When I started learning Mandarin last year, one of the primary methods I used to memorize vocabulary was spaced-repetition.
Modern spaced-repetition approaches are predicated on research into human memory that suggests most of us have a distinct “forgetting curve” after we pick up a new piece of information.
This curve is exactly what it sounds like: we learn something, then over time forget it.
But it was discovered that if you re-expose yourself to information again at specific points along the curve you can bump it back up, and eventually lock that information into your memory for good.
Early versions of this method were tested back in the 1970s (though it was based on earlier, 1930s-era experiments and methods) and enough research had been done by the 80s that we knew it could even help people suffering from amnesia, Alzheimer’s, and other memory-related afflictions.
This method is optimized (and generally only recommended) for fact-based retention: learning foreign-language vocabulary or memorizing mathematical formulae, for instance, as opposed to other sorts of cognitive work (there has been some research into whether it would work for non-memorization tasks like solving math problems, but while there’s some evidence it could be translated for such purposes, the data currently available is less concrete than what’s been demonstrated for memorization).
In practice, spaced-repetition is simple: you expose yourself to a piece of data at spaced intervals.
If you’re using flashcards, which is one of the most common approaches to implementing spaced-repetition, you would write (for instance) a Mandarin symbol on one side of the flashcard, the meaning of that symbol on the other, and you would have a deck of such cards you would work through on a regular basis.
Recent research has also indicated that iteratively expanded intervals can make this method even more effective.
So if I get a particular Mandarin glyph correct a few times, then I’ll leave it out of the deck the next time I work on my memorization, and reintroduce it back into the deck the time after that. If I get it right that time, then maybe I’ll pull it from the deck a little longer, reintroducing it later and later as I lock it more completely into my memory.
Spaced-repetition software has made this process of expanded intervals incredibly simple to apply: I have a Mandarin-specific app on my phone that does all the background work of figuring out when to show me which symbols without me ever having to think about it.
A more generic piece of software called Anki (named after the Japanese word for “memorization”) does the same, but can be applied to any field (you make the digital flashcards yourself, and thus can put whatever you like on them). It’s also open-source, free, and available on all major operating systems.
Anki (free, open-source spaced-repetition flashcard software)
Daily Chinese (an app I use to learn and practice Mandarin vocabulary; also free)