Teacher explaining forgetting curve

Spaced repetition for learning a language

Spaced repetition is a technique that most of the time involves flashcards. You can use it to learn practically anything. But many agree it is super-efficient for learning languages.

We could describe Spaced repetition as a method that establishes remembering something as the goal. And to achieve it, it encourages reviews within certain time intervals. It could be a word, a formula, or a fact.

Mother_and_daughter_in_the_park

When we learn something, we need to review it fairly quickly. If we do not, it may not stick in our heads. We can then wait a bit more to study what we recently learned the second time. And we can stay away from it even longer to review it the third time and so forth.

This technique takes into consideration the tendency of our brain to forget things. So, to boost retention, there is an optimum time to review what we are learning. A Spaced repetition system emphasizes the review time.

Mother_watching_daughter_play_in_the_park_through_window

Babies start learning early!

My little nephew was born some time ago. He is my parent’s first grandchild. So, we are all excited! My sister and her husband go to my parent’s home frequently. And I go too. Thus, I have had a marvelous opportunity to see him during these first stages.

It has been an extraordinary experience. The boy is lively. And even during his first weeks, he would be looking around, not wanting to miss a thing. He seems to be absorbing every sound. He seemed impressed by everything he saw.

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

I was playing with him just before he turned 3-months-old. Without touching him, I stretched my arms to 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. It was a thrilling experience. I went running to look for my sister. “It must have been a coincidence,” she said. So, in her presence, I tried to increase the level of difficulty of the exercise.

I extended my arms to him, and he also stretched them toward me. With my arms elongated, I closed my hands. And he also tried to close his fingers to close his fist. His fingers moved slightly, but he could not shut his hand. Thus, I opened my hands again, and he opened them wide again.

The importance of learning how to learn

Without a doubt, he was copying all my movements. It was surprising to see he could do that at such a young age. All those movements are super simple for a grown-up. But it must be challenging for a baby to do them the first time.

Soon came the day when he gave his first steps. And later, he said his first word. He has continued to learn throughout all these stages. Learning will be an action he will be performing during his entire life. So, it will be meaningful for him to learn how to learn. But you may argue with me, “He has 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 us all. Considering how our brain processes information will benefit us a lot!

Have you ever asked yourself which is the best way to learn?

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

Did you know that the usual way we approach learning is also one of the worst? Tell me if you have not done this before an exam, an interview, or a presentation. We spend the night before cramming as much information as possible into our brains. And then leave it at that. The next day, we may do OK. Or we could even do well. But ask us a couple of months later, and our precious new knowledge has vanished away.

How can I efficiently learn things?

The science behind learning tells us that spaced repetition is very efficient. It works for learning any new knowledge or skill. And it is based on evidence.

We should review information at increasingly longer intervals. And that is how Spaced repetition works.

So, if you learn something today, a spaced repetition system might show it to you again tomorrow. You will review it again in three days, then next week, and so on. The revisits take place until the knowledge gets embedded 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. Today he is chiefly remembered 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 us take a closer look at how space repetition works!

So, let us use charts here to understand this concept better. We will plot your retention (how much you remember something) vs. time.

Teacher_explaining_forgetting_curve_chart

Let us say you study something today. And you do not review it. Your “forgetting curve” will look like an exponentially decaying curve.

Fighting this forgetting curve is simple. And the way to do it is by actively retrieving the material you learned. Performing revisits at increasing spaced intervals after exposure to it the first time. By doing this, the forgetting curve starts to flatten out. And you will get a lot better longer-term retention.

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

The best time to revisit information is just before you would naturally forget it. The forgetting typically follows this exponential curve. So, the trick becomes timing your study sessions around it. Here is a chart that helps us understand things better. Our forgetting curve looks like this each time we review the information. Remember you must do it before forgetting it. Let us take a look.

Teacher_explaining_how_we_flatten_the_forgetting_curve

So, from a practical standpoint, we could explain it like this. There will be familiar material. You will get exposed to it with wider spaced intervals between study times. And for the material you are less familiar with, space will be shorter.

Spaced repetition systems (SRS)

People studying create flashcards with bits of information. We already stated this at the beginning of this post. What is their goal? They want to retain information more easily. They either use physical flashcards or digital flashcards. As time goes by, people have been doing these things electronically more and more. These flashcard programs use spaced repetition algorithms to optimize your review intervals. There are plenty of SRS programs out there.

