In the world of language learning, there are actually two main kinds of memory, not just one:
- Declarative memory stores explicit facts and events. Declarative memories can be consciously “declared” (i.e. explained in words), hence their name. You can think of it as knowing what. This is the type of memory that comes to mind when most people think of “learning a language” (e.g. memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules). While it certainly has its place, the next type of memory is equally—if not even more—important when it comes to reaching fluency in a language.
- Procedural memory stores implicit skills. Procedural memories are unconscious and automatic and difficult to put into words. You can think of it as knowing how. Procedural memory, it turns out, is what allows us to create and understand grammatical sentences at rapid-fire speeds. Dr. Victor Ferreira, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, describes procedural memory’s remarkable role in languages as follows:
“…the core knowledge underlying human syntactic ability—one of the most creative capacities known in nature, and one that is commonly thought to depend on advanced and flexible intelligent functioning—is shaped by a specialized system of basic memory mechanisms that are themselves found in even the simplest of organisms.”
All too often, declarative memory is given too much attention in language learning, while procedural memory is given too little. This is how students can emerge from ten years of formal language study unable to have even the most basic conversation with native speakers. Sure, they can rattle off a list of vocabulary words, but they can’t use the same words in context or understand them when spoken back to them. This is because they have only worked out their declarative memory muscles, leaving their procedural memory muscles weak and flabby.
Don’t make the same mistake! Strive to eat a balanced “language diet” of declarative and procedural memory tasks and make sure to hit the immersion gym every day to build strong, sexy procedural memory muscles, flooding your brain with meaningful language input, and communicating with native speakers every chance you get.