Two memory techniques for forgetful language learners

Wiktor K. February 8, 2013 0

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“Tip of the tongue” must be the world’s most hated place. That feeling when you can almost remember the word in a foreign language – but it never comes to you until it’s too late? Well, you don’t need to have that feeling ever again. Learn from the masters and improve your learning with these two crafty approaches!

Before: language learner’s tricky memory

“Tip of the tongue phenomenon” is actually a real thing. It’s been studied, researched and well documented. So – no, it’s not just you, everyone else sucks at remembering words in foreign languages! Why is that?
There is no definite answer. Some usual suspects include the fact that the thing you’re trying to remember has not been revised enough, or hasn’t been used often enough to merit proper memorization. But there’s also another reason, and this time it could be more serious: it involves the way things are learned. And by things I don’t just mean Italian phrases or Japanese characters: this could be anything – and chances are, we could be making a better job of learning and memorizing it.
Memory needs connections. The better the connections – the more numerous they are – the easier it is to relate new material to what you already know, and bring it back when it’s needed. That, in a nutshell, is the secret to two techniques described below.

One: Word lists and word associations

I am grateful to Philip Kerr and his talks here. “The wonderful world of word associations” was a talk given in several places throughout the UK this week – and I was fortunate enough to help organize some of these talks. Not to mention: I could actually listen to one of the top researchers on foreign language learning!
You’re encouraged to head over to Philip’s vocabulary learning blog for more info and resources. I will attempt a brief summary here, only to point you in the right direction. Here, in a nutshell, is Philip’s secret to remembering vocabulary better:
- Make, keep and edit vocabulary lists. Add new words, change entries when more is learned, delete words you don’t use often. (Flashcards tend to work here – StudyBlue is still my favourite).
- Use word associations to help you remember the items on the lists. Look at the whole list and see if you can relate the phrases / words to one another – or one word to all the others. Talk through this with your teacher / classmates. Make sure you use the target language when doing so – this involves even more thinking and speaking with the words in use!
- Go context-rich. Associate the words on the list with pictures, create stories and so on. Relating the words to visual stimuli could help remember them later.
- Get creative. Does your new word have a colour? Does it make you think of a particular shape? I found once that associating German words with certain shapes could help me remember the gender of the nouns. (I probably don’t need to tell you the shapes I used.)

Two: the deck of cards

Here’s a challenge by Tim Ferriss, controversial as ever: try to remember a shuffled deck of cards in less than a minute. And before you tell me how crazy it is – Tim’s got a memory master to help reveal his technique.
You can read more on Tim’s blog – and for memory trick fanatics, this is probably old news. Here’s how it can help us, language-learning mortals:
- Get your system on. There is no right and wrong way to remember anything. The way things make sense in your head is, as far as anyone else is concerned, the only way.
- Use the system. What’s the point of having a cool gadget if it’s never used? Get your phrasebook out. Get the words you need / like. Use the system to try to remember them.
- Trust the system. Keep tweaking it until it works. When it does – never look back. New fads, fashions and miracle methods will come and go, but your brain will have found its rhythm and groove already, and that beats most of the “breakthroughs” out there.
- What about the long run? The memory tricks and systems employed above work brilliantly when short-to-medium term projects are concerned. They will help you make more sense during that sales pitch in Portuguese, or save your face in a Lebanese restaurant with a few choice phrases. For the long term, though, these procedures may be a bit too overwhelming – that’s when it makes sense to find a good storage and revision system for your foreign language.

Over to you

Your memory tricks. Your trusted systems. Your association techniques. We need them and you will give them to us – in the comments, below. Yes good.

(Photo credit:  Evan via Compfight)

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