Do You Need Spaced Repetition to Learn a Language?

There’s a lot of buzz in language learning  about spaced repetition, and spaced repetition software (SRS) in particular. Some people would have you believe that you absolutely have to use SRS to learn a foreign language, but is that true?

What is Spaced Repetition?

Spaced repetition is the practice of exposing yourself to material over and over again, in increasing intervals, in order to commit it to memory. This is also sometimes referred to as graduated interval recall.

Take a set of flash cards, for example. If you were to  use spaced repetition, you might review every card in the deck once. Then you would review each card again:

  • One minute later
  • Five minutes later
  • Twenty minutes later
  • Two hours later
  • 24 hours later
  • 48 hours later
  • One week later
  • One month later
  • Three months later

The reason this works is because of something psychologists call the spacing effect. Basically, people retain information better when it is presented several times over a long period (weeks and months) rather than when it is presented several times over a short period (hours and days).

You’ve probably experienced this phenomenon yourself. We’ve all had to memorize a bunch of facts, dates, and figures for a history or science exam and then promptly forgot it all soon afterward. As one of my friends puts it, school is an exercise in learning and brain-dumping.

Obviously, the language learning community has a lot of interest in spaced repetition, because if you’re trying to learn a language well enough to use it, you need to commit its parts to your long-term memory. You can’t just learn it and forget it.

In the field of language learning and language acquisition, one of the more influential spaced repetition proponents was Dr. Paul Pimsleur. He’s the guy who developed the Pimsleur Language System, which was the basis for the popular Pimsleur courses. In fact, if you take a Pimsleur course, you’ll notice that the material is presented to you in graduated intervals.

Do You Need Spaced Repetition?

Some language learners are extremely excited about spaced repetition, and SRS in particular. There are several SRS programs and apps out there, and several people swear by them.

Is spaced repetition necessary though?

Yes and no.

The concept of exposing yourself to material over a long period of time is absolutely necessary, yes. Some programs promise to teach you 200 vocabulary words a day. Is that possible? Sure. But there’s no way that you’d be able to commit 200 words a day to your long-term memory. You’d basically be learning and brain-dumping each set of 200 every day. For a vocab word to stick, for example, you have to be exposed to that word over a long period.

But you do not need to focus obsessively on spaced repetition. Some people think that SRS is a magic potion, and that by using an app, they’ll learn the foreign language with minimal effort. Additionally, some people get caught up on optimizing their intervals: Do I expose myself to the material again after 3 days, or after a week? After three weeks, or after a month? They’re looking for just the right formula to get to their goals.

Honestly, that’s just kind of silly. I mean, remember:

People have been learning languages and foreign languages long before there were spaced repetition formulas, programs, and software.

I mean, spaced repetition works for some people, so if you enjoy it, use it. If you don’t, don’t.

Two Inexpensive Alternatives to SRS

So you want to learn a language and commit it to your long-term memory. But you either hate dealing with the headache of planning spaced repetition, or don’t want to pay for SRS. What do you do?

You have two stupidly simple options.

First, you can review old material often. Listen to language courses you’ve finished a long time ago, and then listen to them again a few weeks later. Or bust out old flash cards and go through them randomly.

Second, you can simply expose yourself to the language. Watch TV, listen to the radio, read books. Consuming language exposes you to dozens or even hundreds of words every minute, and the most common words – i.e., the most important words – will naturally be repeated over and over again. Not only that, but you’ll be exposed to other components of language besides vocabulary, such as grammar, phrases, and intonation, all of which tend to be ignored by some spaced repetition programs.

With either option, you’ll get a lot of the benefits of even the strictest spaced repetition program, without having to plan obsessively.

Wrapping It Up

Again, if you like spaced repetition and are getting use out of it, go nuts. And as much as I like Pimsleur courses, I’d be hypocritical not to acknowledge the benefits.

But if you’re like me, and the thought of actively using spaced repetition techniques bores you to tears, then don’t feel obligated either.

With the language surfing concept, I believe that language learning is about the journey and that there’s no finite destination. A big part of that is enjoying the ride.

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