December 18, 2023

How to use memory effectively to learn a language? Types of memory and mnemonics.

by Anna Zielazny

When I studied for exams in college, I often used the so-called “three Z’s” method: in Polish, zakuć, zdać, zapomnieć, or “cram, pass and forget.” It worked great for taking exams on subjects that didn’t interest me at all. The three Z method, however, failed me when I started learning Portuguese. After all, learning a language is all about remembering as much as possible and not forgetting. That’s when I became interested in human memory and how to use it effectively to learn a language. 

I started by highlighting words in books to filter out the most important key words and phrases. I also made lists on cards that I tried to repeat. Although I was memorizing more, I still wasn’t satisfied. I had heard about memory masters who are able to memorize huge strings of numbers, and I was angry with myself that I couldn’t do that. I started reading about mnemonics, spaced repetition, and other memorization techniques. I implemented them step by step. Quite quickly I noticed the results. For example, I found it much easier to remember words if I associated them with words I knew from other languages. 

When I joined the Taalhammer team, I became interested in the subject in earnest. Taalhammer’s founders had spent years educating themselves about memory and testing memorization techniques for language learning on themselves. They surprised me with the ease with which they could recall various interesting words and phrases in different languages. I spent a ton of time talking about what works and what doesn’t. I have participated in research and analysis of other users’ results.

In the following article I will share my knowledge and experience with you. If you want to know how to hack your memory to increase your memorization efficiency then I invite you to read on.

Types of memory – short-term and long-term memory

You have probably experienced a situation where someone asked you something, and you totally couldn’t remember what it was about. Or you wanted to say something in English, and the word was on the tip of your tongue, but yet you couldn’t remember how to say it.

Why did this happen?

Our brains are designed to forget most information. In the evolutionary pathway, the most important thing was to assimilate those pieces of information that led to survival, such as finding food or reproduction.

Moreover, forgetting is a necessary process for optimizing the performance of our memory. There is a very rare disorder called Hypermnesia. People affected by this disorder are able, without effort, to recall in great detail most of the events of their lives. It turns out that these people are unable to function normally. From their descriptions, it appears that they are overwhelmed and tired by the never-ending influx of memories, which are without any relevance to their current functioning.

This means that remembering information that the brain may judge as less important (English vocabulary, for example) involves effort. Your learning of a foreign language is, de facto, a battle against the process of forgetting. 

There are many types of memory, which have different modes of operation and different purposes. Depending on the situation and type, information is stored in the right place and in different ways. In this article, we will focus primarily on short-term and long-term memory (including declarative and procedural memory).

But what distinguishes each of them and how does it relate to language learning? Let’s take a look.

Short-term memory

Memorization begins precisely by using short-term memory, also known as working memory. This is the area that the brain engages, for example, for the task of repeating a just-heard sequence of numbers in reverse order. Try to remember this sequence “8-2-4-9-1-3.” Now close your eyes and replay it from the last to the first. Whether you succeed depends on how good your short-term memory is just now. Regardless of the result, however, you won’t remember anything in two hours. And that’s because this memory stores information for a few seconds to a few minutes.

Any knowledge we acquire must first pass through the short-term memory phase. Then the brain decides whether the newly acquired information will be stored in the long-term memory or discarded. In other words, what we remember is filtered by the brain, which decides what is relevant to it. Therefore, it is important to learn a new language in a way that our brain will interpret as relevant. In this way, you will “send” the information further and thus be able to use it later, for example, during a conversation.

Short-term memory can be compared to a funnel through which water is poured. Water in this context symbolizes the stream of words and sentences we are trying to learn. It is advisable to pour them in slowly and systematically so that all the contents can flow freely. Pouring too much, too fast, can cause the funnel to clog and lose the contents. When you are learning languages, you may overdo the amount of material. During a session, you may think you are doing a lot in a short period of time, but in reality you will remember very little. That’s why it’s important to optimize our learning patterns. Only then will the data go further, that is, into the long-term memory.

Long-term memory

So what is the difference between long-term memory and short-term memory? This is indicated by the name itself. Long-term memory is a type of memory that allows you to store information for a longer period of time. Data remains in the long-term memory from a few minutes to the end of your life. It is through this memory that you can remember facts, events, skills, and experiences.

