Friday, November 26, 2010

Double your learning with practice + exposure as compared to practice alone

ScienceDaily is reporting a finding that seems to show how to learn more with less effort:
Beverly Wright, first author of a study in the Sept. 22 Journal of Neuroscience and communication sciences and disorders professor at Northwestern [says] "Our work suggests that you can have the same gain in learning with substantially less pain." … [The findings] hold potential for members of the general population with an interest in enhancing perceptual abilities -- for musicians seeking to sharpen their sensitivity to sound, people studying a second language or physicians learning to tell the difference between regular and irregular heartbeats.
People studying a second language, you say? So what is this learning sweet spot exactly?
Previous research showed that individuals become better at many perceptual tasks by performing them again and again, typically making the training tedious and long in length. It also showed that mere exposure to the perceptual stimuli used during practice on these tasks does not generate learning.

But the Northwestern researchers found that robust learning occurred when they combined periods of practice that alone were too brief to cause learning with periods of mere exposure to perceptual stimuli. … What's more, they found that the combination led to perceptual learning gains that were equal to the learning gains made by participants who performed twice as much continuous task training (training which by nature of its repetition and length often is onerous).
Translation? We know that you'll learn something by doing it over and over again. We also know that just being exposed to something doesn't cause you to learn that thing. But a combination of a bit of practicing plus a bit of exposure causes you to learn something in 50% of the time practice alone would take.

Applied to language learning? This would mean that you're going to be swimming upstream if you try to learn a language solely by reading and listening (i.e., "mere exposure to the perceptual stimuli"). We know that something can certainly be learned by practice alone, but it's slow and inefficient (see, e.g., most language classes). But the most efficient way is a combination of both.

Forgive me if I'm just seeing my own opinions in these results, but this seems to argue for a language learning method in which you use both practicing (i.e., speaking and writing) and exposure (i.e., listening and reading) to maximize learning.

This would also explain how best to use spaced-repetition systems; as they are one kind of practice method, you'll need to follow up with exposure to maximize your learning.


  1. Actually, I think you've misinterpreted it, since listening and speaking are separate skills located in separate areas of the brain. I'd say that a more direct comparison would be that if you do some vocabulary work and are also exposed to audio, then your vocab work may be more effective. Listening and reading might actually be the optimal combo here, if you're actively trying to decipher the words and compare them to what you've heard before, all while gaining exposure.

    Speaking mostly trains speaking. One can understand a language entirely without speaking, and this has been traced to the different areas of the brain involved. Reading and writing are more dispersed in the brain, being more general abstract skills.

  2. The vocab + exposure to vocab would be a good example of what they're talking about, in that the perceptual skill involved is encountering the word and recognizing it. And I suppose you could argue that speaking and writing are not perceptual skills, as listening and reading would be. I don't really see how listening and reading would fit into the practice/exposure pair that the study appears to call for, though.

  3. I remember reading this study and having a similar train of thought.

    Specifically in this experiment, the researchers were getting participants to discriminate between tones of two similar pitches. Active learning was them being quizzed on distinguishing the two tones and being given immediate feedback. The passive section was simply listening to the tones being played while they did other tasks.

    What this research mostly tells me is that "passive listening" on its own is probably not an effective study method. I think most of us who study and theorize about language learning have been disabused of that notion by this point.

    Here's an idea: what if you recorded your target-language conversations and then played them back for yourself soon afterward? I can see some use in that. It'd be a more specific kind of reinforcement than simply having a conversation and then putting on a target-language radio show or podcast.

  4. So after a week of input you only need a few minutes of output to make a big step forward. I would say that the input was your learning and that output quickly catches up.

  5. You could easily replace the friend with Lang-8, so I think your method is open to anyone.