The place where the majority of us did most of our formal learning is school. Here, I want you to try and remember specific classes that you have taken while in middle school or high school. Next, among a particular subject that you know you have taken (say, geography, or mathematics), I want you to try and remember specific information from that class that you have learned. Do you remember anything in detail? If you have graduated from high school more than just a couple of years ago, chances are that you do not remember much of it. Why is that?
Estimates vary as to how much of the information we are taught at school we actually remember for any length of time. Dominic O’Brien, in “You Can Have an Amazing Memory,” points out that according to research by The William Glasser Institute, in California, we retain only ten percent of the information we absorb from reading, while we retain approximately half of the information we see and hear, and personal experience gives us around 80 percent retention. The research also shows that if we actively teach something, we retain around 95 percent of the information we pass on to others.
So, what does this tell us? Well, first and most importantly, this tells us that when we engage actively in a “live” situation, we are more likely to retain information. In the case of foreign language acquisition, this means that actually speaking with people is a much more efficient way to retain information. You are actually getting the language on your tongue and involving your emotions. So I would tend to agree with Benny the Irish Polyglot when he says that you should “speak the language from day one.” Second, this research shows us that personal experience (which involves action and the senses) is far more likely to lead to long-term storage and retrieval than detached learning methods, such as reading.
Therefore, in order to retain a higher percentage of information when reading, it is imperative that you involve action and the senses, beyond the simple use of your eyes. This is, of course, part of the reason why mnemonics work so well. They involve imagery, our emotions, and our experiences. However, another way to involve your senses is to get the language on your tongue. For example, when I review flashcards on Anki, I usually have a word or expression in a foreign language on one side, and the definition (written in the foreign language) and 4 or 5 example sentences. However, I do not merely silently read the flashcards. I read them aloud to really get the language on my tongue.
In “Success with foreign languages: seven who achieved it and what worked for them,” Earl Stevick interviews seven highly successful language learners. While he realizes that learners are even more different from one another than he had expected—success with foreign languages, in other words, does not come by one simple formula—several of those seven language learners did read aloud as part of their routine when learning languages.
Lastly, if it is true that if we actively teach something, we retain around 95 percent of the information we pass on to others, then we should get busy teaching others. If this is not possible, try writing down your understanding of what you are learning (be it grammar, ideas, equations, etc.) and repeat what you wrote to yourself in a loud voice. Scott Young terms a method he uses “The 5-year old method”, which essentially involves explaining to yourself your subject, the way you would explain it to a kindergarten student. As he explains, this method forces you to break down complex ideas into simpler components. Simplifying and explaining to yourself is an essential part of learning. Kalid Azad, founder of BetterExplained.com, states that ideas “start hard and finish easy.” “Complex subjects eventually become automatic, and this is the job of the 5-year old method,” Young adds.
Another solution would be to record yourself teaching what you have just learned for the day to an imaginary public. Even if it’s just for a few short minutes, the actual process of teaching, putting what you have learned into words, and making it as simple as possible for a potential learner with not too much background with your subject to understand, will greatly improve your retention of the subject. Although it sounds a bit complicated and cumbersome, it’s as simple as turning on your webcam and recording yourself for a few minutes. You could even open a YouTube channel, as many fellow language learners do, to record your progress and teach what you have learned with fellow members of the language learning community.
What do you think? Do you tend to read aloud or involve your senses when learning a language or new knowledge? Let me know by leaving a comment below!
This is Memory Tip #9 out of 12. To access additional tips in this series, click on any of the following links: Tip #1, Tip #2, Tip #3, Tip# 4, Tip #5, Tip #6, Tip #7, Tip #8, Tip #10, Tip #11, Tip #12