In the case of learning a language, it is necessary for information such as vocabulary words, grammatical rules, sentence constructions, etc. to go into your long-term memory. At the right moment, for example, during a conversation, the data stored in the long-term memory will be read out. 

How do you transfer words and sentences from the short-term memory to the long-term memory? By appropriate repetition. Studies show that the memorization process is spread out over time. Even repeating the same information multiple times in the short term has virtually no effect on our ability to reproduce that information in the long term. A good example is the number of a hotel room on vacation (or the access code to that room). After the first few repetitions, we use it without error. Unfortunately (or fortunately), you are unlikely to recall it a month after returning from vacation.

The mechanism of the Spaced Repetition algorithm was described more than 100 years ago, and it is one of psychology’s most spectacular discoveries when it comes to a method of effectively repeating and remembering information.

However, is it enough to commit data such as words and grammar rules to the long-term memory? Will we then be able to communicate fluently in a foreign language? Unfortunately, not necessarily. This is because there are two types of long-term memory involved.

Two types of long-term memory

Declarative memory

Declarative memory (also called descriptive memory or factual memory) is a type of memory that is responsible for storing information and knowledge about facts, events, data, places, people, etc. Such conscious memory allows us to store knowledge of individual words and grammatical rules. Unfortunately, it is not enough to let us speak the language fluently. 

Although in theory you may know a lot of vocabulary and rules (because you have them stored in your conscious, declarative memory), you may still not be able to communicate fluently – the process of speaking in a foreign language, as in the native one, must be “automated” as much as possible. If the information is stored only in the declarative memory, you will get tired trying to “consciously” find it. This is what happens at the beginning of learning a foreign language. You stutter and get confused and have great difficulty in piecing together meaningful speech. And yet speaking in English is completely effortless for you.

So what else needs to happen in order to use a foreign language fluently? The information must be automated, and therefore transferred to procedural memory.

Procedural memory

In contrast to declarative memory is procedural memory. This is a specific type of memory characterized by the ability to perform certain types of tasks without awareness, in an automated manner.

The processes directed by procedural memory usually take place below the level of conscious attention. These tasks range from tying shoes to reading or riding a bicycle. Think of it this way: you never consciously think about balance and frictional force while riding a bicycle. And yet you ride.

In order for you to be able to use language fluently and with confidence, you need to transfer your knowledge from the conscious level – declarative memory – to the unconscious level – procedural memory. In this way, you will automatically know how to use language structures, including grammar and sentence construction, and combine words with each other to form sentences. Speaking will then become effortless, and words and sentences will come to your tongue on their own.  Put another way, you will begin to “feel the language” and use it intuitively, knowing what is correct and what is not, without consciously thinking about language rules or principles. When the process of using the language is automated, you will gain fluency.

So how do we transfer our knowledge of language from the declarative to the procedural memory? By repeating whole sequences of words – sentences, phrases, collocations. In this way, a grammatical rule stored in the declarative memory will have its representation in procedural memory. Speech is a sequence of words. Note that even in your native language you are not able to repeat the words of a song beyond a few lines the first time, even though you know the language perfectly.

As you learn the language, you will have to practice the shorter and longer elements of your “song” until linking them together becomes subconscious. Learning the elements is a staggered process. However, time is not the only factor that affects the effectiveness of the whole process. It is useful to know what other factors affect the success of our efforts.

Factors affecting the memorization process

A good memory is a component of many factors. Unfortunately, human memory does not always work optimally. There are indeed many factors that can affect memory, which can reduce your performance and slow down or even block your development in language learning.

Concentration and attentiveness

Focusing attention on the information we are trying to remember is key. Distractions can lead to difficulty remembering. When studying, create an environment that will support your focus. For example, don’t study in front of a TV that will tempt you with a series to watch. Also, turn off, or mute, your phone to avoid external distractions. Interestingly, studies show that a small detail like changing the place where you study has a beneficial effect on memorization. So next time, instead of sitting at home, try going to your favorite coffee shop and repeating the material there.


