7 Science-Supported Memory Phenomena that Help You Remember Words More Efficiently


It’s a language learner’s dream to be able to see a word just once and memorize it forever. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of us, the human brain just doesn’t work like that. Still, as we learn more and more about the cognitive underpinnings of memory and the brain, we have discovered several simple – and quite unexpected – steps we can take to improve our retention of foreign-language vocabulary.

But before delving into the research, let’s take a look at how memories are formed, a process that can be roughly divided into three stages. First, we have encoding, which happens right when you learn new information. This involves a specific pattern of activity in the synapse, which is the space between two brain cells. This initial activity creates a temporary, short-term memory.

Next comes consolidation, in which these short-term memories become long-term ones. This happens when these synapses are strengthened, and the memory’s specific pattern of activity is solidified in the brain.

The last step is retrieval, which is the important one for language learners: it’s your ability to recall information you’ve previously learned. Retrieval comes more easily and quickly when memories have been well consolidated in long-term memory.

As you might expect, memory is a hot topic in psychology and neuroscience, and years of research have yielded some interesting phenomena that deal with all three stages of memory formation. Here’s some of the findings that can be of particular utility for language learners.


1. Context-dependent memory



Image via Pixabay

Context-dependent memory refers to the phenomenon in which people recall certain information better if they are in the same environment (i.e., context) in which they originally learned it. A classic 1975 study had scuba divers memorize lists of random words either underwater or on land. They were then tested on their recall of these lists – again, either underwater or on land. Words that were learned underwater were best recalled underwater; similarly, words that were learned on land were best recalled on land.

How it works: This has to do with encoding and retrieval. When a memory is formed, we also subconsciously store a bunch of extraneous information – like our surroundings when the memory was encoded. Thus, we are better at retrieving memories in the same environment, as the pattern of activity best matches the original pattern encoded during learning.

What you can do: Keep it consistent – designate a specific foreign-language study space (for example, your bedroom), and study there as much as you can. Of course, if you want to actually use the language in real life, you’ll have to leave your bedroom at some point. But if you do most of your learning in a consistent context, you’ll be able to pick up right where you left off every time that you study, allowing you to optimize how many words you memorize during each study session.


2. State-dependent learning


Similar to context-dependent memory, state-dependent learning is the phenomenon in which we recall information better if we’re in the same mental state as we were when we learned it. This effect was most famously illustrated in a 1976 study which showed that people who learned words while under the influence of alcohol were better at later recalling these words when they were also drunk, compared to when they were sober.

How it works: We have already seen that memory encoding involves seemingly irrelevant information, such as the context in which something was learned. The research on state-dependent memory shows that this also involves the learner’s state of consciousness, so retrieval is best when you’re in the same mood (i.e., mental state) as you were during encoding.

What you can do: Note that I’m not telling you to get wasted every time you sit down to practice your Japanese. Rather, the point here is again consistency. For instance, if you’re a morning person, consider scheduling your foreign-language learning consistently in the early hours, when your mind is crisp and alert. If you often find yourself drinking a cup of coffee or tea while studying, make a point to consistently do so each time you sit down to review vocabulary.

3. The Baker-baker paradox



Image via Thomas Berg / flickr

A number of studies have shown that, when meeting somebody, you’re more likely to remember their profession than their name. For instance, if you are shown a photograph of somebody, you’re less likely to remember his name if you’re told that it’s “Baker”, and more likely to remember his profession if you’re told that he is a baker.

How it works: When you hear that somebody is a “baker”, you subconsciously make a bunch of associations related to baking – e.g., bread, pastries, odd hats, your favorite bakery. These associations activate more synapses than simply hearing somebody’s name, which gives your brain more neural ground for future retrieval.

What you can do: Actively seek out associations with words. Don’t just mindlessly go through lists of vocabulary; give the words life and context. A great application specifically for language learners is to make associations between other words you’ve learned in the language. For example, a Spanish-language learner will notice that the word for “baker”, panadero, contains the word pan, which means “bread”. Similarly, estado means “state”, which you can associate with estar, the form of “to be” used for states and feelings.


4. The spacing effect


Say you have a particular word to remember, but you can only study it five times. The spacing effect says that your long-term memory of the word will be at its strongest if you space out your studying through a long period of time, rather than studying it five times in rapid succession.

