Spaced repetition is a term normally associated with language learning flashcards and spaced repetition systems (SRS). I have to tell you right off the bat though that I’m not a big fan of flashcards because I’d been using the same technique when building my English vocabulary a number of years ago. In the end I realized that memorizing something that’s translated into your native language is actually going to impede your spoken English fluency 😯
No matter how controversial it may sound, language learners all over the world are becoming aware of the downsides of traditional English learning methods. Heated debates have sparked on language learning blogs about efficiency of using flashcards, for example and many language learning enthusiasts realize that a major shift in terms of language learning is happening right now.
Still many language learners are oblivious to the simple fact – repeating and memorizing a phrase or a word in your target language with the corresponding translation in your native language will make it much harder to actually speak the target language ❗
So that’s probably the most valuable piece of advice I can give you regarding spaced repetition and learning and improving your English – don’t create flashcards and don’t use any English learning SRS that are based on translating between two languages!
But let’s stop whining about things that are wrong. Once we know that the best way to acquire new English vocabulary is to repeat and memorize words and phrases and associate them with explanations in the English language, we can move on to discussing the very nature of spaced repetition.
Why “spaced” repetition? Why not just repetition?
The term “spaced repetition”, as the very meaning of the phrase signifies, indicates that a number of repetitions are spaced over a period of time. The crucial characteristic of this spaced repetition is that every next repetition takes place after a much longer interval of time than the previous one.
In reality it works like this. You write down a new phrase in your pocket phrasebook or dictionary (avoid memorizing individual words as much as you can – the English language is build from word chunks or so called collocations instead of separate words!) Let’s say, you were just listening to the hourly news bulletin on radio and you heard a new word “to apprehend” used in the following context – “two individuals were apprehended following a search of property on the Oaks road”.
It’s actually quite clear from the context alone what the word “to apprehend” means. Apparently it’s got something to do with arresting people, right? But it definitely wouldn’t hurt you to memorize the new word and add it to your active vocabulary so that you can use it later on when speaking!
Write down the phrase “two individuals were apprehended” in your pocket phrasebook (you can also use a piece of software, whichever suits you best!) with the following description – “two individuals were arrested”.
All the rest is just like the old school vocabulary cramming – you cover the original phrase and speak out the target phrase you’re trying to memorize. After a few repetitions you should be able to recall the new phrase with ease, so that’s job done by now.
IMPORTANT ❗ It’s crucial you speak the phrase out loud! If you want to become a fluent English speaker, you must speak and train your vocal cords! It’s not enough to have the new word or phrase imprinted into your mind; it needs to be “hardwired” within your mouth muscles so that you can produce the necessary phrase completely effortlessly when the right occasion presents itself ❗
OK, so far you’ve only completed the very first step of spaced repetition. If you don’t go back to the new words and phrases, there’s a pretty high chance you’ll forget them. Or you’ll be able to recognize them without being able to use those words in your daily conversations. That’s why you go back to the same phrase once more on the same day and the following day as well to make it permanently stick into your mind.
Well, so far it’s all common sense. It’s known to every student that in order to memorize new vocabulary it’s necessary to repeat new words and expressions a good few times before they become part of one’s vocabulary.
What’s special about spaced repetition, however, is the following. Once the initial repetition is completed, you don’t need to go back to the same phrases on a regular basis! You can increase time intervals between every new repetition exponentially with no diminishing memorization efficiency.
When you learn new vocabulary for the first time you repeat it, say, three times. Then you go back to it the same day once more. Then you repeat the new phrase once more the following day. You also come back to it in a week. Make it once more in a month. By now the new phrase should be cemented into your mind and it’s all thanks to the spaced repetition phenomenon!
You don’t need to repeat the new phrases every day – something I used to do back in the days building my English vocabulary. I was spending a considerable amount of time going back to the old dictionary entries every day because the more words I kept adding, the more I had to repeat. What I didn’t know back then was that I could have focused only on the latest additions instead leaving the older ones “maturing” and to be looked at after a longer period of time.
Spaced Repetition for Struggling English Speakers
And now I’ve come to the main point of this article, which is why memorization and spaced repetition is crucial also for English improvers, not only those who learn the language. If you happen to read my blog for the first time, you probably don’t know that I differentiate between English learning and English improving and that my blog is dedicated to those foreigners having a decent level of English (otherwise you wouldn’t be capable of reading this article anyway!)
So once spaced repetition is traditionally a method used by language learners to memorize new words and phrases, how come I talk about it on a blog dedicated to improving spoken English of foreigners already having achieved a certain level of English fluency?
Well my friends, it’s all about developing ability to speak English spontaneously and it’s something you can’t learn by sticking individual words together.
You can spend a lifetime cramming thousands upon thousands of new English vocabulary words into your brain, yet your ability to speak like a native English speaker is going to be severely limited. You’ll be speaking following your native language speech patterns and essential English language components like collocations, idioms, and phrasal verbs will be lost on you!
So how do foreign English speakers go about establishing natural spoken English patterns in their speech?
The best way to learn English is, of course, by living among native English speakers and picking up natural English that way. You’d mimic what others say and as a result you’d develop a natural ability to speak English using words the way they’re used by native speakers in real life conversations.
Your spoken English, most likely, is suffering after years long traditional English studies. You can’t just go back, erase all you know and re-learn the English language the natural way. It’s impossible and after all – it’s not necessary because your ability to recognize what’s written and what’s being said is not to be sniffed at!
This is where spaced repetition comes handy. Only instead of learning new vocabulary you can use it to establish naturally occurring links between words. You can repeat and memorize phrases, collocations, phrasal words and idiomatic expressions so that you can use them in your speech naturally and effortlessly!
Of course, you can still take the advantage of the spaced repetition technique to add more words to your vocabulary. Building English vocabulary is a life-long task and you should never stop learning more and more English!
There are only two things to bear in mind when using spaced repetition to learn new words. First – never use translation into your language; always explain the new word using other English words. Second – always learn new words within the context!
P.S. My English Harmony System is built on Spaced Repetition principles. Check it out to see how you can improve your spoken English drastically in a few weeks time!