(This post was first published here in 2014).
Description of the phenomenon. Have you ever noticed a significant improvement in your language level after a long break in your studies? I have. Why does this happen? Are there ways you can use this to your advantage? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I have some theories and suggestions, but first let me give you an account of my experiences to let you know how I came to these conclusions.
The first time I noticed such a phenomenon was when I was studying Thai. After my third trip to Thailand, I broke up with my Thai girlfriend, started to learn Japanese, and decided never to speak Thai again. About six months into my Japanese studies, I got interested in Thai again. Not really sure why, but there was probably a girl involved. Anyway, when I got to Thailand, I was really rusty, as I expected. But even though I didn’t do anything outside of conversation, about a week into the trip I noticed my Thai was actually better than when I dropped it! I was shocked.
About a year later, I was disgusted with Japanese. I’d been learning it forever, spending all my free time, and I wanted my life back. So I just stopped learning it completely for a few months, then started learning Chinese. One day I decided I missed Japanese, and took a short trip to Japan. Once again – it had actually improved, despite of the time I’d spent away from it.
Then something happened that totally blew me away. First some background. I have been “learning” Spanish since I was 11. I lived in Ecuador for 2 years as a child, and never really caught on because I was in an American school and all my friends were Americans. I took Spanish in high school for the easy grades. Still, my level was quite low. I married a Panamanian when I was 36 years old. I spoke Spanish with her all the time, and watched lots of Mexican TV shows with her. And yet my spoken Spanish was pretty rough, and I only understood about half of what I watched on TV. We were divorced 2 years later, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with Spanish. I took a 3 year break to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania, learning Swahili, amongst other things. I took a short vacation to Costa Rica shortly after getting back. I felt my level was about the same as before. Then I started learning Thai and all my other languages, not even touching my Spanish.
Now here’s the shocker. One fine day, I can’t remember the exact date but it was a good 5 years after visiting Costa Rica, I was clicking through the TV channels and stopped on some Mexican movie. I watched it for a minute, wasn’t really interested, and kept going. Then it occurred to me that I understood it well enough to know what was going on. I thought “that’s funny”, and I guess it was my new desire to become a polyglot that made me go back to check my level. So I went back, and was amazed to understand everything that was being said. Okay, I missed words here and there, but my comprehension had gone from about 50% to over 90% with what I would call an insignificant amount of study or maintenance.
Those were some examples of big gaps in study that resulted in improvements. There is another phenomenon which I think is related. When I go on all these wonderful trips to target countries, I often study pretty hard, but don’t see huge gains when I’m there. However, on many occasions, a week or more after leaving, my level reaches it’s highest point ever.
So those are some things that have happened to me, but I’d like to point out that I’m not the only one who has experienced this. For example, when Steve Kaufmann was interviewed on Canadian TV, he mentioned that after years of doing nothing with Chinese, he began to converse again, and realized his level was higher than it had ever been.
My big mistake. Originally, I felt like I had discovered something very useful about language learning, and I wanted to capitalize on it. It seemed like I was steadily improving in my languages whether or not I worked on them. Maybe this was the secret that allowed super polyglots to learn so many languages so quickly. Obviously, a big initial effort was needed, to get enough input if for no other reason, but after that it seemed like no further work was required. Or perhaps only very limited work, occasional immersion, etc. So that was my line of reasoning when I stopped learning or maintaining my old languages.
But it didn’t work. Those initial occurrences I wrote about above stopped happening not long after I stopped studying. All my levels dropped, and in some areas, like reading and writing Chinese characters, drastically. That’s when I got more serious about maintaining my languages. And the mistake was made even bigger by the fact that I had added more languages in the meantime, thinking there would be no ill effect. As I’ve said before, now I’m stuck with 5 languages in the B’s, and it’s no picnic to maintain them.
The bow wave. So why did all that improvement take place? And what about the huge improvement in my Spanish? Can it be explained, and more importantly, can we somehow use what appears to be the amazing power of these phenomena to reduce our workload and improve our language learning?
