One of the most intimidating tasks for the language learner is without a doubt learning vocabulary. Nobody really likes learning grammar but at least it does seem to be finite. Vocabulary, on the other hand can seem never-ending. And to add to the frustration, when you do learn a word, it doesn’t stay in your head for long.
What can language learners do to address these problems? Well, one tried and tested method is the trusty deck of flashcards. The learner writes the L1 word on the first side, the corresponding L2 word on the second side and tests himself regularly. Over time the deck grows and with frequent reviews, the words become more and more familiar.
Micheal Erard in his book "Babel No More", went on a quest to investigate the world’s best language learners. He discovered that the legendary Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who was said to have spoken anywhere between 30 and 72 languages, relied heavily on his collection of carefully handwritten flashcards. "It does not appear that the Cardinal possessed any extraordinary secret" he said. "In Mezzofanti’s own time, his methods must have seemed sensibly industrious. Today they dazzle us only by their vigour and persistence." This just goes to show the power of the humble flashcard when combined with a great deal of motivation.
And modern flashcard programs make the process much more manageable and eliminate at least some of the "vigour and persistence" required. With a deck of electronic flashcards, the learner can take his vocabulary on the go and synchronise them across multiple devices.
These programs go a long way to addressing most of the practical problems associated with an analogue (paper) deck of flashcards but are they any more effective? Do they help us learn more?
Why do we forget?
Fiction and real life are full of examples of people who we admire for their minds. We are amazed by people like Daniel Tammet who learned Icelandic in a week or magicians and memory champions who memorise decks of cards or impossibly long strings of numbers. We watch films like "Limitless", in which a wonder drug allows characters to learn skills and retain information like a supercomputer. We accept however that these examples are not reality. People with savant-like abilities often can’t lead normal lives, memory tricks are by nature tricks and have limited practical application and fiction requires us to suspend belief.
We marvel at these people and enjoy the movies but at the same time, we accept that in fact it is natural to forget. Our brains sort through what we learn, and when a particular piece of information is not recalled often enough, it is deemed not useful and allowed to be forgotten. Anything else would be inefficient.
How do we forget?
In 1885, German scientist Hermann Ebbinghaus published his book "Über das Gedächtnis. Untersuchungen zur Experimentellen Psychologie". This work detailed a phenomenon known as the spacing effect. Ebbinghaus’ research showed that we forget at an exponential rate and that this rate (the so-called forgetting curve) is predictable. Because it is predictable, Ebbinghaus concluded that if we are reminded at a specific time, just before we forget, information can be more successfully retained.
On the one hand, this isn’t really new. Obviously, consistent study over an extended period of time is better for learning than cramming but Ebbinghaus’ method is so efficient that study time can be drastically reduced. Unfortunately, this pattern of forgetting is far too complex for the human brain to calculate….
This is where an SRS (Spaced Repetition Software) program comes in. On the surface it looks like any other flashcard program, but after checking both sides of the card, the user is asked to rate the card on a difficulty scale of 1 - 4. An algorithm then determines when the card should next be reviewed. Cards with more '1' ratings are shown more often to the user (perhaps twice in ten minutes for example) and cards with more '4' ratings appear less frequently (perhaps just once every six months). Each time a card is viewed, the user gives it a new rating.
Because of the algorithm, learners can be confident that the information that is scheduled for that day, is the only information that needs to be studied in order to retain it.
"I know Kung-fu"
Ok, so we’re not quite at the point where we can download information into our heads. But the use of an SRS system can really help with the age old problem of remembering vocabulary. You just need to outsource some of your memory to your computer…… and let’s not forget the "vigour and persistence".
Babel No More: The Search for the World’s most Extraordinary Langauge Learners / Michael Erard