Memory and Language Learning

Seventeen years after leaving Cambridge University, the novelist Vladimir Nabokov returned to visit his old tutor. The man didn’t remember Nabokov. In the dimly lit room where the tutor sat by a fire, Nabokov began to re-introduce himself, but then he heard an ominous crunch; he’d stepped on a tray of tea things on the floor. Cups and saucers lay in pieces, and a soggy tea-bag fell on the carpet. The old professor looked up in surprise. Suddenly he remembered his visitor perfectly. As an undergraduate, twenty years earlier, Nabokov had trodden on the same tray in the same room.tea and cookies

Memory is a mysterious beast. Without it, we’d be lost. With it, we’re haunted by things we’d rather forget. In fact, people’s ability to recall everyday information is getting worse. Professor Ian Robertson of Trinity College Dublin reveals that most people nowadays need to remember five passwords, five PIN numbers, three security ID numbers, bank account numbers and number plates. This is beyond our capacity, so we duplicate our passwords and rely on hand-held devices for storing the codes. But the more we rely on technology, the worse our memory becomes. A quarter of the British citizens in Robertson’s survey couldn’t even remember their home phone number. What hope, then, does the language learner have when faced with mastering the 10,000 words necessary to read fluently (Nation and Gu, 2007, Focus on Vocabulary)?

Certain memorable acts – like treading on a tea tray – are sometimes called triggers for the memory. For those involved in education, triggers are an important part of learning and retention. We forget the vast majority of things we’re taught. Triggers help us to remember them.

What do these triggers consist of? They may involve different senses – sights, sounds, even smells. They may involve physical movement or the emotions (as in the case of so-called ‘flashbulb memories’: do you remember where you were when you heard Nelson Mandela had died? Or John Lennon? Or when your football team won the World Cup?). Perhaps triggers use rhyme, rhythm or song, which are central to teaching young learners (see here).

Where were you when you heard Mandela had died?
Where were you when you heard Mandela had died?

In online learning environments, instead of triggers such as movement and rhythm, students need to use other memory techniques, some old, some new. It’s now established that the key is to incorporate new words and ideas into creative acts such as writing or preparing a talk. Once students have done this, they gain ownership of the word. Just as learning to write changes our relationship to literacy, any creative act changes our relationship to new material. It stops being ‘other’ and becomes ‘ours’.

What else can we do to improve our retention of language? One of the oldest memorization techniques, used by the Ancient Greeks, involves visualization. They imagined a building, and each item in the list they needed to remember was located in one of the rooms. When they needed to recall the items, they took a mental ‘walk’ through the building and ‘saw’ each item. Similarly, students today are sometimes asked to invent stories that contain target vocabulary. By remembering the story, they are forced to remember the new words.

Story writing is a way of organizing ideas and language in time and space. An abundance of research shows that organizing information helps students to retain new material. Techniques for language learners might include categorizing and sorting words or putting phrases into flowcharts and tables. The act of organizing language helps us to remember it because it requires deep mental processing involving meta-awareness and conscious, critical decision-making about words.

Besides imagining buildings, there are other visual means of organizing information, such as using illustrations or flashcards. An English-speaking student studying Spanish might learn that pato means duck. She might then visualize a hand patting a round-faced duck. Pat O, the duck. This kind of technique – keyword mnemonics – benefits visual learners. They might record idioms like ‘open a can of worms’ and ‘under the thumb’ by drawing pictures.


They might also see metaphorical structures in visual terms (e.g., arguments are buildings: ‘constructed’, ‘supported’ or ‘torn down’; life is a journey: people can ‘be at a crossroads’ in life or ‘have no direction’) and illustrate these accordingly.

Life is a journey

Life is a journey

Another important element for retaining language is to form meaningful connections through personalizing the material. When students learn new words, they can put them into true sentences about their lives. Or not. Some students might put them into outlandish, outrageous sentences because, for them, the bizarre is more memorable than the real. Chomsky’s famous nonsense sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”, has somehow proved memorable for generations of linguistics students.

Finally, reviewing new language is essential. Some studies suggest we need to see, hear or use new words at least six times before the word is acquired. Other studies suggest ten times. Others, fifteen. Whatever the number, newer online vocabulary training tools (see WordMine) use spaced repetition algorithms to ensure new words are re-encountered at regular intervals.

Besides re-encounters, mindful reviewing is essential. We should review regularly in short bursts, say new words aloud, put them into sentences, memorize mnemonics, use online concordances and google longer phrases so we can see words in different contexts.

Most of these ideas aren’t new. One of them (keyword mnemonics) was described by the Roman poet Cicero in the first century BC! The ideas have lasted because they work. A message, then, to all educators and students: let’s remember how to remember!

2 Comments on “Memory and Language Learning”

  1. You can definitely see your skills within the work you write.
    The world hopes for more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to say how they believe.
    All the time follow your heart.

  2. […] times we need to process a word in order to acquire it in long-term memory (see previous post on memory). But we do know that spaced repetition is essential. To use Michael Lewis’s analogy, exposure to […]

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