Playing football in the street as kids, our ball was forever flying over some hedge or fence into a neighbour’s garden. Getting it back – retrieving it – meant ringing the doorbell and asking some weary old pensioner if we could go into their garden and fetch it. We had to face their annoyed (and sometimes angry) faces, and grovel before the game could commence. Just like going to get the football, the game of language learning involves rescuing words that have been forgotten. This is what retrieval practice is all about.

What is Retrieval Practice?

Retrieval is the activity of bringing something back from the place where it has ended up. Remembering is, by definition, the process of retrieving memories from where they have ended up. And, finally, retrieval practice is any activity where we push ourselves to remember things that we previously learned with the aim of fixing them into our long term memories.

Retrieval practice is big right now, and for good reason. It really seems to be effective and there is good evidence to suggest that, as a technique of memorisation, it is much more effective in the long term than “review-based” study techniques, such as rereading and highlighting. These techniques, rather than testing knowledge, merely ‘re-expose’ students to information they have seen before, and do not force the learner to really remember.

The practices promoted here will almost certainly bring you more results, but they also require more conscious effort. Recalling information unassisted is tougher than just looking back through your notes, which might make the following recommendations less than welcome. But they will work! When learning a language, we need to be able to recall words and phrases at the drop of a hat – without notes – so it makes sense to strengthen these recall muscles.

Our ability to remember is made possible at brain level by the interconnectivity of neurons. The stronger and more numerous these neural pathways are, the more memorable a memory will be. Retrieval practice aims to strengthen and vary these connections. Like how lifting heavy weights helps the bodybuilder build big muscles; heavy acts of remembering help the rememberer remember hard-to-remember things.

The Need for Speed

Real life speaking situations are more rapid, varied, and impromptu than practice scenarios. The ability to partake in wide ranging discussions relies on you being able to access your language knowledge quickly so you can use it in unpredictable ways. Seeing as we have no idea what sudden question a sudden questioner might ask, we need the ability to recall not only well, but quickly. Fortunately, practicing retrieval can make you not only better at recalling things, but also faster at finding them.

Your ability to retrieve language opens the door to free flowing conversation. Recalling the right word, at the right time, can mean the difference between expressing a thought and leaving an uncomfortably long pause after a friend’s question. Naturally, as you become more fluent in a language, your ability to recall its components gets better. The opposite is also true: improving your ability to retrieve language from memory will make it easier to take part in fast, fluent conversation.

There are occasions as a language learner when retrieval happens to you spontaneously, as if by magic, exactly when desired. When words are pulled from the backs of our minds, and put to use, they often become permanently familiar and available for use. Memories strengthen when they are linked to a diverse range of contextual affiliations. Each time we recall a word we add a new layer of context to it, edit its closest associations, and make it easier to remember from then on. 

Brain Training

Building retrieval techniques into your routine isn’t difficult, but expect to meet some resistance, like with going to the gym. Showing up isn’t enough; you actually have to pick up the weights. Likewise, with flashcards, for example, you need to really pull the word out of your memory – before you turn the card over. Otherwise, you risk missing out on the gains available by making your brain do some really heavy lifting.

We practice retrieval every time we try to remember a word without looking it up online or in the dictionary. Most kinds of retrieval practice aren’t all that new or fancy. Flashcards are a classic form of this, as are quizzes, and self testing. For the ambitious language learner, however, these common forms of practice might not be ambitious enough. Such activities might already fill a portion of your day and, really, you are reading this for a suggestion more original than ‘use flashcards’.  

Talking to Yourself

A less intuitive and more unusual way to practice retrieval, and this is going to sound strange, is to talk to yourself. Yes, the thing your parents told you not to do as a child (mine did, at least). Start by thinking about what you are curious about and form questions about the world. Now, phrase your curiosity in your learning language: “Liebt mich meine Katze?”.  You just retrieved German words and structures and, at the same time, asked a deep philosophical question about the emotional life of your pet.

If you start to feel self conscious, or if people start to stare too hard, you can always take that monologue indoors. Instead of blurting out “Sind Auberginen wirklich Obst?” at the market, simply state the question to yourself in your head. This is a bit unintuitive, but it makes sense if you think about it. You are retrieving vocab and language knowledge from memory, and, whilst doing so, making steps towards thinking in the language – something that marks real advancement in those approaching fluency.

Total Recall

Activating retrieval practice means asking yourself the question: “Am I really testing my knowledge?” If you find that you are not, there are ways to adjust your study habits so that you are.

If you are studying flashcards, get in the habit of answering out loud before turning the card over. Guessing incorrectly is better than not guessing at all. If you are writing and you can’t think of the word you need, leave a gap, keep writing, and come back to it after a few minutes. If you still can’t recall the word, then you will know that you definitely needed to look it up.

If you can’t think of how to say something while speaking, don’t panic. Relax and let your increasing powers of retrieval shine. This process is gradual and imperfect, and it is important to forgive yourself when you fail as well as to congratulate yourself when you succeed. Discovering what you don’t know is crucial for learning as it shows you exactly what you need to dedicate more time to.

Making it Meaningful

How you set things to memory is as important as what it is you are trying to remember. Working memory is a network of associations, and the more connections a memory has the stronger it will be. We are not good at remembering things out of context so actively associate new language to things in the real world. Connect words to related words, to example sentences, and things that interest you.

If you hear the phrase “einen Kater haben” (to have a hangover) in your favourite German podcast and realise that it uses the word for “male cat”, you can connect it with an image of your cat, Tommy, pawing at your head while you lying on the sofa with a headache. This kind of thing can really make words stick.

Carpe Diem!

You don’t need to radically change your study habits. And you certainly don’t need to beat yourself up with tests. Instead, look to the things you already do and ask yourself how they might be enhanced and made more effective with retrieval practice. Adding more challenge, more variety, more context, and most importantly, more cats, is a recipe for language learning success.