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 the bad news is they won't help you acquire the language. Many students will find themselves completely lost when confronted by the reality of real-life conversations, even after spending countless hours in class or on Duolingo.
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 with as little time as possible spent reviewing. This approach is perfect for language learning because the volume of material to remember is enormous, by some counts ten thousand words or more.
There is a very basic, but extremely effective method for acquiring a language using spaced repetition.
- Learn basic grammar
- Immerse in the language
- Create cards for new words
- Add audio
- 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 spaced repetition 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? Using Mochi lets you control the pace and direction of learning.
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.
At this point you can use Mochi's note feature to take notes on certain grammar points, and use the note → card tool to automatically create example sentence cards.
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 typically 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:
- They come from personal experience, which creates a stronger mnemonic bond.
- 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. The only problem with that is the dictionary 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 some uncomfortable situations.
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 (preferably of native speakers) accompanying your vocabulary cards to learn correct pronunciation.
Once you've added a card to your deck, a lot of online dictionaries have audio clips of native speakers you can grab and add to the card. 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.
But why stop at training recognition? Using audio clips can help train recall as well. Make sure to parrot 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 your due cards every morning when you're fresh and (relatively) full of energy. Waiting until late at night when you're zapped 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.