In my early days of language learning, I had a very close friend – a Spanish speaker called Tomás.
He was – and still is – a bit of a comedian.
One of the things he used to say to me was: “¡Qué tonto eres, tío!”
…which translates as: “You’re such an idiot!”
Now, he used to say this to me quite a lot.
A lot, actually…
Like 10-20 times a day.
“Qué tonto eres, tío!”
Good job it was affectionate. (Most of the time.)
The first time he said it, I probably didn’t understand.
Nor the second time.
But after the 500th time, I knew this phrase very well indeed.
Then… I started saying it myself.
Before long, I could say it just like him.
“Qué tonto eres, tío!”
I knew this phrase so well that I could use it in just about any situation with Spanish people, to take a jibe at someone with just the right intonation to give it a nice comedic effect and endear myself quickly to the people around me.
It was pure gold.
Now, how did I learn that phase so well?
Simple — my friend repeated that phrase so damn often that I had no choice but to learn it!
You might ask:
“How many times do you have to hear a word or phrase to learn it?”
The answer is, of course, that you never know.
It’s always different.
However, we can just keep it simple by saying:
“Quite a few times!”
That's right! Research into literacy development suggests that it might take up to 17 exposures to learn a new word.
And that’s in your mother tongue – a language you already know.
So, in a foreign language, it’s often going to be a lot more.
But whatever… sometimes less, sometimes more.
You need to see new vocabulary a lot of times in order to learn it.
Let’s go back to my lovely phrase “Qué tonto eres, tío!” and think what might happen if you learned that phrase in a textbook.
You are, of course, unlikely to learn a phrase like “Qué tonto eres, tío!” in a textbook!
(That’s probably a good thing … being a “high-risk phrase”!)
But even if you did find this phrase in a textbook…
How many times would you see it?
Once, in a dialogue?
A third time … if there’s a review section?
You might, then, practise the phrase a few times, depending on the focus of the class.
(Which would be quite funny to see, actually, a class full of Spanish students telling each other how dumb they are!)
But that’s it.
You’re basically shown this new phrase once or twice, and you’re on your own!
That’s all the help you get.
In the next class, you’re on to the next chapter, with completely new information…
And the whole cycle starts again.
So you’ve got to critically examine claims from textbooks that tell you:
“You’ll learn 1,000 new words in this course!”
No you won’t.
“You’ll see 1,000 words… but it’s down to you to go and learn them!”
That’s the inconvenient truth!
The important thing is this:
Seeing something new in your textbook is just the beginning.
The rest of the work is still to come.
There’s a big gap between seeing a new word for the first time in your textbook… and internalising that word, so you truly know it – inside out & back to front!
And you fill that gap with one thing:
One of the cornerstones of your language learning routine should be to go back and review things you’ve learned before.
The day before.
The week before.
The month before, for that matter.
There’s very little point studying something once.
The magic happens when you see it over and over again.
Now there are lots of ways to review new vocabulary…
You can find a friend like Tomás, who gets a perverse pleasure out of telling you the same stuff over and over.
But if you’re not lucky to have a friend like that, then there are lots of things you can do to learn a new word or phrase.
- Use flashcards
- Use that vocabulary in speaking
- Do some writing using what you’ve learned
- Talk to yourself in the shower using as many new words as you can
Or my personal favourite…
- Just go back and re-read earlier chapters from a book you’re reading
It doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that you deliberately review what you’ve learnt.
Do that, and you’ll find new vocabulary sticking in your mind far more reliably than before, so you can feel a stronger sense of progress and satisfaction in your learning.
Now, let me give you one very simple way to take action on this right away.
What I want you to do is to add one very simple activity to your daily study routine…
You don’t need to write anything.
You don’t need to “study” anything.
Just take 15 minutes to look back over whatever you’ve learned recently…
- Look over your vocabulary notes
- Re-read a chapter from a book
- Listen to the audio of the most recent dialogue in your textbook
What you’re doing here is adding one extra touchpoint into your day…
One little repetition that’s going to be like crack cocaine for your memory. (In a good way)
(Just don’t go near the crack… ok? Be sensible.)
Just add these 10 little minutes into your study routine, and you’ll be amazed at how you just retain stuff more easily.
So give it a try, and let me know how it goes.
Do you have a method you like for reviewing what you learn?
I’d love to hear about it.
Let me know in a comment below, and don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter for more of my best language learning tips!