If you want to learn a language, you can’t really avoid Spaced Repetition.
But that doesn’t mean you have to use Flashcards.
There are many ways you can use Spaced Repetition without them…
In fact, you can use Spaced Repetition for almost any language learning activity. And doing so can seriously accelerate your learning.
In this post you’ll find 4 ways to do just that.
1. Apply Spaced Repetition to the Usage of a Foreign Language
They always say you have to use the language in order to learn it.
But the lack of structure to this approach may make you quit before you even start.
With a little planning you can get more out of it. Much more.
If you apply Spaced Repetition to the usage of a foreign language, you just might be able to kiss the intermediate plateau goodbye.
The process consists of three steps:
- Identify what you need to learn, or improve
- Decide how you will use it
- Apply a good dose of Spaced Repetition to it
You can use this method at any stage of the language learning process. However, in the beginning you will have many weaknesses and it may be hard to decide what you need to improve.
Step 1: What do you want to learn?
First you must decide what you want to learn or improve.
Ideally, this is something that has been giving you a hard time.
It can be:
- Words you find difficult or keep forgetting
- Grammar constructions you need practice with
- Sounds you find hard to pronounce
You probably already know of a few things you need to improve.
Great! Use them.
Step 2: How do you want to use it?
Now that you know where you want to improve yourself, it’s time to decide how you’re going to do that.
Don’t worry, in most cases this is extremely simple and common sense.
If you keep forgetting the word “desk”, all you need to do is make a few sentences with the word “desk” in it.
- My desk is clean.
- I just bought a new desk.
- I sit on my desk because I don’t have a chair.
- I prefer desktops over laptops. 😉
First, say a sentence out loud, then write it down afterwards.
You are not limited to using the words in this way either:
You can also use the word in a real-life conversation. This is a bit harder to set up, but it’s very possible and the results are usually excellent.
I recommend you use the words on your own first. If some words keep slipping through the cracks, then it’s time to start planning to use those words in conversations.
You can also use this process when you’re struggling with a grammatical construction of your target language. Just use the grammatical structure in sentences and off you go.
If you have a hard time pronouncing a particular sound you can:
- Do a simple practice session in which you try to reproduce the sound as good as you can. Google for info on how to pronounce it right.
- Use a tool like Speechling and record a sentence in which that sound appears. If you make a mistake, a coach will then correct your pronunciation. Speechling gives you 35 free corrections a month.
Step 3: Apply a Good Dose of Spaced Repetition
Now you know what you’re going to improve—and how—it’s time to add the (not so) secret ingredient:
We’ll use a simple SR schedule. After the initial usage of the language on Day 1, we’ll repeat the process on Day 2, 7, 30 and 90.
If you’re using the words in sentences, the sentences should change. It’s not about repeating the sentences you came up with on the first day. You must USE the words or grammatical structures in a more spontaneous way.
Use this date calculator to find the exact dates for your reminders.
The reminders would look like this:
This whole process of adding SR to the usage of a foreign language may seem rather simple.
That’s because it is.
But it works way better than using the language in an unstructured way.
Try it, and see for yourself.
2. Use Spaced Repetition with Exercises
Some language learning materials, like textbooks, don’t have Spaced Repetition built-in.
You just add it yourself.
But not for everything in the textbook. That probably wouldn’t be very efficient.
Instead, focus on the harder exercises. You know, the ones you feel somewhat uncomfortable with.
So if an exercise on an irregular verb gives you a headache, space out the “headache” a little.
Do the exercise and then repeat it on Day 2, 7, 30 and 90.
It’s a straightforward process, but it can seriously ramp up your language learning efficiency.
Good Old Fashioned Language Courses
Most language learning Apps already have some form of Spaced Repetition built-in.
Most older language courses lack in this area.
It’s a shame, because in spite of the technological advances of the last decades, some of those courses are actually very good.
Boring? Yeah, some people find them excruciatingly boring.
Dated? Yep, some of the language used in these courses is language you would not hear today.
And yet, they’re hardcore courses that get results.
One of those courses is Basic Spanish, developed by the Foreign Service Institute in the 60s.
The goal of this course was to teach future diplomats and foreign service workers Spanish as fast as possible.
The FSI Basic Spanish course is in the public domain now, and free to download here.
The course consists of a lot of audio exercises and drills. And that’s exactly why it’s perfect for our purposes here.
It doesn’t really use Spaced Repetition, other than in a natural way. You can, of course, always go back to older lessons later, but there’s a much better way.
Just add Spaced Repetition to the harder drills, and you’ll get even more results out of this type of courses.
Use a free tool like Audacity to cut the drill out of the larger audio file. And Spaced Repeat the hell out of it!
Oh, and you should repeat the drill on day 2, 7, 30 and 90.
You can apply this to any language learning resource that has short exercises or lessons but doesn’t really have Spaced Repetition built-in.
3. Flashcards with One Audio Question or Cue
Yes, I know.
I said without flashcards.
But I just had to include this one… Don’t worry. This doesn’t involve flashcards in the traditional sense.
What you’ll be doing here is creating a database of short audio questions or cues that are challenging to you. You cut out what’s easy to you, and you keep what you need to work on.
That way, you’ll end up with something like…
Pimsleur on Steroids
In the last part we talked about how you can use SR with short audio exercises. But when working with a drill, you sometimes find that it’s just a small part of it that’s giving you problems.
In that case, just cut out this small part —it might be as small as a single question you have to answer— and use Anki’s Spaced Repetition algorithm on that.
Just add the audio with the question (or cue) to an Anki flashcard, and the answer on the other side. Here’s how to do that.
Make sure you create a basic card without the reversed side. You want to hear (and answer) the question before you hear the answer. Not the other way around.
Do it with enough small bits of exercises and you’ll have a deck of flashcards with audio only, and the option to rate the difficulty of the cards.
As an added benefit, Anki takes care of the Spaced Repetition schedule.
4. Use Spaced Repetition with Reading in a Foreign Language
To get a feel for the grammar of a foreign language, nothing beats reading.
It may not be the best option for pure beginners, but it gets results for intermediate learners and beyond.
Still, reading in and of itself is a bit of a scattered approach to language learning.
When you’ve just got through a difficult passage and somehow understood it all, there must be some form of repetition to solidify this triumph.
You can achieve this by adding Spaced Repetition to your reading.
Just plan to repeat the difficult passage or page(s) on day 2, 7, 30 and…….90.
Use page numbers in your reminders. In case you don’t want to repeat the whole page, just highlight the difficult passage.
Spaced Repetition is a tremendous weapon in the arsenal of the language learner.
And there’s no need to use flashcards if you don’t like them.
Just add manual Spaced Repetition to your language learning activities. That way, you’ll benefit from the power of SR but without using flashcards.
Which of these four methods do you plan to try? Or, do you know of any other ways to benefit from the power of SR but without flashcards? Let me know in the comments below.