Holding onto the Memories

Netflix and chill write a blog post. Having been watching the Netflix series The Mind, memory like sieveExplained recently, I decided to re-watch my favourite episode, imaginatively entitled ‘Memory’, and harvest it for some takeaways particularly relevant to the language classroom. Whether you’re a teacher struggling to remember names of new students or classmates at the start of the academic year (“Fabio! No…Fabrizio! No…Fernando!), or a learner with a sieve-like retention of new vocabulary, I hope the following information inspires some useful change.

A bit of background

Our brains store long-term memories in two main categories:

  • Implicit memories – Habits that require little conscience effort, like riding a bike or expressing yourself in your first language.
  • Explicit memories – Semantic: words, facts. Episodic: personal experiences.

So…? Language learners are storing explicit memories, primarily semantic (vocabulary, grammar structures etc.) However, as we’ll see below, particular types of episodic memories (i.e. experiences) increase the chances of remembering the ‘data’ we need to retain. The Holy Grail is to store a foreign language as implicit memory i.e. reach unconscious fluency. 

How can we improve memory retention?

  •  Meditate

Sit cross-legged and hummmmmmmmmmmmmm? Not necessarily! It’s easy to scoff at this as ‘hippy rhubarb’, but sitting still and focusing on your breath and/or watching your thoughts like passing trains rather than being swept away by them is much more difficult than it seems, as I’ve recently been finding out. Studies show that meditation practice aids concentration by developing skills of being present and not letting the mind wonder; this in turn aids memory retention as you find new reserves of focus when studying.

In one study, undergraduates made improvements in their average GRE Verbal Reasoning test scores after a meditation course. Could you or your learners benefit in the same way?


  • Get emotional

Neurologist Donna Rose Addis: “When we have an emotional experience the amygdala* – the emotional centre of the brain, which sits right next to the hippocampus*, actually up-regulates the hippocampus, and allows it to form more detailed and stronger memory.”

So…? I hope this is obvious already, but staring at lists of words or finishing the language practice at gap fills aren’t effective ways to make memories. Instead, we need to add an engaging emotional element to learning for it to be effective: playing, acting, debating etc. This is how episodic memories can support semantic memories.

*Moments are experienced in different parts of the brain depending on the sense activated, but memories are reconstructed later on in the temporal lobe, home to the amygdala and hippocampus.

brain areas.jpg

  • Story — Store-y (© pending)

Our brains retain more information in narrative form. One study asked participants to memorise 12 lists of 10 nouns. Those who tried to remember the words by rehearsing them remembered on average 13%; those who used the words to weave their own narrative and attach some meaning remembered on average 93%.


Including place and time are active ingredients to make these stories as effective as possible. Neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps: “In the hippocampus, there seem to be cells that are particularly responsive to time and place.” So, for example, “seeing” the words in places familiar to you is an effective method if you want to meet them again. Literally, take a walk down memory lane.

Another interesting idea in the programme: only a handful of people have ever memorised the first 20,000 digits of Pi, but many have played Hamlet and memorised all of his words: 50,000 letters.

What does this suggest? Meaning makes memories. Chunking units of language into larger units of meaning (letters-words-idioms-sentences-stories) is more effective than breaking them down and trying to store them one-by-one. 

Any reactions, questions or corrections, please leave a comment below!

The full programme:

Recommended viewing:

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