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Use It or Lose It

Read before Moving Abroad

In 1879, Hermann Ebbinghaus, a young psychologist at the University of Berlin, asked a powerful question: “How does memory work?” He was curious about the process of learning and forgetting, but he didn’t find any satisfactory answers in academia. So he conducted experiments on himself. 

Ebbinghaus sat down and memorized a list of nonsense syllables. He created over 2300 syllables with a consonant-vowel-consonant structure: HAZ, BIX, FAS, LEQ, etc. Each syllable could not resemble any German word. So the word “GUT” (good) wasn’t included. He didn’t want familiarity with a word to affect his recall. For each experiment, he noted the time it took him to memorize a list of syllables. A list was considered memorized if he could recite the information twice without any mistakes. Then, he varied the time he relearned the list. Sometimes he waited just 20 minutes, other times he waited weeks. The difference between the original learning time and relearning time was quantified as a percentage, which he called savings. For instance, imagine you spend 10 minutes memorizing a list, then one hour later, you spend 7 minutes relearning the same information. Your savings are 3 minutes, meaning that you retained 30% of the information after one hour. After a few years and hundreds of experiments, he mapped out his results on a graph, now known as the Forgetting Curve: 

The curve shows that after 20 minutes, Ebbinghaus only retained 58% of the nonsense syllables he memorized. At the end of the day, without reviewing the information, recall dropped to 33%. Through his self-experiments, he quantitatively established that: 

      • our ability to recall learned information fades over time
      • learned information isn’t forgotten completely, instead, forgetting slowly levels out
      • relearning is faster than learning new information
      • reviewing information slows down the process of forgetting
      • the more information is reviewed, the slower the information is forgotten

The forgetting curve is a large part of our cognitive reality, simplified in the adage, “use it or lose it.” Our abilities need to be maintained or they will suffer from atrophy. 

Language Learning

How do these ideas apply to language learning? 

      1. Successful language learners have a system. They understand the importance of discipline and the limitations of motivation. Good habits are the key to learning. Students can check out my weekly progress journal to help them make consistent progress. 
      2. Reviewing information is essential. Learning something once is not enough, repetition is the mother of success. More specifically, spaced repetition helps learners retain information more efficiently and slows down the process of forgetting. 
      3. When students have met their language goals, they also need to design a maintenance schedule. Skills are like muscles: when you don’t exercise them, they lose their effectiveness. Learners, who don’t pay attention to maintenance, may feel that over time, they have more trouble recalling vocabulary and more difficulty reading. Using the language becomes more effortful. They might even lose their “feel” for the language. Certain expressions, words, or grammar structures feel alien. Certain sounds or mouth positions feel weird. 
      4. There’s good news for students who want are interested in relearning a language. Maybe, the student took a course in a foreign language more than a decade ago and has forgotten everything. Those who are interested in picking up the language again will learn faster than those who are learning for the first time. The brain doesn’t really “forget”. A more accurate description is that recall diminishes without repetition. The decay in our ability to remember levels off, never reaching zero percent. Whereas, new language learners have to start from scratch.   

Before moving abroad

Immersion is one of the best ways to learn a language. Living in the country where the language is used is invaluable: you can hear how the language sounds every day, you can immediately practice what you’ve learned, and you can learn about the culture firsthand. Not to mention the higher probability you’ll become a part of a community with native speakers. Typically students spend 3-6 months immersed in a foreign culture. Substantial progress is made because of motivation and discipline. But how do you enjoy the fruits of your labor when you move back to your own country? How do you maintain your skills when all the benefits of immersion evaporate the moment you go back to your country? You can still stay in touch with the people you’ve formed relationships with, but how long will that last? You might have found a better job, but eventually, you stop practicing the language and go back to your former life: same community, same habits, same routines. Students begin to wonder, “Why did I spend so much time, money, and energy immersed in another culture? Where are all my gains? Was it a waste of time?”

Yes and no. Students who understand the forgetting curve, understand that if you go back to your old lifestyle, then nothing changes. The progress you made will inevitably fade away without periodically reviewing the information. That’s what Ebbinghaus showed in his experiments. That’s how memory works: use it or lose it. Richard Roberts in Becoming Fluent wrote about this phenomenon, “The bad news is that the process of forgetting kicks in immediately after we’re exposed to something, and like sand through our fingers, most of this information just slips away. The good news is that this rate of forgetting slows considerably as time goes by.” 

The point is you need to find ways to practice the language whether you move back to your own country or find employment in your host country. Successful students: 

      • Continue learning with an online or in-person language tutor
      • Stay in touch with their language exchange friends or native speakers
      • Join communities that speak the language they need to practice
      • Find employment requiring them to use their language skills
      • Design a routine or schedule for language maintenance

Further Reading

  • Becoming Fluent, Richard M. Roberts 
  • Algorithms We Live By, Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths