Even more memory tricks

Rob Ashby

Rob Ashby

The Spanish Obsessive

I’ve spent a good deal of my language learning life trying to learn vocabulary and phrases, and actually get them to stick in my long term memory. While there are so many ways to go about it, in this post I wanted to focus on “spaced repetition” systems, and how to get more out of them. We present many of our Spanish podcasts with a downloadable text file for use with spaced repetition systems, so here are a few ideas for how to use them.

A quick note on Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is a really simple concept. It’s the idea that, over the long term, we better remember things if we memorise them repeatedly over that period, with the space between those repetitions increasing as we better get to know whatever it was we memorised. Spaced repetition systems (and we recommend Anki – it’s completely free) provide flashcards and test you by showing you one side and asking you to remember the other. How long you take to answer and how easy you mark the answer as being will influence the length of time before you see that card again. Easy cards you see less frequently, but more difficult items you see more often. This ensures that everything is planted in your long term memory, which is obviously useful for language learning! Here are some of the most useful tips which have helped me memorise Spanish vocabulary that much more easily:

Start with the easiest vocabulary

Our flashcards contain Spanish on one side, and the English translation on the other. You could also have pure Spanish (ie, a Spanish “explanation” of card on flip-side), but we’ve found Spanish/English to be effective. Start by looking at the Spanish items, and try to recall the English – this is much easier than the other way around, and helps to anchor the English meanings in your brain.

Then, flip the cards

Now you should test yourself by looking at the English, and trying to recall the Spanish. You’ll probably find that about half of the Spanish translations come to you easily (so, either put those flashcards aside, or mark as “easy” in Anki). The other half will take some memorisation, so hold on to those flashcards, and in Anki make sure you press “again”.

Figure out the hard ones, and memorise them

You’ll find a few stubborn items which you keep on forgetting (called “leeches”). This is when you need to break out the memory aids. There are all sorts of memory techniques, such as bridging and mnemonics, to help you memorise those tougher items. There’s a good collection of memory tricks and techniques here, and I’ll put together a few thoughts in a later post! The important thing is to find a technique that works for you.

Forget, and then start again

These items are now in your short term memory, but the whole point of spaced repetition is planting in your long term memory. So, come back in two days, and open the same set of flashcards, and repeat the steps above. You’ll find that you’ve forgotten a lot, but that the actual memorisation process will be much quicker this time around.

And again…

Yep, you’ll probably forget those items again next time you come to test yourself! It can take a while for something to truly stick in your long term memory, but every time you come back to test yourself you’ll find your recall of those words and phrases quicker than last time. You’ll also find yourself using them more in conversation, and that’s when you know you’ve nailed it – you will have memorised a piece of vocabulary, and now properly “own” it!

For more memory tips, check out How to make Spanish words stick.

Do you have any memorisation techniques that you swear by? If so, we’d love to hear them in the comments below!

4 Responses

  1. Nice post Rob and Liz! Great tips on how to memorize vocabulary! I’ve found Anki to work super nicely. Some people are unaware of the ankiweb feature, but it’s really wonderful.

    Basically, if you sign up on ankiweb.net you can download pre-made flashcards. For Spanish, for example, they have the complete set of flashcards for the Michel Thomas Spanish method, as well as intermediate flashcards with useful phrases and so on.

    Have you guys only used your own flashcards, or have you ever downloaded some pre-made ones? Also, have you ever thought about keeping the flashcards entirely in Spanish? I know in your post you said you’ve found Spanish-English to work better, but I’m wondering whether after having reached an intermediate level it’s not better to really immerse yourself fully and start forgetting about English.

    1. Hey Sam, thanks for stopping by! I’ve used ankiweb for learning Russian and found it really useful. I still think it’s worth the effort using your own flashcards though, as you’re aware of the original context and the flashcards are your “own”, although pre-made flashcards are certainly useful if you’re trying to build a core vocabulary.

      I know I should have done, but I’ve never bothered with using Spanish-Spanish flashcards. I know it’s great to more deeply immerse yourself in the language, but often I feel like a simple English translation is enough, rather than going round the houses with Spanish descriptions. If I use that vocab item, it soon becomes ingrained enough.

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