All of the languages fall into an intermediate level of proficiency. Spanish is my best. I can converse on any topic, read books and even watch television and movies if I pay attention. Korean is my worst. I can have conversations in Korean, but my topic breadth is more limited and I need to ask for clarifications more often. Chinese and Portuguese fall somewhere in between.

The only language that I did a formal exam to benchmark my ability was Chinese. For Chinese I passed the HSK 4. The organization that conducts the exam recommends two years of study before tackling the exam.

Overall I believe this aspect of the project was quite successful. When Vat and I initially made plans, neither of us were confident that it would be possible to reach a conversational level in any of the languages. The fact that I can confidently say I reached a conversational level in Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese, and a near-conversational level for Korean is far above what I originally thought was possible.

The no-English rule was largely what made the difference. Although there are many ways of learning a language, going for full immersion made it possible to learn what would have taken years in just a few months.

How Did Not Speaking English Change the Travel Experience?

This entire project didn’t originally start as a language-learning mission. Instead, we had decided to do a world trip and the idea of learning languages and filming mini-documentaries came later.

It’s worth asking whether the no-English rule added or detracted from the travel experience. After all, if you’re busy language learning, you presumably have a bit less energy and time for other things you might want to travel for.

The experience of the trip was incredible. Partying all night in Spain. Surfing in the rain in Brazil. Ascending to mountain temples in China. Wandering the old Joseon-dynasty palaces in Korea.

But more than places, I’ll remember the dozens of good friends I made along the way. We both really got to experience the culture firsthand. Discussing mandatory military service over soju and salted fish. Sharing tea and talking politics with a tattooed Buddhist from Tibet. Paragliding over the beach with a girl from Argentina. None of those people spoke English, so I never would have met those people if I didn’t learn these languages.

Some tradeoffs were inevitable. First, we opted to go for depth, not breadth, in each country. Meaning we visited far fewer places, choosing to stay in one city for all or most of the stay in each country.

Second, language learning meant we didn’t meet as many fellow travelers. We spent most our time with locals or people who were staying long enough to have learned the language. I actually preferred this, but it does change the travel experience because you’re meeting people who are just living their lives, not sharing an adventure with you.

Again, in Spain and Brazil, the costs of learning the language and not speaking English were quite minimal compared to the benefits. Looking back, I can’t imagine being in those countries not being able to use the language well. It would have held us back from many of the experiences we had.

In China and Korea, the language was so much more difficult that it took up a non-trivial amount of time just learning it. I wouldn’t opt for the approach we took for anything less than three months, unless you’re certain you’ll either be returning to the country for more time or have done a fair amount of prior study.

Learning in China I felt struck the right balance for me. I had learned enough beforehand that transitioning to no-English was difficult, but possible. The Chinese I learned also allowed me to interact with a lot of people who don’t speak English and have experiences I felt would have been inaccessible to an English-only traveler.

Korea was a bit too far on the underprepared side for me, however Vat managed just fine. This seems to indicate that at least some of the problem was trying to tackle Korean immediately after my intensity of learning Chinese.

One way of evaluating the experience of something is to imagine taking a magic pill, and forgetting everything that happened immediately afterward, would you still bother doing it? Since I believe I would still answer “yes” to this question about the trip using the no-English rule, I’d vouch for this approach to travel for anyone in the future.

Going full-immersion is more difficult than other types of travel. However, you also get a one-of-a-kind experience, really getting to step outside of your own culture and assumptions instead of just visiting a place and expecting people to step into yours.

What Does This Mean for Travel and Language Learning?

When Vat and I set out on this trip, we didn’t expect it to be a model for everyone, or even most people. Most people can’t take a year off to travel. Most people aren’t going to speak zero English. Most people don’t want to film mini-documentaries.

As with the MIT Challenge, the hope wasn’t to set some kind of standard for others to follow, but to tell a story that hopefully encourages other people to make up their own.

I think it’s also unwise to assume a single story can be all things to all people. Here’s a blog article encouraging people to learn languages more slowly. Why do you have to learn a language in three months? What’s the rush?

I actually agree with almost everything that was written in that article. But I’d caution, there’s always more than one perspective, and showing one needn’t detract from another. Just because we attempted to learn with intensity, doesn’t denigrate learning languages through slow, patient habit. Now that I’m done the trip, my language progress will naturally switch to the second, so I hardly see them as contradictory.

Similarly, just because we opted to learn the languages of the countries we visited, doesn’t detract from people who travel without doing so. There are many ways you can design an adventure, so I don’t want to imply ours was necessarily better.

What I do hope, however, is that hopefully the trip convinced a few people that it is possible to travel, immerse in the language and succeed, even without decades of prior study or years living in the country. Neither Vat and I were convinced of this before we started, so doing the project has, at the very least, convinced the two of us.

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I’m 26   New window
Date: Tuesday, 19 Aug 2014 19:40

Today is my twenty-sixth birthday. Continuing tradition, I’m going to write an article reviewing what I’ve done in the past year, and share my thoughts and plans for the year ahead. If you’re new here, or simply don’t care for this self-indulgence, feel free to skip this post. I promise I’ll be back to writing about learning and getting more from life next week.

My Year (Almost) Without English

Obviously the most important feature of my twenty-fifth trip around the sun was that I spoke very little English during that time.

I had hoped I could look back and say it was truly a year without speaking any English, but neither Vat nor I were perfect upholding that rule in Asia. I’ll be sharing the ups and downs of that in a lot more detail in a later post, but suffice to say switching languages four times and nearly completely avoiding English was a defining feature of this year.

A couple people have asked whether I’ll continue the language learning, taking on new countries and languages, all through immersion. Although it might disappoint some people, the answer is probably not.

From the beginning, both Vat and I understood this year of travel was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not how either of us planned to live our lives perpetually. I have incredible admiration for people like Benny Lewis or Matt Kepnes, who can do the travel lifestyle continuously, but I’m not one of them.

Maintaining my (now 5) languages is a considerable amount of short-term work and a non-trivial amount of long-term work. Even if I wanted to keep learning languages at this pace, I doubt I could do so without sacrificing some of the ones I had learned earlier in the trip.

Second, although I’d be quite happy with all of my languages I’ve learned if I never improved any of them further, I’d like to continue to get more depth. Particularly with Chinese, as I feel there is still so much to learn about Chinese culture and language that I wasn’t able to scratch in our brief stay.

This year will end with me returning to the English-speaking world, wanderlust temporarily quenched and hopefully a bit wiser from my travels.

Rethinking My Focus

I’m proud of the projects I’ve done, and I feel they accomplished their purpose both personally and publicly. Personally, because I learned things I care about and taught myself more about learning itself, my major goal. Publicly, because I think they work as a good starting point of discussion about learning. No small amount of you have found my blog because of either the MIT Challenge or this language project, and I’m happy the project has encouraged other people to learn more.

However, the one-year-project strategy also has some drawbacks.

For one, by its nature, it tends to focus on quick bursts rather than slow mastery, a philosophical stance I’m uncomfortable suggesting. Learning something quickly isn’t as important as learning it deeply, and by hopping around to different subjects quickly I may be able to say something interesting about how to learn efficiently, but I may also be sending the wrong message about mastery and the patient devotion to a subject.

Privately, I feel mastery is incredibly important. If it isn’t obvious to the casual reader, my true focus is not computer science or languages per se, but learning how learning works. Understanding that has always been my primary goal, and experiencing it firsthand has been the laboratory for exploring those ideas. Often those same ideas feed back into my knowledge of learning itself. In China I was exposed to a different culture of learning than we experience in the West. In the MIT Challenge, I studied information theory and artificial intelligence, each important for learning theory.

However, I’m leaning more towards pursuing the study of learning itself more directly. Either through grad school or another self-education project like the MIT Challenge. My personal experience has been incredibly grounding, but it would be great to build that off a deeper theoretical foundation.

I also worry a little that I’ll brand myself too much as the guy who does one-year learning projects. Branding can help, but it also boxes you into a narrower set of expectations for your work, sometimes in a way that works against the quality of that work.

Future Plans

As my career and trajectory have stabilized somewhat, I’m also more eager to think in terms of 5-10 year goals instead of my more common 1-2 year projects. Certain aspects of my work can only really be pursued with such a long-term mindset, and although it sacrifices flexibility, such a sacrifice is acceptable if I’m reasonably confident I won’t need to pivot midway. Having written pretty much full-time about learning for the last four years, I’m now more confident in goals that may take a decade or more to accomplish.

What’s next? I’ve been giving serious thoughts to grad school, studying something related to learning. Part of me worries that my academic background may be insufficient to make the crossover. My undergrad is in business, and while I had good grades, I didn’t attend an Ivy-league school either. I’ve always preferred goals that don’t require permission from one or two people to be successful, and academic admissions are the antithesis of that. However, I’ve overcome far greater obstacles and odds already, so I think this will end up being more about forming the right strategy.

I’ve also wanted to get into writing real, dead-tree books. I originally intended to write a book related to the MIT Challenge, but as the project was wrapping up, I felt there wasn’t much I wanted to say I hadn’t already said better in a blog article. Similarly, this project Vat and I decided to tell the story through videos, which I think is a better format than trying to author a book about it.

These two goals may not be incompatible, and if I do end up pursuing an advanced degree in learning, it might be best to wait until I can comment more authoritatively on the science as well.

I also want to improve my courses and the outcome for the students who take them. A lot of online education is nascent and the technology is still far from being fully utilized. Why don’t products collect data on student outcomes instead of relying on testimonials and case studies? For courses which sell with limited capacity, why don’t we track admissions versus waiting list candidates as a control group to distinguish results?

I think a data-driven, scientific process for delivering outcomes is the future. It’s much, much harder to do, but I’m trying to inch towards it in the products that I offer, hopefully resulting in better, more consistent outcomes for the people who buy my courses.

Work and Life

In the short-term, however, I’m also planning to use the upcoming year to work on some personal goals that I won’t be writing about on the blog. Taking a year to shift my focus away from mega-projects will be nice to work on fitness, relationships, friendships and learning things that don’t line up nicely for a blog article. Building this career has been an obsession for me, so I need to occasionally remind myself that there’s more to life than just work.

I’d love to do some light continued language learning, take another MIT class or two to brush up on some of my computer science concepts, or even just get back into the habit of reading a lot of books. Focus, determination and even obsession are critical for success. Yet, stillness has its own virtue and that balance is critical for life.

As always, I’ll try to share what I find with you along the way.

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Date: Monday, 11 Aug 2014 01:28

I just finished one of the best books I’ve read on the science of learning. Daniel Willingham is a Harvard educated cognitive scientist who writes books and articles about how to learn and teach better.

The title of his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, is a tad unfortunate, I think, because the book isn’t really about bored students. Instead, the book is divided into principles of learning. In order to make the cut, these principles needed to fulfill a strict set of scientific criteria:

  1. Robust scientific support. In Willingham’s words, “Each principle is based on a great deal of data, not only one or two studies. If any of these principles is wrong, something close to it is right.”
  2. Doesn’t depend on circumstances. These are facts about how human brains learn, so they don’t change whether you’re learning Spanish or mathematics.
  3. Ignoring it would be costly. Using the principles versus not using them showed a big difference in results. The principles aren’t just theoretical concerns but practically significant.
  4. Suggests non-obvious applications. The final criteria was that the implications of the principle should suggest new ways of teaching and learning.

