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.
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.
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 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 email@example.com for more information.