The proven system to learn foreign language vocabulary and not forgetit
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Copyright © Olly Richards 2015
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Hi, I’m Olly Richards and I’m the creator of the I Will Teach You A Language blog.
When I was 19, I went to live in Paris. There was one small problem, though. I didn’t speak French. Not one to back down from a challenge, I decided to learn it. Within six months, and after a lot of trial and error, and ups and downs, I was conversationally fluent.
I had caught the language bug!
I went back to London, and continued to learn new languages. Since then, I’ve become fluent in seven of them, including some of the world’s hardest languages, like Japanese, Cantonese and Arabic.
One day, I decided to start writing about how I do it, and started a blog.
These days, I continue to learn new languages and spend my time producing the highest-quality educational material out there to help others replicate my success.
With hundreds of students, and more than a smattering of success stories, I’ve discovered that anybody can become fluent in another language with the right guidance.
To find out more about me, why not visit the blog, or check out this interview with me, filmed in Cairo, Egypt!
Best wishes, – Olly
SECTION 1 Introduction
- Learning vocabulary is the most important element of making quick progress in a new language
- In order to do this you need an efficient system
- Flashcards with “spaced repetition” are one such system and are extremely effective for learning vocabulary
Of all the challenges facing you in a new language, learning enough vocabulary is probably the biggest of them all.
It’s disarmingly simple, when you think about it.
Whatever else you do, whatever else you learn, however else you study, often your ability to understand someone, or to make yourself understood, depends on one simple thing: Do you know enough words?
For me, there are two important implications of this.
Firstly, learning new vocabulary must be your number one priority when taking on a new language.
Secondly, you need an efficient system for learning that vocabulary.
You often hear people talking about the importance of enjoying the learning process and having fun with the language, and this is absolutely true.
However, it’s also true that a certain amount of “heavy lifting” is needed if you’re to get anywhere with the language.
Given that we’re all busy people, often with limited time for language learning in-amongst other commitments, any “heavy lifting” that we decide to do has to count!
This guide is all about how to do that “heavy lifting”.
It’s about how to learn foreign language vocabulary quickly, and not forget it.
If you’re looking for an easy-going, relaxing, pencil-and-paper method for learning vocabulary, look elsewhere.
The flashcard system that I describe in this guide does not claim to be particularly fun.
However, it does claim to be effective.
By the end of the guide you will know exactly how to use spaced repetition technology to memorise vocabulary, how to make sure you don’t forget it, and even better, how you can learn in such a way that you have all that vocabulary ready on the tip of your tongue when you come to speak with someone.
It’s a bold promise. But after learning seven foreign languages myself, it’s the most effective and efficient way I know to grow a solid vocabulary core quickly, and to start speaking fluently in months rather than years.
It is nonetheless true that some people do find flashcards boring and dislike using technology. Rather than simply saying: “This is not for you”, however, I wanted to offer a solution to people who feel this way, such that they can still benefit from the huge advantages of spaced repetition technology.
If you fall into this category, you should pay particular attention to the advice in sections 5 & 6. Although the basic study methodology will be the same, by being highly selective about the vocabulary you attempt to
memorise you can drastically reduce the amount of study time required every day.
By keeping your study time to bite-sized chunks, you can benefit from spaced repetition to help you learn the most important vocabulary of all quickly, whilst still leaving you time to study in other ways and do the things you enjoy the most.
Lastly, this guide has been kept deliberately short.
I’m a huge proponent of the 80/20 rule, which states that 80% of your gains will come from only 20% of the things you do. Learning vocabulary with flashcards is no exception.
I could have easily included five times the amount information, such as more advanced learning strategies, or tips on adjusting flashcard settings, for example, that, whilst very interesting, are not particularly important in the grand scheme of things.
80% of your success in using this method for learning vocabulary will come from following a few simple principles properly, and it’s these principles that are covered in this guide.
Good luck, and if you have any questions or feedback for me, you can reach me any time at: firstname.lastname@example.org
CHAPTER 1 Key Success Principles for Learning Vocabulary with Spaced Repetition
SECTION 1 What is spaced repetition?
- Spaced repetition is a system for learning
information based on our understanding of human memory
- You input new vocabulary into flashcard
software and indicate how well you know each word
- Vocabulary is then shown to you at strategic
intervals (unknown words more often) so it enters quickly into your long-term memory and you don’t forget it
- By studying in this way, you spend more of
your time studying vocabulary that you don’t yet know well, thereby making learning extremely efficient
Spaced repetition is a system for learning information based on our understanding of human memory. It is often used by flashcard software, to make the learning process more efficient.
