≡ Menu

Language Learner, Join Us

enter your email for updates

Why You Have Trouble Remembering New Words, and How You Can Fix It

memorize "goal" in ChineseAccording to a study conducted by the Institute of Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin in 2007, fully one-third of British people under the age of 50 cannot remember their own phone number. And if I asked you to tell me with absolute certainty whether the red light is at the top or the bottom of a traffic light, chances are you would probably have a hard time to answer that as well, even though you’ve seen traffic lights thousands of times in your lifetime.

Yet, today I will make what may sound like a shocking revelation to some of you: even “average” memories are remarkably powerful if used properly, and yes, that includes yours. Not entirely convinced? Let me prove my point through this little story:

Imagine you’re walking in a grassy field on a quiet, sunny day, and suddenly, out of nowhere, a cow literally falls from the sky. As it’s approaching the ground at a breathtaking speed, you hear the cow mooing out of sheer fright—“MOOOOO”. In the blink of an eye, you hear a big thump, and right there it is on the ground, in front of you. You automatically pull out your bow (because naturally you always carry it with you), and without flinching, intensely looking at your target, you shoot an arrow straight into the cow’s ass. “BYEOOOWW”, you hear the cow crying. Satisfied and proud of having hit your target, you make it back to your home.

Now, you might be wondering what the hell this story is all about. I’ve actually heard it from Benny Lewis, the polyglot and world traveler behind Fluent in 3 Months himself. This is Benny’s very own story, a “mnemonic” as it is called, to remember the word for “target” or “goal” in Chinese (目标, mùbiāo). Indeed, the cow’s mooing as it falls from the sky corresponds to the first syllable (mù) of the word, a falling tone. The second syllable, biāo, is a high tone, just as you can imagine would be the cow’s crying sound as the arrow hits its rear. There you go, mùbiāo, the word for target/goal in Chinese. If you have actually made an effort to vividly picture the story above in your mind, I can almost guarantee you that the word for “target” in Chinese will be deeply anchored into your memory.

I Have a Terrible Memory. Is There Any Hope for Me?

Most people think that their memory is just plain bad. Indeed, most of us seem to find it a valuable exercise to discuss just how useless our memories are. “Sorry, could you tell me your name once again? I’m terrible with names, my memory is awful.” I’m sure you’ve said or heard this more than once.

chimpanzeeIf you’re reading this article, chances are you’re trying to learn a language and you’re having problems with remembering new words. So is there any hope for you?

The truth is that no-one is born, say, a professional surfer or guitarist; one needs practice and instruction to possess those skills. The very same goes with memory. Some guidance and a little practice bring immediate improvement, and the aim of this article is to hammer this point and make it very clear. Having a “poor memory” is in fact more often than not a question of inept technique or thoughtless application.

The Art of Memory

Memory is involved in one way or another in everything that we do. As technology has progressed over the centuries, books, photographs, computers and smartphones have made their way into our daily lives. We can now store almost infinite amounts of information externally. Yet not too long ago, every literate person had to be versed in the art of memory, an art that has sadly been lost. Memory was considered a centerpiece of classical education in the language arts, on par with grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In a world with few books, a good memory was quintessential to education and power.

Yet these days speaking about the “art” of memory seems like an almost ridiculous concept. Everyone knows, or so they have been told at school, that they should just cram information until it sticks—that is, they should just rote memorize. Why? Because nobody has ever told them that there was any type of alternative. If that doesn’t work for you, too bad I’m afraid. Some people, I guess, are just born with excellent memories, while most others aren’t. Hmmm… you bet we can do better than that.

The Memory Palace

memory palaceThe truth is that the art of memory has been around for a pretty long time. Memory training was first described in a Latin textbook written over 2000 years ago. It calls a memory an “image”, and the space it occupies in the mind a “place”. In his excellent book entitled “Moonwalking with Einstein“, author Joshua Foer sets out to investigate the underpinnings of those with super memories, the type of people who can remember things like a thousand random digits or the order of five packs of cards shuffled randomly (really). In the book, Foer mentions one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists, Cicero, who agreed that the best way to memorize a speech is point by point, not word by word. Cicero suggests that an orator delivering a speech should make one image for each major topic he wants to cover, and place each of those images at a locus. Indeed, the word “topic” comes from the Greek word topos, or place. Welcome to the world of memory palaces.

Without exception, all memory champions rely heavily on this 2500-year-old method of loci, also popularly known as a “memory palace,” for remembering information. With papyrus for writing in scarce supply, the ancient Greeks had been using “loci” (places) as an aide-mémoire long before modern-day memory champions revived this long forgotten art of memory. So how does it work?

