What Language are you Forgetting?

Language learning is much spoken about and written about, and rightly so, it’s an endlessly fascinating topic and one in which many of us invest a great deal of our precious time. But today I want to talk to you about something less glamorous- about language learning’s forgotten twin- I want to talk about language forgetting.

Once upon a time, in an age now all but covered by the encroaching mists of time, I could speak fairly fluent Deutsch. Indeed, I committed 7 years of school to this endeavour, taking an average of 2 hours per week lesson time and, according to Google sources, 39 weeks of lessons, and that’s 546 hours of my life. 546 hours at school, plus 2 exchanges to Germany and any private study, and, well, that’s a generous portion of time. Sadly, this knowledge is now mostly passive and inaccessible, bringing it back to life would be akin to going through the whole learning process again.

Of course, this act of forgetting was both natural and rational. I consciously decided to commit to learning a different language, in this case Polish, a language to which I felt more personal connection, and slowly but steadily my brain clocked on and kicked out the old to make space for the new. Lesson time stopped, momentum halted, and my German stagnated. Except it didn’t. Because in language there is no such thing as stagnation. The nature of memory when it comes to language learning is to put you on an escalator that is almost imperceptibly moving backwards, stand still for a day, even a week, and you won’t notice any difference. Stand still for a month, or daresay a year, and you’ll notice adverts you’ve seen before and a queue of travellers shooting you puzzled looks.

And so it was auf wiedersehen to my German. Ironically, the same fate was to befall my Polski, as I began learning Dutch the very next summer and Spanish at university soon after. Except this time, I tried to fight it. I tried watching Netflix with Polish subtitles, I tried reading Polish news, I tried doing study sets online… until one day I didn’t. Momentum now lost, it was a matter of time before my Polish was to fossilise, something which I painfully discovered on a recent visit to Poland while attempting to close an old bank account. As I sat opposite the well-meaning bank clerk who spoke not a word of English it dawned on me that I couldn’t remember how to say “to close” in Polish. Umming and arring, I settled on the negated version of “to open”, which I repeated several times with differing emphasis; “nie otworzyć”, “nie otworzyć!”, “nie! Otworzyć”, and after some serious confusion the message was mercifully received.

So while many in the e-learning community might tend towards grand visions of self-driving virtual reality pills which will 3D print Mandarin on your brain, I propose we turn the problem on its head. What makes a good language forgetter? That’s one I can answer.

A good language forgetter will think they can speak their given target language quite well, feeling pretty satisfied with their level, they will be unconcerned about forgetting or even learning for that matter. And so a fixed mindset will begin to seep into their behaviour as they stop testing their language for fear that they might not be as good as they thought they were. Being adept in the dark arts of both reducing cognitive dissonance and of language forgetting, this toxic process will likely be pushed to the subconscious mind. And the good language forgetter will only notice that they steadily stop bothering to use their language, they stop looking up words and little by little they lose all learning habits.

Until one day, months later, it will hit the language forgetter in the face. Maybe they’ll come across an an old book, maybe they’ll receive an unexpected phone call or maybe they’ll be ordering at a restaurant and the wrong language will come out; the result will always be the same. The words won’t be where they left them, the carefully constructed scaffold of grammar will have fallen in leaving a strangely shaped rubble and the language forgetter’s mission will be complete.

Alas, it really is that simple. A good language forgetter just needs to stand still. This is not some truism plucked from thin air, it is fact rooted in scientific research. Whether it be due to the simple passage of time or to new memories taking the same space, memory decay is natural, ongoing and unavoidable. The forgetting curve follows a predictable route; observe the incredibly short half-life of knowledge crammed for an exam to see it in action.

Paradoxically it is this very process that establishes what goes to your long-term memory. In order to create a memory with long-term vitality, you must embrace a counter-intuitive truth: the most effective time to renew a memory is just before the act of forgetting. So rather than fighting this process of memory decay, it must be harnessed.

N.B The exact spacing between reviews would be different to what is shown on this graph.

The phenomenon by which a memory is reinforced by purposefully allowing it to decay before relearning is called spaced repetition. Quantifying the power of spaced repetition is an impossible undertaking, for it is whatever the learner makes of it. The repeated reinforcing of a given memory at the correct intervals gives the learner the basic ability to transform the forgetting curve. And so this concept enables the large-scale, controllable transformation of the forgetting curve of memories, a feat also known as remembering. At first this concept may appear trivial, but it is extraordinarily powerful.

It was 2 years ago now that it dawned on me that I wanted to become a bad language forgetter having invested significant time and money in learning French and Spanish. I wanted a way to take total control of the process of forgetting. And so, while living in Paris, I tried carrying a good old-fashioned notebook in which I would meticulously note down new French words. This method worked well, except implementing complicated calculations to manage efficient repetition spacing without a computer is an exercise in insanity. Moreover, I lost the notebook.

In Valencia, now converted to the benefits of the cloud and with a growing interest in spaced repetition, I took this undertaking to the digital world. First, I did the circuit of e-learning websites and spaced repetition software. On the one hand, I found that flashy websites such as Memrise and Quizlet diluted the raw power of spaced repetition by fitting it to their arbitrary learning models. On the other, software that remained faithful to the power of spaced repetition, such as Supermemo and Anki, was invariably downright ugly and hard to use- let alone to stick with for the long-term. And so I made a spreadsheet, wrote a script and the beginnings of my own solution were born.

Repetitio mater memoriae

Spaced repetition is particularly suited to language learning because vocabulary is open-ended and, well, there’s a hell of a lot of it. As a beginner, the focus might be on learning the most frequent words used in daily communication, while as an advanced speaker, the focus might be on learning to express yourself with greater accuracy and nuance. Increasing vocabulary is necessary at all stages of the language learning process, because that’s the other thing about that pesky escalator — it’s never-ending. Indeed, spaced repetition is so well suited to language learning that I believe that the first application that makes it simple and accessible while remaining faithful to its core principles is one that has the potential to truly change language learning for the better.

And so that is exactly what I set out to create.

Repetitio makes spaced repetition friendly to learners without undermining it. It is an online notebook, as it were, and one that you can’t lose, waiting to be filled with your individual words. Language isn’t learnt through mastering study sets, it is learnt through scatter-gunning, mistake-making curiosity. As you build your library of words on Repetitio, you create your unique, linguistic fingerprint, a collection of the very things that interest and motivate your learning. And this library of words is not arbitrarily divided into study sets, for in the real world there are only two lists of consequence; words you know and words you don’t.

Convincing learners that the benefits outweigh the time investment is the primary challenge of encouraging people to try out spaced repetition, for “the pay-off is distant & counterintuitive, the cost of self-control near & vivid.” When some think of those strange beings that commit to spaced repetition, they see a dark figure hunched over a laptop, alienated from the real world. For some reason, this disciplined long-term commitment tends to be casually disrespected, while flashes of inspiration to spend a week abroad at a language school are often lauded. Those that perceive consistently reviewing old knowledge as dry and uninteresting ignore the very reason that that knowledge was added in the first place; that is, because it was deemed interesting! It is the ongoing role of the disciplined learner to inject flavour into this repetitive process by adding new examples, finding synonyms and uncovering nuances. Nonetheless, language learning remains a deeply subjective process and so there is no one-size-fits-all approach- any venture that says otherwise is probably out for your money.

Language forgetting, on the other hand, is predictable. A bad language forgetter would do a little everyday, learning new, interesting words as they come across them and reviewing those words at spaced intervals to optimise their memory. A bad language forgetter would manage to sustain their interest in the language by continuing to read, watch, listen and learn. A bad language forgetter would probably use Repetitio.