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Relationship Between the Brain, Memory, and Language Learning

What is the Best Way to Learn Languages Naturally?

We encounter a lot of new information every day that may or may not need to be memorized. In fact, we’re doing it all the time when we make new friends, remembering faces and other information related to our friends.

After some experience with language learning you’ll soon discover that languages are just like a social landscape. Except instead of interconnected friends we have interconnected words. In fact, looking at languages in this way makes it a lot more fun as you get familiar with all the data.

Since languages are natural and all humans are able to use them naturally, it only makes sense to learn languages in a natural way. In fact studies have found, and many students having achieved fluency will attest to, the fact that words are much easier to recognize in their written form if we already know them in the spoken form. Remember that you already own the words you use to speak with. The written form is just a record and it’s much easier to transfer what you know into written form than trying to memorize something that is only written.

Trying to learn a language from the writing alone can be a real daunting task. Learning to read a language you already speak is not hard at all. So don’t beat yourself up trying to learn how to read a complicated script like Chinese if you have no idea how to speak the language yet. It’s not as simple as one word = one character. And the same holds true with English as sometimes many words make up one idea, like “get over it”.

What is the relationship between memory and sleep? Our brain acquires experiences throughout the day and records them as memories. If these memories are too common, such as eating lunch, they get lost among all the others and we find it difficult to remember one specific memory from the others. More importantly such memories leave no impact or impression on us. However, a major event like a birth or an accident obviously leaves a bigger impact. We attach importance to those events.

relationship between language and memory

Since our brain is constantly recording our daily life, it collects a lot of useless information. Since this information is both mundane and unimportant to us, our brain has a built-in mechanism to deal with it. In other words, our brains dump the garbage every day. Technically speaking our memories are connections between our nerve cells and these connections lose strength if they are not recalled or used again.

During our sleep cycles our brain is reviewing all the events of the day. If you do not recall those events the following day, the memory weakens. After three sleep cycles, consider a memory gone if you haven’t recalled it. Some memories can be retained longer because you may have anchored it better the first time you encountered it. An anchor is connecting your memory with one of your senses or another pre-existing memory. During your language learning process, this won’t happen until later in your progress. So what can you do in the beginning?

A lot of memory experts claim that making outrageous stories about certain things they’re learning help create that anchor where otherwise none would exist. Some memory experts picture a house in their mind that they’re very familiar with and walk around that house in a specific pre-arranged order. Then all the objects they’re memorizing are placed in that house in specific locations. In order to recall them, they just walk around the house.

I personally have had no luck making outrageous stories to memorize things. I’ve found the house method very effective but it’s different than the particular way I use it. This method is a form of “memory map”, or spatial memory, and for me personally I prefer using real world maps. This probably originates from my better than average ability to remember maps, so if you can, then use it! It’s not for everybody though. It really works great for learning multiple languages.

What do languages and maps have in common? Everything can be put on a map, and languages naturally are spoken in locations and spread around and change over time. These changes in pronunciations of words creates a word history, or etymology. And by understanding how pronunciations change over time and where populations migrated, it’s quite easy to remember a large number of data with just a memory map. This is how I anchor new languages I’m learning. I have a much bigger challenge when I try a new language family. So I look for even deeper and longer etymologies that are shared between language families, anything to help me establish a link to some core vocabulary. Some words like “I” (think Old English “ic”) and “me/mine” are essentially the same roots all over the world from Icelandic (Indo-European) to Finnish (Uralic) to Japanese (Altaic?) to Samoan (Austronesian).

I don’t confuse languages because in my mind every language sounds unique and has its own accent and mannerisms. I can also use my memory map to position myself in the location where the language is spoken and imagine myself surrounded by the people of that country. This helps me adapt to their expressions and mannerisms, but more importantly, eliminates interference from other languages. And when I mentally set myself up in this way, the chance of confusing a word from another language simply doesn’t happen.

When I’ve actually used a specific way of speaking and I’ve done it several days in a row, I know that the connections in my head are now strengthening and taking root. Not using them three days in a row creates a complete loss, however actively using them (not passively listening) three days in a row creates a memory that stays for a lifetime. Then you no longer need the anchors and the memory is just a part of you.

You’ll have noticed that the Glossika training method gives a translation for every sentence, and in fact we use translation as one of the major anchors for you. In this way 1) the translation acts as an anchor, 2) you have intelligible input, 3) you easily start to recognize patterns. Pattern recognition is the single most important skill you need for learning a foreign language.

A lot of people think that translation should be avoided at all costs when learning a foreign language. However, based on thousands of tests I’ve given my students over a ten-year period, I’ve found that just operating in the foreign language itself creates a false sense of understanding and you have a much higher chance of hurting yourself in the long run by creating false realities.

I set up a specific test. I asked my students to translate back into their mother tongue (Chinese) what they heard me saying. These were students who could already hold conversations in English. I found the results rather shocking. Sentences with certain word combinations or phrases really caused a lot of misunderstanding, like “might as well” or “can’t do it until”, resulted in a lot of guesswork and rather incorrect answers.

If you assume you can think and operate in a foreign language without being able to translate what’s being said, you’re fooling yourself into false comprehension. Train yourself to translate everything into your foreign language. This again is an anchor that you can eventually abandon when you become very comfortable with the new language.

relationship between language and brain

Finally, our brain really is a sponge. But you have to create the structure of the sponge. Memorizing vocabulary in a language that you don’t know is like adding water to a sponge that has no structure: it all flows out.

In order to create a foreign language structure, or “sponge”, you need to create sentences that are natural and innate. You start with sentence structures with basic, common vocabulary that’s easy enough to master and start building from there. With less than 100 words, you can build thousands of sentences to fluency, slowly one by one adding more and more vocabulary. Soon, you’re speaking with natural fluency and you have a working vocabulary of several thousand words.

If you ever learn new vocabulary in isolation, you have to start using it immediately in meaningful sentences. Hopefully sentences you want to use. If you can’t make a sentence with it, then the vocabulary is useless.

Vocabulary shouldn’t be memorized haphazardly because vocabulary itself is variable. The words we use in our language are only a tool for conveying a larger message, and every language uses different words to convey the same message. Look for the message, pay attention to the specific words used, then learn those words. Memorizing words from a wordlist will not help you with this task.

Recently a friend showed me his wordlist for learning Chinese, using a kind of spaced repetition flashcard program where he could download a “deck”. I thought it was a great idea until I saw the words he was trying to learn. I tried explaining that learning these characters out of context do not have the meanings on his cards and they will mislead him into a false understanding, especially individual characters. This would only work if they were a review from a text he had read, where all the vocabulary appeared in real sentences and a story to tell, but they weren’t. From a long-term point of view, I could see that it would hurt him and require twice as much time to re-learn everything. From the short-term point of view, there was definitely a feeling of progress and mastery and he was happy with that and I dropped the issue.

Michael Campbell

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

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