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Language learning — a bowl of vapor

By November 1, 2022July 22nd, 2023No Comments

Every orange speck in this image is akin to a “word” or a small “piece” of the language. And it is just as light as air.

At first, you start with an empty bowl.

As you start learning, you start to grap some specks and place them at the bottom carefully. They are immediately usable, and part of your active vocabulary! You can say “hello” and “goodnight” or whatever.

As you begin to grab more specks — now by the handful — and throwing them at the bottom of the bowl, most of them bounce right back and keep floating above the bottom.

These “floating” specks are not a part of your active vocabulary yet.

Each time you “encounter” a word in your learning journey, you effectively “pat” its corresponding speck towards the bottom of the bowl. Eventually, it will stick.

You have to pat them multiple times, because they bounce back (i.e. you forget them too soon).

Since the goal is to increase the amount of the language that’s settled / stuck at the bottom of your bowl, you can do one of two things:

  1. Keep grabbing more and more specks and throwing them at the bottom, knowing that some of them will not stick — but by sheer brute force, each day, the sediment at the bottom does grow a little.
    This is the HIGH INPUT approach — read, read, and read new material. You don’t make an effort to remember anything, but as the common words keep reappearing, they settle down over time. It’s more enjoyable, but also has a long slog before you make “sudden” progress.
  2. Or, you can take the STUDIOUS approach — review, review, review every new word you learn until it firmly sticks at the bottom, before you go out learning new things. This is akin to picking up each speck individually and pressing it into the bottom of the bowl to make sure it sticks.

    This improves retention, but severely limits your speed of acquiring the language. You can never become fluent in this way.

In the end, your knowledge of the language will always look like this:

A solid amount is settled at the bottom in your active memory, but a significant part is “fuzzy” / sparse, and another big chunk of words is still in the air and you haven’t even encountered them yet!

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