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Intensive VS Extensive Reading – Is there a silver bullet for language learning?

I occasionally see arguments being made regarding language learning that extensive reading is better for you than intensive reading, or vice versa. Often it might be backed up by a personal anecdote, such as “I was doing intensive reading for AGES and I didn’t make any progress at all! Then when I switched to extensive reading, my reading ability shot through the roof!”

But this is not really an article about reading. It’s more about different study methods, and why you shouldn’t necessarily listen to anyone who tells you “you should do THIS and not THAT”. Let’s look at intensive and extensive reading as an example of this.

Intensive Reading – Involves carefully and methodically reading a passage for the purpose of comprehension. May involve looking up words or grammar. Is usually very slow and takes a long time to progress very far in the text.

Extensive Reading – Involves reading text quickly, with little concern for complete understanding. It doesn’t matter whether you know all the details as long as you can see the big picture. There is no time for things like looking up words in a dictionary, you just want to get to the end.

So, which of these reading methods do you think is better? It’s apples to oranges, isn’t it?! It’s not really possible for one to be “better” than the other, because they are fundamentally different things with different goals and objectives. Will intensive reading help you learn a language? YES! Will extensive reading help you learn a language? YES!

Okay, so some things will work better for some people, and some things will work better for other people. Article over, right? Nope, because that’s not my point here at all. I don’t believe that it’s simply a matter of “this works better for me, so I will just do this”. Rather, it’s a matter of cross-training. Being well-rounded and ensuring that you get plenty of practice and experience in ALL aspects of the language.

Thinking about intensive reading and extensive reading, it might seem that they are two completely different things. One of them can train certain skills, and the other can train other skills. But they aren’t actually completely separate. They are actually linked in certain ways that compliment each other. Doing a lot of extensive reading can be a big benefit to you when you are reading intensively, and intensive reading can also benefit you when you decide to do extensive reading. How is this?

Well, let’s imagine a scenario in which you have been focusing solely on intensive reading for a while. You are learning a lot of new words all the time, and you pride yourself on being able to fully understand the stories that you are reading. But, no matter how long you do this, you are still coming across a never-ending list of new words, like an insurmountable wall. Despite still learning new things, it feels like you aren’t making much progress, and your reading speed is really slow as well!

So now you switch to extensive reading. In a short time, you notice a massive improvement in your reading speed. You start to realize that some words just don’t really matter all that much, and probably aren’t worth your time to stop and look them up. You will probably come across them again at some point, after all. You make it through a book ten times faster than you ever would have before, and it feels great!

Now at this point, if you were the hypothetical person that I mentioned in the first paragraph, perhaps you have come to the conclusion that extensive reading is the way to go, and you were doing it wrong all along up until now, so you go on some forum and try to spread the gospel of extensive reading. But the only problem is, your extensive reading progress did not occur in a vacuum. You had built up a tremendous amount of knowledge through intensive reading, but had neglected certain skills. When you begin to practice through extensive reading, those skills would quickly be brought up to par because they are building upon what you already have. If you had originally started out purely with extensive reading, then you likely would not have made progress as quickly, and you would have run into other sorts of problems. For instance, most of the words that you encounter could go unlearned even after numerous encounters with them, or you might have feelings of being completely lost because you don’t comprehend a single thing you are reading.

It all contributes to your overall understanding of the language. If you focus on one area, then you are going to get better at that one thing, and you are still going to suck in other areas. But even training in just one area still increases your overall ability. So if you later go out and focus on an entirely different aspect of the language, you aren’t starting from scratch, you are starting from a solid foundation.

If you have followed some of the posts I have made on this blog, you might know that when I originally started this blog, I had real issues with my Japanese listening ability. I had done very little practice in this area, despite the fact that I had learned tons of words and grammar. So I began doing some extensive practice with Japanesepod101.com, and I saw huge noticeable changes in my listening ability. Some might look at this sort of progress and say “Wow! Japanesepod101.com must be the best way to learn Japanese! Look how fast I’m improving!” But honestly, Japanesepod101.com is not just some amazing resource that will take anyone from zero to hero. The fact is, I was already fairly decent at Japanese, but my listening ability just sucked donkey-butt. Because I had a strong foundation to work from, that’s why I was able to improve my listening ability rather quickly. By the time I started reaching more difficult lessons in Japanesepod101.com that are more in line with my actual overall ability, my listening gains started slowing down a lot.

