High Intensity Language Training – how to make it work


Now that we’ve gone for the pivot from ‘company news’ to ‘useful advice’, I’ve been thinking about what I can focus on here which will be of most value to you.

In working directly with hundreds of learners over the last six years (and with feedback from thousands more), I’ve certainly picked up a collection of tips and tricks for the various stages of the journey to a new language – many of which are going to be in the series of booklets I’ll be publishing this year.

But rather than going in the direction of general advice, which may be useful but certainly isn’t unique to us, I think it might be more interesting to focus specifically on what I’ve been discovering about what I’ve started to call High Intensity Language Training.

The work I’ve been doing in this field is intense (well, highly intense!) in two different ways.

First, the process of working through an SSi-style lesson is, as you already know, extremely challenging.  The constant push to produce what you know, over and over again, in different contexts and new structures, is absolutely exhausting.

Second, I’ve been working with people to try and find out more about their upper limits for how many sessions they can get through in a day, or in two days.  Most people who use our courses settle for doing two or maybe three sessions a week, and repeat sessions often – our High Intensity guinea pigs haven’t had that kind of luxury, though!  Instead, they’ve often done up to 10 hours flat-out in a single day, and not been allowed to repeat anything.

And the results are more than a little startling.

So, in the coming weeks, I’ll tell you more about the people who’ve already gone through this process, and the lessons I’ve learnt along the way – and I’ll give you the guidelines I think you need to be able to run your own High Intensity sessions.  For some of you, it may lead you into a new approach to language acquisition.

The enormous value of mistakes

I don’t want this to be a teasing post with no real content, though!  So let’s get stuck into one of the most important concepts of High Intensity Language Training – the value of mistakes.

In traditional approaches, mistakes are taken as a sign that you need to revise.  If you make a mistake, you’re often actively prompted to go back and study that particular word or structure again.  It’s an approach which is conceptually based on a presumption that you can achieve perfection as long as you’re willing to spend enough time repeating work over and over again – and as you’ve probably already sensed, I think this is about as sane as stabbing yourself in the eyes with knitting needles.

Fortunately, we get this instinctively right when we’re dealing with children.

When a child says ‘I goed to school’ or ‘I wented to school’, we usually offer them the correct form (‘Oh, you went to school, did you?’) – but we don’t sigh, sit them down, and tell them that play is cancelled for today, because they’ve got to spend an hour practising irregular past tenses.

Imagine if you actually saw someone doing that to a child.  You’d want to throw something extremely heavy at them, wouldn’t you?

But we’re quite happy to inflict exactly that approach on ourselves.

Yup, knitting needles mad.

In a properly run High Intensity session, it’s completely different.  We embrace mistakes.  And we do this for two very specific reasons.

Reason 1

When you make a mistake, and you realise you’ve made a mistake, you get a jolt of frustration.  In other words, you get a little shot of emotion.  Your amygdala gets involved – and one of the things we know to a very high degree of confidence by now is that emotion helps with the forming of memories.

One surprising thing about the ‘jolt’ is how much it looks like a response to pain.  When someone realises that they’ve made a mistake, they’ll often grimace, or tense the muscles in their arms, or even catch their breath in a way which looks remarkably similar to what you might expect if you stuck a pin in them.

Another surprising thing about the ‘jolt’ is that the closer the learner is to retrieving a particular word or phrase successfully, the more the mistake seems to ‘hurt’ them – in other words, the more of a kick to the formation of memory they get.  This might tie in to what Robert Bjork says in this video about interleaving practice – the more difficult the act of remembering is, the more value you get from it.

So, every mistake is moving you towards successful learning.

If you take a mistake as a sign that you need to go back and revise, you can spend a lot of time doing ‘easy’ repetition (of the kind that Robert Bjork discusses), and end up learning more slowly.  If you press on, welcome the mistakes – no, celebrate the mistakes! – and keep on making them, you will reach the point of successful acquisition much sooner.

Reason 2

The mistakes also kick us into focusing more carefully on the ‘correct’ form.  In a traditional approach, you can get stuck with a pattern that goes ‘prompt’ (whether it’s spoken or written), ‘attempt’, ‘confirmation of failure’, ‘revision’.

