Enriching your vocabulary is a key to progressing with your French. Spaced repetition is a technique for improving your ability to retain words and sentences that you hear. Give it a try to see whether it is right for you.
A bit of theory
Long term memory is forged in a variety of ways. Single experiences with a high emotional charge often stick in the mind without any conscious effort. For knowledge without an emotional content – finding the route to work, for example – repetition over time is the key.
Spaced repetition techniques first emerged from psychological tests carried out in the 1930s. They showed that while “one shot” efforts at memorising information could be successful for short term recall, the knowledge acquired was quickly forgotten. Learners were much more successful at retaining information if they were repeatedly exposed to it at regular intervals.
Advances in software development have renewed interest in spaced repetition. Today it’s possible for you to take control of the vocabulary building process yourself, using software that includes algorithms to space out the repetition intervals.
The open source Anki project is the most advanced platform on which to work. You can use it to create lists from words and sentences that you want to retain – optionally adding pictures or sound files.
On the top side of a virtual flip card you place a trigger word: for example a word in your native language, or a single word from or a complete sentence. On the reverse side you place the word or sentence you want to be able to recall from memory.
The principle is very simple. Attempt to recall the word or sentence you want to learn. Depending on whether you are successful, choose one of four options:
- Again – if you get it wrong
- Hard – if you were able to retrieve the information but found it difficult
- Good – if you got it right
- Easy – if you found it very simple
Questions you got wrong will be repeated again within the same session. Those you found easy won’t be asked again for several days and will eventually be removed from the pack. Those you got right at only the second or third attempt will return more quickly than those you got right first time.
The next day you return to your virtual cards. Your test will be a mix of revision of old cards and exposure to new ones automatically added from your master collection.
Building your list
But it can be more motivating to build your own lists: in this way you’ll be sure to be focusing on vocabulary you wish to learn. You can pick out words or sentences from your reading, from your studies or conversation. If you are compiling a list on your own, it’s good to double check with a native French language speaker to make sure that what you are learning is accurate and that sentences are constructed as they would be naturally in French.
Finding your rhythm
Because words keep coming back to you over a period of weeks, it’s best not to pile your lists too high as you risk being overwhelmed. You might begin by adding three words or expressions per day and then accelerate once you are in the swing. You can import your lists from Excel and schedule for the new words to be dripped in gradually.
Does it work?
Spaced repetition most definitely works for many people, as academic studies have shown. However there are a few caveats:
- It’s a vocabulary acquisition technique, not a substitute for studying and learning the language itself. Manipulating a language requires a deeper level of knowledge than can be obtained by just recalling sentences. Fluency comes with study, for example by following Françoise Le Roux’s course on this website (shameless plug alert)
- You need to be something of a geek to use anki! It’s great once you’ve got used to it, but it’s not the most user-friendly software out there and it requires an investment of time before you get on top of it.
- Other people’s shared list of study cards are rarely satisfying, so be prepared to take the time to build your own cards around the topics that are specifically of interest to you
Above all you need to enjoy the process itself, or your motivation will quickly wane. The best way of finding out whether it works for you is to give it a try and see how you get on.