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The Cheating & Consolidating Method

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 Message 17 of 136
31 July 2014 at 3:51pm | IP Logged 
emk wrote:
Or How I Reached 99.8% Comprehension of (Some) French Fiction While Goofing Off

I'm assuming that there is tongue in cheek here. From what I read in the rest of the post, the effort involved in
reaching that level of comprehension of French hardly qualifies as goofing off. That was some serious work!
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 Message 18 of 136
31 July 2014 at 6:35pm | IP Logged 
Great post emk!

I'd like to share one of my favorite forms of "cheating", and then I have a question for more experienced learners.

One thing that used to frustrate me a lot was learning chinese characters in Anki, because the sound and meaning are not always apparent from the character you have 2 details to remember for each character which can be quite frustrating at times. I eventually made it much easier on myself by changing my Cantonese decks so I had 3 card types for each note. Character and Pronunciation, Characters and Meaning, and just the Character.

With the pronunciation and meaning cards, the character is there mostly as a hint and friendly reminder. With the character only card, I count it as correct if I get either the tone or the meaning from the card, I don't require myself to ever know both. The point of this card is to make sure I can get my brain to generate some sort of information based purely on the visual character which I might ignore with the other cards if I don't rely on it as a hint. Even though I may keep counting a certain character card as correct from say, only knowing the pronunciation, when I get to the character + pronunciation card I'll be forced to generate the meaning as well. So even though no single card tests me on every aspect of a character, eventually I learn it all and do so over a more gradual process that doesn't make me pull my hair out and delete my anki deck in frustration, and since making this change I've been able to stay with the same deck for almost a year now.

Question Time

So at the moment I'm trying to reach basic fluency in my first second language. One of the things I've noticed when learning is that sometimes consolidation is required before I can learn new vocabulary. So for example if I'm doing L-R and I come across a sentence that has 2 decipherable words and 1 unknown word, my brain tends to focus on the decipherable words and ignore the unknown word. But if I return to the sentence later after I've consolidated those undecipherable words, my brain will focus in on figuring out the unknown word. The same applies with grammar too if there's a sentence pattern I'm unfamiliar with, it's harder to pick up new vocabulary and vice versa.

So at the moment I don't really have a good system of when I should focus on consolidating or when I should be "cheating" to make new words decipherable. Usually I just do an activity that seems to help until it stops helping, then I find some other activity and through lots of awkward trial and error knowledge and progress eventually happens. But I'm assuming at some point experience learners get more of an intuitive sense of what stage they're at and what methods work best then.

So right now I'm focusing on L-R Anna Karenina. I went through the book one pass through and didn't pick up much new vocab, but I think it helped consolidate a lot of stuff. So I decided to start just repeatedly doing L-R over just Part 1 (of 8) and focusing on the same material has helped me get familiar with it and a lot of words I'd been previously ignoring are now popping into focus. I'm planning after doing this for a while to do L-R through the whole book again to help consolidate all these new words, and then perhaps try listening to audio only, or extensively reading the text when I start feeling more comfortable with it.

Since its a rather big text to work through I wonder if anyone has any advice for knowing how to rotate between activities to make the best progress? Do you find it better to go through long phases of a particular kind of study, and then switch to something else, or is it better to consistently mix it up from day to day, or even do several types of activities for one language in a single day?
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 Message 19 of 136
31 July 2014 at 9:21pm | IP Logged 
YnEoS wrote:
I'd like to share one of my favorite forms of "cheating", and then I have a question for more experienced learners.

One thing that used to frustrate me a lot was learning chinese characters in Anki, because the sound and meaning are not always apparent from the character you have 2 details to remember for each character which can be quite frustrating at times. I eventually made it much easier on myself by changing my Cantonese decks so I had 3 card types for each note. Character and Pronunciation, Characters and Meaning, and just the Character.

I did something similar in the beginning with Breton, so it's applicable for languages using Latin-derived alphabets too.

I had one deck for the meaning of words, and another deck in which I practised gender and mutations (which are closely linked for nouns in Breton). In other words, it was a deck where the front may have the word "kelenner" and the back "ur c'helenner" so that I could practice picking the right article, and the right mutation according to the gender, or the front could say "2 + kelenner" and the back "daou gelenner" to teach me to pick the right gendered number and mutation. Or the front may say "o + debriñ" and the back "o tebriñ" to teach myself how to mutate verbs after verbal particles. I ended up extending it to prepositional pronouns, e.g. "a + me" and "ac'hanon". For this deck I didn't have to produce a meaning. I had a third deck of phrases and idioms, e.g. "written by" and "skrivet gant" (written with).

