Is repetition good for learning Portuguese? It depends!

Everyone knows that repetition is extremely helpful for memory, what many don’t know is that there is a right and a wrong way of going about it. Read on and you will be privy to the best repetition schema so you can learn European Portuguese fast.

As a true Portuguese man, I have a tendency to procrastinate. As a result, when studying for exams in school, books and notebooks were picked up the day of.

I remember clearly this particular day in which I had an exam on the subject of computer networking. It was full of complex jargon and theoretical systems that, in all honesty, are not that interesting to relate here. In reality though, even if they were, I could not talk about it, since I’ve forgotten the whole thing. In fact, I had pretty much-forgotten everything just a few hours after the exam.

You see, I neglected to do any studying the days prior and had gotten up at 4 am, to read and re-read all my notes over and over again thinking that would suffice. Well, as it turns out, it did! In as much as I managed to get a good grade. But as I mentioned earlier, the information did not settle for long in my brain.

No doubt many of you have had a similar experience. This serves to illustrate two points:

  1. exposure to information in only one occasion (unless there’re strong emotions involved) will not be retained in long-term memory
  2. even though there was plenty of repetition, it was crammed into one short period of time and so proved ineffective

Does science back up the idea that repetition helps with vocabulary memorization?

Dr Ebbinghaus, by many considered the father of memory, through a number of experiments, was able to figure out roughly how much we forget after initial exposure as time passes. Just to give you an idea: if you were asked to remember a list of 20 new European Portuguese words, the likelihood is that after just 20 minutes, no more than 11 would have stayed put and after 6 days, only 5 words. Incredible!

But perhaps the more interesting finding of his, is the power of further exposures. You see, take those 20 words again, but go through them again the next day. Now, in theory, by the 6th day, you will retain 10, double the original amount.

If you were to repeat again on the 3 day, you would have kept almost all the words. That is the power of a spaced repetition system or SRS.

The secret then? Dr Ebbinghaus put it this way: “With any considerable number of repetitions, a suitable distribution of them over a space of time is decidedly more advantageous than the massing of them at a single time.”

In other words, repetition…yes, but space it out in increasing increments. That is really the basis for many modern products in the language learning world, such as Babbel, Anki flashcards, Duolingo, Pimsleur courses, etc.

How often should you repeat a word until it is memorized?

How often you should repeat and what the spacing should be has been a subject of much debate. The authors of Pimsleur use this SRS: 5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, and 2 years. That is, a word is repeated at roughly those intervals. But there are other systems that seem to get great results too.

Dr Piotr Wozniak’s findings, which really correlate with other studies, found that, if the goal is long-term memory, the following intervals are ideal:

  • First repetition: 1 day
  • Second repetition: 7 days
  • Third repetition: 16 days
  • Fourth repetition: 35 days

I have found it useful to add a few more short-term repetitions after the initial exposure (more Pimsleur style). Why? Remember that the goal is to be able to pronounce the new European Portuguese vocabulary and understand it in context, not just memorize it. As such, repeated exposure to the target content shortly after your first encounter would be beneficial.

What is the best repetition technique to never forget a word again?

So, how can you put this into practice? Let me give you 4 suggestions:

  • If you use flashcards, having a system of repetition put in place would save you time and increase your retention. You can take advantage of our Quizlet flashcard study sets. They are based on vocabulary in our podcasts. The Quizlet app will do the repetition system for you. This, I believe, is a feature only available for paying customers. The small fee is well worth it, if not only for supporting a great app. (we get no money, it’s genuinely a great system). Either way, you can create your own schedule and still use the app and our sets for free.
  • It is probably worth mentioning that we incorporate an SRS in the podcast itself. We will go back to all the European Portuguese words in the dialog in different intervals, using, for example, a “backward build-up drill”, in which we ask you to read after us a sentence from it’s end and slowly build it backward. If this sounds complicated, just listen to the podcasts and you’ll see it’s not that complicated. There is a method to our madness. 🙂
  • A third incorporation has to do with the already discussed vocabulary notebook. Once you add a new word to that notebook, make it a goal to, within next 3 days, inject it in conversation as many times as possible. Just make it fit somehow! You’ll be surprised how many contexts the word “embasbacado” will fit in!
  • Also, within that period of 3 days, write it in your European Portuguese diary. If possible, give it deep context. For example, if the target word is “comboio” (train), instead of “o comboio a passou” (the train passed by), say “o grande comboio preto, com mais de dez carruagens, passou devagar, fazendo muito barulho” (the huge black train, with more then ten carriages, passed by slowly, making a lot of noise). In essence, with all these descriptive elements, you’re adding links to the word ”comboio” in your brain, but that’s a subject for a different day.

So, in conclusion, repetition…yes! But with clever principles in mind! For more tips and techniques like these, make sure to subscribe to the Portuguese With Carla podcast.

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  1. Awesome, I did not know this about Pimsluer and I use that too, I also started a Journal and that helps a lot, I have incorporated that for my EU Spanish and my EU Portuguese. Thank you for always having these great tips!

  2. Great tips thank you and am really enjoying your podcasts, have opened a door for me and rekindled my interest in learning Eu Portuguese. Best wishes, David Aslett.

  3. Great suggestions! I was always good at cramming for tests and getting good grades on them, but I never retained the material as well as my grades might have suggested I would. I just did my first The Journey/Memrise session, and I can sense how much better the vocabulary is “sticking” for me. Do you now prefer Memrise over Quizlet?

    1. Thanks Patrick.

      Quizlet is great, especially if you are a teacher or have a school. It also has features Memrise does not have. But Memrise has advantages like their SRS. And the overall experience is very pleasant.

  4. Obrigada pela informação. I’m thoroughly enjoying this course and all these tips are added bonuses. Very much appreciated.

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