Noel van Vliet Talks About The “Back-End” Of Language Learning

noel-playaDear Memorizers,

As some of you already know, Noel van Vliet has been using the Magnetic Memory Method and reporting on his experience in posts such as “A Perfect Recall Rate.” Since Noel has plenty of amazing information to offer you on his website, I wanted to introduce you to him in the form of an interview with plenty of links that will direct you to the valuable things about language learning he has provided.

So without further adieu, let’s rock & roll.

Noel, you are the founder of What inspired you to start the site and what is a “smart language learner”?

Well, before learning my first foreign language, I considered myself to be a lazy and impatient guy. When I started learning, I couldn’t stop thinking that I wasn’t going to keep it up. But I did, and that success inspired me to learn another language and eventually start Smart Language Learner.

In all honesty, I think the name is somewhat pretentious, I’m certainly no guru, I keep learning new things all the time, but a “smart language learner” is certainly something I aspire to be. If I had to give a definition it would be that a Smart Language Learner is someone who thinks about his language learning a lot – he or she observes the process.

What is your first memory of being interested in learning another language?

That’s a tough one. I can’t really recall an individual moment. But I’m sure it must have been the music (in English) from the 80’s that my parents and siblings played.

My wish was to understand what those songs were about, to learn that language. It would take many more years before I finally got around doing that.

Many people in the Netherlands (where I’m originally from) learn English almost effortlessly. They pick it up from a combination of what they learn in school and what they see and hear in the media. It’s a process that takes years and years, but it seems automatic. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them and had to work for it.

What has being able to speak another language enabled you to do?

The most significant effect of learning another language, Spanish in this case, is that I’m married to a wonderful Costa Rican girl and we have a daughter. I also have two step-children. To be fair, it turned my life around completely. On a slightly less emotional scale: it enabled me to create Smart Language Learner in English and reach more people than if I had chosen Dutch as its language.

Who are some of your heroes in the world of language learning?

There are more than ever. The internet has offered a platform for anyone to share his or her knowledge. Yes, some abuse this, but I think in the language-learning scene, there are mostly good guys trying to help people out.

For me personally, everyone who’s willing to contribute to Smart Language Learner’s Ask the Experts post is a hero! 😉

You’ve said that you only speak three languages and are not a “super polyglot.” What is a polyglot and why do you think this status has become so fashionable?

Well, I think the true definition of a polyglot is still up for grabs, the dictionary states that it someone who can speak multiple languages, but most say it’s a person who speaks four or more languages. *When* you actually speak a language is another matter. Is being able to say “Hi, how are you?” enough, or do you need a certain level of speech to claim that?

I think it’s become so fashionable as a direct result of travel becoming so accessible. The world has become smaller. But to really visit a country, to get a feel for its soul, so to speak, you have to speak the language. Then you have access to the deeper intercultural experiences. Once you have tasted the pleasure of really exploring another culture, you want more. And then we become culture addicts (cynics would say it’s just another form of consumerism), and thus we need to speak more and more languages.

The second possible reason is that it’s impressive to speak multiple languages. People look up to that. The fun part about is that when you speak a foreign language, then you’re cool. But when you spend a lot of time learning one, you’re kind of a nerd. We sure are a funny species 🙂

I’m sure if you did a little analysis you could come up with a host of other reasons.

Like I said, the world is getting smaller. As everyone is doing business with everyone these days, a person who speaks multiple languages is in high demand.

When you interviewed Olly Richards, you asked him about the sacrifices he made in order to learn new languages. What sacrifices have you made?

I’ve definitely made them! I learned Spanish through an old and boring course. It was tough, but it was effective. I remember I did some weeks of 25+ hours of study. But I had to. I had a trip to Costa Rica coming up in about six months and I realized I needed to speak basic Spanish for it to be a success. That was the fuel that got me through it. And, wow, it was worth it! Effort almost always brings a reward in one way or another.

What is “language learning burnout” and how can someone overcome it?

It’s when you are seriously demotivated. You want to quit learning that stupid language. Sometimes because of boredom or because of a lack of believe that you will eventually learn to speak the language well. It usually strikes when, apparently, results aren’t coming your way, or not as quickly as you thought. I say apparently because in such a situation, you tend to forget how far you’ve come.

