How to remember what you learn

forgetting curveOne of the most difficult tasks for new language students is to figure out how to remember new vocabulary. It can be pretty challenging remembering new words in your native language, let alone new words in a foreign language. In this article, my friend Stephen Bayldon, veteran educator and ex-principal of a language school in Auckland, shares some of his views on how to remember what you learn. Here are some very useful tips for

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language learners.

His latest thoughts reproduced here:

I find memorising information long term a real challenge. This is certainly true for many of us learning a language. Often as fast as we can learn new words we forget the earlier ones! Or only the most common words which come up frequently enter our long term memory.

Of course practice makes perfect – repetition is the key; but who has time to go through thousands of flashcards regularly? Recently I read an article in Scientific American Mind magazine about an eccentric Polish professor named Piotr Wozniak who's spend his life working on this problem. He now memorises thousands of cheapest priced propecia facts every week.

Timing is the second key. If you practice too soon you waste your time. (You need time to work on reading, listening and speaking). Practice too late and you've forgotten the material and have to relearn it. The right time to practice is just at the moment you're about to forget. Obvious but useless information! Imagine a pile of thousands of flash cards. Somewhere in this pile are the ones you should be practicing right now. But which are they? Fortunately, human forgetting follows a pattern. We forget 'exponentially' as shown in the picture. Of course there are individual differences. So how can we organise the cards perfectly? Manually it's impossible, but Wozniak's realised it could be done with interactive computer software.


I found his difficult to use (at least the free version). After some frustrating surfing I found one which is free and easy to download and to use:

You can make your own 'cards'. When a question comes up you click a tab, according to how difficult you found it to remember the answer. The programme then combines that information plus the number of previous repetitions. The next review date is scheduled accordingly – beautiful!

Of course there are other useful tips for learning vocabulary faster:

* Connect new information with something you already know about.You can put example sentences plus info on usage, collocation, pronunciation etc in your “anki” entries.

* Make the connection memorable – funny, personal, sexy, emotional…etc AND including different senses. Eg the Japanese for apple is ringo – so I picture an “Adam and Eve ” scene in which I bite into a sweet smelling, crunchy and delicious apple from my Japanese Eve, only for my teeth to hit a ring that goes around it…

* For more abstract words and topics, you can connect a lot of words together on one topic using mind maps; so they are organised in the same way as the human brain – eg use (free online tool). Then try to read, listen, write and talk to yourself and others about the topic.

* Read, read, read! Anything that you are interested in (see above). Find readers at a level where you know about 80% of the words; then guess the rest. There will be many words in your own language you don't know. Good language learners are relaxed about uncertainty.


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About The Author

Kenneth is Director of Euroasia. He is passionate about languages and cultures.