High levels of stress can negatively affect concentration, as well as the ability to remember. Psychology and medicine have for years highlighted the disastrous effects of long-term stress on the body, as well as its impact on cognitive abilities. Relaxation and techniques to help manage stress can help improve memory ability. So if you’re feeling tense before you sit down to study, go for a short walk or practice mindful breathing methods.

Stressed girl learning languages


If a piece of information is associated with strong emotions and experiences, remembering it is usually easier. If you’re learning vocabulary that means nothing to you, you may have more difficulty remembering than, for example, when you learn vocabulary related to a topic you’re passionate about, or phrases you might use on an upcoming trip you’ve been looking forward to for a long time.


As you age, your ability to remember things can deteriorate. This doesn’t mean that older people can’t have a good memory; however, they need to work on it by exercising and taking care of their brains. It’s also worth remembering that while memorization in general may become more difficult with age, and thus learning a language will be more challenging, there are elements of memory that work better with age. Learn more about this topic by reading the article “Is it possible to learn a language at any age?“.

Sleep and overall health

Your lifestyle, including an adequate amount of sleep, a healthy diet and regular physical activity, has a huge impact on brain function and memory capacity. Take advantage of this consciously: for example, after learning new material, make sure you devote enough time to sleep. This will give your brain time to process the information and transfer it from short-term to long-term memory.


Putting information in context makes it easier to remember. If you understand the meaning of the information, it will be easier for you to remember it. In Taalhammer you have the option to create your own collections of sentences and words. This is a very simple thing that gives you incredible results.

If you have experienced something exciting, enter a few sentences about it in our application. Sentence finder, our AI translator, will make it easy to create any examples, even complicated ones. With repetition in the next lesson with the teacher, you will be able to use these sentences fluently and talk about the whole situation. The emotional context will make remembering these phrases much easier and the transfer to long-term memory much shorter. Before you know it you will have a whole set of such stories, which you will tell over and over again to different people, expanding, nuancing and adding more and more details. In this way, you’ll be learning the language in the context you particularly need. 

It is worth mentioning a few other techniques for remembering and improving our memory.

One of them is mnemonics.

Mnemonics: What is it exactly?

Mnemonics is a type of mental technique that aids organization and memorization and facilitates the acquisition of more information. In the context of language learning, mnemonics can speed up the process of mastering the desired language, enabling more effective memorization of words and language structures.

These primarily include visualization techniques. Mnemonic techniques are considered so effective that Anthony Metivier, a world-renowned memorization expert, strongly advocates their use.

Effective learning is all about remembering information permanently and in such a way that it can be recalled effectively when needed. For this to be possible, both hemispheres of the brain must be activated. The general rule is that the right side is responsible for creativity and imagination, while the left side is responsible for logical thinking and understanding words. Memorization methods based on mnemonics work in such a way that both hemispheres are activated at the same time, so you are able to process and remember data in a more efficient and lasting way.

Memory Palace – the origins of mnemonics

The subject of memory has fascinated people since the dawn of time. The ancient poet Simonides of Keos is considered the “discoverer” of mnemonics. However, the story is quite tragic – the roof of a house collapsed during a party. Many people tragically died, and their mangled bodies were difficult to identify. However, Symonides helped identify them, as he remembered where each person was sitting. 

It is from this event that the name of the memory palace (“method of loci”, Roman room) is derived. The idea is to locate the information you want to remember in a familiar space (context), in specific places that are familiar to you. 

This technique requires the creation of a real or imaginary room or building type structure. For example, if you are able to imagine your bedroom, you can create a kind of memory palace. Once you have determined where you want to build your mental palace, you determine and memorize the order of places in the room. By establishing the order going clockwise, for example: 1st dresser, 2nd bed ,3rd carpet, 4th boss, etc. you will be able to use this order wherever you need the sequence. Now on each of these places you place imaginary scenes that represent what you want to remember. Interestingly enough, you only need to associate these scenes loosely with the information you are remembering.