By contrast, in a High Intensity scenario, we go ‘prompt’, ‘attempt’, ‘correct response 1’, ‘correct response 2’ – does that seem familiar at all?  It’s much more like the way in which we intuitively respond to children – with the added bonus of a repetition of the correct form.

Now, one of the most fascinating things I’ve noticed in this process is the way in which we acquire new words.

We tend to think that it’s quite a binary thing – you’ve either learnt it, or you haven’t, and if you haven’t, you need to go back and revise.  But that’s not what I’ve been seeing with a High Intense approach – quite the opposite, in fact.  A lot of evidence is pointing towards a general ability to acquire new words on a partial basis – syllable by syllable, or even sound by sound.

Let me give you an example.

When I did my intense day with the Dutch materials Louis and Eline produced, the first time Louis said the Dutch for pork, I couldn’t hear it.  It sounded like ‘burgh-rruh-rruh’ to me.  I actually felt a little aggrieved – I made a note to remind Louis condescendingly how important it was to pronounce new words clearly.

But I didn’t worry unduly – I reminded myself that I don’t like pork, that I would never be asking for pork in a restaurant in Holland, and that it was okay for me to say ‘burgh-rruh-rruh’ if I wanted to.  So I did exactly that – I suspect there are moments in that video when you can hear me saying things like ‘Ik wil graag het burgh-rruh-rruh’.

And then, three or four sessions later, Louis started saying it clearly.  Varkensvlees.  I can remember thinking ‘Oh, right, well, that’s easy enough.  Varkensvlees.  If you’d said that first time, I’d have learnt it by now, Louis.’

After we’d done our Skype session that night, I brought this minor issue up, and suggested that he should re-record the initial presentation.

Louis, gentleman that he is, disagreed with remarkable politeness and patience.  He’d said it the same way every time, he explained.  Filled with righteous indignation, I went back to listen to the first use of the word, to prove to him that he was completely wrong.

And, naturally, he was in fact completely right.

It put me in mind of this particularly brilliant clip from Father Ted:

So what had happened?  As I’d carried on making my unnecessarily dramatic ‘burgh-rruh-rruh’ mistake every time, my brain had been listening to the correct versions, which my conscious mind could not hear as a word, and had put together enough clues for it to build a correct map of the word.  Once it had done that, I could hear it – in fact, I could no longer not hear it, even if I wanted.

A similar process is highlighted in this interesting article:


Of course, we’re not used to this kind of partial learning.  It feels out of control, and uncomfortable, and we can hear the siren voices of all the teachers we ever met telling us that we need to do some proper revision.

Step 1 in your journey to HILT

Don’t listen to those siren voices.

The next time you do an SSi session, celebrate your mistakes, be cavalier and cheerful about your lack of conscious control, and trust the system.

Trusting the system means moving on to the next session, even if you’re convinced you’re not ready.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, will be next week’s post (insha’allah!) – how and when you should (and shouldn’t) repeat a session when you’re aiming for the full High Intensity experience.

Follow-up posts:

HILT – when to repeat sessions

HILT – speed of production

HILT – forced production

HILT – Your First High Intensity Day


I hope you’ve found this interesting – if you’ve got any questions about the High Intensity approach, do please sing out in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them – and if any of them are too complicated to answer in the comments, I’ll put them on my to-do list for a full post.


8 responses to “High Intensity Language Training – how to make it work

  1. You know, while it has nothing to do with SSi, I really wouldn’t mind seeing a guide to using this approach with the Michel Thomas method courses (yeah, I know most of the courses not done by the man himself weren’t up to the same quality, but the Mandarin and Japanese ones are among the better ones).

    Better yet, for languages which, as of yet, don’t actually have an audio only (or even mostly audio) course (which is, unfortunately, the majority of languages).

    • Interesting comment – I’d certainly expect some level of crossover in terms of using the MT Method stuff in this kind of framework – although I’d have some reservations about the consistency of spaced repetition in the ‘Method’ courses (well, and in some of Michel’s original work!), and also about the extent of interleaving. But the general principles should hold true – and I’d be very interested to hear of your experiences if you have a shot at doing 8 or 10 hours straight with some MT Method material.