According to your performances, you will review the flashcards. These programs track how well you remember each bit of information. And adjust individual revisit intervals. So, you can spend more time with those things you remember less. And less time with those things you already know well. 

Mother_calling_daughter_through_a_window

The results?

You will be spending much less time studying while remembering everything better. We can access SRS on our desktop. But we can also check them out daily on our mobile devices, which makes the system very convenient. When learning vocabulary in a new language, you can use spaced repetition. All you need is your phone and a bit of time each day to incorporate this into your routine. 

Girl_in_classroom_imagining_playground_slide

Would we recommend a specific SRS platform?

There are many SRS platforms. Some are free, and others are behind a payment wall. But a popular one that is good and also free is Anki. Many are already using it to learn vocabulary for a new language. Besides languages, students in medical schools also use them. And on occasions, even by those that want to recall historical facts. In general, you can use Anki to study whatever you want.

Do Spaced Repetition Systems have any cons when it comes to learning languages?

Because Spaced Repetition Systems are efficient, some tend to overuse them. How do they overuse them? By spending hours and hours reviewing flashcards. It may sound like a good idea at first. But only using flashcards is a counterproductive move. Why? Because you should also be doing some of the other necessary language-learning activities.

Our advice on SRS

Please use SRS. Use them daily but use them in moderation. Divide your time assigned to learning languages into four parts. And dedicate no more than ¼ to reviewing flashcards. Happy learning!

Here is a course that includes SRS as part of their learning tools. It’s integrated into their platform in a balanced way. You may want to check it out by clicking here.

Girl_imagining_forgetting_curve

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30 Comments

  1. Hi,

    I struggle a lot with English. It’s not my first language.

    A friend that has been learning languages (and seems to learn them quite easily) has sent me the link to this post. And I find it interesting we can progress learning vocabulary even though we tend to forget things. Just knowing there is an optimal time of reviewing content can avoid us the frustration of trying to recall something and not being able to.

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Nicole,

      You’re welcome. And we’re glad to have you here at our site.

      I hope you may take advantage of Spaced repetition systems. Feel free to continue visiting us and commenting.

  2. While I was still in school, I took seven years of Spanish and became almost fluent. I’ve been trying to learn Italian now since I want to study Italian architecture. In my efforts, though, I keep forgetting things, especially those words which are most similar to Spanish but JUST different enough. Tough stuff. This article has given me a great suggestion: spaced repetition.

    1. Hi Maria.

      I’m glad to hear you have been learning Italian. And including spaced repetition will help you with your learning goals. Thanks for stopping by and sharing part of your story with us. Please keep on visiting us.

  3. As a teacher, I understand this concept. I love your graphics – they make it easy to understand. As a mom who has a 5 year old who is suddenly intrigued in learning Japanese (thanks to Ryan’s Toy Review), I will use this concept for him to learn a foreign language. Kids are like sponges – they absorb and learn so much while they are young which is why it is so important to teach them well from the very beginning. Thank you for a great post!

    1. Hi Dana,

      It’s nice to teach our children a foreign language. And it’s even better when they want to learn it. All the best with your child learning Japanese.

  4. “The importance of learning how to learn” what a wonderful way of putting it together! Personally, I think that the learning process is completely different for everyone. As you stated, we tend to forget things quite fast but that can be related to other factors such as mental health, our environment and capacity to concentrate on what we’re learning. I have a short concentration spam therefore learning something new can take twice the time to actually engage in the learning process without feeling the need to just quit. Is very interesting how spaced repetition can work not only for material regarding school work, but also everything that we’re eager to learn and improve our knowledge in. 

    1. Hi Stephanie,

      yes, SRS can be used to aid us learning anything we need to learn. I encourage you to give it a try.

  5. I truly believe in the power of spaced repetition. I do it all the time with languages but it can be applied to other areas of study as well. You explained it very well and I wish more and more people read this to understand that only reviewing the information once is not enough if they want something to stick in their long-term memory. They need to practice spaced repetition and will be amazed by the results

  6. This is a really good piece of advice, 

    I only speak English but would love to learn another language as I’ve worked in Italy and France doing ski seasons but never picked up any languages. My main language I would like to learn would be Italian as I would like to go back and do another ski season there. Using this advice would make it easier to learn.

