Schools are useless in teaching English!

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

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.

Effective learning methods expose the abysmal inefficiency of schooling! SuperMemo produced in a month as much as schools have produced in 13 years

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

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
My own experience with learning English is worse than Kuba's! I had an early start to learning English. A family friend would teach me words like "piggy" with Dr Dolittle book. However, I had enough enthusiasm and interest for just a few lessons, and in a month or two, all that early investment was gone. I write about children and their lack of memory elsewhere in this article. Any parent who hopes that occasional lessons of a foreign language will have any tangible contribution to child's knowledge is setting herself for disappointment. My mom went a step further and set herself up for a solid frustration. During World War 2, she was a nanny to two nice German children (at a time when Poland and Germany were mortal enemies courtesy of one hate-soaked Adolf). As a result, she was pretty fluent in German. She had an idea: "I will teach my kid German and we can practise German together". Untold hours of tutoring and after-hours courses at school brought my German to the level of about zero. Today, my German is limited to a few words like "Kalt?", which I hear on occasion from Germans who I meet while winter swimming. This early experience with learning German had a powerful impact on my thinking about language learning. I keep re-iterating it in the context of the following statements:
  • 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
In 1974, I fell in love with Muhammad Ali. One day I got an article about Ali in English. The article was filled with colorful photographs. I was desperate to know the content, at least the descriptions of the photos. I took an English dictionary and undertook a serious effort in trying to decode the "hieroglyphics" of English. After many hours, playing jigsaw puzzles with words, I realized that I will never understand the article on my own. There were too many ambiguities, too many combinations and with no knowledge of grammar, the value of text and my effort were negligible. However, one good side effect of that decoding attempt might be that I chose English as my foreign language in high school. I am not sure why, but in 1976, I knew English was the king. I doubt it was a general conviction I would get from my family, my environment, or my teachers. This is hard to believe, but the fact that English becomes a monopoly in the world was not an obvious thing for an average Pole in the 1970s.

I learned no English in high school

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
Four decades ago exactly, in September 1976, I started learning English at last. I recall my first lesson, which I started with quite a degree of enthusiasm, and ended with a monumental disappointment. Our teacher, nicknamed Martian for his outerworldly bespectacled mangy appearance and his robotic voice, would not utter a single word in Polish. He would mumble silent undecipherable sounds, and the impact on our comprehension of English was zero. His general idea was great: start from total immersion, and do not let kids waste time on falling back on their native language. However, he did not get a necessary back up from our passion or necessity. In addition, his delivery was unappealing. His "chair" sounded like inaudible "ch", and so did 50% of his vocabulary. Imagine a class that gave you 45 minutes of "ch ch ch jh jh ch". This might work if your life depended on decoding those messages. However, teens seek novelty and have powerful defense mechanisms about inefficient delivery. We quickly tuned out. Months passed, nobody in a class made any progress, and the Martian kept chchch-ing to himself. A decade later, the Martian method worked for me very well when I used radio broadcast to improve my English. See further below to figure out how self-direction and own motivation made the difference. Martian picked the right method in a wrong setting. Without the motivation factor, he delivered no learning.

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

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I started my college years in 1980. My teacher of English cared about my English as little as I did. In June 1982, however, one of the scientists in our biochemistry lab, Dr Piatyszek, remarked briefly: "You plan to be a scientist? Your English is s...! Get working on it right now. Science uses English! All your education in Polish is worth nothing if you can't read scientific papers! Who are you kidding?". To prove his point he gave me 5 recent papers in his field: "You do not deserve to pass my class! However, if you come next week with a summary of those papers, you will get your green light". This short encounter with a matter-of-fact scientist sent me on a long and beautiful journey that lead to the development of SuperMemo.

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.

SuperMemo: The first page from Piotr' Wozniak English vocabulary notebook started on June 3, 1982

Figure: The first page from Piotr Wozniak's English vocabulary notebook started on June 3, 1982.

Self-directed beginning

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
In the years, 1982-1985, I did not have English at school, and this was the time of my fastest progress. The magic ingredient was self-learning backed up by motivation. My English vocabulary increased from the estimated 500 (i.e. incommunicado) to some 3000 (basic communication possible at the level of 3-4 year old child). In the course of 2 years, I accomplished 6x more on my own that I achieved with 6 years of English at school. Incidentally, this is an increase by the factor of 12 (i.e. comparable with the 16x increase in self-directed learning of history). Finally, I knew why I wanted to learn, and I learned the way I liked it, which was helpful in not undermining my motivation. My experience in learning English is one of the chief reasons I am a die-hard fighter for student rights: self-directed learning works best and should be used wherever possible.

I could not understand spoken English

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
While my vocabulary grew richer, and my reading skills became satisfactory, I discovered that my comprehension still lagged far behind. In the 1980s, access to spoken English in Poland was vestigial. There was no web and no cable or satellite TV. Polish TV would show lots of Hollywood movies, but they were all voiced over by a single monodrone narrator. Note that voice over translation is a cheap alternative to dubbing popular in Poland and Russia. It makes it possible to pick up scraps of the original sound track. However, learning English was not possible. I wrote a petition to Polish authorities to provide some movies with subtitles. I collected a couple of dozens of signatures at the university, and even received a lukewarm response from late Andrzej Drawicz (head of Polish TV at the time). Nothing changed. The only access to spoken English came with BBC Radio and Voice of America. The radio signal was waning and fading. Hardly audible. With dismal quality of sound, my comprehension was nearly zero.

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

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
The biggest breakthrough for my progress in English came in 1987. I wrote my first little SuperMemo for DOS and my vocabulary counts exploded. I began my battles to pass all my computer science exams in English. Most of my teachers were progressive enough to agree even when their own English skills would need a lot of brushing up. My Master's Thesis about SuperMemo was written in English. This seemed unthinkable at the time. Even years later, I hear others get refusals on using English for their final thesis at the university, and the practise is still rare! By 1990, with 40,000 vocabulary items in SuperMemo, I passed TOEFL and GRE exams in flying colors. My TOEFL 657/660 put me at 99 percentile. The credit goes to my determination and SuperMemo. When SuperMemo World company was formed in 1991, we adopted English as the language for internal communications within the company. It was also the time cable TV came to Poland. Every single day I tuned in to Larry King Live and hardly ever missed a broadcast until Larry was replaced, two decades later, with Piers Morgan in 2011. I could finally feel at home with English.

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 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.

Summary

  • 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