Why Adherence is Everything


Even the best of us can sometimes get persuaded by new strategies or tactics that promise to deliver remarkable results.  I don’t necessarily take issue with websites or books that claim to have found the perfect plan to achieve your goals.  Yet the best plan or strategy is the one that actually gets used.  Besides language learning, I see this principle apply to many other areas of life such as fitness or dieting.  Many people get inspired to get healthy or lose weight, but they often fail because the plan they chose requires too big of a change in their routine or habits.  It could be that going from nothing to working out at the gym three times a week is a to big of a jump in commitment.  It is no wonder that the majority of folks who sign up for a gym membership as a New Year’s resolution stop going to the gym by the middle of February.

The main principle here is to be brutally honest with yourself about what sort of plan you will actually adhere to.  Far better to choose a decent plan that you will actually stick to versus having the perfect plan that never gets utilized.  At the same time you should be extremely intentional in removing as many barriers as possible that are going to prevent you from procrastinating or giving up.

I’ve needed to heed this advice in my own language learning journey.  In studying Mandarin, I tried using a mass sentence method called Glossika that required me to listen and repeat thousands of recorded sentences.  Each day a new recording would have me parrot dozens of sentences for 30 minutes.  I actually believe that this is an effective learning strategy, and many polyglots have utilized it with great success.  I actually stuck with it for about 3 months and can honestly say that my cadence and fluency actually improved.  But the problem I faced was that I dreaded doing this practice, and it was extremely difficult to adhere to each day.  Eventually I quit and moved on to other types of language practice.  Some may object and say, “no pain, no gain”, which is true.  I believe that practice should be both challenging and deliberate.  But we also need to be realistic about what we are willing to commit to.

If you have no interest in reading the newspaper even in your mother tongue, then don’t use a learning plan that involves daily reading practice from a newspaper.  If a language learning method encourages you to go out and talk to strangers, but you are an introvert, don’t expect yourself to be in the marketplace each day doing hours of conversation practice.  Better to have private practice with a tutor twice a week than a daily practice routine that never happens.  It may be that language programs like Pimsleur or Assimil get you great results, but only if you stick with them long-term.  Find the program that you think you are least likely to quit a few weeks later.

The language learning app Duolingo seems to be one program that has addressed some of these barriers that keep people from adhering to a plan.  They have taken the language learning process and gamified it, and turned daily practice into bite-size pieces.  While skeptics may criticize an app like Duolingo and say it can never replace a proper classroom or teacher, 20 minutes of daily practice that actually happens easily beats the language course that you never get around to attending.

It’s been said, “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.”  What distinguishes greatness is consistency.  The next time you’re considering a new language learning resource or study approach, think about this principle of adherence.


Memory and Spaced Repetition System

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:

Universal Flashcard Apps

Language Specific Flashcard Apps