I Get So Emotional, Bébé : Using Positive Emotion to Improve Vocabulary Recall

That positive emotion enhances learning seems intuitive to us. How much more do we learn feeling motivated and wired, compared to those times we try to cram when feeling flat and uninspired?

Unsurprisingly, there is a heap of research that backs up the intuition. Some investigations, such as this 2017 paper, focus on the exact mechanism operating between emotion and memory. A key factor in enhanced learning, and later recall, appears to be the way positive, heightened emotion focuses the attention tightly on the stimulus – our learning material. The brain attaches a greater salience to the stimulus, encoding the information for readier recall later.

The importance of these “focal enhancements” of emotion on memory has spawned rafts of scientific papers on the subject. Classroom educators are already working these findings into their practice.

So how can it help us language learners?

Once more, with feeling

Firstly, creating happy thoughts at the point of initial memorisation is not always the easiest place to start happying up your learning. It is rather impractical to set up all-singing, all-dancing scenarios during your systematic vocabulary work. Regular, planned drilling with tools like Anki will always be a rather straightforward and plain – though invaluable – technique.

But you can plan to use new material in a way that associates material with a positive emotional response later. This takes a little forward-thinking, and involves setting up occasions where language use triggers smile momentsthose socially rewarding, oxytocin-bound interactions that feed our social reward circuits and give us warm, fuzzy feelings. Precisely those feelings are the ones to give our words and phrases salience within the recording brain.

If you have face-to-face lessons, for example, is there a humorous or colloquial phrase using new vocabulary that you can roll off to your tutor? Quotation archive sites are great to search for these. Similarly, could you Google a joke or pun using some of your recent word additions, and reel it off to your captive audience?

Making a conversation partner smile or laugh with an unexpected aphorism is a wonderful way to unleash that elusive burst of pride / surprise / joy. Chances are that you will recall the associated words or phrases much more readily than otherwise. You will have tied the material to the lived experience of positive feedback.

Anticipated emotion

Setting the scene for future reward leads us to another key link between emotion and learning: anticipation. Looking forward to the fruits of your mental labour is an extremely powerful motivator. Just the expectation of feedback is enough to increase engagement and focus – and through that, memory. For example, one particular research paper concludes that simply anticipating speedy feedback sufficed to increase performance.

The easiest practical lesson to take from this is that we need something to look forward to when learning. Working with a tutor who supplies constructive, regular feedback is one route. But even as a lone learner, there are some simple ways to build anticipation into your positive feedback loop.

Informal test-based feedback, for example, is available in all sorts of languages online. This German self-test on the Goethe Institute site is a great example. On the other hand, if you like your feedback more formalised, cultural institutes frequently offer official exams of proficiency. Many lone learners work towards gaining accreditation such as the Bergenstest in Norwegian, or the JLPT in Japanese. The anticipation of getting solid results can drive a learner forward, especially in the absence of direct teacher or peer feedback. Failing that, even the goal of doing well on a competitive platform like Duolingo can inspire a positive buzz.

Returning to our gregarious friend oxytocin, social anticipation can be the warmest and fuzziest kind. Using your languages socially need not mean a fully-fledged trip abroad, of course. Any kind of interaction, be it at a local language café group, with native speakers at work, or just fellow learners, can be the emotional carrot to your language learning donkey.

Clowning around

Of course, humour is something that works particularly well in these social settings. Getting a laugh from creative, or – let’s joyfully admit it – silly use of language, can be a nice way to make vocabulary stick, too.

The proof of this is written all over the internet, and it starts with Duolingo. The behemoth of online language learning resources famously uses comedic sentences throughout its language modelling. People who find something funny want to talk about it, naturally. And Duolingo users have turned to one particular feed (forgive the name) to share their favourite eccentricities of the platform.

The moral of the tale? Use inane, ridiculous, silly language to practise. Be a clown. Talk about it. Share it with fellow learners and subject your wider family and friends to it. Laugh – and remember.


The joy of teaching

Finally, it is hard to underestimate one joy close to the hearts of linguaphiles: the joy of teaching. The fact that teaching others helps our own learning is well documented. But that thrill of seeing something click for someone else plays right along with the positive emotion game.

Bust this myth before you start: you do not have to be an expert to teach something. You just need a bit of knowledge you can share with someone else. If you have a learning buddy, or compliant family member or friend, share with them your most recent observations about your target language. Make your explanation as interesting and illuminating as possible – and enjoy the click when it happens. Remembering the moment you taught the material to another person will be a superb hook to remember the material itself.

Little and often

As the examples show, working positive emotion into your learning routine does not mean maintaining constant jollity. Emotional content need not be dramatic or earth-shattering. In fact, it should not be so. The same research suggests that strong, negative emotional states like stress can have the opposite effect.

What’s more, we clearly cannot sustain an environment of constant emotional excitement. Even if that were possible, it would be counter-productive. Our brains are not so easily tricked. It would simply become our new ‘normal’, and all the salience benefits lost.

Instead, the methods outlined above are some routes to routinely and subtly get happy with your language learning and practice. Stay positive, stay connected, and enjoy all those motivation and memory benefits!