I think a good analogy for this is the Olympic games. Michael Phelps set an amazing record of winning 8 gold medals during the 2008 summer Olympics! And he has won 22 Olympic medals in total! But… those medals were all for swimming. Because of the similarity between events, there is a very large amount of transferable skill from one event to another. What I mean is, getting a medal in both the 100m butterfly and the 200m butterfly is quite different than say, getting medals both in fencing and archery.

With learning a language, the different facets like input & output, speaking & reading, etc, are all interconnected. You aren’t going for gold medals in totally separate events, you are just training to be well-rounded in different facets of one overall thing. You can’t JUST read, or JUST have conversations, or JUST do Anki reviews. You’ve got to cross-train in everything, and each individual aspect that you get better at will simultaneously help you to get better at all the others.

And if you suddenly change up your study methods and you find that you are making much better progress, that doesn’t mean that you’ve found a better study method, it just means that you’ve found your weak spot.

 

4 Month Progress Report

Four months ago, I started up this blog, with the intention of using it to somewhat hold myself accountable for making progress forward in my Japanese studies. In my first post, I explained how I felt about the current state of things at that time, and how I was planning to make progress.

So now, looking back on things four months later, where do I stand? Have I grown, or remained stagnant?

One of my primary goals was to get better at understanding normal Japanese conversations and being able to talk to people. I began using JapanesePod101.com as one of my primary learning tools. Starting out, I was listening around 35 hours per week. However, I have had to slow that down significantly for two reasons. For one, my job now requires a lot more mental concentration than it did at that time, and the level of difficulty of the audio lessons I am listening to now also require a much higher level of mental concentration than the easier lessons I was working through back then. And two, my anki reviews for the JapanesePod101.com material were growing a bit too large with the amount of material I was adding daily. So I am doing about 1-2 lessons per day on average now.

In terms of my listening comprehension ability, it has definitely increased from the level it was at before. Of course, it’s impossible to measure objectively, but I feel like my listening ability has improved somewhere between 50-100%. In terms of the JapanesePod101.com dialogs, I am able to understand “newbie” series dialogs effortlessly. I am able to understand “beginner” series dialogs as long as I focus. And I am able to mostly follow along with “lower intermediate” dialogs as long as I am listening intently, but still have difficulty catching everything at full speed.

In terms of my speaking ability, I feel like it has improved very little, if at all. This does not surprise me much, as I have not practiced it much.

For reading, I really feel like my reading speed and comprehension has improved a lot since I began going through Little Charo. I do a quick read through while playing the game, without worrying about full comprehension or looking up words. Then my intention is to go back later, and read through the scripts while trying to understand everything, and add useful words and phrases into anki. However, this part has proved to be considerably time consuming, and I have fallen behind in it. For longer episodes, I am considering only doing a thorough review of parts of the text that contain my frequently used vocabulary words. Then later on at some point in the future, I may come back through and do “full” readings of those episodes.

All in all, I’m mostly happy with the progress that I have made in the past four months. I have created around 1200 new anki cards in that time, which is about 10 per day. The one big thing that I am disappointed in is my writing/speaking ability. I really struggle with expressing myself in Japanese. I definitely have the ability to practice it, but I have chosen not too. It’s very time consuming for me, not to mention extremely mentally taxing, so if I focused more on that then I would definitely have to drop off either Little Charo or JapanesePod101.com. And I really don’t want to lose my momentum on those things. My plan is that once I finish one of those, then I will move on to focus heavily on writing practice at that time. I wonder if a well-rounded plan might be superior to focusing on just a couple of things? But it just feels like there is not enough time in the day nor enough motivation to do EVERYTHING.

A trip to Japan is coming up in August, so maybe I really ought to make the speaking/writing practice a priority right now. We’ll see.

A Thought Experiment

Do you find that your output ability lags far behind your recognition ability? If you spend a lot of time reading, listening, or reviewing recognition cards in your SRS, but you rarely speak or write, then you will probably find this to be true. The best way to increase your ability to output Japanese is simply to practice output! A lot of people (me included) may avoid output as much as possible. There are a lot of reasons, but I think the main ones are typically: 1) It can be difficult and time consuming, and 2) You don’t want to interact with others.

