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.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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

    • Yeah I’ve been using Memrise for quite some time now and I love the offline implementation for using it on my tablet (so I can study on the plane for example without paying for wi-fi). It also switches things up so sometimes you get the English first and sometimes you get the Spanish first. And with automated decisions for how frequently they review things with you it saves you from having to decide how well you know something like with Anki. Plus the Anki decks are not very good in Spanish from what I’ve seen.

      But to go beyond Memrise, I also really love Lingq. The listening on there is essential. Plus it gives you context with things so you can learn more real life situations when you are ready for that. Sadly the mobile version of LIngq is not very good so you have to do it when in front of a computer to get the full benefit.


    • As a multilingual speaker living in France and working in France, I am sad to say the French pronunciation is pretty dreadful, and not just on one occasion. Make sure you are doing other things to work on your pronunciation is my advice!


  1. Just started duolingo this morning, its incredibly easy to learn. Ive yelling at people in German all day :) I have never been able to pick up languages this fast before. Doulingo is a game changer.


  2. Going from the English word to the Spanish word is entirely self-defeating. It makes it 10X more difficult to become fluent as your mind will always be making that word to word correspondence — slowing you down. Much better to just have a picture and the Spanish and a pronunciation available with one click. If you do the English-Spanish thing, you will, at best, speak in a halting manner.

    Now a days, there is never a reason to look up the English equivalent for a Spanish word. Just Google the Spanish word and select Images. You will get the idea; but if you don’t just go on to the next word and keep on doing as many as possible. There are perfectly free ways to become fluent on the Internet very quickly; the key is NEVER to work from you maternal language.

    Listen and repeat from newsinslowspanish.com ; you know what the news is, you will get the idea and be fluent in no time. Just keep on moving…


      • Watch the Argentine animated movie “Metegol” for an excellent taste of Porteno Spanish…also, it’s a well-made and highly entertaining movie (about a foozball game that comes to life).


      • “Che” is roughly the same as “dude” or “man” in english, just that the argentinians use it waaaay more often

        and “Boludo” means “ballsy” ;) there is an equivalent to that in EVERY south american country. In Venezuela, Colombia and Chile is “Huevón”


  3. Che, el problema de la mayoria de la gente es reconocer o producir? When I was learning Spanish, speaking (producing) was pretty easy for me. But listening (recognizing) that crazy Porteño accent was tough. I needed to recognize, so your suggestion wouldn’t have helped me.


    • When it comes to listening I found that the FSI Spanish Course was helpful for getting down specific pronunciations, even if it was not the most interesting material. But also Lingq is great for listening because they have a lot of different courses at various speeds so you can slowly pick up on the way proper pronunciation sounds. From what I can tell both the FSI and Lingq courses sound accurate. The FSI course especially drills pronunciation into your head in ways you don’t get anywhere else.


  4. Totally agree with all of this (a dice is great by the way, to mix it up when learning verbs – 1st, 2nd, 3rd person singular and plural – and put in another dice to dictate up to six tenses) but I have to say I’ve been very disappointed with Duolinguo’s pronunciation for French, les mains pronounced as le vin for instance. That’s a pretty big difference, especially in French, which requires such strict pronunciation. I much prefer memrise, as other people have recommended, as you can customise it with your own lists and it is not teaching you to mispronounce words.


  5. Hi Tim,
    For me this is a brilliant observation. I learned to speak French by working in the French language over the last 3 years. I am involved in often high level business and sales negotiation and this has not been easy when it is not my first language. On reflection I can see that my learning is based on recall of the usage of the right words and concepts and not recognition. Thanks again for making it easier for me to understand my own process of learning and help me apply it to the learning of a 3rd language. I will pass on your ideas with credit to you Tim. All the best, David


  6. ¡Buenos observaciones, Che! No puedo creer nunca me realiza este concepto antes- es porque siempre leo tus mensajes; que filoso eres, gracias! Estoy disfrutando mucho tus podcasts espero buenas cosas para ti…

    Yo aprendí español en un mes en Guatemala usando tus ideas, que dulce esta vida, no?



  7. Cool, I have almost the same list of rules for memory in general. The differenece is a third additional rule, which is “don’t worry about extra steps”. If you recall in a chain of “cue – association – target”, or even “cue – association – association – target”, it’s no big deal, your brain will eliminate extra steps over repetitions (which is a cool neurophisiological story in itself, but I’ll leave that one out). That’s why “mems” on memrise work so well.
    Not thinking enough about direction (recall/recognition problem) and thinking too much about extra steps are two biggest fallacies of traditional approach to memorization. Eliminating those two is a true 80/20 endeavour.


  8. Great summary, Tim! Do you think recognition practice is also useless if not using native words but illustrations instead (e.g.: ‘picture of the apple’ – la manzana)? Apps like Learn Invisible and Mirai do this.

    Yes, recognition is much easier and has less practical value than recall but isn’t it beneficial for building momentum, reward and a stronger bond towards recall? #graduallearning


  9. I’ve come to this same conclusion with my studies in Japanese. But how would you able this idea beyond the most basic words? Once your vocabulary goes beyond say 2000 words, words after that become more complex, have similar meanings, only work in certain contexts and become more abstract. Any ideas?


  10. Thanks!

    Just when I was about to give up learning Spanish in preparation of a trip.
    Well… the main reason I was about to quit, I assume, is because I’m in the wrong environment.
    No pressure to learn, social accountability or other incentives, e.g. the excitement of speaking to native speakers = Boring process = Quit.