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Do You Really Need A Good Memory To Learn A Language?

"I am not a neuroscientist but I feel increasingly that memory is not that big a factor in language acquisition."

I'm starting to believe that memory is not that important when it comes to language learning.

I have recently started learning Greek. Most of the words are completely unfamiliar to me, and not related to languages that I already know. As I start to get a toehold in this world of new and strange sounds and words, I am able to observe how my brain starts to make meaning of this new environment.


Spaced Repetition Systems

Memory is normally considered the key to acquiring words and getting used to grammatical patterns in a new language. There are many popular memory systems, in particular spaced repetition systems (SRS), that are based on research of how the brain remembers things, not necessarily words in a language, but lists of items.

I have never been a fan of these systems, largely because I prefer to spend my time reading and listening, activities that I find more enjoyable. When I learn a language, I accumulate a large number of new words in a short time. In order to review these in a spaced repetition system I would have to spend a lot of time on it, time taken away from the more enjoyable activities of reading and listening, and eventually speaking. Bear in mind that I read about an hour a day on LingQ, and listen while doing other tasks for another 30 to 60 minutes.

My Experience So Far with Greek

When people find out that I speak 16 languages, they usually say that I must have a talent for language learning, or that I have a great memory. I don't know how my memory compares with that of other people. I do know that if I look a word up in a dictionary, I forget the meaning immediately upon closing the dictionary. It is possible that if I were to spend a lot of time with a spaced repetition system, I might be better able to remember these new words. What would this mean, however, in terms of time?

My statistics for my first two weeks of Greek show me that I have saved roughly 1600 words and phrases, while listening for close to four hours and reading more than 12,000 words. If I were to review these 1600 words and phrases as part of an SRS system, I wonder how long it would take.

Fighting a Losing Battle

A spaced repetition system for learning vocabulary requires you to review the terms in your "deck" of flashcards more than once. I have heard a variety of numbers on how many times we would need to be exposed to a word in order to remember it, but it is not fewer than five. If I were to review my saved 1600 words five times, this would mean 8000 or more views of these words in a flashcard deck. But I am adding more than 100 new words a day. In another two weeks I would have a total 16,000 words for review.

Granted, I might learn some of these words and remove them from my deck, but I doubt the number of these learned words would be more than a few hundred at best, so I would be getting further and further behind. I would have to spend hours a day on flashcards and still would not be able to keep up. Pretty soon I would have no more time for the enjoyable activity of reading and listening. I would have to spend all my time on flashcards.

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I don't do them in any systematic way, however. To cover all my new words in this way would just take too much time. It is just a sampling, and a different way to focus on my recently saved words. It helps to keep me motivated. I don't think it is going to help me memorize words and phrases.I do spend some time on the vocabulary activities: flashcards, dictation, fill in the blanks, and multiple choice. I do this as a break from reading and listening. It is an additional form of exposure to the language.

Exposure to Words and Phrases in Context

My experience tells me that I will eventually learn these words and phrases, without dedicating too much time to reviewing them in flashcards. I will learn them mostly from seeing and hearing them in context, while reading and listening.

By reading and listening I am creating new language habits, new associations of sound, written text and meaning. Every day I start to make more sense of what I am listening to and reading. Remarkably, I have noticed that every morning when I get back into my Greek, I seem to understand more; more than just the night before. It's as if my new language habits mature overnight.

Subconscious Learning

I am still a long way from understanding much of what I listen to when I don't have the text in front of me. But again, I know from experience that I will learn to understand more and more as I listen, and as I forge new neural networks in my brain that enable me to derive meaning from a new language environment.

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This passive or subconscious process working in the background while I read and listen, rather than any deliberate memorization, is what will enable me to learn Greek.I am not a neuroscientist but I feel increasingly that memory is not that big a factor in language acquisition. What is enabling me to understand and eventually speak the language is the intensity of my exposure to this new environment. The brain is starting to put things together for me on a variety of levels, connecting these new words and sounds to my previous experience, even to my emotions, and certainly to other words in context.

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