Schools are useless in teaching English!
- 1 English rules the world
- 2 Inefficiency of schooling
- 3 Assistance from SuperMemo
- 4 My tribulations with English
- 5 Freedom to learn
- 6 Summary
In 1562, Mikołaj Rey became one of the founders of Polish literature saying: "Among other nations let it always be known, that the Poles are no geese, have a tongue of their own." Today's drive should be: "Among other nations the Poles are distinguished, we are no geese, and we all speak English."
English rules the world
English is the global communication language. All kids with ambitious plans for the future must master English no worse than native speakers. Soon, for global success, English language skills requirements for an American will be not much different from those set for a Bangladeshi, Nigerian, Polish or a German student. Schools are useless when it comes to teaching English. This is not an exaggeration. If you compare the speed of self-directed learning based on SuperMemo, and the average speed of learning at school, for an ambitious student, schools may actually do more harm than good. Schools take time and mental energy. They take administrative time. The average outcome is horrifying! Even stellar counter-examples do not counterbalance this picture, esp. that they speak a story of passion and self-learning that schools cannot supply.
English is my favorite subject to demo how schools do not work. I am extremely happy that Polish schools have finally seen the light and the number of kids who do not learn English is dropping fast. In some groups of kids, it is getting harder and harder to find those who do not learn English. In the past, I would often hear, "I would love to learn English, but our teacher only knows German, so we learn German". My happiness is tempered by the fact that despite that universal adoption of English as the second language, kids can hardly speak the language. When I meet kids with a degree of fluency, this is almost always a result of a few years spent abroad, primarily in the UK or Ireland. When Poland joined the EU, many kids followed their parents who found well-paying jobs in the UK. Years later, when parents returned back home, kids could speak good or excellent English. 1-3 years in a British school are often enough for kids to shine. I am not praising schools here. Just the fact that compulsory education results in a solid native immersion that benefits language skills. After 2-3 years, back in Poland, the same kids often show a dramatic decline in fluency despite continuing to learn English in Polish schools. Thus a kid who spent 5 years in Ireland, may drop from a top student to a reluctant speaker in just 2-3 years. In a family of 5, you may see a gradation: the younger the kid, the faster the decline.
If you ask a six grader "Do you speak English?", you risk getting a blank stare, or "Yes" followed by no conversation. Back in 1989, I was impressed in the Netherlands that all kids could communicate in English. Things also look good in Denmark, Norway, Sweden or Finland. On the other hand France, Spain and Germany are no better than Poland. They are crippled by the strength of their own proud national language.
Inefficiency of schooling
Why don't schools work? Kids tell me the same story I know from my own case. I provide details in a personal story frame below. Kids can't speak English because they do not bother to learn. They do not listen to teachers that much. They do not remember much after the class. If they do, they usually forget it all within a week. They do not do homework or do it reluctantly. They do not use SuperMemo or any other spaced repetition application to retain the vocabulary. They are not motivated enough to care. They like English songs, or computer games. This provides a basic 300-2000 vocabulary set, which is not good enough to communicate without a degree of training that they never get. The vocabulary acquisition rate is horrifying. Let's see it measured on an example:
Kuba is a smiling, nice, smart, and ambitious 19-year-old. Kuba helped me with a couple of projects at SuperMemo World. When I give a job to Kuba, he masters the technicalities in seconds. His mind seems to know no complexity and no forgetting. Kuba has been learning English for most of his life. 13 years of learning make up 68% of his young life. There are a couple of problems though. Kuba has only recently started being an ambitious student. Only recently has he decided that he needed to reform his approach to school and chose his future course of study. He also decided that he must master Advanced English.
Kuba has never learned English enthusiastically. His learning was limited to school and his favorite music genre: hip hop. Me and Kuba communicate in Polish. In short, Kuba does not speak English. He made huge progress having spent a month in Norway, however, he still does not feel comfortable. Polish is his favorite and only language of communication. When I measured Kuba's vocabulary with a vocabulary test, it came out at shocking 2,440 words. Yes. Two thousand after 13 years of learning. That's one word in two days of learning. This is as much as a 4-year-old native speaker learns in a year. This is comparable with the number of Facebook friends some teens have and remember. This is how much users of SuperMemo easily master in a month and retain for life at negligible cost (as demonstrated in the next section). In SuperMemo terminology, this corresponds with knowledge acquisition rate of 5 items/year/minute. This is 1-2% of what is possible for an average student. Now imagine your boss telling you: "as of tomorrow, you will get 1% of your salary". You would scream "Useless!". Or your car is going at 1% speed? "Useless!" That's what school is for the mastery of English! "Useless!"