Well, what if I told you that there is a way that you can practice your output without using up any extra time out of your schedule and without interacting with others? With a simple exercise that anyone can do, there are no more excuses for avoiding output!

Don’t Be Scared of Output

But first of all, let’s clear something up. Output is not going to hurt you. Some people have this idea that trying to output before they have become masters at the language will somehow hurt them in the long run. I seriously can not even begin to follow the logic behind this reasoning, but the argument I typically hear seems to go along the lines of “you risk creating incorrect output, and then getting it so ingrained into your mind that it becomes habit, and then for some unexplained reason, you will forever be unable to correct this habit.”

I don’t care how much input you consume, and how long you wait before outputting anything. You will make mistakes. Just stop and think about how many mistakes you probably make on a daily basis in your own native language. How many mistakes are in this very article? If I can’t even speak my own language without making errors, then I sure as heck am never going to speak a second language without errors! And that’s just the point! We don’t have to be error free. The point of a language is simply being able to communicate ideas. If our message gets across, then we have hit the main target. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake!

Furthermore, the benefits of output are enormous. By actively trying to recall words and phrases rather than simply recognizing them, we create new paths to this data in our brains, and we strengthen existing paths. This lets us access the data easier and faster. It’s also the best way of practicing grammar. Just look at it this way: when you were studying mathematics in school, what was more beneficial, listening to a lecture from the teacher for 30 minutes, or actually working the practice problems?

After all, trying to produce output is the only way to be sure about whether you actually know something or not! As you go about this exercise and come across words or ideas that you don’t know how to express, or you are unsure whether or not you are expressing them correctly, try to make a mental note of it and then check up on them later. You might find that you are simply unable to remember a lot of words and phrases that you thought you knew. And that’s the key point here. By identifying those failures, it shows you what you need to study more. Don’t be afraid of failing—embrace it.

Narrate Your Life

My method of practicing output is quite simple. Just talk to yourself! You don’t have to literally speak out loud, just saying it in your mind is enough (although speaking aloud can be great practice as well!) Talk about what you are doing at any given moment during the day. Getting ready in in the morning? Describe everything you do, as you take a shower, brush your hair, eat breakfast, and so on. While going to school or work, describe the scenery that you pass by. Describe the tasks that you are doing at work. Describe exactly what you are doing as you operate a PC. Are you a daydreamer? Convert your thoughts to Japanese! Rehearsing a conversation in your mind? Try saying it in Japanese. Counting sheep to fall asleep? Count in Japanese. We all literally have so much time available during our lives when we may be physically busy, but we are mentally available. Don’t just let that all go to waste!

I don’t want to discount the positive impact that actually conversing with another human being can have. But sometimes, it just isn’t going to happen. Maybe you are shy, maybe you don’t have anyone to speak with, maybe you don’t have the time, or maybe time zones are a big factor in your ability to have a conversation partner. But whatever the reason, this might be the next best alternative, and there are no excuses to weasel your way out of it.

Unlock the power of your memory

Memory is a key component to learning any language. In fact, it pretty much all boils down to memorization. But are you using your memory effectively, or just wasting your time? This is a question that I sometimes find myself wondering about. In this post, I will talk about a variety of topics regarding memory, which I believe can be utilized for actually learning Japanese more effectively.

Amazing Mental Abilities

Human beings are capable of some absolutely amazing feats of memory. In recent years, people even pit their memories against each other in memory sports competitions, which involve things like memorizing a full deck of cards, or an incredibly long series of random digits. Having personally been involved in the hobby of Rubik’s Cube speed solving for a number of years, I was always most fascinated by some of the amazing blindfolded solving records. At the time of writing this, the world record for someone solving a Rubik’s cube blindfolded is 21.17 seconds. This includes both memorization of the entire cube and then solving it. You might think that quickly shoving something into short term memory in the course of a few seconds isn’t entirely relevant to what we are talking about here though. A fair assessment. But what if I told you that the same person who holds this record, also currently holds the “multiblind” record, in which he memorized and solved 41 cubes in under an hour–with all of the memorization done before the first cube was solved.

Your initial reaction to something like this might be that someone who can perform such a feat must be a genius or some kind of savant. But generally, these are just normal people. It’s not that their memory is better than your memory. They just know how to memorize better than you, and they have improved their skill through practice.