The book is excellent, and I highly recommend getting a copy for yourself as Willingham explains many of the details and implications of each of these principles. I wanted to discuss each principle briefly, to share the implications it has for learning better.

Side note: The book lists nine principles, but two were more related to teaching, so I omitted them here.

1. Factual knowledge precedes skill.

Einstein was wrong. Knowledge is more important than imagination, because knowledge is what allows us to imagine. There is considerable research showing the importance of background knowledge to how well we learn. Without background knowledge, the kinds of insights Einstein praised are impossible.

Careful studies show that having more background knowledge on a topic means we can read faster, understand more when we do and remember more of it later. This means knowledge is exponential growth, with past knowledge becoming a crucial factor in the speed at which more knowledge is acquired.

This means that you cannot teach someone “how” to think, without first teaching them a considerable amount of “what” to think. Thinking well first requires knowing a lot of stuff, and there’s no way around it.

2. Memory is the residue of thought.

You remember what you think about. Whatever aspect of what you’re learning your mind dwells on, will be the part that it is likely to be retained. If you, inadvertently, spend your studying time thinking about the wrong aspects of your studies you won’t remember much of use.

The problem with this principle is that knowing about it is not enough. We can’t constantly self-monitor our own cognition, noticing what we’re noticing. So even if you try to pay attention to the right things, it can be easy to accidentally focus on less important details which will take precedence in memory.

This is a reason why highlighting is often a lousy tactic. When you highlight, you’re not focusing on underlying meaning, but observing bolded words or particularly emphasized sentences. So you don’t remember much.

I recommend tactics like paraphrasing with sparse notes while reading, the Feynman technique or taking pauses during a reading session to quickly recap what you just read. These are orienting tasks that encourage you to spend more time thinking about underlying meaning, which is almost always what you want to be learning.

This also shows one of the weaknesses I’ve seen in students who misuse analogies. If the analogy you make causes you to think about a surface detail of a concept, and not the underlying structure, you’ll only remember surface details on the test. A metaphor for voltage that uses volcanoes because they both start with “V” won’t help you with problems. The metaphor that voltage is analogous to height is useful because you’re forced to think about what voltage means (in this case the relation between gravitational and electric potential).

Interestingly, this also has implications for languages. The reason the “sounds like” method for memorizing vocabulary words can work is because it forces you to think about how a word sounds more exactly. Having to come up with an image that links to the sound forces you to spend a couple seconds thinking about what the word actually sounds like.

3. We understand new things in the context of what we already know.

Abstract subjects like math, physics, finance or law, can often be hard for people to learn. The reason why is that the we learn things by their relation to other things we already know (sound familiar?). Willingham here suggests using many examples to ground a particular abstraction in concrete terms before moving on.

I would also add that I believe people overestimate their ability to learn abstract things. As such, we tell ourselves we understand an idea without first grounding it in numerous examples or analogies. Smart learners correctly understand the brains weakness for abstraction and build scaffolding to support new ideas before they fully set.

Occasionally when I recommend to students metaphors or analogies for learning a subject, they come up blank. I admit, it can be a tricky technique. But I believe part of the difficulty is that it points out when you don’t really understand a concept. If you understand a concept but can’t put it into a single example or analogy, you don’t really understand it at all (and should first do something like the Feynman technique to get that understanding).

4. Proficiency requires practice.

The only way to become good at skills is to practice them. Additionally, some basic skills require thorough practice in order to be successful at more complicated skills.

Math is an excellent example: you may have a conceptual understanding of calculus, but if you aren’t fully fluent with algebra, it will take you hours to do a simple problem. The only way to make algebra automatic is to practice a lot of problems.

I’ve certainly been guilty of downplaying the importance of repetitive practice in some of my early writing. But there’s no way I could have completed the MIT Challenge or this language project without extensive time spent practicing the basic tools for each subject. Merely understanding isn’t enough.

Willinham suggests an alternative to repetitive practice which can be painfully dull: learn harder subjects that require practicing earlier material. One study showed that those who took an algebra class showed rapid and predictable decline of their skills. The one group that didn’t? Those who learned calculus.

5. Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training.

Should you learn physics like Newton? For that matter, should you learn science like a scientist, making hypothesis, testing experiments, revising your theory to fit the data? Willingham offers substantial evidence that the answer is no.

I think there’s merit in understanding how scientists perform their work, but it’s also clear that knowledge creation and knowledge acquisition are very different. Because they are different, the learner needs to weigh them against each other. For most disciplines, understanding scientific facts is more important than scientific process, for the simple reason that scientific facts will inform our lives, but few of us will ever do scientific research. The same applies to history, philosophy and nearly any other discipline of knowledge.

Another implication of this is that the ideal method for learning a subject and creating knowledge within a subject will be different. Learning calculus and inventing calculus bear little resemblance, so don’t worry if you can’t learn calculus the way Newton did. You don’t have to.

6. People are more alike than different in how we learn.

Learning styles are bunk. There is no such thing as visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners. This is also true for every serious theory of different cognitive styles for learning.

Defending this conclusion takes a bit of thought, because to most people the idea that people learn differently is obviously true, even though research says otherwise.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that different abilities can exist while styles do not. Meaning Johnny might be really good at processing visual information and Mary might be good at processing auditory information. Show Johnny a map and he’ll remember where everything is better than Mary. Play Mary a tune, and she can hum it back a week later.

But this isn’t what a theory of learning styles suggests. It suggests that if you taught the same subject to both Johnny and Mary, and played Johnny a slideshow and Mary an audiobook, they would learn better than if Johnny had listened and Mary had watched. The experiments simply don’t find that.

This suggests that the ways we learn are more similar than different. Some people might be better at learning certain types of things than others, but given a particular subject, science hasn’t different ways of learning it that are consistently better for some people but not others.

Side note: Willingham also debunks holistic versus linear thinkers. However the only thing it shares with my idea of “holistic” learning is the name. My version of holistic learning is not a learning style in the sense Willingham debunks here, but a strategy and one that happens to closely correspond with the third cognitive principle listed above. The nomenclature is my mistake, owing to my being unaware of the other learning theory that used the same name at the time. I’ve since used tried to use the word less, preferring “learning by connections” to avoid confusion.

7. Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.

This was probably my favorite part of the entire book because it validates much of what I said here. Intelligence is partially genetic and partially environmental. Innate differences do matter and some people are born with more talent than others.

However, Willingham argues that intelligence is malleable. Psychologists used to believe that intelligence was mostly genes. Twin studies and other natural experiments seemed to bear that out. Adopted children turn out more like their biological parents than their adoptive parents in many dimensions.

However, now the consensus has turned far more towards nurture, rather than nature. One of the biggest pieces of evidence is the Flynn Effect, which is the observation that people, over the last century, have gotten smarter (and the effect is too large to be from natural selection). Genes may have an important role in intelligence, but most of that role is played out through the environment, not independent of it.

If you re-read the first principle I listed, that shouldn’t be surprising. Knowledge being exponential growth means that a small initial advantage can quickly compound. If genes gave you a 5% headstart in math in kindergarten, there may not be much difference between you and a similar child. However, expand that small initial advantage over thirty years and you may have someone who has done a PhD in physics and someone who stopped at high-school.

From a population standpoint the difference between these two people may be “explained” by differences in genes. However, genes only created a small headstart. Sustained hard work can help set off your own exponential growth of learning in a domain as well.

Concluding Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and don’t let my brief summary and insights spoil it for you. It’s a fairly easy read while still being smart and insightful. What’s more, the book is based on robust research and science.

In terms of my own, more informal, writing about learning, I was happy that most of the principles discussed in the book reflected my own thinking. It’s comforting to see when the experience I’ve gained from my own learning challenges converges on the serious work scientists are doing to understand the brain and how we learn.

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Author: "Scott Young" Tags: "Personal Development"
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Date: Monday, 28 Jul 2014 00:55

A number of readers have asked me, now that I’m learning language number six, whether learning new languages changes how you think. Do you become more passionate while thinking in Spanish? More respectful thinking in Korean? More open to enjoying experiences thinking in French?

The answer is both yes and no.

Does Language Fundamentally Alter Thought?

One extreme view is that language forms the fundamental basis of our thinking and, therefore, certain linguistic systems make particular thoughts unthinkable or completely different. Known popularly as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, this idea is also probably false.

Language is a tool that fills the needs of its speakers. When an easy word or expression is lacking, one is invented or imported from other languages. Modern, major world languages which have millions of speakers must cope with the full diversity of human experience and activity. Assuming I was equally fluent, discussing chemistry, philosophy or sitcom television in Mandarin shouldn’t have any real difference from discussing it in Spanish.

This all means that the strong version that people suggest—that learning a new language fundamentally structures different kinds of thoughts one can have, is mostly false. When it is true, it’s usually in fairly uninteresting ways.

Asian languages, for example, have more precise words for relatives than English, so your mother’s older sister’s children have a more precise name than “cousin” in English. But that’s just convenience. The same idea could equally be expressed in English, perhaps just a little more verbose.

Languages also have expressions and words for concepts that don’t match one-to-one. In poetic terms that can be useful, allowing you to carefully select one word that embraces slightly different overlaps of meaning than one which can exist in English. But, again, it’s a nuance in expression, the same fundamental thoughts can be conveyed fairly equally in most languages, plus or minus a bit of brevity.

Culture Does Matter

The big way that learning a new language changes your thinking is that language is a gateway to culture. Cultures do differ dramatically, even if people are fairly similar on a fundamental level, psychologically speaking. Culture offers a different identity and perspective that tends to be more homogenous within a group of people who all speak the same language.

I found that living in France and learning French made me appreciate experiences more, as North America tends to be more ambition-oriented than southern France. But this was almost certainly a cultural trait I absorbed, rather than a linguistic one. Studying French at home in my basement probably wouldn’t have changed my outlook just because of the phonemes and grammar patterns.

Therefore if you learn Spanish and find it makes your thinking somewhat more passionate, then perhaps it’s because passion is a more important cultural value than in English-speaking countries, and the language is giving you an access point to that culture.

But if it’s culture, and not the language itself, which is giving you this new perspective, then if you really want the new perspective, why learn the language?

Here I think is the real thought-changing value of language learning: because without learning the language the culture is always viewed at arms length.

Language is a Gateway to Culture

There are many access points to understanding a culture: cuisine, history, movies, music and friendships. I don’t want to demean any of these other avenues, because I’m sure their advocates would argue equally that you can’t appreciate a country without eating their food or knowing their history.

However I do think language is a preferential route for cultural understanding (albeit a difficult one) for two reasons:

First, most of the world doesn’t speak English, or they don’t speak it well. There are some countries which are exceptions, such as Sweden or Singapore, but not many. While it’s certainly possible to travel to places and only interact with the English-speaking minority, you end up leaving out most other people.