    Thank you for this post.

  7. Wow, this is very helpful! I am learning Spanish and never thought to do something like spaced repetition throughout my day. I use a few different programs so it shouldn’t be hard to “drip-feed” myself every now and then with them during the day. Also, coincidentally I have a new nephew too (first grandkid, everyone’s excited, etc.). I want him to learn Spanish as well, so when I see him I try to speak in Spanish. It’s good practice for me, and at 1 year old he’s hopefully getting some bilingual tendencies already.

    1. Introducing spaced repetition into your language learning routine will be beneficial in many ways. I am glad that you already have a routine, and it’s a no-brainer to add spaced repetition.

      I hope your new nephew also picks up Spanish! 🙂 All the best!

  8. I struggle to learn languages and even at school was never great at second and third languages. Reading this post made me realize that I didn’t learn languages in this way, which is probably why I couldn’t remember them.

    It makes a lot of sense to go back to something each day until you remember it on your own, but looking at it once and not thinking about it again is a sure way to forget. I am going to try and apply this method to remembering dance choreography too.

    1. Hi Michel,

      Yeah, these simple considerations can make a difference when learning a language (or anything else, as a matter of fact).

  9. I had never heard of spaced repetition before. But it is so simple that there is no reason why we shouldn’t implement it.
    I can totally concur about the last-minute studying, as I have done it so so many times. I have passed exams one day, that I would fail the next day!
    I really appreciate you taking the time to share this.

    1. Hi, I’m glad you would like to implement this. Yeah, it’s really simple. And it’s also effective!

  10. Hi Jonathan,

    Spaced repetition is a great way for learners to try and create a good memory and understanding of a new concept or process when learning. I used to do this back in college and it really served me well even for my grades. I bet applying this technique when learning a language will be a very effective method to inculcate. This is really helpful. Thanks for such a great article!

    Regards,

    Sergej

    1. Hey, I am glad to hear you used Spaced repetition in College and that it was beneficial. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  11. Thanks for letting us take advantage of the Spaced Repetition Systems! As a blogger who wants to be in front of the competition, it becomes necessary to learn English properly. Most of the time, I get a low readability score when I speak in a passive voice. But when I use active voice, I always get a high readability score. Much emphasis is placed on the use of voice, and this motivates me further to learn English for both speaking and writing purposes. So, I’ll start using Spaced Repetition for expanding my vocabulary.

    Thanks.

    Joyce

    1. Yes, I encourage you to use Spaced Repetition. But please be careful not to spend more than 1/4 of your time actively studying English with Spaced Repetition.

  12. Very interesting article, it’s amazing how little babies like your nephew can absorb everything like sponges.

    Learning with flashcards is something I used when I was little. I will definitely take a look at it again.

    What else could I do besides using flashcards? Is there a course you would recommend?

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Ana, Spaced repetition is effective. But we shouldn’t spend too much time with it. There is a course that uses
      Spaced repetition in the right balance. It has a 7-day free trial so you can go right over and check if it’s for you. Click here to go to its review

  13. This information comes timely for my son. He is studying for the police exam, and it’s pretty tough. I get on him to spend time with the training material every day. But he has already gone through all of it. So, now until he takes his test, this spaced repetition would be helpful. I think. What do you think?

    1. Yes, absolutely. Spaced repetition system is used for any topic that requires us to remember vocabulary or facts. I wish the best to your son on his exam.

  14. Learning Italian is fun! And I am glad when I find new, helpful content online. Great site. And the graphics complement what we read in the text.
    I will aid my learning with SRS. I had a notion about the concept. But had not thought of applying it to my language learning process.

    1. Hi! Thank you! Yes, definitely incorporate SRS into your routine. But please don’t overdo it. It’s a great aid but should not become the center of your learning.

  15. Hi Jonathan

    Thank you for the great article. I have been struggling to learn Mandarin for so time (My wife is Taiwanese) I have tried many different ways, though nothing seems to stay. I hadn’t even gotten to the end of your post before I installed the Anki on my phone. I look forward to trying it out. Thank you again

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