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How to Use Active Recall in Language Learning

How to Use Active Recall in Language Learning

Active Recall in Language Learning

Do you struggle to remember what you learned in another language?

You’re not alone.

We often give memorization too much credit in language learning. And while there are things that need to be memorized, there’s a lot more that needs to be understood in order to successfully use the new language.


Regardless of just how much of a language is memorization versus understanding, there are things you need to memorize — particularly vocabulary.

So what do you do if you don’t have a good memory?

Before we dive in, here’s what you’ll learn in this article:

Table of Contents

What Defines a Good Memory
Strategies for Improving Your Memory
Active Recall: What It Is and How to Do It Effectively
Active Recall Strategies

In my experience as a language learner, there are three things that have proven to be effective strategies for memory for me personally: spaced-repetition, comprehensive input, and active recall. And when used in combination with one another, these prove to be a powerful formula for success.

But for now, let’s focus on one of these three pillars — active recall.

We’ll start with defining what a good memory is.

What Defines a Good Memory

To start, a good memory is subjective.

In a lot of cases, we may be good at remembering information on a specific topic, or a specific type of information like dates or numbers. Or we may be good at remembering things for a limited period of time. Or we have vivid memories from our past.

What we don’t have, most often, is amazing memory in every domain.

In the case of language, a good memory likely means (though again, this can be subjective):

  • You have good long-term memory
  • You are not only able to remember information but also explain it
  • You don’t just remember information but also context (meaning you don’t just know how to handle verb tense but the context the tense needs to be used in)
  • You have a wide active memory and not just a wide passive memory

Strategies for Improving Your Memory

Active recall, which we’ll talk about in just a moment, is a powerful tool for improving your memory. But it’s not the only tool. Here are a few more you can use:

Mnemonics

Mnemonics are a powerful tool to aid your memory. And if you’d like to learn more about them, it’s the topic of one of our Language Quests in Language Conqueror. You can learn more or sign up here!

But to summarize, there are several mnemonic devices you can use — songs, memory palaces, and rhymes are all great mnemonic strategies.

Write It Out By Hand

Today, we’ve digitized much of what we do, including our notes. But there’s a lot you can gain by writing things out by hand. There have been countless studies that prove writing things out by hand strengthens memory and recall.

Writing by hand coordinates several skills: motor skills, vision, summarizing, and comprehension. And the combination of these skills give whatever you’re learning more “stickiness”.

Focus

One of the things we most often struggle with is focus. There are lots of things demanding our attention at any given time — family, friends, that book on the shelf, the dishes that need to be done, work, notifications…

By removing distractions, we give ourselves the chance to better focus and better retain what we’ve learned.

Consistent Practice

If there’s anything I’ve taken away from my practice as both a professional musician and a language learner, it’s that something every day is more powerful than infrequent cram sessions.

A Healthy Body = A Healthy Brain

In an earlier Language Quest, we explored the connections between fitness, exercise, and language learning. Fitness is amazing for language learners because it’s a stackable habit, but it’s also a good way to prime yourself for learning. A healthy body truly does improve the health of your mind.

Sleep

When we sleep, our brains consolidate and sort everything we experienced and learned during the day. It’s also when our brains and bodies repair themselves. If you don’t get enough sleep, your brain and body don’t get the recovery time they need. This makes sleep a powerful tool for your memory.

Active Recall: What It Is and How to Do It Effectively

Active recall is a powerful strategy for remembering and understanding information. So how do you do it?

Let’s say you read a passage in your language learning coursebook. It’s an explanation of a grammar rule or perhaps something interesting about your language. Active recall is when, after completing the passage, you then summarize what you’ve read in your own words.

Essentially, you test your knowledge.

See Also
Language Learning Reading Challenge

Active recall is the act of retrieving information from your brain.

And it’s not just at the learning stage.

In order to strengthen your ability to remember new information, and particularly your language, you need to retrieve it regularly.

The best part is, active recall requires very little training. In fact, it’s a skill you likely already learned. Think about all the time in school you worked on reading comprehension. You read passages and then answered questions about them.

Active recall is a similar exercise where you ask yourself questions, or test yourself on what you just read.

Active Recall Strategies

Wondering how active recall works in practice? Here are several active recall strategies you can use to learn a new language:

Close Your Book

We’re often tempted to “peek” or look at what we’ve already written down when we’re trying to recall what we’ve learned. By closing your book, app, laptop or notebook, you get to test yourself on how much you really remember.

Once you’ve done this, you can then open your book and fill in the gaps.

Write Down Questions

As you’re going through material, you likely have questions that come up as you’re learning. Active recall is a good way to use those questions to focus on what you’re learning and pick out the parts you don’t understand.

What About You?

Do you relate to any of the above? What memory techniques have you applied to language learning that have worked for you? Let me know in the comments below!

And if you’re interested in learning more about this topic or joining a supportive group of language learners, then I invite you to join me in Language Conqueror!

As a part of Language Conqueror, you get:

  • A video lesson introducing the Quest
  • Daily prompts to guide you along the Quest each day
  • A workbook with all the exercises and instructions you need to complete the Quest
  • A video demonstrating the Quest in action from one of our hosts (or special guests)
  • Trade secrets: these are tricks you can use to succeed at your Quest
  • A Side-Quest: an action you can take to help you gain the confidence you need to complete your Quest
  • Access to the Quest community so you can collaborate with other learners, share what you’re working on, and get support
  • Your Quest: the final assignment you complete to put everything you learned over the month into practice

We hope to see you in the next Quest!

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