Einstein Moonwalker Discovers Spaced Repetition

Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking With Einstein, learns a language with spaced repetition.

You’ve probably already heard of Joshua Foer and his excellent 2011 bestseller, Moonwalking With Einstein. Foer chronicles his ascent (or descent) into the magical world of memory, a trip that takes him all the way from ancient Simonides to contemporary experts like Tony Buzan, and ends with winning the U.S. Memory Championship.

But there’s one aspect of memory work he seemed to miss entirely – spaced repetition. Until now.

In a recent article for the Guardian, Joshua Foer explains how he “learned a language in 22 hours”.

Wow. Really?

The subtitle is even more exciting:

He’s never been good with languages, so can Joshua Foer really hope to learn Lingala in a day?

One day!

However, the URL to the article ends with a different title: learn-language-in-three-months. Which makes you wonder what Foer’s original title was.

Because these “22 hours” were actually spread out over two and a half months. His longest single study session was 20 minutes, and his average was four minutes.

Is this a letdown? Not for me. I’m excited to see Foer spreading the word about spaced repetition.

Besides, three months, in four-minute sessions, is still incredibly fast. I’ve been trying to learn Spanish by Christmas for much longer, and as Christmas draws near, it doesn’t look like I’m going to reach my goal.

What have Foer and I been doing differently?

English-Based Mnemonics

We both focused on learning the 1000 most common words in our chosen languages. Actually, he learned an entire dictionary’s worth, but apparently the language, Lingala, only had 1,109 words in this dictionary.

Difference #1: Foer used English-based mnemonics. He would make strong visualizations for the word, but this visualization could rely on an English word.

… for motema, which means heart, I visualised a beating organ dripping blood on a blinking and purring computer modem.

The associations go like this: motema (heart) -> modem -> mental image of heart + modem

You’ll see this approach in many memory books.

I, on the other hand, tried to use no English at all, instead pairing the Spanish words with pictures. I was following the lead of an opera singer who has learned several languages using (among other tools) picture-based Anki flashcards.

My association would go like this:

corazón (heart) -> mental image of heart

According to this school of thought, pairing English with your foreign word is the last thing you want to do. You want to forget English, and connect these new words directly to the things themselves.

But does this approach actually work? For me, corazón is more like:

corazón (heart) -> “cor” is Latin for heart, right? Something like that… -> mental image of heart

And I have plenty of Spanish words that I remember by similar English words. It’s complicated.

Maybe I should take another look at English-based mnemonics.

Difference #2: Foer actually finished making his cards.

Finding images for Spanish vocabulary proved exceedingly difficult. I still can’t believe that no one, anywhere, has gotten around to making simple picture flashcards for the first 1000 Spanish words. I’d buy them in a heartbeat.

Myself, I got tired of hunting through clipart. This was supposed to be the fast way to learn a language.

Thus, Foer stuck with his “inferior” method and apparently now speaks Lingala. I took the high road and gave up.

Difference #3: Foer actually visited a place where they speak the language.

Never underestimate the power of immersion. Foer was surprised to discover how easily he was speaking Lingala, but this happened after he was in Africa.

When I finally decide to make Spanish a priority, I’ll spend a few weeks in a place where I’ll use it every day. Until then, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that my progress is slow.

Much More than 22 Hours

As a side note, Foer does mention that making his own Lingala mnemonics “required a good deal of work”. How much work? It doesn’t seem to matter, since it was “fun and engaging work”. Which is the right attitude.

But it’s important to include this time commitment, considering the headline’s giddy promise of “22 hours”.

Is Memorizing Vocabulary Enough to Learn a Language?

Plus, don’t you need more than 1,000 common words to actually learn a language? Of course, says Foer.

But it turns out to be just enough vocabulary to let you hit the ground running once you’re authentically immersed in a language. And, more importantly, that basic vocabulary gives you a scaffolding to which you can attach other words as you hear them.

He also notes that as he got all these words into his mind, he started to notice patterns and relationships.

I still wonder how he learned the syntax. If you read the short conversations in Lingala, you can see the verbs changing form. He does mention an old Foreign Language Institute textbook.

If I look over the most common Spanish words, I actually do recognize an awful lot of them. On paper. In their basic form.

But when I listen to spoken Spanish, or try to watch TV, I’m still lucky if I catch every fifth word.

Anyhow, on balance, I’m encouraged. One of Foer’s most charming characteristics is his unremitting insistence that he’s an ordinary guy who simply hunts down super-smart techniques. (Then follows through and uses them.)

If he learned a language with a web-based flashcard program (Memrise), English-based mnemonics, an old FSI textbook, and a visit to Africa – that’s good news.

Learning in the Breaks

Perhaps his most important point is that Memrise was just fun enough that he reviewed cards as a break. Between tasks.

What if instead of tabbing over to the web browser in search of some nugget of gossip or news, or opening up a mindless game such as Angry Birds, we could instead scratch the itch by engaging in a meaningful activity, such as learning a foreign language?

It’s an exciting vision.

What do you think? Do you use Anki, Mnemosyne, or one of those programs as a break? Or do they feel like more work?

Do you think the extra “game” features of Memrise could be a crucial difference in helping people follow through and keep learning their flashcards? Could the “game” factor change everything?