Overheard at Toastmasters

At an evaluation contest yesterday:

To make your speech even better, you should work on the preciseness of your language…

Needless to say, for the rest of the meeting I could barely concentrate – too busy reliving that moment and savouring the perfect irony!

Three ways to optimise your language learning

Learning a second (or third!) language is a fantastic experience, and opens the door to a host of experiences you otherwise would have missed. But the learning process is both tough and time-consuming. So, unabashedly revelling in my economist nature, I’ve got three tips for you to optimise your language learning – saving you both time and effort.

  1. Doch indeedGrab yourself a frequency dictionary early on in the language learning process. As implied by the name, a frequency dictionary lists the most commonly used words in a language, enabling you to focus your attentions on increasing your vocabulary in ways that will quickly yield big dividends. Do note, however, that a frequency dictionary is not a substitute for a normal dictionary – you should definitely buy both.
  2. Speak the language you are learning. Find as many opportunities as you can – with a native speaker if possible. Meetup.com is the perfect place to look for fellow language learners, and universities often have casual conversation groups you can attend. One vital piece of advice, though: it’s not enough just to go to the group and listen to other people. You’ll start seeing big gains only when you step up and join in the conversations yourself. And yes, that means you are going to make mistakes – that’s an unavoidable part of the process. Plus, although those gaffs are slightly embarrassing at the time, they make for great stories later…
  3. Practice every day. It’s tempting, particularly for the time-poor among us, to think that putting in an hour of practice twice a week will be much better than doing 15 minutes per day. Unfortunately, two things work against this: diminishing returns, and human nature. Diminishing returns means that your ability to concentrate on language learning will decline after about 15-20 minutes – so it’s better to do a lot of short, separate practice sessions rather than one long stint. And humans like patterns and routine – it will be a lot easier to stick to a commitment to practice every single day rather than a more flexible schedule. To help me with this, I use an app called Streaks – it’s amazing what lengths you find yourself going to in order to avoid breaking your perfect run of days!

Hopefully those three points help take your language learning to a whole new level! If you liked this post, Lingholic also have a list of the best language self-study methods available.

Uninterested vs disinterested – a battle for meaning

Introduction to pedantry

Disinterested in the dictionary

When it comes to English, I am not a die-hard prescriptivist – my father is, heaven help him – but certain mistakes irk me disproportionately. Examples include affect/effect, could care less, and etcetera being pronounced as though the first syllable were ‘eck’. To be fair, although they annoy me I am still willing to forgive, as I’m convinced that they stem less from laziness as from a lack of familiarity with the minutiae of the language.

Nonetheless, my irritation must have an outlet, so today’s post concerns one of those incredibly widespread and unkillable errors: the conflation of ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’.

Before we get into the details, I have a rule of thumb for success to share with you. If you are not sure which one to use, always use ‘uninterested’, and 90% of the time you will be correct. To a large extent, this is because ‘uninterested’ is one of the easiest ways to express the sentiment intended by the word, whereas ‘disinterested’ (used correctly) could easily be replaced with a better word. If that’s enough for you, great, otherwise keep reading for the definitions of the two words.


‘Uninterested’ means ‘lacking an interest in something’, as in: he was completely uninterested in her justification.

‘Disinterested’ means ‘not influenced by considerations of personal advantage’ – i.e. impartial. As in: he was chosen as a judge as he was perceived to be disinterested in the case.

Two different meanings, expressing two different concepts.

Is all hope lost?

Unfortunately we are at the point where the two are so often interchanged that dictionaries have started to list ‘lacking an interest in something’ as a secondary definition for ‘disinterested’. Perhaps this battle therefore has a foregone conclusion, but I hope that you, gentle reader, will stand with me in defence of this (and other) useful distinctions in English.

Vocabulary and signalling

Before we start, go and check out this link: Test Your Vocabulary.Daniel's known vocabulary (from the site)

As an economist, anything with a sample size in the millions (!) has me drooling, even if a test administered over the internet is going to be unavoidably biased. The idea behind what they’re doing – constructing a measure to predict someone’s vocabulary from observable characteristics – will, if nothing else, highlight any flaws in tests like the SATs in the United States.

Tests such as the SAT and GRE aim to measure how likely an individual is to succeed at university study. Evidently, success is related to factors such as discipline, intelligence, existing knowledge, etc., all of which are difficult to measure. Instead, the tests shoot for something easier: vocabulary size. The underlying assumption is that individuals with larger vocabularies will be smarter, harder working, more knowledgeable – in short, possess a larger dose of the unobservable qualities that make for a good university student.

Trouble is, it’s widely known that these tests feature a vocabulary component. Individuals who therefore are not the best cut out for university can attempt to appear as though they are by developing their vocabularies specifically to ace these tests. To spell it out more clearly: universities want a certain calibre of student, which they attempt to identify. Individuals who are not in this group can still falsely signal that they are by improving their abilities to score high marks in the test (rather than actually improving their general abilities and hence moving into the group of desired students).

The data from the ‘test your vocab’ site might help to shed some light on this – it’s a lot harder to fake your abilities in the real world, so the correlation between vocabulary and earnings (a much better proxy for ability, but one which is typically observed after an individual has concluded their studies) will show whether knowing lots of words is a good signal for general intelligence.

Secondly, it will also be interesting to discover some of the good predictors of vocabulary size. Using vocabulary as a proxy for ability isn’t much good if some demographic characteristic (e.g. ethnicity or socioeconomic status) is a stronger determinant of it than underlying capability for success. For the record, that’s my bet. I’m not willing to throw vocabulary out entirely as a proxy for ability, but I predict that it is actually a much less accurate measure than universities hope.