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What insights can science provide about language learning? And how can we use this research to learn English? Keep listening to find out!

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  • To distribute (v) – to spread out tasks, resources, or information over intervals of time, space, or people.
    • The books will be distributed free to local schools.
  • Optimal (adj) – the most favourable or best possible.
    • We have found that our workers reach their optimal level of performance around 11 a.m.
  • Retention (n) – the ability to retain or remember information.
    • Vocabulary retention is always a challenge for English learners.
  • Recall (n) – the ability to remember things.
    • My brother has total recall- he can remember everything
  • Input (n) – information or data that is fed into a system or the brain.
    • I didn’t have much input into the project.
  • Memorisation (n) – the act or process of learning something so that you will remember it exactly:
    • I’ve tried many memorization techniques in recent years.
  • Literacy (n) – the ability to read and write.
    • The country has a literacy rate of almost 98%.
  • Immediate feedback (n) – prompt information given in response to an action or performance.
    • The students were given immediate feedback from the computer programme.

What Insights Can English Learners Take From Science?

I’ve given a lot of advice and tips out to Thinking in English listeners over the past 2 or 3 years. Recently, I realised that a lot of the advice I have given was from my own personal experience or what I learnt while studying my teaching qualification back in 2016/7.

But I wanted to know what science tells us about language learning. Researchers who have spent years testing language learners, running experiments, and studying how our brains work, must have some great ideas. While teachers often have good insights, science can give us new insights and challenge some of our normal misconceptions.

I have spent the last few weeks looking for scientific papers that could help us as language learners, and I have found a lot of information – from the best length of time between your study sessions to psycholinguistics approach to context. And today I want to share this all with my audience.

In fact, I found so much that I’m going to turn this into 2 (maybe even 3) episodes over the next few weeks! So, look out for part 2 soon.

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“Distributed” Practice

There is a lot of information online about when and how often you should be studying English. And a lot of it is based on anecdotal evidence rather the research.

Consistency is important. We all know this. As with any skill, practicing regularly and consistently is essential. I recorded an episode on the 10,000-hour rule which discussed how it can take years and years of active and dedicated practice to become a master at a skill.

Yet that episode also showed how there are differing perspectives and ideas towards studying. While some researchers and popular science authors suggest 10,000 hours is the benchmark, others contend that the type of practice, natural ability, and quality of practice is more important than time spent practicing.

I talked all about this previously, but what else does research tell us?

One paper I found suggests that a method called “distributed” or “spaced” practice may be the best approach for high-quality and long-term learning.


“Distributed” practice is a learning technique that involved reviewing information or practicing a task at spaced intervals. In other words, focusing on shorter study sessions spaced out over a longer period of time.

Rather than studying for one long study session once a week, “distributed” practice would encourage you to break down this study session into shorter sessions stretched over the entire week. This gives more time, space, and opportunities for you to understand, comprehend, and think about the information you are learning.

I know from personal experience that if I spend 2 or 3 hours learning new vocabulary, I will forget it all relatively quickly. This is what “distributed” practice encourages us not to do.

Going back to the research, studies have show that even when the total amount of time studying is the same, spacing out these sessions and the time between reviewing content leads to better learning outcomes.

Why is spacing out your studying sessions more effective? By spacing out your study, it becomes more difficult to remember content meaning you learn that content fully. The context in which you are studying varies making it easier to commit things to memory. And it is less likely you will become habituated to the material (habituated means you become used to something).


When you’re trying to remember something over time, like studying for an exam, the best way to review the material is to space out your study sessions at certain intervals. The ideal timing for these review sessions depends on how much time has passed between each session and the final test.

Research has also been done on the best, or optimal, amount of time to leave between your study sessions: usually between 10 to 30% of your total study time.

For example, if you have a week before your test, it’s most effective to review the material every 1 or 2 days. If you have a month before the test, you could try reviewing the material every 3 to 10 days. The exact timing would depend on how well you retain the information and how frequently you need to reinforce your memory to ensure better retention and recall during the actual test.

The key idea is to spread out your review sessions strategically throughout the month, giving yourself enough time to forget a bit between each session.

Language Immersion

The next scientific backed strategy to improve your English learning is to engage in language immersion. One of my most popular episodes was actually on language immersion – make sure you listen to it!

In short, if students are exposed to English in an immersive way, they demonstrate higher levels of English fluency. And immersion also has the added benefit of increasing your motivation to learn.

One paper I found focuses on bilingual immersive education programmes in schools, so while it is a little different for many of you listening it may help provide some insights.

This kind of immersion education originated in Canada during the 1960s, initially using French as the medium of instruction for English-speaking students. The goal is to promote fluency and literacy in both their first and second languages.

By educating students in their second language, while providing support in their native language, this kind of immersive education is very successful at developing language proficiency.


For those of you with children, research suggests that bilingual education of children does not negatively affect a child’s academic performance. In fact the opposite is true, research supports the “interdependence hypothesis,” that developing proficiency in one language positively affects the development of academic skills in the other language.

So, what can adult English learners take from this?

Well… try to learn something in English. This doesn’t necessarily mean study English, but read something about history in English, take a free course on computing, or listen to episodes of Thinking in English.

Learning something in English is an incredible way to study and learn, and that is the exact principle that inspires and guides Thinking in English! And this is how children advance quickly in bilingual and immersive schools.

There are of course lots of other ways to immerse yourself in English. Try to surround yourself with English as much as possible. Watch English movies, TV shows, and videos, listen to English music and podcasts, and read English books or articles. The more exposure you have to the language, the faster your fluency will improve.

And I recommend you all to join the Thinking in English Patreon and community – there are events held in English all the time, and discussion chats available 24/7, for you to train yourself to Think in English!