One of the most telling stories is that of Joshua Foer. He was a completely normal journalist who went to the USA Memory Championship to do an article on it. Becoming so enamored by the idea that anyone could learn the skills needed to memorize large amounts of information so quickly, he dedicated one year to learning it himself. He came back to the championship that next year, and emerged as the winner and new USA record holder in the “speed cards” event.

In historical times, a memory was an important thing. There were times before computers existed. Times before voice recorders. Times before pens and paper. In the matter of about a decade, phone numbers went from being a thing people were memorizing constantly, to things that that no longer needed to be committed to memory. Students in this day and age often wonder why they need to memorize anything, when they can find the answer on Google in a matter of seconds. Technology allows us to utilize our memories less and less. While that certainly has many benefits, it does unfortunately leave many of us in the position of not really knowing how to memorize things anymore.

So, why don’t we go through various techniques here, and think about how they might apply to learning a language.

Spaced Repetition

This is the main one for language learners, I think. And most people have caught on to it, so I’m not going to waste this article talking about it much. But essentially, by reviewing material at increasingly longer and longer intervals, we can strengthen the memories of that material with a minimal amount of time invested. It lets you learn more material in a shorter amount of time. Since learning a language involves committing such a huge amount of material to memory, efficiency is key. The utilization of spaced repetition software like Anki really ought to be a part of everyone’s study regimen. This thing alone probably leads to better long-term gains than any other item that I’ll talk about here, and unlike the others, there is nothing to learn other than the software itself. So in short, use spaced repetition.

Imaginative Memory

A well known technique for ages, it was brought to the forefront of Japanese study by James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji. With thousands of learners having completed the course and subsequently being able to write over 2000 kanji from memory, there is no doubt that it works. The technique basically goes like this: we remember things that are out of the ordinary, and we forget things that are mundane. There is probably very little that is more dull than a vocabulary word. So in order to make it interesting and memorable, we must simply visualize some sort of absolutely crazy off the wall situation involving that word, typically an image or story. The more details we include, and the harder we try to visualize it–possibly even incorporating thoughts about taste or smell or other senses into it–the more likely we will be to remember it later. Polyglot Benny Lewis mentions that this is a key to how he manages to memorize hundreds of words quickly.

Method of Loci / Memory Palaces

This is a fantastic method for learning lists of information. As such, its not super useful for every aspect of learning a language, but some people have found it useful for limited purposes, such as learning the readings of kanji. The method basically exploits the fact that we have very good spatial memory, and it involves a mental journey through a well-known location, like your house, school, or around your town. It works best in conjunction with imaginative memory. You will basically follow a fixed path through your location of choice, and at various memorable way-points you will associate an item that you want to remember. It probably works best through example, so here is a great example showing how someone might memorize the list of US presidents using this method. I mentioned a moment ago that some people had success with using this method for learning kanji readings. One such way that this could be done, is by noticing that many kanji utilize the same on’yomi readings, and grouping together kanji that share a reading. You can then use a memory palace to learn this list of kanji which use that reading.

Although I haven’t seen many people advocating it, I believe variations of this system can be used for learning vocabulary as well. For instance, if you are taking a journey through your home, think about all of the objects and locations that you encounter on your journey. Those are all vocabulary words that you can learn during your journey. I found this article which talks about how one can effectively learn foreign vocabulary using this type of system, in conjunction with linkwords (discussed below).

Update: After writing this post, a great new article about using Memory Palaces to learn words and phrases appeared on the fluentin3months blog, which you can read right here.

LinkWords

I’ll just lazily copy straight from Wikipedia.

Linkword is a mnemonic system promoted by Michael Gruneberg since at least the early 1980s for learning languages based on the similarity of the sounds of words. The process involves creating an easily visualized scene that will link the words together. One example is the Russian word for cow (корова, pronounced roughly karova): think and visualize “I ran my car over a cow.”

I see people using this method often for learning on’yomi readings of kanji, though it applies equally well to vocabulary words too. One notable example is the KanjiDamage site, which claims “you can learn 1,700 kanji using Yo Mama jokes.” The author explains:

I give each ONyomi a specific English keyword, which is used in every mnemonic for every kanji with that ONyomi. Thus, しょう(SHOU) becomes SHOW, か(KA) becomes CAR, etc. In the case of our example kanji, まい (MAI) becomes MY.

