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How to improve your memory.

How to improve your memory.

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When I first approached learning a new language, I came across some great advice to speed up the process; learn the 1000 most common words used in that language. It won’t make you fluent, but it’ll definitely help you get by. Similar to the 80/20 rule, you’ll find in life that we only use 20% of our vocabulary to construct 80% of everyday conversations. So I went off to figure out the most common words and try to learn all 1000 of them. The start was difficult, I didn’t have a system to help me memorise each word and my memory failed me at times. Countless times. Who do I blame for that? My deteriorating brain? At the time of writing this I’m only 28, so that can’t be the reason— at least I hope not! After doing a bit of research and figuring out how to improve my memory, I came across a technique that helped improve it dramatically. This technique is something that we’ve all been aware of at a very young age, it is none other than the use of flashcards.

Before you roll your eyes and switch over to another article— hopefully another one of mine— I’m not talking about those flashcards that your teacher would show to you during your time in nursery. I’m talking about a specific software that takes flipping cards to a whole new level. Anki is an open source software—  that means it’s free of charge! Their slogan is,

“Powerful, intelligent flashcards. Remembering things just became much easier.”

Each digital card is fully customisable. You can add images, audio files, videos, whatever you can think of! As Anki phrases it, “the possibilities are endless.” Before I go into the benefits of flashcards and why Anki is a reliable tool. I thought it would be best to share my experience so far with the software.

Before we begin, I wanted to add that it’s important to prioritise learning over entertainment. What better way to develop yourself than by learning a new skill? I try to learn as many skills as possible, break down the entire process and share it with you. Once a week I update you on my progress, do you want to stay-up-date and learn how to pick up a skill or two? Click here to sign up to the 1-minute report card.

How I’ve been using Anki.

Look at all of those cards that I need to remember!

The image above is my homepage for Anki. Every flashcard sits in a deck, think of it as a folder, a place for you to organise all your cards. You’ll notice that I have quite a few decks in my account. I’ve come a long way from only memorising the 1000 most common words. I’ve added new decks that focus on a variety of topics. Now that I’ve become more comfortable with individual words I’m trying to become comfortable with useful phrases as well, another practice that is known as sentence mining.

With a tangible deck of cards, you have to write the question on the front and fill in the answer on the back. With Anki, you have to do the same thing but in digital form. However, each card is fully customisable giving you the freedom to be creative in your learning. Want to add an image to remind you of the answer? Or add an audio snippet of someone speaking the language? The possibilities are endless and it’s really down to how you want to use Anki for your own learning experience.

Filling this in can be boring.

It can get tedious filling in each card, especially when you have to enter in a 1000 new words. What I found most useful with Anki is that there is a community of learners that are willing to share their own decks. At the bottom of the home screen is a little button labeled, ‘Get shared’. Once clicked on, you are navigated to a new window and presented with a search bar that grants you access to trawl through their database of popular decks. A simple search of the word ‘Swedish’ came up with 50 results of detailed decks; I downloaded three of them! I would recommend you try out this feature, there’s an endless amount of free resource that you can take advantage of. I even typed in the word ‘Geography’ to see what would pop up, there is a community for almost every topic of learning.

So many decks to choose from!

Another feature that I am quite fond of are the detailed statistics for each deck. I am a man who enjoys looking at statistics (some of you might think of me weirdly now) and seeing the visual representation of small improvements. With that being said, Anki provides updated statistics for every deck that you can go through. Below is a screenshot of my progress with the 1000 common words deck. I’ve been using this deck for just over 5 months now, you’ll notice that I’m quite confident with 674 words and I’m still new to 131 of them. I do find this feature useful, getting instant feedback and knowing that I am progressing gives me comfort and motivates me to continue. Being able to say that I’m confident with over 600 new foreign words goes to show that I’ve come a long way. Before using Anki, my memory was all over the place, but after committing to going through the decks every day, I can clearly see an overall improvement.

Quite happy with my progress so far.

How does it work?

So how exactly have I been able to learn hundreds of new words and phrases? Well, there is some science to using Anki and I hope that by now you can see that it does work.

 

Spaced Repetition Systems.

Remember when I told you that my memory sucked when I started learning a thousand new words? Well it turns out I wasn’t the only one (phew!). Say I gave you 10 new words to remember, studies show that our memory rapidly declines as the days progress. By the end of the week, you’ll probably only remember 2 of them! The famous forgetting curve graph depicts how our memory deteriorates over time.

Look at that dip!

In order for us to combat our forgetful memory, we need to introduce a technique known as the spaced repetition system (SRS). This technique is pretty simple, you repeatedly review the information over a certain amount of time to allow the mind to absorb all of it in. The mind retains more when we regularly revisit the information. As the forgetting curve shows, trying to cram everything in one sitting isn’t productive, as you’ll eventually forget all of it by the end of the week. Having a system where you’re able to review the information at set intervals will make your memory last longer.

