Language learners have so much to remember! If you want to know how you can improve your memory for learning languages this post is a must read for you!
A common concern amongst language learners of all levels is their power or retention and recall.
“I’ll never be able to learn Mandarin, I’ve got a memory like a Chinese goldfish!”
How will I ever memorise all those new words and grammar rules when I even forget what I’m doing while I’m actually doing it!
“Learn French? Not me, I just don’t have the ability to remember all those crazy conjugations and bewildering gendered nouns, oh là là!”
Does any of that sound familiar?
Thoughts like these are natural, just like other forms of foreign language anxiety. However, they are also mostly ungrounded and can be very detrimental to your language learning process.
This article explores memory concerning learning foreign languages, with a detailed look at some of the most effective memory techniques for language learning. Whether you’re studying English, aiming to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese, trying to learn Korean or, indeed, any other world language, we’ve got you covered.
Your Memory Really is Good Enough to Learn a Foreign Language!
Before we discuss improving your memory, let me tell you: your memory really is good enough to start learning a foreign language. Yes, even yours!
Okay, it’s unlikely that you’ll be entering the World Memory Championships anytime soon and you may not be able retell the whole ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy from memory, but language learning is not all about rote learning and it doesn’t require a miraculous memory at all. In fact, all that’s required is a regular memory that utilises some easy to learn memory techniques.
You have already learned one language successfully – your native one. If your memory was good enough for that it really can handle learning at least one other language.
True, the sheer number of new vocabulary and complexity of unfamiliar grammar rules when learning any foreign language can seem overwhelming no matter how great your memory is, but that is what the rest of this article is for! So, let’s explore how to improve your memory for learning languages.
Practise Makes PROGRESS
The first piece of good news is that language learning itself improves your memory, and memorising new vocabulary and grammar gets easier the more you do it. Practise makes perfect, right? Well, not quite!
The common English saying, ‘practice makes perfect’, is not only overused it is not particularly useful. It suggests that there is only one agreed upon vision of perfection to which we all aspire. It also suggests that if we work hard enough we will ultimately reach this ambiguous state of perfection. This, I believe, is nonsense.
Working towards perfection can also lead to frustration and unhappiness as ‘perfection’ is never quite reached.
Instead, we should try to simply aim for ‘progress’ – even if it’s imperfect, it will still be progress.
We humans learn through repetition: whether you are learning a sport, a craft skill or another language, you need to repeat things lots of times to be able to do them well. Keep practising even a little each day and you will make progress.
Your brain and your memory aren’t muscles but they work the same way in some sense. Learning a new language and memorising vocabulary can seem daunting at times but your brain gets better at it every time you do it.
To give your brain a leg up, let’s take a look at a few great memory hacks!
Memory Techniques For Language Learning
No matter how great your memory is, helping it with some useful techniques won’t do any harm. On the contrary, it will help you learn faster, more efficiently, and probably even have more fun along the way.
So, what exactly can you do to improve your memory for learning languages?
1. Regular Physical Exercises & Good Night’s Sleep
What do exercising and sleeping have to do with your memory? Actually, quite a lot.
Your brain may not be a muscle but it is a part of your body, and the healthier your body is the better your brain works – research has found a strong link between overall health and education.
Exercising also releases endorphins that improve your mood which, in turn, improves your motivation and makes language learning easier. And a good night’s sleep lets your brain rest, process what you have learned, and prepare to learn more the next day.
Apart from that, some form of physical exercise, even just going for a short walk, is great when you feel stuck or overwhelmed and need to take a break from learning.
2. Use Mnemonic Devices
Mnemonics, or memory devices, are an umbrella term for a vast collection of tools that help you remember new words, patterns, phrases, and other language units.
Mnemonics work by creating strong associations connecting new information with what you already know, making it more meaningful and thus more memorable – even more so if it’s a personal association connected with emotion. Utilising mnemonic devices really will help to improve your memory for learning languages.
One of the most common mnemonic techniques is linking words from a foreign language to words in your mother tongue to create associations and images.
For instance, the Spanish word for clothes, ‘ropa’, sounds very close to the English ‘rope’, and the French ‘gare’ (train station) is almost like the beginning of the word ‘garage’. Now imagine ‘ropa’ made of rope or trains in a garage instead of a ‘gare’!
These images may be silly but this is part of what makes them memorable – there’s a high chance you’ll remember ‘ropa’ and ‘gare’ for some time after reading this article.
When creating links like these, don’t worry about your associations being ‘smart’ or ‘logical’ – it is much more important for the connections to be memorable and personal. Be creative in your word associations. The more absurd and vivid your word associations are the more likely you are to retain the new words in memory.
