In the late 1800s, a German scientist named Hermann Ebbinghaus carried out tests on the human capacity to memorise information. At first glance the results make worrying reading.
Ebbinghaus asked his subjects to memorise a meaningless sequence of words. He then checked back at regular intervals to see much they had retained.
After just one month, if the subjects made no attempt to refresh their knowledge, 90% of what they had previously learnt had already been forgotten.
90% forgotten after one month? What about my plan to memorise the Encyclopedia Britannica?
The Fight Back
Language learners and their long-suffering teachers face the same problem.
What goes in one ear seems to go straight out of the other. You receive a correction and ten minutes later you are making the same mistake again.
The first takeaway from Ebbinghaus’s research (which has been confirmed by numerous successors) is that what you experience is normal.
Hoping to learn things by passive absorption is never going to work. It requires an investment of mental energy to make knowledge stick.
The second takeaway is that you need to keep refreshing your knowledge for it to pass from your short term to your long term memory.
Smartphone apps such as duolingo, Mosalingua and Supermemo apply the psychological research to language learning. They fire memorisation tests at regular spaced intervals, to keep your knowledge simmering on the boil.
They are worth a try. But for me the words I was being asked to learn weren’t the ones I was interested in. And having an app doing the bombarding put me in the passive position that I wanted to avoid.
For this reason I prefer Quizlet, which is available in a fully functioning free version. The advantage with Quizlet is you compose your own lists of phrases to memorise. So:
- They are sentences that interest you.
- You are forced to make the mental investment which is part of the learning process.
Here’s an example.
Mettons ça de côté
Mettons ça de côté means Let’s put that to one side.
It’s an expression that I repeatedly got wrong. So here’s what I do.
Exploring Le Grand Robert dictionary (which devotes three whole pages to the subject!) I discover that the Latin noun costa gave given birth to two French offspring:
- le côté (masculine)
- la côte (feminine)
Additionally the Latin noun quotus has given birth to the similar looking:
- la cote (feminine, no accent circonflexe).
With the help of the internet and under the control of my French teacher, I compile a list of sentences to retain and translate them into English. The result is below.
- Use the « Click to Flip » button to see the French.
- The synthetic voice gives you a reasonable idea of the correct sounds, though the intonation is mechanical. You can use the Option button on the left to switch it off
- Download the Smartphone app to put your flip cards on your mobile.
I can now keep testing myself on them until they’ve entered my memory. You can use a tagging system to remove phrases from the list once you think you have them cracked.
I’m confident now I’ll never again make a mistake with the expression:
Mettons ça de côté.
It was an effort, but well worth the reward of breaking out of my linguistic groundhog day.
First a disclaimer in case you’re wondering: we have no financial relationship with Quizlet. It’s just a nice tool that we wanted to share with you.
Now for this month’s competition. Everyone’s a winner! Send us a list of up to ten sentences that you’d like to learn and we’ll create a Quizlet deck for you to try.