Learning English: Walking versus Sitting

A Chinese friend of mine learned about my discovery that it was much easier to study Chinese while walking on a treadmill than sitting. This led her to buy a treadmill. She began to study English (e.g., GRE vocabulary words) while walking on the treadmill. “It worked very well,” she told me. She found that if she studied words while walking, she could remember them four days later. If she studied them sitting down, she could remember them only a day later. With Anki, the default settings assume you can only remember what you’ve studied for a day — the first time you learn a word, you will be tested a day later.

This reminds me of Allen Neuringer’s finding of better memory for material learned while moving, but the size of the effect my friend observed is still shocking. If you can remember words four times longer before you need to review them, you can learn four times as fast. The effect that Jeremy Howard and I observed was of similar size. We could only study 10 minutes sitting down but could easily study for 40 minutes or more while walking.

6 Replies to “Learning English: Walking versus Sitting”

  1. what’s even better is stopping and walking and stopping and walking etc.

    Seth: That’s interesting. When you compared straight walking with stopping and walking and stopping and walking, what was the difference between them?

  2. Learning to read a language is a different problem from learning to speak one. I’d have hoped that all the audio technology available for the last thirty years would have made it easier to learn to speak English than it was for me to learn to speak French. But has it? I wonder sometimes, hearing the pretty bad attempts at speaking English from people at conferences.

    Anyway, is your Chinese chum concentrating on the written or spoken word?

    Seth: written word.

  3. Seth,

    I study Japanese vocabulary and kanji while walking (Anki mobile, or my Japanese dictionary flash cards app), but even more so while standing on the subway. Standing and walking both seem to correlate with better retention.

  4. What a huge effect! If it turns out that big, it will be a wonder that it hadn’t been noted before, or taken advantage of by government organizations training employees in foreign languages.

    It makes me think of two things: one is I remember some teachers claim that adding student motions to teaching really helps the learning. The other is that kids learning (1st) language are most likely walking around at the time, not sitting at a desk. In motion would be the environment more typical to natural language learning.

    Also, Steve Jobs was famous for having important meetings with people while on a walk.

  5. I haven’t tested retention, but I don’t do well studying standing in place. Walking is fine, but standing is stressful for some reason. I usually do my daily reviews sitting or reclining on a sofa. I remember reading somewhere that in psychological research they use “doing math while standing in place” as a reliable method of inducing stress.

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