The people who speak English well in most countries also tend to be the better educated, cosmopolitan elite. They’re not a representative sampling from the underlying population, so you often completely miss aspects of the cultural perspective you wanted to gain.

Second, understanding via a translation is the difference between seeing a postcard and being there in person. Most translations are shabby, and even the high quality ones you get for movies and books are, by definition, a paraphrase of what was actually said.

The person who says that there is zero merit in learning a foreign language because they can just get things translated, is a bit like a person who says there’s no reason to visit a place because the pictures are detailed enough. From an information perspective, it’s not entirely wrong, but it does somewhat miss the point.

The Language Learning Experience Changes How You Think

Finally beyond the changes in thinking that come from new linguistic categories or exposure to new cultures, the process of learning the language itself changes how you think.

The process of going from bewilderment, to struggled communication, to communication that flows but with a particular stiltedness that natives speakers lack (and potentially to complete indistinguishable fluency) changes how you view communication, how you view other people learning English and yourself.

I think this is the most valuable part of language learning as a way of changing perspective. Not because a new language will allow you to think different thoughts, nor even because it will give you access to people whose thoughts differ from your own, but because it will help you understand yourself in a way that wasn’t possible before.

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Date: Wednesday, 16 Jul 2014 23:53

Vat and I have reached the halfway point here in Korea, the final leg of our language-learning project. I’ve already written so much about language learning this year, and so most of it applies to Korean as well. Therefore, I’ll just share a few of the differences we’ve noted here and save a fuller analysis for later.

Learning Korean vs Learning Chinese

Korean is arguably easier than Chinese, but it’s still in the same ballpark (as opposed to clearly-much-easier languages like Spanish or French). The grammar is harder, but the vocabulary has more loanwords from English and the pronunciation is straightforward.

However, my Korean after three months will definitely be weaker than my Chinese, because I’ve been studying less.

One major difference between Korea and China is the level of English fluency amongst locals. A good proportion of Koreans speak English quite well. Combining that with our weak Korean and slow improvement, this has been the only country where the level of English has made not speaking English more difficult.

Standards for Language Learning

One factor that can make learning a language easier or harder is the standards people have for acquiring it. In southern Europe, I’ve generally felt that being able to speak the language is considered a requirement for people living in the country. If you live in France but don’t speak French, there will certainly be some negative social pressure on you to change that.

Asian countries have lower standards for Western foreigners learning languages. Part of that is a racial difference. People see a white face and the otherness of it automatically lowers their standards for linguistic ability. Part of it is simply that Asian languages are harder, so fewer foreigners acquire decent ability and therefore locals reduce their expectations.

Korea (I’m told Seoul, particularly) also suffers from the problem of the glut of English teachers who come to Korea with little intention of learning Korean. In China, the majority of my foreign friends were either studying Chinese or working in a company that uses Chinese. Fewer were full-time English teachers, but that appears to be the rule here in Korea, not the exception.

I don’t feel the issue of lower standards makes it more difficult for Vat or I to learn Korean. We came here with the resolved intention of learning the language, so social pressure isn’t going to change that. But I do think it makes it harder for other foreigners, particularly those without clear expectations to learn the language. If nobody else seems to learn the language, why seriously try?

Difficulty and Expectations

In China, I disagreed with my friend Benny’s admonishment that focusing on difficulty doesn’t matter. Of course it does—Chinese is much harder than Spanish and pretending they’re the same is foolhardy.

In Korea, I’m beginning to change my mind. People see that the language is harder, so the rational response should be that it requires more time and patience (which is true). But instead, the response is that it is too difficult so it’s impossible to succeed in a reasonable timeframe (which isn’t true).

Vat and I, in contrast, have had extremely high expectations for every country. Spanish-like expectations for Chinese were too optimistic. But, three months into China, I could still hold a conversation in Chinese about nearly any topic and with only a minimal amount of fumbling for words.

I’ll be harsh: if it’s taken you several years with an Asian language and you can’t hold a brief conversation entirely in the language, you either haven’t really been working at it, or your method is faulty.

Progress in Korean

Arriving in Korea was the hardest country for the no-English rule thus far. Korean, from the beginning, is probably somewhat harder than Chinese, and neither Vat nor I did significant preparation. Much of the quoted 50 hours of preparation I did do, had been forgotten in the intervening year plus three unrelated languages.

We didn’t handle the no-English rule perfectly, but we did mostly achieve it. Unfortunately, we “mostly achieved it” simply by not speaking much in the first month. That hardly seems like a fair victory, since the point of the rule was to encourage communication not adopt vows of silence.

Honestly, had I not had the experiences of success in the past, the first month certainly would have broken me. Learning Asian languages is slower than European ones, so you can do four weeks of conversations with a tutor and still feel like you can’t say anything. That combined with our enforced isolation and silence definitely made learning Korean the least pleasant part of the trip so far.

The beginning is always the hardest. Now, halfway through, Vat and I have resumed semi-normal communication, eating together and making friends. I’d put our current ability at the pre-intermediate level, since having a real conversation with a native at native-speed is at least a few weeks more work.

My expectation is to reach a somewhat low conversational level after three months. That would put it as the worst of all of the languages on this trip for me, but still at a level where I could hold a conversation with someone in the language and not have it be too arduous.

Why Learn all These Languages?

That’s certainly a question best saved for a bigger post, but it deserves attention to the case of Korean, which has been a more tiring process with less clear results than the other languages. 

However, even with Korean, where Vat and I are working under the fatigue of spending a year learning new languages, the painful part is short and the gain is (potentially) lifelong.

As long as I maintain a minimal amount of practice once this trip is done, all of these languages will be permanent abilities. I can return to any of these countries later, whenever I want, and the work is finished. I can make friends in Canada who speak those languages. If my practice is a little more, I may even improve so that reasonably watching movies without subtitles will be an eventual possibility.

As with the MIT Challenge, I believe the length of time it takes to learn something defines its viability for many people. Getting a computer science education with no degree probably wasn’t worth a four-year, full-time investment for me. But one year? Definitely.

Spending a handful of years to reach intermediate Chinese or Korean probably isn’t worth it for me, since I don’t plan on living in either of those countries. But a couple months of intense work and weekly maintenance practice? Even if it took Vat and I three times as long to reach the levels we did, I’d still say the lifetime payoff was worth the effort.

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Date: Wednesday, 09 Jul 2014 07:57

Say you’re planning to go abroad to study a language, and you want to learn the language through immersion. How much preparation should you do beforehand, in your home country?

I want to tackle this question, for two reasons. First, because I want to dispel the common myth that all you need to do to learn a language is simply live in the target country. Second, because carefully examining this question also says a lot about the language learning process, and what to expect.

Why Showing Up Isn’t Enough

Before Vat and I started our current language learning project, one of Vat’s relatives remarked that “of course” we’d learn the language if we live in the country that speaks it for awhile.

This attitude is a pet peeve of mine, in part because it dismisses the commitment and effort it takes to learn a language, and because it’s simply not true.

Most people who live abroad don’t learn the language of the country they live in. From my personal experience interacting with the expat communities, the majority of people who have lived in the country for less than five years cannot speak the language fluently. That is doubly true for Westerners living in countries with “hard” languages, such as China or Korea.

The inspiration for the No-English Rule during this trip was recognizing this. It is very easy to slip into an English-speaking bubble while you travel and never make more headway with a language than is necessary to order food at a restaurant.

Can You Go Full Immersion, Your First Day, With No Prep?

The closest thing I’ve done to full immersion with zero preparation was getting to Brazil with about 3-4 hours of Portuguese practice. Vat and I stumbled for the first two weeks, switching back frequently to Spanish to communicate with each other, but the process was mostly successful.

Unfortunately, our partial success with this in Brazil is probably the exception that proves the rule. Portuguese is incredibly similar to Spanish, with many linguists arguing they are technically dialects of the same language. While the difference is certainly much larger than, say American and British English, it’s less than English and Spanish, for example.

That means our “zero preparation” country actually had hundreds of hours of pseudo preparation from learning Spanish. The majority of grammar and vocabulary transferred with a little work and it only took about two weeks before we could translate a great deal of Spanish into Portuguese.

But even with the incredible similarities between Portuguese and Spanish, we still stumbled the first week or so. This suggests to me that full immersion without any preparation is either impossible or impractical for almost all cases. Either you arrive prepared, or you delay immersion.

What About Delaying Full Immersion?

There’s nothing stopping you from getting to a country, speaking English while studying the language and then later going full immersion. This approach may be best for some people, especially if you will have a lot more spare time to study in the target country than in your own country. It may also be okay if you plan to stay for a long time (say a couple years) so the pressure to learn efficiently is reduced.

However, I’m going to argue that this isn’t ideal. Whenever possible, you should try to put the minimum hours I’m going to list below in before you ever set foot in the country.

First, when you land in a country you have a unique opportunity to create a social circle. Friends you meet get used to speaking to you in one language. Abruptly switching that language will likely give a lot of resistance, and may not even be possible for the friends you make who can’t speak the language well.

If you have done the minimum hours I list below, and done them efficiently, you should be able to make friends in the language you want to master. Even if you don’t have a desire to live your life completely in the target language, you’ll have the option of adjusting the amount of friends you have with the language, thus controlling your degree of immersion.

Secondly, if you aren’t willing to do the minimum study before immersion can begin in your home country, what makes you certain you’ll be willing to do it in the country? Living in the country can provide motivation and opportunities to practice, but learning the language is still work and if you’re smart about how you study at home, the difference in environments shouldn’t matter in the pre-immersion stage.

A good rule of thumb to ask yourself in all situations is, “If not now, then when?” Many people delay important habits, work and goals for some hypothetical future. But the future quickly becomes the present and nothing will have changed. The minimal study I’ll discuss below will remain mostly the same whether you live in the country or outside it, so if you’re not willing to do it before you go to the country, you probably won’t have the motivation to succeed after you go.

The Minimum Prior Preparation You Need Before Living Abroad

When I say minimum, there are three things to keep in mind:

  1. Your starting point matters a lot. If you’ve studied another language through immersion before, you could probably subtract 25-50% off these numbers and still be okay. I’m also assuming English speakers. If you speak other languages which are closer in proximity to the target language you can cut the time considerably.
  2. Minimum doesn’t mean you’re already fluent. It simply means you have enough of the basics that going full immersion would be possible, albeit still difficult.
  3. These numbers are made up. I’m just estimating based on my progress curves having done this five times previously with French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and now Korean. The feedback you get from your conversational tutoring (discussed below) will be the ultimate arbiter of “readiness”.

I’m going to discuss preparedness in two parts. First, how many total hours I estimate is advisable before going to the country. Remember: going in with less doesn’t mean learning the language is impossible, just that you’ll either need more willpower or you’ll suffer from the problems I mentioned above. Going in with more is always good, of course.

Baseline Number of Hours by Language Type

I’ve only learned five foreign languages before, so my breadth of all the permutations of linguistic difficulty is an undersampling. However, the Foreign Service Institute, of the US State department, has a nice categorization of languages by difficulty for English speakers. They divide languages into roughly three categories:

  • Category I – Languages similar to English
  • Category II – Languages with significant cultural/linguistic differences from English
  • Category III – Languages which are quite difficult for native English speakers

The list largely conforms to my experience (Spanish, French and Portuguese are all Category I, Mandarin and Korean are Category III). The FSI recommends 600, 1100 and 2200 hours for fluency in each respectively, however I’m going to ignore those numbers because we’re not looking for fluency, but rather, minimum required time for proficiency to enable immersion.

