Accelerated Language Learning

Before we talk about accelerated language acquisition, using some exciting technologies, Memory Systems, Dual N-Back, and SuperMemo, let’s talk about accelerated personal development.

Why is it that some people languish in personal development purgatory for years or decades while other people read a book, take a course, listen to a podcast, apply the knowledge and get meaningful (or profitable!) results fast?

The most practical, measurable and non-woo-woo answer to this conundrum is that the person who gets more results faster has a mind with healthier Neuroplasticity mechanisms. Neuroplasticity is a chemical process that occurs on the molecular and cellular levels of our brain’s grey matter, it results in new brain cells being manufactured and synaptic connections forming in the mind.

Forming new habits, acquiring new skill sets or adapting to novel challenges all require new grey matter. What we call personal development, is impossible without Neuroplasticity.

The bad news is that once we hit 25–30 years old our brain’s Neuroplasticity mechanisms begin to break down by 5%-10% per decade and many environmental factors also have a negative affect.

Unfortunately for the voracious consumers of personal development books and courses, maintaining and improving your brain’s plasticity requires really putting in work; doing cognitively challenging tasks repeatedly. Relaxing on your couch, reading a self-help book doesn’t count (but reading a book on quantum physics might!).

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A 2004 London study, Neurolinguistics: structural plasticity in the bilingual brain, and a 2008 University of Washington study, Second-language learning and changes in the brain, demonstrated that language learning is one of the most cognitively challenging tasks we can subject our minds too. Whether it’s Spanish, Japanese, or Russian the part of your brain devoted to language learning is the perisylvian cortex of the left hemisphere.

Unless you’re going to devote hours a week to studying something extremely abstract like physics, language learning is damned hard to beat as a task for training the Neuroplasticity you are going to need if you want to accelerate your personal development. I would go as far as saying that it’s unlikely to have truly fruitful personal development without language learning. This article will present three powerful technologies for augmenting and accelerating your language learning while simultaneously training your Neuroplasticity mechanisms.

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Many a life hacker reading this has probably heard that total immersion is the only way to learn a language; living in the culture and speaking with people every day. I may differ from some of the language learning gurus out there but I don’t think immersion is enough to master a language or even become really fluent. Unless you are going to travel to some exotic continent, marry a professional speech coach who is also is a philosophy writer some study is essential. As life hackers, we want to leverage that study time to the max so we can spend more time actually having fun, fluent, meaningful conversations with people. That’s exactly what these three technologies do.


The marketing tagline for SuperMemo is
Forget about forgetting

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In its feature on SuperMemo, Wired Magazine said

‘Want to Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm’

While this may sound like pure ad copy hyperbole SuperMemo does a surprisingly good job of delivering on these claims.

SuperMemo’s super algorithm intelligently predicts when you are going to forget new knowledge and tests you on it when you are on the edge of forgetting it. This removes the inherent and ages-old inefficiencies from the learning process; practice too soon and you are redundantly reviewing what you already know, practice too late and you are redundantly relearning.

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SuperMemo has very sharply produced courses for accelerated learning using the spaced repetition algorithm of the following languages:

  • Basque
  • Chinese
  • Danish
  • Dutch
  • English
  • Esperanto
  • French
  • German
  • Greek
  • Italian
  • Kanji
  • Norwegian
  • Polish
  • Portuguese
  • Russian
  • Spanish
  • Swedish

SuperMemo runs on Windows, Android, and iPhone and is awesomely freeish, or at least you can take it on a VERY long, thorough test drive before buying anything. The Android and iPhone versions are free to download and have some impressive free demo language learning courses,

I learned nearly 3000 words of Spanish vocabulary in a month and a half of practice with the Espanol Extremo demo. There are also paid language learning courses that run $5-$25 but you could probably spend at least a few weeks learning with the free demos. The windows version has way more options and costs $60 (although you can download older versions for $1) so I recommend the mobile versions.

