Stacking Layers of Familiarity

Hi everybody. Today I'd like to talk to you about the necessity of repetition as a language learning technique, because this is something really important that I think a lot of beginners and even advanced learners don't quite get. A lot of people when they get started learning a language begin the process with lots of enthusiasm; but they find themselves quickly overwhelmed by the amount of content to learn. They hit a wall, and go through the same material two, three, four times without really getting it. At this point, they often become dejected, lose heart, and think, "I'm no good at this, I can't learn languages." When people come to me at this point, my reaction is usually, "of course you don't understand. This is completely new to you, and you've only done it 2 to 3 times."

When something is really foreign to us, we need to expose ourselves to it over and over again before it starts to feel comfortable. I will often listen to audio materials not two, three, four times, but 20 to 30 times before they start to sink in. In order to remove the foreignness of a language, we need to stack up layers of familiarity. It's like stacking up very thin sheets of paper. At first, the layers are so thin you don't even know that the object is there. Only when there are enough layers, only when there is enough weight to actually pick up and hold in your hands do you really become aware of what it is that you're trying to hold onto. The cool thing about this is that most of the time we don't even recognize that these layers are stacking up.

As a teacher, I've seen this many times. Let's say you're teaching a language class. Several weeks into the program, you'll be going through a text, and a student will raise his hand and say, "excuse me, what is this word right here? We haven't gone over this word before." Now you as the teacher know that not only have you gone over that word a couple of times in class, but it has already shown up several times earlier in the text you're working on and possibly in other readings and exercises as well. At this point, a lot of bad teachers will say, "we have actually covered this already. You need to pay better attention." This is not very helpful though, because what's happened here is a natural part of the language learning process. The student has finally stacked up enough layers to actually become aware of even the existence of this word. This happens for all of us all the time - these layers of familiarity stack up without us even knowing that they are building up.

Understanding this is particularly important in the early stages of learning a language, because it's at this point that you have the most layers to stack up. It feels like you're not making any progress despite all the time you're spending exposing yourself to the language and trying to learn the content. But if you think about how many times in your life you've heard and said, "hello. How are you? Fine, how are you?" - it's thousands, and thousands of times. There are a lot of layers there, and when you go to learn a new language, you have a lot of ground to make up when it comes to stacking familiarity.

The good news is, when you stop banging your head against the wall and beating up on yourself for not getting something after only 3 to 5 times, you can relax and just enjoy the process of mastering a small, but meaningful chunk of the language. When you do this, it ends up opening the door to the rest of the language. You may spend hours and hours over days and days working on learning your first few hundred words in a language; but taking the time to learn them well and stacking up those layers of familiarity - especially if you've chosen high-value content to learn - will catalyze the rest of the language learning process. The next thousand words may happen in as much time as the first 100. This is how it works, so rather than trying to hold on to the content in your mind through a single layer of exposure, which is incredibly taxing mentally, not very effective, and often very frustrating - I find it best to simply let go, accept my own stupidity, and just get okay with the fact that I need to hear something 20 or 30 times before it starts to sink in and I'm ready to actually learn it. It's very freeing when you do this, and you can then stack up your familiarity through passive exposure first, and then really master the material through actively producing it in speaking and writing.

That's it for today, please let me know if you have any questions, like, subscribe, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, all that good stuff, and please check out Thanks for watching.

Back to blog