Personal Growth

Spaced Repetition Is an Effective, Science-Backed Way to Learn a New Language

You probably took a foreign language class in high school. Even after four years of learning Spanish vocab, perhaps the only thing you can still recall from years of studying is "me gusta comer." No judgment. It's not your fault if 95 percent of your Español has escaped you — you probably went about learning it all wrong.

Oh, Just Forget It

The ability to speak multiple languages comes along with a host of mental health benefits. Beyond that, speaking a foreign language may help you make better decisions, shape your personality, and even impact how you perceive color and time. But becoming fluent in a whole new tongue is famously difficult. The way you go about learning languages is key to your success on the path to fluency. According to research, an approach called spaced repetition is the way to do it.

Spaced repetition is a study technique that places increased intervals of time before reviewing the information you're trying to learn. This idea originated with the work of German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who pioneered ways to measure learning and memory. The concept of the learning curve? That was all Ebbinghaus. As was something called the "forgetting curve," a concept he introduced in his groundbreaking 1885 study "Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology." After doing memory recall tests on himself, Ebbinghaus noticed a sharp drop-off in information retention after just 20 minutes. This laid the foundation for the spaced-repetition method.

Spaced Repetition

Repeat After Me

A 2013 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience notes how spaced repetition stored information in participants' long-term memory in a matter of minutes whereas rapid repetition didn't. Rapid repetition is the perfect-storm setup for falling victim to Ebbinghaus' forgetting curve.

So, what exactly is it? Here's one way to do it:

  1. Create flashcards of your vocabulary words, either digitally or by hand.
  2. Review your cards once a day.
  3. Every time you get a card wrong, put it in a section for cards you need to review frequently. When you get a card right, put it in a section for cards you need to review less frequently. You can even score each card for how well you remembered it, and place it on a scale from 0 (review tomorrow) to 5 (review next month).
  4. Follow your schedule and adjust as needed.

Quartz reporter Nikhil Sonnad suggests using software like Anki to store and keep track of your cards — just not to create them. Instead, create the cards yourself and add context clues so they're relevant to you. From there, you're on your way. What will you use it to learn? Spanish? Portuguese? Esperanto? Don't limit yourself to whichever seems easiest (that's largely personal, anyway), and try it out yourself.

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

Don't want to forget about Ebbinghaus? Check out his landmark "Memory; A Contribution to Experimental Psychology." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto March 15, 2018

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.