Bizarre Memory Systems

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You will significantly accelerate your learning of vocabulary and phrases if you can create absurd (and inappropriate!) visual associations between the foreign language vocabulary and its meaning in your native tongue. On a microscopic level, it builds a stronger synaptic link between the original concept and the new piece of vocabulary, to tie this back to Neuroplasticity! Here are some examples:
Word in English: Chess
Foreign Language Vocabulary: Ajedrez
‘Sounds Like’: Al he dress (You’ll notice that Al is not exactly Aj, this is fine, as the ‘sounds like’ doesn’t need to exactly fit the word being learned)
Visual Association: Imagine Al from that old TV show Home Improvement (or whatever Al comes to mind for you), wearing a dress but instead of a normal human body he has a chess piece body.

Word in English: Approach
Foreign Language Vocabulary: Plantear
‘Sounds Like’: Plant tear
Visual Association: Imagine that there is a beautiful woman (or a beautiful man!) you are going to approach but they are on the other side of a giant plant leaf, which you will need to tear open if you want to approach them.

Phrase in English: The pleasure was mine.
Foreign Language Expression: El placer fue el mio
‘Sounds Like’: L place freeze me orgasm
Visual Association: You are in a freezing place having an orgasm next to a giant L shaped thing, after you climax, the L shaped thing says ‘Thank You!’ to which you respond ‘The pleasure was mine!’

If you felt a little weird reading these, believe me, it feels weird writing them, but that’s the point! Your mind does a way better job embedding information in the long term memory if it’s associated with an absurd, bizarre or totally novel visualization. When you create visualization links you want to use these to make them weird:

  • Substitution
  • Out of Proportion
  • Action or Violence
  • Multiplication
  • Sexiness (by all means feel free to make your absurd associations sexual — it certainly helps to make them more bizarre!)

In the beginning, you are going to find that it takes some creative energy and mental gymnastics to come up with absurd associations for every word but stick with it! After about a week it will start to become automatic and easy to come up with great visualizations. It really will improve your creative powers too!

Don’t you hate making new friends and then forgetting their names? If bizarre association memory systems interest you checkout this uncommon memory system for remembering limitless people’s names instantaneously.

Memory System Visualization Rules

SuperMemo will try to teach you around 30 new words each day so you’ll start running into a lot of similar sounds in your foreign vocabulary. As you do, create visualization rules, certain sounds always equal a particular element in your visualizations. As you can see from the example above, one of my visualization rules is that if a word ends in ‘-o’ then someone is going to be having an orgasm in the visualization.

Here’s the rest of my Spanish language memory system rules, feel free to steal them, however, you are better off coming up with your own visualization rules based upon what appeals to your own creative faculty.

Spanish Vocabulary Memory System Rules
: That are the same or very similar in English
Sounds like: ‘same’ = ‘samey
Visualization: a rainy, generic, Starbucks-like coffee shop in London.

Words: ending in -o
Sounds like: ‘O’ Orgasm
Visualization: someone is having an orgasm.

Words: ending in -mento or -miento
Sounds like: ‘mint Oh’
Visualization: someone having an orgasm in a giant bed of mint.

Words: ending in -ser, -sir, -cer or -cir
Sounds like: ‘ser’
Visualization: rocket blasting off (Two be)

Words: containing ‘dis’
Sounds like: ‘disc’
Visualization: flying saucer or UFO

Words: containing ‘ir’
Sounds like: ‘deer’
Visualization: Rain deer

Words: containing or ending in -cia
Sounds like: CIA, central intelligence agency
Visualization: A CIA spy with a gun

Words: ending in -acion
Sounds like: ass ion
Visualization: Imagine a naked ass shooting out Ions

Words: ending in -gar
Sounds like: Garfield
Visualization: a giant cartoonish orange cat

Words: ending in -idad or -edad
Sounds like: cuidad ‘city’
Visualization: Skyscrapers or big city skyline

Words: ending in -jar
Sounds like: a jar
Visualization: something happening with a giant jar.

