There is an elephant named Butterfly.
But you have the hardest time remembering her name.
So let’s try a little exercise: Picture the elephant in your mind. Now make her ears spread out wide, as if they were wings.
In fact, make her ears big monarch butterfly wings in your imagination. Take it a step further and make them as colorful and crazy as you like.
Now whenever you see your elephant, call up that image with the butterfly wing ears, and you should instantly remember her name: Butterfly. Memory problem solved!
What does this have to do with language learning?
Our memories are essential tools for learning a new language.
We’ve all come across those polyglots who can switch from Spanish, to French, to Portuguese, to Russian, to German without even batting an eye. I’m sure most of us assume that their brains are just wired differently—that they were born with a special ability to absorb new languages that we will never have.
Or, much more likely, they just have great memories.
The good news is: so can you.
Just like we can strengthen our physical bodies, we have the ability to grow and enhance both our short-term and long-term memories.
With four simple tricks—including the one used above—you’ll be able to retaining new information better than before, and have the extra space you need in your brain when learning a new language.
4 Slick Ways to Have a Memory Like an Elephant When Learning a Language
Yes, the dreaded work out. If you already work out consistently, then you’re in great shape (no pun intended). Turns out though, that working out isn’t just good for our bodies. It also does wonders for our brain function. Certain physical activities—like racquetball or choreographed dancing—require our brains to use a lot of concentration, and that coordination increases the capacity for learning.
Studies have shown that cardio workouts increase the size of the hippocampus. This is the area of the brain that is associated with forming new memories and learning. So, when we’re learning a new language, we want to keep this area of the brain stimulated in order to increase our ability to retain new vocabulary.
No need to break the bank for this either; anything that causes you to break into a small sweat will help. This even includes household chores. So maybe do some sweeping, take a brisk walk, join an exercise group or simply spend some time at the gym. Just make sure to get your blood pumping!
Take it a step further: Incorporate your target language into your exercise.
If exercise were always fun, we’d all look like Heidi Klum. Since this isn’t usually the case, you need to find something that truly motivates or entertains you. While working out, try swapping out your regular playlist with some music or a podcast from your target language. It’ll improve your comprehension, and also help take your mind off of the physical activity.
You could also do a workout video in your target language. Searching YouTube will be the quickest way to get you hands on these workouts vids.
Go even further: Learn the names of the equipment you’re using or the exercises you’re doing, or start counting your reps aloud in your target language. Exercise is the perfect activity for mastering basics like counting and commands. If you have a regular workout, try narrating what you’re doing in your target language—as if you were leading an exercise class!
2. Eat Brain Food
Food doesn’t just keep us fit and energized. There are lots of nutrients in food that are essential to our brain function and development. Some of these vital nutrients are omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin E, anthocyanin, selenium and folic acid.
They all play different roles in helping to improve brain function, among the other wonderful things that they do for our bodies. When eaten on a regular basis, these foods can help improve your memory—which can assist you on your language learning journey.
Here’s where you’ll find these nutrients:
- Omega-3s: Salmon, tuna, walnuts, dark leafy greens, cauliflower, squash
- Vitamin E: Brazil nuts, walnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, nut butters, tahini
- Anthocyanin: Berries and grapes, apples, eggplant, red onions, red beets
- Selenium: Tuna, cod, oysters Brazil nuts, oats
- Folic Acid: Broccoli, dark leafy greens, avocado, beans, lentils, citrus fruit
Take it a step further: Use these foods as part of your language learning process.
While you’re stocking up for all of this delicious brain food, why not create your grocery list in your target language? You could also create a colorful food chart/collage to keep on your fridge. Label all of the foods in your target language, and make the chart really visual. This way, you’ll remember to keep these foods in rotation on your grocery list, while also drilling the new vocabulary into your brain.
Go even further: Try following new recipes in your target language using some of your brain food. You’ll be learning and getting a taste of the culture at the same time. It’s a full-on immersion experience without ever having to leave home.
