Friday, 26 October 2012

Memory is the most important... err...

Is it important to have a good memory to learn another language well?  Hopefully the answer is obvious, since learning a language involves learning:

  • vocabulary - individual words like cat, library or superstitious;
  • word patterns - regular verbs like stop / stopped, irregular ones like throw / threw / thrown, and word families like confide / confidence / confident / overconfident and so on;
  • grammar rules - like using the past simple and would + the infinitive when you make a second conditional;
  • pronunciation - the 's' in island is silent, and the 'ed' in stopped sounds like 't';
  • intonation patterns - how to sound interested, or bored, or confident, or like you're asking a question;
  • 'chunks' of language that can be used automatically in relevant situations - like 'You're welcome' or 'Can I take a message?'
  • and so on.

  • But how good is your memory, actually, and how can you make it better?  Like anything else, memory skills will improve with practice, so here are some tips and techniques for memory practice that are sure to have an impact.
    First of all, here are some tricks connected to the brain learns and retains information - it's possible to make things you learn 'stickier' so that the memories stay longer, and are easier to recover when you need them.

    1. Mapping - when you need to memorise something, associate it with a physical location in your house.  So a list of words you need to learn could be connected to objects you see as you walk through your house from the front door, then you can remember them by retracing your route in your head, thinking of each object in turn.  (This is a simple version of a technique used by memory champions - it's called the Method of loci).
    2. Make it funny, make it visual - you'll remember something better if you associate it with something funny or unusual, like demonstrating a grammar rule with an example sentence about flying elephants.  Learn a person's name with a mental picture - Abi becomes a picture of an Abbey, and is much easier to remember.
    3. Repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition.  I learnt a poem for a school competition over 20 years ago by repeating it dozens of times, and I can still recite it perfectly now.  
    4. Mars Bars.  I don't mean eat chocolate - I'm referring to the power of music to make something unforgettable, like this old Mars bar slogan, which every Brit over the age of 20 can sing.  So when you need to learn something, see if there's any way of making it into a song!

    Here are some more tips more specifically linked to language learning skills that would be useful in an exam - you can try these out in your personal study time, or with a fellow student.
    1. Read, close, summarise.  Read a simple text, close it (or turn it over, minimise the screen etc), then write notes on what the main points were.  Gradually build up to more complex texts, and challenge yourself to remember more of the details.  Can you read it just once, then say what the main point of every paragraph was?
    2. Video dub.  Choose a short Youtube extract that shows a conversation.  Play it several times until you think you know all the dialogue.  Then play it again with the sound off, and say the lines yourself.  (This is also great for colloquial language, intonation and pronunciation).
    3. Oral writing plan.  Instead of making a written paragraph plan for your next piece, discuss your intentions with a partner, making sure you say what you will write in each paragraph.  Go over the whole plan several times (OK, your partner will need to be patient!) till you are sure you can write the whole text without needing any further notes.  You could also record yourself describing the plan on your phone, to check afterwards whether you followed it accurately.  (This will also help you to improve your planning and the structure of your writing).

    That's probably enough for now - and short lists are easier to remember than long ones (another tip for free!).  Improving your memory is well worth doing, so why not give it a try?

    Photos taken from by @aClilToClimb, @CallieWallie, @sandymillin, @mkofab, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence,

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