5 Memory Tips for Adult Foreign Language Learners

6 Apr 2019

Remembering New Words and Grammatical Structures: 5 Tips for Adult Learners of a Foreign Language

Learning a language becomes more difficult the older you get. Up until the age of twelve or thirteen, the human brain is more plastic, more malleable, more capable of absorbing and retaining information. This is especially true in the field of language acquisition. Have you ever wondered exactly just how your two or three year-old was able to learn so many words and put together so many structures so early in life and with relative ease? Ever wondered why it seems like they pick something up after hearing it just once, yet it takes you hundreds of exposures to the same word to understand what it means? It’s certainly not because they’re studying. Their brains are just wired to replicate sound more easily, and to attribute meanings to words in a more sustainable way than yours is.

Many of my adult learners have asked me if there’s a trick to retaining the information they learn between one lesson and the next. The truth is, while there is no “shortcut” that will lead to predictably reliable results, there are ways to give yourself a “memory boost” when picking up a foreign language. Here are a few I frequently share.

  1. Post-it notes on EVERYTHING. If you find yourself having a hard time remembering basic vocabulary — nouns, adjectives, and their gender and number — labeling the objects you use most often on a daily basis with a post-it note (or whatever system works for you) will help. Each time you reach for that object or walk by it in your house or workplace, your eyes will fall on its label, and even if you are taking that information in passively, over time, it will stick. Make sure you include the definite article that goes with it (or some other indication of its gender and number) so that information, too, will stick out at you. Eventually, you’ll be able to start pairing adjectives with nouns — la lampada rossa, le scarpe basse, il peperoncino piccante — with great ease.
  2. Physical/ visual exercises. If you are having a hard time remembering verbs, try associating them with the physical activity they describe. It will be easier for you to retain the meaning of “correre” if you learn it while running, or “mangiare” if used while eating. The more advanced the verb, the more concrete the activity with which it should be paired. “Cenare” means to have supper — so use it at the dinner table. “Scuotere” means shake, so repeat it while shaking out your tablecloth at the end of a meal. Each time you learn a verb that you are having a hard time remembering, make a point of saying it out loud whenever you are about to do the thing it describes. Are you going home after a long day of work? Tell yourself “sto tornando a casa. Torno a casa. Tornare.” These exercises work with the more abstract verbs or concepts you learn, too. What about the difference between “tenere” (to keep/hold) and “avere” (to have)? These are typically used interchangeably in the Italian south, though standard Italian differentiates them in use and in value. So how do you remember when to use “avere” and when to use “tenere”? With the help of your language instructor, you’ll identify all the contexts in which “avere” is appropriate and those, instead, in which “tenere” is appropriate, and you can work on practicing the difference in your daily life. HO una bella casa (I have lovely house) ma TENGO i miei libri nel mio salotto (but I keep my books in my living room). Questo libro CONTIENE molte ricette interessanti (this cookbook holds many interesting recipes), ma HO tantissima fame (but I am very hungry). Pairing two concepts that are somewhat related but require the use of separate verbs will help you remember the difference between them.
  3. DON’T TRY THIS ONE AT HOME, FOLKS! In all seriousness, this next tip can be very useful, but it should be used with the supervision of a language instructor or it could lead to severe missteps in language production. Look for similarities between the word in the foreign language and a similar word in a language you know. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep those little conjunctive words and others like them straight. Finding the similarity between the foreign language word and your native or near-native language word for it can occasionally help. An Italian word like “ciascuno” (which means each one) looks a lot like French “chacun,” which has the same meaning. “Qualche” (which means some, used in the singular) looks a lot like French “quelques” (which means some, used in the plural). “Dunque” resembles French “donc,” which both mean “therefore” or “so.” Not all words will follow this pattern. Some won’t have any meaningful relationship with a language you know. But you can definitely compare those that do to something you know come le proprie tasche (like your pockets — like the back of your hand) to help it stick. BE AWARE OF FALSE FRIENDS, however, and have your language instructor explain them to you before moving forward with this tip!
  4. Practice a new word 10 times. Each time you learn a new word, find a way to work it into your oral or written production ten times. Doing so will help solidify its meaning for you. If you are more of an aural learner, say it out loud, in different contexts, to someone who can verify the accuracy of your statement. If you are more of a visual learner, use it in a few written compositions. You will need to use it many more times than ten to be able to use it most efficiently, but to get its meaning to stick, ten is a good place to start.
  5. Work newly acquired grammatical structures into your oral or written production before focusing on others. Let’s say you’ve just learned the Imperfect verb tense. It’s a really tough one to learn, not least because there is no one-to-one equivalent in English. The easiest way to make sense of it is to use it. Over. And over. And over. Use the time you have between lessons to find active ways to practice it. When gathered with friends (who speak your target language), talk about a childhood memory (that will require the use of the Imperfect). When having dinner with a spouse, reminisce about that long vacation you took together and the things you did every day. Practicing each structure you acquire concretely will not only help you to retain its essential properties, it will also allow you to feel a certain level of mastery of it, which, in turn, will contribute to an overall sense of satisfaction and empowerment. You can actually use this complicated and mystifying verb tense — you just did!
  6. BONUS — Read. Tons. Read, then once you’re done reading, read some more. Read something else. Read read read read read. And do it actively and in steps. First, read for general comprehension. Ask yourself, “What is this article/ book chapter/ blog post really trying to say?” Then read for more specific content. What words don’t you understand? Highlight them and look them up. Do they look right to you in the context in which you see them on the page? Next, read for syntax (language structure). How are things placed in a sentence? Where do individual elements go? Where’s the subject (who is the actor) in the sentence? Where’s the direct object (the thing being acted upon)? Is there an indirect object (the person thing to whom the action is being done)? Are there any tricky structures, like infinitive verbs followed by conjugated verbs? Or direct object pronouns agreeing with past participles? Look for them. Identify them. Reflect on what they are doing. Usually, I recommend reading a text at least three times to be able fully to understand what’s going on. So, most importantly, choose to read something you are truly interested in. Only if it captures your curiosity will you be willing to engage with it so profoundly.

The best way to practice a language, of course, is to practice it organically, in a setting in which it will be the only language used (unless there are considerable discrepancies in information sharing). Our cultural centre hosts at least two events per month with the aim of giving Italian language learners — not just our own students — concrete opportunities to put their Italian to use with others at their own level, or higher! If you’d like to know more about our meetups, please feel free to send us an e-mail or have a look here: https://www.meetup.com/3E-Centre-for-Italian-Culture/