It’s an old adage that school doesn’t actually teach you how to learn. It just teaches you how to pass tests.
Many people “fail” at studying a language because they treat it the same way they would history or biology class. Study for the test. Pass the test…and still can’t speak. Got it.
Language requires a different kind of study. The bad news is, it might take some time to learn.
The good news is, once you learn it, it becomes pretty automatic.
It’s called spaced repetition. This guide will teach you how to get started.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Why memorization and cramming don’t work
Memorization and cramming are great techniques for a test. But they’re awful at engaging your long-term memory.
In short: you can remember things for the test, but you won’t have any ownership over them.
In this chapter, you’ll learn why memorization and cramming are actually harming your language-learning efforts.
Stop memorizing short-term vocabulary
You might think I’m crazy. Here I am, on a language blog, telling you to stop memorizing vocabulary.
But the truth of the matter is that memorizing a list of works from your grammar book or Duolingo isn’t going to help you learn them.
Memorization, after all, isn’t learning.
Two Chinese professors at the China University of Petroleum discussed this in a paper called Rote Memorization of Vocabulary and Vocabulary Development. They found that Chinese students who are learning English often complain about the large number of English words they have to learn. “There are so many words,” they might say. “How do I memorize them all?”
When I was in school, learning French, our grammar book was divided into several chapters, organized by topic. Each chapter had an associated list of vocabulary words that we needed to learn. They would be on the test.
Easy, I thought. All I have to do is make flashcards and learn these new words.
And for a while, that worked. I got an A in French I.
But when I got to French II the next year? Poof. All gone.
So much for “memorization.”
Raw repetition is inefficient
You and I both know that memorization works. We’ve used it before.
And some things are worth memorizing. Addresses, pin numbers, and important dates like your brother’s anniversary or your mom’s birthday are worthy of remembering.
But it’s definitely a “work harder, not smarter” technique.
The hundreds or thousands of vocabulary words you need to learn to fluently speak a new language? Those are not worth memorizing.
…It’s worth discussing exactly what memorization is.
To me, memorization is the forced recall of facts. Memorization does not care about meaning.
You can memorize plenty of facts and things without knowing what they mean.
I had to memorize the quadratic formula in Algebra. (We weren’t allowed equation sheets.) I’m sure I can still recite it. But I never learned what it meant. (Why is there a -4ac? Why multiply by 4? That’s so random. Where did this come from?!) It’s just a formula I used to find x.
I had a calculus professor in college who would never give us plain number values on a test. Instead, we had to derive them from trig functions. This meant we either had to memorize the sine and cosine and etc of a bunch of values or we had to derive them as part of the test.
The catch? If you memorized something incorrectly, your entire answer was wrong, even if you ostensibly “did the math right.”
(I definitely never failed a midterm or anything because of this. Of course not.)
Language is the same way, after all.
If you memorize a word, and your memory fails…you don’t have that word.
And sometimes it’s an important word, like “bathroom” or “plane ticket.”
Fortunately, there’s a better way to approach things.
Chapter 2: Some alternatives to memorization
But most of us memorize because it’s the only learning technique we’ve been taught.
I don’t mean to demonize memorization. But I do want you to understand that it’s not the most effective way to go around learning stuff.
Work smarter, not harder, y’know?
In this chapter, you’ll learn some alternatives to memorization, especially as they relate to learning a foreign language.
Break it down
If you’re an etymology nerd like me—if you just like words—this is the strategy for you. It requires a bit of creativity, but it’s my favorite way of remembering vocabulary.
In a language like Chinese, characters are made up of constituent parts called radicals.
So there’s the radical for water 水，fire 火，mountain 山，ground/earth 土，tree 木，and so on.
And these create different words. For example, the word for “autumn” is 秋季. That first character, 秋 (qiū), is a composite of tree 木 and fire 火. The second character means “season.” So autumn is tree fire season, which makes sense since the leaves of trees turn red, orange, and yellow during autumn—the colors of fire.
