Language learning is a constant process of memorizing new things and trying to review them well enough so that we don’t forget them. It’s also a battle against time, since our brains only store a small percentage of the new information we learn.
Spaced repetition is the process of reviewing newly learned material right as we’re beginning to forget it, thus helping our brains build stronger memories and forget less frequently.
If you want to make serious improvements in your target language, try employing some of these tips into your language learning routine.
Table of Contents
- Cramming doesn’t work for languages
- The learning curve & spaced repetition
- Spaced repetition systems, aka the flashcard decks of the future
- Anki, the best spaced repetition system
- Tips for Anki and SRS
Cramming doesn’t work for languages
A few years ago we spent six weeks speed-learning Dutch. We wanted to see if we could quickly cram enough material to be reasonably fluent in everyday conversations.
Each day we spent three to four hours studying – we reviewed flashcards, practiced conversing with natives via video calls, listened to podcasts and practiced reading the Dutch translation of Harry Potter.
After six weeks we were able to participate in substantial conversations and understand quite a bit of material. But after a few months most of that knowledge was gone.
We learned a ton of stuff very fast but hardly any of it made its way into our long term memory. Our six week language challenge was essentially like cramming the night before an exam and then forgetting all of the material right after.
To become reasonably fluent in a new language you need to learn thousands of things: words, phrases, grammatical rules, and how to stitch everything together. Not only do you need to memorize it all, you also need to retain it over time; you need to make it stick in your long term memory so that you don’t forget it in the future.
But how do you commit 3000+ bits of information into long term memory? The key is spaced repetition, a memorization technique that involves reviewing new material in intervals over time in order to build strong long-term memories.
The learning curve & spaced repetition
When we learn new things, they’re initially stored in our short-term memory. The new material will be available for a little while, maybe a few hours or days, but it will quickly fade.
This is illustrated by the forgetting curve, a concept in psychology that describes the decline in memory over time.
The forgetting curve hypothesizes that after we learn new material, our brains quickly start forgetting unless we make an active effort to review. Reviewing material right as we’re beginning to forget makes the memory a bit stronger; it’ll take longer for the memory to fade again.
Spaced repetition involves continuously reviewing concepts right as we’re beginning to slide down the curve and forget them. After multiple reviews over increasingly long intervals the material makes its way into our long-term memory, meaning it’ll be easier to recall and we’re less likely to forget.
Scientists have even worked out the intervals at which we should review newly learned material in order to beat the forgetting curve and transfer it into long term memory. The intervals start out very short but eventually become longer and longer.
This means that in order to effectively learn new material in our target language, we need two things:
- A steady stream of new material to learn, as well as
- A way to consistently review newly learned material at the optimal time intervals.
Tracking all of this manually is unrealistic…if not impossible. Fortunately, modern software algorithms can take care of the interval tracking, saving us time and allowing us to focus on our actual study material.
Spaced repetition systems, aka the flashcard decks of the future
Spaced repetition systems (SRS) are apps or programs that help us review flashcards at the right intervals on the forgetting curve.
When you come across something new that you want to learn, you add it to your “deck” so you can start memorizing it. SRS programs show you the new material over increasingly long intervals of time so you can move it into your long term memory.
Some apps include their own built-in SRS systems. Rosetta Stone, for example, regularly shows you review material throughout the course units. Duolingo has algorithmically-based practice tools to ensure your skills always stay sharp.
We prefer to use SRS apps as a supplement to any language apps we use. For example, we were recently working through a Rosetta Stone lesson and encountered the phrase, “Он работает слишком тихо,” in this case meaning something like “it’s too quiet” when referring to the TV in the scenario.
This sentence has an unusual structure and verb usage so we added it to our flashcard deck in order to memorize and review later. We recommend using Anki, a free SRS tool that makes for an excellent vocab builder in any language learning study routine.
Anki, the best spaced repetition system
We’ve tried a number of different SRS programs over the years and, in our opinion, Anki is the most effective.
The name Anki actually means “memorization” in Japanese (暗記). It’s a free program that helps you memorize new material over time using a spaced repetition algorithm.
Anki allows you to create flashcards containing the bits of information you want to memorize. It works just like physical flashcards, except that after you turn over a card you are prompted to rate how well you know it (Again, Hard, Good, and Easy). The program will show you the card again after a certain period of time based on the rating you provide.
