Memory… is the diary that we all carry about with us.– Oscar Wilde
“Don't try to remember!” said the famous polyglot and language teacher Michel Thomas, repeatedly, in his famous language lessons that are still available for purchase today.
He believed that trying to remember was detrimental to language learning to such a degree, that he would not continue the class if he could see one of his students “reaching” for a word.
In many ways I agree with this sentiment, but I wanted to add a few quick thoughts to it as well.
“I have a bad memory”
So many people I see online, are convinced that their memories are just bad.
And for some this may be true.
Relative to their younger selves, or someone else they might not retain the same level of information, or as quickly.
But, my view on this is: What difference does it make?
We all have what we have to work with, so spending valuable mental energy feeling frustrated and disappointed only takes away from your ability to store new information.
You want to be comfortable when you learn languages.
One of the ways we can strongly improve retention (for everyone) is to use what is known as spaced repetition.
In short, you are presented with a word or a concept just before you were about to forget it. This is the best time.
If you keep this up, you will find that learning anything new becomes nothing more than a system that you can turn on and off when you want to.
You won't be relying on your brain anymore, and you won't try to remember.
Let's dive into your 3 action steps. Plus, at the end I've included a few resources that may be perfect for you to continue with afterwards.
To your success,
Kristoffer Broholm, Founder
Find your Favourite Spaced Repetition Software or App
To take full advantage of Spaced Repetition we have to employ a bit of technology.
You could use the old-fashioned flashcards (writing the English on one side and the foreign language on the other side) but I find that the paper solution is just too messy and relies too much on organisation skills to stay effective.
The easiest solution is to use apps like Memrise, Drops, or uTalk – they all work intuitively with Spaced Repetition built in, and they have pre-made content so you can jump straight in.
(There are just 3 off the top of my head, there are literally hundreds of apps!)
For more advanced learners you can use software like Anki or Quizlet to create your own “decks” from scratch.
I would recommend Quizlet if you're not too “techy” as Anki is a bit complicated to get into.
So, every time you run into a word or concept you want to remember as part of your spaced repetition you just add a new card to your deck.
Then it will automatically show up as part of your review sessions. Easy, and systematic.
You don't have to rely on your memory, willpower, or organisational skills anymore to remember.
Make a Plan for Studying
A lot of people who are interested in improving their foreign language skills often just jump into it without any plans or expectations.
This typically leads to much slower progress, as the learning happens when the learner “feels like it” and it's usually using a variety of different apps, books, and even courses at the same time.
To keep improving your vocabulary, and see the real power of the spaced repetition system you have to do the following:
Schedule, at least one, daily learning sessions in to use your chosen software or app.
Put it in your calendar to recur every week.
I recommend 15 minutes, but if you find this hard to do then you can start by scheduling just 5 minutes and progressing from there.
The important thing is that you feel like the session is so “easy” that you're never skipping it.
And you know the best thing?
Once you've got the app open it's SOOO easy to do 10-15 even 30 minutes more than you had scheduled.
But, if you had scheduled 30 minutes in your calendar to begin with you might have never started the session.
Keep Going and Don't Worry
Finally, you have to have patience.
Rome wasn't built in a day, and learning a foreign language is a big project to undertake.
Even if you're just looking to get tourist-fluent or being able to have friendly small-talk about limited topics.
Language learning, just like any meaningful activity always has its ups and downs.
Some days we feel like we can remember the whole language, and some days we can't even remember the word for yes.
This is completely normal.
If you stick to the system, and schedule your small daily learning session(s) you will see fantastic results in the long run.
It's way better to get 15 minutes a day, rather than a big 2 hour session once a week.
Recommended Resources for Further Study
There you have it.
A simple formula for getting better at your target language, even if you feel like your memory is not as good as it once was.
For 98% of people this is all you need to succeed in language learning.
But, just in case you're interested in taking your memory training to the next level, here are a few resources from top-level experts on how you can improve even further, using something known as memory palaces.
AFP 159 – Nelson Dellis: Using Memory techniques for languages
AFP 53 – Anthony Metivier: Memory Palaces
Anthony also offers a Free Memory Improvement Kit and a Premium Masterclass around the concept of Memory Palaces which is for people who want to be able to remember large amounts of information, quickly.
PS: Look out for the official welcome to the Actual Fluency Email Club in your inbox, my weekly-ish newsletter, where I share language learning tips and lots of other cool stuff!