This goes to show that repetition is important.

That’s where Anki comes into play. The software includes its own algorithms that figure out when it’s time for you to review a specific card. It can tell when I’m not as confident with a card and let that surface more often than other cards that I have no trouble with. Also, don’t expect to go through the entire deck in one sitting. Anki understands that cramming everything in one day doesn’t make sense and it staggers the learning process. What does this mean? It means you’ll only be learning 10-20 new cards per day, and the remaining time is spent going through all the other cards that you’ve previously been exposed to. It took quite a long time for me to see all 1000 new foreign words.

This tells me that I'm quite confident with the card.

As you can see from the photo above, if I got the answer wrong it’ll let me revisit the card within 10 minutes. If I found it easy, I’ll revisit the card in 8 days time. Anki’s algorithm changes depending on each card. There are cards where the only option available is to review it within 1 minute, others where I will review it in 9 months time. Having this spaced repetition automated makes the whole learning process a lot smoother. Sure, you can use real flashcards, but to figure out when is a good time to revisit each card can get quite complicated. I’d rather let Anki figure that out for me; I’ve already got enough on my plate as it is!

 

Active Recall.

Did you ever have a method to prepare for an upcoming exam? I remember mine. A week leading up to my GCSE’s (end of secondary school exams) I would spend the majority of my days locked away in a quiet library. I would skim read a few books, underline ‘important’ information, transfer the notes to my notebook and then read them over again. I’d do this until lunchtime, take a break and then repeat until the end of the day. I realise now that this form of revision wasn’t the most effective way of learning, maybe that’s why I only ended up with 1 A, 5 B’s and 4 C’s (still, not bad!).

Reading books, listening to lectures and watching videos are all considered as a passive form of learning. This is not to say that it doesn’t work, but it’s not the most effective. Remember the saying, ‘in one ear and out the other’? That generally happens when the brain is placed in a passive state. Active learning— also known as active recall— is when you constantly challenge the brain, making it work by retrieving the information.

It's better to be on the right side of the graph.

How do you promote active recall? By constantly quizzing yourself on the answer. How do you do that? Isn’t it obvious by now? Every flashcard you interact with is getting you to actively recall the information stored somewhere in your brain. You’re constantly testing yourself and making the brain work, because of this, the information slowly moves from short-term into long-term memory, making it easier for you to recall the information. I wish I knew all of this when studying for my GCSE’s; I could’ve gotten more A’s!

What else will I be using it for?

It’s amazing to see how such a simple tool can help improve the mind dramatically. I guess there is a lot of truth to the phrase, ‘less is more’. I hope this article has shown you just how important— if used properly— the use of flashcards are. What I do want to stress is just how important it is to remain consistent in your learning. Being lazy with your flashcards will get you nowhere, your progress is determined by the actions you take consistently. Don’t expect your memory to become superhuman in a matter of weeks either, these things take time, but it’s a hell of a lot quicker than reading a book and cramming it all in.

Just remember, Anki can be used for just about anything. Currently, I’ve been using it to learn a new language, but I know Anki is a tool that I will continue to use whilst learning other skills. The next skill on my list is to learn piano, I’m certain I’ll be making new decks to help me memorise piano chords. Being creative when building your decks will help the process of learning more enjoyable. It can get quite monotonous flipping a card and seeing a word pop up on screen. Add a few images, insert sounds, it helps to be creative. One thing is for certain, by using Anki it will help improve your memory, which is important for when you’re learning any new skill. So how do you plan to include Anki in your learning?

Want to see how Anki helped me learn a new language? I surprised my girlfriend by secretly learning one of her languages and surprising her on her birthday. Everyday leading up to the event I was on Anki building up my vocabulary. I wouldn't have been able to do this without the software.

How I learned Swedish in three months.

How I learned Swedish in three months.

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Before I begin outlining how I managed to drastically improve my comprehension with the Swedish language in a short amount of time, let me explain why I wanted to put myself through all of those long arduous hours. You see, there’s a girl involved. Don’t all great stories start like that?

My girlfriend was born and raised in Sweden and is of Persian descent, she’s multilingual and can speak English, Swedish and Farsi fluently, which at times I am quite jealous of. With English being her weakest of the three I would occasionally correct her on subtle mistakes. How to pronounce the word ‘determined’, correcting her v’s from her w’s as well as her g’s and j’s. Whenever I would stop to correct her she would jokingly say, “Whatever, I know three languages.” I would reply back with, “Two and a half.”

Every so often she would pull out a complicated word in English and I’d stop to ask her how she learned that word. She would shrug her shoulders and think nothing of it. I, on the other hand, would be amazed and wonder how hard it would be to learn a new language. Being born and raised in England and be of Filipino descent, I never really embraced the Filipino culture. Learning Tagalog (the native language of Philippines) wasn’t really that appealing to me. I stuck with English and always struggled with learning another language. In my early 20’s I gave Tagalog a go and failed miserably, I would periodically go on Duolingo and attempt to learn Spanish too. That didn’t last long either.

