/ Language Learning Tips

How does Memory Work?

Memory and Language Learning

If memories are things, then what do they actually look like?[^1]

Memory is complex, but in its simplest form, they are nerve cells that connect to each other with synapses that pass chemicals along. You can read all about the details on Wikipedia under Long-Term Potentiation.

So memories themselves are complex structures of synapses that can be encoded through our senses: sight, sound, smell, tactile, and taste. Each of these senses provide anchors and therefore encode more connections to enhance a memory.

The reason why we remember certain events like celebrations better than others is because of how many anchors they create in our memory. The social interactions involved actually create a massive amount of anchors because of all the spoken conversations, sounds and smells of the people around you, the colors and shapes, and the physical environment itself.

Due to the large number of memory anchors established, we're unlikely to forget such special events.

The more anchors tied to the things you're learning, the better you'll remember them. Don't be fooled by world-champion memory masters who can memorize 50 decks of cards at once or the number pi to 10,000 decimal places. As fabulous as they are, these are short-term memory tricks that work for a specific performance, but are easily forgotten and aren't of much use in our daily lives.


Did you know that there once lived a Russian man, Solomon Shereshevsky, who could not forget anything? It wasn't a blessing, it was a curse! It tormented him every day of his life. Everything that he ate and did on a daily basis became a permanent memory. He could never achieve a calm and clear mind.

During our daily lives we encounter a lot of new information. We meet new people and we hear new things. Most of this data gets lost in the flood of new information that comes at us every day.

So why is sleep important? There are two important things that sleep does for us besides refreshing us for another busy day: 1) Sleep consolidates important memories and even relives them through our dreams playing around with ideas in different storylines; 2) our brain treats all the extra data as rubbish that it throws out every day. The synapses fail to consolidate and those connections may actually disappear over time. And this really is a blessing or our minds would become as cluttered as Solomon's.

For language learning, this has very important ramifications. Let's say you spend money to attend a language class. If the memories are not built through muscle activation (muscle memory) via training, or if they're not constantly practiced in real life conversations, then you essentially lose those memories over time. Hopefully your money was well spent in that it opened your eyes to a new perspective of the world even if you don't remember the language later.

Something I've been doing a lot of recently is seeding my dreams by leave several hours of my GSR[^n] files playing while I go to sleep at night. When I seed the dreams, I can actually awake in the middle of the night and remember the dreams I was just having where I was actually practicing and working on the languages that were playing in the GSR files. I don't know too many more details than that, except that I find it fascinating that these languages are showing up in my sleep. There is some interesting research in this field.

Sleep is an excellent way for our brain to start afresh every day and be ready to face all of the new information. But it also means that we are hard-wired to forget as much as possible!

We'll discuss memory anchors more in-depth in the next post.

[^1]: [Check out neurons like you've never seen them before](http://www.futurity.org/neurons-images-974712/)
[^n]: Glossika Spaced Repetition (GSR) is a kind of file available in the Glossika Language Training program which has scheduling, review, and new content all pre-built for you.

Michael Campbell

Polyglot, phonologist, linguist specialising in Formosan, PAN, Sinitic, Slavic, typology, IPA, and L2. Does GSR training daily.

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