I used to work for a certain large aircraft company that shall remain nameless, and they had thousands of drawings to release in a short period of time. There was always a great rush to meet release dates, so they had to put a huge number of people on the effort, all of which were on overtime, and most of which were working on several drawings at once. Due to all the confusion, and all the demands on peoples’ time, the organization actually became less efficient during this effort. I heard one manager describe the actual release curve lagging the scheduled release curve as a “bow wave”. As a boat sails through the water, it creates a bow wave – a wave that proceeds the front of the boat. As the boat speeds up, the wave gets bigger. I’ve decided to name the phenomenon I’ve been talking about bow wave, because some of the properties are similar.
While we are actively studying a language, we are improving, but this is never a perfect process, and certain issues can delay assimilation. According to Krashen’s affective filter hypothesis, certain emotions such as anxiety, self doubt, boredom, etc. prevent efficient processing of language input. I agree with this, and think that when you learn inefficiently, you’re creating a bow wave, or building up all this potential that isn’t immediately turned into progress. If you remove the sources of the bow wave, it will dissipate and turn into progress.
That was a pretty simple statement of the theory, so let me apply it to some of the phenomena above. I’d studied Thai for a couple years, then quit. Trust me, there was a lot of frustration when I learned Thai, so that contributed to a bow wave. And I believe that learning itself, when I do it for an hour or more a day, even when it’s not particularly stressful, contributes to the bow wave. The longer I study, the bigger the bow wave. So when I quit Thai, the bow wave dissipated, and turned into progress.
Now it should be noted that memory can limit the amount of time you have to notice your improvement. I had a pretty good size bow wave built up from Thai, and waiting 6 months or so worked out pretty well. But I’m guessing the sweet spot would have been a couple months earlier. If I had waited a year, my level probably would have been considerably lower. In fact, this wasn’t the first time I quit Thai. I quit once early on, and my level dropped drastically. That makes sense, because I had a very small bow wave at that time.
What about the huge improvement in my Spanish? This was due to the huge bow wave I built up over many, many years. Lots of frustrated learning. Tons of input. I divorced my Panamanian ex-wife and quit Spanish completely, eliminating the sources and allowing the bow wave to dissipate.
Explaining my short trips to target countries, I build up a nice little bow wave, and the effect peaks out a week or two after I leave, because leaving removes the source and the bow wave dissipates.
Finally, quitting my old languages didn’t result in their improvement because the bow wave effect had worn out. The bow wave effect doesn’t last forever.
To summarize some important points about the bow wave:
1) It’s caused by inefficient study. If you assimilate language quickly and efficiently, you will have little if any bow wave.
2) Some things that cause inefficient study – too many hours per day, anxiety, self doubt, boredom, etc
3) The more months or years you study, the bigger the bow wave.
4) The bow wave effect, or improvement you notice after a break, takes some time to peak; the bigger the bow wave, the more time it takes. But it doesn’t last forever, and the effect will diminish if you don’t start using the language again.
How to use this to our advantage. You can try to eliminate the bow wave. Obviously, it’s better to study efficiently and make progress in a language quickly. You can do this by reducing your affective filter. And a lot of time and energy these days goes into people trying to reduce their affective filters. I have seen so many articles telling me if I don’t have fun I’m doomed, and if I can’t relax and believe in myself I will fail. But these articles, while well meaning, aren’t very helpful to me. I’m sort of set in my ways, and I prefer to go through life without getting all bubbly and bouncing off walls and stuff. There are good days and there are bad days, and accepting that is a more useful goal than trying to drastically change my personality.
I believe most people are going to have at least a little bow wave when they study a language, even if they try to reduce it. So I suggest you release your bow wave and reap the benefits. Yes, the only way to do this is to take breaks. Take a break, and (ideally) resume your studies when the bow wave effect is peaking. Ride the wave! Otherwise, that bow wave is going to keep growing and growing. You might get frustrated by your diminished progress with that big ol’ bow wave holding you back. So if you take a month or two off, you’ll lose all your frustration, and pick up your studies at a higher level than when you quit, maybe even higher than where you would have been if you hadn’t quit, and you will reach your long term goal just as quickly. I call this sort of periodic study learning in spurts and will post about it in the future.