The Wonder of Critical Frequency

About two weeks ago, in an effort to increase my Esperanto vocabulary, I signed up for’s Vorto de la Tago (Word of the Day) service, which sends a daily email with, you guessed it, the word of the day. These emails are great for SRS because they include quite a few example sentences. The definitions are also monolingual (Esperanto-only, no English translations), which I think is a good thing because I notice that when I read Esperanto text I translate it to English mentally, thus slowing me down. So now I have these great daily reminders to add some new sentences to my SRS, and they’re forcing me to use the language to describe itself rather than using the crutch called English. And what did I do with these fantastic reminders?

I let them sit in my inbox unread.

Why did I such a thing? I did it because I procrastinate; because I was busy; because I didn’t have time right now and I’d come back to it later. And these emails continued to come in daily, reminding me that I need to get to them. This was not good for me, mentally. These emails were becoming an itch in my brain that I could feel constantly but couldn’t scratch. I didn’t want to unsubscribe from the emails either. That would be admitting failure, admitting that I’m not truly serious about learning this language.

Yesterday, I intended to do something about these emails, but realized that I didn’t look forward to going through the dozen or so emails that have built up and copy-pasting sentences into Anki. That would take time that I wanted to spend elsewhere. I then remembered reading about Critical Frequency from the great Khatzumoto, which is the concept of only doing a couple minutes worth of a task at a time, but doing it many times a day. Before going to bed last night, I setup some events in my Google Calendar, at 5 minutes before each hour from 8am to 5pm, which last 5 minutes a piece and repeat daily. These sync up with my Android phone to create a device which beeps at me at 5 minutes before each hour to remind me to do a language task of some sort, whether that’s doing my reps in Anki, or copying sentences from an email into Anki.

This system worked perfectly. I did my daily Anki reps during these times, then copied the sentences from the emails. I only cleared half of those emails, but my mind is at ease. Using this system, I know that I will clear those emails in the next day or two, and will be able to keep up with them, stress-free. And that is the wonder of Critical Frequency.

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8 Comment(s)

  1. Now you just need to do the same for blog posts…

    david | Jan 7, 2011 | Reply

  2. Yeah, no kidding. It has already proven effective once, maybe I should try it!

    Peter | Jan 7, 2011 | Reply

  3. It is rather interesting that Steve just came up with a post which has somewhat the opposite idea. He thinks the intensity is more important:

    Edwin | Jan 7, 2011 | Reply

  4. Edwin: That is interesting, actually. I think that’s one of the great things about learning languages, there are many ways to accomplish it. I have no doubt that intensity worked very well for Steve, and that’s probably what he needed to be successful at the time. But for me, right now, stress-free and frequent is what I need.

    Peter | Jan 7, 2011 | Reply

  5. A site you might find interesting for Swedish (and other) online language study is B a b b e (double ‘b’!!). Their courses are illustrated and sounded, and integrate sound recognition and mirroring technology for interactive practice at your machine. They run a worldwide social network of learners and native speakers, whom they encourage to chat and write online, thus to help improve each other’s skills on a mutual basis. A fee is due for part of the tuition services.

    Gus | Jan 29, 2011 | Reply

  6. Great idea. I think I do best when I think about doing lots of little projects throughout the day rather than one large chunk – I feel like I absorb more this way and I don’t procrastinate nearly as much because – hey its just five minutes.

    Aaron | Feb 12, 2011 | Reply

  7. Loved reading about this!!

    John | Oct 18, 2011 | Reply

  8. That’s not a bad idea. Do you have any tips for making sure you always have the other language around you? I mean, what if you’re out to lunch, or doing a work task, or something happens and you’re away from your computer?

    Alex Moen | Dec 19, 2011 | Reply

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