Let’s look at how we might use this linking technique for learning Chinese:
For example, let’s say we want to learn the Chinese words for France, cheese and teeth. 法国 （Fàguó）means France in Chinese, 奶酪 (Nǎilào) means cheese and 牙齿 (Yáchǐ) means teeth.
法国 奶酪 牙齿 Fàguó Nǎilào Yáchǐ literally means French cheese teeth. Or, if you like, cheesy French teeth.
Now picture a stereotypical Frenchman with cheese for teeth.
Don’t you think you’re more likely to remember all three words with an absurd image like that lodged in your mind?
Using Poems, Songs, & Rhymes
Different poems, songs, and rhymes can be a mnemonic device, too. For instance, here is a poem that explains and helps memorise what different parts of speech are.
The Memory Palace
Another popular mnemonic is the so-called ‘memory palace’ (you’ll hear different versions of the name, including ‘memory castle’ or ‘method of loci’). The explanation may sound a bit complex but it is a great memory device that works for many people, so give it a try.
A memory palace is a location in your mind based on a real one: even if your office or your bedroom isn’t exactly ‘palatial’, it would be a great choice as a place you know really well.
Different locations and furniture in your ‘palace’ become ‘stations’ where you can place the items you need to memorise: words, ideas, grammar rules, etc. You can add additional associations: for instance, I could ‘put’ the Spanish word ‘ropa’ (do you still remember what it means?) on the chair near my desk as I sometimes put my clothes there.
When you ‘visit’ your palace to review the words, stick to the same ‘path’: reviewing the items you’ve put in the palace in order will be helpful. And make sure to visit the palace regularly – repetition is essential for memorisation (more on that later).
Try out different mnemonic devices, use them separately or together, choose the ones that work best for you and the ones that you enjoy using – and you’ll be able to learn new vocabulary faster and more effectively.
Here’s a useful video for learning Mandarin using mnemonics, a Memory Palace and other memory techniques:
3. Repeat & Revise Often
Repetition is key when learning a language: we simply need ample repetition to transfer information from the short-term into the long-term memory.
If you memorise 10, 20, or 50 new words and never ever revise them, you will soon forget all or most of them, no matter how great your memory is or what powerful mnemonic devices you used.
The best way to revise new language units is spaced repetition: revising the units at increasing intervals.
Nowadays, many vocabulary and flashcard apps, like Anki or Memrise, feature spaced repetition: you get cards with new words and cards with words that you often make mistakes with; then there are cards with familiar words that come up for revision less and less often. The Memrise algorithm, for example, predicts when certain words or sentences are likely to fall out of your long-term memory and then decides it’s time for you to review it.
Spaced repetition helps you make sure that you give more time to the language units that need it more and don’t keep revising what you have already learned well.
4. Context is King For Memorising New Words
Memorising new words and phrases is more effective when it’s more meaningful. One of the ways to do it is to use mnemonics and personal associations.
Another effective way is to learn new words and phrases in context – and you should do it whenever possible to actually learn your target language and not just lists of random words.
Don’t just learn isolated words, learn expressions and sentences illustrating how to use these words. There are many ways to get them. You could simply ask your teacher for examples, get them from a book you’re reading or a show you’re watching, look the word up in a good dictionary and find some examples there (many dictionaries have them).
Alternatively, my favourite method is to use Linguee.com, which searches the Internet for articles where words and phrases were actually used in context in your target language.
This way you create meaningful context around the word that will help you remember it. You also learn not just the word alone but a few good ways to use it in actual speech.
Learning words like this may seem a bit slower than just memorising word lists, but the speed is compensated manifold by the effectiveness.
5. Use What You’ve Learned or Lose What You’ve Learned
Along with ‘practice makes progress’, another language learners’ motto could be ‘use it or lose it!’ Somewhat cliché, but also very true.
The main idea is that just memorising language units doesn’t necessarily lead to immediately being able to easily use them in speech.
Even if you have used a powerful mnemonic device, memorised the word in a meaningful context, and have been revising it regularly, you can still get stuck when it comes to actually speaking the language outside the classroom.
Your memory is not the problem here – you are just not used to using the words when speaking. And the solution could not be simpler: start using the words as soon as you learn them whenever possible.
It may be a bit hard to do when you are a beginner as you don’t know that much language yet to hold a long conversation, but there are still many things you can do. For example, come up with short sentences of your own using new words, having short conversations with other language learners, attend speaking clubs online and offline.
Even little things such as conversing with your cat, or narrating your morning routine to yourself in your target language will help improve your memory for learning world languages.
Just remember, the memory you currently have is more than good enough to master a new language especially if you apply the language learning memory techniques you’ve just learned.
As usual, this post was published by the teaching team here at Q Language. Q Language is a leading, Government-registered Hong Kong language school. We specialise in English, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese and Korean language courses for both local and international adult students. Contact us for further information about our Intensive language courses in Hong Kong.
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