Having a deeper understanding of how our brain works can really help us optimize our language learning approaches. This is an area of study called metacognition, or understanding our cognitive processes and how our brain works. For example, if we understand how memory works, and specifically how long-term memory works, we can improve our learning processes.
The graph below shows a concept that all of us are familiar with if we’ve ever tried to retain someone’s phone number in our short-term memory (maybe just long enough to write it down). The same applies to language learning. Anytime you learn a new fact, you have a pretty good chance of remembering it soon after. But without review, a few days later, your chance of remembering that new fact drops to zero. We need regular review to consolidate the new facts. Yet what the graph also shows is that each time you review that new fact, you are able to remember it for longer. This may seem obvious to you, but many people fail to take advantage of this phenomenon.
Enter Spaced Repetition System
The implication of the truth above is that each subsequent review of the new fact can be postponed further and further into the future.
Let’s take an example: You are trying to learn 100 new vocabulary words. You want to use flashcards to commit them to memory.
Option A: You tediously flip though all 100 vocabulary flashcards. You keep doing this each day until you have memorized all 100 vocabulary words.
Option B: After studying the 100 flashcards for a few days you quickly realize that there are some words that are very easy to recall and some words that are still very hard to recall. You choose to set aside the easy flashcards and only review it a week from now. Then you choose to only focus on the hard words for the next couple days.
Here is a good video that explains this concept further: YouTube Clip
In the example above, the most efficient use of your time is to only review specific flashcards just as you are in danger of forgetting them. You can manually set up a system (e.g. Leitner System) or you can allow technology to figure out the SRS for you.
There are various flashcard apps and software out on the market. Just make sure whichever one you choose, that they are utilizing SRS. Here are a few recommendations: