Why is it so difficult to remember words in another language?

You’ve probably only encountered a word like the English ‘platypus’ a handful of times in your life, but that doesn’t mean you initially had trouble remembering it or that you’re ever going to forget it. So what is it about a foreign language that makes words so difficult to capture, transfer, and recall? More importantly, how can we navigate these obstacles and have a masterful memory in a new language?

Every language is different

When you are experiencing difficulties getting your head around the way a word looks, sounds or is used, it makes it harder for you to remember it. It sounds obvious, but sometimes we forget that a foreign language contains phonemes, graphemes, stress patterns and a host of other features that are new to us. Patience is a virtue in language learning and it is important to allow yourself to be a beginner. Eventually, the new language will become familiar to you and words will be easier to learn.

The human brain is built to resist a second language

There are plenty of reasons why foreign languages are challenging, but one of the most important has to do with a key difference between learning your first and second languages. When you are a child and are learning your first words, you are quite often learning both the concept (e.g. the idea of breakfast) and label (e.g. the word ‘breakfast’) for something at the same time.

Why then is ‘desayuno’ so hard to remember? When you study a foreign language, you are adding a second label to the same concept. Because your brain already has a label for ‘morning meal,’ it doesn’t think it needs another. In fact, we are somewhat engineered to equate one word to one concept.

However, once you establish a second network for Spanish, the whole process gets easier. Only one network is activated at a time and your brain can go back to having just one word for breakfast, within each language of course.

We all have forgetting curves

There are general forgetting curves all humans share. Much of the  research on this was done by Ebbinghaus who showed that we initially forget much of what we learn quite quickly. The trend then levels off and can be positively impacted by activities that force us to revisit and recall information. 

Nonetheless, while how we remember is similar, what we remember varies greatly from person to person. The learning burden for a given word is different for each of us as we all have concepts that mean more to us than others, words that are more frequent in our environments (and therefore are easier for us to pick up) and terms that simply sound or look a certain way that’s either helpful or problematic for our individual memories.

Spaced repetition games that ask you to review words at designated intervals can be very helpful for language learners.  However, as there is no universal rule governing learning burdens, recall and review activities that provide separate intervals for each word in your vocabulary are crucial.

How to remember new words

Use Mnemonics
One thing we know about the brain is it likes to store words by the sound they start with (thus the slip of the tongue phenomenon). That means you can help yourself remember a word by identifying a term in your native language that starts in a similar way. Connect the two in a sentence to give yourself a quick shortcut that will help you in recall exercises.

Make Connections
Connecting to sound is important but so is learning how your word relates to other terms in the same language either by meaning, appearance (spelled in similar ways) or because you learned them together. The more you connect the dots and associate a new word with other parts of your vocabulary, the easier it is to add more dots to the network.

Be Patient
Your ability to remember words in a language changes as you develop your skills. The easier it is for you to read new words or hear the sounds they contain, the more energy you can spend on transferring them from short to long-term memory.

Review and Recall Often
The best way to avoid forgetting what you’ve learned is to engage yourself in targeted review and recall exercises. Sometimes we can get used to the same old review games and forget that meeting a word in a new context can be much more stimulating than simply looking over a list. The same goes for actively recalling words via productive writing and speaking activities.

Surround Yourself with Language
If you are studying a language and not living in the country where it is spoken, you have to work to provide yourself with review opportunities. Start labelling, open some books and keep your radio tuned to a foreign station. Take control of your review and create immersion moments to make sure you’re getting adequate exposure to repeat input.

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