Are you familiar with the “forgetting curve”? I was about 16 when I came across it, printed in the back of my physics textbook at secondary school. But I have a vivid memory of that discovery to this day. The graph had a tremendous impact on the way I approach learning, especially when studying Japanese.

Our brains organize and process information in order to recall the most important stuff first. I’m sure most people can relate to the frustrating feeling of having studied a new and tricky word, only to find it has ceased to exist inside our head the very next day. “What happened? Surely I’m not getting old already?” we fret. Perhaps we should blame a bad learning technique instead of our memories.

Age, stress and sleep — among other things — all affect how well we remember something. Typically, however, one of the biggest problems is that we aren’t even giving our bodies a decent chance to recall things in the first place. With the constant flood of information entering through our senses every second of every day, our brains have quite a job to sort out what is important from what is forgettable.

Stronger memories take longer to forget, the best example of which are “flashbulb memories” — those supremely powerful emotional experiences that seem to permanently etch themselves into our minds. Other memories, especially sensory ones, are retained only from a few seconds to mere minutes.

So what is the best way to transform short-term memories into long-term memories? That is where the forgetting curve and “spaced repetition” come in.

German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus first noted an exponential relationship between time and the strength of a memory in 1885. Put simply, the more we see something, the more likely we are to remember it. What is important, however, is not cramming information into our minds over a short period of time. For the best memory retention, we must continually review the information at optimally spaced intervals. This may sound like hard work at first, but after a while the repetitions spread out further and further. The end result is that you will only need to review a piece of information every few years or even less often.

With traditional flash cards, following the spaced repetition approach means maintaining a complicated setup with various categories to identify how well you remembered a particular item. But computers and free software available on the Internet can automatically calculate the best time for your next review. All you need to concentrate on is actually doing the study!

One particular piece of software that has transformed my Japanese language learning is Anki, named after the Japanese word for memory (暗記). Anki allows you to add new material or choose from a list of shared public decks to start studying. It can be used for almost anything, from hiragana and katakana to American states or even putting names to faces! You simply select how difficult something was for you to remember and Anki calculates the next time you need to see it to avoid forgetting it. It is a great way to build sound knowledge of a topic. I used it to study grammar and vocabulary, and I credit it for my success in passing the top level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I have friends who have also built decks using Anki, gradually adding material over the years, and their language ability has improved because of it.

Of course, flash-card systems are no substitute for learning and using a language properly. Studying in different environments and getting outside to interact with real people are also important parts of language learning. They will provide you with practical repetitions of the material you have been practicing at home — more deeply embedding it in your long-term memory.

Spaced repetition requires dedication to the review process, but if you’re serious about improving your Japanese ability, it’s time well spent. Good luck!

Michael Gakuran blogs at www.gakuranman.com and is the founder of gakuu.com, a Japanese language site for advanced learners.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.