How to use language learning to boost your memory

How to use language learning to boost your memory

by Adriana Stein

Updated November 9, 2022

We could all do with a bit of a memory boost no matter how close we are to pension – whether it’s to remember important birthdays and anniversaries, your new neighbour’s name, or where you left your keys! 

Some suggest crossword puzzles and memory games, but learning a new language is another great tool to boost your memory. 

How does remembering new words and phrases help with your memory, you ask? It all comes down to stimulating your brain. Adriana goes through some of her top tips for boosting your memory with language learning.

7 ways to use language learning to boost your memory

1. Maximise the power of mnemonics

I was first introduced to mnemonics in primary school as a method for remembering specific facts or complex ideas. They help us remember things like the order of the planets from the sun or how to spell longer words.

Certain mnemonics can stay in our minds forever. One that I remember is Betty Eats Carrots And Uncle Sells Eggs for the spelling of ‘because’. Nearly 20 years later and I’m still saying it each time I type out ‘because’ (seriously).

This is why mnemonics is both a great tool to help your memory and also a great language learning hack.

When using them in language learning, create associations that make it easier to remember words or grammar rules that you’re learning. For example, if you want to remember the German word for ‘table’ (Tisch), think of an English word that sounds similar such as ‘dish’. Imagine what is often placed on a table – a dish. By establishing a connection between the two, it’s easier to remember the German word.

2. Use chunking

Feeling overwhelmed with long lists of vocabulary to learn? Then give chunking a try. It involves learning vocabulary by context rather than single words. These chunks of language could be things like set phrases or fixed phrases, whose parts are fixed in a certain order. 

For example, “Hey, how are you” or “Can I have the x” are set phrases in English that you can use over and over, because they always go together.

Chunking is an excellent tool for learning English (and many other languages), because it helps you take small bits of information (new words) and put them together so that you have one larger thing to remember. These are more meaningful, as you’ll then have useful phrases on hand to use in conversation, rather than a bunch of strange, random words. 

3. Think in the new language

When you start thinking in a new language, the language remains in your brain for longer. This is particularly helpful when you are living in a foreign country and trying to learn the language, as you need to be ready to speak it at any time. I’ve found this to be true while living in Hamburg, where English is not commonly used, and I’m often required to speak German in everyday situations. 

Apart from helping you learn the language, thinking in the new language also helps with improving your memory by developing new areas of your mind and strengthening your natural ability to focus.

4. Build a memory palace

If you’re a fantasy fan, then you’ve probably heard of the term ‘memory palace’. A famous use of a memory palace is Sherlock Holmes in the BBC show Sherlock. By building a memory palace, Holmes packs loads of information into his head and is able to draw out details and piece them all together at a moment’s notice.

You can use a memory palace to ‘place’ certain vocabulary in the language you’re learning in certain locations associated with them. For example, when learning German, start with placing the most common spoken words in German around your palace. They in turn become your most easily remembered vocabulary, because you refer back to them.

Your memory palace would be a place that you are very familiar with, like a local park or your childhood home. Once you’ve placed all the words that you want to remember throughout your palace, you need to visit it regularly to move those words into your long-term memory.

5. Combine language learning with another activity

Combining language-learning with another activity helps with multitasking. It involves doing both the activity while also learning the language. An example is using games to learn a language – whether it’s a game specifically for learning the language or by changing the language on your usual computer game to another language. 

Try to also change the language on your favourite streaming platform to play content dubbed in the language that you’re learning or add subtitles in your target language. Another option is to swap out your regular running music playlist for a podcast in your target language to both keep fit and learn at the same time.

6. Associate a language with a memory

Associating a language with a memory helps with your long-term memory. Whenever you learn a new phrase or word in a language, take note of where you learnt that phrase. When you associate that phrase with that place or the person you learnt it from, you’ll improve your long-term memory.

For example, one of the first phrases I learnt in German was from a local that I met in a hostel while backpacking across Europe. Associating the phrase, that person, and the hostel together in one have kept that phrase rooted in my memory.

7. Develop a healthy language learning-life balance

Eating healthy, exercising regularly and maintaining a balanced lifestyle help you stay refreshed and retain languages better.

Physical exercise also does wonders for your brain function, particularly certain physical activities that require concentration (like squash). Eating the right food is also important for your brain health – yes, brain food is a thing! Make sure to stock up with enough omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin E, anthocyanin, selenium and folic acid.

And don’t forget to regularly take breaks, when improving your language skills and in life in general. When you take breaks, it gives your brain time to process the information and store it longer, especially while you sleep.

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