While the LinkWords method is not entirely without criticism, I believe that it can definitely be beneficial in helping one to learn more efficiently. One thing that you definitely need to watch out for though, is ensuring that your pronunciation does not suffer. Because you are associating sounds from your native language, it can be very easy to use those native words in place of the correct pronunciation that you are trying to learn. But as long as one remains aware of this fact and attempts to correct any errors as soon as they appear, I can’t see there being any major problem arising from it.

Music

Alright, count of hands here. Who still needs to sing the alphabet song every now and then to remember what order letters come in? I have my own hand up, and I hope I’m not the only one here, as that would be quite embarrassing. Rhyme and song are very effective at helping us to remember things. Do you know why a lot of the world’s oldest literature is poetry? Because it was easier to pass down through oral tradition that way. And be honest, you probably remember the hook to almost every pop song that you’ve ever enjoyed, assuming you could understand the lyrics.

I remember sitting in my college Japanese class, and my teacher making us sing aloud a ” て-form song.” I recall it feeling rather degrading that I, a college student, was being treated like a 5-year-old. But you know what? That song helped me remember how to conjugate the て-form.

Here’s a cool example of how it can work:

But what you come up with doesn’t have to be nearly as long or elaborate. Maybe you can put a list of related vocabulary words to the tune of a well-known children’s song. Or maybe you just come up with a single rhyme or sentence to help you remember a particularly tricky word.

Are these techniques really a good use of time?

One might wonder if investing the energy into some of these techniques might take longer than just brute-forcing something into our memory. There is a reason that I started this post off by talking about memory sports. When people use techniques like these, they are not simply doing it to memorize lots of information–they are trying to memorize lots of information as fast as possible. Therefore, it stands to reason that at least some of the techniques that I have mentioned here will very likely end up saving you time in the long run. But I do have to admit, these aren’t things that you can just immediately get good at. At first, it will probably slow you down a lot. But as you get better and more experienced with the techniques, you get faster. That’s how it works with anything really… you can’t just expect to be proficient at something overnight. It takes practice. But as I’m sure you are aware, learning a language is a long journey. Every now and then, it doesn’t hurt to stop and look around for short-cuts.

Stop studying sentences and start studying collocations

The Problem with Vocabulary Lists

For ages, people learned foreign words from vocabulary lists. This was all well and good for the most part, but some people noticed that it doesn’t always seem to be the best way of learning words. While it can give you the general meaning of a word, it doesn’t tell you anything about how a word is used.

Though, for a huge number of words, you don’t really need any context regarding usage. I mean, there is nothing terribly special about how one would use the word “cat” in a sentence, right? So in a lot of cases, vocabulary lists actually work just fine. But for a lot of words, you need to know a little bit more, or else you can end up using things incorrectly. Let’s look at the following example where I talk about getting dressed in both English and Japanese:

I put on a shirt. I put on pants. I put on a belt. I put on a hat.

シャツを着る。ズボンを履く。ベルトを締める。帽子をかぶる。

So what happened there? In English, I use the same sentence pattern for each item. “I put on x.” But in Japanese, each item uses a totally different verb! So if I were to just learn each of those nouns individually from a vocabulary list, I might try using the same verb with all of them, and then get some weird looks back from whoever I am talking to!

A moment ago, I stated that for a lot of words, it really is just fine to use vocabulary lists. But, the problem for a learner is that you don’t know which words are ok to learn like this! So, people saw a need to have more context when learning new words in Japanese, and then came…

The Sentence Revolution

Popularized by the All Japanese All The Time (AJATT) blog, the idea that you should study entire sentences instead of words solved the whole context and usage problem. People soon began taking this one part of the AJATT method, and branched it off into it’s own thing that many people simply called “the sentence method”. For a while, a ton of people were sentence junkies, frothing at the mouth just thinking about where they could get their next sentence from.

I remember when a 2-part book called 2001.Kanji.Odyssey came out, and people were raving about it. These two books were basically just collections of sentences that contained words that used common readings for about half of the Jouyou kanji. I remember paying close to $100 to buy the books and get access to a community spreadsheet of the sentences that some people were putting together, so that I could then study them through Anki.

