Learning words in foreign languages

Recently I was asked how many times you should hear a word in a foreign language before it really sticks into your mind.

Sometimes, hearing/reading one word one single time in the right context will imprint it into your mind forever. And sometimes, you will repeat one word 100 times and it will not stick. Spaced repetition is a powerful way to get the words to stick while reducing the number of times you are exposed to each word, but it is not magical either. With the wrong context, you may also fail with spaced repetition.

I learned one thing from decades of studying, it is that context is everything. That’s why trying to immerse yourself in a certain context while learning a language is important. The best of all is to simply be in the country of the language you’re learning. But as it is not always possible, here are a few tricks.

When I use Anki to do spaced repetition, I listen to some music in the language I’m learning while repeating the words. This switches the brain into the mode “oh, that’s this language, okay!”, as well as cheering you up and setting up a mood. You might even want to tap your feet with the rhythm while learning words. And on all my cards, I have an image of something that is characteristic of the country/ies where that language is spoken, as well as some sentences in which the word is used – because learning a word by itself is boring, and learning it within a sentence makes it more interesting. I will make a post later to explain how I did it technically. Associating a picture with the word also helps quite a bit, especially for physical objects.

Teachers know that bored students don’t learn anything. That’s why teachers who make their classes very emotionally alive are more successful than others. There are some very serious scientific studies on this but I’m sure you have in your own experience that teacher who stood above all others because his classes were so lively, funny or exhilarating.

And of course it all depends on the language you’re learning and the language(s) you already know. The learning curve of Japanese or Arabic is obviously much greater for a native monolingual English speaker than the one of German for someone who knows Dutch and Danish.

So there is no “number of times for a word to stick”, it’s all about context!

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