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Context and Language Learning

One element of language learning that is often overlooked by learners and teachers is context. You may have heard this term “context” before… but what does it exactly mean?

“Context” refers to the surrounding information or environment that helps give meaning to language. It includes the visual cues, real-world information, and situational factors that influence how we understand words, sentences, and communication as a whole. Context provides additional clues and references that help us comprehend language accurately and interpret its intended meaning. Understanding context is essential for effective language comprehension and communication.

I recently read some articles about psycholinguistics, a field of study that explores various aspects of language, such as how we acquire language, how we learn it, how we produce it, and how we comprehend it.

I came across Dr. Pia Knoeferle, who uses advanced technologies like eye-tracking and event-related brain potentials to study how our brains process language in real-time and the role of context in this process.

Her research has revealed 3 steps to learning a language.

  1. Building the sentence structure and assigning meaning: This step involves analysing the words and grammar in the sentence to construct its proper structure and give meaning to each word. For example, identifying the subject, verb, and object in a sentence and understanding how they relate to each other.
  2. Connecting the interpretation to the visual context or real-world information: Once the sentence structure is understood, the brain links the words’ meanings to the visual context or real-world knowledge. This step helps us make sense of the sentence by connecting it to our understanding of the world and the specific situation we are in.
  3. Confirming the interpretation with representations of the visual context: Finally, our brain double-checks the interpretation it made by comparing it with the mental representations of the visual context or real-world knowledge. This process helps ensure that the interpretation is accurate and aligns with what we know or perceive about the surrounding environment.

The research emphasizes that context plays a crucial role in our ability to understand language, but the effects of context can vary depending on factors like a person’s age, literacy level, and language skills.

In particular, when visual information provides clues or cues that refer to specific elements in the context, language comprehension becomes faster and more robust compared to when the visual context is not directly linked to the language cues.

For English learners, this research has practical implications and relevance:

Importance of Context: Understanding context is vital for language learners. Context can help you grasp the meaning of words and phrases more effectively. Try to use and expose yourself to English in various contexts, such as reading articles, watching videos, or engaging in conversations.

Use of Visual Clues: Incorporate visual aids and context in your language learning. For example, when learning new vocabulary, associate the words with images or situations to reinforce your memory and understanding.

Interpretation and Verification: When learning new sentence structures, focus on not only understanding the sentence’s meaning but also verifying whether it fits the given context. Practice comprehending sentences in different contexts to enhance your language skills.

Be Mindful of Context Effects: Recognize that context effects may vary based on individual factors like your age, language proficiency, and reading abilities. Don’t be discouraged by occasional challenges; instead, use them as learning opportunities.

Focus on Pronunciation

I’ve lived in Japan for quite a few years now, and I have studied the language since 2016. And one of the biggest challenges I have faced throughout my time is pronunciation.

Now, this is not necessarily me making sounds, but the ability to recognise sounds other people are making. I remember really really struggling with people’s names as an English teacher back in 2016 – a student could tell me their name 3 or 4 times and my brain just couldn’t comprehend it.

Fortunately for me, the sounds of Japanese are relatively similar to English sounds. But there are a few sounds that English doesn’t have or rarely uses (sounds like kyo and ryu) and, when I was as a Japanese beginner, my brain struggled to categorise these sounds. Even today, I sometimes need to ask people to repeat themselves and sound out words phonetically before I finally grasp what they are saying.

The challenge was even more difficult while trying to learn Chinese. I just could never get my head around the tonal sounds – the difference between ma and ma.

Why am I talking about this? Well, you can’t begin to communicate and learn a language if you do not understand the sounds of a language. And learning a new language as an adult can be challenging due to the brain’s difficulty in distinguishing unfamiliar sounds.


Babies can distinguish all sounds in all languages, but as they grow, they become experts in their native language’s sounds, making it harder to regain the ability to distinguish foreign sounds later in life. As an English speaker, I learned the difference between thirst and first or law and raw by listening to lots of examples and input.

Audio input works well for babies, but not for adults. Research conducted on Japanese adults in 2002 tested Japanese speakers’ abilities to understand the difference between “r” and “l” sounds by playing random recording of the words rock and lock and then asking the adults to press R and L. They performed only slightly better than pure chance.

After an hour of intense practice? No improvement. Audio input wasn’t enough.

However, when the researchers introduced immediate feedback, things began to change. Each time they guessed R or L, a green or red light flashed indicating if they were right or wrong. Over the next few minutes, the adults began learning the difference and could perform with an 80% accuracy.

The conclusion for us adult learners? Feedback is a crucial factor in training the brain to hear new sounds, leading to improved listening comprehension, memorization, and pronunciation.

We also need to be inputting lots of audio into our brains while learning. Training with a small amount of input, like in traditional language-learning programs, may not produce results like those in real-world tests where subjects encounter different words, speakers, and accents.

A good approach could be training your brain through video games or by improving other cognitive functions like working memory and attention span, which can enhance speech perception skills for language learners.

Also, ear-training tools using recordings of hard-to-hear words and testing software can make foreign words easier to hear and remember, aiding language learning.

Focusing on pronunciation, and teaching yourself to recognise the sounds of English, will really increase your ability to comprehend and use the language!

Final Thought

In today’s episode, I’ve looked at some scientific and research-based methods that you can all incorporate into your English learning routine.

Embracing “spaced” or “distributed” practice, spreading out your study time over a longer period, could really help you deepen your knowledge. Immersing yourself in English will increase your exposure and keep you motivated.

Psycholinguistics tells us that context is essential – think about the situation in which you are studying and attach ideas to visual cues. And finally focus on pronunciation to become accustomed to the sounds of English.

In researching this episode, I came across a lot more tips and tricks – about sleep, immediate feedback, enjoyment, and more. I’ll talk about this next time!

What do you think? What advice do you have for other English Learners?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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