Why You Need a Memory System

To become proficient in a language, you need to incorporate large amounts of linguistic and cultural knowledge into your memory and you need to be able to use that knowledge to understand and to communicate in the language.  The perennial challenge for language learners is how to best commit this information to memory in ways that will facilitate using the language in real life.

At the Five College Center for the Study of World Languages, we have been working with independent language learners for over twenty-five years. One of the major differences between successful students and those who struggle is that successful students develop for themselves one or more systems to keep track of the vocabulary and grammatical constructions that they are learning. Then, they use that system as the starting point for practicing what they are learning and for reviewing and testing themselves repeatedly.    

Although some linguistic and cultural information will just sink in on first encounter or through repeated exposure, most adult learners need to give explicit attention to learning vocabulary and grammar in order to make significant progress.  Children acquire their home language(s) over multiple years through repeated exposure and endless trial and error aided by everyone around them.  As an adult language learner, you have the capacity to speed this process along by deliberately choosing effective learning techniques and making those techniques the foundation of your study.

Most of our successful students use flashcard systems, notebook systems, or some combination of the two. Individuals have their own learning styles and have different learning goals.  The systems you choose may not be the same as those of other learners, and the systems you use may evolve over time. 

There are many different ways flashcards can be used (both the paper kind and new online flashcard apps) and many different ways notebooks or other note-based systems can be used.  Go to the other sections under Memory Systems to read about many different options and see what appeals to you.  

As you explore options, keep in mind some basic principles:  

  • The more powerful systems allow you to organize information for yourself and make your own decisions about how you will incorporate that information into memory.  The process of encountering the information, thinking about how to best remember it and organizing it in your own way is in and of itself a memory building process.
  • Whether you are using flashcards, notebook word lists, or some other technique, memory is helped by incorporating both word and image-based memory association techniques. This is especially helpful when you are learning languages for which there are few cognates with English words (or with another language you know well).  For suggestions about this, see all the techniques outlined in the other articles in Memory Systems.
  • Retrieving information from memory in order to use it is facilitated by learning vocabulary and grammar in meaningful contexts.  It is helpful to learn “chunks” of language – sample phrases, expressions, and whole sentences that incorporate vocabulary and grammatical patterns.  You can adapt flashcard and notebook techniques to facilitate learning language in chunks and in context.
  • Your system needs to include points where you practice recalling vocabulary or grammatical patterns and using the information immediately to create meaning. Compose sentences, questions, and answers to questions. Imagine yourself in scenarios where you might use that word or pattern and make up language (spoken or written) that uses it in that context.  Do this on your own and then use your conversation sessions and other conversational opportunities to deliberately try to use the vocabulary and patterns when speaking with others (For more information about what ot do in your sessions, see the articles under: Conversation Sessions).
  • Regardless of which system you are using, avoid focusing on translating from the language back into English (or any other language in which you are fluent).  That is translation practice, not practice that will help you recall the information in order to use the language.  Although some occasional translation practice is fine (especially if you want to be a translator), if you focus on translating as your main language learning activity, you will not immerse yourself in the thought-world of the language.  For the language to become automatic and natural to you, you need to get into that world and not be translating everything back into English in your head.