Spaced repetition for learning a language

Spaced repetition is a technique that most of the time involves flashcards. It is used to learn practically anything. But it has been proven to be super-efficient for learning languages.

We could describe spaced repetition as a method where you’re asked to remember something (it could be a word, a formula or a certain fact) within time intervals.

When we learn something, we need to review it again fairly quick so it may stick in our head.

We can then wait a bit more time to review this thing we have just learnt the second time. And we can wait even more to review it the third time and so forth.

This technique takes into consideration the tendency of our brain to forget things. So with a base repetition system, the thing we’re trying to learn will reappear for our review at an optimum time for our retention.

The importance of learning how to learn

My little nephew was born some time ago. He’s my parents’ first grandchild, so we’re all excited! My sister and her husband have frequently been going to my parents’ home and so have I. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to see him during these first stages.

It has been a great experience for me. He’s very lively and even during his first weeks, he would be looking around, absorbing every sound, being impressed by everything he saw.

One of the things that fascinated me the most was how he was conscious of the world surrounding him.

When he was just over 3-months-old, I was playing with him and stretched my arms to him without touching him. He looked at me and stretched out his arms to me too. I put down my arms and he also put them down. I repeated the exercise and he followed me again.

I was thrilled and went running to look for my sister. She said it just may be coincidence so in her presence I tried to increase the level of difficulty of the exercise.

I stretch forth my arms to him and he also stretch them towards me. With my arms stretched I closed my hands and he also tried to move his little fingers to close them (he couldn’t but his fingers moved trying to close). I then opened my hands again and he also opened them wide again.

Without doubt, he was copying all my movements. I was surprised because I didn’t think he could do that at such a young age. All those movements are super simple for a grown-up but they must be challenging when being done for the first time.

I hadn’t realized until that point that we begin learning in life from the very moment we’re born.

Soon came the day when he gave his first steps and later on he said his first word. He has continued to learn throughout all these stages.

So, due to the fact that learning will be an action he will be performing during the course of his entire life, it will be important for him to learn how to learn. But you may argue with me, “He’s been learning already, what do you mean he needs to learn how to learn?”

He will need to understand how his brain works to use it more efficiently. And not only him but this applies to all of us also. Considering how our own brain processes information, will benefit us greatly.

Have you ever asked yourself what’s the best way to learn?

We’ll spend so much time learning. So this is a very pertinent question. Is there anything we can do to learn things more quickly and remember them longer?

Did you know that the usual way we approach learning is also one of the worst? We have all been there: before an exam, an interview or presentation, we’ve probably spent the night before cramming as much information into our brain as we can and leave it at that. The next day probably we did OK or maybe we even did well. But ask us a couple of months later and our precious new knowledge is nowhere to be found.

How can I efficiently learn things?

Science behind learning tells us that the most efficient way to learn is by using a technique called space repetition.

This works for any new knowledge or skill. It is based on evidence.

A space repetition system works by asking you to review information at increasingly longer intervals. So if you learn something today, a spaced repetition system might show it to you again tomorrow, then in three days, then next week and so on until it’s lodged itself securely in your long term memory.

Who discovered this technique?

Although this might seem a novel idea, this is not a new concept. It was first described in 1885 by Hermann Ebbinghaus.

He was a German psychologist. He is today remembered mostly because he pioneered the experimental study of memory. We owe him the discovery of the forgetting curve and the spacing effect. He was also the first person to describe the learning curve.

Let’s take a closer look at how space repetition works

So let’s use charts here to understand this concept better. We’re going to plot your retention (how much you remember something) vs. time.

Graphic: retention vs. time

So you learn something and without reviewing it, the “forgetting curve” will look like an exponentially decaying curve. That’s kinda scary! Do you know what your name is? 😉

To fight this forgetting curve, we should actively retrieve the material we learnt. It could be done at increasingly spaced intervals after being exposed to it the first time. By doing this, the forgetting curve starts to flatten out and you’ll get a lot better longer-term retention.

When would be the right time to review the material you’re learning?

The best time to revisit information that you’re trying to learn is right around the time you would naturally forget it. Since forgetting typically follows this exponential curve, the trick becomes timing your study sessions around it.

Here is a chart that helps us understand what happens with our forgetting curve each time we review the information just before forgetting it. Let’s take a look.

Graphic: reviewing information and flattening of forgetting curve

So, from a practical standpoint you’ll be having more widely spaced intervals between study times for the material you’re more familiar with, and shorter intervals between study sessions for material that you’re less familiar with.

Spaced repetition systems (SRS)

As we have stated at the beginning of this post, people studying create flashcards with the bits of information that they want to retain. They either use physical flashcards or digital flashcards. As time goes by, people have increasingly been doing these things electronically.

There have been created plenty of programs that are SRS. These programs use space repetition algorithms to optimize your review intervals according to your performances. By tracking how well you remember each bit of information they adjust individual intervals so you can spend more time with those things you remember less and less time with those things you already know well.

The results?

You’ll be spending much less time actually studying while remembering everything much better.

We can obviously access SRS on our desktop. But we can also check them out daily on our mobile devices which makes all this system very convenient.

While you’re learning vocabulary in a new language, all you need is your phone and a bit of time each day to incorporate space repetition into your routine.

Would we recommend a specific SRS platform?

There are many. Some are free and some are paid. But I’d like to suggest a very commonly used platform. It’s good and it’s also free. Its name is Anki. And you can use it to learn vocabulary for your new language.

Besides its use for languages, this popular platform is widely used by students of medical schools or by those that want to recall historical facts. In general, Anki can be used to study whatever you want.

Do SRS have any cons when it comes to learning languages?

Because SRS are really effective, some tend to overuse them spending hours and hours just reviewing flashcards and not doing some of the other necessary activities to learn a language.

Our advice concerning SRS

Please use SRS. Use them daily but use them with moderation. Divide your time assigned to learning languages into 4 parts and dedicate no more than ¼ to reviewing flashcards.

Happy learning!

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