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!

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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94 Replies to “Why Can't You Draw The Face of a Penny? Understand the Reason and Learn Spanish Twice as Fast”

  1. Memrise is also an amazing app for learning languages. I’ve found the ability to take my learning offline wherever I go much more useful than Duolingo and the whole ecosystem is much more refined than anki.

    1. 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.

    1. My biggest problem with languages is that I’m very hard of hearing, so I have particular difficulty distinguishing the new sounds. Any suggestions in that area?

    2. 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!

  2. While I was reading your post, a “dictionary data-structure” was popping into my head. We need an “inverted index”. Cool!!!

  3. 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.

  4. Exactly!!! This simple trick is one of the primary reasons I’ve been able to accelerate my progress in Japanese! Try it–you’ll like it, people. 🙂

  5. 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…

      1. 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).

      2. “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”

  6. Great tip!

    Any other quick bites like this related to language learning that maximize time invested?

      1. In already a few short days since implementing this, I can notice a difference in language acquisition!

  7. 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.

    1. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  10. ¡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?


  11. 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.

  12. 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

  13. 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?

  14. If you’re looking for a really efficient app to learn quickly I can suggest you MosaLingua It’s a good way to learn quickly the 20% that you’ll use 80% of time. And cards are in the recall way.

  15. 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.

  16. I agree! I actually created a Spanish verb study app based on this principle a while ago. It’s free in the Android store – search for “Top 10 Spanish Verbs.”

  17. Sweet tips Tim! Definitely going to use this shizz when I’m learning spanish. Pretty cool to see how (obsessed/interested) you are with improving your learning speed. I sometimes wonder where that inclination comes from.

    Anyway, good post!

    Take care!

  18. Fantastic tips! I’m trying to learn a combination of Japanese and Trinidadian, mixed with a little Spanish. It’s a new language I’m inventing for the purpose of starting my own country. Yeah, it’s a new concept that’s going to replace entrepreneurship within the next twenty years. I’m going to call my new country Unztripleydadidio, or something equally unpronounceable.

    Maybe you could advise Duolingo to to add my new language to their curriculum when it’s done? That’d be great, thanks!

  19. anki is awesome and worth the expensive $25 price tag for Apple iPhone users. I practice with about 150 cards a day for 20-25 minutes and it is really helping out in my Spanish conversations.

  20. I’m going to write in Spanish!

    ¡Excelente post!

    ¡Siempre me pregunté lo mismo!

    (Back to English)

    The best way to learn ANY language is by immersion.

    So, if you want to learn Spanish, start watching Spanish (speaking) movies, listen to Spanish music and read Spanish stuff (press, as a start, then books).

    One last thing, don’t go back to the dictionary for every unknown word. Try to get it by context either!

  21. Translating from your native language is never a good strategy, one I work very hard to make my students unlearn. The best way would be not to acquire it in the first place. In today’s world with a wealth of audio, video, print, music and native speakers themselves available virtually anywhere in the world, there is no excuse to learn from vocabulary lists. And maybe reversing them would produce better results, but not learning from them makes all the difference in the world. They are there for reference, not practice. Try food shopping in Paris and see how fast you will learn your fruits and vegetables. How about buying shoes in Spain? Your linguistic recall will skyrocket once comfort and beauty of your own feet are at stake. Not abroad yet? I notice that even in the classroom, when students are asked to act out a scene in a cafe, they take on their roles right away and before you know it that rude waiter or a dissatisfied customer find their words once the situation demands self-expression, in other words, there is a burning desire inside. As some people have commented here, use pictures etc for vocab, and once you are into abstract concepts, you probably know enough to understand definitions in the target language.

    Thank you, Tim so much for your posts, they are always a pleasure to read. I, selfishly, prefer the long ones for the above reason, but whatever you have time and energy for is fantastic.

  22. Hey, Tim. The length of this post is great. To be honest, the materials are so good that the length does not determine whether I’d read it or not. It determines when I’d read. If it’s short I can get it out of the way quicker, if it’s long I’d save it for later. Thank you for all your info-sharing.

  23. I like the short posts as well! I think it would be good to ask people ‘short vs. monster’ somewhere more visible.

    Just curiosity, which song was the Italian one?

  24. I enjoy these short posts because they are specific and actionable. The longer posts are very thought-provoking, but sometimes the amount of content presented along with all the links to further reading, is overwhelming.

  25. Hi there Tim!

    Short post are easy and fast to read (of such usefulness, discovery, and actability), and they leave a hunger for more (like when you eat one cheeseburger for lunch).

    You have many tips and tricks and other useful information about a few topics. How about aggregating some posts like this? (like, 3 of them on the same topic)

    Cheers to you, Tim!

  26. Love the shorter post. Definitely want to see more bite size posts on language learning. Most of all, I love that this post was 100% written by Tim. Don’t get me wrong, the guest posts are great. But sometimes it seems like 90% of the updates are guest posts or interviews. Nice to see a Tim Ferriss original.

  27. Why does the 4HWW blog always boot me off the subscribers list? Is it something I said? If so, I apologize wholeheartedly.

    Seriously though, I’ve subscribed 3 or 4 times now and each time I get a couple of posts and then nada (that’s Spanish for jack squat). Perhaps others are having the same issue.

    Thanks and all the best.

  28. Great post, Tim! I didn’t know you were involved with Duolingo when I started the program, but now it makes perfect sense! I’ve studied several languages, but it’s always a struggle, and I always thought “It’s supposed to be hard!” but with Duolingo I found out that it doesn’t HAVE to be hard. Sure, nothing replaces immersion experiences, but since most people can’t travel constantly, Duolingo is the next best thing.

