Repeating after a native speaker makes you more fluent

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Article #3

“Repeat after me….”. If you have ever studied a foreign language at school you probably remember this phrase very well.  It was usually followed by a word or a sentence, which was probably taken from a textbook and spoken by your foreign language teacher. The whole class would repeat it loudly and slowly after the teacher perfectly imitating their intonation. Sometimes you would even go on by reading a passage from your text book almost together with the teacher trying to keep up with their pace (the professional name for this technique is “shadowing”).

Looking back to those memories you would probably think “what a waste of time it was!”. Especially today, when we have so many modern tools and ways of learning foreign languages, those repetition sessions seem like an archaic thing of the past that can be put in the box labeled “methods to be forgotten”. However, studies show that we should not be so quick to discard these simple yet quite effective method.

We always get fascinated by new things, new approaches, new methods. They seem better and more effective as they rely on science that is always updated with new discoveries. Every day we learn more and more about how our brain acquire knowledge. New methods become more elaborate and precise. But just because science is moving forward it doesn’t mean that our brain are changing with the same pace. It means that we finally start to understand how something that has always been there works. Which means that some “archaic” approaches to learning language are now re-discovered and proven to be effective.

According to a study on task repetition and second language learning processing, the immediate repetition after hearing the phrase/text led to an enhanced fluency in the study subjects, and further repetitions decreased the clause-final and mid clause filled pauses as well as reduced the self-repairs(1). Meaning, that immediate repetition (for several times) made speech sound more fluent and with less mistakes. What’s more interesting, the subjects of the experiment stated that they noticed immediate speech improvement themselves and felt this improvement after 3-4th repetition.

Of course, immediate repetition won’t make you remember phrases in a long-term unless you come back to these phrases again and again. This is where spaced repetition comes in handy. Spaced repetition method is a method in which you learn new information not at once but gradually by revisiting it after certain time intervals. Usually, new information is shown more frequently and the frequency reduces over the time as your memory gets enough stimulation to keep this information long-term. Some multi-language learning apps utilize this technique. Spoiler alert: Aomi does it too!:)

Spaced repetition technique itself has been existing for quite a long time, recent studies prove that it is still the most effective method to maximize memorization in second language acquisition (2).

Even if we try to look at it through the prism of neuroscience, for a long-term memory to appear an array of chemical changes have to happen in the brain. And all of these changes happen because of a strong stimulation that appear over and over again enough to set and keep a new chemical process involved in neurotransmission. Thus, for example, learning or memorization happens when NMDA receptors in certain neurons that usually stay non-reactive to glutamate (a chemical involved in the process of transmitting a signal from one neuron to the other) due to their structure finally get activated as the overal glutamate stimulation exceeds certain limit. These NMDA receptors open additional channels for a signal transmission making a signal “stronger”(3).

The activation of these receptors (NMDA receptors) initiates a new chemical process that now involves calcium, and this, in turn, brings a whole new bunch of changes to the neuron responsiveness to the signal resulting in long-lasting increase in the transmission of the signal between two neurons. It’s like a Rube Goldberg’s machine where a cup should spill over in order for the next action to start.

It might be hard to grasp all the scientific explanation of how memory works but one thing is obvious: it only works if the process is repeated, if stimulations occurs over and over again. It is especially true for the studying a foreign language.

You can’t remember something long-term if you come across it only once. Even 2, 3 times might not be enough. Being in a country of the language you are learning solves this problem as you are exposed to relatively similar situations on a daily basis. For example, you commute to your language school or your workplace in Tokyo by taking the same train every day, after some time you’ll learn all the stations on your commute and will be able to recognize their names anywhere without knowing the particular kanji, simply because you see them and hear their announcement  every single day. Same goes with certain phrases you use on daily, weekly or monthly basis, for example, when ordering a lunch, buying groceries or a visiting a doctor. You repeat those phrases and situations until they reach automation. The longer you stay and the more situations you experience, the more useful phrases get ingrained in your memory.

So what our teachers were trying to do then by making us repeat same phrases and words everyday was just trying to imitate the language environment inside your classroom. Repeating right after them helped you to set the proper pronunciation and intonation from the very beginning, and repeating the same phrase in the next lesson and next next lesson made you brain remember particular language pattern in a long-term. This kind of language repetition might be not as fun as spending time in a foreign country, but it is surely as effective.

All in all, good old methods prove to be effective even today. Now, with more technologies we can update them, combine them and make them more integrated in our daily life. This is what Aomi app is trying to do. Relying on methods that proved to be effective and making them more accessible, at the same time creating a new way to experience them so that the learning process becomes even more effective.

In our case we use immediate repetition that integrates listening and speaking and let you visually compare your pronunciation to a native speaker, so that you not only hear the improvement but also see it and know what exactly has to be improved further. Spaced repetition is integrated into trainings, so that phrases, the ability to comprehend them and the ability to pronounce them are memorized gradually to become a part of your active vocabulary.

Just like doing sports or learning a new skill it takes time and repetition. As you can’t lift 80kg at once without gradually increasing the weight through repetitive trainings, you won’t be able to memorize a book-worth of new phrases and words in a week without repeating them to be able to recall later. Keep practicing one step at a time and always repeat what you’ve learned.

(1) - “Task Repetition and Second Language Speech Processing” Cambridge University Press 2016, Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 2017, 39, 167–196.
(2) -  “Spaced Learning: A Review on the Use of Spaced Learning in Language Teaching and Language Learning” 2021 Cognizance Research Associate, Journal of Language and Linguistic Studies, 17(2), 1023-1031; 2021.
(3) - “Behave. The biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” Robert Sapolsky 2017, 138-141.