How to use spaced repetition to learn French more efficiently

Can you use spaced repetition to learn French? Of course! I’m sure you’re already familiar with the principle of spaced repetition: this is the underlying method behind all language learning apps. But you don’t have to rely solely on an app to use it. Let’s see how you can take control of your learning process to make it more efficient.

I’ll explain:

  • what is the forgetting curve
  • why you should look further than the graph
  • and a few tips to make sure you get the most out of your brain.

What is the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve?

The psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus modelized “the forgetting curve” in 1885 to show how much information your brain has retained after a certain amount of time. As you can see on the picture below, the memories fade very quickly!

If you don’t do anything, about 50% of all new information received by your brain is lost within a few hours of learning it!

The percentage is even higher after the first night. Your brain uses the night to sort through the previous day and sort out “useful” information from “useless”. The former will be stored somewhere in your memory, the latter will be forgotten.

spaced repetition learn french

However, there are a few shortcomings with his study:

  • he ran it on himself alone, not a representative sample of the population
  • he tried to learn random series of letters that had no meaning

So let’s look further than the graph and see how you can use spaced repetition efficiently when learning a language.

What the curve doesn’t show

Repeating something every day won’t be as efficient as waiting a few days in between reviews. When you need to learn large amounts of new knowledge, there’s no time to review everything every day anyway.

Your brain needs time to process what you learn but not too much time.

3-times ‘s the charm but that’s not enough

One thing the curve gets right is the “magical number”: 3. Indeed, when you expose your brain to something new 3 times, you’re sending a message that this is important.

Then your brain will want to store it somewhere in the memory. if you keep exposing it to this piece of information, it will start to create new neuronal connections for faster retrieval.

If you’re trying to learn vocabulary or a grammar concept, make sure you prioritize which ones are the most important to you.

For these ones, make sure you truly understand them. This could mean being able to construct a sentence independantly (not filling out blanks in an exercise) and/or being able to explain it to another learner or a child.

If some things are not clear, go back to studying or ask your teacher or coach to explain.

The more emotional connection you have with a concept, the easier it will be to learn it in your long term memory and to retrieve it. How to do that?

  • Make sure your examples relate to your life and interests
  • or create unusual funny/shocking mental representations that you can’t forget
  • Always learn a word with a context, especially the ones you’re struggling with

How long between spaced repetitions?

It depends how complex the information is and if you have a deadline to learn it. Make sure you rank what you learn so that the most useful pieces come first. They’re the ones that will help in your daily life. You probably know what’s bothering you and your coach can help you determine areas of study.

It’s easy to get lost in the amount of information available online so make sure you know what your goal is.

To send a stronger signal to your brain that this is a “priority 1” information, you could imagine the following scenario:

R0: Learn new information / You think you’ve understood 90%
R1, same day in the evening: Review the information:
a) You’re remembering most of it and can use it in a sentence: yay!
b) You don’t remember or can’t use it in a sentence: quickly re-read examples and make a note to study again the next day
R2, the next day: Review the information and/or study areas that aren’t clear
R3: the following day: Review again and/or study

By R3 you should have a good grasp of the concept. If you’re not using it in your daily life yet, start spacing out the reviewing sessions. Several algorhythms recommend different schedules. As time passes you can space them out more until the exam or until you feel you can check it off your list.

How to review with the spaced repetition method?

What do we mean by “exposure to the information”? Is reading it one more time enough?

No, reading is too passive.

For better memorization and automation, you have to activate the neurones. The more they’re engaged, the faster they’ll get at retrieving the information.

For example:

  • quizz yourself,
  • try to explain the concept as if talking to a child
  • especially at the beginning: do exercises
  • create custom flashcards in an app and play with it (Anki, Quizlet, Memrise…)
  • When learning a language, after a few repetitions you should be able to use the word or concept in a sentence spontaneously

Except exercises, you can do all of the above at any time: when waiting in line, when brushing your teeth, etc.

Main factors impacting memorization

Of course, some factors may impact the curve and retention rate:

  • Personal capabilities: if you’ve learned multiple languages, you have more pratice and connections, the process might be faster for you. If you know what studying and memorization methods work best for you, you’ll save time as well.
  • Emotional connection to the information: the stronger association you can create in your mind, the better the retention rate.
  • Stress: high stress and/or little sleep = low retention. Your brain is busy with something else and loses focus and sharpness.

Read this article about the interaction between your body, brain and stress level

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About Cathy

Cathy Intro is a certified Neurolanguage® coach helping aspiring French speakers improve their language skills to live their life and socialize in French with confidence. She has a strong focus on active listening, cultural awareness and self-understanding. She believes clear grammar foundations are key to reaching fluency in French but that it shouldn't be taught with a linear textbook-approach method. Her role as a coach is to empower the learner, ignite curiosity and provide support to reach the objectives with no waste of time and efforts, in a positive and fun environment.

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