It was all pretty good until I knew too many words and too many different potential situations to practice. It got to a point where Anki was essentially homework from hell.
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 Message 20 of 136
01 August 2014 at 1:18pm | IP Logged 
Is this a topic just for theory or is it open for consulting? :)

I'm having a hard time making this method (or my own attempts based on it) work for
Russian. Going through a lot of textbooks didn't make it possible for me to read
any Russian text comfortably, so there isn't a native resource I could probably
be using for cheating.

I'm still using textbooks, and I even moved on to intermediate ones, but when it gets
to reading books I feel frustration. The problem is: I know so little of the vocabulary
involved that reading becomes a nuisance. Even when the story is well-known; even when
it is a translation from English instead of a native text. I still know no more than
20% of whichever Russian text I get, so what I do is no more effective (or motivating)
then looking at a glossary with a word and its translation; in my case, doing it 1000
times if you consider I'm reading an average of 5 pages a day.

I'm bringing this up because the perspective emk narrated worked smoothly with me for
French,too, but when I get to a non-transparent language (my native language is
Portuguese and I know English) I really feel the gap between A2 and B1 as

I've done SRS for Russian before, with sentences. Maybe it didn't last long and it came
too early, that is, I barely knew enough words to relate sentence and translation. I've
worked through 3 Assimils and at least 4 other textbooks I can remember, and I've been
using native materials since January.

The conversational skils and the corresponding vocabulary for daily dialogues are
advancing slowly but consistently: I'm watching a TV series with English translation
and picking up quite a bit. When it comes to reading, though, when context gives much
less clue, even with a translation I still think what I'm doing isn't deciphering, it's
trying to learn brutally.

Maybe it all gets down to me not reviewing language textbooks, not reviewing the same
text within a lesson 2 or 3 times (Which is bet is the main reason) and not making sure
I learned most of the new vocabulary before moving on. If that really is my reason for
unsuccessfulness, then I think a disclaimer should be added somewhat in the method. I'm
constantly learning at least 1 'transparent' language and 1 'non-transparent' language
at the same time and I'm pretty much sure they're two different beasts. You may learn
enough to conversate comfortably in the non-transparent one, but deciphering a native
text requires learning a whole lot of words you took for granted when learning another
Romance or Germanic language.
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 Message 21 of 136
01 August 2014 at 5:01pm | IP Logged 
I agree with the post; it's nothing ground-breaking and I realise it's not supposed to be, it's just a nice description of how acquiring passive skills works; a good reminder to (1) not worry about taking the "easy route" (you do read counter-productive advice about using native materials only from early on, trying to avoid translation, only using a TL dictionary, and other ways of making things unnecessarily harder for yourself) and (2) lots of input is useful to consolidate what you've learnt and make it more familiar.

But let's face it, passive skills are the easy part (relatively speaking of course!!! These thousands of pages and hundreds of hours of TV/film aren't exactly effortless...), and for many of us, good active skills are the big goal and they're decidedly harder to develop, and the biggest challenge of language learning is often actually using all that language that you can recognise.

So I'm mostly just thinking aloud here, and sorry if I'm going off-topic a bit since the topic is about passive skills, but I'm wondering if the "cheating and consolidating" principle can also be applied to active skills. And I don't see why not! After all, in active knowledge there's the same distinction of thinks you simply don't know how to say, things you can say it but it takes some effort to remember or construct, and automatic things that come out without much thought.

Bao already hinted at this by describing some ideas for interacting with native speakers:

Bao wrote:

Talking about topics you know well. (Guessing the details from your general knowledge of the topic.)
Talking to people you know well. (You usually can read their body language well and they yours, apart from knowing details of each other's knowledge, personal experiences and opionons.)
Being part of a group setting. (More time/clues when observing others talk about a topic before somebody might want to talk to you about it. Very helpful when another native speaker doesn't understand what the first native speaker was trying to say and asks for clarification. Usually there's somebody whose speech style and sentence patterns you can copy and modify without feeling like a parrot.)

A few more I've thought of:

- Self-talk. Since you're not in a conversation, you have more opportunity to "cheat" by thinking about what you're saying, taking time to form awkward grammatical structures or remember words and expressions that aren't quite at the tip of your tongue, or even look things up. Then these structures/words/expressions become more consolidated as you use them more, so become more automatic when you're actually in a conversation.

- Writing. Same idea, you have more time so you can cheat more, and after you've used something in writing a few times it should be more familiar to you when you're speaking. I've found text/Facebook messages with friends to be useful for learning "social" language for things like making plans which I can then use face-to-face.

- Working with a tutor who corrects you... "cheating" in the sense that you're given corrections and better ways to say things immediately rather than having to figure them out for yourself. A tutor could also help you consolidate things by directing the conversation towards certain subjects or situations that require particular vocabulary or grammar.