      For languages without audio courses – my gut response would be that this approach wouldn’t work, because there is something about the exposure to the spoken language which is central for elements like partial acquisition of new words. Having said that, a set of written prompts that were used to trigger spoken production would have some crossover. But I think one of the most important projects for people involved in reversing language shift is the production of audio-based courses – which I hope we’re going to start contributing to in a meaningful way this year…:-)

  2. I did the MT-style Japanese course on the flight to Japan some years ago, straight through at least a good chunk of it over at least 6 hours, and arrived with not much vocabulary but enough of a grasp of what the lego of the language felt like to be able to play with new words and to try sentences that were understood well enough to make my hosts (good friends I had met in England) laugh at me – which was great, in my book. Made a big difference to my experience of Japan.

    • That’s really interesting, Mark, thanks for sharing. How long did you stay in Japan? Did you repeat any of the sessions?

  3. I was just there a couple of weeks – no repetition, just straight through the course on the plane, and then I was ready to play and use what I had on arrival. Everything you are talking about chimes completely with my best and fastest experiences of learning various kinds of things, not just languages – if you have the right strategies; which are well structured, fun and friendly; and then if you can manage to stop worrying and get on with it, your brain turns out to have evolved for learning things over millions of years, and just gets on with it as quickly and effectively as you can manage to let it, by a kind of getting out of your own way.

    I’ve a friend living over in Amsterdam, no Dutch, underconfident in language learning, working in an Anglophone international organisation, wants to shift something. I’d like to try some straight through stuff with SSI with a language I don’t know at all – I was thinking I might do the 7 available Level 1 Dutch challenges one weekend in February, with my friend doing the same thing on the same weekend, and some Skyping in our new Dutch here and there with each other.

    Have you any thoughts on particularly effective strategies for mutual support with accelerated learning? And do you happen to know if more of Dutch level 1 will be available anytime soon – or might we as well go with what there is, for now?

    Diolch am bopeth, un waith eto!

    • It would be interesting to hear how it would feel if you went back through the last couple of Japanese lessons you did – I suspect that you’d find the first half hour or so painful, but then it would get back up to speed – although of course it’s dependent in part on how carefully the material revisits all the content, which is something the MT ‘Method’ courses I’ve looked at aren’t always rock solid on.

      I know Louis is chomping at the bit to do more Dutch, and only being held back by the fact that the course creation tool is nearly ready (not much point pressing on without it) – but in practical terms, it’ll still be a few months yet before we’re actually publishing new material – and even when we do, the first 7 will still be of value – so in your place, I’d go for it…:-)

      Strategies for support – you’re already thinking of Skype – it might be good to make that a clear schedule – hour of work, ten minutes on Skype, etc – with the first few Skype sessions being devoted mostly, I would imagine, to English-medium therapy – if your friend hasn’t used this kind of material before, there’ll probably be a fair bit of resistance to making mistakes, and to pressing on with new material instead of revising, and the whole general emotional soup of not being in conscious control of the learning…:-)

      Good luck with it! I’ll look forward very much to hearing how it goes…:-)

  4. Greetings from Canada!

    I just started the Welsh course a few days ago (I’m on lesson 6) and I am truly amazed. I’ve done loads of different language courses (elementary, high school, and university level courses; Rosetta Stone, DVD language training, etc.) and all of them kind of sucked. In the case of school courses, they were all pretty boring and I still (even after 6 years of French) can’t speak any of the languages I’ve studied. I can get the gist of some things in those languages. But that’s only if I’m reading what’s being said. The only thing I can really say, with any confidence in those languages, is that “the girl eats bread” (or some variation thereof). Apparently, that is a fantastic starter sentence.

    Anyways…I learned more in 6 lessons (equivalent of 6 days) than I learned in 6 years.

    I would like to take a moment and cry at the failures of the Public Education system. Okay, I’m good.

    Seriously though, you guys are awesome. The lessons are interesting, I often come out of the lessons thinking “what the heck just happened” and then come back the next day now magically understanding what’s happening…until new stuff is introduced. Vicious circle, that.

    I’ve decided to give the no-repeat, learn a lot and possibly turn your brain to mush thing a try. I like challenges. So I’m off to do that now, but I wanted to say thank you for what you’re doing and for the fantastic course. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    Why oh why do I have to be so curious…

    • Thank you for your lovely comments – hugely appreciated!

      Ah yes, I’ve shed a few of those tears at the education system myself…:-) I’d love to hear how your experiments go – good luck!

      All the best,


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