The Secret to Remembering English Words


​Have you ever 'learnt' an English word and forgot it the next day?

​Who hasn't, right? In ​this article, we ​take a short trip through history to try to understand what we know about human memory and learning before. We go on to look at how we can use this knowledge to help our own learning.


​Let's take a short trip through history to try to understand what we know about human memory and learning before we look at how we can use this knowledge to help our own learning.

​We're designed to forget

​Back in 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered ​'the forgetting curve' - an exponential relationship between time and memory. After learning something once, people can remember around 60% after 20 minutes​, 45% after an hour, 35% after 9 hours and 20% after 31 days​.1

At the same time, Ebbinghaus also spoke about 'the spacing effect' - the way that ​memory is better when learning is spread out over time.

​Around 50 years later, British philosopher and psychologist C. A. Mace ​​created the idea of 'spaced repetition' - where we learn or test our memory at increasing intervals (for example, after 1 day, then 2 days, then 4 days, 8 days, 16 days, and so on). ​A few years later, J.F. Spitzer went on to test the idea on students in Iowa, America and the results seemed to show that spaced repetition (learning at increasing ​periods of time) ​improves ​learning​​​.​2

​Developments in language learning

​Since then, there have been two significant developments that have tried to use these findings to help our learning.​ 

  • In 1969, US company Pimsleur used the idea of spaced repetition in its audio tape language courses​​.​​3
  • Around ten years later, S. Leitner's 'Leitner System' brought in the idea of 'flashcards' to spaced repetition​​.​​2
The Leitner System

With flashcard learning, you have five piles of cards. Each card has an English word on one side and a description of what the word means (or a translation) on the other side.

New words that you don't know yet go into pile A and you test your memory of this pile every day. Perhaps you test pile B every two days, pile C every five days, pile D every two weeks and pile E every month (or something like that). If you manage to guess the word or description correctly, you move the card to the pile on the right. If not, you move it left.

The modern way to remember new words

​Nowadays, if you're not using technology to help you remember, then you're missing out on a great opportunity to speed up your learning.

Modern software​, like Supermemo and Anki, are able to take Leitner's spaced repetition flashcard system a step further by automating the testing process. This has two major benefits:

  1. you don't need to write physical flashcards
  2. you don't need to manage the spaced repetition side of things

This second point is bigger than you might think. Believe me, I know. This is how I started to learn Mandarin Chinese - yes, I wrote down words and phrases I wanted to learn on physical cards and tested myself with these cards! I won't go into detail here, but just know that there are some downsides to managing your own flashcard system that make it not particularly efficient.

Next, let me suggest some free modern software that you can manage your spaced repetition flashcard system ​with.


Anki is free and open-source software that uses spaced repetition to manage your flashcards for you. You can use it to:

  • create your own flashcards
  • use other people's shared flashcards
  • test your memory

Here's a ​video showing how you can ​get started with using Anki for your English learning:




​Apple iOS app



Apple iOS app

Download (paid)

Note that the Apple iOS app is designed to work with the computer version of Anki, so you'll need to download both if you want to use the iOS app.

A brief history of spaced repetition


​H. Ebbinghaus ​discovers 'the forgetting curve' and 'the spacing effect'


C.A. Mace explores the idea of 'spaced ​repetition' (learning at ​increasing intervals)


​H.F. Spitzer tests ​and shows spaced learning is effective


US company P​imsleur creates 'Pimsleur system' based on learning at specific ​timed intervals


S. ​Leitner creates 'Leitner System' based on ​spaced repetition with flashcards


​P. Wozniak creates 'SuperMemo' - flashcard software based on spaced repetition


​D. Elmes develops 'Anki' - free, open-source ​flashcard software based on spaced repetition

​How do you review the language you've learnt? ​How easily do you find it to remember new language? Share your thoug​hts by ​writing a comment below.

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