- Asking how to say something if you don't know it (in English or by circumlocution or by pointing at an object or whatever). Not always practical in a fast-paced group conversation, but works well for one-to-one or more calm groups.

- Courses like FSI that teach a point then use drills to consolidate the usage of it, with the idea that it'll then be automatic when you need to use that point in spontaneous speaking.

- Anki when used in certain ways (cloze deletion etc.) to consolidate things that you want to "activate".

Again, none of those ideas are revolutionary, but they demonstrate the principle. And I also realise that passive work can contribute to active knowledge to an extent that seems to vary by person: some people find that lots of listening and reading help their active skills, while others like me need a more, eh... active approach.

I suppose Boris Shekhtman's "How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately" techniques could also apply, but they're more about how to make the most of your existing active knowledge while I'm talking about how to build up and improve that knowledge.

Edited by garyb on 01 August 2014 at 5:10pm

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 Message 22 of 136
01 August 2014 at 5:16pm | IP Logged 
Nice post by garyb. If the thread goes in that direction, I'll certainly tag along for the ride. In the meantime I do want
to restate my disagreement with the use of the term cheating. I know that one can cheat fate and death, but in the
context of language learning, I don't see the value of using a term with such negative connotations for something
that is basically a set of learning tools, techniques and methodologies. What is being cheated? Or relative to what?

What I see here is an excellent strategy for obtaining high-level reading comprehension. I would summarize it as
active learning and massive input. A similar statement could be made for the productive skills. Work at it and
practice a lot.
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 Message 23 of 136
01 August 2014 at 7:49pm | IP Logged 
I like the cheating and consolidating terms. This is a great thread. Of course both cheating and consolidating
both start with a "c", which sets the stage for a very modern legitimacy to the framework.

Cheating is also used in ways like a "cheat day" on a diet. The purpose there is to reset your metabolism a
little bit to make further progress in your goal easier.

Cheating is also nice here for those of us who at times soldier on with great discipline. Or at least, some

I think it's a great framework for creative ideas as well as seeing how well we can all shoehorn various
techniques into it. Emk is great at making language learning seem fun. This again is another example.

Note, there are negative connotations to cheating, but the word is used in enough ways that sometimes it is a
positive, such as here. Even using the word "cheating" to describe the approach fits into the novelty of the
phrase, "cheating and consolidating".
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 Message 24 of 136
01 August 2014 at 10:58pm | IP Logged 
I won't prolong the side debate over the term cheating since it's really a question of preference and I defer to the
OP. But I do want to raise the issue of comprehension, especially when we attach a figure such as 50%, 70% and
even 99.8%.

Two events made me think about this. The issue came to my mind just yesterday when my Spanish tutor
corrected my use of a very basic word in Spanish that I've been using for years without ever being corrected. I
thought I totally understood the word and had used it many times. However, there was a nuance that I had never
really assimilated. So, in essence, I understood the word but only imperfectly. If my tutor hadn't corrected me, I
would have continued misunderstanding and misusing it.

The other thing that got me thinking about this was reading two novels, Mike at Wrykyn, and Mike and Psmith,
by the great English author P.G. Wodehouse. They were published in 1909 and describe the comic adventures of
a certain Mike at two very English boarding schools in the early 20th century.

Linguistically, a couple of things caught my eye. First, there was a certain amount of British school slang that I
had to look up in the dictionary. These were ordinary words that I knew but were used with special meanings.
Then there is the whole culture of life in these so-called public schools with their customs and various codes of

And finally, the most difficult part was the considerable space devoted to the sport of cricket of which I knew
nearly nothing. It would seem the life in these schools revolved around this sport. If you don't understand the
sport and its arcane terminology, you can't really appreciate the the descriptions. Here is a an example:

"Today the start had been gruesome beyond words. Mike the bulwark of the side, the man who had been brought
up on Wrykyn bowling, and from whom, whatever might happen to the others, at least a fifty was expected --
Mike, going in first with Barnes and taking first over, had played inside one from Bruce, the Wrykyn slow bowler,
and had been caught at short slip off his second ball."

How does one measure comprehension of this text? None of the words are unfamiliar to me. There is a level of
understanding where I go by the face value of the words. I have a very vague idea of what is going on. But I know
that I really don't fully understand what is happening here. How much do I understand? I would put it close do
0%. I recognize the words but I don't know their real significance in this context.

Interestingly, this does not prevent the reader from enjoying the book. The writing is so good that even if some
of the material is incomprehensible for certain readers like myself, there is a lot to appreciate.

To come back to the debate here, the issue is that it's not easy to quantify comprehension. Recognizing words
that we've met before in a dictionary is one thing, and this is relatively quantifiable, but that's not the same as
comprehending or constructing the full meaning of a text.

Edited by s_allard on 02 August 2014 at 1:47am

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