Language Learning Tip #06

Problem (continued, part 3)

I guess I’m not much of a visual learner, because I’m still having trouble remembering these words.



Remember, the principle is that every experience we have is accompanied with sensory stimuli.  And, we can retain a language experience, such as the experience of hearing a word, by associating it with sensory stimuli which we can more easily recall later.  For example, for the sense of sight we may recall what the written word looks like or what the picture/symbol or object looks like and this memory is associated with the sound of the word.  Ok, let’s look at some other tools we have for other learning styles and other senses.


You could use your sense of smell (and taste) because research shows that memories are often strongly linked with smells.  For instance, if you study your vocabulary while taking whiffs of coffee or perfume, you will find that you can more easily recall those words later if you smell those same things later.  Of course, the practical drawbacks are that you will need to bring your smells with you whenever you want to use Arabic – on visits, for tests, show and tell class, the phone company, etc. “One minute please.  I have to smell this before I can talk to you.”

Maybe that’s not very practical after all.


But, there’s another sensory tool – touch and movement.  Sometimes this is called kinesthetic input — what your body was doing when you heard and/or read the word.  This tool can be surprisingly powerful for some people.

Real-life situations usually provide the most powerful kinesthetic input, but acting comes close.  I can still remember when I learned how one says, “over there” in French.  I had studied French for two years at a university, but my knowledge of practical French was pretty low.  Later, when visiting some people in France,  I carried some dirty dishes into the kitchen and asked in French, “Where do you want these dishes?”  A boy said, “over there” and pointed.  For some reason, I couldn’t figure out what he was saying, so he raised his voice and gestured emphatically, “Over there!  Over there!”  I can still see him in my mind’s eye as I stood there holding those heavy dishes.  I set them down, and red-faced I left the room and asked someone, “What does ‘a la bas’ mean?”

I have never forgotten that experience.  I have other vivid memories of French language encounters; most of them are dramatic, embarrassing,  funny, or unusual.  And for most of those experiences I can recall where I was and what I was doing.*

Unfortunately, most of the kinesthetic input we experience in a classroom is unremarkable and thus forgettable.  We don’t say to ourselves, “O yes, I clearly remember when I first heard the Arabic word for “invention” because we saw it in our vocabulary list and I was sitting there in class with my legs crossed holding my pencil, and the teacher said the word in a normal tone of voice three times while we repeated it after her.”  Most of us need something more than that for a word to really stick in our memories.  My language experience with “a la bas” was accompanied not only by emotions of embarrassment but also by kinesthetic input of me standing, holding heavy dishes in a kitchen in France with a rather loud French boy.

In practical terms, we cannot always have unusual places and actions along with all of our language experiences.  And if you are only in the classroom and not out in the world with people, you will have very few of these memorable experiences.  However, many of us will remember words better if we put our bodies to work as we try to learn words.  In the classroom games, acting and actions are very valuable even if occasionally they are also embarrassing.**


At home, you can do some simple things to strengthen your language memories:

1)  The act of writing or drawing or even doodling is kinesthetic and strengthens your connection to the words.

2)  Stand up and walk as you study.  Simply pacing back and forth as you do your memory work really works for some people, myself included.  Movement does not necessarily need to be connected in a meaningful way to the language.  For some people, as long as they move, they benefit.

3)  Put down your book and use emphatic gestures and motions.  Make up your own sign language for each word.

4)  Make dramatic sentences with your words and act them out, or pretend that you are giving a speech.  It doesn’t really need to be correct or be a good speech as long as you pour body and soul into it.  ***

5)  Shut and lock the doors of your room as you do #3 and #4 so that no one sees you and thinks you’ve lost your marbles.  “Poor fellow, I guess Arabic was just too much for him.”


* However, we rarely if ever remember the actual events of our lives.  Rather, we remember our memories of them, or we remember our memories of our memories of them and so on.  Despite the fact that this is not a direct memory of the actual event, it is not less memorable for me.

** Or maybe because they are embarrassing!

*** Language learning is not the time for dignity.  It is the time for fun.  For example, if your word is “invention,”  you could bend over an imaginary object on your table, fiddle with your fingers,  then straighten up and shout,  “Aha!  A new invention!”  You could even do this with friends as you compete to come up with the most memorable dramatizations of your vocabulary words.


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