Assistance from SuperMemo
We often advertise SuperMemo with: "Learn 3000 words in a month". We have seen many people perform even better with English vocabulary. One of our colleagues crammed most of Advanced English in a few months (40,000 words).
I was then pretty surprised when a younger colleague at SuperMemo World questioned the following statement: "Users of SuperMemo easily master 3000 words in a month. They can retain it for life at negligible cost". He had issues with the words "easy" and "master", which he called "enthusiastic overstatement".
In a company where nearly everyone does his 3000 in a month at admission, the claim that this feat is "not easy" made me think about one factor that slows down the spread of SuperMemo: the elitist feeling among its users: "I am special. Few people could match my self-discipline and achievements".
This is why I asked Kuba to memorize 2440 English words in a month. My reasoning was simple: Kuba learned 2440 English words in 13 years of schooling. I could ask him to double that amount in a month with SuperMemo!.
Kuba agreed unhesitantly. The deal was to do a bit of symbiotic exchange. I would help him plan a month in which he would double his English vocabulary, in return, he would provide a nice punchline for my text. He was 4 months away from his high school exams that would include English. He was enthusiastic.
I suggested that he put in all his school assignments vocabulary to SuperMemo. That would give him some 800 words and phrases. He could easily pad it up with commercial collections: English Grammar, some portions from Advanced English, and randomized Basic English in case he was running out of time on any given day.
Kuba's family, work, and school conditions made the job particularly hard. I found that he needed to share his laptop with his siblings. His school was piling up extra material and tests before winter vacation. His girlfriend studies 200 kilometers away, so he would be absent from home for most of weekends. At my urging, Kuba asked his supervising teacher for some extra freedom from classes in return for additional learning in select subjects (incl. English). We were both surprised when the teacher agreed to some extent. Kuba would spend 30% less time at school. The teacher remarked "if I give you more freedom, I would be in trouble myself". Once again the school system imposed its limits on both the student and the teacher. Even the best players have limited room for maneuver.
Kuba started his work along my plan with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately, after 3 weeks of lightening progress, his whole computer was encoded by CryptoLocker ransomware. Like a typical teen, Kuba did not bother to make a back up in the meantime. I thought his goose was cooked. However, he declared he would start over again. Re-learning is somewhat easier, but he had already entered some 600-700 items in his own collection and that would have been lost for good. Luckily, by some miracle, we recovered 95% of his collections. He resumed work and completed his project "easily" by the end of February 2017, as expected.
After 31 days of work, Kuba memorized exactly 2440 words. This doubled his vocabulary built in 13 years of schooling.
We redistributed Kuba's memorized material and some 1000 new words in equal portions for review before his exam that took place in May 2017. To retain his new vocabulary and learn new portions of the material, he needed 30-45 min per day. On the day of the exam, his total vocabulary amounted to some 6000 words. He passed the test at 85% (top 5 percentile). This is a stunning achievement for a student who suffered grade retention due to bad English.
Kuba is special, but so are dozens of underappreciated teens who suffer grade retention or school torture for no good reason. The system is a failure and it drags down everyone through its inefficiencies.
My tribulations with English
I started learning English early
- language learning is very costly. It is better to learn one language well than to struggle to be a polyglot
- (formal) language learning in children is largely futile unless it mimics natural family environment and total immersion. It is not likely to produce sensible outcomes on "5 hours per week" basis
- forcing kids to learn is largely futile. I quickly developed a mindset: "I am unable to ever learn German". This thinking slowed down my later progress in English. Even worse, I developed a dislike for learning languages that was hard to root out
I learned no English in high school
When Martian's time in our school ended, a series of English teachers followed. It is common knowledge that frequent changes of teachers have a bad effect on learning. New teachers do not know their students and cannot hone individual strategies. They just stick to the average of what works for the student mass. It was a long while before we finally got a good teacher: Wanda. She was strong in English and she was strong as a teacher. She would set up some jobs for the class and would do rounds between benches to see each student individually and to help. To this day I recall her warning to avoid using Polish-style "if I will" in English. This type of approach might work, however, by the time Wanda started her rounds, I stopped caring about English. I was conditioned to believe the effort is futile. I based my thinking on a typical discouraging calculus: high cost to little benefit. Hours of learning would bring few skills that would bring little benefit to my life. Wanda was not able to undo the damage.After four years of learning, my English was so bad that I failed my university entrance exam. I was literally unable to string a sentence. This might have derailed my life for good. Two years of compulsory military service in communist Poland would change the young brain for good. By a miracle, I got another lease on life. In my verbal repeat exam, I met a smiling lady examiner who was eager to hear my story. Once she decided I deserved a pass on the ground of my passion for biology, she searched for areas of strength, and let me string a series of titles of my favorite funky songs. She said "Keep learning. This music is a good vehicle for your English", and she gave me a pass!