There are many possible solutions, but it’s a bit like a normal burnout. Not everything works for everyone. Some say you have to pace yourself, while others say you have to make language learning fun.

I think sometimes a language-learning burnout is inevitable. For example, I’m a bit of a chaotic person. When I start something new I like to dive in head first. This means doing something too much. And then, I crash. It’s almost as if my subconscious pulls the brakes. The funny part is that I’ve seen it so many times that I know I’ll be alright in a few days. I know I will pick it up again.

You’ve talked about how everyone is different when it comes to language learning, but this is what everyone says. In what ways are all we all the same with respect to learning and how can we leverage the learning similarities that we all share in order to improve?

Well, actually, I think we are not as different as we think we are. A really effective method is an effective method for most people, IF they can stand executing it. A boring method could be effective, but not many would be able to get far with it.

I do agree that we learn better from something that isn’t boring by the way, but there are methods that are boring and effective. Just imagine how effective they could be if they were also interesting. I also think it’s worth mentioning that everything gets boring at a certain point. To prevent that you should mix things up a bit.

To get back your question, recent studies suggest we’re mostly visual learners, the hypothesis that every one has a different learning style has been proven false, so I think in the visual department we still have ground to cover. Exactly how, I couldn’t tell you at this moment, but the fact that we’re mostly visual learners could be the reason behind the effectiveness of memory palaces.

What are two or three of the biggest mistakes that language learners make?

In my experience so far, these three stand out:

1. Lack of Patience/Awareness of progress. Learning a new language takes time. A lot. In the everyday process of mastering one, it never seems we’re making the progress we expected. In fact, there are days in which our progress seems to have gone backwards! This can be really demoralizing. We’re ready to give up. And this is what most people do! But although it seems like a distressing experience, it’s actually gold in disguise. Because if we simply refuse to buckle and continue, we may learn one the most important language-learning lessons: Progress in language learning isn’t linear. It goes up and down. Usually the fog clears in a week’s time or so and you see you have progressed.

Of course, if you stay in this dark place for longer, then it’s time to evaluate your language-learning methodology. Maybe you’re still doing beginner’s stuff when you’re really ready for the intermediate stage.

2. Not doing enough Back-End work, as I call it, early on. You can learn a language by just speaking and using native materials without structuring it. It’s possible. Is it the fastest and best way to do so? I don’t think so. At the very least you need some methodology in place to make best use of them. The Front End is everything that isn’t stuff like conversing, casually watching TV, etc. The Back End is about effort and structure. Doing a language course, brushing up your grammar or using memory techniques, etc. is Back-End work. You could say that Back-End work is training and the Front End is the match. You do the Back End work to better enjoy the Front End.
3. Doing only Back-End work. This the classic mistake of never using the language. This is okay in the beginning but to make fluent that what you’ve learned, you have to converse. On the other hand, you can’t become fluent in what you don’t know. That’s why you shouldn’t ignore the Back End.

When you’re just starting out learning a new language, you do more Back-End work. Little by little the balance sways until you, ideally, won’t have to do any Back-End work anymore. You’ll still learn, but from the Front End only.

If you only speak a few phrases in your target language, you won’t learn much from conversing. Your time is better spent doing Back-End work.

Take us into your own language learning process. What is the number one thing that someone who wants to get started learning a language should do first?

Choose the right language to learn!

Do you learn a new language just because it sounds good and without an actual reason to do so? Chances are, you will fail. It’s way easier to learn a language if you have to — if you have an external motive to do so. The need to speak the language is the fuel that’ll pull you through the tough days.

Let’s talk about memory techniques. What is your experience using them in the context of language learning?

Some years ago I tried to work with unstructured mnemonics. That is, creating an image representing a word but without a framework to support it. I thought it was a somewhat clumsy method not worth my time.

It was only after going through and implementing the concepts you teach in your course “How to Learn and Memorize the Vocabulary of Any Language” that I started to see the potential.

To be honest, the results have amazed me. Especially the recall rate of the learned words is impressive.

I’m doing a case study on this course and I have to be objective and critical in order to serve my readers, but I haven’t found much to complain about.

One of the important aspects of using memory palaces is that all words are linked and therefore relatively easy to find in your memory. If I just make a bunch of individual mnemonics they aren’t.

