How adults learn foreign languages ​​best

And the apps aren’t very innovative, according to researcher Torben Schmidt of the Leuphan University in Lüneburg along with a US research team. In 2016, they rated 50 of the most popular commercial language learning applications for mobile phones. Her critique: Programs hardly adapt to students’ abilities, rarely provide explanations for corrections, and vocabulary is often presented in isolation, i.e. out of context. This is not a good prerequisite for memorizing them permanently, as research on learning shows.

This is the best way to learn vocabulary

How to acquire new vocabulary is perhaps the most researched question when it comes to language learning. We soon forgot most of what we were learning. This was already observed in the 1880s by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) in his experiments on himself, which he later repeatedly confirmed. He remembered nonsensical syllables like “baf” and “soup” by heart, but most of them he did not remember the next day. But the more he repeated them, the more he remembered them.

In order to embed words deeply in your memory, you have to process them deeply. Anyone who just parrots or copies a word processes it only superficially. This was already demonstrated by the classic 1975 experiment in which subjects were asked to answer questions about a new word, for example, was it capitalized or if it matched a particular sentence. In the case of capital letters, only 16 percent. they later remembered the word, but about 90% when asked to combine it with a sentence.

Now is the right time to learn vocabulary

Many studies show that repeating a topic over a period of time, known as “repeating at intervals”, is more effective in the long run than repeating the same number of times in a row. It helps even more not only to repeat what you have learned, but also to recall it from memory (“test effect”). And the longer you want the knowledge to stay in your head, the longer you should wait for it to be refreshed.

A team at the University of Mannheim found in experiments in English lessons: In the case of the vocabulary test, a week later it was good to repeat the vocabulary after one day, but in the case of the test after a month, the interval of eleven days was better. Similar conclusions were reached in a US study involving over 1,300 people. They were supposed to know the facts and were asked about them even a year later. The optimal interval was 20 percent of the testing time when it was a few weeks and 5 percent when it was a year.

However, it is not clear what this looks like with a few repetitions. Should the intervals between sessions be extended? Some, but not all, evidence support this. Learning software and classic index card systems usually rely on increasing the intervals.

The old method of learning each word individually had its day. The vocabulary book is also silly because the words are always in the same order and in the same place. Most experts recommend learning new words within the context of a sentence, or even better: in several different words. And preferably in sentences that refer to you or otherwise have a personal meaning. You should change the learning situation, otherwise you may not remember a word under different conditions.

The extent to which pictures help you learn vocabulary is controversial; some studies support this, especially in children, while others argue against it. The gestures vary: they seem to enhance the memory of both young and old. The research team from the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Brain Max Planck in Leipzig, he found that people who make the right movements while studying better remember vocabulary six months later. This does not come from the movement itself, however, but from the sensual experience of the meaning of the word. Gestures are conducive to remembering words, especially when they represent their meaning in pictures.

Much is good, variety is better

An encouraging conclusion from the Institute of Foreign Service: Thanks to intensive training, almost all students will finally achieve their goal. However, in order to achieve a high level of language proficiency, a residence in the country is required for difficult languages ​​such as Chinese and Arabic. Future US diplomats work for a while.

An alternative for those who can afford it are the so-called immersion camps. “Immersion”, often translated as “immersion”, refers to long stays in a foreign language environment, for example as a student in a bilingual school or as an au pair in a family. There are so-called adult immersion camps where you can only speak the target language, for example, at Middlebury College in the US state of Vermont. Immersion is considered the most effective method of learning a language, although some experts such as Stephen Krashen limit that some basic understanding of a language should already be present.

A several-week immersion camp can bring you more than a semester of learning to speak abroad. A survey in Belgium showed that after eight months, foreign students knew little more Flemish than before; only in writing they improved a little. The researchers attributed this to, among other things, the fact that they had no contact with native speakers. A rich contribution alone is not enough: it requires personal interaction and a sense of belonging.

Language tandems are another way to make the necessary contacts. For example, a German woman who wants to improve her English is looking for an English woman who wants to learn German on They then meet in a video chat to take turns speaking one language and the other. This provides a more authentic exchange than staged dialogue in the classroom.

Practice in realistic situations, recommend diplomat FSI Roberts and his co-author Kreuz. They warn against “swimming exercises in dry water”. Too often, communication works well in the classroom but less in real life. Much is good, variety is better. Especially when it comes to listening comprehension.

They also recommend diversifying if your learning progress slows down. Usually it is enough to practice in a different way. And if science isn’t fun right now: stop it. to do something completely different. In any case, it is better to exercise frequently for a short time than once every few hours. Learning a language is not a sprint or a marathon – it’s a very long journey. Even drill fanatic Paul Pimsleur advised: slow down and enjoy.

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