If you’re not sure where the language you want to learn lies, check out this table which has a full listing and should be fairly accurate for assessing the baseline hours needed.

My recommendation for minimum prior work, assuming English as a reference point:

  • Category 1: 50 hours
  • Category 2: 100 hours
  • Category 3: 200 hours

All of these minimum amounts are higher than the amount I had before entering any of the countries that we’ve gone to, so perhaps I’m being too conservative. However, Spain was the only country for me where going no-English was relatively smooth and successful from the first day (for which I had the benefit of previously learning French, probably halving the necessary prep time). All of the others were fairly rough for the first few weeks, and I had the ability to devote all my time to language learning when I arrived, which may not be your case if you have to work or study in another language.

Chinese was the country I prepared the most for, with 105 hours. However, going full-Chinese was still enormously difficult from the beginning and it took a couple weeks of extremely aggressive studying before I felt making friends was possible. Korean I prepared less and I’ve currently spent nearly the entire first month doing what could have been done at home, unfortunately effectively wasting my first month of potential immersion.

What Should You Do to Prepare Yourself?

There are far too many language tools to name and although I’m familiar with a good deal of them, I haven’t fully explored them all. Therefore this set of tasks shouldn’t be viewed as the perfect setup for preparing to a language, but rather simply one that works and the one I use.

Here’s what you should do:

  1. One month of Pimsleur = 15 hours. Pimsleur is my favorite starting point for a new language, although it quickly experiences diminishing returns. I recommend it simply because no other tool I’ve found gets you armed with some basic phrases as quickly or with as few frills. It’s main disadvantage is being boring, but it’s only thirty minutes a day for a month.
  2. Conversational tutoring = 30-50% of preparation time. Sign up with iTalki and either pay for a tutor, or recruit a conversational partner who can help you out with the basics. The aim should be to find a tutor who will have conversations with you (even made up, unreasonably basic ones) and every day try to push closer to having that entire conversation in the language. Use Google Translate or a dictionary if you have to. You’ll know you’re ready when you can do the entire lesson in the language (even if you’re still speaking very slowly, making lots of mistakes or have to get the tutor to repeat for clarifications).
  3. Basic textbook study = No more than 15% of preparation time. This is good for familiarizing yourself with the basics of a language. Knowing that Chinese has four tones, for instance. What the Korean hangul sound like. Understanding that Spanish verbs are conjugated by subject.
  4. Vocabulary building with Anki = remainder of preparation time. I prefer full-sentence decks with audio since they give you exposure to sentence patterns and phrases, rather than isolated words (which are harder to remember if not attached to context).

The conversational tutoring is the most important part. You can get away with doing it a bit less for harder languages since you’ll need to do more vocabulary building anyways. A good rule of thumb should be that it should start no later than when you’ve finished Pimsleur and be at least 50% of your time spent when you reach the end of your preparation time.

My notes on preparedness assume you won’t be learning Chinese characters/Japanese kanji. If you want to do both, you might need to tack on an extra 50% to the above estimates since studying these don’t directly contribute to your speaking ability until more advance levels.

Conversational tutoring defines your readiness. If you can mostly get away without using English in the tutoring session, you’re probably ready. If you can’t even keep up five minutes without using English, you probably aren’t.

Example: Japanese

Let’s say, after I finish reaching an intermediate level of Korean, and after having reached an intermediate level of Chinese, I wanted to tackle Japanese by living in Japan. How much prior prep would this rubric suggest I do?

The baseline amount would be 200 hours, but given my experience with Chinese and Korean, I could probably reduce that to 100-150 hours and have roughly the same results as someone with no background in Asian languages.

First I’d do a month of Pimsleur. I would also get an Anki deck that had some basic phrases and words with full audio to study. That first month would probably also need about 10-30 hours studying the absolute basics of Japanese sentence formation and phonology. If I devoted an hour and a half per day, I could get the first 45 hours done in a month.

After getting to about 30-40 hours, I’d make sure at least 50% of my studying time is conversational practice. I could start tutoring even earlier, but I usually find lessons when even basic phrases are unknown tend to be less efficient than just reading from a textbook. However doing a test lesson or two near the beginning to hunt out a good tutor or conversation partner would be wise.

At roughly 90 minutes per day, this would mean roughly four months of preparation would put me in a position where going full-immersion in Japan would be challenging, but reasonable. If I only had 30 minutes per day, a year of prior prep would probably put me in the same position.

Example: German

What if I wanted to tackle another European language? The FSI puts German in a special category, suggesting 750 hours for fluency, which is slightly higher than the Category I languages. Scaling appropriately, that suggests roughly 60 hours of prior preparation.

Once again I’d do a full month of Pimsleur. I’d probably spend another 10-15 hours to familiarize myself with German sentence construction and phonology. That should be enough to understand how extremely basic and common sentences are put together. I’d would start conversational tutoring after 2-3 weeks. After Pimsleur was finished I’d use the time I spent on Pimsleur on a full-sentence, audio-included Anki deck.

Given a 90 minutes per day, I should be ready in roughly one and a half months. Half an hour per day and I could probably be ready in around four months.

What to Expect with Minimum Preparation

I get a lot of emails from students, nervous about exams, who share with me their studying schedule and ask if it’s enough. I always have the same answer: I can’t tell you what’s enough—the results of your self-testing efforts will tell you what is enough. What is enough for one person may be insufficient for another depending on intelligence, motivation and prior knowledge.

This is especially true for languages. Depending on your linguistic background, picking up a new language may be a breeze or it may be the hardest achievement you’ve ever won. The measure of readiness isn’t my estimated hours, but your level of comfort speaking with your tutor.

Readiness here is also a far cry from fluency. Rather, I would consider it the minimum you would need so that going no-English in the target country is possible from the first day (or making no-English friendships, if you aren’t planning on being strict with immersion).

Readiness also doesn’t mean that you won’t ever need further studying, and that everything can be picked up from immersion. A good ratio is probably 25-50% studying and 50-75% immersion for maximizing your learning rate.

These hourly figures also assume the studying method I used. I believe classrooms tend to be less effective for preparedness, because you spend much less time speaking (and in the case of Chinese, a lot of time memorizing characters). If I were learning in a classroom, I’d supplement my time with one-on-one conversational practice so that I was spending at least 30-50% of my total time speaking. Otherwise, it might not be unreasonable to add another 50-100% to the total time needed, depending on the quality of the teacher.

What happens if you go to a country and you’re not prepared? It’s not the end of the world, it just probably means you’ll have to do a lot of learning that could have been done just as easily at home and you may find yourself with a bit less control over the degree of immersion you experience.

These numbers conform to my experience, but perhaps they’re a bit too high or low. Other language learners who have studied abroad? What was your level of prior preparation? How much immersion were you able to achieve once you got to the country?

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Date: Tuesday, 01 Jul 2014 07:39

People who’ve never done a timelog before often grossly overestimate the amount of time they are actually working.

Years ago I had a friend who was launching a software company and earnestly told me that he was putting in 12-hour work days to achieve this. Despite that, I could see him making dozens of online forum posts throughout the day. Writing on a forum loosely related to running your business may be considered work, but it’s hard to see how chiming in on old topics stacked against his urgent goal to ship his product on time.

Doing a timelog, meticulously recording when you start and stop work activities, is often discouraging because the illusion of productivity gets shattered. You may feel you’re putting in heroic hours on a particular goal, but the actual logs show only a fraction of your time was spent on important work.

You Can’t Actually Work That Much

Most people, upon realizing their dismal productivity, resolve to do better. They’ll cut out the distractions and get back to task. They’ll continue putting in the long hours, but this time, they won’t waste time.

Unfortunately I think this is exactly the wrong realization to make from the information. The realization should be that getting even small amounts of deep work done is incredibly hard. Therefore, a schedule that prioritizes low-hours, but hard work, is better than one which pushes you all day long.

Part-Time Hours in a Full-Time Job

I first wrote about this idea several years ago, in my book about self-employed productivity. The idea was that the 40-hour standard for workweeks is almost certainly too high a bar for 95% of workers, if that time is spent mostly on deep work. And the 80-hour marathons that entrepreneurs and students grind themselves through are likely impossible without the benefit of pharmaceuticals.

What if, in your 40-60 hour stated workweek, you set aside 20 hours per week that was exclusively focused on the work that was of critical importance? No emails, meetings, calls, internet surfing or chatting. Just the hard, important work.

I imagine that, in these part-time hours, you’d get more done than you do trying to do the same work in unrestricted full-time hours throughout the week. I’d also guess that the amount of low-value activities would decrease as well, now that they are not being used as a crutch to help you avoid the work that truly matters.

My Recent Experiment With Part-Time in Full-Time Hours

I’ve used this strategy many times before, but I often fall into the same trap most people do. I either start expanding my hours or I become less rigid about the scheduling of my focused work. These two effects combine and I end up working more and more with less and less focus, until I’m back where I started. It takes discipline not to work, rather than to work too much.

Recently I wrote about using this strategy for Korean, in comparison with Chinese. I restricted all my studying time to two, 2-hour chunks every weekday. Although a fair assessment of my actual time spent studying in Chinese was probably more like 6-7 hours/day, the lack of rigidity in the schedule meant it felt more like 9-10 hour days, over twice the perceived effort for only 50% more actual work accomplished.

How to Take Advantage of This For Your Work

Whether you’re an office worker or a high-school student, you can use the same system to get more done of the things that really matter to your results. Just follow these steps:

  1. Pick an amount of hours of deep work that makes your deep work a scarce opportunity rather than a burden. The mistake is picking a schedule which you could potentially do, but doesn’t worry you that you won’t get everything done. That worry will ignite a greater focus in you and a certain seriousness that prevents you from procrastinating when that time comes up in your schedule. I personally recommend four hours per day, but 2-6 may be more appropriate depending on the nature of the deep work and how large a percentage it makes up of your total tasks.
  2. Schedule those hours first in your schedule, the same time every day. This tip goes to Cal Newport. Previously, in my Weekly/Daily Goals system, I left the act of scheduling more haphazard, and that makes the system weaker. Pick out the exact times you’ll be doing this, and it’s a plus if they’re the same every day for habit-building reasons.
  3. All of your deep, important work, must fit into those chunks. You aren’t allowed to bump them, extend them, swap them or reassign them from different days. If the nature of what is your deep work and what are your distractions aren’t already clear, make sure you define exactly what kind of work must fit into that box.
  4. Schedule all your other work, emails, calls, meetings, etc. outside of those chunks. Make those chunks the cornerstones of your day and move things around to accommodate it. If you have a job where you can’t be picky about when meetings and the like are scheduled, try picking times where rescheduling these chunks is less likely.

