memory and language learning

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.

Language and Memory

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.

Language and MemoryA 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.

Language and Memory

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.

Language and MemoryI 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.

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3 comments on “Language and Memory

Name *Robert Klose

Interesting post. However… humans are infinitely different from one another in all sorts of ways. Bigger, smaller, faster, slower, brighter, not so bright. Why should memory be an exception? It seems disingenuous at best to suggest that memory doesn’t play much of a role in language learning. If a person has a bad memory for things in general — forgotten tasks, lost keys, inability to remember names — why shouldn’t this affect language learning as well? I was also struck by your comment, Steve, that you “saved” 1600 Greek words and phrases in two weeks. How is putting them on a list different from looking them up in a dictionary and then closing the dictionary? The language students I work with generally don’t do well because, when they hear or see a new word, they forget about it when what they should be doing is looking for an opportunity to use it. For example, recently a young man who had approached me to teach him a bit of Icelandic asked me how to say, of all things, “a slice of bread.” I told him, “brauðsneið.” He nodded. “No,” I said. “Don’t just nod. Repeat it. Three times. With your eyes closed.” It told him to picture the slice of bread. Then I helped him the word into a simple sentence — “Could I have a slice of bread?” Last, I sent him forth with instructions to say it a couple of times during the day, even if it meant speaking to himself. Without such repetition and reinforcement words and phrases have little adhesiveness. So while one may “save” as many words as one likes, what one winds up with in the end is a list of words. In other words, a dictionary.

    Steve Post author

    I save words in LingQ and then forget about them/. Once saved they are in my database and appear highlighted in yellow when they next appear. They also show up in the review activities, randomly, in flash cards, dictation, cloze tests, and multiple choice questions. And then I see them again. I am not yet at a stage where I can say anything. On other hand I can try to answer some of the questions in the texts that I am reading and listening to. All of this has little in common with creating a list and studying from it.

Name *Rafal

I wholeheartedly share Steve’s point of view. In my opinion, language is too difficult to memorise it, let alone to do it consciously.

Another observation from my 20+ year practice as a professional translator of several languages: only those words really stick which you internalise in the time flash you usually need when you speak or write the language.

When you deliberate on a word for too long, e.g. when studying word lists, you lose it at once or a little later as it is stored in that part of your memory that you can (sometimes rather slowly) control, or purport to control as most language teachers do when confronting their unaware students.

I believe that, apart from the memory proper we are normally used to think of, there is another circuit in our brains which we communicate with within much shorter times provided that input has been loaded as quickly as it is expected to be retrieved.

Simply put: if you learn a word slowly, you will retrieve it slowly, whereas if you become aware of the meaning of a word quickly, then you can quickly retrieve it when speaking. Something everyone strives to achieve!

One million words read with full understanding without even trying to memorise them and you speak any language quite fluently, be it English, German, Polish or anything else. Thus you can ‘learn’ ten or more languages in your lifespan on the fly.

Dear Steve, thank you for demystifying what is kept back from naïve people who, instead of delving into the real language stuff, choose to be taught by others who were also taught that you need to memorise what cannot be memorised. It is high time to break this vicious cycle and encourage people to you their brains, not only memory.

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