How to Master a Language for Life
Use Spaced Repetition with Flashcards to Master Personalized Vocabulary
By Victor - 16/nov/2021 #Language and Education
Self-taught polyglots have long known about the power of spaced repetition systems (SRS) for language learning. When combined with Natural’s method of extracting content from communicative contexts, flashcards using SRS are an incredibly powerful way to learn and retain vocabulary for the long term.
Studies have shown that repeating content at intervals of increasing duration is far more effective for memorization and retention than mass training (repeating frequently with short intervals).
In other words, if I review a vocabulary word 10 times in a period of 30 minutes, I will be far less likely to remember it a year later than if I review it twice today, then eight more times over increasingly longer intervals in the next few weeks.
Natural has developed its own Flashcard technology that uses spaced repetition to help students master their vocabulary. It is connected to their lessons from conversation classes for maximum personalization and effectiveness. Here’s how it works.
You see the sentence you needed during a conversation class with the vocabulary word blanked out, as so:
You try to remember what the word is, then click on the card to check your answer.
After seeing the right answer, you indicate whether it was easy to remember, medium, or hard. If you select “hard”, the card will be shown to you again soon, but if you select “easy”, it will take longer—you will probably not even see it again during that study session. And each subsequent time you mark it as “easy,” it will take even longer for it to reappear.
Alternatively, you can choose to see the word’s definition on the front of the card instead of the context sentence as shown below (or you can see the word on the front and try to remember the definition and context sentence).
Using Flashcards in the traditional way, with standard word lists, is useful for specific purposes, including getting started with a new language. For example, you can use Natural’s vocabulary lists to be sure you have learned the most frequently used words in English, Spanish, Portuguese, or French.
However, to progress efficiently and steadily toward new levels of mastery, you should use personalized content that is derived from communicative contexts rather than generic word lists. This strategy is ideal for learning and automating vocabulary that is appropriate to your level and current needs and retaining it over the long term.
The example shown above is a real flashcard from my personal French content. I was telling my teacher about my farm and the work that is needed to maintain it. However, I didn’t know the proper word to express “maintain” in this context—“entretenir”—so she taught it to me and made note of the word and the context sentence using our LessonsApp. There are two enormous advantages to this approach.
First, this word represented a specific gap in my knowledge of French. Considering my advanced level, I should know the word entretenir by now, so closing that gap is particularly important to improving my mastery of the language. No standard word list would make such efficient, targeted use of my study time.
Second, I remember the specific conversation I had with my teacher and my desire to communicate my ideas. I was anxious at the time about hiring a new caretaker at my farm and all the work that he would need to do. Thus, this sentence carries emotional weight for me, and each time I review the word entretenir I connect it to my communicative intent and underlying emotions. Doing so not only makes it easier for me to learn, but far more likely that I will remember it years from now.
 For one such study, see: Smolen P, Zhang Y, Byrne JH. “The right time to learn: mechanisms and optimization of spaced learning.” Nat Rev Neurosci. 2016;17(2):77-88. doi:10.1038/nrn.2015.18
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