My schedule is Monday to Friday 8:30am-11:30am and 12:30pm-2:30pm. Currently, with my language learning project, I’m using this time for Korean, and scheduling the lower-priority tasks around it. When I finish, I plan to use the same structure for my writing and business development work.

Every time I’ve used this approach, I’ve seen a boost in my focus and productivity. If there are too many hours in the system, I’ll know I miscalculated because the productivity and focus will wear off once the initial motivation dies. You want to design a schedule which encourages you to treat your deep focus hours like a scarce opportunity, not an unfortunate chore to delay.

By cleanly separating the deep work and the lighter work which doesn’t demand the same mental resources, you also end up reducing your hours, since you stop using lighter work as an excuse to procrastinate on the things that actually matter.

HT to Cal Newport, who first introduced me to the concept of deep work, and whose writing informed a lot of the ideas in this post.

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Date: Wednesday, 25 Jun 2014 08:40

I’ve written two in-depth guest posts about learning Chinese. My first instinct was to post them here, but John Pasden of Sinosplice.com and Olle Linge of HackingChinese.com were gracious enough to let me share my recent experiences with their audiences.

First, my guest post at HackingChinese.com about how I managed to pass the HSK 4 with just a little over 3 months of preparation. I go into considerable detail here outlining the exact schedule, drills and time investments. I even explain some tweaks I made to Anki to make that part of my studying more efficient. I wanted to be as specific as possible, so that anyone who also wants to learn Chinese quickly can replicate my experiment.

I did a brief interview with Olle in Chinese, which you can see below. I believe it fairly demonstrates my level of Chinese at around the 3-month point:

Second, my Sinosplice.com guest post was focused on how to achieve immersion, even at a fairly low level of basic fluency. I found immersion to be considerably harder in China than with prior languages, both because of cultural differences and language difficulty. Once again, I outline exact steps I followed to make friends in the language, from the first few weeks, so I could make faster progress and avoid getting stuck in an English bubble.

I also did a brief interview with John Pasden.


Once again, for anyone that missed it our mini-documentary about learning Chinese is worth a look:

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Date: Tuesday, 10 Jun 2014 07:41

As we did with Spain and Brazil, we filmed a short documentary chronicling our experiences learning Chinese over a little more than three months. Vat also spent hundreds of hours doing timelapses, hyperlapses and videos to try to capture a different perspective on what life is like in China. We both felt that the China we saw wasn’t always portrayed that way in Western media, so we wanted to try to capture our experiences of the largest, oldest and possibly soon-to-be most powerful culture in the world.

For my Chinese readers, unfortunately, Vimeo is blocked in China. Never fear, we’ve made a special Chinese version of the video that we’ve uploaded to YouKu. This one has Chinese subtitles so it will make it a bit easier to follow along despite the many mistakes we made in Chinese. Click here to watch the Chinese edition.


Since this is a more impressionistic video, rather than a fuller assessment of my actual Chinese, I’ll be uploading a little later two interviews I conducted in Chinese, one with John Pasden of Sinosplice.com (and previously, ChinesePod) and another with Olle Linge of Hacking Chinese. I’ll save a fuller and more technical analysis of my thoughts on learning Chinese until then, in the meantime, enjoy the show!

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Date: Monday, 02 Jun 2014 05:22

Sometimes I question my sanity. After all, what kind of person agrees to learn four languages in a year, including two linguistically unrelated Asian languages back-to-back in six months?

Learning Chinese was a blast, but it was also an incredible amount of work. My stated goal from the beginning was to learn as much Chinese as possible in three months. I wanted to see what my upper limits were, and starting from a beginner level is the only way to make those efforts broadly comparable. If I started an intense Chinese mission after a few years of study, it’s very hard to compare the effectiveness of the method used.

I don’t want to tackle Korean under the same conditions. Instead, I’d rather set clear, reasonable boundaries for my studying time and see how far I can go, under those constraints. This method is certainly slower than the approach I used for Chinese, but I’m hoping it more replicable strategy for the average person trying to learn an Asian language while living abroad.

Can You Learn Korean, Part-Time over Three Months?

My plan is this: 20 hours per week, working out to 4 hours per weekday of study. Outside of that, I’m free to use as much immersion time as I want. So if I want to listen to music, movies or (hopefully) stick to the no-English rule with Vat, that’s fine. But I’m limiting the studying to a very specific chunk.

Vat and I will, once again, try our best to implement the no-English rule. I’m also hoping to make Korean-language friends and enjoy Korean-language entertainment. I’m not limiting these immersion activities to my scheduling restriction because I feel they’re an important part of the experience and I want to enjoy Korean culture as much as possible.

Instead, I’m putting a hard limit on the kinds of heavy, active studying I did in China. Paid tutoring sessions, textbook reading, listening exercises, Anki and other deliberate studying techniques will all have to fit into that time.

My goal with this restriction is not to make any particular claim about studying in less time. After all, 20 hours per week is still a part-time job, more time than most people could devote to learning a language. Secondly, because I’m not restricting immersion activities, it isn’t fair to say my total learning time will be 240 hours, since the actual amount of practice will be higher.

But I do hope that implementing this restriction I’ll be more efficient with my learning time, and that will help me weed out lower efficiency tasks. I’m hoping that I can then use that knowledge to pass onto many of you, who want to learn languages but can’t do it full time.

Which Methods Do I Plan to Use?

As Korean is language number six for me, I feel I’ve come a long way in mapping out the exact learning strategy that works best. I’m going to wait until this entire project is finished to do a complete summary of that method, but I’ll share some of the methods I found very helpful in China and plan to transfer to learning Korean.

Method One: Pimsleur

Pimsleur has been, so far, my favorite starting point for a new language. It’s really good for learning a set of core functional words to use as a basis point for the language. Very few other beginner resources I’ve seen really drill that basic phrasal patterns and vocabulary in from the first day.

Pimsleur’s main weakness, however, is that it quickly experiences diminishing returns. After about the first 15 hours I didn’t find it very helpful. It also suffers from a problem most language courses do: that of offering somewhat formal and stilted example sentences.

Method Two: Bulk Listening Drills

Input proved far more important for me in Chinese than with Spanish. I think this is because Spanish, and other European languages, often have shared root words for many concepts, making gathering the meaning from even diverse sentences more clear. Chinese, in contrast, has almost no common root words with English, so listening ability becomes much harder than speaking by possibly an order of magnitude.

The best way I found around that in Chinese was to use an Anki deck that had thousands of example sentences with audio and using ChinesePod’s dialog-only files to practice on vocabulary-restricted subsets of the language.

I haven’t found the best analog for those resources in Korean yet. But worst case, I plan to get a television show with English and Korean subtitles and use Subs2SRS to strip them into an Anki deck for practice.

Method Three: Textbook Study

I actually do like studying from a textbook for languages. I think this can be overdone if you’re not actually using the language, or if you’re using it as a substitute for bulk listening/vocabulary building exercises. However grammatical and structural features of the language often require a more deliberate effort that textbooks are good for.

Method Four: Pronunciation Drills

This was a small, but significant, part of my Chinese learning experience. Tones and a difficult phonology meant that pronunciation wasn’t just something I could learn once and then ignore. Korean will likely be easier phonetically, but my very brief amount of study shows there might be a few problems between ㄱ, ㄲ and ㅋ (which all roughly map to the “g” or “k” sound in English) or ㄷ, ㄸ and ㅌ (which all map roughly to the “d” or “t” sound).

Chinese also taught me the importance of drilling pronunciation early, even when it feels unnecessary, to reduce some of the future fossilization errors that can arise.

Method Five: Conversational Tutoring

Tutoring sessions which consist of just trying to have conversations blur the line between immersion and studying. Indeed, in all of the countries we’ve traveled to, we became friends with our tutors and often did things outside of class, spending time discussing things outside the classroom that we previously discussed inside of it.

However, I’m arbitrarily deciding paid tutoring counts in the “studying” category and unpaid, informal conversations count as “immersion”. Mostly this is because, in the beginning stages of language learning, having conversations with tutors really is studying. Later it requires little effort and can be a fun activity instead of a drain on your energy.

My Goals for Learning Korean

My goal for Korean in three months is still an ambitious one: be able to read simple writing and hold conversations about most everyday topics. This is a slightly lower bar than my Chinese, and because I believe I surpassed the bar for Chinese in being able to have a greater conversational range than I had previously imagined, I think it is possible to do the same with Korean.

As always, I see this initial period, not as an end to my learning, but as a beginning. I still believe that, even with these time restrictions, I’ll get to a level of Korean where continued study and immersion in Canada is enjoyable, and therefore I can steadily improve my Korean over time without strain.

Finally, I hope that this experience might give me more information for how to translate the methods I used in Chinese to a language learner who is under more significant time constraints than I have worked under. I know that my obsessive learning quests can paint unrealistic standards for a typical learner, so I always try to be aware of what methods are feasible for learners in more typical situations.

Side Note: When I wrote this piece, Vat and I were still in Taiwan, editing the upcoming Chinese mini-documentary and relaxing a bit before this final leg of the journey. We’re now both in Seoul. My first impressions are limited, but positive. Since we opted to speak in English for the first night in order to get to our apartment, we saw that the level of English spoken by Koreans is considerably higher than the Chinese or Taiwanese.

Given my on-arrival Korean is much less than my Chinese, that will probably mean some slip ups early on before I can force the conversations back into Korean. However, I’ll try my best and give you an update when I have more to share.

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Date: Monday, 26 May 2014 10:53

I remember taking a class in business school, where we had to evaluate the financial prospects of startups. The startups were real, but the names were changed and in industries obscure enough that we rarely could guess the true identity without cheating.

Given limited information and numbers, we were each given one company and asked to present our analyses. Soon, however, a dominant strategy emerged: nearly every presentation predicted failure.

For the incentives of the classroom, that made sense. Most new startups fail, and for many different reasons. It’s easy to find a reasons for failure, and when you predict failure, you’re usually correct. As a result, the class taught us to practice skepticism, find reasons why things might go wrong.

But real life isn’t like the classroom. An investor with ten companies may see several fail, a few break even and only one earn enough to make up for all the past losses. Skepticism, in this instance, is easy but also not terribly useful.

Training Optimism

This doesn’t just apply to startups. More formally, it applies to any situation where there is an asymmetric prior probability of success and equal (or greater) asymmetry in the results of that success.

Put simply: When failure is cheap, but frequent, and success is lucrative, but rare, it pays a lot more to recognize successes.

You can imagine the situation in a 2×2 matrix:

  1. Failure cheap, failure rare: No-brainer optimism.
  2. Failure pricy, failure rare: Trained skepticism.
  3. Failure cheap, success rare: Trained optimism.
  4. Failure pricy, success rare: No-brainer pessimism.

When success is likely and profitable, we all feel optimistic. Similarly when failure is likely and costly, we’re all pessimistic. It’s the latter two situations, where rare events also have uneven payoffs, that our intuitions often betray us.

For a good talk about many situations where cultivating trained skepticism is a good idea, Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, is a great book. Other websites like OvercomingBias and LessWrong, provide a lot of tools and examples of trained skepticism.

I feel trained optimism is a somewhat less discussed skill, so I want to highlight it here.

Is Trained Optimism Underrated?

