Help! My Memory isn’t Good Enough to Learn Another Language!


The wrong impression of what memory is can prevent you from learning another language.

You often hear people say:

“My memory is terrible! Learning a new language isn’t for me.¨

“I’ve tried a few times but I was forgetting words, phrases and grammar rules all over the place!”

“If that happens to me, my memory must suck, right?”

Well, no — actually.

It happens to all of us!

And understanding this is KEY to your language-learning success.

Lack of Memory or Lack of Experience?

If you try learning a new language WITHOUT the understanding of some basic non-technical principles, two things can happen:

1. The lack of understanding of these basic principles makes you quit learning a language (and often never try again.)


2. You learn these principles from experience and use them as building blocks to your language-learning success.

Unfortunately, the first one happens a lot more…

One of these important principles is the understanding of how memory works.

Now, don’t worry. You don’t have to become a brain scientist to get this.

This awareness is about the practical level — exactly where you experience the remembering and forgetting.

Grandparents+0002Not grasping this doesn’t DIRECTLY mean that you will have a poor vocabulary or any other language skill. Rather, it will influence your reaction to the manifestations of the workings failings of human memory.

In other (more earthly) words, if you don’t see memory for what it is, it will erode your self-belief faster than losing a sprint against a 90-year-old!

Memory isn’t What You Think It is

You see, we tend to think that to learn a new language we need a good memory.

Whatever that is…

Millions of people don’t embark on a language-learning journey — or they get off it — just for mistakenly believing that their memory isn’t good enough to learn another language.

They always seem to forget where they put their keys — and they can’t even remember their own phone number. That’s enough for them to believe that their memory is inferior to those of other people.

And that belief also manifests itself in how we see successful language learners.

We think that the secret of a polyglot isn’t a great work ethic — nor a never-waning passion for learning languages.

No, he must have a super memory!

And we don’t…

This is one the most persistent myths in language learning, and it’s time for it to go.

We need to see memory in a different light. The same way as we need to reconsider our ideas about discipline.

Ok, lets clear something up:

You WILL forget a lot of what you learn today. In fact, you won’t be able to recall much of it by tomorrow!

But that’s how it’s supposed to be!

You’re not unique. You’re not alone.

That’s how pretty much every memory works.

Your memory is fine!

That you forget more than half of the words you learn isn’t an indicator of poor memory. It’s an indicator of normal human memory!

Sure, there are things you can do to improve memory retention — which will be the subject of another article — but it’s possible learning a new language without doing that.

Forget and Relearn

One of the keys to language-learning success is allowing yourself to forget something in your target language and relearn it.

Learning a language is: learning, forgetting and relearning. Allow enough of these cycles and it’ll stick to your memory.

If you don’t accept that forgetting is part of learning a language — if you beat yourself up for it, then you’re making it extremely hard for yourself to learn another language.

That isn’t to say that you forget things on purpose. Of course not. But you never stress about it.

You welcome it!

Because every time you RELEARN a word, phrase or grammar rule, you’re one step closer to burning it in your long-term memory.

If you’re 50+, you haven’t been mentally active and you only speak one language, you may have to relearn stuff a few times more. But it’s still perfectly possible to learn another language well and it shouldn’t be used as an excuse!

Borrowing Experience

I’m pretty sure you see the importance of understanding memory for what it is.

The good part is that you can now start or continue your language-learning journey with this in mind without wasting time acquiring the experience through failures.

In other words: my wish is that you take to heart what I’m sharing with you here.

Because if you do so, and the moment of self-doubt arises, you will be able to RECOGNIZE it and remind yourself of the workings of memory. You will be able to keep going and save yourself a lot of agony!

It’s like driving a car that’s bound to go off a cliff but at the last moment you’re able to calmly and skillfully steer the car back to safety.

In the next article, I will share with you a simple method to increase memory retention. It’s a non-intrusive method. You won’t have to make great changes to your language learning. Make sure to subscribe to the Smart Language Learner Email Updates on the right so we can keep in touch. And I’ll let you know as soon as I publish it.



  1. An excellent myth-busting article, Noel.

    A fact that amazed me in a EFL teaching workshop once is that it takes SEVEN meaningful exposures to truly learn a new word. Not two or three but seven. The more times we see or use the word in context, the better it gets ingrained in our memories so forgetting words is actually helpful!

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Thanks Ruth!

      Glad you liked it.

      Yes that’s amazing and shows the importance of allowing yourself to forget.

      Thanks for sharing!

  2. Oh, thank you Noel. I thought there was something wrong with my memory 🙂
    Another great article.

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