How it works: Spacing allows us to emphasize poorly learned material. For instance, if we learn a list of 10 words, it’s hard to predict which ones we’ll still remember in a week. By spacing our presentation of these words, we’ll find out which ones we’re struggling to remember, and we can put special focus where needed to help us consolidate our memory of those particular words.

What you can do: “Spaced repetition” is one of the most well-known buzzwords in the language learning world, and with good reason – it’s a proven, robust, and effective way to learn vocabulary better. Using digital flashcard software like Anki or Learn with Oliver, which automatically space out foreign-language vocabulary for you, is the best way to take advantage of the spacing effect.


5. Self-explanation


A 1994 experiment had eighth-graders read a text about the human circulatory system. Some were asked to explain (quietly, to themselves) what each sentence meant. They were later tested on their knowledge of the circulatory system. Those who were prompted to self-explain scored higher than those who simply read the passage without self-explanations.

How it works: Self-explanations force us to draw associations, make connections with our existing knowledge, and actively engage with what we’re learning instead of just passively observing it. This kind of deep involvement with the material involves using more of our cognitive resources, and thus helps us consolidate otherwise flimsy memories.

What you can do: If you’re studying with somebody in-person or through a language exchange, actively explain certain words or grammatical rules, especially those you’re struggling with. Don’t worry about boring your conversation partner: native speakers are likely to find this enlightening, as often they aren’t aware of the inner workings of their first language, which they simply “picked up” without analyzing. If you’re going at it solo, check your own comprehension by explaining things to yourself.


6. The testing effect


It’s been well-established that our long-term memory of certain information is drastically improved if we periodically test ourselves on that information beforehand. Actually administering a test is advantageous compared to simply devoting more time to repeated study.

How it works: When you repeatedly study certain vocabulary, you’re putting a lot of emphasis on consolidating the memories in your brain. However, testing yourself gives you practice actually retrieving the information. The testing effect suggests that practicing this kind of retrieval makes us better at retrieving memories in the long term.

What you can do: Nobody likes tests, but administering a low-pressure language level test (or creating your own) every now and then will prove useful to you in the long run. In addition to giving you retrieval practice, this will show you how much you’ve improved over time – a nice way to stay motivated.


7. Sleep!


Image via Liza / flickr

This one doesn’t have a fancy name, but it’s perhaps the most crucial of them all: decades of research have come to the conclusion that sleep is essential for memory, and that getting enough sleep – in addition to improving your quality of life – helps you retain information.

How it works: Sleep – an activity that we spend about a third of our lives doing – is a largely mysterious phenomenon. But recent research has suggested that sleep is essential in consolidating memories, allowing you to move what you learned during the day from short-term to long-term memory.

What you can do: It’s pretty obvious – make sure you get enough sleep! As tempting as it may be to stay up all night studying verb conjugations, call it quits when your eyelids get heavy, and ensure that you’re getting a healthy amount of sleep each night.




No, the vast majority of us will never be able to memorize a list of words just by looking at it once. But optimizing the speed and efficiency at which we remember things can be as easy as setting up a consistent study space, or getting enough sleep at night. Take advantage of how your brain encodes, consolidates, and retrieves memories, and you’ll be well on your way to putting your language skills into high gear.

Readers: have you tried any of the strategies on this list? What are your favorite tricks for memorizing new words? Let us know with a comment!


paul_thumbnailPaul Mains is an English teacher and serial guest contributor to a number of language blogs who lives in Argentina. Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language teaching service which offers foreign-language level tests as well as other free language-learning resources on their website. Check out their Facebook page or send an email to paul@languagetrainers.com for more information.




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  • David Cooper

    One thing you need to consider is the business of how words are stored and used in your memory. Every word that you deliberately memorise with effort is stored in the wrong place in the brain, so it has to be learned again in order for it to be stored in the proper way for recognising the word and in yet another way for using it in your own speech, and after that, the original memory of it can be allowed to fade away. I prefer to miss out the first memorisation step altogether and thereby avoid all the heavy effort that goes with it, so I just read lots of text in the language (in combination with a translation) and let the words write themselves to my memory in their own good time as I meet them repeatedly in interesting contexts. Babies and young children make no effort to learn words, and they store them the right way, so I try to follow their lead.

    • David,

      I’m currently working on a small Android language learning app which works on language pairs (sentence in a language you know sentence in a language you learn). I see you are quite an expert in this… Would you be interested in helping me with this app? I’m not expecting any heavy involvement, just a few minutes to discuss some questions I have.

