Remember that time you crammed information for an exam?
(Don’t worry, we’ve all been there.)
You, like many others, may have spent an all-nighter memorizing every page of your notes and trying desperately to make up for countless days you decided to hold off on studying.
While you may have performed well on the exam, think about how much you recalled a few weeks after the test date.
How much of that information did you remember?
If you’re like most humans, the answer is probably not very much.
Wait, So “Cramming” a New Language Won’t Work?
You can try, but unfortunately you won’t get very far if you try to learn the Spanish subjunctive tense in one night. Now, you may wonder, if I was able to recall information so well at the time of an exam, why has it dropped from my memory soon after?
Well, there’s science behind this! Research proves that cramming intense amounts of information into our brain in a short period of time is not an effective way for long-term learning.
British author H.E. Gorst mentioned in his book “The Course of Education” that cramming is what “produce[s] mediocrity.” Yikes. What he means is that cramming doesn’t provide us with the ability to think critically and effectively apply our knowledge in creative ways.
Yet cramming is still becoming more and more popular among students of all ages.
If It’s So Ineffective, Why Do We Cram?
Fingers point to improper time management as the number one cause. If we better prioritize our time, we can more efficiently learn new information. By cramming, we may absorb information that can be easily regurgitated the following day. But say goodbye to that information because it’s going to disappear at an exponential rate as time goes on.
Cramming trades a strong memory now for a weak memory later. Unfortunately, we sometimes cling to short-term gratifications and fail to strive for long-term benefits. Before you banish all hope for your memory, there’s an alternative method to learning that may give your brain the love it needs. So how can you learn a language through repetition if cramming doesn’t work?
In psychology, there is a theory of memorization and learning called the “spacing effect.” The spacing effect is the idea that we remember and learn items more effectively when they are studied a few times over a long span of time.
Is Frequent Repetition the Solution? Not Quite.
Since cramming is out the window, you may think it’s smarter to study material over and over again. It’s crucial to note that, while repetition is important, not all repetition is created equally. You’ll want to space out the repetitions between each time you study a set of information.
But determining how long to wait in between studying can also be a tricky matter. If you practice too soon, your brain will begin passively remembering information, which will not stick over time. If you practice too late, you will have forgotten the material and have to spend extra time relearning it. Add to this the complexity of individual learning and memorization patterns, and you have a recipe for guaranteed memory loss.
Thankfully, there are softwares available today to help us pin-point the sweet spot of optimal learning. Just when our forgetfulness dips below a certain level, these programs jump in and keep our brains on track. How cool is that?
Spaced Repetition Software to the Rescue
Spaced repetition software (SRS) are computer programs modeled after a process similar to using flashcards. Users enter items to be memorized into the program, which are then converted into electronic “decks” that appear on-screen in a one-by-one sequential pattern.
Usually, the user clicks one time to reveal the question or front of the generated card. A second click will reveal the answer or back of the flashcard. Upon seeing the answer, the user then indicates the difficulty of the card by telling the program how challenging it was.
Each following card’s order of appearance is not randomized. In fact, SRS programs use algorithms to space out the time intervals indicated when each card will appear again on the screen. Cards given “easy” ratings will appear later than cards given “hard” ratings, thus allowing users to spend more time studying the cards that are more difficult. The tough ones will show up more often until they are mastered, giving you the chance to actively learn them more efficiently than other learning styles.
Using Spaced Repetition for Language Learning
To put this into context, let’s pretend you spend an evening studying 100 Mandarin words you didn’t know before. You continue studying until you’ve completely memorized the words. Let’s say it takes you an hour to do this.
Immediately after reviewing these words, your memory of them will be quite high. However, over time you will naturally begin forgetting the material you learned. And, since it was your first time learning these words, your use-it-or-lose-it brain is more likely to ditch this new material at a faster pace. The new knowledge isn’t yet considered important enough to be etched into your brain cells.
However, the second time you study the same words, it will take you less time to master the set than it did the first time. Perhaps this time it only takes you 30 minutes to memorize the 100 words. Congratulations! You’ve completed your first spaced repetition.
So, does this mean you’ll have to keep repeating the information you want to learn for the rest of your life? Not exactly. While it does require long-term review to keep information fresh on our minds, the time spent on review becomes shorter and less frequent over time.
With each successive review, it will take you less and less time to fully recall the information. As you begin mastering a set of words, you’ll find yourself whizzing through each card. Eventually, information will become so memorable that we know it by heart. This is when you know you’re ready to move onto a new, more challenging deck.
Get Your SRS Game On!
Thankfully, millions of people around the world enjoy using a variety of free applications available today that use spaced repetition learning.
Anki is one of the most popular spaced repetition softwares. Named after the Japanese word for “memorization,” Anki allows users to create their own decks of cards or download pre-made decks by other users.
One popular feature of Anki is the ability to sync decks across multiple devices, allowing users to study online or on their cell phones. Anki also stores your statistics for each deck so that you can track your progress over time.
FluentU is a bit different from the other services mentioned here. FluentU takes real-world videos like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks, and turns them into language learning experiences. What makes it relevant here is that it has a very robust SRS system—based on a variation of the SM2 SuperMemo algorithm (like Anki). What makes it different is that you are able to easily import words, and then you can automatically see images, definitions and example sentences that have been written for each of those words.
And that’s not all. You can even see how the word is used in different videos throughout the site. This is all packaged in a smooth feature that tracks your history and provides new and different video clip prompts based on your previous history on FluentU. It’s a smooth marriage of spaced repetition and learning through context and personalization. If you’re tired of filling up your flashcards and searching for good examples, then FluentU might be what you’re looking for.
FluentU has a wide variety of videos like movie trailers, funny commercials and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s “learn mode.” Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.
SuperMemo is another learning software that uses spaced repetition learning methods. Electronic flashcards can be self-made, downloaded from a pre-made collection, or in some cases merged together. After users are presented with a card, they must respond and then give themselves a grade that reflects their recall ability. SuperMemo uses this feedback to calculate the interval length for the card to be repeated.
Self-discipline Ultimately Trumps All
Remember, while these programs may have wonderful language learning techniques, they won’t be effective unless you have the self-discipline to use them on an ongoing basis.
Make it a habit to open up and use the language learning apps mentioned above. If you set aside some time every day to do your SRS studying, you’ll see noticeable results sooner than you might imagine.
Frank Macri works with those looking to create off the beaten path lifestyles. For tips on saving (and making) money abroad, unique options to travel for a living, and wisdom picked up around the world, visit www.TheFrankLife.com.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.