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120 Days to TOPIK #3 – Lazy Recall: Learn Language Like a Computer Programmer


When I was in university studying for a Computer Science degree, there was a pretty common expression that almost all of us in the COSC department were familiar with:

A good programmer is a lazy programmer.


The FIRST reason is simplicity and it’s multifaceted:

  1. If good code already exists, use it – don’t reinvent the wheel
  2. Programmers often want to simplify the process of a certain tech task (like reducing the number of clicks to enter attendance into a gradebook program from 4 clicks per student to only 2 clicks – as recently happened to me).And although the creation or modification of a program may take SIGNIFICANT work and look like the exact OPPOSITE of laziness, in actuality, it is laziness itself that prompted the creation of such a system (because why would I want to click 4 times for 200 students, when I could click 1-2 times for the same number of students?).

The SECOND reason is less obvious but highly applicable to language learning:

  1. Working harder at memorizing something (extra rote repetition, aka overlearning) doesn’t actually help your long-term memory AT ALL. What actually DOES help, however, is RECALL

Don’t Study Harder?

This actually sounds counterintuitive, right?

I mean, all through school, we spend time working hard, pouring over review sheets, repeating concepts and vocabulary words in an effort to memorize them, and cramming for tests. But how much of that cramming and rote repetition do you actually remember today? Probably almost none – and likely the only bit you DO remember is that with which you had a strong emotional connection (like if you just started dating someone and were often studying together, or if you feared you wouldn’t graduate because of a low grade – I did).

The notion that we can just WORK HARDER to learn something is prevalent all throughout society. But it just ISN’T true.

The Forgetting Curve

Consider the “Forgetting Curve”, built on research done by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in the late 1800s. It shows the exponential rate of forgetting.

Image source: The Flashcard Learner
Image source: The Flashcard Learner

Of course, memory can be improved with Spaced Repetition, but we’ll get into that later.

"ForgettingCurve" by Original uploader was Icez at en.wikipedia - Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“ForgettingCurve” by Icez at en.wikipedia

For now, the key point to remember is that: of what you learn one day, only about 40% will be able to be remembered the next day; only 20% in a week; and just 10% in a month.

As the TOPIK test is FOUR months away from me now, that’s a pretty big deal. If I push, push, push to memorize, memorize, memorize 50 words per day (without reviewing them) and can only recall a small percentage of those, then I will have wasted a significant amount of effort.

So, then, if working HARDER isn’t the answer, what is? Answer: by doing “as little as possible” and recalling it.

Lazy Recall

“Recall” is a word I’ve become quite familiar with in the past 2-5 years. It basically means “to remember”, but it is significantly different from rote memorization.

For me, “recall” has meant that as I read through a new computer programming book, I try to put the concepts to immediate use from immediate memory. In other words, I’ll:

  1. Read the book (or watch the online course)
  2. Take notes on it (generally in the morning)
  3. Brainstorm a bit about how I might use the concepts
  4. Go and USE the concepts from memory (“recalling” what I’d only just learned an hour or two ago)

Studies have been done about this kind of “recalling” and it’s been found that “you’ll remember 35% more in a week” if you merely study and recall on a blank piece of paper, than if you “work harder” and study it twice (overlearning).

Graph from: Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner
Graph from: Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner

Apply this to Language Learning

Here’s a great quote from Fluent Forever that really sums up the concept:

Every time you succeed at recalling, the reward centers in your brain release a chemical reward – dopamine – into your hippocampus, further encouraging long-term memory storage. Your blank sheet of paper has created a drug-fueled memory party in your brain. Your boring word list never stood a chance.

So, after studying your words, recall them on a blank piece of paper.

Because the act of (1) walking through your flashcard making process + (2) the act of physically moving your hand to (3) write words that your brain (4) recalls and then (5) sees again on the page fires up the (6) dopamine in your brain and this multi-instrumental chorus of senses and chemicals revs up your memory retention to high gear. (Speak the words aloud as you recall them for an additional memory boost.)


  1. As with yesterday, continue making your flashcards
  2. Study the flashcards through until you’re pretty sure you know them well enough
  3. Get out a blank sheet of paper and recall the words
  4. Recall it THREE times like this (“put it to use, put it to use, put it to use”) – to multiply your memory retention

You can use the same concept with grammar points, idioms, phrases, or whatever else you may want to remember.

Over to you

So, how goes your vocabulary acquisition? Already feeling more confident in your memorization abilities? I sure am. Remember to use #120TOPIK if you want to share your thoughts on social media or feel free to leave a Comment here below. Good luck with your studies!~

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