Regardless of my lack of experience with learning a new language, I decided for my girlfriends next birthday I would surprise her with learning one of her languages. I chose Swedish instead of Farsi because I thought it would be the lesser of two evils, plus my cousin is half Swedish so I thought I could reach out to her and get some tips. Not only would it be a nice surprise, I thought that I could hit two birds with one stone. Her dad doesn’t speak English well enough to maintain a conversation, so I thought I could use the skill of a new language and be able to communicate with him.

I had carefully planned this out, I wanted to start off by taking photos together with the camera on a tripod, then I would sneakily hit the record button and start talking to her in Swedish and not stop until she took me seriously. Did I manage to surprise her? I guess you can be the judge of that.

I had come up with this idea 12 months beforehand, but I didn’t really do much for the first 9 months. I had no idea how to approach learning a new language and I wasn’t taking the challenge seriously. I had purchased Rosetta Stone for Swedish and hardly used it.Occasionally I would jump on Duolingo for 10 minutes and be so lackadaisical about it. I was making little to no progress, but I could only blame myself. Then with three months left everything changed. I realised with the birthday looming, I had to get my priorities in order if I wanted to successfully surprise my girlfriend.

Instead of dusting off the cobwebs and jumping back into the Rosetta Stone program, I thought I’d do some research on useful techniques on how to learn a language within 3 months. I knew I had to put the work in and time was running out. So I committed to a minimum of 10 hours a week of studying Swedish whilst implementing the different techniques of learning a new language in a short amount of time. The goal wasn’t to be fluent in Swedish but have enough knowledge to get by and surprise my girlfriend. I do regret not taking the challenge seriously from the very start. Who knows, I could’ve been fluent by the time I surprised her. At least I now have enough knowledge to have a basic conversation with my girlfriend. If I keep up this progress I’m sure I’ll be speaking fluently in no time.

A useful guide that helped put everything into perspective for me was an article written by Arthur from Faster To Master.  It outlined how to learn any language fast and I got some useful tips from it. You can check it out here.

With the use of deliberate practice coupled with the Pomodoro technique. I managed to effectively study around 10 hours a week. Here’s what my schedule would normally look like:

 

Monday - 19:00 - 21:00

25 minutes of Anki Flashcards

5-minute break

25 minutes of Duolingo

5-minute break

25 minutes of Memrise

5-minute break

25 minutes of watching an English film with Swedish subtitles

 

Tuesday - 0 Hours

 

Wednesday - 19:00 - 21:00

60 mins on iTalki

5-minute break

25 minutes of Anki Flashcards

5-minute break

25 minutes of reading the book, “Essentials of Swedish Grammar.” - This was so boring and I dreaded doing this every time I picked up the book, but I knew it was essential for my learning.

5-minute break

 

Thursday - 18:00 - 19:00

25 minutes of Anki Flashcards

5-minute break

25 minutes of Duolingo

5-minute break

 

Friday - 18:00 - 19:00

25 minutes of Anki Flashcards

5-minute break

25 minutes of writing exercises

5-minute break

 

Saturday - 19:00 - 21:00

60 mins on Skype with my Swedish cousin

5-minute break

25 minutes of Anki Flashcards

5-minute break

25 minutes of Duolingo

 

Sunday 18:00 - 19:00

25 minutes of Anki Flashcards

5-minute break

25 minutes of Duolingo.

5-minute break

 

That was pretty much it. Of course, the times were flexible and I would often shift things around depending on my schedule. I would mix and match the different exercises according to my mood as well. Regardless of the order, within a week I was trying to cover all the important sections of reading, writing and speaking. I would repeat this week after week for the entire 3 months. Keep in mind that I had to hide this all from my girlfriend, so whenever I was with her it was difficult to practice. There would be times when I’d only study 3 hours for the week as opposed to 10.

Even though at times I failed to study 10 hours a week, I still noticed a steep learning curve within the 3 months. Now that this is no longer a surprise, I have the luxury of practicing with her. I’d like to strengthen this skill to the point of confidently talking with her and hold a conversation about everyday life. I guess I just have to keep up what I’ve already been doing.

For anyone who is attempting to learn a new language or skill, practicing with an intense focus is essential. What helped me commit to each practice was by scheduling everything in advance. Keep track of how much time you commit to a skill and try and not to break the chain. You keep this consistent and I’m positive that you’ll see a major difference within 3 months time.

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Are you struggling with picking up another language? Is learning something new difficult for you? Do you want to learn new skills to improve the quality of your life? Download the free 13 page e-book that teaches you the methods to approach every new skill you plan to learn. These same methods is what I've been using and it has helped me learn skills effectively in half the time. Click here to download the free e-book.