The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit".


Does getting yourself into the habit of language-learning excellence sound good to you? This article offers you a perspective on the passive and the active functions of the mind and the memory. It contrasts the unaided memory with the aided memory. You’ll read about a language-learning process that puts practice in its proper place, and you’ll see why it’s important to differentiate between the phases of consuming and generating language.


I want you to be successful with your language-learning. So, I’ve written this article to explain how I believe you can use your mind and memory to its full potential to learn the languages that you love so much.



Passive and Active Memory


‘Remember’ and ‘forget’ are convenient words that we all use in a loose kind of way. For example:


  • If I don't use a word then I forget it too quickly.
  • It annoys me when I can't remember the word I want to use.


To overcome this kind of forgetfulness, I think it helps to know how our memory works. Everyone may have noticed that their passive vocabulary contains more words than their active vocabulary does. Meaning that there are a heap of words that you know when someone else uses them; but there aren’t as many words that you know well enough to use on your own. Our passive vocabulary is the set of words that we can recognize. Our active vocabulary is the set of words that we can recall. In both cases, you’re remembering something, right? In both cases, the word has been stored in your memory in some way. So, thinking in terms of recognition and recall is a better way to actionable insight than thinking in general concepts such as remembering and forgetting. What do you think?


It’s not just vocabulary. We’re talking about grammatical rules, too. Every interesting nugget and fact that we want to know about a language. Let’s call them ‘language elements’, or just ‘elements’ for short. The relationships we have with the elements that we can recognize (passive) and with the elements that we can recall (active) are two very different relationships.


To turn a thought into language, the thought needs to have a string (a connection) that reaches into your active memory. You actively tug on the string and pull the language memory toward you so that you can use it in your speech or writing. If there is no string for you to pull, then you can’t actively turn your thought into language. This is what we mean when we say, ‘I can't remember the word I want to use’. A connection might still exist; but it’s a passive one.


Furthermore, have you ever heard of the saying “tip of your tongue”? As in, when you are trying to express something and you distinctly want to say a certain word but somehow you cannot think of it to say it -- but you also think you know of this word! This is the complexity of your passive and active vocabulary playing cruel tricks on you.


A passive connection can only be used to turn language into thought. With language elements that we can only recognize, we’re not the ones in control. The memory notifies us when we recognize it. The memory is the one pulling the strings, and we are the passive partner.


Wouldn’t it be nice if we could change the direction in which the strings are pulled? And turn every passive relationship into an active one? You can. If you can learn how to recall.



Unaided and Aided Memory


Your memory is a fascinating mechanism. It's so deep that you'll never fill it. So why are some elements hard to recall? It’s not an issue of storage space; it's about grip. An element that you know, but you can’t recall, is like a bowling ball without holes. It’s there...but you can’t get hold of it.


If you’re exposed to an element enough times, over a long enough period, then you will eventually develop the ability to recall it. This is the unaided mind and memory. It's what we do by default, and it’s how we learned our native language while we were growing up. It’s a relatively inefficient method but, as babies, we had no option.


There is another way, though. If you make the effort to attach some kind of handle to the elements that you store in your memory, then you will be able to recall them. The idea is to build a little scene of images, sounds, and meanings that associate things that you can already recall with things that you want to be able to recall. This association is called a mnemonic. And this is the aided memory.


For example, the Japanese word for ‘voice’ is pronounced koh-e (ˈkoʊˌe). That immediately makes me think of ‘co-ed’, so I should use that automatic association to my advantage. I should also associate these two words with how to read and write the kanji. So, I use the primitives in the kanji to imagine a samurai who is splitting a flag in half with just the power of his own voice, like some singers can break a wine glass. Why is he going through so much effort? To impress a co-ed. In that way, I can connect everything to the word ‘co-ed’, which is a word that I already know.


You should invent your own scenarios; they’ll be stronger and more memorable than if someone else suggests them to you. You’re also more likely to recall ideas that evoke strong emotions in you. Excitement, fear, humor, or disgust. Put your sensibilities aside and keep your eyes on the prize of being able to recall what you want to recall. No-one else needs to know your mnemonics, and you only need to use them until recollection becomes automatic.


Remember. Your memory doesn't have a problem with lots of information; it has a problem with grip. It needs mnemonic ‘handles’.



Your Three-Stage Language-Learning Process


As language-learners, we put a lot of focus on practicing. And rightly so. But we need to be careful, and remember that improvement comes from more than just practicing blindly.


  • I need to practice my English (for example) so that it will improve.
  • I need to write or speak as much as possible.


Remember Aristotle’s ‘we are what we repeatedly do’. So, we need to learn properly before we practice. We need to know what we’re doing before we practice. The habit we get into should be the habit of doing it right, and not doing it wrong.


A good language-learning process can help guarantee that. You learn a language by learning the individual elements of that language: the grammar and vocabulary, and so on. With each element of language knowledge, you go through three stages. You begin by understanding it, which means learning how to use it correctly. Then you internalize it in your working-memory, and practice it a little just to prove that you can recall how to use it correctly. And finally, you practice it a lot so that you become fluent.


