Does Method Affect Long Term Retention?

I was observing a student studying French, she was doing some kind of ‘fill in the gaps’ activity for verb tenses using a software program. This was something suggested to her in her course guide. It struck me as a somewhat inefficient exercise, and when I gave her my opinion - in the least confrontational way I could - she got a bit defensive and said she can speak two languages well, and basically that I had no right to “tell” her how to learn a language. That makes it sound like she was furiously angry, she wasn’t, but she more or less meant exactly that.

This got me thinking about a statistic I read that only a very small percentage (I can’t remember the exact figure, but it was definitely less than 20%) of university language graduates come out of their course being able to understand well and speak fluently (whatever that is). Then I recalled reading about, and hearing former students say, how they “used” to know the language but they’ve since forgotten it.

My own experience hasn’t been like this. I’ve had multiple breaks ranging from a few days up to 6 months + during a 6 year pursuit of trying to learn a language (currently around a strong B1-weak B2), if I’m honest I’ve probably spent more days of each year not learning than learning, but each time I come back to it, it’s right there again like I never went away. It can take a day or so to properly get back into it, but after a couple of days I’m as good, if not better than when I left. My own method of “study” has pretty much been the lingq way of listening and reading, no memorising of grammar rules and word lists etc.

So I just wondered what people’s thoughts are about this, whether those ‘Anki slaves’ and ‘grammar drillers’ are losing what they “knew” because the school strategy is more short term memory cramming vs a more relaxed “let it come to you” strategy employed by most here at lingq? If so, it all seems like a huge waste of time and effort to me, surely the end goal has to be to gain a skill that stays with you for life?

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This is the very thing that drove me here. I saw, as Steve has pointed out, that the language instruction at schools (here in America) is a total waste. The students learned nothing except their own english grammer a little bit better. I DO NOT want to waste my time, and so I went looking for a way to learn that would get me where I wanted and let me accomplish something along the way. I started with just the “listening-reading” technique of using parallel texts, but I needed more help - lingq provides that and is not very expensive if you don’t use the live tutoring.


There are several interrelated factors that affect one’s ability to learn, use and retain a foreign language, key among which is motivation since that determines what you do, how often you do it and to a great extent, how well you retain it. Students who take a language course in college and do nothing outside of that course to use and extend their knowledge are not likely to retain much.

As all of us here know, it takes quite a bit of learning (of thousands of words and grammatical structures) to become “conversational.” By this I mean the ability to talk spontaneously about things in your own environment and experience with a native speaker for 30 minutes or more AND to understand the other person’s response with some ease. College students would have to take – and do well in – many semesters of the language before they acquired enough vocabulary and grammar to “converse.” Most never get to this point.

Motivation also affects how one learns something. Grammar is a necessary component of all languages but – as academics have understood for a long time – learning grammar rules in and of themselves can be boring and/or confusing and often does not facilitate speaking the language. By contrast, interesting content at the learner’s level (which is what children are exposed to) is far more interesting and thus motivating. If short, clear explanations of grammar are included on a as needed basis – rather than an end in themselves – the learners will see grammar as a useful tool that clarifies what they hear and read. Grammar also provides patterns which they can use to construct sentences on their own. In small amounts, grammar need not be intimidating but this depends on how it is taught. If college students just went to class and were not exposed to content that was really interesting to them personally but instead were presented with lots of rules, then they would struggle to remember what was not interesting in the first place and which they did not subsequently use.

Personally I learned several foreign languages in college through traditional grammar-based methods. BUT – and it’s a big one – I then studied in Madrid and had a non-English-speaking Spanish boyfriend. Unsurprisingly, I became very very good in Spanish, DESPITE – and not because of – my earlier classes. :slight_smile: I have also travelled extensively in other Western European countries and USED the other languages that I learned in college. It is my USE of the languages after college that enables me to this day to read a newspaper in these other languages and to understand most of what I read. (I remain fluent in Spanish because I sometimes conduct research in Spanish and there are lots of Spanish speakers where I live in the US.) Unsurprisingly, the languages that I use the most are the ones in which I have the greatest proficiency.

The same two interrelated factors – motivation and time – affect my current learning of Russian. I started to learn this language on my own before I subscribed to LinQ. For me, LingQ complements my context-based approach. Together, they are far more efficient and interesting than the grammar-based classes of my college days. In turn, since my current approach is self-reinforcing, I spend more time doing it. Success breeds success. One has to be highly motivated to learn and use a language. Language retention is in great part a reflection how motivated one is to spend time learning and using it.