10 Memory Hacks for Learning a Language in 2021

Today we have a guest post from our friend Jason McCarthy of DigiNo. Jason is an expert in learning retention and shares his tips for optimizing what you learn in your language studies for memory retention.

Take it away, Jason!

You know that feeling you get when you walk into a room and have no idea what you went in there for?

Our brains are great at maintaining information – right up until we get distracted. In the above case, the change in scenery forces your brain to try and ‘render’ the parts of your new environment you can’t see yet, constructed from the memories you have from the last time you were there.

It’s complicated.

It’s also incredibly impressive, but it highlights a key point: sometimes we need a little help remembering the finer details.

When it comes to learning a new language you’ll often be inundated with new ideas and new words, new grammar and new syntax; just about new everything.

So a few helpful ‘hacks’ to encourage your incredible brain to retain the intricate rules would go a long way, right?

Lucky you came here then….

1. Mnemonic Devices

Mnemonic devices are the tried and tested granddaddy of the memory game.

If you’re looking to quickly recall some information you read last night, or remember how to spell that obscure word you learned the other day, then mnemonics can really help you out.

Let’s use some examples:

Going Away To Orlando, will help you remember how to spell ‘cat’ in Spanish.

Fred’s Industrial Super Collider Howled will give you a German ‘fish’.

Or,

Sven’s Very Evil Master Is Roland will give you the Bosnian for ‘space’.

Those are terrible mnemonics and should not be used under any circumstances. But you get the point…

2. Figure out what TYPE of learner you are

There are various different ‘learning styles’ posited by general clever types often referred to as ‘those in the know’.

‘Those in the know’ suggest that each person falls into a learning category.

Other people ‘in the know’ suggest these people are wrong, and it’s something that those of us less clever people just have to wait for them to figure out.

But until they’re done squabbling among themselves we might try to put it into action ourselves.

The theory argues that some people are visual learners. As the name would suggest, these people learn best by watching.

Auditory learners take in information better when it’s told to them, not by watching someone else do it or by figuring it out ‘on the job’, so to speak.

Then the kinesthetic learners are the ones who learn by doing.

It should all be taken with a hefty grain of salt, but if you feel like you lean more into one way than the other then by all means exploit that preference. Anything that helps.

3. Link words with visuals

If you’re struggling to commit the intricacies of a new language to memory, then try attaching the alien word to a visual image.

If you need to remember ‘baseball’, then imagine a baseball smashing through a window and hitting you on the head. When you pick the ball up off the ground, presumably rubbing your head quite vigorously, you see the word for ‘baseball’ written on it in your handwriting.

The specifics of the image are yours to play around with – link to something relevant that will help you.

4. Good old fashioned Repetition

A good way to learn something is to just do it over and over again. And again. And again.

They say ten thousand hours practice is what makes an expert; and you’re not looking to become an expert, right? You just want to learn the language.

You don’t have to sink ten thousand hours into something – just one would do.

If you spent a whole hour repeating ‘gato means cat’ over and over again, it would stick. No question.

You can remember the lyrics to a song you used to listen to on repeat ten years ago. You can remember the name of your first serious crush, or the name of the street you grew up on. When we think about things a lot, we remember them. It’s really that simple.

Gato means cat, gato means cat, gato means cat…

5. Sleep. No, really.

Sleeping is the hard reset for your brain. If you don’t turn off your TV it will catch on fire. Your laptop, if left on permanently, will start to whir and hum like a helicopter taking off. An oven left on overnight will cause property damage. Your brain is no different. Well OK, maybe it’s a little different, but you get my point.

Your brain needs time to relax, and when you’re asleep it’s processing all of the information you’ve taken in during the day.

Some scientists even suggest that sleep is the key to moving memories from your short term memory into your long term.

Though be warned: if used in combination with our previous suggestion, you might find yourself having strange dreams about cats…

6. The Memory Palace

I’ll hold my hands up to something: I thought this was an idea made up for Sherlock Holmes. I didn’t know it was a real thing…

The memory palace is a really simple technique that works for a surprisingly high number of people.

You start by picturing a place you know inside-out. It doesn’t need to be a real place, but it’ll help with the specifics if it is.

So let’s say yours is your bedroom.

Imagine yourself walking through your bedroom. You know every inch of it. Every nook, cranny, and each inch of space between them.

On your bed sits a big, ginger tomcat devouring a gateau. There we have it: gato means cat.

Simple, really. It’s very similar to our visualising technique earlier, except you lock the image into a physical place you know well – the idea being that the discordance between the two images will prompt your memory. Clever.

7. Stay active

Exercise is essential in basically every walk of life.

I know, you hate to hear it. I hate saying it. But it’s true.

Staying active helps your brain process the information that’s rattling around in there. It’s also a great time to listen to a podcast or audiobook teaching you the new language.

While your body and mind is distracted by whatever it is you’re doing to keep trim, your brain is soaking in the information without complaint.

It’s also just, you know, generally good for your wellbeing. But we don’t need to fixate on that.

8. Eat healthier

I’m rapidly becoming one of your least favourite people, aren’t I?

Healthy eating is great for your brain, and what’s great for your brain is great for your memory. Obviously.

When you’re looking to learn a new language, you want to keep in mind exactly what you’re putting into your brain – that way you can be more sure of what you’re going to get out of it.

This isn’t an ‘eat your five a day, kids’ public service announcement – but it is a warning that detrimental recall can be associated with poor diet, alcohol abuse and drug taking.

Got a bit depressing there, didn’t it?

Point is: put good things in, get good things out.

9. Write it down

Writing things down forces your brain to engage with what you’re writing. Typing things out does not.

Actually putting pen to paper is a proven way of encouraging your brain to retain the information, which is essential when you’re learning a language.

By attaching a physical action (writing) to the process your brain will attach one to the other. Your recall will be improved drastically.

Combine this with some of the other advice given in this post and you’ll see serious results.

Go write down ‘gato means cat’ over and over again, for an hour. I’ll check in on you then and we’ll see if you remember. I bet you will.

10. Chunking

Weird name, but great system. Stick with me.

‘Chunking’ is when you break down information into smaller chunks. The name makes a bit more sense now, doesn’t it?

Similar to how we remember phone numbers. We don’t remember 55555555, but we do remember 555,555,55. Brilliant.

If you’re looking to learn a language and you’re in need of a quick and easy memory hack then this has to be the one to take away.

It won’t help you with individual words, but it’ll help with phrases and sentences. This, along with all the other hacks, could be a real game-changer for those of us struggling with learning a new language.

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