Words: ending in -zar
Sounds like: ‘lizard’
Visualization: Imagine a giant lizard

An Anchoring Association (the second association)

The Problem: You’ll find that during your language learning process you may hit a glass ceiling of improvement where you have the same conversations repeatedly using the same vocabulary. While practicing alone in a hammock with SuperMemo, you have no problem remembering higher-level vocabulary, but in the midst of socially demanding situations, you resort to the basic words and grammar you already know. This can be super frustrating when you want to ‘go deep’ with someone into intellectual territory but the only vocabulary coming to mind is what you use to order food at a restaurant or ask for directions to the airport.

The Solution: During your practice with SuperMemo create a second absurd visual association anchoring the foreign word to a potential future conversation you can use it in. To avoid overwhelming yourself, don’t create the Anchoring Association the first time you learn the word in SuperMemo. SuperMemo’s algorithm will prompt you to review new vocabulary a day or two after you initially learned it. If your original association works and you do remember the vocabulary correctly then create the anchoring association.

This second association should anchor the foreign word or phrase to the…

  • Ideas
  • Emotions
  • Vocabulary (either in your native language or your new second language)
  • Context

…of a future conversation or social situation.

Dual N-Back Pro

This is dual n-back training software for Windows, Mac, and Android that increases the ‘RAM’ of your conscious mind. The Dual N-Back task is a ‘game’ that has been demonstrated in studies by…

  • University of Michigan
  • The University of Bern in Switzerland
  • LMU in Germany

…to increase what neuroscientists call…

  • Fluid Intelligence
  • Executive Functioning
  • Working Memory

So what do these terms mean on a practical level?

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Fluid Intelligence — This is your ability to respond intelligently to things which are cognitively novel to you, like learning a new language, acquiring a new skill set, studying physics, etc.

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Executive Functioning — This the degree of control we have over our minds, improved Executive Functioning correlates to will power, attentional control, emotional self-regulation, processing speed and alertness. This is because the Dual N-Back task trains you to purposefully focus on specific information while specifically ignoring other information.

Working Memory — This is your short term memory which you use to problem solve. The Dual N-Back task algorithmically increases the amount of information you have to keep track of simultaneously, which forces your Working Memory to expand.

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While Dual N-Back training doesn’t work directly on long term memory, it conditions your mind to learn a whole lot better, especially when it comes to things like language acquisition.

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Dual N-Back training also increases IQ, in fact, Dual N-Back Pro comes with the bold money-back guarantee that 20 training sessions of 20 minutes each will increase your IQ by at least 15–20 points, some biohackers have documented gaining 2.75 IQ points for every hour spent Dual N-Back training.

Are the cognitive gains sustained? A really important question is what happens when you stop playing?
What the studies on Dual N-Back training found was that after the subjects had Dual N-Back trained for 20 sessions and then taken up to 8 months off from playing they sustained the gains in IQ and working memory.

What’s the catch? Dual N-Back training is boring and difficult, it requires a high degree of concentration and mental gymnastics. In the very beginning when you start training it’s not going to be very fun.

Reward Mechanisms

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These three technologies really can accelerate your language learning along with your personal development but they require a fair degree of commitment so I think it’s a really good idea to attach a daily reward mechanism to using them. Here are the reward mechanisms I use:

  • When I’m ready to train I physically relocate myself to somewhere relaxing that I enjoy, like a cafe, a hammock or a balcony with a nice view!
  • I pick a piece of content that I’m excited about consuming, like an article or Youtube video, and wait till after I’ve done my cognitive training to dive into it.
  • I buy an assortment of (mostly) healthy snacks at the store every couple of days, when I finish my daily Dual N-Back training, I treat myself!
  • Before I enjoy dinner or happy hour with friends I do my sessions with Dual N-Back Pro and SuperMemo.

If you’re as serious about your language learning and personal development as I am, you will spend about 30–40 minutes daily:

  • 20 minutes Dual N-Back training
  • 10–20 minutes learning vocabulary with SuperMemo

Sometimes I take weekends off cognitive training depending upon my social commitments. Note: this doesn’t necessarily have to be a solid 30–40 minutes daily, your cognitive training session can be broken up throughout the day.

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Adventuring philosopher, Pompous pontificator, Writer, K-Selected Biohacker, Tantric husband, Raconteur & Smart Drug Dealer 🇺🇸

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