Sometimes, though, you get nonsensical meanings, like 火鸡, literally “fire chicken,” which means…turkey. (The Japanese is funnier: 七面鳥，literally “seven-faced bird.” Turkeys are maligned.)
In a language with common roots to one you already know, (say, for Spanish and English, which share Latin roots), sometimes you need to dig a bit deeper or thinking about a new meaning for a word. For example, the Spanish word “actualmente” is more or less the English equivalent to “currently.” But it looks like it should be “actually.” You can see the logic—if something is actual, it stands to reason that it’s current.
Get visual with semantic mapping
Semantic mapping refers to the practice of actually drawing out bubbles of words and their relatives. It looks like a mind map, with the main concept (or a supercategory) in the middle bubble and then subcategories and details branching out from it.
So, in French, a semantic map for “Paris” might look like this:
- Districts (arrondissements)
- Palais Brongniart
- Rue Montorguiel
- Parks (parcs)
- Jardin du Luxembourg
- Champ de Mars
- Parc des Buttes-Chaumont
- Bridges (ponts)
- Pont Neuf
- Pont des arts
- Pont Saint-Louis
And so on.
Semantic mapping works because it creates meaningful associations between words and facts and figures.
Researchers at the British University in Dubai found semantic mapping was significantly more effective than rote memorization for advanced vocabulary study. Researchers who presented at the 2012 Akdeniz Language Studies Conference found the same. And Iranian researchers who were studying EFL (English as a Foreign Language) students, once again, found that semantic mapping works.
First, because you’re making associations between words.
Second, because you’re engaging with the words on a deeper level than if you were simply memorizing.
If you’re a very type A, hierarchical thinker, semantic mapping might be the technique for you.
Get creative with mnemonic devices
If you studied French, you may remember DR. MRS. VANDERTRAMPP, a mnemonic device to remember which verbs take être in the past tense instead of avoir.
A common technique to remember masculine vs. feminine grammatical gender is to aggressively gender objects within your mnemonic devices. So, for example, imagine a pink, slender bridge in German (die Brücke) and a blue, ragged book (das Buch). (I personally don’t like this because it reinforces gender stereotypes, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.)
A third technique is to create a memory palace. If you’re a visual learner or are good at visualizing in your mind, this is a very powerful technique.
Mnemonic devices rarely work for me, but many people have great success with them. Just goes to show you how language learning is such an individual journey!
(One exception: the word for “cinnamon” and “ankle” in Portuguese is canela. Whenever I couldn’t remember the word for cinnamon, I just tapped my ankle, and I remembered! That physical movement was my mnemonic device.)
Chapter 3: The Science Behind Spaced Repetition
Now that you understand why rote memorization and cramming don’t work, I bet you’re wondering what DOES work.
Don’t worry. In this chapter, I’ll show you how to remember anything using a technique called spaced repetition.
The forgetting curve: how we forget information
Back in 1885, a German psychologist named Ebbinghaus published a study called Über das Gedächtnis (On Memory) in which he performed a series of tests on himself over seven months. His goal was to find the relationship between retention and time-since-learning. That is: simply, how many days should I wait before I can safely assume I’ve forgotten a piece of information?
Ebbinghaus showed his findings in what is perhaps the most infuriating line ever drawn in mankind’s history: the forgetting curve.
It looks like this:
Basically, as time goes on, we forget more. Seems intuitive enough. Ebbinghaus found that the 20-minute mark is when we forget the majority of new information, and after 24 hours, the curve begins to level off.
So…cramming? No no. If you have class in the morning, you should review your notes in the afternoon. That’s what the forgetting curve tells us.
Researchers at the University of Amsterdam replicated Ebbinghaus’s findings in 2015. They found, like Ebbinghaus, a boost after a good night’s sleep. (The 24-hour mark.)
Obviously, we can review information. When we review things we want to learn, we reset and elongate the forgetting curve.
