When it comes to talking about language learning, many people think that unless you acquire a language as a young child, or maybe as a teenager at the latest, you will never be able to have mastery over it. But while you might not be able to achieve native-like fluency, you can definitely master a language as an adult. The main bone of contention would be about the meaning of being fluent. Regardless of the finer points about this, it is definitely possible for an adult to learn a language, or even multiple languages and be able to speak them all to a (relatively) high standard. But how, I hear you ask?

Even if you are never going to be able to fool a native speaker into thinking that you, yourself, are a native speaker, it is very much possible for you to eventually be able to hold your own in a conversation about pretty much anything with a native speaker, provided that you know WHAT you’re talking about, of course! In order to know what you’re talking about, you’re going to need to memorise grammar and vocabulary. What is the best way to do this? Well, reader, have you heard of the Spaced Repetition System?

What is a Spaced Repetition System?

Spaced repetition systems are a way of committing things to memory that is based on the spacing effect.
The spacing effect is the idea that things are better learned in the long term if you repeatedly do them, or go over them, over a long(ish) period of time, leaving spacing in between them.

Without even looking at the scientific evidence, this makes sense. If not, think back to those times when you were at school and stayed up all night to cram for an exam. Ok, so maybe you passed. Maybe you even cheated, but that’s not really the issue here. Assuming you didn’t cheat, but you did pass, how much of the material do you remember now? Chances are that very little! This is because by cramming, you did the exact opposite to spaced repetition – and thus only committed things to a very short term memory mechanism (if you were lucky!). This is also why people sometimes get that feeling that their brain has reset as soon as they walk out of the exam and they instantly forget everything about it.

That’s all well and good, but if what you’re trying to do is to learn a language, you will need to remember many words and patterns of words so that you can use it to create your own patterns and sequences in a way that is more or less infinite. You want to be able to have decent conversations after all!

A little bit of history

The spacing effect in psychology, upon which the method of spaced repetition for learning is based, was first suggested by Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist that would become known for his empirical study of memory.

In his book Über das Gedächtnis. Untersuchungen zur experimentellen Psychologie, published in 1885 and which earned him a chair at the University of Berlin when he was 35 years old, Ebbinghaus explored memory and learning and the relationship of exposure to inputs and retention and recall ability.

What he found was that new information is forgotten over time, but that this process does not happen in a linear way: we forget things faster immediately after coming into contact with them than after a while. Out of sight, out of mind and all that! He represented this idea graphically with what he called a forgetting curve. This curve has time on the x axis and memory (“quantity” remembered) on the y axis. It begins very steeply but flattens out.

If we come back to the material periodically however, we can eventually “modify” this graph so that the curve flattens and we effectively can recall everything that we wish to memorise.

In the 1930s, the notion that spaced repetition could be used as a learning tool was first suggested and was subsequently subject to experimentation in the United States. The results of experiments on school children in Iowa were positive, but went relatively unnoticed in the scientific and educational communities and it was not until the 1960s and 1970s when Paul Pimsleur thought of applying it to linguistics that it began gaining traction and recognition.

What is the best spaced repetition schedule?

So you’re convinced, and want to space out your study sessions. But how far apart should you space them? Piotr Wozniak invented the first spaced repetition computer software, SuperMemo. It was built based on research into long-term memory. A simplified version of his the intervals they found to be optimal are:

First repetition: 1 day
Second repetition: 7 days
Third repetition: 16 days
Fourth repetition: 35 days

Are flashcards effective?

The simple answer is, yes. Flashcards, which had been around prior to, first became systematized with the Leitner system that used the principles of spaced repetition to try to find a way of only going over those that have not yet been mastered.

The Leitner system uses flashcards that are grouped together by how well the learner knows them. The flashcards they know the least well will be studied at intervals close together, while the flashcards they know very well will be studied at intervals spaced far apart. If the learner gets a flashcard wrong, it is immediately demoted to the group of least known cards. If the learner gets a flashcard right, it is placed in the group of cards above.

The Leitner system is currently used by medical and law students, people who have to memorise large amounts of information quickly and, in a way that takes the need to plan out of the equation, by Chatterbug students who are learning German or Spanish. Using an adaptive, digitized version of the Leitner system, and combining it with the other two “organic” pillars, Chatterbug has created a powerful and intuitive way to learn languages with a solid grounding on science.

The Chatterbug Method

The method that Chatterbug uses to teach people languages is based on three pillars: Live Lessons, arguably the “Ace” in the Chatterbug method, which get you consolidating your new skills and boosts your confidence by having you practise as soon as possible; listening and reading input in the form of level appropriate reading and video, along with writing practice; and finally our self study content based on the spacing effect, which is essentially an interactive and adaptive flashcard learning system that remembers the words you have learned the ones that you haven’t quite completely mastered and the ones that you are probably about to forget, and provides you with the stimulus to keep progressing and building your vocabulary.

In this post we’re going to talk about the science behind this flashcard spaced repetition system that we use at Chatterbug as our main vocabulary building tool.

An essential part of modern day language learning is having access to intelligent tools that help you along on the journey and take care of the process so that you can focus on reaching the desired outcomes.

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It starts here.

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