Language Learning, Article 3 - Memory Techniques; by David Bolton
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Memory Techniques: 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 of this.

    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 following rhythm
("^" = short, -- = "long", --- = "very long")

 ^        ^      --       ^         ^       --
mon    ton    son    notre    votre    leur

 ^      ^      --       ^          ^         --
ma     ta      sa     notre     votre     leur

 --       --      --    ---        ---       ---
mes    tes    ses    nos       vos       leurs

    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 following:

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 Spanish words.

   el escritorio = the desk
   el suelo =      the floor
   la chica =      the girl
   delgado/a      slender
   la caja =       the box
   caerse =       to fall
   coger =        to get, pick up

    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!

***

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More sound advice on language learning here: Divide and Conquer - Mastery through piece-work


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