Why Can’t You Draw The Face of a Penny? Understand the Reason and Learn Spanish Twice as Fast


Allow me to explain using a related problem.

Vocabulary lists in a run-of-the-mill Spanish textbook usually look something like the below, taken from real-world sources I won’t shame by naming:

  • La mano – the hand
  • El arbol – the tree
  • Las muñecas – the wrists
  • ¡Nos vemos mañana! – See you tomorrow!
  • Mande? – Sorry? Pardon? What did you say?
  • Ahorita vengo! – I’ll be back in a minute!

Pretty typical, right?

Sadly, this format is also priming students for failure.  Two reasons:

Spanish is listed first, so we’re training recognition.  If you want to be able to speak (produce) Spanish, you should list English first, then Spanish: cue and target.  For at least the first month, you will be translating from English in your head before most speaking.  Have your materials mimic this process, or you’re working backwards.

Incredibly, almost no textbooks get this ordering right.  If you train for recall, you get recognition automatically; if you train for recognition, recall is terrible, or as slow as molasses.

Think I’m exaggerating?  How many times have you handled or seen pennies and quarters in your life?  Tens of thousands of times?  Millions?  Try and draw both sides of either from memory.  Recognition does not = recall.  You have to train specifically for the latter.

A fixed list equals inflexible recall.  By illustration, answer this: what number is the letter “L” in the alphabet?  5th, 14th, which?  What is the third line of your national anthem?  Slow, isn’t it?  The answers depend on order — on the pieces before them acting as cues.  If you learn words in a fixed list, the preceding words act as a recall crutch for your target word.  You’ll eventually get it, but it’s plodding and haphazard.  This is a major problem.  This is also why, 10 years later, I can still sing (poorly) a few entire songs in Italian, but I could never recall those words independently for conversation.

We want RAM—random-access memory—where we can pull any word from memory quickly.

Mixing up flash cards accomplishes this, as does a software program like Anki or Duolingo (I advise), which does it automatically.

If you have a textbook with a fixed list, just practice doing them backwards and also in evens, odds, every-third item, etc.

¡Mucha suerte, ché!


If you like these shorter posts (as opposed to my longer, monster posts), please let me know in the comments and I’ll do more of them!

Posted on: June 19, 2014.

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81 comments on “Why Can’t You Draw The Face of a Penny? Understand the Reason and Learn Spanish Twice as Fast

  1. Hi Tim, a very insightful article! I had to read it a few times just to make sure I understood it. Any suggestions on how to use it further in practice would be great as a follow on article.


  2. I’ve used similar techniques to learn German as was living and working in the North of the country for an assignment last year. To a certain degree it does work a lot better – worth trying out.


  3. Hi Tim,

    really like the format of shorter posts, but please don´t stop having those super awesome guests write >1000 word Blog Posts over here. Those are some of the best articles i read online and i am really looking forward to seeing the next one being put up.

    Also love the podcast.

    Amazing how the brain can´t remember everyday things. Another example would be the colors of the Google Logo, which nobody seems to be able to recall once being asked without having the opportunity to looking them up.



  4. I do like articles that are able to pack as much useful information as possible into a small, easy to read post, although one of the main reasons i keep coming back to this blog is because of the really detailed in depth articles.

    Shorter posts are all good but I find it’s much more interesting to go really in depth on a particular topic rather than be presented with small snippets of information, but that’s just my preference. I’ve come to understand that if I visit this blog i’m gonna learn a lot about something that i’ll find really interesting.

    BTW i’m loving the podcasts


  5. Great with shorter posts Tim! I often put aside the longer posts for reading at a later time, and sometimes it results in me not reading them at all… =/ This bite-sized format suits me just fine though. Keep up the good work!


  6. Shorter posts would be nice to mix in as they’re packed with actionable items and can be more efficient for both you (Tim) and us (adoring fans).

    Keep them coming!



  7. Perfect and simple explanation of how to create knowledge. Repetition is how we learn things. If we can repeat whatever we’re learning in multiple different sequences, we then know we have mastered it.


  8. Hey Tim,

    Great article, and I completely agree with you.

    I didn’t realise this fact until I was studying Japanese in University. I was failing every vocabulary test which was thrown at me, because I could *only* recall the words if they were in the same order as I had studied them from the text book. Useless for tests, reading blocks of text, or general conversation.

    I know there is a difference between academic and practical learning, but for the sake of being able to perform for the tests, here’s what I did:

    – Took the vocabulary list from the textbook and wrote it in Excel in two different ways: Japanese first and English first (touching on your first point), with the translation (the “answer”) proceeding
    – Added an extra (blank) column between each word and its corresponding translation
    – Randomised the order of both lists about 5 times, printing it out each time to create a handout
    – Folded the “answer” column underneath the other two
    – Filled it the translation in the blank column, and checked it against the answer column

    This helped me go from failing the vocabulary tests, to acing them and being towards the higher end of the class. The method was so successful that I started selling the vocabulary handouts to other students so that they could do the same thing.

    I agree that Anki is an awesome program, but I didn’t find it as effective for training short term memory (although I did create decks for most of my vocabulary lists). I’m also a big fan of James Heisig’s books for remembering Japanese and Chinese characters. :)




  9. I completely agree with you Tim. Recently, I went to Mexico with the intent of practicing Spanish. However, I made the mistake of using notecards that go from Spanish to English to train. My recall was terrible to say the least. I’m currently practicing Mandarin Chinese, hoping that I can build up some tactics to learn languages faster. Eventually, I want to do a language challenge where I try to learn a language at a conversational level within a week. I will be sure to incorporate your notecards method into this challenge.

    -Shiv Gandhi


  10. This is really helpful and I enjoy the posts on this blog.I am thinking of going to my Aunt and ask her to teach me how to speak Spanish.

    Muchas Gracias!