Ebbinghaus and Forgetting

When learning foreign language vocabulary, repeated practice is essential for success; as words get established in the long-term memory, learners can move on and focus on new skills.

Two effects are at play in this process: the spacing effect, the finding that short practices spaced out over time is better for learning than cramming; and its related finding, known as the lag effect, which states that learners improve if they gradually increase the spacing between practices.[1]

These ideas go back to 1885, when German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus pioneered the concept of the forgetting curve. He tested his ability to remember a string of words over different periods of time and found a consistent pattern to the decline of his ability to recall these words over time. Immediately after the learning experience, his recall was 100 percent, but memory dropped steeply the first few days. Further, he found that the memory loss was exponential, meaning it increased by the square of the previous number until finally flattening out at around 30 days post-learning.

According to Ebbinghaus’ findings, the way to counter the forgetting curve (i.e. learners are more successful) when they plan short practice sessions and gradually increase the amount of time between each session.

[1] ‘Repeating list items leads to better recall when the repetitions are separated by several unique item than when they are presented successively; the spacing effect refers to improved recall for spaced versus successive repetition (lag > 0 vs. lag = 0); the lag effect refers to improved recall for long lags versus short lags.’

– Kahana. M.J., Howard. M.W. (2005) Spacing and lag effects in free recall of pure lists Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 12 (1), p. 159-164

Interlingual Homophones

There are words which are pronounced the same as other words but differ in meaning or origin; these words are known as homophones. They are usually found within one language (e.g. carrot and karat) but they can cross language barriers; although they do not often exactly match across languages – as there always seem to be some slight deviation in how various sounds are pronounced – interlingual homophones do exist and can, potentially, cause all sorts of confusion.

  • εκεί / aquí
    In Greek, there. In Spanish, here.
  • ναι / nej
    In Greek, yes. In Swedish, no.
  • pig / pigg
    In English, mammalian species of the genus Sus. In Swedish, alert.
  • say / sé
    In English, to speak. In Spanish, I know.
  • tack / tak
    In Swedish, thank you. In Polish, yes.

Incomplete Intelligibility

‘In the language which is spoken when one expresses oneself, there lies an average intelligibility; and in accordance with this intelligibility the discourse which is communicated can be understood to a considerable extent, even if the hearer does not bring himself into such a kind of Being towards what the discourse is about as to have a primordial understanding of it. We do not so much understand the entities which are talked about; we already are listening only to what is said-in-the-talk as such. What is said-in-the-talk gets understood; but what the talk is about is understood only approximately and superficially. We have the same thing in view, because it is in the same averageness that we have a common understanding of what is said.’

Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, tr. John Macquerrie and Edward Robinson, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1962, I.5, §35 (H.167), p. 212

A Pointless Lexicon

In this lexicon, a pointless word is defined as a unit of language that—although not meaningless in it self—has a meaningless definition.

E.g. the word, or rather the compound, inner self is not meaningless in the sense that it has a no definition; however, that definition is vacuous, rendering the compound pointless. That is to say, there is no need to assume that there is such a thing, other than the fact that there is a word for it. A unit of language conveys meaning, and this is bewitching—as Ludwig Wittgenstein would say—for meaning engenders a certain significance. Again, consider Wittgenstein, “Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.”

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

  • dogma, a meaningless statement considered to be true, regardless of evidence.
  • fate, the false impression that everything that happens was meant to happen.
  • honour, the veneration of mindless devotion.
  • karma, the delusion of that which goes around will eventually come around.
  • luck, the name given to the inconceivability of the improbable.

“Half of what I say is meaningless; but I say it so that the other half may reach you.” – Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam

The Chaos

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word. Continue reading

Universal Mental Structures

Osiatynski: Do you mean that we may be, by virtue of this accidental origin of science, capable of development of some disciplines of science and incapable of others? And that we are not conscious of that?

Chomsky: Yes, as human beings we are not too conscious of that because we naturally assume that our mental structures are universal. But I suppose an outside biologist looking at us would see something very different. He would see that, like other organisms, we have a narrow sphere within which we are very good, but that sphere is very limited. And that, in fact, the very achievements we can have within that sphere are related to lack of achievements in other spheres.