  29. Hi Tim,

    I’d like to see more of this kind of short post, please 😉

    Some years ago I learned Spanish at university, it was all vocab lists and grammar. They poured this language into us in 4 months. I have a certificate at home that says I’m able to study at a university in any Spanish speaking country. The only thing is that, as soon as I had learned it all and was able to talk about politics, philosophy, history, I started to forget again, despite continuing my Spanish studies. Now, with a few years of not using my Spanish, it’s nearly gone from my memory. I can recognise quite a lot of words, but that’s it. No speaking at all. I think that proves your point.

    On the other hand, I’m currently living in Poland and was hoping that I would absorb the language with the air somehow. I thought that I just have to be exposed to the language every day to learn it. Didn’t happen. I became very good at reading people’s body language and at guessing though.

    I re-learned some of my Spanish now with Duolingo, I think it’s the best method so far! Visuals, sounds, along with translations. Pure immersion (like Rosetta Stone) doesn’t work very well for me. It’s slow, and I’m able to repeat beautiful sentences, but I can hardly use the words in another context. And I didn’t learn much for everyday conversation here in Poland in level 1 Polish, then I lost my enthusiasm (after a lot of hours in front of the computer and repeating stuff about red flowers and sleeping cats).

    I love the funny sentences in Duolingo, it makes the words stick to my memory. Now I’m patiently waiting for the Duolingo Polish course…

    Greetings from Warsaw!

  30. I definitely like the shorter post, Tim. Long form content is great, but when I’m scanning my RSS I’m expecting to read a lot of shorter articles more quickly, the result being that longer ones go unread or wait for a long time.

  31. As I work on my muse, I realize that this reversal of learning a language can be applied directly to the course I am creating. Thanks Tim. It isn’t just for languages, but other areas you will need Random Access Memory. Nice.

  32. Always love the language posts. Love Duolingo and would like to hear more about it from you and/or your connections

  33. Great recommendations as always, Tim! Duolingo is very addicting, I love it! Let’s take it one step further and create an app that will have conversations with you and correct your grammar!

  34. I enjoy the long posts, but it’s also nice to have frequent content as well (especially content that isn’t a video or audio file).

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.



  38. Tim, I like the shorter posts on subjects like this. I can read them at work in between tasks. Keep up the good work!

  39. 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

  40. 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!

  41. 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!


  42. 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.

  43. 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. 🙂



  44. Would this work with flash cards where you have english word on one side and the spanish word on the other side?

  45. 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

  46. I like these shorter posts myself because I can read them quickly. However, the occasional long post is good as well.

  47. I love Duolingo and short posts. Getting information concise and correct is great. Thanks for the books and the Blog Tim!

  48. 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!

  49. I have been trying to learn spanish via memorising words. I can say it is working. Anybody who interested in learning Spanish can memorise spanish words.

  50. Thank-you for this post. I’ve been developing a Chinese Hack program (mainly based of your language learning suggestions and your guest posts) – I’ve been debating on whether to put the Chinese first or English first, this solves that question. THANK YOU!

    Kenneth 蘇學進 Shupe

    “The Running Man”

  51. Great and simple advice! Never thought of lists this way. Indeed, I do this in teaching myself Spanish…and am only able to remember definitions of words because of whatever word came before it. Thanks for mixing it up!

  52. “Che” is monosyllabic, so it doesn’t carry an accent 🙂

    Accents are using on monosyllabic words only when there homophones with different meanings: te and té -pronoun and beverage- “de” (genitive) and “dé” (subjunctive of verb to give) “el” (article the) and “él” (him).

    But you know this…

    You blog is GREAT, by the way. Thanks a lot for it.

  53. Hi, Tim. I’m looking for the language form you had, which shows you how a language is built up. I saw you hold it in front of the camera when you talked about a guy who’d learnt 70 or so languages by translating a text from the bible? Can you help me out?

    Best, Martin

  54. yeah man. Short posts are very much appreciated than the long ones as it acts as instant food-for-the-brain and going through lengthy posts is tiring. No offense!

  55. I want to abstract this thought, “Recall encompasses Recognition,” to the realm of learning/teaching Argentine tango, for which I know you have had an interest (and world record). So it would seem to be going from the Known as the Cue to recall the Target or the thing we want to learn. And by recalling the target we will also come to recognize it and its meaning?

    One school of thought, and the way it’s typically taught, is to learn patterns/choreography. Then the student can be taught to recognize that such patterns are composed of many atomic elements that can be substituted or rearranged.

    Or, do we go from atomic moves we know, such as how many different ways might you pass a person in a narrow corridor, and that leads to understanding Open, Front-cross, and Back-cross steps. From there we begin to recognize how they can be combined?

  56. Tim, thanks for sharing! This method worked for me. I moved from Ukraine to US in 2002 and I was working on expanding my vocabulary. I memorized several words a day. I read a word in my native language first and then English translation. It helped me to connect the word in my language and the related associations (memories, emotions, events from the past, etc.) with the new word in English so it was remembered on multiple levels. Once I new about 3,000 words I could hold a basic conversation. I started watching TV shows in English and wrote down words that I didn’t know and translated them later. Those were times when we didn’t have smart phones. 🙂 I used dictionaries or PC. I traveled to Spanish speaking country recently and I took a few Fluencia.com lessons prior to that to be able to say basic things. The system was great for me. I would highly recommend it to someone who already learned at least one foreign language. That type of people became less relying on particular language and rely more on associations. They kinda in between languages. It is true that with 2,500 to 3,000 words a person can have descent conversations. Make it your morning routine, memorize several words. “Compound effect” works… Good luck!

  57. Do you have any tips on teaching Spanish to a childrens class. I cant find anything on that and I think itd be very helpful.