For example, we have a few sentences to remember and one of them is the Spanish question, Como se llama? (“What is your name?”). So we place on the dresser a strange gentleman in a colorful sombrero who is holding a large bundle of comos (Como se) which he is plucking from a llama (llama), who by the way indignantly asks him: What is your name? You’ll admit that it’s quite a surreal sight in your bedroom. And that’s exactly the point. It turns out that it’s quite easy for us to remember these kinds of stories. Importantly, these associations don’t always have to sound exactly like the sentence in the target language. In the case of the llama sentence, we got a sound very similar to Spanish, but often a single sound or word is enough to create an effective association.

Another example is the Italian word “la piazza”. If you’re learning Italian, envision a picturesque piazza hanging above your bedside table titled “La piazza” (Italian for “the square”). The Italian word “piazza” sounds similar to the English word “pizza.” Visualize a bustling piazza with people enjoying slices of pizza at outdoor cafes, linking the two words in your mind. This imaginative scene will reinforce the association between “piazza” and its meaning.

Spaced Repetition

If you don’t repeat information, it probably won’t be stored in your long-term memory. Regular repetition of information to reinforce its storage in the memory is a key part of learning any subject, especially a foreign language. Repetition is the key to long-term memorization. If you repeat given vocabulary words or whole sentences at appropriate intervals, they will go into your long-term memory, and you will be able to recall them at any time. 

Unfortunately, not every type of repetition is equally effective. When learning a foreign language, the most important thing is that the repetition is sufficiently difficult and takes place at specific intervals. Such a method is called spaced repetition. Simplifying, the material that gives you the most difficulty should be repeated much more often than ones you have less trouble with. The more familiar you are with the material, the less frequently it will appear on repetition, until it is finally stored effectively in your long-term memory.

Learn more about this topic by reading our article on Spaced Repetition, the method used by the Taalhammer app.

Other memorization techniques 

Finally, we bring you additional memorization techniques that prove to be extremely effective when learning foreign languages. We’ve chosen only those methods that actually work – we’ve proven them through years of testing and research. We have combined them with each other and improved them to create the best materials and ways to study foreign languages. 

If you want to increase your memorization ability and use only proven learning techniques to finally master a foreign language effectively, be sure to try Taalhammer. 

Here are some popular techniques you can use while studying:

  1. Storytelling: Creating stories that contain information you want to remember. The more interesting or entertaining the story is, the easier you will remember it. Using stories, histories, or fairy tales can be a great way to learn a foreign language. Olly Richards, a teacher and language learner, has even created a method they call StoryLearning to learn language from stories. It is indeed an effective method, but it should be combined with others to get the most out of it.

What’s more, it’s good to know that you learn best from stories you are already familiar with. There are studies that indicate that you are able to understand much more from stories you already know in your native language, even if they are told in a foreign language. Studies have indicated that when beginners in a language read books they previously knew, such as The Little Prince, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, etc., they were able to understand up to 20% of the vocabulary. A study in which beginners listened to current news in a foreign language had a similar effect.

You can learn more by reading our articles about how to use storytelling in language learning.

  1. Nursery rhymes and songs: turning information into rhymes or songs makes them easier to remember. Surely you remember the song “Old McDonald” or other rhymes from your English lessons? If not, you can always create them or reach for those available from various sources and repeat them. Although they sound ridiculous, it’s easy to remember information with them. This is because you learn by heart whole texts that make sense. This method is much more effective than recalling single vocabulary words. 

Learn more about using songs to learn English. In the article above, we show you, using a beautiful Dutch ballad as an example, how to effectively use your favorite songs to learn the language.

The use of mnemonics in the Taalhammer app

The polyglots at Taalhammer have actually used a number of methods in the process of learning languages. Using years of research and their experience, they created a tool that utilizes the achievements of modern psychology for effective language learning. The recall of content is determined by an algorithm, so you don’t have to think about when you should review the material again before you forget it. Artificial intelligence calculates the optimal moments for repetition. In addition, you can very easily create your own content to be able to say what you want, on the topics that interest you most. The whole-sentence learning method allows you to memorize vocabulary words, grammatical structures and sentence constructions, which are naturally, subconsciously stored in long-term memory and then recalled during conversation.

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