Don't memorize - Use your Senses

In the article "Memory and Language Learning", I discussed briefly how memory is made up of synapses between nerve cells, how these are created and strengthened, and how our senses help create them. Let's take a look at each of these memory anchors.

Muscle Memory

The physical activity (motor skills) of speaking a language is very similar to physical activities like martial arts and team sports that require skill like basketball.

Physical sports do not require a lot of thinking. No basketball player calculates ballistics, angles, and velocities in his head before shooting. He certainly can't be doing this while moving around opponents, jumping into mid-air and turning at the same time. The same can be said of martial artists. Instead, all of these movements are learned through muscle memories, and practiced thousands of times to perfect. What the basketball player does is execute a set of muscle-memory routines that feel just right. If he's in the zone and can certainly feel it, those executions will be very precise.

The math and physics that we can use to describe the movements of athletes has a direct correlation with how grammar and linguistics describes the movements of people speaking languages. When you think about the grammar and linguistics, you can't perform the task. But a fluent speaker never thinks about the grammar and linguistics, he just simply talks and the fluency feels just right. It's because he's executed these speech patterns millions of times. A typical 10-year-old child has already spoken more than one million sentences in his life.

If you wonder about why your foreign language skills and fluency may be lacking, let's just add up some numbers. How many times have you spoken any one specific sentence pattern? A hundred times? A thousand times? Have you varied it with different kinds of vocabulary?

  • How have you said the sentences? Have you created the sentences on your own, grammatically correctly? Or did you mimic the way native speakers say them? How can you be sure? Practicing a mistake a thousand times wouldn't be a great idea.
  • Did you read the sentences out loud? How can you be sure that you're transferring the spelling and written form of the word to fluent speech? Did you mimic the way a fluent native speaker would say it? And how can you be sure?

If you said that you mimicked native speakers, and you repeated and practiced a hundred sentence patterns a hundred times each, then you would have done a total of 10,000 repetitions. Based on my experience working with students trying to build fluency, I've found that the threshold for fluent speech is around 30,000 to 50,000 sentences depending on the person and their level of awareness. If all of your foreign language studies over the years have produced a mere 500 sentences spoken without looking at text, then you're only at 1% on the way to fluency. And if you read those sentences out loud, then the effectiveness is much lower than 1%. Think about where you stand numerically on your path to fluency.

And let me repeat: a typical 10-year-old child has spoken one million sentences in his lifetime.

This is the foundation of muscle memory. The constant use and repetition of a certain set of skills makes the motor function completely automatic. The Glossika courses are built to give you tens of thousands of repetitions (54,000 in our Fluency 1-3 course GSR files) over 300 days of training. How well do you think you would speak your foreign language after repeating all the sentence patterns aloud for a total of 54,000 reps? I hope you'd be pretty confident with handling the language by then.

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Memory Anchors

So that's one way we can improve our muscle memories: by sheer magnitude of training reps. Just like a weight trainer in a gym. So now let's talk about how to improve our other kinds of memories: those related to mental capacity.

Although the hippocampus is responsible for new memories, this is not where memories are stored long-term. They need fortification through use and through anchors.

Anchors are memories that use your five senses and act like cues to help you recall a memory. Some memory experts say that describing a really wild and wacky story to remember a list of items is the best way to remember them. But this never worked for me because I found myself doing two things: having to remember a completely irrelevant and wacky story, and then the items related to that story. In other words, whatever story I came up with, it never left an indelible impression strong enough for me to remember it.

If you're walking down the street and smell the scent of cooked food or bread that you haven't smelled in years, and in fact is exactly what you frequently smelled as a child, these smells will then trigger your mind to race and detect what they are, and upon finding a match with perhaps your grandmother's cooking, your mind will suddenly flood with tons of memories and thoughts of your family and childhood, and maybe even a specific event that you experienced long ago in your past. And all of this might happen mid-conversation with a friend while walking down the street.

There are plenty of examples that I'm sure you can think of: an old photograph (visual), the sounds in an old movie representing a bygone era (aural), the scent or touch of something (olfactory and tactile), the taste of a specific food (gustatory).

How can we add all of these memory anchors to the things we're learning in a foreign language? By living and experiencing the language with all the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes around us. In other words, go visit the country and live inside the language. These will create better long-term memories than any other. And if that's not possible, then you can re-create an artificial immersion environment by visiting restaurants or just some very special locations to practice your foreign language. Whenever you learn something new, it really should be done in a new, unique location (and I'll talk in more length about using geolocation as a strong memory device in the next article).