Recall your way to better French

Language learning tip #9

A picture of long grass in which previous walkers have trodden down the long grass making tracks.
 Picture © Sharon Loxton

Traditional learning methods generally focus on getting information into your brain, as if the goal of studying is to write information into memory. But your brain doesn’t work like a notebook or a computer hard drive, and the act of revising (reading the information again) doesn’t do anything to improve the way the information is stored or to make subsequent recall any easier. Storing things is easy because you just use your eyes and ears, while recall takes a bit more work. Leaving tests and exams until the very end, sometimes years after the initial act of study, is not the most effective way to learn.

Henry L. Roediger and Jeff Karpicke, researchers at Washington University Department of Psychology, emphasize the critical role of retrieval (recalling knowledge) for learning.[1] Rather than a hard-drive or notepad, the human brain is more like a field of long grass into which you can drop things, say from a helicopter, and then when you need to get them back you have to physically walk into the field and fetch them. Every time you do this, you tread down the same paths to the things you’re recalling and the paths get easier to follow. In fact, practising recall has proven to be 300% more effective than re-studying something.

In other words, the act of recall is better for memory than repeatedly "storing" the item by studying and re-studying it. So anything you do to practice recall is going to help your French. The best way is of course to practise speaking with a real French person. If you can, go to the country and spend time there, preferably with people who don’t speak any English.

If a trip overseas isn’t in the cards, Kwiziq offers thousands of tests which will adapt automatically to you and measure your progress at each level, as well as tell you what to do next to improve. The reason testing works so well is that it forces you to practice recalling what you know.

Repetition – the key to recall

The most basic and obvious aspect of your “memory field” is that repeatedly accessing items in it creates easier paths. The things you drop in are often small and hard to see among the long green blades, so when you put something there, it’s not that easy to locate again. But every time you go and fetch something, you create a path through the grass, making it easier to find the next time. The more you fetch something (or rather look at what you stored, since you never really take it out of the field again), the easier and quicker that path navigation becomes.

The act of dropping something in again, repeatedly, does help but it’s not as effective. When learning French – a new word, a list of vocabulary, or even some grammar – you must practise recalling, not simply re-read the item over and over.

Many researchers are beginning to show just how true the memory field metaphor is:

  • Carpenter et al show that facts reviewed through testing are retained significantly better than facts reviewed through re-studying, and nearly twice as well as those given no review.[2]
  • Lyle et al report that repeated testing produced superior retention and transfer on the final test relative to repeated studying.[3]
  • Karpicke concludes that “[I]ncorporating retrieval into educational activities represents a powerful way to enhance learning.”[4]

Like all metaphors, the memory field has its limits, but it offers a few other insights into effective memory techniques for learning French. The following techniques aren’t new; they are well-established memory tricks that happen to work well with the field metaphor.

Linking words for memory

As Kwiziq and Bitesized Languages’ CTO Simon Potter has blogged about before, simple assocation (linking) of words and ideas is very effective at aiding recall. (Simon speaks fluent Indonesian and Arabic as well as English and Australian, so he knows quite a bit about memorising foreign words effectively!) In the field-of-grass metaphor, we see why this works: when you create more pathways to something, using already-existing, easy-to-find paths, you’re making it easier to get to things. However, beware of linking words that look similar but may be pronounced differently: e.g., the English “feminine” with the French word “femme” for woman might lead you to pronounce the latter “fem” rather than “fam” – but you could also link it to the word “famine” as a pronunciation reminder by thinking of a very hungry woman.

Large, colourful and outlandish

In your memory field, small, dull and uninteresting things are not going to be easy to find, are they? Instead, drop something in that’s large, colourful or in some other way outstanding, so that it’s easy to spot in the grass. This is best used along with links, because you can link things that are colourful, extreme or outlandish in some way (e.g., a famished, feminine supermodel is more memorable than "feminine" alone). If you like making notes or mind maps, use coloured pens and pencils so your information has more structure.

First and Last

Your memory field has edges, and things placed near them are easier to remember. What does this mean in reality? Well, the human brain is good at remembering extremes. When it comes to lists, for example, people are generally better at remembering the items at the beginning and end of the list than the ones in the middle – in other words, closer to the edges. So when you need to remember French words, keep the lists short and put the most important words at the top and bottom.

The bottom line

If you’re learning French and you want your new knowledge to be on the tip of your tongue, practise recall: start taking regular French tests to get those pathways trodden down in your memory!

References

1 Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). “The critical importance of retrieval for learning.” Science, 319, 966–968

2 Carpenter, Shana K., Harold Pashler, and Nicholas J. Cepeda. “Using tests to enhance 8th grade students’ retention of US history facts.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 23.6 (2009): 760-771.

3 Lyle, Keith B., and Nicole A. Crawford. “Retrieving essential material at the end of lectures improves performance on statistics exams.” Teaching of Psychology 38.2 (2011): 94-97.

4 Karpicke, Jeffrey D., and Phillip J. Grimaldi. “Retrieval-based learning: A perspective for enhancing meaningful learning.” Educational Psychology Review 24.3 (2012): 401-418.

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Author info

Gruff Davies

Despite the very Welsh name, Gruff is actually half French. Nowadays, he's a tech entrepreneur (and some-time novelist) but he used to be a physicist at Imperial College before getting hooked on inventing things. He has a special interest in language learning, speaks five languages to varying degrees of fluency and he often blogs about language learning, science, and technology. As well as co-founding Kwiziq, he is the author the Amazon best-selling SF thriller, The Looking Glass Club and the inventor of the Exertris gaming exercise-bike and Pidgin, a free online tool that makes drawing flow charts and relationship diagrams as quick and easy as describing them in pidgin English.

Comments: 2

Richard

26 February 2016

1 replies

(Simon speaks fluent Indonesian and Arabic as well as English and Australian, so he knows quite a bit about memorising foreign words effectively!) As an Australian, I found this amusing, we do speak English, or almost.

Gruff Davies

26 February 2016

Glad you liked. It was tongue in cheek, of course, but we are also fascinated by the idea of "Englishes":
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Englishes

Even within the UK there is a striking difference in language use across the country, especially between the Northern and Southern extremes.

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