To construct a scientific theory from the data and to be able to recognize that it is a reasonable theory is possible only if there are some very sharp restrictive principles that lead you to go in one direction and not in another direction. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have science at all, merely randomly chosen hypotheses. Then, human genius may have limitless opportunities to develop in one direction, but at the same time this genius will not go in other directions. And those two considerations are related. The very properties of the human mind that provide an enormous scope for human genius in some domains will serve as barriers to progress in other domains, just as the properties that enable each child to acquire a complex and highly articulated human language block the acquisition of other imaginable linguistic systems.

– Wiktor Osiatynski (ed.), Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future (MacMillan, 1984), pp. 95-101

Language and Scientific Understanding

Osiatynski: Would this extrahuman observer think the same way about our symbols, ideas, needs, and values?

Chomsky: Absolutely. I think he would be struck by the uniformity of human societies in every aspect. And there is more than that. Let’s imagine again an observer looking at us without any preconceptions. I think he would be struck by the fact that although human beings have the capacity to develop scientific knowledge, it must be a very limited capacity because it is only done in very narrow and specific domains. There are huge areas where the human mind is apparently incapable of forming sciences, or at least has not done so. There are other areas — so far, in fact, one area only — in which we have demonstrated the capacity for true scientific progress.

Osiatynski: Physics?

Chomsky: Physics and those parts of other fields that grow out of physics — chemistry, the structure of big molecules — in those domains, there is a lot of progress. In many other domains, there is very little progress in developing real scientific understanding.

Osiatynski: Isn’t it because man wants to exercise control over the physical world?

Chomsky: I don’t think so. I think it probably reflects something very special about the nature of our minds. There is no evolutionary pressure to create minds capable of forming sciences; it just happened. Evolutionary pressure has not led to higher rates of reproduction for people capable of solving scientific problems or creating new scientific ideas. So if, in fact, the science-forming capacities evolved for other reasons, it would not be too surprising if those particular structures that have developed proved to be rather special in their nature, reflecting the contingencies of their evolution or the working of physical law.

– Wiktor Osiatynski (ed.), Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future (MacMillan, 1984), pp. 95-101

Psychology and Linguistics

Osiatynski: Do you mean that psychology could benefit from linguistics? Could you explain how?

Chomsky: One thing that you and I know is language. Another thing that you and I know is how objects behave in perceptual space. We have a whole mass of complex ways of understanding what is the nature of visual space. A proper part of psychology ought to be, and in recent years has been, an effort to try to discover the principles of how we organize visual space. I would say that the same is true of every domain of psychology, of human studies. To understand, for example, how people organize social systems, we have to discover the principles that we create to make some societies intelligible.

Osiatynski: I understand that we could have a kind of universal grammar of nonlinguistic forms of human behavior as well. But if, as you say, our behavior and language are heavily guided by universal principles, why, then, do they differ so much all around the world?

Chomsky: I don’t think they differ so much. I think that as human beings, we quite naturally take for granted what is similar among human beings and, then, pay attention to what differentiates us. That makes perfect sense for us as human beings. I suppose frogs pay no attention to being frogs. They take it for granted. What interests a frog are differences among frogs. From our point of view they are more or less the same, from their point of view they are all radically different.

Similarly with us. For us, we are all very different, our languages are very different, and our societies are very different. But if we could extract ourselves from our point of view and sort of look down at human life the way a biologist looks at other organisms, I think we could see it a different way. Imagine an extrahuman observer looking at us. Such an extrahuman observer would be struck precisely by the uniformity of human languages, by the very slight variation from one language to another, and by the remarkable respects in which all languages are the same. And then he would notice we do not pay any attention to that because for the purpose of human life it is quite natural and appropriate just to take for granted everything that is common. We don’t concern ourselves with that, all we worry about are differences.

– Wiktor Osiatynski (ed.), Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future (MacMillan, 1984), pp. 95-101