Sunday, December 30, 2012

Reverse-engineering Pimsleur to enhance short-term memory stability

For a mental impression to become a long-term memory, it goes through the following life cycle:
Momentary mental impression BECOMES short-term memory BECOMES stable short-term memory BECOMES (over time) long-term memory.

For the sake of outlining the argument, here is the rough life-span of each memory "species":

Momentary impressions: a few seconds
Short-term: a few minutes
Stable short-term: a few hours/a few days
Long-term: many weeks, months, years, etc.

Momentary to Short-Term
Daily we have many mental impressions, not all of them being valuable and worth "capturing." But ANYTHING we wish to remember starts out as a momentary impression on the mind; whether or not it goes any further is up to the individual. When you are introduced to a cute member of the opposite sex, you mentally treat their name different than someone you are not really concerned with. Rather than quickly discarding it, you think about the name and link it with that person. Because you desire to know more about that person, you concentrate and put forth effort to remember their name. Thus, a momentary mental impression has now become a short-term memory.

Short-Term to Stable Short-Term
Short-term memories become more stable as you review them over a few hours. Often you can tell if a memory has gone from "short-term" to "stable short-term" by the end of the day. If you have tried learning a second language, you have no doubt found that certain words or phrases you tried to learn during a study session stuck while others did not. I believe this is because if a short-term memory does not become "stable," it quickly falls the way of the "momentary mental impression" route and perishes with the other static we dismiss during the day.

Stable Short-Term to Long-Term
This transformation is what SuperMemo, Anki, etc. adequately take care of.

My question is this: Just as there is an algorithm to ensure long-term stability of memories, is there also an algorithm that turns a short-term memory into a stable one? If you could do this efficiently and easily, learning languages (Among many other things) would become easier and more motivating. I think I know what might aid us in finding this out: Pimsleur.

Having recently finished Pimsleur Hindi (Comprehensive), I noticed something: while I do have a couple of complaints about the selection of vocabulary that was taught, I was surprised at how easily the taught vocabulary and phrases were memorized. Regardless of how difficult ANYTHING sounded when I initially heard the opening conversation, the Pimsleur audio course ensured that my short-term impression of any word or phrase became a stable short-term impression. As I went over each lesson, I put the new phrases into SuperMemo and have had no problems recalling them since.

I began to think about this while driving to and from work for a few days: It isn't an accident that this happened. At the Pimsleur language company there is not a person working there that speaks dozens of languages and uses his mysterious ways to teach you a language. At Pimsleur they don't care what language they are teaching you; they have an algorithm, and when they want to teach a new language they simply plug something different into the same algorithm.

Granted, they have to make a good selection of material (Which can vary from language to language), but once the material is selected, it's just a matter of listening to the lessons as you go about your day. This process seemed mysterious to me at first, but like anything else, Pimsleur's language teaching process must have a solid, scientific basis. Once that basis is figured out, you can use it for other things.

In an attempt to figure out their process, I've made a transcript of Pimsleur Japanese lesson 1, and I created a time stamp each time a new phrase or word is introduced, and each time the student is quizzed over something. The transcript is in the previous post. The time stamps stand for when the speaker concludes his statement, be it a quiz or an introduction to a new phrase or vocabulary word. Also, because many of the words you learn in the lessons are later used in phrases, there is some degree of overlap which I tried to keep straight.

I think that using this transcript, we can figure out the algorithm the Pimsleur company uses to make information "sticky" and memorable. Please give me suggestions, or fool around with this data yourself; if this yields positive results, it has the potential to be very useful to us language learners!

Pimsleur Japanese I Lesson 1 Transcript

Conversation 1:

Vocab 1: すみません。
Vocab 2: 英語(が)
Vocab 3: わかります(か)
Phrase 1: 英語がわかりますか?
Vocab 4: いいえ
Vocab 5: わかりません
Phrase 2: いいえ、わかりません
Vocab 6: 日本語(が)
Phrase 3: 日本語がわかります。
Phrase 4: 日本語がわかりません。
Vocab 7: 少し
Phrase 5: 少しわかります
Phrase 6: 日本語が少しわかります
Vocab 8: アメリカ人
Vocab 9: あなたは
Vocab 10: です
Phrase 7: あなたはアメリカ人です。
Phrase 8: あなたはアメリカ人ですか?
Phrase 9: 私はアメリカ人です。
Vocab 11: はい