This also brings up the distinction between the two modes of language: consuming (listening and reading), and generating (speaking and writing). Most of the time, you’re consuming language generated by someone else. Some of the time, you’re generating language yourself. Both modes make important appearances in the three stages of language-learning. You consume in the first stage; you generate a little in the second stage; and in the third stage you develop fluency both by consuming and by generating. There’s a little bit of practice in stage two, and a lot of practice in stage three.





This is stage one of the process. When you encounter a new and unfamiliar element of language knowledge, the first thing you want to do is to understand it. You’re in consumption mode, and you study the rules of the element. You study the meaning, pronunciation, and spelling of words. You study examples. As long as you’re learning from an authoritative source, it doesn’t matter whether you’re learning from a teacher, from books, or from some other resource. But an authoritative source is one that understands language and can explain it clearly.


Understanding an element means that you know it; it has become knowledge. But understanding doesn’t imply that you’ll be able to recall it tomorrow—or even in an hour—and explain it to someone else. No, it just means that the element makes sense to you. When you see it again, you recognize it. And when you see anything that contradicts the element, you recognize that, too. You have a pattern-matching, ‘know-it-when-you-see-it’ kind of relationship with the element. And that means that—at the very least—it has been stored in your passive memory. But first things first. Don’t concern yourself with being able to recall an element until you’re sure you understand it.


It’s also a good idea to keep your learning curve relatively shallow. You should always be taking short, correct steps forward. You should always be having fun, and not getting exhausted nor frustrated. That way you'll spend more time practicing. Loss of motivation is the biggest factor in failure; you don't learn language when you're not ‘doing’ language.





Now let’s get that language element into your active memory so that you can recall it at will. In a nutshell, this process involves being able to recall the element from your working memory (also called short-term memory) and then refreshing that memory repeatedly until you build a long-term memory of it. This is where the aided memory mnemonic handles technique comes into play.


Imagining a little scenario is one form of mnemonic, or memory-aid. If you condense a grammar rule down into a little mantra that you repeat over and over, then that’s a mnemonic, too. Here’s an example of a mnemonic mantra.


  • Dictionary form stem い


This example is meant to be remembered in the context of Japanese い - adjectives. It’s designed to be the minimum information necessary for you to recall that the dictionary form of an い - adjective is the stem plus い. From that, you can figure out that you get the stem by removing the い. You should design your own mnemonics, whether they’re visual and auditory scenarios, or succinct little mantras. Then study them enough that you can recite them with your eyes closed.


Working memory fades quickly, and it needs to be refreshed. So, set yourself a regular schedule over the next few minutes, hours, and days, to recite the mnemonic from working memory. Each time you exercise the element, it will take longer for your memory to fade. So, you can wait successively longer periods before you need to exercise it again. Recite after a few seconds, then a minute, then ten minutes, then thirty. Then after an hour, then two hours, and so on. You double (or otherwise increase) the period each time. As you exercise your working memory in this way, you cause long-term memory structures to grow over the temporary scaffolding of your working memory.


But feel free to set a pace that works for you. The measure of whether you’re working hard enough is your ability to recall your elements. If you’re forgetting, then you’re not working hard enough. If you’re remembering, then you have the option to try easing off a bit.


In the meantime, you need to double-check that you’re recalling and using the language element correctly. You shouldn’t concern yourself with becoming fluent until you’re certain that the thing you’re recalling is correct. So speak, write a practice sentence or two that illustrates your understanding, and have these checked by an authoritative source. You can go back to the source from which—or from whom—you first learned the language element. Or you can use an italki Notebook post. In its members, italki has a high concentration of authoritative sources of language knowledge.


This second stage involves language generation, rather than language consumption. But make your practice short. Notebook posts that are quick to correct are likely to be corrected. Plus, if you make the same mistake a number of times then you risk becoming fluent at making that mistake. Bad language habits are hard to undo.





Being able to recall a language element and use it without making mistakes is quite an achievement. It’s then time for stage three of your learning process. To achieve fluency, you practice your recall of an element by generating as many examples of it as you can, as often as you can. Your examples can be spoken (either out loud, or imagined in your head) or written (like a diary or a journal).


You practice (to stimulate the brain), and then you rest (so that the pathways in your brain grow and deepen). After enough immersion, persistence, and practice, using the element will become second nature. At that point, you’ll no longer need your mnemonics and mantras, and they’ll fade away. With respect to speaking and writing, fluency is effortless recall. When it comes to listening, and reading, fluency is effortless recognition.





You don’t learn a language in one bite. A production-line of knowledge moves through you like a conveyor-belt. There will be some elements you haven't thought about yet; some you're learning and practicing; and others that you’re already fluent in. Keep this production-line fed and moving.


According to Aristotle, you become what you repeatedly do. In language-learning, what are the language-learning activities that you should routinely choose to do? My answer is: use italki, and follow this process. First understand, then recall, then practice to the point of fluency.


Excellence is not an act, but a habit. I want you to be certain that any habits you pick up are leading you toward language excellence!


Hero image by Couleur (CC0 1.0)