Do not forget The Forgetting Curve when learning a language (or anything else)

The Forgetting Curve

Forgetting: A common experience

It is the beginning of the summer, you are sitting on your chair staring the questions on your exam sheet and you realise that you have forgotten all the information that you have frantically read in the last week. “How is this possible? Will I have to stay in high school another year” you ask yourself.

A lot of people can relate to similar moments in their life where they realise that something they studied or read or listened is suddenly vanished from their head. The reason why this happens is that people forget about The Forgetting Curve, or they do not even know about it.

What is it the forgetting curve?

The forgetting curve is a graphic illustration that shows the decline of memory retention during time. In other words the forgetting curve is a graphic way to express the concept that new information is often rapidly lost (forgot) when it is not repeated.

One way to retain new information in-spite of the forgetting curve is to a) repeat information at optimal time intervals; b) to use efficient mnemonic techniques. For example in an older post I described as I use stories to learn new words in a language.

Repeat information at optimal time intervals

There is some evidence that the forgetting curve becomes less steep when the new information is repeated and so the optimal time for repetition extend after every repetition. So, for example, if we want to learn a new word in a language we should be exposed to this word very soon after the first exposure (second exposure or repetition). Then we should repeat the word after increasing longer periods of time. This is called space repetition and allows moving information from our short memory to our long-term memory.

How can we use spaced repetition to learn a new language?

Once we know that spaced repetition is important for acquiring new information we can use it to learn more efficiently. For example, when we read books to learn a language a good practice would be to read the book twice in the shortest period of time and then read it again after few days and after few weeks (of course the book should be something we are interested in otherwise repetition would be boring and if something is boring then it will not stick into your brain). Doing so, the possibility to remember the new words in the book will be higher.

Using games that somehow rehearse, or react, new information are also a wonderful way to repeat new information.

If you are singing German songs to learn German, do not change continuously the songs, build a repertoire and repeat them at spaced intervals.

Software like Anki, a flashcard system, uses an algorithm that is based on the concept of spaced repletion and shows the same flashcard at increasing periods of time. I am using this software to learn new words in German but also to learn the Latin name of plants (by using flashcards with photos’ of the plant on one side and the plant’s name on the other side). I also used anki to create a deck of audio flashcards to teach Italian pronunciation that can be bought on-line for the price of sandwich.

So do not forget about repeating what have you learned and leave increasing time between repetitions.


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