0:10 conversation 1 begins
0:39 vocab 1 introduced
0:56 vocab 1 repeated
1:21 vocab 1 quiz
1:36 vocab 2 introduced 
1:49 vocab 2 quiz
1:50 vocab 2 & phrase 1 quiz
2:17 vocab 2 & phrase 1 quiz
2:32 vocab 1 quiz
2:48 vocab 2 quiz
3:02 vocab 3 introduced
3:35 vocab 3 quiz
3:50 phrase 1 quiz
4:10 vocab 3 & phrase 1 quiz
4:22 vocab 1 quiz
4:29 vocab 3 & phrase 1 quiz
4:39 vocab 2 & phrase 1 quiz
4:56 phrase 1 introduced
5:20 phrase 1 quiz
5:32 vocab 4 introduced
5:42 vocab 4 quiz
5:48 vocab 3 quiz
6:00 phrase 1 quiz
6:17 vocab 4 quiz
6:26 phrase 1 quiz
6:37 vocab 3 quiz
6:47 phrase 1 quiz
6:57 vocab 3 quiz
7:04 vocab 3 quiz
7:12 vocab 1 quiz
7:21 phrase 1 quiz
7:37 vocab 4 quiz
7:51 vocab 5 introduced
8:16 vocab 5 quiz
8:28 vocab 5 repeated
8:55 vocab 5 quiz
9:04 vocab 2 quiz
9:12 vocab 5 & vocab 2 quiz
9:28 vocab 3 quiz
9:38 phrase 1 quiz
9:54 vocab 5 quiz
10:02 phrase 2 quiz
10:19 vocab 5 & vocab 4 quiz
10:31 vocab 3 quiz
10:39 phrase 2 quiz
10:49 phrase 1 & vocab 5 quiz
11:02 vocab 6 introduced
11:27 vocab 6 quiz
11:39 vocab 2 quiz
11:39 vocab 6 quiz
12:09 vocab 3 quiz
12:19 phrase 3 introduction
12:37 phrase 3 quiz
12:49 phrase 4 introduction
13:10 phrase 3 quiz
13:14 vocab 1 quiz
13:27 phrase 3 quiz
13:35 vocab 7 introduction
13:53 vocab 7 quiz
14:04 phrase 5 introduction
14:25 phrase 3 quiz
14:39 vocab 7 quiz
14:46 phrase 6 introduced
15:12 vocab 3 quiz
15:19 phrase 1 quiz
15:30 phrase 2 quiz
15:41 phrase 6 quiz
15:59 vocab 2 quiz 
16:15 phrase 3 quiz
16:33 phrase 2 quiz
16:45 phrase 3 quiz
16:56 phrase 6 quiz
17:24 vocab 8 introduction
17:46 vocab 8 quiz
17:57 vocab 9 introduction
18:18 vocab 9 quiz
18:29 vocab 10 introduction
18:45 vocab 10 quiz
18:55 vocab 9 quiz
19:10 phrase 7 introduction
19:51 phrase 8 introduction
20:15 vocab 11 introduction
20:45 vocab 10 quiz
20:58 vocab 11 quiz
21:11 phrase 7 quiz
21:21 phrase 9 quiz
21:40 phrase 7 quiz
21:53 vocab 1 quiz
22:02 phrase 3 quiz
22:14 phrase 1 quiz
22:26 phrase 8 quiz
22:50 vocab 11 introduced
22:55 vocab 11 quiz
23:01 phrase 3 quiz
23:19 vocab 11 & vocab 7 quiz
23:33 phrase 6 quiz
23:45 phrase 8 quiz
23:58 vocab 11 & phrase 9 quiz
24:45 conversation 1
25:04 vocab 1 quiz
25:19 vocab 3 quiz
25:33 phrase 3 quiz
25:52 phrase 1 quiz
26:11 vocab 5 quiz
26:25 phrase 3 quiz
26:43 phrase 5 quiz
26:58 phrase 6 quiz
27:11 phrase 8 quiz
27:30 vocab 11 quiz
27:36 phrase 9 quiz
27:57 vocab 3 quiz
28:20 vocab 7 quiz

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Seek Intellectual Stimulation, not Emotional Stiumulation

One principle that I try to keep in mind when seeking mental input, whether it be reading an article/book, watching a video, or going somewhere: am I seeking emotional or intellectual stimulation?

A great deal of emotionally stimulating material  exists today. Youtube videos, web pages, blog entries, games, etc. While a number of things out there are intellectually stimulating, a majority of them appeal merely to (usually shallow) emotions. Even "news" that merely gives the details of celebrities' lives, or focuses on the detailed aspects of a murder or extramarital affair appeals to emotion but disguises itself as intellectual appeal. Beware of being tricked in this way.

Just as a diet of mostly sugar is unhealthy for the body, a constant diet of mental "junk food" is bad for the mind. Junk food is not a problem, as long as it is eaten in moderation.

