How memory helps language learning
Like many of you, I had to learn French in school. Just like me, you probably started learning French when you went to secondary school, studied for five years, and then left feeling like you couldn’t speak a word.
But is that really true?
Sure, the usual Salut ! Ça va ? probably rolls of the tongue still today. But is there perhaps more hiding deep down in your memory than what you might expect?
Using old phrases
Today I went into a coffee shop and ordered an Americano. The barista was clearly a Frenchman – based on his accent – so I decided to say thank you in French.
As he handed me the coffee, I said ‘merci’, but to my surprise an additional phrase popped out too: ‘bonne journée!’
This was completely unplanned and took me by surprise!
As I drunk my coffee walking back to the office, I started to remember that I had learnt to say ‘bonne journée’ as a way of saying ‘bye’ at school.
In fact, one time on a school trip to Belgium, I remember buying chocolates at a chocolatier and hearing several French speaking customers also saying this phrase.
So this is clearly a useful little French phrase I had learnt but had completely forgotten about. Yet, it was clearly still lodged somewhere in my subconsciousness.
This made me wonder: what else is buried in my memory?
Since coming back to the office, I’ve started trying to push my memory and seeing what I can recall.
I’ve been pointing at random office objects, like my computer, chair and window to see if I can remember their French equivalents.
Sure enough, giving myself a moment and a chance, I was able to recall them: l’ordinateur, la chaise, and la fenêtre!
Isn’t that amazing? After over a decade of never saying these words once, with a little patience and thought, I could recall these.
More difficult phrases
Now, remembering simple objects like le stylo and la gomme is perhaps not that impressive. So I decided to challenge myself and see if I could recall more difficult words, such as phrases and verbs:
– Excusez-moi, puis-je aller aux toilettes s’il vous plaît?
– Je voudrais du thé avec du lait
– Où est la gare, s’il te plaît?
Again, I was completely but pleasantly surprised I could recall these phrases. Since finishing school, I can’t remember ever having to ask in French to go to the toilet, for some tea with milk or where the train station is! Yet I could produce these phrases with a little thought and patience.
After doing a little research, it turns out there is actually some science to this.
Yes, humans can completely forget something – this is often the case when the little nodes in our brains which store memories become isolated or disappear all together.
But a lot of our memories are still there – they’re just tucked away at the back of our minds. All we have to do is to draw them and we’ll start rebuilding the connections.
What does this mean for language learners? It means the more often you try to recall a word, phrase or sentence, then the quicker you’ll be able to recall it!
3 memory techniques
So to improve our memories, we’re going to need to some practising. But how can you practise recalling items? Especially when they’re tucked deep away in your memory.
Well, there are plenty of ways to do this, but here are 3 for you to practise:
- Take a guess
Ironically, we often think that when we remember something, we have to remember it exactly every time. But this isn’t how our memories work. To regain those connections in the brain, we need to do the hard work of trying to remember. It turns out, one of the most effective ways to do this is by taking a guess! Every time you guess and then check, you help your brain to reinforce the correct memory.
- Repeat, a lot!
Repetition is the key to rote learning. If you like writing things down, then write down a word 10 times, then leave it and do it again the next day. If you think you learn better by listening, then repeat the word aloud several times, leave it and then come back to it and repeat again until you’ve got it. If you’re someone who likes mimicking or moving when learning, then practise repeating the words with some associated actions, like mimicking ironing when try to learn ‘repasser’.
- Space it out
Humans have an incredible capacity to think spatially. So use this to your advantage! One simple technique is to imagine a room and attach the words you want to remember around the room. Every time you want to practise recalling these words, close your eyes and go back to the room.
Try these out and let us know how you get on with a comment below.
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A polyglot and international traveller. Anthony speaks 6 languages and loves sharing his passion of language learning through his writing.
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