3. Use Mnemonics
Mnemonics can be a really way to help us remember new concepts or vocabulary. One that pops into mind is Stephen Colbert’s funny “My Very Educated Mother Just Said Uh-oh! No Pluto,” which works doubly to help us remember the order of the planets from the sun, and that Pluto is no longer classified as a planet. Mnemonics can effectively help us with language learning, too.
BAGS. This was the mnemonic used by my middle school French teacher when we learned adjective placement, which is an acronym for “Beauty, Age, Goodness, Size.” It’s something I learned early on in life and still remember and use to this day. So while sometimes it may seem tedious to come up with these mnemonics, the pay-off is well worth it. They can stay in our minds forever, which is exactly what we want when we are learning a new language.
Mnemonics don’t always have to be whacky sentences or acronyms. They can also be something visual, like our elephant named Butterfly. The point is to create associations that will make it easier for you to remember the words or grammar rules you’re learning, so that you can recall them easier.
For example, the French word for “ladder” is échelle. So here, you might pull up an image of a ladder and then imagine a huge, colorful seashell perched on one of its rungs—because échelle sounds something like the English word “shell.” Many Eastern languages work especially well with mnemonics, as their characters sometimes look like the object they mean.
Take it a step further: Use mnemonics to learn genders of nouns.
If your target language has gendered nouns, use mnemonics to remember not only the meaning of the word, but the gender as well. Using our same example above, the word “ladder” is feminine in French: la échelle. So you might make your ladder bright pink or red in your vivid image—or whatever color you’d like to associate with feminine nouns.
As this isn’t an exact science; a lot of the mnemonics you come up with my be a little silly or weird, and that’s okay! This is about memorizing the vocabulary in a way that’s easiest for you. No one can see what’s going on in your head, so go for it.
4. Build a Memory Palace
A memory palace is technically another type of mnemonic device, but it calls upon our spatial memories and requires a bit more explanation. It’s one of the most useful and effective tools we can use when learning a new language (or for anything we’re trying to memorize). While it may sound complicated, it simply takes some getting used to.
To start building your palace, just pull up an image of a familiar setting—like your home, work or school. Then, you need to create a floor plan. If you want to start small you can imagine a single room. However, if you’re up for a challenge, you can imagine your entire house, apartment, gym or any place that you can picture clearly in your mind. This will give you more places to put memories.
Your map can be mental or you can actually draw one. There should also be a clear route from room to room. You want to be able to move freely from one room to the next without backtracking, so you may need to knock down a few (virtual) walls in your palace. Then, make sure you memorize your palace, taking a walk through from start to finish.
Once your palace is memorized, you’ll want to identify storage units or numbered stations. This is where you will put words or information you’d like to remember. You are literally creating spaces in your memory where words will go, using details from your palace, so be sure to remember these stations.
After you have your route and your stations clear in your mind, you can start the storage process. You can be as literal or as creative as you want. For instance, if you’re learning French, you might store the French word for “door,” la porte, right on the outside of your front door. La porte is similar to the English word “port,” so you might paint a picturesque seaside on your front door. Or better yet, turn your entire front yard into a harbor with crashing waves and fishermen. The crazier and more vivid, the easier you’ll remember it.
The next time you need to store a new word or concept, put the mnemonic in the very next slot inside your palace. When you run out of space in one palace, create a new one, but do it in a way that’s easy for you to remember. Take a daily stroll through your palace so you don’t forget. It will soon become a part of your working memory, and your mind will eventually be able to recall the word meanings without the mnemonics!
Take it a step further: Visit your palace in real life.
If you’ve chosen a real place that you have access to, you can practice in your memory palace in real time. While you’re physically in the space that you have designated as your memory palace, take time to reinforce the stations in your mind so that you can more easily recall them while you’re away.
Notice all of the details in your actual palace, and look for new spots to store memories. Every now and then, rather than your visual walk through your palace, take an actual walk through. You might even put up visual reminders in your real-life palace—like a picture of a harbor on the front door of your home to remember la porte.
While learning a new language is always going to be a challenge, these small steps can completely jumpstart your memory. With a sharp memory (and a healthy body!), you’ll be in the best possible position to excel and reach your language learning goals!
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