      BTW, the application is free and open source, and I’m not getting any financial gain out of this.


      • David Cooper

        I’d be happy to make suggestions, although you shouldn’t rely on whatever expertise I might have being right. I’ll start with a few ideas now. I’m currently working on learning Russian, and the biggest difficulty I’ve been having, is with recognising all the case endings correctly (although I’m gradually getting there), so it occurs to me that colour-coding them would help to teach them more efficiently, and there are similar issues with verbs. There are also lots of little grammatical rules which are hard to take in when you read through lists of them (and the tedious example sentences that typically follow), so ideally each phrase or sentence used in the app should have links to the key rules that apply to it so that the user can check them instantly – it’s at that moment while they are most relevant that the biggest gain can be made by looking them up, but people can’t normally afford to do this because it takes far too long to hunt them down.

        Having random sentences flung at you can make you feel ill after a while, but it does enable you to focus on specific areas of vocabulary and rules. The ideal app should maybe provide a proper text that makes for interesting reading in its own right so as to provide extra motivation and reward, but the app could also provide a range of random example sentences between paragraphs to explore the rarer vocabulary and grammatical rules that are most relevant to the following paragraph of the text. This alternation between real text and random examples could be a lot more effective than just using random examples or a proper text all the time. Most importantly though, the user should be able to click/tap on a button to make the current phrase or sentence appear again in later examples (or a word, or an example using the same grammatical rule) so that whatever is new to the user can be reinforced before all memory of it has dissolved away. Tapping a word could alert the app to your desire to meet it again (or perhaps you could tap on a word to tell the app you don’t want any more practice with it – if double taps can be identified on Android, perhaps you could provide both of these functions that simply). You could have buttons built into the phrase/sentence or placed under or over them which you could tap in the same way to tell the app that you want more practice with a particular construction used there, or to tell the app that you are already fully comfortable with it. If a double tap isn’t possible to distinguish between these opposite needs, that could be solved easily by assuming the tap is a request for more practice unless another button at the bottom of the screen is tapped afterwards, in which case you are telling the app that you don’t need more practice with that word or construction.

        Most of what you want your app to do is what any good parallel text should provide. If the pronunciation is hard to predict from the spelling system, a phonetic version of each sentence is essential. This should also be done for anything using a script which the user may not be familiar with – the user should not be forced to work from devanagari, Arabic script, furigana, etc., and even greek and Cyrillic can be hard to get to grips with, slowing the speed of learning dramatically at a time when the priority should be to learn words without wrestling with reading difficulties at the same time, but the proper written version should always be available too – the user should be able to set the app to display one, the other or both of those lines. The next line down the screen should be a literal translation, and this is much more important than the full translation which would appear under that. The full translation needn’t even be complete where the meaning is obvious from the literal translation, but it should explain any parts that the user might find hard to make sense of.

        • Wow, that’s a whole lot of suggestions. I’ll need to transfer it to my Kindle and go through your response carefully. Thank you very much!

          • David Cooper

            Another thought:-

            You will want to minimise the amount of work involved in creating the app, so aim to make it easy for users to provide and extend the available content for you and to wire it all together so that the full interactivity is available without you having to do any of that work. Users should be able to correct faults in the linkages too and add missing ones. That would allow your small app to become a big one without being any more work than a small one, and a library of extensive packages of content could then be built up as people add files with texts covering different subjects. If you’ve got the best app, people will write and adapt content for it because they’ll want to use it for all their language learning.

  • Cesar Gil

    Lots of insights apart from the usual, mainstream tips. Great!

  • Great post! Lots to think about here. Maybe for the context-dependent memory, you can add the resource you use, to the place where you sit. Before online learning, I used and reused specific texts/books for learning. I could retrieve words by visualizing the pages on which I had learned them. Or, now using Babbel for online learning, I visualize specific site pages to retrieve certain grammar rules or words. I also like the comment about “self-explanation” – I’ve learned a lot about various languages by explaining to others (after all I’m a teacher). And thirdly, stress-free quizzes and tests are great for practicing to retrieve information. That has been solidly proven. When I was a Teaching Fellow at Harvard, where we got training in teaching methods, we were told exactly that: frequent short quizzes are much more effective that infrequent longer exams. I still have that print-out of that and think of it often.

    • All great tips, Ulrike! 🙂 Totally agreed on all counts. Thanks for the comment.