In other words: reviewing information means we remember it for longer.
Those periods of time between when you remember and when you forget? Let’s call them spaces.
The spacing effect and memory explained
According to Shane Parrish at Farnam Street, nobody really knows how the spacing effect works. But here’s what we do know: repeated exposure at deliberate internals contributes to long-term memory.
Are these deliberate intervals static, or are they expanding? It might depend on individual differences, according to a study from the Washington University in St. Louis. In other words: you’ll have to try for yourself, or just go with whichever schedule is easier for you to commit to.
How long should these intervals be? A study from the University of Wisconsin at Madison found that longer intervals were more effective (the study didn’t look at intervals longer than a week).
I like to start with half a day, then 1 day, then 2 days, then 4 days, and so on until I get to a bi-weekly or monthly review schedule. That works for me.
Here are a couple of other factors to keep in mind as you review, especially if you’re using a list (because nothing about brains is easy, I’m afraid):
The Serial Position Effect
The serial position effect (also named by our friend Ebbinghaus), states that we remember items at the beginning and the end of a list better than the items in the middle.
The fix is simple, thankfully: just shuffle your deck of flashcards as you review.
The Testing Effect (or test-enhanced learning)
Have you ever had an experience where you remembered information better after the test? (I have!) That’s the testing effect. Essentially, when forced to recall (under stress), we learn that the information is more important, and thus strengthen our ability to recall it. No pain without gain.
The corollary to this is the retrieval effort hypothesis, which basically says what I just did: the more effort you expend to remember something, the more likely you about to remember it without effort the next time.
You can simulate the testing effect by setting a timer and racing to get a better time than before. You can also ask a friend to create a pen-and-paper “test” and “grade” you if you’re okay with invoking a little educational PTSD. 🙂
Be wary of priming effects
Priming is a byproduct of your brain’s laziness. For example, when I was a kid, it was popular to ask people to say “silk” ten times, followed by the question: what does a cow drink? Obviously, cows drink water, but saying “silk” primed most of us to respond with “milk.”
Why? Because your brain already associated cows with milk. Give it a little hint and the lazy part of the brain takes over.
If your vocabulary words or phrases are related to each other, you may be inadvertently priming yourself to remember (or misremember) their meanings. Combining or shuffling your decks of flashcards (or Anki decks, or whatever you use) can help combat this.
Deficient processing, AKA brain fatigue, is also a thing to consider
Deficient processing is a fancy way of saying fatigue. Don’t expect to review 500 words or phrases in a single sitting. You will fatigue yourself and your review sessions will be less effective. Keep it to a more reasonable number per session. I’ve found that 20-30 new words and 30 minutes tops of review time are what works for me.
Chapter 4: How to use spaced repetition for language learning
In this chapter, you’ll learn how to use spaced repetition to study grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, or anything else.
The components of the spaced repetition system
First, you need to decide whether you’re going analog or digital. I’m going to assume analog (that’s my preference), but digital is perfectly valid too.
You will need:
- Index cards
- A calendar
- A list of vocabulary words, phrases, characters, sounds, or whatever you’re trying to learn
That’s it! It’s very simple.
Then it’s as simple as creating your flashcards like you normally would and deciding on your spacing intervals.
An Example Flashcard
If you’re unsure of how to create your flashcards, no worries.
I like to put the word (or phrase) in my target language on one side of the card and nothing else. So if it’s Chinese, I just write the characters. If it’s a language with grammatical genders, I write the word without the gender.
Here’s an example:
I would see the front of the card in my deck. (The side that says 电影.)
Then I would test myself on:
1) The meaning
2) The pronunciation…including the tones.
If I get it right, then it goes into my pile of “to review” words.
If I get it wrong, it goes to the back of the pile I’m currently reviewing.
Easy enough, no?
I included the literal meaning of the characters on the back to help me remember the word in case I get it wrong. You should draw a piece of your semantic map or add your mnemonic device to the back of the card to strengthen those connections.
