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3 reasons why learning a language is like teaching two thousand toddlers to ride a bike

When I’m thinking about the neuroscience of learning a language, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of p-values and psycholinguistics. But instead, I prefer to picture two thousand toddlers learning to ride a bike.

Why ‘two thousand’? Two thousand words in a foreign language is enough for basic fluency. So that’s our goal.

Learning to ride a bike is a little terrifying, especially when you first start. But with the right help and encouragement, everyone learns to ride a bike – and learning a language is the same way.

1) Vivid mnemonics

To start with, you’ll need training wheels to build your confidence and get moving.

Here’s an example of how vivid mnemonics (we call them ‘mems’) work like training wheels for your brain:

That’s the Mandarin word for ‘man’. Right there, you’ve tripled your chances of remembering that Chinese character! Expert use of mnemonics is the key technique that memory champions rely on. You can see lots more examples of mems for Chinese words here.

2) If you don’t test yourself, you’ll never remember it 

Training wheels are great to get you started, but it’ll soon be time to try riding around without them. This is where it helps to have someone standing behind you, ready to grab the saddle when you need it. You want someone with good hands who’ll catch you before you fall, but lets you wobble a bit first. After all, you’ll never learn to ride on your own with someone holding the saddle the entire time.

This is why testing (e.g. with flashcards) is so effective. The act of recollection actually cements a memory – if you don’t test yourself, you’ll never remember it. To really get the most out of your testing, test yourself just before you’re about to forget it. This is called the ‘testing effect‘.

3) Scheduled reminders at growing intervals

When you start out learning to ride a bike, you’ll be lucky to make it 2 or 3 feet without completely losing your balance. After some practice, you’ll probably be able to manage 5 then 10 feet. The more practice you get, the less often you need help.

The same is true of memories – at first, you need really frequent tests to keep them alive. But after you’ve known them a while, you only need occasional prods at longer and longer intervals to keep them happy. This is why you don’t need to practice a word you’ve known for months every day. This is called the ‘spacing effect‘.

So, you need a vivid mem at first to get you started. Then you need to be tested to cement the memories. And then you’ll need reminders over time at increasing intervals.

If learning a single word is like teaching a single toddler to ride a bike, learning a language is like teaching two thousand toddlers.

Memrise is an ever-growing storehouse of vivid mems (one day we’ll have mems for every word!), combined with algorithms that monitor your progress – they carefully choreograph your testing, and schedule your reminders over time.  When I’m using Memrise, I like to picture it as a team of 2000 gold medallist kindergarten teachers pitching in to help with my language learning. Our dream is that with that kind of help and encouragement, everyone can learn a foreign language.

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