When learning a foreign language, words that are the hardest to learn are often the easiest to forget. Yet, there is also evidence that more challenging learning contexts can lead to greater long-term retention. Here, we investigate the effect of language difficulty on vocabulary retention by teaching participants novel words that varied in both imageability and similarity to a known language over a period of four weeks. We found that easier words (high-imageability and familiar) were generally retained better than harder words (low-imageability and unfamiliar). However, when words were fully learned during training, the more difficult unfamiliar words were later recalled with higher accuracy than easier familiar words. The effect of language difficulty on vocabulary retention therefore varies depending on how well words were initially encoded. We conclude that greater challenges can reap greater long-term rewards so long as learners establish a strong foundation during initial acquisition.
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