How to Learn faster, and Remember better
I have been a musician for many years now, and my experiences in that
area have often helped me in the field of language teaching. It often
happens to me that I will be walking down the street, and a piece of
music is constantly going through my mind, on a semi-conscious level.
When I then think consciously about it, I realize that the piece in my
mind was the one I had been rehearsing several hours before. When you
practice an instrument, your session doesn't really stop when you get
up and leave the instrument; rather, your mind continues to "work" on
the piece throughout the day. Usually, it's the last piece you
work on that sticks in your mind the most.
The same thing happens with foreign
languages. When we learn, for instance, a list
of ten vocabulary words in a foreign language, we can expect to think
about them again during the day, though we may not be fully conscious
However, there are two major differences between a
vocabulary list and music:
1) A vocabulary list consists of words, of course. After learning the
list, we will probably talk to someone, watch TV, or simply think. All
of these are activities that involve words - and most likely, the words
in our foreign-language vocabulary list will not be heard, spoken or
thought during the course of our normal daily activities. As a result,
the "sub/semi"-conscious learning effect will usually not be as great
as in the case of music, since....
2) Music is a much more emotional expression than are mere word
lists. We move to music, we feel when we hear it, it
inspires, elates and touches us directly on an emotional
level. It is comforting, pleasant and pleasurable... usually much more
so than a list of vocabulary words!
Nonetheless, it IS possible to apply this knowledge
about the effect music has on us when learning words.
I remember when I had my first French class back
when I was in college. The professor was an elderly European gentleman
who had the liveliness of a Spaniard and the charm of a Frenchman (He
had been born and raised in Spain, but had lived the greater part of
his life in France).
One day, he was teaching possessive adjectives****. Instead of simply
reading us the list, he chanted it in a sing-songy way, with the
("^" = short, -- = "long", --- = "very long")
mon ton son
notre votre leur
mes tes ses
(click to listen)
I remember the looks on some of the students' faces
when the old fellow started rattling this off, his hands keeping time
during his little "recital": some thought he was half crazy!
But do you know what? Many years later, I could still
remember all the forms of those possessive adjectives in
French. If he had simply read us the list, I would have forgotten them
by the next day. But the fact that he acted out that
list, chanting them as if they were part of a nursery rhyme, helped to
implant that list into my mind in a way that no simple reading could
have. Now, over 30 years later, I still remember them whenever I think
of that unorthodox, yet excellent teacher.
Such methods are infinitely more effective in
helping you memorize lists than mere reading and repeating!
Of course, it may be difficult to apply such a
method when learning large numbers of vocabulary words. After all, if
we chant every list we have, they will soon become confused in our
minds, and this would defeat our purpose. However, the main principle
can still be applied, that being, that if we add EMOTION and
IMAGERY to the material to be learned, we will remember it much better.
Here are a few tips:
If you must learn a small list of grammatical forms
- such as the possessive adjectives above - chanting them rhythmically
is a great way to help you implant them into your memory.
Where new vocabulary is concerned, I recommend the
1) When you first read the words, say them aloud. That
way, your mind will not only receive the impression of the printed word
on the page, but the SOUND of that word as well, and it will thus be
easier to recall later
2) Combine and Conquer. Never learn lists of words by
simply reading them over and over again. Instead, combine
groups of words to make sentences. Here's an example, using a list of
el escritorio = the desk
el suelo = the floor
la chica = the girl
la caja = the box
caerse = to fall
coger = to get,
Let's make a sentence:
Cuando la caja se cae del escritorio al suelo,
la chica delgada la coge.
When the box falls from the desk to the floor, the
slender girl picks it up.
Seven new words in a single sentence. Now, learn
this sentence by memory in Spanish, imagining the situation it
describes as vividly as you can: A box on the desks falls to the floor,
and a slim girl picks it up.
(Of course, for the two verbs you would have to know - or look up - the
correct forms in order to make such a sentence.)
The fact that the new words appear in a context
will be of great help in remembering the individual words. Weeks later,
perhaps you'll see the word "delgado", and won't remember what it
means. But you might remember the "chica delgada" that was
picking up the box...and when you do, you'll most likely recall the
meaning of "delgado", when you think of that slender girl with the box.
Of course, sometimes we will have to learn lists of
words that don't combine as easily. "basura" (= trash),
"filósofo" (philosopher) and "gotear" (= drip) for instance.
Combine them anyway to form a sentence: you'll soon see that the more
ridiculous the sentence turns out, the better you'll remember
the words in it:
"La basura está goteando encima del filósofo"
"The trash is dripping onto the philosopher".
Certainly not a very practical sentence, but the unusual image evoked
will assure that you don't forget those words easily!
It's better to keep such sentences simple at first, and not try to fill
them with more complicated grammatical structures. You should be able
to include 3 to 5 new words in a sentence, maybe even more. Once you
write the sentence, memorize it, imagining vividly the "picture" it
conveys. Then form another one, using more new words.
You'll want to go over these sentences a few days later, then maybe
again a couple of weeks later - after all, as the ancient Greeks said:
"Repetition is the mother of learning". And learning your
vocabulary words in such a way will not only make them easier to
remember, but more fun to learn as well!
Next article: 4) Divide and Conquer - Mastery though