How To Use Spaced Repetition In Your Language Learning

It’s a simple enough idea, but it’s one of the most important concepts for retaining information.
Spaced repetition represented by a bearded man sitting at his desk, using a computer as sunlight streams in the three-paneled window behind him.

There are countless tips and tricks for streamlining your language learning. Finding the right shortcuts that work for you is a great way to speed along your progress. Yet no matter how fast a learner you are, there’s really no replacement for one of the oldest learning tools in the book: spaced repetition.

While not the most beautiful phrase in the English language, spaced repetition is an important concept in all kinds of learning. The “repetition” part is simple — you just have to do something over and over to really make sure you know it. The more vital idea here is the “spaced” part. You can’t just repeat something over and over again in a single night and expect to remember it forever. The path to meaningful retention involves returning to something again and again over time.

The Science Behind Spaced Repetition

Maybe you, like many people, had a teacher or professor who warned you against cramming the night before a test. “Pfft,” you said, “I can cram, and it’ll be fine.” And it was! You got a perfectly good score. Events like these might convince you that lumping all your learning together into a single evening is an effective method. And it can be in the short-term, but it doesn’t work for long. Plus, learning an entire language is pretty different from memorizing the most important dates of World War II. You can cram right before you travel, but getting a good grasp on a language takes time.

You don’t have to take our word for it, though. Years of research have backed this up, reaching all the way back to a 1965 paper in The Journal of General Psychology called “The Effect of Spaced Repetition on Meaningful Retention.” While there are many specifics to the study, the general takeaway is that subjects who were able to study a text twice were more likely to retain information about it than those who’d studied it only once. 

Dozens of papers have backed up this finding ever since. One 2019 paper looked at the use of flashcards for language learning. What the researchers found is that students who used flashcards regularly had better long-term retention than those who didn’t. So yes, spaced repetition has been vindicated once again.

If it’s so effective, why isn’t spaced repetition a given? We can get a hint from another result from the 2019 paper, which was was that despite their improved performance, students really didn’t like the spaced repetition flashcard technique. It improved their scores and made them feel better about their learning, but they were reluctant to actually do the studying. That’s a good reminder that language learning isn’t always very fun, but the rewards make it worth it.

Using Spaced Repetition In Your Language Learning

The most obvious advice here is “study the language you’re learning every day, for a long time.” And yes, that’s a good plan! But let’s get a little more specific.

Add Learning To Your Schedule

If there’s one piece of advice we give out the most, it’s to make language learning part of your routine. It’s OK to say “I will study for 20 minutes every day,” but it’s much better to be more exact. You can study during your breakfast every day, or during your commute (assuming you don’t drive). Having these concrete plans will make your learning much more regular than if you just try to fit it in whenever you have down time.

Keep Track Of What You’ve Learned

To do spaced repetition right, you need to know what you’ve learned already. Depending on how you’re learning a language, your ability to keep track of what you know will differ. If you’re using an app like Babbel, for example, you can see exactly what lessons you’ve completed. (Also, Babbel’s review function is a very helpful way to practice spaced repetition.) If you’ve got other methods, however, just make sure to keep track. You can make flashcards of the new words you’re learning, or keep a language-learning journal

Give Yourself Ample Time To Learn

Let’s say you have a trip to Germany coming up. Sure, you could just take an English-German dictionary on the plane with you so you have the basics down by the time you land. Really, there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as your expectations are realistic. If you really want to learn the language, though, then you need to give yourself time (there’s no “spaced repetition” if you can’t space out your learning). Think of language learning like you would any other skill; you wouldn’t start learning the piano on your way to a recital. It’s tempting to try to learn everything in as little time as possible, but that’s just not how the brain works.

Return To What You Think You Know

If you’re self-guiding your learning, it’s tempting to always study new vocabulary and concepts. It feels more like progress when you’re constantly adding to what you know. Remember, though, that spaced repetition is all about repetition. If you don’t go back to what you learned earlier from time to time, you might start to forget it. It’s demoralizing to realize you have to relearn how to tell time, for example, so make sure to review basic topics regularly.

Space Out Your Intervals

Let’s get a little more into the nitty-gritty of spaced repetition. One key to long-term learning is that if you gradually increase the intervals between each time you study a specific topic, you’re less likely to forget it. So the time between the first and second repetition should be shorter than the time between the fourth and fifth. Certain memory geeks have gone so far as to find the ideal length of time between sessions on a specific topic (first repetition should be after one day, second repetition after seven days, third repetition after 16 days and so on). You don’t have to be so exact when you do your own studying, but it’s good to keep in mind that you don’t have to refresh your transportation vocabulary every single week. 

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