Let’s imagine you’re trying to learn ten new words. After inputting them into your flashcard software, you will indicate how well you know each word.
At the beginning, each new word will be shown to you quite often, so that you have plenty of opportunities to memorise it.
As you study, you will naturally start to remember two or three of the words, and you will tell the software which ones. Those two or three words will then be shown to you less frequently.
The better you know the words, the less frequently you will see them, until it gets to the point where you might only see some words every 6 months in order to “keep them ticking over”.
Certain words, however, you will find harder to learn. You will keep telling the software than you don’t know them yet, and you will see them more often – as much as every five minutes!
This is controlled by the spaced repetition algorithm of the software, which knows, based on the “forgetting curve” how often you need to see a word for it to enter into the long-term memory.
This system, then, is similar to the paper flashcards that you might have used in school to remember geography facts or dates in history.
The big difference, though, is efficiency.
With paper flashcards, there is no system. You waste huge amounts of time reviewing cards that you already know, at the expense of unknown cards that you really need to see more often.
With spaced repetition, however, you automatically spend more time on things you don’t know, and less time on things you do.
The result, when applied to learning foreign languages, is that you can learn new vocabulary many times quicker, by a two- step process:
- Seeing unknown vocabulary more often, so you learn it
- Reviewing vocabulary that you know better at strategic intervals so that they enter quickly into your long-term memory
As long as you keep using this system to study over the long term, all vocabulary (however well you know it) will be brought back automatically for you to revise at key intervals, meaning that you never forget it.
It’s no wonder, then, that spaced repetition has become such a huge part of learning foreign languages. It’s an example of a situation in which technology has been a genuine game- changer, and made the dream of become fluent that much easier.
By this point, hopefully you are sold on the potential of spaced repetition as a language learning tool.
If you’re like me and you want to dive right in, you might like to go straight to Chapter 2, download my recommended software, play around a bit, and then come back to the rest of this chapter later.
If it’s your first time using flashcards, familiarising yourself with the software first might help you make more sense of what’s to come.
Otherwise, we’re going to get stuck into the nuts and bolts of exactly how to use spaced repetition flashcards to learn foreign language vocabulary effectively.
SECTION 2 Getting started with spaced repetition flashcards
- You should use your flashcard software as the
one place where you “store” all your new vocabulary – no more old notebooks!
- By doing this, the software can keep track of all
your new vocabulary, make sure you keep reviewing it, and that none of it gets forgotten about
- Making flashcards is easy – simply write word
or phrase in the target language on one side, and the equivalent in English (or your mother tongue) on the other
In order for any system of learning vocabulary to work, it can’t involve too much extra work. This is especially true of a system involving technology. After all, technology is supposed to make our lives easier, not more complicated!
Now, the main principle in any system of learning vocabulary is this: You need a place to store new words and phrases.
In order to memorise new vocabulary, you need to go back to it over and over again. If all the new vocabulary you want to learn is scattered around in different places (notebooks, random bits of paper, Skype chat boxes, etc), you’ve built your foundation on chaos.
What you’re going to do from this point on is simplify everything.
Here’s what the inside of my flashcard app looks like, and what you’re looking at are different “decks” of cards.
Inside each deck are a lot of cards. What they represent is all of the vocabulary that I’ve set about learning over the last year. (Naturally, there is other vocabulary that I’ve learnt
incidentally, but everything in these decks is something I’ve intentionally tried to learn.)
Now, here’s the important bit.
After having a language exchange, after reading a book, after watching a movie, after hearing something new on the street, I transfer new words and phrases that I want to learn immediately into a flashcard deck.
I put the target language on one side of the card and English (my mother tongue) on the other.
This flashcard app becomes my one place for organising all new vocabulary that I have any intention of trying to learn.
It’s all in one place.
No more scraps of paper and random notes on my iPhone…I have one centralised place where all my new vocabulary goes.
As a result, two things happen:
- I can use the search function to immediately find any
word I’m trying to remember
- All my new words and phrases take their turn in the
spaced-repetition system, so the software does all the work of deciding when I need to review them next
Can you see how, by organising your learning in this way, the task of actually learning vocabulary is reduced to one simple job?
Simply open the app and review your flashcards each day.
You don’t need to worry about which method you’re using, you don’t need to fret about words that you wrote down somewhere and might forget about, you don’t need to worry about that notebook you filled up 6 months ago and is somewhere on the shelf…it’s all there under one roof.
This is the first and most important part of simplifying your language learning (80/20) – simply remove all the unnecessary parts and focus on doing what matters – memorising the vocabulary.