It’s pretty simple. The idea is to create a space in the mind’s eye, a place that you know well and can easily visualize, and then populate that imagined place with images representing whatever you want to remember. First, studies have repeatedly shown that emotions can double the amount of information you can remember, a psychological effect known as depth of processing. By choosing a place you are emotionally attached to (either in a good or in a bad way), you will be much more likely to recall your images and words. Additionally, and that’s perhaps the most important thing to remember, is to make your images really stand out. In 1933, German psychologist Hedwig von Restorff conducted a series of experiments to try to identify what makes something memorable. She concluded that one of the strongest criteria for recall is individuality. If something stands out for being a different shape, size, colour or in some other way significantly, characteristically different from the other items around it, it becomes easier to recall.

No matter what kind of imagery comes most naturally to you, it will be well worth your time, when learning a foreign language, to pause and associate the new foreign word or sentence directly with a creative, wacky imagery of your own, rather than solely with some translation equivalent in your native language. If you want to learn more about the wonderful world of memory palaces, I invite you to pick up Foer’s book, it really is worth a read.

To make a long story short, then, here’s what you should do:

  1. Deeply “picture” the word/item you need to remember, and really make it stand out. A tomato? How about a purple one the size of your sofa?
  2. Put that item in a place you’re very familiar with; your home is a good place to start. Mentally picture every single room and corner of your “memory palace”, and start putting your items around the place.
  3. Use mnemonics and create crazy stories if that helps. Refer back to the beginning of this article for a good example!

Besides memory palaces and mnemonics, though, here are a few other quick and no less important tricks that will really boost your capacity to memorize new things.

Kickstarting Your Ability to Memorize

1)     Exercise and eat well: I’m putting this one first because so few people realize just how important exercising and eating well is important to not just memory, but well-being in general. It’s not just for any reasons that just about any high-achiever exercises regularly. And if you’re looking for foods that can specifically boost your retention ability, studies have shown that eating fish rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, dark green leafy vegetables, foods high in vitamin E, blueberries, cod liver oil, and whole grains can all improve memory one way or another.

2)     Context is KING: Context, especially in language learning, is fundamental to memorizing words and phrases. Our brain doesn’t remember isolated facts, but rather things in context. Countless scientific studies have shown this. The lesson here is that you should learn new words as you come across them in actual sentences. Ditch the long lists of decontextualized words, and you’ll make your life a whole lot easier.

3)     Pay attention and focus: When you meet new people, the main reason you can’t remember their names a few minutes later doesn’t have anything to do with having a bad memory. It’s simply because you’re not paying attention. As somebody is busy introducing him or herself to you, you’re probably thinking about your own introduction and what kind of stuff you’ll be talking about at the same time. The very same thing goes for language learning. If you’re studying your Spanish textbook while thinking about how drunk you’re going to get this weekend, chances are you’re wasting your time. Having trouble focusing? Go back to #1 and repeat.

4)     Learn little and often: People often mistakenly think that putting 4-5 hours of intensive study every weekend will do the job. The truth is that you’re a whole lot better of dividing your study time in little chunks every day. Consistency is key. Nearly every single polyglot and successful language learner I’ve interviewed in the past “studies” any given language 30min or less per day.

5)     Get the language on your TONGUE! According to research by The William Glasser Institute in California, we retain only 10% of the information we absorb from reading, while we retain approximately 50% of the information we see and hear, and personal experience gives us around 80% retention. Well that last bit is pretty awesome news if you’ve tried chatting up the natives up until now. That actually means that living the language (i.e. opening your mouth and using it in actual conversations) will dramatically improve the percentage of things you’ll remember.

Have I Convinced You?

It’s easy to forget how easy it can be to remember. Don’t forget this. I mean, the point is, you can train your memory. That’s pretty good news. As Harry Lorayne, best-selling author and memory-training specialist, says: “There is no such thing as a bad memory. There are only trained or untrained memories.

Have you ever tried using any of the tips outlined above? If yes, have you seen a significant difference in your ability to retain information? If not, would you be willing to give it a try? You certainly have a nothing to lose. I’ll be waiting for your comments below!

About the author: Sam is the guy behind Lingholic, a blog with a wealth of resources for making the life of language learners easier, which includes interviews with polyglots from around the world and articles on just about any topic language-related. Visit Sam’s blog or his Facebook or Twitter pages, and say hi!

Leave a Reply