Real-life language can be unpredictable, like this tangle of colourful liquorice sweeties!

Preparing for the unpredictable – developing flexible language thinking

We’ve all been there. You’ve learnt the tenses. Have the vocab down pat. You have a head full of model questions and answers. You are totally ready for to be unleashed onto the target language streets. But – agh – what was that answer that came back at you? What was that word again, and why can’t you remember it now? And why is this so much harder than when you were learning it? Conversation so often doesn’t stick to the script, and we can be totally thrown by the responses to your perfectly practised communication attempts. Real life is just so darn unpredictable!

Well, rest assured that it isn’t just you. There is a psychological phenomenon dubbed ‘context reinstatement’ that explains just what on Earth is going on. It’s a fancy name for something many of us intuitively know anyway – that being perfect in a learn-and-drill situation does not prepare you for the unpredictability of real life.

Underwater understanding

Classic memory research by Godden and Baddeley shows how we find retrieval easier when the context is the same as the original learning environment. The psychologist duo split their subjects into two groups. One group learnt a list of 40 words underwater, and the other group learnt them on the beach. Then, they tested each participant’s recall of the words in either the same, or the alternative environment.

The result? On average, subjects remembered 40% more when tested in the same environment that learning took place in.

The lesson from this is not – disappointingly – that we should all buy scuba gear and go and learn languages in the water. Rather, we can assume that vocabulary and structures will be easier to recall in a classroom if they were first learnt in a classroom. The familiar surroundings contain lots of cues, networked to those original memories, that help them bubble up to the surface. This explains why you may perform brilliantly in a vocab test in class, but struggle to find a word in a shop or restaurant in your target language country.

Context – a blessing and a curse

Superficially, the effect of context on recall can sometimes be a useful tool. If you want to improve recall, then you can attempt to recreate the environment where you first learnt the material. Taking a French/German/Spanish exam? Then take in some familiar objects, like your favourite pencil case or pen. Maybe sit in the same desk for class tests, or even wear the same clothes. There really is some psycho-science behind having ‘lucky’ clothes in this case!

The trouble with extending these techniques is the impracticality, or often, sheer impossibility of them in real life. In reality, we have very little control over scenarios where we want to speak a foreign language! Language happens anywhere and everywhere – by its nature, it is unpredictable.

Training for the unpredictable

So, how can you prepare yourself for, literally, anything that could happen in a target language situation? First off, nobody will be able to do that. That is half the fun and excitement of speaking foreign languages – it’s a rollercoaster ride of social surprises. But you can increase your chances of coping well with that. The trick is to promote flexible, rather than fixed thinking in your learning routines.

Vary your study settings

There is a common study tip based on busting the context-dependency of Godden and Baddeley’s experiment. It is, quite simply, to vary the environment that you learn in. In theory, this prevents specific language memories from becoming too attached to elements that won’t be present in the field.

You can extend this idea of  ‘environment’ to the whole ecosystem you use to learn – the apps, websites and materials that you form your learning materials. Find yourself exclusively using Duolingo to practise languages? Then give Anki a try, and build some custom vocabulary lists. Only using fixed listening material from language courses? Then maybe it’s time to try some podcasts. Take the predictability out of your learning, and you may increase your ability to cope with it in the real world.

Fluid notes

It’s also worth addressing how you keep your phrase lists, crib notes and vocab records, too. A rigid, fixed, linear structure to memorising dialogues, for example, leaves little room for digression in actual conversations. A static list of ten words that you learn in order will, likewise, not really promote flexible use in the day-to-day.

Instead, think about creating frameworks for your vocabulary instead. Rather than complete sentences, learn structures that you can fit many different words into, depending on the situation. I should have…I’ve already … and so on – frames you can grab and fill in your head on the go.

Recycling material in different ways is key here, too. Maybe learning discrete lists of ten words is an effective memorisation technique for you. Stick with that if so, but introduce some variety to the way you practise them. Run through the words in a different order – maybe using a flashcard app like Anki – and challenge yourself to make different, even whacky, sentences with them each time you revise. Mix it up – make sure that no learning session is the same.

Speaking is supreme

Finally, books and static materials will never suffice for training for the unpredictable. Even the immersive, language-in-situ nature of podcasts won’t mimic the two-way dynamic of real-life conversation.

For that end, the old adage always applies: speaking is supreme in language learning. I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of iTalki for face-to-face language practise. I’ve been finding lots of extra time for regular Skype lessons, simply to chat with a real person. It can be hard, and it’s natural to feel an aversion to difficult things and hide from them. But if you stick at it, you’ll reap the confidence rewards of coping better and better with natural language.

Embrace the unpredictable

Human beings are creatures of habit, and love routine. That’s why these techniques might sometimes feel so hard to adopt, even though they seem like common sense. It can be disconcerting to mix up your learning approaches ceaselessly, or throw yourself into environments where you are tested on the spot. But in the long run, you’ll thank yourself for it. Embrace change and variety, and become a more dynamic linguist for it!