Giving an overly optimistic prediction or idea, and having it be wrong, makes you look gullible and foolish. Giving an overly pessimistic prediction or idea, and having it be wrong, is generally forgiven as being cautious. Therefore, if your goal is only looking intelligent, and you have no other stake in it, skepticism is the more suitable strategy. Indeed, that’s what I observed from our classroom experiment: almost nobody was willing to bet their flawed startup would succeed.

But what if you have real stakes and not just your conversational reputation? Not every domain of life warrants trained optimism, but some certainly do.

I think a lot of personal and professional projects largely fit under this category. There’s some minimal opportunity costs and extra effort, and most the time they won’t be great successes. But some of the time they will, so the person who keeps trying and experimenting will beat the skeptic in the long run.

Learning new things is almost always this case. I’ve learned many things that have never served a practical purpose in my life, but often the few that do are quite unexpected. Doing the MIT Challenge, for example, I found the classes on probability and logic more useful than many of the programming classes, something I hadn’t expected.

Optimism as a Skill and a Mood

Bear in mind, this trained optimism is about trying to more carefully pick winners (rather than losers) not a blanket policy of good feeling about every possible action one could take. Also, if the size of success is still dwarfed by its improbability, it’s probably still a bad decision.

In this sense, optimism is a skill. It’s focusing on improving your ability to pick good project candidates, business ideas, habits to follow and not worry too much about the ones that fail. It also means accepting slightly less accurate beliefs, for the extra payoff big wins can create.

But optimism is also a mood, not just a skill. I don’t think one can mechanically implement trained optimism (or trained skepticism, in the situations where that is better suited) without changing your mood about a certain area of life. When hard numbers aren’t available, we rely on moods as heuristics for processing the world and biasing our thinking in a favorable direction.

Being able to pick winners requires looking for ways things can go right and not just the ways things can go wrong. It requires tuning yourself to see the subtler positive signs instead of the overwhelming negative ones. In that sense, optimism is a cultivated emotion, not just a calculation, and at least some of the time, the smarter bet.

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#1000   New window
Date: Monday, 19 May 2014 10:37

This is the 1000th post I’ve written for this blog.

A little over 8 years ago I typed the first post for the blog. I was young—I hadn’t even had my 18th birthday yet. And I was full of enthusiasm, if lacking in experience.

Originally I hadn’t planned on being a writer for a living. I had started out thinking I would make games with a personal development theme, and the blog was initially just to practice writing. I only ended up making one program, before discovering writing was an easier way of expressing ideas than programs.

The blog grew up as I did. It went with me through college, living in France, building a full-time business, the MIT Challenge and it continues with me today (I’m writing these words in Taiwan, preparing for the final leg of my language-learning project). My entire adult life is here, somewhere between the lines.

The themes of my writing changed as I did. I started by emulating my favorite writers of the time, Steve Pavlina, Tony Robbins and David Allen. I wrote with an authoritative voice on all topics, without irony, as I didn’t know of any other way to write. I’d like to believe I’ve learned a little more humility since then, trying to focus my writing on the topics where I feel I can offer something unique.

Today, I hardly read any personal development or business books at all. The blogs I read are mostly academics, scientists and people much smarter than myself. I’ve come to admire the rigor and honesty of such writing, even if I haven’t been able to match those standards in my own.

The shifting nature of this blogs themes and styles has, I believe, made it more interesting, but also more difficult to understand. People arrive, wanting a summary of main points, and get upset when they contradict. This blog has never been a thesis of unchanging principles, but just the process some guy is using to figure things out and writing it down along the way.

Yet despite the changes, I don’t want to go back and edit, rewrite and compile. Not only would that be prohibitively laborious, but it would also be disingenuous. My writing might have fewer mistakes, but it would also imply that I’m writing outside of time, so I leave the posts and the past unchanged.

I don’t know what will change in the next thousand posts, but I’m incredibly grateful for everyone that has chosen to come along for the ride, even if just for a short time.

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Date: Wednesday, 14 May 2014 05:57

Readers familiar with Vat and my current project of attempting to learn four languages in one year, will note that the big focus has been on one method: not speaking English. Today I want to talk about the failures and successes in applying that philosophy to learning Chinese.

My Chinese After Three Months (+100 Hours of Preparation in Canada)

Before I go onto talking about the method, I want to quickly summarize what I feel were the end results of this Chinese experiment.

Overall, I believe my level is at a solid intermediate level. In terms of functionality, I’m pretty good with conversations and can usually talk about most topics without too much strain. I still occasionally get tripped up understanding a question or communicating a point, so I haven’t reached fluency yet—but I’m definitely at the point where I can have meaningful conversations entirely in Chinese.

Last week I also wrote the HSK 4 in Shanghai (I’ll know my grade a month from now). The creators of the test formally declare it to be equivalent to B2 for the CEFR, but that’s almost certainly an overestimation. My speaking ability is probably around B1, but due to the difficulty of Chinese characters I still have tremendous difficulty reading anything of any complexity.

Because the HSK measures listening, reading and writing (but not speaking), I also worked with Olle Linge on a pronunciation protocol. After struggling with some tonal problems my first attempt and working to correct them with a tutor, I was able to fix the major mistakes.

The protocol only measures isolated words, spoken deliberately, so obviously my in-practice pronunciation isn’t perfect. However, it does meet my goal of being able to produce the sounds correctly, at least in theory, so that I can to a certain extent self-correct and avoid fossilization truly grave errors that will hinder my future communication.

Looking back at my original goals, I feel the project was a success.

How Well Did Not Speaking English Work?

In Spain, Vat and I were very good with the no-English rule. I only recall once or twice where we broke down and spoke English to each other, and those were emergencies. I did talk to my parents in English, but I had decided to make that exception from the start.

Sometimes the rule was maintained to somewhat ridiculous levels. Benny Lewis, my friend and successful language learner, and his girlfriend were both staying in Valencia while were were there. Benny speaks Spanish, his girlfriend does not. So instead of being a normal human being and taking a break from speaking Spanish to communicate with her, we just spoke in Spanish and Benny translated.

In Brazil, we had a rough start with temporary homelessness and video editing, so the first two weeks had more frequent interruptions from our no-English rule. However, after the work settled down, switching to speaking entirely in Portuguese wasn’t too difficult.

Chinese was different in ways I hadn’t anticipated and created different problems than Brazil or Spain.

My half of the no-English project started quite well. I had prepared more than Vat in Canada for Chinese, and I was more serious about studying Chinese while in China. So aside from dealing with our landlord on the first day and a few small exceptions, I spoke only in Chinese from when we arrived.

Vat’s starting point with Chinese was considerably rougher, and I feel, probably a lot more typical of new learners to Chinese. The Chinese people we met largely couldn’t speak English, so Vat was forced to use limited Chinese. However, with tutors and with me, Vat spoke a lot of English from the beginning, simply because transitioning to all-Chinese was too hard.

This created a real disconnect in our lives. While in Spain, we did things together, so our interpersonal conversations were a majority of our speaking time. In China we spent far less time together, often going a day or two without speaking more than a few words to each other.

Life during the first half of the project often went like this: Vat would work on his own projects or shoot video, I would study independently and speak Chinese with my friends and tutors. When we did have short dialogs about simple things, we would use Chinese. When we needed to discuss anything more complicated we would use English.

Midway through the project Vat’s Chinese was starting to get good enough that he could stick to Chinese more. However, Chinese was still more difficult than English (of course) so with the rule of not speaking English already broken, it became a lot harder to switch back to all-Chinese, even when we were both at a level where it was possible.

Finally, in Shanghai, we spent most our time together speaking English. In Kunming, I didn’t suffer from this problem too much because we weren’t spending too much time together. However, sharing a hotel room and not having friends or tutors in Shanghai, meant most our time was together and the habit of speaking only in Chinese together hadn’t been sufficiently reinforced.

Is the No-English Rule a Failure with Chinese?

Obviously, by the criteria of not speaking English, we both failed in China. As I was able to maintain the no-English rule with my other friendships in China, I think there’s a decent chance I might have been able to do the no-English rule alone. However, conditions are never perfect, and so neither of us reached the criteria we set at the beginning of the project, clear and simple.

However, there’s another way of judging the no-English rule: as a method for learning Chinese. That is to say, did we learn Chinese and did our failed implementation of the rule nonetheless help us learn it faster than the alternatives?

Evaluating the No-English Rule

On my end, I believe that the no-English rule, even though I failed to implement it as I had originally envisioned, was still one of the most important methods for reaching the level of Chinese that I did.

Even though I wasn’t able to maintain the no-English rule with Vat, I still maintained it with nearly everyone else I met. One of the big reasons to use the no-English rule is to avoid forming your social groups out of people who can’t or won’t speak the language you’re trying to learn. Had I not done that, I believe it would have been much easier to just spend my time in China with other expats and only make friends with Chinese people whose English was decent.

In some ways, the failure of the no-English rule is the exception that proves the rule. Vat and I, since we are traveling together and collaborating on this project, have no choice but to interact. Every other relationship wasn’t constrained in that way, so I could use the no-English rule as a filter for building a mostly Chinese-speaking social group.

But for Vat, and perhaps also more typical learners of Chinese, I have my doubts about the practicality of the rule. A method may work great, but if it is too difficult for a reasonably intelligent and motivated person to maintain, it loses relevance. Many dieting strategies fail on this mark: they *could* work, but they are so difficult it takes heroic feats of willpower to implement them.

I say this because of the sharp contrast in difficulty in implementing no-English in Spain and Brazil compared with China. Vat had no problem doing even the fairly ridiculous stringency we adopted for Spain, but considerable difficulty for China. I was able to maintain the no-English rule for the most part outside our conversations, but even that was quite difficult for me. Seeing as we met very few people in Spain who opted for our level of commitment to not speaking English and not even a single person in China, successfully applying no-English rule may simply be unrealistic for most new Chinese learners.

One potential exception might be living in China in a situation where nobody speaks English. After all, even though Vat used English a fair bit with me, he was forced to use Chinese with the majority of Chinese people with no English ability whatsoever, it just made for often frustrating encounters in the first two months. Had we gone to a special school or homestay where English communication was either not allowed or not possible, the environment might have made up from any deficits in willpower and made the rule more feasible (if still very frustrating).

Salvaging the No-English Rule for Korea and Beyond

From my perspective, I believe the no-English rule is mostly salvageable for Korea. Although Korean will likely be as hard as Chinese, Korea was Vat’s choice of country, so I think the motivation to stick to the rule and study more will prevent the divergence problems we had that made maintaining the rule in China so difficult.

However, I’m somewhat famous for being a bit insanely obsessive during these learning projects. What about someone who wants to learn a “hard” language (or even an “easy” one, for that matter) and is worried about having the self-discipline to implement the no-English rule?

Here I’m not sure half-measures are a good strategy. Simply because, at a beginner level of a language, it’s too easy to slide into English-only friendships which are very hard to break out of, even when your level of ability with the language improves. Even with Vat and my communication, once the no-English rule had been broken, it was very easy to speak mostly in English together in Shanghai, even though, at that point, it would have been possible to maintain Chinese-only.

