How to Learn a Different Language: Set Scientific Goals
This tutorial is quite involved (but easy to learn). If you want to save hundreds of hours in the long run, then you may wish to invest 30 minutes to learn this skill.
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Did you know that you need tonnes and tonnes of input to master a language? A few sentences here and there won’t do it; you need loads. Exactly how much is debatable, but there have been good estimates by people much more talented than me.
But how do we know how much input we’ve actually accumulated? I’m pretty proud of the fact that I’ve created a unique way of monitoring my progress statistically so I can reach my goals quicker and more efficiently. Today, I’ll share my method with you.
I’ve talked a lot about levels, what they are, and how to ascertain whether or not a text is suitable, but this tutorial attempts something much more ambitious. I no longer really care about A1s or HSK4s, IELTS this or TOEFL that. No,
I want to quantify my level statistically.
Yes, that’s right; I want to use numerical data to clarify my ability in a foreign language.
If you think this is all a bit Big Bang Theory, then you’re probably right as this method goes to the heart of CI learning. Nevertheless, don’t be put off because this method, or, more accurately a system used to keep track of progress, is very easy to use.
This article will look at what QI Tables are, why I believe they are important, and how we can use and create them. Finally, I’ll summarise the main points.
QI Tables are basically bar-graphs that the learner uses to keep track of how much he/she has studied in a foreign language. They look like this:
But they didn’t always look this elegant. Before, they looked like this:
QI stands for quantifiable input*, which is a fancy way of saying how much language (quantity) the user has studied (input). We can think of language as some abstract, unquantifiable miasma that we somehow learn by osmosis and nothing else, but it really isn’t. If you see/write/hear/speak the sentence “This is a cat” a million times, not only will you be carted off to an asylum, but you’d also be able to understand the sentence better than someone who has only been exposed to the sentence once. The Youtube channel Deka Glossa, in a remarkably inspirational video on how to learn Latin here, cited a back of the envelope calculation**. He stated that a learner needs to have been exposed to 1) 10 thousand sentences to understand basic sentences in a foreign language; 2) 100-200 thousand to be advanced, and 3) one million to be a master in a language (this goes for a native language as well). I’ve summarised this information with my own little spin:
I'm not even going to begin with how problematic this schema is, but a naysayer might object for the following reasons:
So, I just change level when I read the last sentence (i.e. 9999-10,000)?
What constitutes a line?
Chinese and Norwegian obviously are different in terms of difficulty for native English speakers. How do we modify the findings to take this into consideration?
Can I review a text to score double points? (1 text = 100 lines, read it 10 times = 1000 lines)
I’m not going to delve into these issues as you could write a PhD thesis in any one of them. I’ll just answer them briefly:
No. Don’t be silly.
. . .
You’d need to do MUCH more reading in Chinese to get to the same comparative level as in Norwegian.
Yes, I do so all the time. I don’t believe you master a text by reading it once. (See my articles on Shadowin, Pacing, and Graded Readers)
No, I didn’t forget number two. I just want to go into it a little further:
2) OK, how much is a line? I came up with an average of about 10 words per line of text:
10 words = 1 line
Now we are confronted by the thorny problem of trying to define a word. Take this Latin sentence and look at its English translation:
Latin: Si id dicebas, errabas. (4 words)
English: If you used to say that, you were wrong. (9 words)
So seriously, if we were to go into all the variables, we would never get anything done (although we would come out as competent linguists!). That’s why I just take it on good faith that if we somehow read a million lines of a foreign language, we’ll be incredible in it.
How many books do we need to read? How many pages?
I’ve just done another back of the envelope calculation:
10 words = 1 line
40 lines = 1 page
250 pages = 1 book
1 book = 10,000 lines
A million lines would be around 100 books at 250 pages per book. That’s a huge amount of reading! But we don’t need to aim for a million lines (that would be a good lifetime goal, but not necessary to start out with). Let’s break up each level and see how many books you’d need to REACH each level:
Professor Nation has written a scholarly article that discusses how many words would be needed to learn the 9000 most common word families in English. He estimated that we would need to read 3 million words. What does that mean in terms of books?
I’m surprised that I wasn’t too far from Professor Nation’s much more rigorous study (he uses applied corpora and safety googles where I used a fag packet and a biro I pinched off the barmaid). The good news is that his (much more accurate) estimate has us doing less work. But the take-home, whether you are going for 25 or 30 novels is this: You need to read a lot! It doesn’t really matter what a line or word constitutes exactly (unless you’re doing research); in the grand scheme of things, we don’t need to be so precise. And that’s what QI Tables are for; to roughly let you know statistically how far on average you are from your quantifiable goal.
Why go to all this bother anyway? Can’t we just read?
There are two reasons I can think of straight away: 1) Habit formation, and 2) Direction.
1) Habit Formation: The great thing with QI Tables is the positive feedback loop they provide. In his excellent book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg demonstrates how we rely on a chain of connected events to form habits, namely 1) trigger, 2) routine, and 3) reward. If we break the chain, the habit cannot be formed. With our QI Tables, a habit might work something like this (my personal example):
Trigger: I wake up from my afternoon nap.
