In this episode, we are looking at two studies on the psychology of playing chess. Can we use their findings about the thinking processes of chess masters to help us acquire a foreign language?
Link to episode transcript.
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Hello, I'm Jacek Olender and this is PoLoop Angielski Podcast. For more materials for learners of English and the transcript of this episode, go to my website, poloopangielski.pl.
Last week was an excellent week. In fact, it was a milestone for me, because this podcast got its first 5,000 downloads. Yeah, 5,000 downloads in six months. What? Did you say that 5,000 is not that much? Did you say that Joe Rogan's podcast gets that in an hour? Well, you might be right. Still, it's not the number that matters, but the fact that the community of listeners to PoLoop Angielski Podcast is growing. So thank you very much because I know that some of those 5,000 downloads were made by you.
Anyway, let's move on to today's topic. Have you watched the Queen's Gambit on Netflix? Probably yes, it's not a new show, and it was very popular during the COVID pandemic. But if you haven't seen it yet, you definitely should. The series follows the life of a young orphaned girl named Beth Harmon, who is a chess prodigy. A prodigy a child who is unusually skillful or intelligent for their age. So Beth is a chess prodigy, and she rises through the ranks of the chess world while struggling with addictions, and other personal demons. I remember how the series brightened the gloomy days during the COVID pandemic. And when I saw the final episode, I made two important decisions. One was to follow Anya Taylor Joy's career. Anya played the main character in the story. And the second decision was to improve my chess playing skills. Implementing both decisions was relatively easy at first. So I started following Anya Taylor Joy on Instagram, and I also started playing chess online. Very quickly I became hooked. I mean, hooked on playing chess, of course, not following Anya's posts. Soon, I also came to a certain realisation. I became acutely aware that either the world of online chess is full of grandmasters who hone their skills on people like me before their serious tournaments, or, more probably, I simply suck at playing chess. After one particularly disappointing experience, a game lost to a 12-year-old Turkish boy, I confirmed my suspicion that the latter had to be true, and I decided to figure out what could make me a better player. What I found out hasn't made me a champion in chess yet, but it has taught me something about learning a foreign language, which of course, I'm going to share with you today.
So, in the 1960s, a psychologist who also happened to be a Dutch chess master, Adrianus Dingeman de Groot, I hope I didn't butcher his name too much, examined the thought processes and decision making strategies of expert and novice chess players. Interestingly, finding differences between chess masters, and less skilled players was not easy. Mr Groot first thought that masters must have some kind of extraordinary working memory that enabled them to consider more moves in advance, but it turned out to be not true. So he ran one experiment after another, and finally, those experiments revealed something about what it takes to be a chess master. And to understand what it is, let me describe the experiment. So, de Groot showed masters and weaker players, a chessboard on which the pieces were configured as they might be in the middle of a real game. After about five seconds, the psychologist removed the pieces from the board and asked the players to put them back on the board exactly as they had just seen them. Chess masters were brilliant at the task, but ordinary players struggled. So far, nothing surprising, you might say, but wait till you hear what happened during the second experiment. This time, de Groot showed masters and weaker players a second board, on which the chess pieces were put randomly. So the board didn't show any actual game in progress. And what happened this time? The chess masters were just as bad as ordinary players at reconstructing the random boards. It turned out that chess masters didn't have supernatural memories. But they were better at recreating the chess situations that they might have seen in the past in actual games.
In 1973, two other cognitive psychologists, William Chase and Herbert Simon tried to get a better understanding of this masters' skill. They invited a chess master and a weaker player to a lab to play chess. Then the researchers put in front of them two boards. To the left was a board depicting a realistic mid-game scenario. And to the right, a blank board. The task was simple. Both players were asked to put the pieces on the empty board in the same spots as on the board on the left. The researchers found that the better the chess player was, the fewer glances he needed at the board on the left to reconstruct the pieces on the empty board. With fewer glances, masters were able to complete the task much faster than novices. Masters were basically better at chunking the pieces into meaningful groups and evaluating the relationships between the pieces on the board. By doing this, they had fewer separate pieces of information to hold in their working memory. In other words, they quickly saw patterns, and they were able to recreate them on the empty boards.
Okay, so now what do these experiments have to do with learning a foreign language? Well, they show that chess masters' superior performance is not due to having exceptional memories, but instead their ability comes from recognising realistic game situations. Why were they able to recognise them? Because they could see the patterns. Less skilled players can't do this trick because they haven't had enough practice. And language learning is also about recognising patterns, grammatical, lexical, and phonetic. When we use the language, we sort of practice playing the game of communication. The more we play, the better we are at seeing and using chunks. We don't focus on individual pieces, words, phonemes, and individual grammar rules, but we are able to absorb all of them holistically. So we can become masters only if we are playing real games, and not just observing random pieces on the board. That's why we should focus more on listening and reading authentic materials instead of memorising, for example, lists of random disconnected words or doing grammar exercises in which a grammar rule is practised in isolation. The more we expose ourselves to English in our lives, the less we need to rely on memorising words, and grammar rules. Just like chess masters, don't focus on individual pieces, but start seeing the big picture. Pay attention to the context in which phrases, collocations and idioms come up instead of memorising single words. Keep practising. And don't be afraid to make mistakes, because that's how we learn. And this is another important lesson we can learn from chess masters - the importance of analysing your own mistakes. When chess masters lose a game, they don't just shrug it off and move on. They go back and analyse what went wrong. They try to figure out what went wrong and how they can improve. That's why having feedback is important. And this feedback can come from a teacher who can guide you and practice with you playing the game in such a way that you can avoid making the same mistake in the future.
So to conclude, learning a foreign language is a lot like playing chess. Both require practice, pattern recognition, analysis of mistakes and, I almost forgot. If you want to become a real grandmaster, you must have fun with it. So learning a language should be an enjoyable experience. So find materials that interests you. Hope this podcast is one of them. Keep playing the language game and you'll soon be speaking like a pro. Thanks for listening and I'll speak to you next week. Bye.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai