Language and Memory
I am starting to believe that memory is not that important when it comes to language learning.
I have recently started learning Greek. Most of the words are completely unfamiliar to me, and not related to languages that I already know. As I start to get a toehold in this world of new and strange sounds and words, I am able to observe how my brain starts to make meaning of this new environment.
Spaced Repetition Systems
Memory is normally considered the key to acquiring words and getting used to grammatical patterns in a new language. There are many popular memory systems, in particular spaced repetition systems (SRS), that are based on research of how the brain remembers things, not necessarily words in a language, but lists of items.
Memrise and Anki are two of the most popular spaced repetition and memory systems used by language learners. LingQ, which is where I learn languages, also uses an SRS algorithm to control the frequency with which new words and phrases are studied, using flashcards and other kinds of review activities.
I have never been a fan of these systems, largely because I prefer to spend my time reading and listening, activities which I find more enjoyable. When I learn at LingQ, I accumulate a large number of new words in a short time. In order to review these in a spaced repetition system I would have to spend a lot of time on it, time taken away from the more enjoyable activities of reading and listening, and eventually speaking. Bear in mind that I read about an hour a day on LingQ, and listen while doing other tasks for another 30 – 60 minutes.
My Experience So Far with Greek
When people find out that I speak 16 languages, they usually say that I must have a talent for language learning, or that I have a great memory. I don’t know how my memory compares with that of other people. I do know that if I look a word up in a dictionary, I forget the meaning immediately upon closing the dictionary. It is possible that if I were to spend a lot of time with a spaced repetition system, I might be better able to remember these new words. What would this mean, however, in terms of time?
My statistics at LingQ, for my first two weeks of Greek, show me that I have saved roughly 1600 words and phrases, while listening for close to four hours and reading more than 12,000 words. If I were to review these 1600 words and phrases as part of an SRS system, I wonder how long it would take.
A spaced repetition system for learning vocabulary requires you to review the terms in your “deck” of flashcards more than once. I have heard a variety of numbers on how many exposures to a word we need in order to remember it, but it is not less than five. If I were to review my saved 1600 words five times, this would mean 8000 or more views of these words in a flashcard deck. But I am adding more than 100 new words a day. In another two weeks I would have a total 16,000 words for review.
Granted, I might learn some of these words and remove them from my deck, but I doubt if the number of these learned words would be more than a few hundred at best, so I would be getting further and further behind. I would have to spend hours a day on flashcards and still would not be able to keep up. Pretty soon I would have no more time for the enjoyable activity of reading and listening. I would have to spend all my time on flashcards.
I do spend some time on the vocabulary activities that we have at LingQ: flashcards, dictation, fill in the blanks, and multiple choice. I do this as a break from reading and listening. It is an additional form of exposure to the language. These activities are presented randomly and it is entertaining to do them.
I don’t do them in any systematic way, however. To cover all my new words in this way would just take too much time. It is just a sampling, and a different way to focus on my recently saved words. It helps to keep me motivated. I don’t think it is going to help me memorize words and phrases.
Exposure to Words and Phrases in Context
My experience tells me that I will eventually learn these words and phrases, without dedicating too much time to reviewing them in flashcards. I will learn them mostly from seeing and hearing them in context, while reading and listening. My LingQ statistics tell me that I have already learned 287 words these past two weeks, just by seeing them over and over in the content that I am learning from. I expect that this number will increase quickly as I am able to create more associations with other words that I already know in Greek.
By reading and listening I am creating new language habits, new associations of sound, written text, and meaning. There is a text to speech function at LingQ, whereby I can listen to individual words, short phrases and even sentences while reading just by highlighting them. This is a tremendous help in reinforcing these new habits. The result is that every day I start to make more sense of what I am listening to and reading. Remarkably, I have noticed that every morning when I get back into my Greek, I seem to understand more; more than just the night before. It’s as if my new language habits mature overnight.
I am still a long way from understanding much of what I listen to when I don’t have the text in front of me. But again, I know from experience that I will learn to understand more and more as I listen, and as I forge new neural networks in my brain that enable me to derive meaning from a new language environment.
I am not a neuroscientist but I feel increasingly that memory is not that big a factor in language acquisition. What is enabling me to understand and eventually speak the language is the intensity of my exposure to this new environment. The brain is starting to put things together for me on a variety of levels, connecting these new words and sounds to my previous experience, even to my emotions, and certainly to other words in context. This passive or subconscious process working in the background while I read and listen, rather than any deliberate memorization, is what will enable me to learn Greek.