Possible alternative strategies might be doing a thirty day trial to switch from partial-English to no-English while living in the target country. Studying more beforehand to ease the transition is also a possibility, as is switching cities when you make the switch to no-English so that you can form a new social group without having too many English-speaking friends.

However all of these strategies have drawbacks. Studying more beforehand can become a way of procrastinating on actually using the language. Doing a 30-day trial requires you to isolate yourself from your English-speaking friends, much harder to do in practice than in theory. Switching cities simply might not be a luxury you can afford.

Ultimately, however, the no-English rule may work (even if it is truly too hard) simply because the other structured alternatives all allow you to escape from using the language. That is to say, even if you fail to use the no-English rule, even trying to use it will let you learn the language faster than explicitly not using it.

My sense is that its this last alternative that held for my experience in China. After all, even if I couldn’t be completely faithful to the rule, I’m still happy with my progress in Chinese over such a short burst of time.

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Date: Tuesday, 15 Apr 2014 07:51

A big question I had in my mind before starting this trip was how much harder is learning an Asian language like Chinese than a European one like Spanish? Obviously Chinese is harder, but how much? Is it just a little harder than Spanish or is it several times more difficult?

My experience with both Chinese and Spanish is limited: I spent three months in Spain and am entering my third month in China. However, I would say both have been a success. There’s still a lot to learn, but I feel I can have conversations about most topics in both languages and, in the case of Spanish, I can also watch television and movies.

Being an intermediate learner means I can’t discuss the long road towards full fluency. But I believe I have a unique perspective: having learned both these languages, under the same conditions, similar timescales and only several months apart, the two experiences can be compared more easily.

Should We Even Compare Languages?

My good friend and avid language learner Benny Lewis would disagree with my premise for this post. His argument, as I understand it, is that comparing language difficulties is a waste of time. Why does it matter what’s more difficult? Why not focus on the positive attributes of every language you learn, instead of dwelling in pessimism or letting comparative difficulty justify you holding back from using the language?

From this perspective, I completely agree. Too many people whine about some feature of language X being hard, and use that to justify a sloppy, inefficient learning method. If you want to learn Chinese, you can definitely do it. It just might take a little longer than with Spanish.

However, my experience has been that learning Chinese isn’t simply harder than learning Spanish, it is different. The progression of the language differs from when I learned Spanish, French or Portuguese, enough that I think examining these differences can be very useful. If you have European language expectations for Chinese you might become frustrated at what is actually a very natural progression.

For those curious on an entirely unscientific attempt at quantifying the difference in difficulty between the two, my current feeling is that learning Chinese to spoken fluency is probably 2-3x as much work as it is for Spanish. If you include reading and writing, then 3-4x isn’t an exaggeration.

What Makes Learning Chinese Different than Learning Spanish?

I don’t want to dwell on the overall difficulty of Chinese. Aside from budgeting your learning time and expectations, knowing Chinese is harder than Spanish isn’t particularly helpful. After all, it all has to be learned regardless, so why focus on the negative?

Instead, I’d like to break down which aspects of Chinese require more work and how I feel that changes the best strategy to use when learning it.

Every language has dozens of difficult points, but the ones that are particularly Chinese, (i.e. they trip up the most Western speakers) are:

  1. Tones
  2. Vocabulary
  3. Characters

Chinese isn’t all bad news, it’s near complete lack of tense, mood, gender, grammatical number and inflections means it is grammatically much simpler than Spanish for all but the more advanced nuances.

Side note: Spanish and English grammar, while distinct, share many sentence patterns which are completely different in Chinese. While I never had to go through elaborate conjugation exercises to memorize Chinese grammar, I was well over a hundred hours of studying before I confidently could express the concept “more” in Chinese. Many Chinese concepts have one-to-one translations with English, but relatively fewer than Spanish, which somewhat dampens the common, “Chinese grammar is easy”, claim.

How Tones Changes Learning Strategy

With all of the previous languages I’ve learned, pronunciation was mostly a learn-it-once and then apply-it rule. French was harder than Spanish and Portuguese, but as long as you handle their r’s and get good approximations of the vowel sounds, you shouldn’t have too many problems and your accent will naturally soften with more practice.

The non-tonal parts of Chinese pronunciation evolved in a similar way for me. Study phonetic diagrams to make sure I’m getting good approximations of the phonemes English lacks (j/x/q are often tricky for English speakers, and I also found correctly separating -eng and -ang tricky) but after that it’s simply practice and asking for corrections. Chinese phonology was harder than any language I had learned before, but not excessively so. It just takes practice.

Tones, on the other hand, are something that require continued study well beyond a beginner stage. I agree with John Pasden’s critique of Chinese language education as assuming tones are a basic language feature, rather than something which can stymie even fairly advanced learners.

The other reason tones change learning strategy isn’t just their weirdness for non-tonal language speakers, but something Olle Linge of Hacking Chinese told me in a conversation: Most new Chinese learners neglect tones because, for simple speech, they’re rarely that important—natives can correctly deduce which tones should be there because your sentences are simple. However, as you get to more advanced levels of dialog and conversation, mixing up a tone can change the meaning of a sentence completely or be confusing to the listener.

It’s not possible to get pronunciation perfect from the first day, but I do think their long-term importance, their short-term difficulty and the ease of fossilizing bad habits of speech means that some amount of blind tone drills (both listening and production) should be a regular part of the learning schedule until well into Chinese.

How Vocabulary Changes Learning Strategy

European languages tend to share common root vocabulary from Greek or Latin. Even when the languages are not even related, such as English and Hungarian, there is overlap in technical vocabulary (guess what the Hungarian word politika means?).

Chinese is an interesting case because it has very few easily recognizable loanwords from English. Not only does its completely separate linguistic roots preclude the connections you can make between European languages, but even the words that have come directly from English are often barely recognizable. Winston Churchill’s surname is pronounced Qiūjí’ěr in Chinese (if you’re not familiar with pinyin, click here and use Google Translate to pronounce it for you).

My feeling is that the dissimilarity between English loanwords and their English pronunciation is in part because of the fact that Chinese uses a non-phonetic script (imagine if every word from another language had to be described using English syllables), and because tones need to be added where they don’t exist in English.

These two features, linguistic dissimilarity and few recognizable loanwords, means that learning Chinese is about as close as learning a language from scratch as you can get.

Side note: This isn’t all bad news. Chinese culture, and in particular their writing system, was once the standard in much of East Asia. As a result, learning Chinese words can make learning other languages easier. Some linguists suggest as much as 30-60% of Korean’s vocabulary may be Chinese in origin, which means learning Chinese can serve as an investment in other Asian languages the way learning French or Greek would help you learn other European ones.

From my experience these differences change how learning Chinese progresses compared to Spanish. With Spanish, after mastering basic vocabulary, it wasn’t usually considerably more difficult to start talking about complex subjects (politics, science, art) since many of these technical words are similar in English.

Chinese doesn’t have that advantage, so while I can talk about everyday things and common topics fairly easily, the more esoteric the topic, the more I rely on a dictionary to make my point.

My feeling is that this also shifts the emphasis on Chinese in a more input-based direction. In learning Chinese, I’ve found two tools useful:

  1. Anki’s MCC (Mastering Chinese Characters) decks. These are great because they have thousands of example sentences with crisp audio. Although they aren’t ideal if your only goal was spoken Chinese (the sentences are somewhat more formal and written vernacular) I’ve found it an incredible resource for expanding my vocabulary when I was content to approach that more passively with Spanish.
  2. ChinesePod. In particular, subscribe to their mid-level subscription and download dialog-only files. The real podcasts can get kind of lengthy and I find my attention wandering. Instead I prefer to take their dialogs, listen once or twice and then meticulously go through and parse out every word or grammatical construction I missed. I can usually do 8-10 per hour using this approach, so it’s great for building vocabulary while practicing listening skills.

Are these kinds of drills necessary for learning Chinese? I can’t say for sure, but I feel that without them, it would take a lot longer to break into the upper-intermediate level where you can start learning directly from books, television or music.

How Characters Change Learning Strategy

Writing and reading has been a secondary priority for me here in China. While I was originally not going to invest any time at all into learning the characters until I reached conversational fluency, a few things made me change my mind:

  1. Anki’s MCC decks are good for both character recognition and vocabulary/grammar/listening practice. Although one could redesign a better deck if only spoken comprehension was the goal, using this resource as-is has been pretty effective.
  2. Characters are a good way of linking vocabulary. In the beginning, I struggled a lot with the extreme homophony of Chinese. Knowing the characters in isolation and then using those building blocks to think about words means that I can keep concepts separate that only differ by a tone.
  3. Reading and writing, while not a short-term goal, is definitely a long-term goal. Therefore, even if characters slows down my progress somewhat in speaking Chinese, I don’t think it hurts my long-term chances of becoming fully fluent.

To that end, using almost exclusively Anki’s MCCs, I’ve learned roughly 1300 characters. By the time the three months are done, I’m expecting that to be around 2000. I also tried out Skritter briefly to get a sense for handwriting and to learn radicals. Thus far, I have learned to handwrite around 450 or so (although half of these are the Kangxi radicals rather than independent characters).

Estimates on the number of characters needed to be functionally literate vary from as little as 2000 to as much as 5000. By these estimates, I’m likely only a third of the way there in terms of character recognition (which is only part of reading Chinese, since most words are polysyllabic and whose meaning only vaguely corresponds to their component characters).

The biggest impact of characters on learning Chinese is short-term. For a long time in China you’ll be illiterate. You might be able to have conversations without issue, but anything more complicated than text messages or emails is often out of reach. Learning Spanish (or even Korean) one takes for granted that literacy is only a small extra cost on top of learning to speak, whereas with Chinese it is nearly the amount of work of learning the spoken language itself.

To handle the characters in Chinese I’ve seen two strategies advocated for:

Strategy One: Ignore All Characters Until You’re Conversationally Fluent

This is the strategy that Vat is using while we’re in China. It’s the strategy advocated by respected linguist and Sinologist Victor Mair. It’s also the one Benny used while learning Chinese, and what he suggested to me when I asked him for advice before attempting my own version of an intense Chinese-learning burst.

In learning Chinese, I can definitely see advantages to this approach. It simplifies the task of learning considerably and avoids students getting bogged down memorizing characters when they should really be practicing conversations. Most natives I’ve spoken with tend to balk at this approach, until you remind them that no Chinese person has ever learned characters before he could already speak Chinese.

If you’re not particularly interested in learning to read and write, or you find the idea of learning characters mildly terrifying, this is the strategy I’d suggest. There are some weaknesses, but I think it’s probably the best fit for most learners.

Strategy Two: Emphasize Character Learning from the Beginning

The other strategy, used heavily by textbook authors, is to make you learn a bunch of characters from the first day. This pedagogical style is even more prevalent in China where I’ve even seen beginner textbooks that have students reading over full dialogs in characters without pinyin.

This latter strategy often suggests practicing handwriting characters until the students can write full sentences in characters with a pencil and paper.

My verdict is that the second strategy is almost certainly a mistake (unless you just really like characters and have no interest in conversing in Mandarin). However, I’ve personally found I don’t lean as far as other advocates of the no-characters approach to learning.

