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The scientific, efficient way to learn languages: “spaced repetition”

A Muslim student from the Chinese Hui minority studies at Ningxia Islamic College in Yinchuan, capital of northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, April 23,2007. According to school and local sources, more than 300 students, including 82 girls, learn culture, Arabic language, Islam and history at the college, which was founded in 1989.
Reuters/Jason Lee
Learn the right way.
  • Nikhil Sonnad
By Nikhil Sonnad


Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

Before your trip abroad, you hit the flashcards hard. You memorized how to say essential words and phrases like “hello,” “where is the bathroom,” and “I’ll have a beer.” But once you arrived, it’s like your brain had never encountered the language at all. Words would not come.

It’s not you, it’s how you used the flashcards: Learning a language as an adult takes time and effort, but the go-to study methods that most diligent language-learners use are out of date by about hundred years.

There is a moment in every modern language learner’s studies when they discover spaced repetition systems (SRS) and think, “I have been wasting a lot of time by not doing this.” SRS is a learning system that makes the nitty-gritty of studying hundreds of new pieces of information—say vocabulary words—more efficient. If you’re learning a language, you should be using it.

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