The true art of memory is the art of attention

"When I was young I had a good memory, but as I am getting older my memory is not as good as it used to be.” I have heard this comment quite often from my students.

Loss of memory is not the problem

I always tell them that loss of memory is not the problem, however, it is the method of learning that causes you to forget a lot.

Students, who are afraid that their memory does not function well, often ask for repetition of grammar and lists of words. To be honest, I am not in favour of grammar and vocabulary drills.

Samuel Johnson, a British author who compiled the Dictionary of the English Language in the 18th century, also understood that learning and remembering a language needs a special approach. He stated that the true art of memory is the art of attention.

Motivation, pauses & unbending your mind

In order to learn a language you have to be motivated. Interest is one of the thriving forces behind our memory. It is always easier to remember something when you are interested in.

When I studied English, I had to give a presentation about sailing to build up a certain vocabulary. The result was quite poor. Why? Because, I hated sailing. Still, I did not know the sailing jargon. A sailing career like the Dutch girl Laura Dekker is beyond my reach.

The extent that you pay attention to homework is also important. My student Hiroko from Japan could not understand why studying 15 hours on a row did not give her the desired result. Isabel from Spain did not have much time and studied 30 minutes every day. She received a much better result. Hiroko was puzzled about Isabel´s success.

Stress is a killer. When you get stressed out, you can not pay attention to what exactly you want to learn. Richard, from the Netherlands, had to learn Spanish in three weeks. After the training, his supervisor wanted to send him to Peru to set up several projects. Richard did not manage to speak Spanish in such a short time. The deadline was the final straw.

Selection, structuring, association and imagination

When learning a language, selection helps you to learn the important things and not just the details. It is rarely necessary to remember everything. 

Karsten from Finland always wanted to tell me exactly what he had in mind but his availability of Dutch words were inadequate, since he was a beginner. I taught him how to rephrase sentences and urged him to keep it simple. Structuring words in a clear context, by making lists or forming word groups is also a good way to build up vocabulary.

Imagination and association are two tools that help you store your memory in a pleasant way. When you want to remember a new word, it is better to associate and relate this with something you already know.

For Peter, from the United States, the best way to learn new words was to talk about his native country. By asking questions about topics related to his home country he automatically learned new words and sentences. Angelina from France was on a diet and the way she learned new vocabulary fast was to talk about losing weight.

Most students learn a language by listening, reading, speaking and writing, however, revision is a factor which should not be underestimated. In my opinion you need to chew one word or a grammatical structure at least four times.

Two years ago, I lived in Barcelona and I wanted to learn the Spanish word for "shoemaker." It was difficult word for me but I knew that the strength of repetition would help me out. The first time I saw the word in an advert. The next day I discovered this word on a sign above a shoe shop. Subsequently, I wrote my new word in the list of professions in my notebook.

A few days later, I heard the word from two people who were debating in the street. I did not understand why they struck out at a shoemaker. The news on television shed some light on the matter. There was an item about the president of Spain and his family name is Zapatero. I can assure you this word will not ever slip my mind.

Smell, taste, touch & emotion

In general you can say that you remember 20 percent of the things you hear, 75 percent of what you see and 90 percent of what you do. A Chinese proverb says: "I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand." However, there are other ways to learn a language; smell, taste, touch and emotion are also tools that help you to remember.

Angelina had a good result in learning vocabulary while she was cooking dinner with lean food products. The smell, the taste and the touch helped her to remember the words in an easy way. Emotion in a debate about a controversial topic like the death penalty helped Peter to learn and to use new words.

Samuel Johnson and I are no contemporaries, but we share the same opinion about memory. Cherish your memory and the outcome of your exertions will be surprisingly good.

Linda de Veer


Linda de Veer

I am a teacher of Dutch, English, Spanish at companies and I also provide intercultural training.

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