Routine: I Shadow French for 30 minutes;
Reward: I enter the number of times I listened to the text in my table and watch the bar graph rise closer to my goal. The table is automatically adjusted when I update my table as both a percentage and visually in the form of a bar.
Whenever I study a foreign language (studying French at time of writing), I use QI Tables to create a positive feedback loop of trigger, cue, reward. I can’t exaggerate how much I love seeing the bar rise along with the achieved% value getting higher (I’ve achieved 39.2% of my French goal at the time of writing, but that will change very soon . . .).
2) Direction: The second advantage of using QI Tables is direction. I’ve already mentioned the fact that I no longer consider levels to be some abstract entity and that our level in a foreign language can be defined (pretty accurately) statistically. Just look at how natural this new way of thinking would be:
Random Guy: Yeah, so, I’m, like, Intermediate in French now. How about you?
Me: Well, I’m 60832 sentences away from achieving said goal, which translates as 39.2% completion.
Random Guy: . . .
Me (looking for Random Guy): Hello?
OK, this might not catch on as much I’d like it to, but I am extremely goal-orientated and knowing exactly what I need to do to achieve goal x is how I thrive at learning a foreign language. The goalposts have been set; all I need to do now is find ways to reach them quickly and efficiently (see my other FEATURED articles here to discover more methods).
There are two major platforms that people use: Mac and Windows. There is already a great tutorial online for helping you with build a thermometer in Windows (click here for a good tutorial), but nothing much around for Mac users (me). I’ll help you set up a QI Table using Mac****:
1) Step 1: Set up the following table in your Numbers spreadsheet. Change the name according to the book you’re using. For this tutorial, I have just created French 1 (although it doesn’t exist). You will now need to COUNT how many lines there are in each lesson.
2) Step 2: Now do the following:
a) Select D2. Press =. The futuristic thingy bar will appear.
b) Select B2.
c) Press SHIFT and 8. This will create a Multiplication Ninja Star (*).
d) Now, select C2.
The number of lines you’ve read for every lesson is now automated. For example, if you read lesson 1 10 times, just add 10 in C2 and your total will appear:
e) Do the same for the rest of the lessons.
f) Select 4D. Press = to bring up your thingy bar.
g) Select 2D, press +, now select 3D. This will give you the total number of lines read.
3) Step 3: Now, we’re going to make another small table:
a) Write your target (I’ve chosen 10000)
b) Select 1B in your new table. Now, select the Total number of lines from your first table (4D in my case, but your table will have different values).
c) Now, select the Remaining column and press =. Select the value for Target, then -, then the Total value. This will give you a value for the remaining lines for your personal goal (Target - Total)
4) Step 4: We need to make one more small table before we can make our bar chart:
a) Create this table and add the value 1 to the target.
b) Select the cells 1B and 2B. Convert the Data Format from number to percentage. The 1 should turn into 100%.
c) Select 1B and press =. Select 1B in the second table you made and divide (use the / key) and select the Target (2B).
You should see your goal and status as a percentage:
5) Step 5: We are seconds away from the bar chart! Hang in there!
a) Select the two percentages from your third table. Select CHART from the options. There are many different charts that you can play around with. I choose the first one.
b) Voila! Your chart is ready! It will change automatically as you update your data. It may appear annoying at first to create, but once you get used to it, these tables are very easy to create (I can set one up in a few minutes). Enjoy working towards your goals!
You can play around with the different formatting options such as colour and size, but this is basically it. You can also add other textbooks (as I do), but just make sure your Total in the second table you made is the sum total of the different books you are using.
Besides enabling us to create a positive feedback loop regarding habit formation, QI Tables are a systematic way of conceptualising progress in a foreign language. By aiming for explicit numerical goals, we can understand language learning metalinguistically and remove knowledge of abstract qualities such as vocabulary and grammar from our own individual assessment of progress. A traditional level of B1 could translate as 100 thousand sentences, while C1 could translate as 200 thousand. We become completely in charge of our own goals and conscious of where we are, where we are heading, and where we need to be. It is liberating.
That said, it is a system that is obviously not suited for everybody; it requires structure, discipline, and a deep longing for organisation. If you have these qualities in abundance, QI Tables might be suited to your own individual learning style.
So, what do you think of QI Tables? Could you use them in your regime? Please comment below and share if you think others will find value!
Challenge: Create 1 small QI Table for your foreign language ready for the following Monday. Set yourself a reasonable goal for 1 week (e.g.1000 sentences) and try and work towards it. how did you find the activity? Did you find you were reading faster and more often than usual? Let us know!
Thanks for taking the time to get to the bottom of this tutorial! It is quite involved and I know everyone has a million other things to do in this noisy digital age! It means a lot to me that people are reading this.
Enjoy your language learning!
*Thanks to my talented language buddy Gabriel for helping me with this name!
**I’ve tried to contact him about this but unfortunately he’s disappeared off the radar. If you’re reading this, come back! Your videos are wonderful.
***I also read a much more thorough and accurate academic paper (here) by the notable linguist Paul Nation who uses statistical data to surmise that we need to read something like 3 million words to master the most common 9000 word families. Such a vocabulary would constitute roughly 98% of all written material.
****If you (understandably) don’t want to do this and would like to hire me to create a personalised Road Map complete with QI Table resources, as well as instruction on intelligent methods, please contact me at email@example.com.