Being multilingual

How we learn and memorize new words

Everyone has a very personal way to learn a language. Some of us just learn by repeating what they hear, others need to learn the structure, the grammar in order to consolidate the new language.

Every new word that we hear does make a long way to land eventually in our long term memory. When we read or hear it for the first time, the word lands in our very-short-term-memory (i.e. sensory register or sensory memory) and usually disappears from there, unless we focus our attention on it and concentrate and transfer it to the short term memory. Here, the new words spend approximately 20 minutes (some say even shorter). During this time we should repeat the new words, otherwise they’ll get “erased”. The way from the short term memory to the long term memory takes approximately 6 hours.

How does this work? It is like our brain would push the save button and the data, like on our computer, is saved on the harddisk. But even if the new words are memorized and fixed in the long term memory, they can’t rest. They have to be repeated in regular intervals, otherwise they’ll go into the passive storage room of our long-term memory, i.e. in our passive vocabulary and we could recall them later on, if we want or need them. This can happen languages we didn’t use regularly but reactivate at some point. We don’t have to re-learn them, we “just” have to reactivate them by stimulating our knowledge by reading, listening and using (talking) it again.

It seems complicated, but with this kind of constantly stimulating our new inputs we really can memorize up to 200 new words per day in our long-term memory. The single steps a new word takes make it clear why we need a certain time to master a new language and become proficient in it.

The way the storage of words and their networking with other words we already know works, depends on the type of learner we are.

The visual learner memorizes new words when he sees them written, i.e. when he reads them. The haptic, tactile  or kinesthetic learner needs to write the words in order to memorize them, the auditory learner needs to hear them.

Others prefer approaching a new language by understanding its grammatical rules. These are cognitive learners, who really need a systematic textbook. And then there are imitative learners who memorize the best by listening and repeating.

Independently from what kind of learner we are, we need to exercice and talk the new language whenever we can.

If you don’t know yet what kind of learner you are, you can find it out here  or here.

Adding the creative aspect to the learning process, the learning languages is never complete. It adapts to the always changing environment. Dr. Diane Larsen-Freeman did a very interesting speech about “Empowering the Language Learner” (very long!) where she used a combination of lecture “and experimental exercices (…) and traced the evolution of language teaching methods over the past 60 years, discussing how each evolutionary phase has contributed to a more “whole-person” view of language learners. Larsen-Freeman suggests that when educators treat language as a closed, static system, they create a critical barrier to student empowerment. When language is instead seen as the complex, dynamic system, teachers are able to help their students transform their linguistic world, not merely conform to it. Larsen-Freeman illustrates how this shift in understanding has implications for what and how teachers teach.”


Thanks to Galina’s and Vera’s comments (here below) I realized that I needed to add another paragraph. It’s probably difficult to decide what kind of learner we are. I think this changes depending on the phase we are in during our learning process. For example, I am definitely an imitative learner in the first phases of learning a new language. I do imitate sounds, sound chaines, intonations and, of even whole sentences. But during these first phases I also need to read and hear the words I’m learning in order to understand their spelling and some basic orthographic rules of the new language. Later on, I expand this to the grammar: the morphology and the syntax. During this whole process I continuously compare the new language to those I already know, more ore less consciously. – The dynamicity Dr. Diane Larsen-Freeman mentions about the system of a language and what it implies for teachers who teach a language, is also recognizable in the learner himself. He’s going through different stages of comprehension which involve all the senses.

Therefore instead of asking you what kind of learner you are, I would like to know what kind of learner you are now, in your current phase of the (language) learning process.



(cfr. ©”Wie landet das Wort im Kopf”, P.M. 7/04)



16 replies »

  1. I am the cognitive learner I guess. And it helps me a lot to cross-compare languages and their features as mnemonic devices. Even languages as weird as Hungarian have surprising correlations for instance with Northern Italian dialects – … I also enjoy the differences and the weirdness the requires a different kind of thinking to express thoughts. I feel like an acrobat on the flying trapeze.

    • Vera, I’m also always cross-comparing the languages I know already in order to make connections. This is actually a common mnemonic technique some adopt automatically. I like your picture of the acrobat on the flying trapeze! I feel the same too, many days I think, talk and act (I mean the gestures and the way you move in general) in so many different ways, that I wonder if the person with whom I talked for example English would recognize me when I’m talking Italian, German or Dutch. Fortunately, those friends are in the same situation and I don’t think they realize this change anymore, but if I had to talk to people who are not used to these switches, it would really be weird 😉

    • Thank you, Galina. Yes, I think it helps not only us adult learners, but it also helps to know what kind of learners our children are. Nowadays teachers are much more aware of the different kinds of learners than when I went to school. Some schoolsystems did base on one kind of leraning approach and it did work for a few children and the others did struggle the whole time. – I’m a bit a combination of several learning types and it depends on which phase I’m in in the learning process. Thank you very much for this input. It made me realize that I have to add a paragraph to my post (and I’ll do it right now ;-))

      • I like the paragraph you’ve just added! I am glad I left a comment 😉 I think while working with children we should not concentrate on one particular approach, but work mixing them all in different proportions according to their personality and the age group. It is more fun 🙂 Thanks again for the post!

  2. I think we are all of those to varying degrees with particular strengh here and there, even depending on the nature of the task or if our frame of mind. For me, then as an educator, the real task is to try and build in as wide a range of activities as is feasible so as to maximise this.

    • Yes, Maurice, I totally agree. What I observe is that teachers often tend to put less effort in the variation and often focus on grammar when teaching adults. In my lessons (for adults) I tend to focalize on the kind of learner: I find it’s important, especially in the beginning, to find a way to enthuse the learner. I agree with you, the wider the range, the better.

      • Yes and even for the students who find themselves more or less multi modal and able to survive just about any kind of lesson there is still a real advantage in mixing up the styles anyway because it gives them the chance to see the topic from a variety of perspectives. In that way there’s always a chance to better integrate the subject into their existing frame works

  3. VAK has been a standard teaching tool in classrooms for all subjects for decades (well as long as I’ve been teaching anyway at 22 years!) and one of the key aspects to VAK is that no one is just one of the three. You’re not JUST a visual learner or whatever. You have a strength in one area maybe but that doesn’t mean you don’t use the other two. In fact, good teacher deliberately try to make sure all three styles are catered for in lessons not just so that every student has the chance to learn through their preferred style but also so that every student gets to practice and strength their other two styles too!

    • Thank you for your very precious insight, Ken! I totally agree with you about nobody being “just” one kind of a learner. Our strength may be in one area, like you say, but we usually mix more than two of them. I also agree with you that good teachers make sure to adapt their lessons to all three styles of learning. I know that it is not standard in every school in EU to teach this way and would be very glad if you could tell me/us more about VAK.

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