When Learning a Foreign Language, It Helps to Forget

By OptiLingo • 6 minute read

Why ‘Not Remembering’ Isn’t as Bad as People Make It out to Be

Foreign language learning is an incredible experience that can improve your life. From more career options to better mental health, the benefits are endless. And while many people wish to speak a foreign language, achieving fluency takes time and effort. Memorizing your material can sometimes feel impossible. But if you know how your brain works, you can use forgetting to your advantage when learning a language.

What Is Memory?

Defining memory can be challenging. We know that there are three stages of memory and that they each serve a purpose.

  • Sensory Memory: Details from the outside world are continually bombarding us. Everything around us, from what we see, hear, smell, feel, everything, comes at us through the senses. Our brain is constantly collecting this information.
  • Short-Term Memory: If something of at least moderate interest or importance passes us, then we focus on it more, and this puts it into short-term memory. The brain holds onto this information, and we analyze it. When we attempt to memorize information, it starts out here. When someone first tells us their name, it stays here. However, this information is susceptible to any disturbance that easily pushes it out of our memory.
  • Long-Term Memory: Long-term memory is more complicated. Information that has stayed in our short-term memory ends up here. This is where we store facts, information we know, and memories.

What does this mean for language learning? Isn’t the whole point of studying to take what’s in our short-term memory and push it into our long-term memory? After all, that seems to be how we made it through all those years of school. We studied, crammed, and tested to prove that we learned. Well, it turns out we might have been doing our memory a disservice.

forgetting a language doesn't mean you have a bad memory

How We Store Long-Term Memories

The science behind our brain and memorization is still mostly uncharted. We don’t know precisely how memories or stored or how much information our brains can store. We do know something about memory though. For instance, we know that there is a clear difference between short and long-term memory. We can see this in patients who have conditions that damage one type of memory but not the other.

And we know that when you learn, your brain develops physical pathways that change the physiology of your brain. The more you learn, the more gray matter your brain has. This is especially true for people who speak multiple languages.

We also know that you store memories all over your brain, there’s no single place where we put our memories. This is because what we experience is tied to various sensory data. If you remember Grandma’s fresh-baked cookies, you remember the smell, the taste, and how they looked. The brain stores all that information in corresponding parts relating to that type of sensory data.

However, there’s a specific component to the brain that optimizes our memories and allows us to function, and that is forgetting. And it turns out that forgetting is part of the language learning process.

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The Role of Forgetting and Memory

Our brains aren’t programmed to memorize the world around us. Think about it. We evolved over thousands of years learning how to survive on a day to day basis. We have only recently developed a need to remember lists of facts and other information. Instead, our brains are used to sorting out what’s important and ignoring the rest.

The process of pruning away the unnecessary bits of information is called “adaptive forgetting.” It allows us to focus only on relevant information, the information we interact with regularly, while disregarding the rest. If we didn’t have it, then we would be bogged down irrelevant details. We wouldn’t just remember the vocabulary word on the index card we were studying; we would remember the weather, the song that was playing the background at the cafe, the conversations we had before and after, what we were wearing, etc. Remembering too much creates problems.

This means our brains are designed to throw away all the bits that are irrelevant to us. It works great in some avenues but seems to be a pain in others, specifically when we’re trying to remember new things like vocabulary.

what tools do you use to stop forgetting a language

How to Use Forgetting a Language to Your Advantage

However, you forgetting while studying a new language illustrates your brain’s interaction with the information. It’s attempting to process it and sort it out, or remove it. Also, it’s not as though you’ve completely forgotten it. Think about the difference between when you review a lesson versus when you learn it the first time. There’s quite a bit of difference in the processing time and energy that goes into each.

There isn’t a pill you can take to instantly grant you a perfect memory. Your brain is a system. It works a certain way. Learning how to manipulate that system to gain the most advantage is key. While there are plenty of memorization tricks and strategies to retain information, one of the best one for gaining fluency in a foreign language is through spaced repetition systems. You can fast track your language learning by incorporating this method into your studies.

How Spaced Repetition Systems Help Achieve Fluency

Spaced repetition systems help you remember by using your brain’s desire to forget. As soon as you study or review something, your brain process it and works to sort out its importance. When you revisit the information the next day and refresh, your brain repeats the same process, but it does this knowing that the information you’ve retrieved is recent, and strengthens those pathways. As long as you keep revisiting previous materials, you will keep refreshing that information, hitting the reset clock on your brain forgetting.

You cannot stop your brain from forgetting, but you can manipulate its effect. By building spaced repetition systems into your lessons and accepting that forgetting is part of the learning process, you’ll avoid the unnecessary stress that interferes with learning. You’ll also actively work towards fluency, pushing your target language into your long-term memory.