Some people remember languages really easily, but I feel like most people (like myself) struggle to keep things we’ve learned in our brains.
I’ve started learning another language from scratch and I’m reminded just how difficult it is to transfer knowledge from passive to active memory. Especially when you’re not at school and studying it on your own!
For the last 6 months or so I’ve been working on techniques and study tricks to help me actively remember a new language. And I’d like to share these methods with you!
What is Passive and Active Memory?
Let’s say you’ve studied some vocabulary from a textbook. Then you go away and study other things. When you think back to that initial vocabulary, you remember studying it, but you’ll probably struggle to remember the specifics. But flip back to the page and, “Oh yeah, these were the words I studied, I remember them now!”—This is passive memory.
Passive memory is when you need an external source to trigger a specific memory.
But let’s say you don’t need to look at the page again and can just remember the vocabulary when you want to—This is active memory.
Active memory is when you can remember something through your own volition without any external prompts.
Passive memory is used more when you’re reading or listening to something, while active memory is used when you’re speaking or writing.
Obviously, passive and active memory play a role in reading, listening, speaking, and writing, but it’s easier to use Japanese without thinking when you have a stronger active memory of things you’ve studied.
The Trick to Getting Japanese from Your Passive to Active Memory
When you are exposed to something new your brain creates neurons to connect meanings. But these are temporary unless you’re exposed to the same thing over and over again, giving your brain a chance to slowly set those new neurons in stone.
Your brain doesn’t want to remember everything, which is why it clears out information it thinks you won’t need (normally while you’re sleeping).
This is why practice and repetitive exposure is needed to keep information in your long-term memory. (See “the forgetting curve”)
However, you could still have a passive memory in your long-term memory if you don’t proactively move it to active memory.
Alongside practice you need to use what you’re learning without relying on a crutch (the trigger for a passive memory). This is the trick to moving something from your passive to your active memory—use what you’re learning.
I would even go so far as to say 30% input (passive) and 70% output (active).
Here are some study methods for using your Japanese for effective active memorization!
Study Methods for Active Memory of Vocabulary
Vocabulary is so incredibly important when learning a language. You might know a lot of grammar or kanji, but neither’s much use without the words you need to convey what you want to say!
1. English ⇒ Japanese Anki Flashcards
I love Anki because of how customizable it is and I love making my own flashcards. It helps to create your flashcards so that you’re prompted with the English and forced to remember the Japanese.
That’s because when you’re speaking or writing you often think, “oh, what was the Japanese word for OOO?” If you’ve trained your brain to make those links from the English meaning to the Japanese it becomes easier to remember when you need it.
Another benefit of Anki is its spaced repetition system (SRS). SRS is key to combatting that forgetting curve and getting that information into your long-term memory!
「TIP!」If you’re struggling to remember a word without a prompt then I highly suggest making a mnemonic for yourself! Mnemonics are memory devices where you make little stories or create word associations to help you remember something.
I really struggled to remember the word for “eyelids” まぶた, so I made the mnemonic “MA pig’s (ぶた) got eyelids!” (If you struggle to remember vocabulary you can find this and more tips here How to Remember Japanese Vocabulary!)
2. English ⇒ Japanese Vocab List Recollection
This process is similar to Anki, but an analogue version. Basically, get yourself a notepad, list the English meanings you’re trying to learn, and then try to remember the Japanese words.
Say the word out loud and/or write it down on the paper (or another notepad).
If you can’t remember a word, write it out a few times. Just keep coming back to the same paper, covering the same Japanese words, focusing on those you’ve had to rewrite.
This is a good exercise if you’re struggling with a particular set of vocabulary. It also allows you to control what you focus on, rather than relying on the randomness of a machine.
Recollecting (engage your active memory) by writing is a good way to practice your writing skills, whereas recollecting by speaking is good for speaking skills. And it never hurts to alternate between the two!
Study Methods for Active Memory for Writing
1. Write a Diary (Even if it’s only 1 sentence a day.)
I’ve found that writing a diary, even if it’s just 1 sentence a day, is a great way to engage active memory. It’s particularly good for trying to remember how to spell things and key grammar points.
Instead of trying to say something new, focus on using vocabulary and grammar you’ve previously learned—you’re trying to train your memory, not fill your brain with new information!
If you’re a beginner, it doesn’t matter if the sentence is super simple, or even entirely true, so long as you’re using what you’ve learned.
When I get something wrong (and I do!) I will write that word out or say it a few times to try to reinforce my memory of it for next time.
See this article on Keeping a Diary in Japanese for ideas on types of diaries you can write!
2. Write Flashcard Answers
Whether you use a digital flashcard program like Anki, or a physical flashcard system, you can adapt your flashcard practice so you write out the answers instead of saying them out loud (or in your head).
This takes a little longer but it’s worth it in the long run as it not only engages your active memory, but your muscle memory as well! You’ll eventually be able to write Japanese without much thought at all, partially because it’s in your active memory, but also because your muscles will remember how certain words are written.
Study Methods for Active Memory for Speaking
1. Textless Teachers
If your goal is speaking fluently then you need to find a Japanese teacher who focuses on having conversations rather than going through a textbook.
When you work through a textbook the Japanese is right in front of you, acting as a trigger to engage your passive memory. But lessons that focus on conversation, where the teacher lets you come up with your own sentences on the fly, give you more opportunities to engage your brain.
This is also great for making mistakes! Mistakes are a fantastic way to engrave information into your long term and active memory. Yes, they can be embarrassing, but that’s not a bad thing!
See this article on How To Get the Most of Out of One-on-One Japanese Lessons for working with Japanese teachers.
2. Talk to Yourself
Talking to yourself is perfectly healthy, and not something just a crazy person would do…! *Ahem* But seriously, talking to yourself is a great way to practice your Japanese speaking!
Try narrating what you’re doing, going to do, need to do, what you did, or even just what you’re thinking about out loud!
If you’re a beginner you can point at objects and try to remember what they are and how to say them.
If you can’t remember a word or grammar point that you know you’ve learned, use your phone to quickly look it up, say it, and then move on. But be sure to revisit it again later in order to combat that forgetting curve!
See this article on Techniques to Improve Speaking Fluently [For ALL Levels] for other methods for improving your speaking skills.
Those are six simple exercises you can do to engage your active memory and start making Japanese more instinctual! If you do these exercises regularly (and avoid that forgetting curve), then you’ll make speaking and writing Japanese feel more natural in no time!
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