The Perils of Learning a Foreign Language or How to Remember Words Better

Never will I forget the Russian words for hot water bottle (грелка), to burn yourself (обжечься) and, for that matter, blister (волдырь). You may have guessed the narrative by now – freezing cold winter nights, icy wind creeping in through dorm windows (the space in between them served me as a pretty decent fridge) and a cheap rubber bottle resulting in me waking up with a blister the size of a walnut. It has turned into a respectable scar on my left shin since. After all, who needs tacky souvenirs from Russia if the experience leaves a lasting imprint on the body and mind?

But rather than this unfortunate episode I would like to discuss how our experience with language learning shapes the way we remember. While (in theory) it is possible to learn a foreign language by just studying a list of words and grammar rules, it is much more effective to use it in real life situations. If we use language in real contexts, the episodic memory of our brain gets involved. This is the part of your long term memory responsible for biographical information, all the things you experience in your life. So when you go to the corner shop to buy groceries and actually try having a chat in Italian with the friendly owner, this experience makes the words and structures used much more memorable than just reading them on a page would. Unlike the semantic part of our memory which is responsible for storing factual information, the episodic memory does not rely on repetition to remember. I don’t have to burn my other leg. And I also didn’t need to make an effort to actually learn those Russian words. When you use language in real life, you will likely encode information through many different channels, so the voice of the concerned lady handing me an ointment or the feel of the hot rubber will help to create the necessary connections between your neurons.

Obviously, I do not suggest you learn German the painful way, at a rate of three words per accident this might be too high a price. However, and this is what we emphasise in our classroom, try to include your episodic memory while studying German. You live in the German speaking part of Switzerland, use it to your advantage! Order your Rösti in German. Buy your tram ticket in German. Discover the latest art exhibition and join a German speaking tour guide. Watch a football match in German in your Quartierbeiz. During the lesson, we specifically focus on the vocabulary tailored to your needs and interests so you are ready for your German adventure «in the real world».

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