I just knew that this was going to take my Japanese to the next level. I was going to learn a lot of useful words, and more importantly, a ton of great kanji readings! And then I tried it. And I failed. Multiple times.

The problems were many. The sentences were really long and complex. They contained a lot of difficult words related to business and politics, and not a whole lot of words that I might use every day. Each sentence usually had multiple words that I didn’t know. It was nowhere close to being i+1 material.

Aside from the issues with that particular set of sentences, they have their own inherent problems in general. A major problem with reviewing sentences is that it takes a long time. It takes a lot longer than reviewing a single vocabulary word. Sentences also might have multiple things in them that can trip you up and cause you to fail the card. Trying to keep stuff i+1 is really tricky, and in the beginning stages it can be a treasure hunt just trying to find sentences that you can understand, and you often might be simply discarding a lot of sentences because they have too much new stuff in them. And what are you supposed to be studying with sentences anyways? Vocabulary? Kanji? Grammar? All of it at once? Again, this completely fails at being i+1. If you are trying to learn one particular new piece of information, a sentence can contain a whole lot of completely irrelevant information that only serves to waste your time.

So, vocabulary lists aren’t so great. But it sounds like sentences aren’t necessarily all that great either. Isn’t there some sort of middle ground, that gives you the context and usage information that you need, without the unnecessary complexity of sentences? Well, fortunately, there is!

Collocations – What they are and why you want to study them

Collocations are a really simple idea. They are simply groups of words that occur near each other more often than random chance would dictate. For instance, if the word “bath” is encountered in English, it will frequently be preceded by the words “take a.” So therefore, “take a bath” is a collocation. Easy, right? So instead of doing reviews of some useless sentence like “I took a bath after I got home from working last night”, which is full of irrelevant information, I would simply learn “take a bath” instead. Three simple words.

A lot of words frequently appear near each other because that is what society as a whole has implicitly agreed upon. For instance, we say “fast food” instead of “quick food”. If you are just trying to build up a sentence from the literal components, you wouldn’t know that one of these has a different meaning than the other one. But if you study the phrase “fast food” as a collocation rather than as two individual words, this other meaning becomes apparent.

I came across the idea of collocations when I stumbled across a book titled, fittingly enough, Common Japanese Collocations. This book is chock full of thousands of absolutely useful collocations that are relevant to everyday life. Click that link to see it on Amazon and use the “look inside” feature to see a bit of the types of collocations that are contained in the book. You will notice that most of them are just 3-5 words long. You will usually have a noun, particle, and a verb. Sometimes there might be an object as well. That’s generally all you need for a good collocation! I typed the first chapter into Anki by hand, and I must say, it has probably been the single most useful resource that I have ever studied through Anki. But I did stop after the first chapter because, well… typing hundreds of phrases into a PC is really boring.

But, the cool thing about collocations is that you can make them on your own! Found a sentence that has a word or phrase you want to learn? Great! All you have to do is cut out the extraneous parts, leaving only the bits that are relevant to what you want to learn! I usually break verbs down to the dictionary form, to avoid mixing unnecessary grammatical details into my vocabulary study. Remember you want it to be i+1 as much as possible. Google can also be a great resource for finding collocations, as its search suggestions often give you a good idea of what other words are commonly associated with each other.

So, in summary, vocabulary lists might be bad because you don’t learn how words interact with one another. Sentences might be bad because they contain irrelevant information. Collocations are the sweet spot between vocabulary and sentences, giving you just what you need, and nothing more. I recommend following up with this great article on collocations over at the Dark Japanese blog.

They’ve all got their own purpose

In closing, I would also just like to add that, although this article sort of puts down vocabulary lists and sentences, they have their places. Collocations on their own aren’t going to be the end-all-be-all of your Japanese studies. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, and you should study whatever you feel is most appropriate for a given situation. Studying vocabulary words in isolation absolutely will not hurt you–but it may just leave holes in your knowledge that you need to fill in through additional means. Sentences might make sense in the context of using something like Subs2SRS. Sentences may also be necessary for studying certain grammatical forms, or function words that operate on a longer clause. Take what works for you, and discard what doesn’t. I’ll probably be talking a bit more about collocations in the near future, so please bookmark this site or subscribe to the rss feed if you want to stay informed!