Conversation that changed my life
On June 3, 1982, I started a new notebook with English vocabulary that I needed to translate scientific papers. I started a meticulous and slow slog through the first paper. Every sentence seemed to bring a ton of words I did not now. These were the first words that I needed to look up in a dictionary: maintenance, contain, bond, range, basic, set, arrange, and describe. A beautiful thing about science papers is that they are not that rich in vocabulary. Second paper seemed already easier, and by the time I got to the 5th, I was doing pretty well. This was very encouraging. My paper database of English vocabulary kept growing, and by summer 1985, it resulted in the first formulation of the SuperMemo algorithm.
Figure: The first page from Piotr Wozniak's English vocabulary notebook started on June 3, 1982.
I could not understand spoken English
I adopted a die hard method of learning. I would turn on a BBC broadcast and try to capture and write down individual words I could claim as understandable. There were three major differences why it worked with the BBC in the 1980s, while it would not work with the Martian in the 1970s. In order of importance:
- I knew that without English, I stand no chance to make a mark in science. I had to master English or die!
- BBC was somewhat audible. The Martian was not.
- I have already started memorizing words with "SuperMemo on paper". My vocabulary was quite rich, growing from 2500 to 5000 words perhaps. The only problem was that I knew how to write words. I had no idea how they sound
My motivation and determination made the key difference. Kids learn nothing at school because they do not care about learning. Teachers dismally fail in their primary job: convincingly explain the value of knowledge. They often come to class like kings with the assumption that their subjects already know the vital role of the king and will plead for any scrap of knowledge they can get. That's why the kings get ignored. I was tuning in to the BBC with uncanny determination. I would literally wait for a minute before I could understand a word. I would mark that word as my success and hope the next one I would capture faster, say in 50 seconds.
When I finally made some progress with the BCC, I discovered that it did nothing to help me understand "plain English". In 1979, I gave up watching movies. I considered fiction "waste of time". In 1988, I visited a cinema after a 9 years break. Cinemas were the only place where I could watch movies with subtitles. I discovered that I could hardly understand Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Raw Deal". This set me on another resolution: going to the cinema once per week to watch an English movie. It was very expensive for a student, it cost me half a day, and my progress was imperceptible. I could follow the plot only with subtitles. After a decade of learning, I still could not understand English!I slowly started getting angry with my lack of progress. When Polish prime minister Wojciech Jaruzelski asked for feedback before his United Nations speech, I sent him a couple of my own ideas. You may know Jaruzelski as a "bloody dictator" who introduced martial law in Poland in 1981. Pacified with Polish communist TV, I saw Jaruzelski as a good guy with an open mind. Among my propositions was an idea that the UN should get down to adopting a resolution on a single language standard for humanity. Imagine a resolution in which we all would finally and formally decided that English is the language all kids should learn at school to use in all international communications! Similar resolutions in reference to Esperanto have actually been adopted by the League of Nations in the 1920s, and UNESCO in the 1950s, but those resolutions did not bring much fruit. Today, without any resolution, English is a de facto standard. It is a global lingua franca. The resolution would only formalize the status quo.
SuperMemo made progress relentless
Freedom to learn
Today, I appeal to you to help your kids or students achieve freedom to learn at their own pace and follow their own passions. If you are not convinced, it must be your memory whitewash, or it must be my bad English. My argument is clear and unshakable, so it must be those years of bad schooling in English that still take their toll.
- English is now a global means of communication
- all citizens of the globe should know English
- most of kids in Poland learn English
- learning a language is costly
- kids who learn English only at school cannot speak English
- (formal) language learning in children is largely futile
- a month with SuperMemo can bring as much vocabulary as 13 year of schooling
- I learned no English at school
- SuperMemo helped me learn English and pass TOEFL at 99 percentile
- my need to know English sparked the development of SuperMemo itself