Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Leitner boxes and spaced repetition

A reader mentioned to me that I should do a post on Leitner boxes since I mentioned them in my previous post. She may not be the only who who doesn't know about them, so here's a brief explanation.

We can't start with the boxes, though. We have to first go back to the idea of a spaced repetition memory system. This is the idea that there are optimal times between review sessions of material to firmly implant an idea into ones memory. Different scientists early in the last century worked on this problem and I had run across the idea in various forms in my somewhat compulsive reading about brain science. I think that's why I was so intrigued with Sebastian Leitner's system of using index cards when I read about it in the book, Fluent Forever. I knew the science behind it and it made sense. Plus, it used an organized system with schedules and index cards and little index card dividers... all things that I enjoy playing with. It is also hard to ignore the results of such a system if used regularly and correctly.

I knew that from my previous eight (!) years of trying to learn French in school, that I had two problems with my language ability. The first is that I didn't full understand that everyone has a steep learning curve when learning to understand native speakers. That aural understanding is a learned skill and not just something someone is born with. I was convinced that there was something wrong with me because I could only catch a word or two when listening to spoken French. Well, it turns out, it wasn't me, it was sheer lack of practice. The second problem is very directly tied to the first. I just didn't have enough vocabulary that I knew inside and out. Those words I did understand in spoken Frnch? Well, surprise, surprise, they were the words I knew as well as I knew English words. I could always catch them. So as long as people used a handful of present tense verbs and talked about colors and body parts, I was good. Venturing out of my secure vocabulary made it increasingly difficult to understand spoken French, and frankly, there were huge amounts of words that I just didn't know. How can you understand a spoken word if you don't even know the word?

In doing a lot of reading about modern polyglots, the one big thing I became aware of is the sheer amount of vocabulary they spend hours just memorizing. My own French vocabulary (after 8 years of school French) was no where near enough to hold even a simple conversation. It was either the wrong words or just not enough words. So I'm working on rectifying that by using a Leitner box.

A Leitner box is really just a lot of index cards that are reviewed in a certain order. I am using the number of levels and review times listed in Fluent Forever and am adding anywhere between 10 and 30 cards to the box each day. Here is how it works.

Let's take today, for example. Today is Day 23 of a 64 day cycle. I am supposed to review levels 2 and 1 today. First, I take out all the cards in level 2. I look at the card and answer the question. I could be an English to French vocabulary word or a French to English one. In my French box, I could also have questions about conjugation or missing parts of a sentence (because I am more advanced and understand the grammar of the language). In my Mandarin box, a card could have a character that I either need to know the definition of or the pinyin for. Or, it could have the pinyin written for a word that I need to know the character for or the definition of. Or, it could have an English word that I would either need to know the character or the pinyin for. For each Mandarin word, because of the alternate writing system, there are six different cards that I make.

Assuming I get the answer right on the card in front of me, I will then move it up to the next level. In this case, level 3. If I get it wrong, it goes all the way back to level 1 regardless of what level it was in. When I'm finished with level 2, then I will move to level 1 and review those cards, adding in a stack of new ones to start their journey through the box.

To make this really work, you need to spend a chunk of time every few days making new cards. I use frequency dictionaries and grammar books to make most of the cards. I also use the website Fluent U. to hear spoken language from native speakers and if there is new vocabulary, add those words in as well. For French, because I can read it, I'm also working through a grade school level mystery, adding the new vocabulary from that as well. It is rather time consuming to make the cards, but I find it really helps with learning the words. The Fluent Forever author, Gabriel Wyner, suggests having no English at all on any of the cards and using pictures for learning vocabulary. This is to stop the translation aspect that can happen and slow a language learner down. I don't do that, mainly because one of the good things to come out of my school language learning was that I figured out how to see an English word and force myself to see a picture in my head to go along with the foreign word. It's just faster to do this than to try to draw pictures for every card. Others may be more successful sticking with pictures.

It seems to be working. We'll see what happens when day 28 rolls around and it's time to review level 5 again. The cards have been stacking up in there and it looks as though I have 200 to 300 cards waiting for review. I have no idea how many will get to advance to level 6 or will instead get to play the Leitner version of Snakes and Ladders and slide back to level 1.

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