Saturday, May 24, 2008


I've been searching for a decent flashcard program with which to learn foreign vocabulary for some time. Certainly with Chinese, learning new words has always been the biggest stumbling block for me; the grammar is astoundingly simple in many ways. Now for Spanish too I'm looking to increase my vocabulary as fast as possible.

I've found the best material for learning Spanish grammar has been the Michel Thomas courses which take you from the basics (cleverly focusing on similarities to English) all the way through to the various subjunctive tenses - the bane of most English speakers learning Spanish!

Most flashcard programs work on a very linear algorithm. You input the vocabulary you want to learn, they then show the cards one by one and tot up your score so you can keep track of how you're doing.

Genius is different, and works on a simple but effective algorithm encoding the way most people memorise most efficiently. The principle is as follows:

When you hear or read a new word for the first time, you will typically remember it for around 10 seconds, before it starts to fade. If you hear it within those ten seconds, you will then be able to remember it for a further 30 seconds or so before it disappears. Again, hearing it within those 30 seconds you will be able to remember it for a couple of minutes. The next jump may be up to 10 minutes and so on. Soon enough you will remember the word almost indefinitely.

Genius works on this principle by feeding you the words just before you are likely to forget them and therefore prolonging the time you can remember them for with the least possible effort. Of course if you don't use these words within a few days they are likely to fade once more, so clearly as much interaction with people using these words is key.

My first attempt at using Genius was a strange experience. I put in around 100 new words and started the program. Within a few minutes it was asking me words that I'd heard shortly before. I could only just remember them consciously, but found that if I followed my fingers and just relaxed, I could get them right more than 90% of the time. Within a little over an hour I had remembered 100 new words with seemingly no effort - certainly no active attempt to memorise anything!

Many of these words receded into the depths in the next few days as I didn't use them, but with another go on the same vocab list today they seem very familiar and I'm ready to move onto a new set.

I would highly recommend giving this program a go if you're attempting to quickly increase your vocabulary in a foreign language.


On the subject of memory, I've always had a fascination with eidetic (photographic) memories, being of the belief that we all have much greater capacity for near perfect memories than we are normally aware of. I have enough personal circumstantial evidence to know that my mind does things I wasn't aware it was able to at the strangest moments.

On Onpoint a few days ago there was a radio piece about a woman with hyperthymestic syndrome, until recently thought to be unique in her ability to remember perfectly everything that has happened to her over the last 2+ decades, since her early teens. She spoke of having two screens in her head, one in the here and now with which she interacts with the world around her, and one, like a movie screen, constantly playing back in perfect detail random moments of her life from the age of around 14.

It seems that since this radio piece many people have come forward claiming to have similar experiences themselves, or through people they know. The radio piece has points of interest, though the first part of the interview between the host and the woman in question felt rather like an attempt at a show piece. I felt it pretty unpleasant to listen to the host probing her, seemingly to get an amazing piece of information from the last couple of decades with which to wow the audience.

However, there were moments of fascination and insight into a life where you never forget, the good, the bad and the ugly. Particularly interesting was to hear that having such a memory is not a blessing for school life, allowing you to study everything in a fraction of the time of your classmates. Indeed a life where there's a constant movie playing in the background seems to be a frustratingly distracted one.

Of course the main interest in this is that, like with most of neuroscience, the way you understand the 'normally' functioning brain, is by studying the extremes of cognitive ability, both positive and negative, Phineas Gage being one of the first examples of such studies.

Anyway, the piece is interesting, if on several occasions rather insensitive. Worth a listen nonetheless.

Right, back to struggling to get as much into my imperfect memory as possible!


Luca said...

To be honest the grammatical structure I miss the most from Italian is the subjunctive.
I don't know Spanish, but I guess the grammatical structure is pretty similar to Italian. My suggestion to learn Spanish would be to "read" Spanish newspapers. What I mean is to take an article and look up for any word you don't know, and try to analyze the sentences, that is why they use that tense instead of another, what's the subject, the object and so on. I know it's tremendously tedious. We do it in school when learning Italian (and Latin) grammar, and actually it's tremendously helpful.

Jonathan Shock said...

That's a good idea, and essentially what I've been doing with some books and plays (plays are particularly good because the grammar is closest to normal speech). Newspapers are a good idea because the vocabulary is dense and the grammar is often complicated.

Are there newspapers in Latin coming out of the Vatican?

The idea of English students learning English grammar has sadly past into the midsts of time. Most kids now wouldn't have the faintest idea what an adverb is, for instance. This makes learning foreign languages a bit of a struggle because they have to learn English first!

Luca said...

I noticed people's ignorance with English grammar especially now that I'm studying Japanese in English. One of the students simply didn't know what a transitive verb is, which to me is quite surprising because transitive and intransitive verbs are very different in Italian.

Reading newspaper is in my opinion one of the best way to learn a language, but the problem is: you need to be interested in what you're reading. Instead of newspaper you could try Spanish magazine if you were not particularly into Spanish politics.

The Vatican newspaper is "L'Osservatore Romano" which is written in Italian and translated in many other languages, among those is obviously English. Documents from the Vatican are written in Latin, and then translated in "vulgar" languages --

Did you study Latin in school?