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Using spaced repetition to learn a language

Reaching any level of proficiency in a foreign language is a long and difficult road. The traditional approach of enrolling in a class, or taking an online course can offer some much needed guidance, and they definitely make you feel like you're being productive and learning, but unfortunately they're not very helpful in acquiring the language. Many students will find themselves completely lost in real-life conversations, even after spending countless hours in class or on Duolingo.

Spaced repetition

Spaced repetition is a flash card system that exploits the forgetting curve. It schedules material to be reviewed just before they're about to be forgotten. It's used to store information in long term memory while spending as little time as possible reviewing. This approach is perfect for language learning because the volume of material to remember is enormous, thousands words or more.

The method

There is a very basic, but extremely effective method for acquiring a language using spaced repetition.

  1. Learn basic grammar
  2. Immerse in the language
  3. Create cards for new words
  4. Add audio
  5. Review your cards every day.

At this point you may be wondering what makes Mochi better than other apps like Duolingo, which have pre-made courses and flashcards built in. The key difference is in the immersion and card creation process. The material you add should be personal and experiential. Memories that are tied to experience are harder to forget. This is what makes techniques like the Loci mnemonic method so powerful. The problem with pre-made courses is that you have to follow their curriculum. They're simply not flexible enough to add your own material. What happens if you encounter a word that hasn't appeared in the course yet? You will also likely learn a lot of words that you'll not encounter for a very long time. Using Mochi lets you control the pace and direction of learning. For example if you're learning Spanish for your job at a cross-border trucking company, learning words related to that industry are going to be of higher interest.

Learn basic grammar

This is the only part of the method that follows a more traditional conscious learning process. The reason for learning grammar consciously (as opposed to acquiring it subconsciously) is that grammar is a relatively small portion of a language (compared to vocabulary), and learning the rules up front can help you "decode" the input you're immersing in, which will speed up the acquisition process. It should not be used to help you consciously construct sentences in a conversation. That kind of output will come naturally as a byproduct of acquisition through massive amounts of input and immersion.

Given that Mochi's cards can also double as note cards, you can utilize this point to take notes on the grammar you're learning. Re-writing information in your own words reenforces your understanding and memory. You can even add those note cards to your spaced repetition reviews.

Immerse in the language

This step will paradoxically be the most fun, and the most frustrating, depending on your level. Immersion is key in acquiring a language, and it's why people who take years of classes, but never immerse, are barely functional in their target language. Because language acquisition is mostly an intuitive and subconscious process, structured classes are often ineffective. Your skill in outputting a language is generally determined by the quality and quantity of your input.

Create flash cards for new material

Vocabulary cards created from your immersion are more effective than pre-made cards in at least 2 ways:

  1. They come from personal experience, which creates a stronger mnemonic bond.
  2. They contain the context within which the word was used.

The first point is more of a bonus, but 2. is crucial. It's pretty easy to look up a word in a Japanese to English dictionary and get the meaning. It's even easier to look up the 2000 most common words in Japanese and create dictionary definition flash cards from them. However the dictionary definition won't communicate any nuance. You won't learn how the word is used (for example in a typical sentence), or, more importantly, in what context the word is used.

For example, in a Japanese to English dictionary there are at least two words defined as "please; please do for me": choudai and kudasai. Although their English translation is mostly equivalent, their nuances are totally different, and knowing when to use each will help you avoid awkward situations.

Add audio

Quick question, how do you pronounce bough? How about rough, or through? Cough? English maybe be an extreme case of spelling gone awry, but I think it illustrates the importance of having audio (especially of native speakers) accompanying your vocabulary cards to learn correct pronunciation.

Once you've added a card to your deck, you can use Mochi's built-in text to speech to generate audio for your vocab word or sentence (audio for the entire sentence is usually more effective). This will help train your ears to hear sounds you might not otherwise have been able to. Languages are filled with sounds that sound similar but are subtly different, and as we grow older and more accustomed to our native language, it gets harder and harder to discern those differences.

In addition to those "minimal pairs," languages have different stress and pitch patterns across vocabulary. For example the stressed syllable in "content" totally changes the meaning (content vs content).

But why stop at training recognition? Using audio clips can help train recall as well. Make sure to shadow back the pronunciation every time you review the card, as this will train muscle memory in your mouth and make it effortless to recall the word or phrase again in a real conversation.

Review every day

Perhaps the most important step in this whole process: setting up a review schedule and sticking to it. I recommend reviewing all of the cards in your inbox every morning when you're fresh and (relatively) full of energy. Waiting until late at night when you're drained of energy and motivation will make it that much easier to put off reviewing until the next day.

So, when should you "learn" new cards? In contrast to reviewing cards in the morning, I find that learning new material is best done at night, before you go to sleep. Studies have shown that learning before going to sleep can help boost retention of those memories.

Don't give up

This isn't the easiest method out there, but I believe it's the most effective. Learning a language, no matter how you approach it is going to be incredibly challenging. The best thing you can do to motivate yourself is just enjoy the journey. Find things that interest you in your target language, meet new people, hell, maybe even visit a country that speaks the language.

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