You worked so hard.
You spent ages squeezing those new words and phrases into your brain. Then you try to use them in real life and…
You keep searching your brain, but everything you learnt has temporarily left the building.
We all forget things when learning a language. It’s part of the process. But the more you forget, the slower you learn because you waste a lot of time learning and re-learning things before they finally stick.
What if you could remember a language faster?
If you could get words, phrases and grammar to stick sooner, you’d rev-up the learning process. You’d struggle less and enjoy it more.
And there’s a simple, research-backed method you can use right now to help you remember a language more easily.
What we write by hand, we remember
I never thought I’d write a post about the benefits of writing in a foreign language. Until recently, I hated it: my spelling is bad, I make loads of mistakes and it just doesn’t seem that important – my priority is speaking.
What I didn’t realise is that by neglecting writing, I was missing out on a powerful tool for improving my speaking skills. In fact, writing can help in all areas of language learning because it boosts your memory.
Research suggests that writing helps people recall new vocabulary more easily: in one study, learners who were asked to write example sentences with new words remembered around a third more than people who just read them.
And it turns out that handwriting is better than typing. A number of studies show that people remember words better when they write them by hand, compared to on a keyboard. Researchers think that there’s something about the sensorimotor processes involved in writing letters by hand that helps us commit them to memory.
Similarly, researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer found that college students who take notes by hand recall information better than students who take notes on a laptop. Compared to laptop users, who can quickly type full sentences, students who write by hand have to listen, digest and synthesise the key points. Mueller and Oppenheimer believe that interacting with the information in this way helps students remember it later.
Why repeating stuff doesn’t work
These studies reveal some important points about memory and learning:
- Reading something over and over is a terrible way to commit it to memory.
- Involving different senses in the learning process can help us remember better.
- Thinking about information in new ways, rather than just mindlessly repeating it, boosts memory.
These are all linked to the fact that memory is context-dependent: if we learn information the same way over and over, the brain associates it with that specific context. This makes things easy to remember when we find ourselves in the same situation, but easy to forget when we’re in new situations.
Imagine you’ve lost your keys. When you retrace your steps, you make the situation more similar to when you lost them, which jogs your memory.
If you learn something after a few margaritas, you’ll remember it better the next time you’ve had a few margaritas, compared to when sober (true story – researchers got people drunk and tested it).
If you learn words from apps and textbooks, you’ll remember them better while fiddling with your phone or reading a textbook, compared to when talking to native speakers.
Which explains why those words tend to go poof when you need them in real life.
In the words of Steve Kaufmann:
"Mastering" grammar or vocab thru rote repetition yields diminishing returns. Brain needs novelty, variety, sense of breaking new ground.
— Steve Kaufmann (@lingosteve) April 27, 2017
How writing helps you remember
If we want something to stick, we need to play around with it and use it in new contexts while we’re learning.
Writing is perfect for this.
Whether it’s example sentences, stories, diary entries or shopping lists, writing pushes you to apply what you’ve learned to fresh contexts. Just like the college students who took notes by hand, as you write, you organise your thoughts and interact with the information in new ways. This can lead to deeper processing and in turn, better memory.
Another reason writing helps you remember is that it encourages you to build connections between old and new. When you write example sentences or stories with words you’ve just learnt, you combine new vocabulary with things you already know. And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that linking new information to prior knowledge boosts memory.
Write like no one’s watching
I’d always had a sneaking feeling that I was missing a trick by not writing, but I could never motivate myself to do it.
At first I thought it was laziness. Maybe I was intimidated by all the effort involved. So I set myself teeny-tiny goals of writing one sentence.
But I still didn’t get around to it.
Finally, I realised that my procrastination was actually just perfectionism in disguise: I was scared of writing something and staring down at a page of poop.
So I took the pressure off. Instead of aiming to write something amazing, I set myself the goal of writing one crappy sentence.
This made it easier to get started and ever since then, I’ve been scribbling away. In fact, I’ve got so into writing that I’ve been jotting down a quick page whenever I get chance.
And I’m already seeing results:
- Words I could never remember are starting to stick.
- Tricky grammar points are sinking in.
- I don’t have to rack my brain as much when I speak.
If you’d like to get the memory benefits of writing, here are a few suggestions that will help you get into the habit:
6 ways to get into the writing habit
1. Start with tiny goals
Often the hardest thing about writing is getting started. Actually, the hardest thing is the idea of getting started: the mere thought of doing a difficult task has been shown to activate a part of the brain associated with pain. But the good news is, once you get started, these signals go away. Make it easier to start by setting yourself a tiny goal, like one sentence a day.
2. Be happy with crappy
Sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves to do something well that we’d rather avoid doing it all together, than risk doing a crappy job. Lowering your expectations will help you get past the blank page syndrome.
3. Ask native speakers for feedback (but not always)
You can use websites like italki and lang8 to post your writing and get corrections from native speakers.
This kind of feedback is very useful, but don’t feel you need a native speaker referee every time you write something. Even if there are a few mistakes in your writing (shock horror!), it’s still great practice.
4. Use the internet as a substitute for native speakers
What’s the difference between this word and that word? Is this verb regular or irregular? Good ol’ google can answer a lot of questions that come up when writing. You can also check if you wrote something as a native speaker would by searching groups of words together. Let’s imagine I want to write “it went well” in German, but I’m not sure how to say it.
