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Using spaced repetition in language learning

Updated: Aug 27


How do you revise your study materials? Do you write them down in your notebook? Do you use an application? Studies have shown that repeatedly retrieving information significantly helps with long-term retention of information. You may recognise this as the spaced repetition method.


Many use spaced repetition to revise their study materials when they are learning a new language. If you are uncertain about what spaced repetition is, continue reading this article to understand how it works and how you can use it to help you with your vocabulary revision.


Why do we forget learnt vocabulary?


Before we start learning about spaced repetition, let’s understand why we forget in the first place.


Based on the Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve by Hermann Ebbinghaus, we understand that memory retention declines with time. The curve shows how information is forgotten over time when we do not revise the information.



Hermann Ebbinghaus hypothesised that the speed of forgetting is influenced by a few factors, mainly the difficulty of the material, how relatable it is to us and physiological factors such as stress and sleep.


So, how do we overcome these factors that contribute to forgetting?


We can use spaced repetition to remember difficult materials and mnemonic techniques to make the materials we learn more relatable to us. Mnemonic techniques are essentially using anything we are familiar with or enjoy doing, and relate it to our newly learnt materials. For example, you can remember the ABCs by singing the ABC song!


Since this article is focused on spaced repetition, I will now go into more detail on it.


What is Spaced Repetition?


Now that we understand why we forget learnt vocabulary, we can learn more about spaced repetition.


Spaced repetition is a learning technique that usually involves flashcards and time intervals. You write the information you want to remember on flashcards and revise that information using the cards. New and more difficult flashcards are revised more frequently as compared to older and less difficult ones. This allows you to increase your exposure to new and difficult information as compared to the older and less difficult information. Thus, this new and difficult information will be embedded in your short term memory more often.


The more often the information is revisited and stays in your short term memory, the more likely it will be stored in your long term memory, which is what we want to achieve when learning a new language or vocabulary.


So, how does using flashcards help in our learning?


When using flashcards, we utilise the Leitner system to revise efficiently, where cards are reviewed at intervals. Essentially your brain will be revising different sets of flashcards at different frequencies, depending on whether you've remembered them in the past.


Too confusing for you? Let me give you an easy example.


Let’s say Flashcard A is a newly added flashcard. We will add Flashcard A into Box 1. Box 1 will be reviewed daily. Perhaps after 3 days, you managed to answer correctly for Flashcard A, so you can move it into Box 2, where you will review it every 2 days. When you answer Flashcard A correctly, you move it into Box 3.


However, if you answer Flashcard A wrongly, you will need to move it back into Box 1.


Do you see the pattern?



The frequency of how often you want to revise each box is entirely up to you. Depending on your own schedule and how urgent you want your learning to be, you can adjust the frequency of revising based on your preference. As long as Box 1 to Box 5 has decreasing revision frequency, you’re all good to go!


How do you use Spaced Repetition in your vocabulary revision?


To curb the decline of memory retention, we would want to revise the information learnt. Remember the Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve? Whenever we revise the information, we're essentially disrupting the curve from declining.


But we couldn’t possibly go through all the information every single day, that would be too time consuming!


To counter this issue, we can use the spacing effect, or spaced repetition, to revise. By spacing out our study sessions, learning becomes more effective and more information is added to our long-term memory.


I’ve briefly mentioned the use of spaced repetition in vocabulary revision during your language learning journey in another blog post and I've just explained what spaced repetition is. Now, I would like to talk about spaced repetition in relation to vocabulary revision.


When you're learning a new language, you may start to get overwhelmed by the amount of vocabulary or information you need to remember. This is where spaced repetition is applied so you don’t have to revise all your materials every day and get stressed out over your studying.


Here is a rough outline of how you can go about implementing spaced repetition in your revision:


  1. List down all the information you need to remember.

  2. Write down each information on a flashcard.

  3. Compile the flashcards and you can either put them in a box or tie them up with a rubber band. This stack of flashcards will then be called Pile A or Box A.

  4. You will start to revise Pile A daily. If you answered any correctly, separate those flashcards into another pile called Pile B. If you answered any wrongly, keep them in Pile A.

  5. Repeat this process of revising Pile A daily and Pile B every 2 days. If you answered any correctly, move them into the next pile. If you answered any wrongly, move them into the previous pile.


Note that this outline is a reference for you. It is more beneficial if you adjust the outline according to your own needs and goals!


The Revisit Method


Now you may be asking, is there a need to create a flashcard for each information I want to learn? This seems like it’ll take up a lot of space and it's probably a waste of paper.


That’s true! So, I will introduce you to an alternative that doesn’t require you to make much preparation, apart from having a smartphone and your list of vocabulary words.


Revisit is an application that helps with your vocabulary revision. Revisit uses algorithms to incorporate spaced repetition in your daily revisions on the app! You just need to add your desired vocabulary words into the app and the algorithm will automatically generate the words for your revision. This way, the words that you’re less familiar with will be fed to you more often than those that you’re more familiar with.


Don't want the app to prioritise your least revised words? Revisit also has a "Revision Priority" function that allows its users to choose which types of vocabulary to prioritise in your revision. You can choose between "Random", "Oldest Vocab First" and "Least Revised First".



By choosing "Random", you will revise your vocabulary in a random order. "Oldest Vocab First" allows you to revise the vocabulary that you added in your list the earliest. Lastly, "Least Revised First" will be prioritising the vocabulary you have revised the least according to the revision progress reflected in the Vocab Book.



In future updates, Revisit will include more features so you can customise your revision to better suit your needs.


On top of adding your own words to a vocabulary book for revision, you can customise your preferred revision time slots and it’ll send you a daily reminder at that time. This helps when we’re trying to incorporate spaced repetition in our revision and that you wouldn’t forget to revise daily!


Essentially, Revisit uses artificial intelligence to help in your vocabulary retention. Based on your revision progress, Revisit will feed you vocabulary that you’ve had trouble remembering.


Isn’t this so much more convenient for your learning?


Summary


Spaced repetition is a useful technique when you’re trying to learn or revise study materials. When implemented correctly, you’ll be able to learn more information in a shorter period of time. Hence, increasing your productivity levels.


When we’re trying to learn a new language, we want to learn as much as we can in the shortest possible time. By utilising spaced repetition, we can efficiently do that!


Remember that learning a language is a commitment and will span over years of practice and hard effort. Spaced repetition can aid in your process but you will need to put in the effort to actively learn your content, rather than solely relying on it or language learning applications.


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