Since I’m only doing this for a limited amount of time, I can’t say if the impressive recall rate holds up if you learn 1000’s of words. Maybe that’s something for a future case study.

Why do people give up on language learning?

If I had to choose one reason, I think it’s because of a lack of awareness of progress. Our subconscious wants instant gratification. The conscious mind can delay that need a little, but not much. If we are not aware of our progress after so many weeks of work, it seems that we did it all for nothing. No gratification, nada.

The trick then, is to give the subconscious mind gratification in one form or another. One way is to measure everything. Hours done language-learning activities, words learned, pages read in your target language, etc.

So let’s say you’ve learned 10 new words today. By writing that down in your journal it gives a sense of progress and you hand your subconscious mind the gratification it desires.

It’s important to realize that the goal of language learning isn’t to measure everything. You do this at-the-side to obtain the necessary gratification, but you still need a good language-learning strategy. You have to be smart about it. If measurement was the main goal, you’d only learn new words because they are easy to measure. It that case you would never be able to make coherent sentences.

Another to way to get the needed gratification is to break your language learning up in segments (which you should do anyway!) and then use the breaks to do something you really really like, like playing video games or watching movies. Don’t go washing the dishes, or anything that slightly resembles work or you’ll defeat the gratification mechanism.

What is a “Dictionary of Flesh and Bones”?

It’s a girl or boyfriend who’s a native speaker of the language you want to learn.

Once in a relationship, he or she can help you learn their language.

A girlfriend can be called: “a long-haired dictionary”. Don’t know about a guy. Any ideas? I was going to say “a muscled dictionary” but that would exclude me. 😉

You’ve said that everyone has the talent and the passion needed to learn a language. And yet, not everyone feels this way. What is one thing someone (should/can?) do to tap into the necessary drive and motivation needed to get started and keep going?

Well, what I meant is that I think passion is not as necessary as many claim. It could even be detrimental. You can’t be passionate about something each and every moment, some days (maybe even weeks) you don’t feel like doing any language learning. And then what do you do?

I certainly didn’t have a passion for learning languages when I started. Far from it. Yet, I succeeded because I had an external motive to do so. That’s what kept me going.

The other thing that greatly helps is something I just mentioned: measuring your progress. I know it’s not always easy. You can’t measure fluency, and some days you’re more fluent than others but we have a tendency to forget (or ignore) how far we’ve actually come. By measuring as much as we can we have our achievements on paper. Not some vague subjective memory but cold hard facts.

It’s important to realize that learning a new language is a long road. That’s why I don’t agree 100% with the current positivity rage in language learning. If you start out with the idea that you’ll become fluent in a very short time span, you can almost only disappoint yourself and it will be even harder to appreciate the progress you do make.

Significantly less progress than expected + Tendency to forget how far we’ve actually come results in an almost unshakable urge to quit learning the language.

By having unrealistic expectations you make it harder for yourself, not easier.

Where are you headed with

I hope to create sort of a magazine about language learning. So that includes a fair share of how-to-learn-a-language information from different angles, but I also interview people about the consequences of learning a new language on their personal life and about the experiences good or bad that are the result of language learning.

I also recently started to do case studies on language-learning products. It’s something that’s great to do. I myself am very interested to see what kind of results I can achieve with a product. It also helps people decide whether or not a product is for them based on real-life experiences instead of a sometimes quickly thrown together review.

How can people connect with you?

First and foremost by visiting Smart Language Learner at:

People can contact me through the comments or the contact page.

I’m also on Twitter.

Are there any aspects of language learning I haven’t asked about that you think people need to know?

When I only spoke my native language, my world was a confined space. Anything not in my language simply didn’t exist. Learning a new language is an adventure. With every new language you learn, little by little, a part of the world opens up to you. Its culture and people but also movies, music and literature.

Learning a new language is worth it – and then some!


Closing Thoughts

As you’ve read, Noel clearly has a wealth of knowledge, insight and value to bring to you as a language learner. Join me in thanking him for these amazing and in-depth tips by hooking up with him on Twitter and subscribing to his newsletter on Tell him I sent you!

Further Resources

15 Reasons Why Learning A Foreign Language Is Good For Your Brain

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