Perhaps the title was a bit of a misnomer. You memory doesn’t suck, it’s just not that reliable. Human memory works by remembering salient information that is meaningful. This meaning is often created within webs of other meanings. In psychology, this is called schema theory and it works like this – one idea connects to a web of other ideas to form a relationship, the strength of that relationship will often determine the “level of wired-ness” of the memory
Let’s use Santa Claus as an example:
Language Learning is about Creating Meaning
When we encounter an image or idea that is meaningful we can connect it to other knowledge more easily. To explain it more succinctly – memory is all about context. The broader and more diversified that context is, more likely you will be able to remember this information.
The “connections” I’m referring to are actual REAL connections within the brain. These connections are created and eliminated. A process known as “neural pruning” decides which synapses (connections) are useful enough to be kept and which ones are superfluous. Information that is heavily used will be reinforced, and information that isn’t used will be forgotten, unfortunately, quite quickly. To give you a visual idea of what is going on, check this out:
Now, how does this factor into learning Mandarin. It’s quite simple – when you start to learn Mandarin words you often have no available web of concepts/ideas/images in your mind. You lack that context that I referred to earlier, and reliable memory is based on connections.
You are basically engaged in a race against time with every new word. Unless you are using it daily, you will almost certainly forget it.
I have an academic background in psychology. Both my undergraduate and master’s degree are in Neuropsychology and educational psychology and I’ve thought long and hard about the relationship between memory and learning new words.
Luckily, I found a simple solution. If you want to learn Mandarin faster, use a flashcard app.
I suggest using Anki, I explained how to use it in a previous post. Anki is a spaced repetition flashcard program, meaning that it reshuffles decks of cards based on how well you remember individual cards.
For me, I don’t use any other method to learn Mandarin. This is the only way.
I’d like to explain how I practice each word (some of these might sound crazy, but please remember creating context and connections in your brain encourages learning).
Make multiple decks – I have a deck for food, one for cultural items, one for words I can’t remember, one for specific nouns. Organizing words by similar context and meaning makes it easier to stick in your brain. You might learn how to say banana and then starfruit – the connection between those two words is a lot more similar than The Eiffel Tower to starfruit.
Say the word out loud – Don’t just read it in your head. Lots of language learners make this mistake. The human mouth/cheeks contain a massive amount of small muscles. You want to train those muscles as well and repeatedly saying a word will help achieve that.
Make a quick story – Let’s say my word was – The Eiffel Tower. Instead of just saying that word, I would incorporate it into a short story or several sentences to give it a bit of context. Something like:
“I saw the Eiffel Tower when I went to France last year. I thought it was very beautiful. When we went there were a lot of people there. We almost couldn’t go in.
我去年去法國的時候看到 The Eiffel Tower 我覺得很美。我們去的時候有很多人。幾乎不能進去
These are just a couple of ways to create more context to help you learn Mandarin better. When you make your flashcards you can also add multiple elements to make that “stickiness” factor even better.
Within the ANKI program, you can add pictures, multiple text elements and voice. Each of these differentiated contexts will create better connections in the brain ensuring, hopefully, that you learn the word more effectively. Something like this is a good example of incorporating multiple contexts
So in the end the idea is simple – more contexts create more neural connections and more neural connections create better language learning. This is not true for only learning Mandarin, but for any subject that you want to learn.
If you don’t believe me, I urge you to try and hope you stop attempting to use brute force to memorize huge lists of words.