I type my attempt “es ist gut gegangen” (with quote marks) into google, and see lots of reputable looking websites which use the exact phrase “es ist gut gegangen”. Also, as I’m searching the term, google auto-suggests “es ist gut gegangen englisch”, which means that Germans have been searching how to translate this term into English.
It looks safe to assume that “es ist gut gegangen” is correct.
This method isn’t foolproof (there are mistakes on the web, especially in forums) but reputable websites will give you some useful insights. A good online dictionary with examples will also help you learn how to use new words in a sentence.
5. Write by hand
We remember things we write by hand more easily than things we type, so get yourself a notebook and start scribbling.
6. Keep a diary
Writing a diary involves talking about everyday things that happen to you and the people around you, so you’ll end up practising using words and phrases that’ll come in handy in real life conversations.
Those were 6 simple ways to get into the habit of writing. Next, I’ll talk about how I applied these ideas to my own language learning last month, and my plans for June.
My Language Learning Plans: June 2017
I’m learning 5 languages at the moment: Italian, Mandarin, German, French and Spanish. To make it manageable, I have 1 sprint language that I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages which I study in a slower, steadier fashion.
Next week, I’m taking my C2 Italian exam – mamma mia!
In May, I’d planned to practise my pronunciation and crack on with my grammar book, but I realised what I really need to focus on now is the exam. So I set that stuff aside for a moment and did the following:
I’ve been listening to news podcasts as I go about my day. I’m hoping this will stand me in good stead for the exam as the listening section is usually taken from radio programmes.
I’d planned to watch an hour of highbrow TV, like political shows, to boost my listening and improve my knowledge of current affairs in Italy. I didn’t manage an hour a day, but I did squeeze in half an hour of 8 e mezzo most days.
I’ve been reading the magazines National Geographic and Internazionale to prepare for the reading section (and because they’re interesting).
I aimed to write one practice essay per week in May. I was really struggling to get around to this, so I made it easy for myself to get started by:
- Setting the tiny goal of just reading the question.
- Telling myself that it didn’t have to be amazing.
By the time I’d got started, I was happy to go ahead and write the whole thing. Actually, I quite enjoyed it! Overall, I managed 3 weeks out of 4, so that aint bad.
Plans for June
Between now and Thursday (D-Day) I’m going to focus mostly on practice tests.
In May, I planned to:
- Finish my graded reader story
- Learn 15 new words per week
- Start watching Mandarin TV (with Mandarin subtitles)
- Take 2 conversation lessons per week with a tutor on italki
- Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per day (except weekends)
How it went
I managed the first two things on my list without too much trouble.
Mandarin TV was proving to be quite tricky (having to stop every two seconds to look up words) until I found a fab “learning mode” tool on viki, the streaming service I use to watch Mandarin TV. It has interactive subtitles, so you can click on them to get instant translations of words. It’s my new favourite toy!
I did 7 lessons with my online tutor this month, but I’m starting to feel like I need a bit of a break, and the summer months are going to be busy so I’m going to go down to one lesson a week for a while.
I barely watched any tutorials this month: I think the goal of 1 a day was too high so it put me off starting. In June, I’m going to try and watch one per week instead.
One thing that wasn’t on my list, but that I started doing a lot of, was writing. Sometimes I wrote diary entries, sometimes I wrote example sentences with new vocabulary, or words I struggle to remember. In pinyin. That might make character puritans wince, but learning to write Chinese by hand isn’t a priority of mine at the moment. By using pinyin, I can start writing straight away and it helps me remember words (and their pronunciation) more easily.
Plans for June
- Learn 15 new words per week
- Continue watching Mandarin TV (with Mandarin subtitles)
- Take 1 conversation lesson per week with a tutor on italki
- Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per week
- Scribble a short page of pinyin when the mood takes me
I’d got into a bit of a funk with my German over the last few months and my “studying” mostly consisted of watching TV. Great for listening, not so good for grammar or speaking.
To make my listening more active, I’ve started writing down keywords as I watch. Once I’ve finished, I use them as prompts to talk for 2 minutes about what I’ve just seen. I don’t always do it (sometimes I just want to chill out in front of the TV!) but I do it quite often and it’s helping me pay more attention and practise my speaking.
This month I’ve started writing more and it’s given me another way to practise producing the language, rather than just absorbing it passively. In June, I’m going to try and write a page a day (but let myself off the hook if I’m feeling lazy).
Spanish and French
Last month, my target was to:
- Learn 15 words a week in each language
- Watch some Spanish and French TV/films in my downtime
- Do active listening (see above)
I managed to learn the words and I watched a fair amount of TV/films, but I forgot about the active listening bit (oops). I’m going to try and do more of this in June.
I started off the month writing bits and bobs in Spanish and French, but I had to stop as I’m worried the different spelling systems might creep in and cause me to make mistakes in Italian (definitely don’t want that right before the exam). I’m planning to get scribbling in my Spanish and French notebooks as soon as the Italian exam’s over.
That’s it for June, I’m looking forward to next month, when I’ll be revealing a new language project that I’m very excited about!
This post was part of #clearthelist, hosted by Lindsay Williams, Kris Broholm, and Angel Pretot, who share their monthly language goals and encourage you to do the same. Head over to Lindsay does languages for more info on how to take part.
Over to you: Do you think writing in foreign language is useful? Are there any other benefits that I forgot to mention? Can you share any other fun ways to practise writing? Let us know in the comments below!