If someone has unhealthy eating habits, they must first recognize it and then monitor what they eat. If you (As I did in the past) realize that your mental diet of input is mostly junk food that doesn't appeal to the intellect, recognize that you should change something and then monitor everything that goes into your mind. Do you really want to listen to that pop music station? Maybe instead you could listen to the news, or a download a lecture onto your phone, or maybe try to learn Spanish in your car...?

Like eating vegetables, adjusting what you mentally "eat" can be challenging at first, but over time you will prefer it over junk food.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Institutions ≠ Education (Not always)

Interesting video sent to me by a friend. I'm not anti-school, but while education is good, being institutionalized doesn't always mean one is educated. Balance is always important; use what opportunities come your way, but never lose sight of your long-term goal.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Evernote: Online Incremental Reading without SRS

The other day I was looking for incremental reading alternatives for the iPhone or iPad, and I came across Evernote, a platform that lets you archive information and create notes that are searchable for later use. While the purposes of Evernote and Incremental Reading are different, they do overlap quite a bit.

Evernote helps you create a "scrapbook" of things relevant and interesting to the user. Phone numbers, interesting quotes, ideas you read about, etc. are all placed on digital "index cards" that become searchable for later use. You can also create to-do lists based on that information.

The difference between Evernote and Incremental Reading is that with Incremental Reading, all of your "index cards" are placed on a conveyor belt that forces you to review and evaluate the information, and choose to do something with it (Remember it, delay it, delete it, read as much as you can/want). The end result of Evernote seems to be accumulating a useful collection of searchable information, Incremental Reading creates a useful collection of remembered information.

To put it another way, Incremental Reading is an internal, offline version of Evernote where notable information is eventually turned into flashcards.

But unlike incremental reading, Evernote can be used on an iPhone, iPad, the internet, etc.

So here has been my recent workflow with using Evernote with Incremental Reading on my iPhone:
1. Find interesting article.
2. Read in Instapaper.
3. When I find an interesting piece of information, copy into Evernote.
4. Once a week, copy things from Evernote into SuperMemo via Incremental Reading and process the information in the days to come.

I'm not sure why I never thought of doing this in the past, but it almost completely takes care of my need for portable Incremental Reading. There are not very many steps and it has been working out wonderfully. Maybe it will be helpful for you, too.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Using Pimsleur (Or any audio language course) with SuperMemo

Language acquisition is not a simple, cut-and-dry matter. A great deal of blood and sweat is required, and no single language course is a "silver-bullet" for becoming fluent in a language. Each language course has strong points and shortcomings. Pimsleur is a language course that has strong points and also shortcomings, but I believe that the strong points outweigh those shortcomings, especially when you are starting out with a language.

When I first started learning Japanese (And before I started using SuperMemo), I listened to Pimsleur Japanese I, doing one lesson a day. Although I read reviews criticizing Pimsleur's Japanese course, I found it very useful in acquiring a few phrases and getting rid of my American accent. After I was using Pimsleur for a couple of weeks, a Japanese friend (Who is very strict at correcting my Japanese) called me, and I picked up the phone and said "hello" in Japanese, and my friend said "I thought I accidentally called a Japanese person." I say this not to toot my own horn, but to show that Pimsleur language courses have at least SOME bit of usefulness.

If you've never heard of Pimsleur, they are a company that makes (Expensive) audio-only language courses. What makes them effective is the "fill-in-the-blank" structure, which requires that you produce responses frequently AND the smart use of graduated interval recall to aid in short and long-term retention (It helps short-term retention like nothing else I've ever used, personally).

For years I have not been using Pimsleur, but after deciding to learn Hindi, I have started using Pimsleur Hindi. This time, I am going through the course with the aid of SuperMemo.

This has been my routine, and it has been very useful for me:

1. Listen to a lesson of Pimsleur with SuperMemo turned on.
2. If I hear a new phrase or word used, pause the lesson and make a flashcard of that phrase.
3. If I have trouble producing a phrase they ask for, pause the lesson and make a flashcard of that phrase.
4. Keep doing this until lesson is finished.

Two things I've noticed so far:
This whole process takes about 35-40 minutes to complete.
The Pimsleur lessons take care of short-term retention while SuperMemo can take care of the long term retention. If you do more than one lesson per day relying ONLY on Pimsleur, you risk messing with their spaced repetition algorithm. Using SuperMemo ALONGSIDE Pimsleur removes this barrier, allowing you to complete more than one lesson per day.
You can also go days or weeks without doing a lesson without losing progress. Typically Pimsleur courses are best done one lesson per day, every day. Again, SuperMemo acts as the safety net you would otherwise be without.

I'll create another post if I find anything else notable as I go along this course. I suspect I will be finished with Pimsleur Hindi in the next couple of weeks, mainly due to various demands of my time.