Memory Strategies of The World’s Top Language Learners

Have you ever wished someone would give you a precise roadmap to achieving fluency in your dream language?

Well, I used to wish for that kind of exact guidance too. 

However, it turns out that everyone enters the language learning world with a different level of competence. 

Unsplash credit to Dmitry Ratushny

This means that no matter what, there are certain things you just have to figure out on your own. These aspects include:

  • Your best time of day for learning
  • The exact ways you want to learn the language
  • Regional dialect considerations
  • Personal scheduling skills

That said, there are some universal techniques that will help all language learners. And that’s what this post is all about. 

So if you’re ready, check these off one-by-one. They are VERY helpful.


Minimalism For Language Learners

Overwhelm is one of the biggest barriers learners face. And it isn’t new. 

Even before the Internet, there were competing companies offering language learning audio programs, books, and courses. 

But in the last thirty years, the options have exploded. Now, there are more books and courses than ever, plus language learning software programs. 

However, as Christopher Huff talked about during his 2015 presentation at the Berlin Polyglot Gathering, minimalism is a winning strategy.

Instead of hoarding dozens of books and going through just a bit of each, try completing one book at a time. 

Or, as Olly Richards puts it, limit yourself to: 

  • One book
  • One recorded program (audio or video course)
  • One teacher

I like Olly’s advice because it matches a learning technique called “interleaving.” 

The trick is to make sure that the limited materials you choose meet you at your level and encourage you to complete meaningful missions.

For example, you might want to jump straight to fluency, but without knowing the days of the week, you’re going to have a hard time. Therefore, focusing just on the days of the week for a short while will pay off over the long run. 

Other missions you can complete quickly include:

  • Pronouns
  • Colors
  • Adjectives for specific topics (shopping, traveling, family)
  • Numbers

The important metric to consider is figuring out how you can constantly align your focus on what you need in order to progress.



The Single-Syllable Memory Strategy

Léa Tirard-Hersant urges her students to leverage the power of rhyme.

Take a one-syllable word like loon, for example. Loon in English is a one-syllable word that can be rhymed with a one syllable word in French, like une.

To get started with minimal pairs for this exercise, you can find a pile of one-syllable words that rhyme within your own language. The example she and I played around with was “ache” sounding one-syllable words, words like:


You could compile a list like this and then ask your language learning partner or teacher to help you find words in your target language to pair these with.


Get Help From A Pro

At a certain point in your language learning journey, you’re going to plateau. This is a period where you feel like you’re not progressing. 

This happened to me with German and so I reached out to Kerstin Hammes to act as an analyst and coach because I needed help from an expert German native speaker to get a precise picture of where I need to improve and how I should approach the next stage of my journey.

native Speaker
Unsplash credit to Adam Winger


Learn How To Strategize Better

Edward de Bono talks about six hats, each of a different color. Each color denotes a different function:

  • White = Objectivity
  • Red = Emotions
  • Black = Critical thinking
  • Yellow = The sunny positivity big language learning goals require
  • Green = Growth through creativity and the generation of new ideas
  • Blue = Organization

To apply these “hats” to language learning, spend about 15 minutes thinking through each at the beginning of each week.

White Hat: Where do you need to look at things realistically? Do you have too much on your plate? Do you really need to be learning vocabulary for advanced calculus when you still haven’t mastered numbers? 

This step is not about judging yourself or even making changes. It’s just about assessing the status quo and creating a solid, accurate picture. That way, when you do make changes to your learning plan, you’ll get better results.

Red Hat: The red hat is all about checking in with your emotions.

For example, a lot of learners get frustrated. By analyzing the emotions, you can better recognize where you’re not being realistic and defuse some of the mental states that are probably holding you back from making real progress with your language.

Black Hat: This hat is about critical thinking, which means creating strategies. Here’s where you correct course and make a better plan. 

Yellow Hat: Getting to fluency requires a lot of sunny positivity. To help with that, I suggest meditation. If you can link this with a language you’re learning like I talked about in my TEDx Talk, all the better.

Green Hat: To include more creativity in the language learning process, using memory techniques is one of the best bets. Minimal pairs are fun, but it will only get you so far. I suggest learning the Memory Palace technique for language learning. 

Blue Hat: This is the phase where you focus on organizing. You could use this hat to delete all those apps from your phone that aren’t helping, for example, and schedule time with a language speaking partner instead.


Embrace the Challenge and Ditch Frustration

As we’ve seen, there really is no “best” way to keep making progress with your language. A successful outcome is much more something you build for yourself than anything you can discover or borrow.

That’s going to be a challenge, but that’s okay. In fact, challenge is necessary for growth.

The trick is in recognizing what frustrates you and then scaling back. You don’t want to make it so easy that you get bored and give up. But you do need to stretch and this bit of pushing needs to happen consistently. 

If all else fails, then your lack of success probably has nothing to do with a lack of “how to” knowledge. It may be that you need to seek help from a performance coach instead. There are people who specialize in this area and they don’t have to be learning languages themselves in order to help you succeed.

Unsplash credit to Kristopher Roller

But hopefully, the tips in this post can help spare you the time and you’ll use de Bono’s hats to coach yourself. 

Language learning is such a great adventure and the rewards keep stacking on the more you show up. Just make sure you aren’t dodging the growing pains involved. Managed appropriately, it’s in them that you’ll find the progress you seek.


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1 year ago

Thank you for sharing these 5 useful strategies. The Single-Syllable Memory Strategy is particularly useful, and I will keep it in mind.