Flash cards are very popular among language learners. The long-term memory skills involved in memorizing new words and phrases so you can recall them later is key to language learning, but they’re only part of the equation. Other skills, such as working memory and fluid intelligence, factor in as well.
Fluid intelligence is the ability to problem-solve in unique situations. If you gave me 100 flashcards with the most commonly spoken words in your target language (and the necessary rules of grammar to be able to put them together), I could give you back countless sentences you’ve never heard before, all made up of words you are familiar with.
Understanding the meaning of these sentences requires fluid intelligence, not just remembering the meanings of the individual words. Working memory is what allows you to keep all these words in your head at once while you’re processing the entire sentence.
Become a Word Juggler
The mental skills involved in decoding the speech of a native are a lot like the skills involved in juggling. Have you ever seen an expert juggler performing in front of a group? Her partner throws an extra club into the mix, then another, and another. Whether or not she is able to catch them all and incorporate them into the rotation, she keeps juggling the clubs already in hand.
Think of the clubs being passed to the juggler as words in a spoken sentence. The clubs that don’t make it into rotation and are left fallen on the ground are words that the listener (juggler) doesn’t know yet or didn’t quite catch in the normal flow of conversation. The words that the listener knows are more likely to be “caught”, but either way, the skillful juggler will be able to keep juggling, and avoid dropping everything.
Our brains are constantly dealing with multiple pieces of information while we process language: the individual words, the structure of the sentence, the subtle change in the speaker’s tone of voice that carries its own nuances of meaning.
As a beginner holding a conversation with a native speaker of your target language, you can be sure that your conversation partner’s speech will be peppered with words that cannot be found in your flash card deck. It is easy to become fixated on those unknown words, and then lose track of the rest of the sentence, like the juggler dropping all of her clubs. To overcome this hurdle, you need to improve your ability to manage these multiple pieces of information as they’re coming at you.
Four Ways to Improve Your Word Juggling Skills
1. Listen and repeat
Find an audio or video track in your target language. Try to repeat everything the speaker says as soon as you hear it. Don’t press pause just because you missed something. The goal here is improvement, not perfection. It will gradually take less and less effort to process what you’re hearing at the same time as speaking in a confident, natural tone of voice.
I like video clips of journalists the best because their storytelling style of delivery is usually pretty engaging. Even if I miss some of the words, the excitement in their voice is fun to emulate. Too difficult? Try it in your native language first.
This is a toned-down version of number one, but it’s worthwhile nonetheless. It’s just like listening and repeating, except you listen and type or write out what is being said, and the pause button is allowed this time. Obviously, you won’t be able to transcribe audio at the same speed as the average person talks. Just try to increase the number of words you are able to transcribe between clicks of the pause/play button.
3. The dual n-back test
The dual n-back test displays a grid where a block randomly appears in one of the quadrants at the same time as an audio recording of a letter of the alphabet is played. Then the block appears in another quadrant with another letter spoken. The task is to remember if the same block position was displayed and the same letter was played 2, 3, 4 (whatever your ‘n’ is) turns ago.
The jury is still out on the effectiveness of the dual n-back test for improving memory, but give it a shot and see what you think. Check it out here:
Soak Your Head Dual NBack App
There are also versions for iPhone and Android to use on the go.
Of course, the dual n-back test is not a language- specific learning tool, but having it in your arsenal is great for when you need a break from language-specific activities.
4. Create your own game
Challenge yourself to transform daily activities into opportunities to improve your mental juggling skills. When you are at a restaurant with friends, can you remember everyone’s order by the time it comes to the table? Next time you get a new phone number, try keeping it in your head for a minute before programming it into your phone.
Soon, with your newfound memory superpowers, you’ll be able to keep those mysterious chunks of sound in your head until you can write them down and look them up. Then, go ahead and put them into a flashcard deck. If you’re not completely sure what you heard, use contextual clues or ask a native speaker what they think.