The Science Behind Language Stickers

Posted by Christopher MacKenzie on

 

In this blog, we delve into the science behind how using language stickers in your home, office and classroom is an effective method of picking up new vocabulary while letting your brain take a break from all the heavy work it’s doing in other language learning methods.  


In short, we found that language stickers combine three core elements of vocabulary memorization: spaced repetition, determinism (learning through context) and flashcards. Placing them around your home, office and classroom allows you to pick up new vocabulary with minimal effort. 


So how do stickers placed around the home and office help with memorizing vocabulary? Most learners do what is called 'binge and purge' learning. This means they will learn a lot in a block of time but then not follow-up that good work to cement their learning. Essentially they will lose it just as fast as they gained it. 

 

Language stickers carefully designed and placed in high context locations facilitate what is called spaced repetition. Craig Lambert from Harvard Magazine lists 10 academic studies suggesting that spaced repetition can increase retention by up to 50%!


Here is a quick Literature Review - we’ve done the hard work and boiled down top academic papers into easy to read summaries. 


This analysis into learning effectiveness found that in order to develop durable learning, learners need to space out their review of the material over time. It went on to say that immediate back-to-back repetitions are ineffective. The key findings were that:

  • The timing or arrangement of review/practice affects learning.
  • Practice is more effective when spaced out over time, instead of massed or grouped together (equating total practice time).
  • Spaced practice enhances memory, problem solving, and transfer of learning to new contexts and...
  • Spaced practice offers great potential for improving students’ educational outcomes.

 

Here is spaced repetition visualized:


Linguist, Dr. Višnja Pavii Taka, in his book  Vocabulary Learning Strategies and Second Language Acquisition describes some of the most effective ways to introduce new vocabulary as:

  • translating the term into the first language
  • define the meaning
  • presentation through context
  • direct connection to real objects
  • active learner involvement in vocabulary presentation
  • phonetic transcription

Our stickers include translations, multiple forms of phonetics and learners are involved by placing them on real objects. 

 

Dr. Višnja Pavii Taka goes on to explain that multiple encounters with the new vocabulary and mechanical repetition are essential to locking the new vocabulary away in long-term memory. If you would like to read more on the topic, you can read Dr. Višnja Pavii Taka's book here

 

This study from 2017 noted that most second language learners use deterministic strategies to learn their vocabulary. This means that they use context to guess new vocabulary meanings and then use that vocabulary in the correct context to confirm their understanding. An example of this is seeing an emergency exit sign in a foreign country. You can recognize the familiar context and imagery but there is some new information there - the new vocab. 

Also, this other study surveyed second language learners and found that 100% of those surveyed found that flashcard memorization was useful in picking up new vocab. 


What language stickers allow you to do are to combine the effectiveness of all of the approaches above - they are effectively flashcards placed in the exact context of each term and are spaced out such that you will encounter the term at regular intervals throughout the week.


Due to the language stickers being a fairly new concept in 2nd language learning, there are no academic studies into the effectiveness of this specific tool, though it does not take a linguistics professor to realise their inherent effectiveness. So explained below is essentially how we developed the product and came upon the hypothesis that it would work. 


Hypothesis development:


Chris and I came up with the idea of language stickers while we were studying an intensive 12 month Chinese language course in the military. This is a fairly notorious course within the military. Firstly, it’s a very difficult course to qualify for (though this site can help with that) and secondly, once you are on the course you need to be prepared to give up your weekends and evenings to keep up with the fast-paced curriculum lest you drop behind (and you really don’t want to drop behind!).


As two guys fairly new to language learning, we were surprised by the sheer amount of vocabulary that needed to be memorized. It makes sense I guess but with modern educational theories continually throwing shade at rote memorization, I had generally tried to avoid it in other study contexts. So it came as a little shock that around half of our study time needed to be devoted to memorizing our vocab words for that week. So what were the best ways in which to do that? Flash cards just work - I personally used Quizlet lists of vocab words which I found very useful. Others use Anki and Memrise too but I liked Quizlet the best. 


As part of this vocab memorization, Chris and I found ourselves buying pad after pad of post-it notes, writing out our vocab on them with translations and sticking these all around our houses. This worked well - until they lost their stick. Also, post it notes are quite big and a little intrusive. Nonetheless we continued despite our SO’s objections ;).   


It nearly got to the point where we had more wall space taken up by stickers than the actual wall. And so we started to think about getting stickers made up with the vocabulary word lists of the course. We started by choosing the most contextual vocab for our homes, offices and our classroom and made up a quick batch on our home printers. Suffice to say our teachers were a little blown away and we were soon getting requests from teachers and fellow students for their own batches. So we made them and got some positive feedback on them. Teachers from other language departments also approached us about how we made them and only then did we consider scaling the concept. 


So essentially this was our proof of concept and became our hypothesis - that language stickers placed around the home, office and classroom improve uptake of vocabulary and, in doing so, improve the language ability of the user.

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