It never fails.
Every time I go home to America for one week, two weeks, four weeks, whatever, when I come back, my ears quickly readjust to the sights and sounds of Korean and even pick up new words and phrases that I’d not previously known or studied. It never fails.
It’s like after taking a short break in an English-only country for a while, then re-immersing myself in Korean, a lightbulb goes on in my head. Quite suddenly, something new just clicks.
It could be a phrase I’ve heard a taxi driver say 1,000 times before and never picked up on. Or it might be a sign or TV advertisement I’ve seen a million times that I suddenly realize what the words mean. But whatever it is, it illustrates a very clear key point in learning: Learning is actually the “space between” consistent study.
The problem with study, study, study (i.e. “cramming”)
Have you ever noticed that cramming for a test only really serves two purposes?
- Your short-term memory latches onto the terms just long enough to get in, pass the test, and get out.
- You personally contribute to the growth of the coffee industry and the health industry by staying up all night with you two buddies Caffeine and Stress.
And the one thing that cramming is no good for is the one thing everybody really wishes it was good for: cementing into long-term memory what you crammed into short-term memory.
Cramming vs. Consistent, Spaced Presentation
When trying to learn anything, there are really only 3 ways to do it:
- Cramming: short-term memory overloading – great for immediate use; not much good after that.
- Spaced repetition: this is what makes some teachers say, “The projects in this course build on each other. If you miss one at the beginning, it’ll be much harder to catch up.” This is ideal for long-term memory retention, but more time-consuming.
- The “Pimsleur” Method (Graduated Interval Recall): Paul Pimsleur discovered that you forget a new word nearly as quickly as you learn it, but if you review it just before you’re about to forget, then you’ll retain it for an exponentially longer time. See an example of Pimsleur’s memory-retention time estimation below:
If you want to learn a new word well (according to the Pimsleur method):
- Review it after 5 seconds.
- Review again after 25 seconds.
- Review again after 2 minutes.
- Review again after 10 minutes.
- Review again after 1 hour.
- Review again after 5 hours.
- Review again tomorrow.
- Review again in 5 days.
- Review again in a month (25 days).
- Review again in 4 months.
- Review again in 2 years.
Pimsleur shows us that memory isn’t linear; that even if you spend the same total amount of time studying, the time you spend in between significantly affects what your brain does with the information. Learning is the space between the doing.
[But…] Make no mistake, the goal isn’t to do avoid having to practice every day; it’s to make the repetition manageable so you can introduce new material every day. It’s about staying interested and excited about what you’re learning.
How to use this concept to your advantage
When you study a language, don’t make the following 3 mistakes:
- Don’t make the mistake of rushing through one book just so that you can get on with the next one.
- Don’t make the mistake of purchasing a new book any time you get bored with the old one.
- Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because you studied something once, you now know it.
Don’t forget that language learning is a process that requires consistent, gradual effort as well as spacing and review. Although “novelty” (the quality of being new) is exciting, it doesn’t lead to the most solid path toward fluency (a concept we’ll explore in the next post).
So, the next time you finish a book, give yourself some time off from studying anything new in order to review and solidify the concepts you’ve just completed.