Instead, I think characters are something worth learning if they’re used as a backup to the spoken language. Putting some light amount of character recognition has helped me remember vocabulary more easily, separate homophones and near-homophones mentally and has been useful in the inevitable situations where recognizing characters is required (even if full literacy is still a ways off). Learning characters does make more work, but it has been useful in combating those short-term problems with the spoken language and will, of course, be useful when I eventually want to read books in Chinese.

I also sense that characters shouldn’t be learned in isolation. Seeing characters when reading ChinesePod transcripts or MCC deck example sentences is great since you’re forming a link between character and spoken language.

Expectations for Learning Chinese

In comparison to the difficulties I foresaw learning Chinese, I feel that learning Chinese mostly met my expectations. It’s harder, but if you’re interested in learning about the largest, oldest and one of the most powerful languages and cultures in the world, I think it is definitely worth the extra effort.

Aside from the points noted above, Chinese does largely conform to my experience learning languages: as close to full immersion as possible is the best way to go, start using the language as soon as possible, don’t speak English. The difference is that compared to Spanish, I’d probably budget more time to reach the same level of speaking ability.

Interestingly, I believe Chinese is actually somewhat more exploitable than Spanish for rapid-learning methods. With Spanish, everything aside from the no-English rule, minor tutoring and a grammar book seemed unnecessary; what mattered was immersion. With Chinese, there’s a lot more room for improvement to be made through listening and pronunciation drills, visual mnemonics and active practice.

My Chinese and Future Progress

In terms of my own Chinese, based on my original goal of wanting to be able to have conversations in Chinese without considerable difficulty, I’ve already passed the lower-bound of that benchmark some time ago. I’ve now had more than a few multi-hour length conversations without needing to check for a translation more than a handful of times.

My next step is increasing my vocabulary and recognition to smooth my conversations and hopefully graduate to being able to watch television shows and movies and understand most of the dialog. I’ve also signed up to write the HSK 4 (China’s supposed equivalent of the B2 language proficiency exam) in Shanghai in one month.

Unlike my other languages, Chinese will probably require continued study (as opposed to simply continued use) to reach a truly proficient, long-term level. However, I think making the adjustments to the learning approach I’ve noted above, and a good work ethic, a strong foundation for the language can be achieved in only a few months.

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Author: "Scott Young" Tags: "Personal Development"
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Date: Wednesday, 02 Apr 2014 05:24

Most of the time I talk about learning better, I try to focus on long-term habits. Build good habits over months and years, and they’ll serve you for the rest of your life. Even if you fall off the wagon, it’s easier to rebuild old habits than construct fresh ones.

Sometimes, however, you won’t have that luxury. You’ll have a big test or deadline which you need to learn a lot, fast.

In this article, I’m going to share the strategy I used both when tackling the roughly four-fold pace of the MIT Challenge and currently, learning to speak Chinese over three months. What makes this strategy powerful is that it is the opposite of how most people approach tough learning deadlines, and why they eventually succumb to procrastination or burnout.

Burnout and Procrastination, Symptoms of a Poor Strategy

The typical student’s approach to a looming deadline is something like this: force yourself to spend all your time in the library, eliminate all social activities and fun, beat yourself up for wasting time or getting distracted.

It’s a common pattern because its a reinforcing cycle. You start getting distracted, so you force yourself to buckle down and spend more time studying. This drains you more, making it easier to get distracted, which guilts you into spending even more time in isolation. This generally continues until you’re either operating at very low levels of your peak efficiency, or you’re burned out and have given up.

What’s hard for these students to realize is that they can learn more, by spending less time studying. (Or, more accurately, less time guilting themselves into studying since in the unfocused haze of semi-work, very little studying is actually occurring.)

How to Study Hard Without Burning Out

The key of the method is simple: constrain your studying hours, but make them higher quality.

Here are the three steps, which I’ll explain in detail:

  1. Set concrete studying hours that leave room for rest time.
  2. Switch passive learning tasks to active ones.
  3. Build a comfortable, but distraction-free working environment.

Step One: Concrete Studying Hours with Ample Rest Time

The first mistake is believing you can study non-stop. This is a dangerous temptation, and the bigger the exam or deadline looms, the easier it is to fall into this trap.

I’m not going to tell you that the optimal amount of hours of studying should be leisurely. If you want to study hard, you’re going to have to work hard. But think of it like running a race, there’s a hard pace you can stick to and a pace that goes too fast and you run out of air. Separating the two is a fine line.

The easiest way to separate that line is to set concrete hours that allow you enough time to rest. I personally find working 5 days per week 8am-6pm plus an additional half day (with breaks, of course), to be about the best I can do for more than several weeks at a time. I used this schedule throughout the MIT Challenge, and I’m using it now while learning Chinese.

Notice that this schedule means every evening is free as is one whole weekend day (and half of another). This means that going out to meet friends, exercising or anything else you do for fun doesn’t need to be sacrificed.

If you’re currently studying hard, feeling burned out, and are trying to switch strategies, your transition workload needs to be even less than this. I might do only half as much for a few days or a week until I build back up to this schedule. If you’re winded when running, you need to go back to a slower pace for awhile before you return to your sustainable pace.

Step Two: Switch Passive Learning Tasks to Active Ones

I’ve used the running metaphor to explain why setting concrete hours is essential. However, the running analogy fails because mental and physical tasks are fundamentally different. If you’re in a race and start feeling you’re running too fast, you have to slow down. If you’re in a mental race and start feeling you’re pushing too much, your body can compensate by wrecking your focus.

When your focus is damaged, your learning speed is curtailed significantly, but you’re still putting in a lot of effort. This means you may be putting in the same effort as someone who stuck with a concrete schedule, but you’re learning far less.

The next step to combating this problem is to switch your tasks from passive to active ones. These will strain you more, so if you’re transitioning from a burnout schedule to a fixed one, you’ll need to set even more minimal hours for the first few days. However, the benefit of active tasks is that they force you in a higher efficiency direction with your studying.

Activeness is a spectrum so there aren’t two categories of studying tasks that are labelled either passive or active. Rather, some tasks are higher-focus, higher-efficiency than others.

Self-testing is an active task. Re-reading notes is a passive one. The Feynman Technique is an active task. Skimming is a passive one. A good rule of thumb is that if there’s no point in your studying routine where you have the possibility of finding out you’re incorrect, it isn’t an active task. I would make some limited exceptions to that list (some mnemonic techniques have no feedback, but are mentally demanding and fairly efficient) but it’s a small one.

Step Three: Build a Comfortable, Yet Distraction-Free, Work Environment

This step is obvious: if you work where you have distractions, you’ll get distracted. I do my non-conversational studying of Chinese at a cafe where I don’t have internet access. If you need to use the internet for part of your work, use an app like SelfControl to selectively block all websites that aren’t work-related. If you can go without internet altogether, even better.

Put your phone on silent, or don’t even bring it while you’re studying. Go somewhere your friends aren’t (although I picked my studying location in Chinese so that it can occasionally facilitate random Chinese conversations, it’s the exception which proves the rule).

Even though you don’t want to be distracted, don’t worry about taking breaks. The ideal should be to create an environment where breaks are boring (but still relaxing) so you don’t get tempted into giving up studying. Choosing break activities that fit that criteria in advance can help you sustain your focus over an entire day.

During the MIT Challenge, I’d often go for short walks or just sit quietly for fifteen or twenty minutes. These are good breaks because they allow you to give your mind a short breather, but they are boring enough that returning to your original task doesn’t require willpower. Surfing the internet, chatting with friends or playing phone games aren’t good break activities.

My frequency of breaks depends a lot on the type of activity I’m doing. I took frequent breaks during the MIT Challenge because the hard math problems and long reading assignments were difficult to sustain focus for more than an hour or so. During this language challenge I rarely take long breaks because the mental task of grammar exercises or vocabulary building is less taxing.

How to Transition from a Burnout Schedule to an Effective One

Despite knowing these lessons deeply, I even recently succumbed to the temptation to work too much. I built my language-learning routine around immersion, which meant nearly constant engagement with the language. That worked with Spanish, where studying time itself was rather minimal in comparison to simply interacting, but it broke down when applying it to Chinese.

My problem wasn’t the No-English rule, but rather, trying to fill each day with too many activities that were mentally demanding. Always listening to ChinesePod instead of music, only watching Chinese television and media, studying every day instead of taking a day off each week. By the time I noticed I was about to hit a wall, I had a Chinese-language presentation looming in the following few days I couldn’t get out of, and it burned me. I probably lost a few days of good studying time and possibly more in lowered efficiency due to my mistake.

But mistakes happen, and once I realized I had fallen into that trap, I redesigned a new studying schedule which followed the above rules and eased into it over a few days. Now I’m back on track and I’m getting at least as much studying done as I had been before, but I’m not exhausting myself to do it.

Sometimes you can fall into a burnout schedule but not recognize it for what it is. This can happen when you aren’t making enough progress towards your goal (or are procrastinating so much) that you feel you should be working more, not less. In these cases, it can sometimes be hard to recognize that your inability to stay focused is a symptom of unconstrained work hours, not laziness.

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Author: "Scott Young" Tags: "Personal Development"
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Date: Tuesday, 01 Apr 2014 07:30

I occasionally get emails asking about various ways to improve cognitive performance: supplements, brain-wave audio CDs, drugs or therapies. Usually I refuse to comment on them because I don’t know the research, but I’m generally skeptical.

However, there is one category of brain-enhancing products I will comment on: braintraining exercises. These are games or puzzles with the sole purpose of improving cognitive function. They’re also one of the silliest ideas I’ve ever heard of.

Why Train Your Brain with the Fake Stuff?

First off, I’m going to ignore the entire issue of whether brain training exercises actually improve cognitive performance. Although I’ve seen some reports that they can improve working memory, I also have doubts about how generally it can transfer to new situations.

But let’s ignore this fact for a moment and focus on an even better reason to ignore these products: the world is full of interesting, challenging and useful mental problems—why devote your precious time to solving fake ones?

Why not use that time instead to learn Chinese, physics, computer programming, history, economics, calculus or millions of other engaging skills. Many of these have similar cognitive stresses that the brain games supposedly induce, plus the problem of transfer goes away since these subjects are actually useful.

If the reason for the game instead of exercising your mind by learning something real is that learning real things is boring, that’s fine. But, in that case, why not just admit you want a mentally stimulating game and pick a game for a game’s sake. For the masochists, you can download and try here a version of Scrabble that plays against a nearly perfect computer opponent.

The Gym for Your Mind is the Real World

An analogy I’ve seen is that braintraining games are useful in the same way a gym is useful for building muscle. Although you could train your body just through physical activity, that is often harder to achieve in our modern, sedentary habits.

This analogy breaks down, however, because, if anything, the mental aspects of our modern lives have become more demanding, not less. While it’s possible we’re may be less physically active than our ancestors (although there’s some controversy surrounding this as well), the opportunities for mental engagement have never been higher—both in our entertainment and our self-improvement.

Why pick a brain game when you can train your mind to do something useful and interesting instead?

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