Memory techniques for learning a language

None of us is getting younger. How is your memory? What were you doing this time last week? What’s your mother-in-law's telephone number? Ok, sometimes a great memory isn’t necessary, but at other times, it’s essential.

Let’s cut to the chase, learning a language is a massive challenge because in order to succeed you need to remember things; lots of things.

But how can we improve our memory and ensure we retain everything we’ve worked on in class? You are probably aware that you have a short term and long term memory. We’ve all “lost” our keys and glasses at some point, but that’s no biggie, because we don’t want the temporary location of our glasses to be stored in our long term memory forever.

Nevertheless we really do want our newly acquired English vocabulary to have some staying power for longer than a few hours or days. In which case, we need to make sure those words are transferred to our long term memory storage. But how?

The key is to use “spaced repetition” which is based on the idea of repeatedly testing yourself between longer periods. First test yourself a few hours later, then a day or two, then in a week, then two weeks later. If we don’t keep recalling the vocabulary, it will be forgotten, and not transferred to the long term memory.

Another method is to “chunk” the information together. If I asked you to remember your credit card number you would be hard put to recite it because your brain would freak out, but thankfully, they put spaces every four numbers so we’ve now got “chunks” and, if you really wanted to, you could easily remember that 16-digit number in chunks. In the same way, we can “chunk” vocabulary. Our brains can cope with about 5-8 items at a time, so don’t try and learn all the entries in the dictionary at the same time. And if they can be classified in a group, it will make it even easier. For example, start by focusing on seven emotions, test yourself with flashcards a few days later, or just make a list of the ones you can remember and their translations or definitions. Then test yourself again ten days later. Once you make no mistakes, move on to words related to the kitchen, or verbs related to travel etc. ensuring they are classified into similar topics.

If you've got a mixture of vocabulary you wish to learn which cannot be categorised, you can “chunk” it into a logical sentence. Learning phrases instead of individual words can also work for some people. For example, imagine you just watched an interesting movie in English and wrote down some new words that you’d never heard before. You want to remember the following unrelated words for that movie:

gaudy to hop costume anteater awkwardly

I could invent a brilliant sentence that encompasses them in one chunk: The anteater hopped awkwardly in a gaudy costume.

And it’s a silly sentence, but that doesn’t matter. In fact it just improves the chances that you’ll remember it when you test yourself the next day.

Another method is the memory palace method, which, if you’ve seen Sherlock Holmes, is how he managed to remember so much information. The idea is to “put” the vocabulary in a location as you “walk” around a building. When you re-enter the room, you should name everything you can visualise and ensure you continue to recall the vocabulary. Start by doing this at home, while cooking - name the utensils, while cleaning - name the products, while gardening - name the herbs and plants. Then the next day, imagine you are in the kitchen and just by visualising the room, try to name everything you have “put” there. Keep doing that, using spaced repetition between testing yourself. This works for visual learners and you’ll soon see that you’ve remembered all your objects at home in English.

Finally, maybe you remember some mnemonics from school. They work too! My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas is one I remember from school to learn the order of the planets (back when Pluto was a planet!). If you’re creative you can create your own. Granted, this isn’t the easiest or most logical method, but it can work in some cases for some people.

So, go on, we challenge you to challenge yourself by using a memory technique and little by little you will see your vocabulary improve!


cut to the chase - ir al grano

staying power - aguante/resistencia

chunk (v/n) - trocear/trozos

be hard put - ser dificil

freak out - ponerse como loco

cope with - lidiar con

granted - ciertamente / sentado

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