Anki has a lot of flexibility with the type of cards you can create. You can add text, images, audio and even video clips. In our decks we use an add-on called HyperTTS to attach text-to-speech audio clips to our flashcards, which helps a lot with learning the correct pronunciation.
Every day you review your Anki deck to learn new material and review old material. You have the option to set how many cards you want to work on every day. For our Russian vocabulary deck we generally learn 5 new cards and review 40 previously learned cards every day, which takes about 30 minutes.
With the Anki mobile app we’re able to review anywhere at any time – on public transport, while eating lunch and even while burning calories on the stair climber machine at the gym.
You’ll want to regularly add new vocabulary to your deck so you have a constant stream of new material to learn. If you’re diligent about completing your daily reviews you’ll be able to make significant progress within a reasonable amount of time. Our Russian deck currently has 1748 audio-enabled flashcards. Most importantly, Anki’s spaced repetition algorithm makes sure we regularly review all of our old material so that everything gets stored in our long-term memory.
Tips for Anki and SRS
Note that Anki can be a bit confusing at first. It’s much less user-friendly than the standard language learning app and it requires a bit of work to set up properly. We’ve been studying languages for over 10 years and are still regularly adding new methods and tactics to our language learning routine.
We’ve picked up some useful best practices for SRS over the years and we’ve included a few of the most important ones in the sections below. We hope they’ll be helpful for you on your language learning journey.
Make your own decks
Many learners new to the concept of SRS will seek out existing decks made by other users. We can’t stress enough the importance of making your own deck when using these apps. A self-made deck will be relevant and personally meaningful to you, meaning you’re more likely to remember the material.
Pre-made decks will look to you like a random set of words and are likely to be less effective. Why? Because the material wasn’t made specifically for your own language study.
Learn with meaning and purpose
We’ve probably learned the word for “city hall” in at least 10 languages. It’s one of those words that seems to come up a lot in language apps/courses but is rarely used in daily life. While it’s nice to know lots and lots of vocabulary, our time and memory is limited and we should be mindful about what material we decide to learn.
We recommend only memorizing material that is directly impactful to your life. Memorizing big groups of vocabulary items (i.e. exhaustive lists of household objects, clothes, places in the city, random fruits and vegetables, etc.) is much less effective than memorizing words or phrases you use on a daily basis.
Since it can sometimes be hard to figure out if something is frequently used and worth the effort of learning, we recommend that you ask yourself, “Have I used this word in the last week or will I use it in the next?”
If you can’t see yourself realistically using the given word or phrase within that time frame, it might not be worth the effort of learning it.
Add memory aids to your cards
It’s crucial that you add relevant context to your language flashcards – anything that will help you attach more meaning to the given vocab item. We generally prefer photos copied from Google Images and example sentences from a context dictionary (we use Reverso Context).
We recently learned the French word for “phone charger” (le chargeur de téléphone) and found an image as well as a useful context sentence to add to our deck: “Je peux utiliser votre chargeur de téléphone, s’il vous plaît? (Can I use your phone charger, please?)”
Realistic context as well as relevant imagery helps build stronger memories, allowing us to more easily recall them in the future.
Spaced repetition is an absolute must for learners looking to make serious progress in their target language. If you aren’t adding new material to an SRS program and dedicating a portion of your study time to spaced repetition learning, it’ll likely take you significantly longer to reach your desired level of fluency. We recommend keeping notes of new vocabulary you come across during your language study then using Anki to learn them and commit them to your long-term memory.
Using Anki for spaced repetition vocab building can be difficult for beginners so we suggest you take a bit of time to learn how the program works. Our Anki guide has installation tips as well as more detailed usage information – check it out!
Learning a foreign language requires quite a bit of discipline. It’s not an impossible task, though. If you make the effort to establish a regular study routine and spend a portion of your study time learning and reviewing new vocabulary using an SRS tool, you’ll quickly notice big improvements both in the amount of material you’re able to learn as well as your ability to retain and recall it.
– written by Drew Grubba for Smarter Language. Drew has ACTFL-certified proficiency in Swedish, German, Portuguese, French and Spanish. He’s also studied Mandarin Chinese, Norwegian and Dutch, and is currently learning Russian.
Disclaimer: Rosetta Stone is a property of IXL Learning Inc.