In this article I want to talk about one of the most important topics in language learning – memory – and my experience with it over my time learning Hebrew.
So first, a story.
I started learning Hebrew when I moved to Israel in 2012. I didn’t speak much, just a few words here and there. But I was committed to learning. I would ask for the meaning of words that I didn’t understand and I would commit time daily to studying and essentially teaching myself the language.
Very early on I started noticing something that any language learner notices. People would tell me a word and then the next day (or next minute) I would forget it. So I realised that this was something that I needed to try and solve. Because why would I ask people for the meaning of a new word if I was likely going to forget it anyway?
That started my whole search for how to remember my growing Hebrew vocabulary. How does memory really work? How can I remember all these new words that I am learning?
In short, we remember things that we go over or review. If you learnt a new word and repeated it regularly over a long period of time, you’d remember that word. It would be in your long term memory. But it gets a little more interesting than that…
At about this time I came across my first piece of language learning software – Quizlet. Quizlet is a website for flashcards. Students use it to remember whatever it is that they are trying to learn.
So I started using Quizlet. Everytime I learnt a new word I would write it down in a little notebook or in my phone and then at some point later in the day I would input all my new words into quizlet. On one side of the flashcard I would put the word and on the other I would put the English meaning.
This seemed to be working fine for me. Everyday I would go over the words in my quizlet account and I was remembering them. Yay!
But then the inevitable happened – my word list got so long that it was taking me upwards of 45 minutes to review. 45 minutes of review every day, before I even got to learning new words, was a lot of time. Even for a disciplined student like I was.
So I realised pretty quickly that as nice and easy it was to use quizlet, it wasn’t a viable long term strategy. At my rate of learning I would soon be needing to review for more than an hour a day. Not what I wanted.
Anki and Fluent Forever
So I went in search of another solution. That’s when I found a book that really impacted on how I taught myself Hebrew. It’s called Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. In this book Gabriel speaks a lot about memory and he teaches you how to use a flashcard system which is much more powerful and time efficient than Quizlet.
It’s called spaced repetition learning. He makes a great case for it in his book and explains it in great detail.
This is taken from another well known language website that advocates for spaced repetition learning:
“The SRS (Spaced Repetition System) is a method that gives you the information before you would forget it and makes sure that it stays constantly fresh in your mind. So, you might see a word a few minutes after the first time, then a few days later, then a few weeks later etc. always at the time you need to see it most to make sure it is constantly fresh in your mind.”
So I started to develop my own SRS using an application that Gabriel recommends – Anki – and it changed the way I learnt Hebrew. I would put all my new words into flashcards that I made with Anki and Anki would test me only when I needed to be tested. That way I preserved my growing vocabulary and wasn’t studying for large amounts of time.
I would spend maybe 1-2 hours a week making flashcards with pictures and sounds and then every day I would review my cards that were due for review for about 15 minutes. Because Anki only tested me when I needed to be tested (i.e. just before I was about to forget the word) I never had an excessive amount of words to review each day. 15 minutes was all that I needed, no matter how big my flashcard library was becoming.
The only downside to Anki, and it can be quite significant, is that it is not so user friendly. It takes a while to learn how to use and even then it’s not that enjoyable to use.
I’m fairly technologically savvy so I was fine but when I started teaching it to my students I noticed that many of them got stuck and frustrated using it. That being said, some of my students use it every day, like I did, and they say that it makes a significant difference in their ability to remember words.
In this article I want to teach you how to use Anki and then you can see for yourselves whether it’s for you.
And here’s 100 flashcards that I’ve made that you can use straight away. They include native Israeli pronunciation for every word to improve your pronunciation as well as images to help aid your memory.
I do think that Anki has its place. I used it consistently for probably 3 years and it allowed me to retain a high level vocabulary, particularly when I wasn’t working in a Hebrew speaking environment. If you are speaking Hebrew in your day to day lives then Anki is less important because you are reviewing words anyway as you speak them. But if you are like many of us Hebrew learners, your everyday lives and your work are in English. If so, then Anki can be a really useful tool.
These days, in my online courses and for those students who are less inclined to sit and make flashcards for themselves, I create the flashcards for my students. I use an app called Brainscape. It’s really easy to use and it’s also rather fun to use. I’ve created a deck for you to use freely. My other decks that you might see are available to those students who are taking one of my online courses.
Click here to access the Brainscape deck. You’ll be asked to create a free account.
So as a summary I can safely say that after 5 years of learning Hebrew, being able to review the words that you are learning is really important. Crucial even. In this article we’ve spoken about three methods 1) Quizlet 2) Anki and 3) Brainscape.
What to do when a word just doesn’t stick!?
Sometimes you find words that you just can’t remember, no matter if you use a flashcard SRS or not. Some words just don’t go in! With these words I recommend the simple and fun technique called “mnemonics”.
Let’s take nekhmad נחמד nice. To remember this word:
1. Pay attention to how it sounds and try and link it with something that you already know. Nek sounds like English’s “neck” and mad (pronounced mud) sounds like English’s “mud”.
2. Make some sort of image/movie out of this in your head. I’m thinking of someone neck deep in mud
3. Connect it to the meaning = nice. It’s not nice to be neck deep in mud.
Try this with the next Hebrew word that you can’t remember. It works, and its fun. It doesn’t have to precise either, as long as you find some sort of connection your brain will remember it.
What to do now
1. Try out Anki and Brainscape by using my sample decks provided to you in this guide. See whether one platform “speaks” to you more than another. Both platforms will help you remember new words. The question is which one are you more likely to use.
2. Try putting 10 new words into either Anki or Brainscape. This will give you more of a sense of how they work and will give you momentum to continue.
So I hope that you’ve enjoyed this memory guide. If anything was unclear or you are looking for any other information that I can help you with then please leave me a comment below.
Behatzlakha – בהצלחה – all the best!