Decide your schedule
Now you get to decide how long your spacing intervals are going to be.
Keeping in mind what you learned in the last chapter, you have 2 options: fixed spacing or expanding spacing.
Whichever you choose, your calendar is your biggest asset here. Don’t move forward without marking your calendar!
Fixed spacing is easy: just decide on your interval (every 2-4 days is a good starting point), and mark that repetition on your calendar. You’re going to review your cards whenever the schedule calls for it.
Expanding spacing is more complicated. You’re going to want to expand your spacing with each successive and successful review session…but how do you do that, exactly?
I like the Leitner Box technique.
(More on that in the next chapter.)
Decide your practice duration
Remember deficient processing? If we practice for too long, our brains start to fatigue and we get less efficient.
You should keep your spaced repetition review sessions to no more than 30 minutes.
I like to set a timer for 20 and give myself a 10-minute break before I do anything else that requires my brainpower.
Chapter 5: Make spaced repetition fun and easy with the Leitner Box technique
In this chapter, you’ll learn one of my favorite analog techniques for spaced repetition language study: the Leitner box. It’s simple to set up and it’s fun and easy.
Once you get the hang of it, you’ll never want to try anything else again.
How to use a Leitner Box
Time to Learn German did this fantastic video on how to use a Leitner Box. Click to watch it:
But if you’re like me, a set of written instructions is helpful. I got you 😉
Before beginning, assemble your box. This means creating dividers, printing out the schedule and gluing it into your box, and making your flashcards.
The schedule and the level dividers are the most important parts of the Leitner Box. They use spaced repetition to create more challenging learning sessions as each level increases.
Day 1: Our schedule says to review levels 2 and 1, but they’re empty because we’re starting out, so we can skip them. Start with your new flashcards. 15-30 is a good number, but I wouldn’t go above 30 new cards in a day. Place them in the “New” section. For each card, review it. If you get it right, place it into Lv. 1. If you get it wrong, return it to your stack, at the back. Continue until every card is in Lv. 1. At this point, I like to shuffle them, but that’s optional.
Then place 15-30 new cards into the “New” tab. You will review these tomorrow.
Day 2: Today, looking at the schedule, we’re supposed to review levels 3 and 1. We don’t have any cards in Lv. 3, so we skip to Lv. 1.
For each card in Lv. 1, review it. If you get it right, it goes to Lv. 2. If you get it wrong, it stays in Lv. 1. You do not repeat these cards.
Then review your new cards, following the same process you did yesterday until they’re all in Lv. 1.
Finally, add 15-30 new cards to your “New” tab for tomorrow.
Day 3: The schedule says to review Levels 2 and 1 today. Let’s review Lv. 2, using the same technique we did with our Lv. 1 cards. Anything we get right goes to Lv. 3. Anything we get wrong goes back to Lv. 1.
Then we review Lv. 1.
Then we review our new cards until they’re all in Lv. 1. Place 15-30 new vocabulary words into the New tab for tomorrow.
Day 4-5: You know how to do this by now.
Day 6: Time to review Lv. 3. If we get them right, they go to Lv. 4. But if we get them wrong, they go all the way back to Lv. 1!
This is the secret to the Leitner Box. It forces you to use the spacing effect because the schedule is rigid (and a little unforgiving). But it also gives you OWNERSHIP of the words you successfully get past Lv. 7, where they leave the box for good. And it gives you security in that ownership.
You can view download the Leitner Box schedule here.
Conclusion: How spaced repetition fits into your language-learning toolbox
Of course, spaced repetition isn’t a silver bullet. You can’t expect this single technique to do EVERYTHING for you.
You also need to take care of yourself so you can commit all the new information you’ve learned to memory. This means sleeping! Spaced repetition is much more effective if you’re well-rested.
Creating a spaced repetition system for your language-learning process can feel overwhelming, so let’s have a discussion in the comments about anything you still have questions on. Deal?
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