Sometimes I totally forget a word or expression when I speak in a foreign language – and mix some of them up. How many times have you forgotten a word in French? Have you ever stumbled over an expression? Or had something on the tip of your tongue but couldn’t remember it fast enough?

Memory is essential to all learning. When learning a language, memorization is obviously a key factor. Sometimes it’s easy to memorize certain phrases or words without knowing exactly why. We might simply like the word. We may have heard the expression in a particular emotional context or experience, and thus the association of feeling and meaning (hopefully) have sealed the expression in our organic “RAM”.

On the other hand, we may not have an “elephant’s memory” and may constantly forget an expression or sentence structure. Take this sentence, for example: “it’s easy to memorize/ c’est facile de mémoriser,” with a structure “it’s + adjective + verb to the infinitive/ c’est + adjectif + de + verbe à l’infinitif” – does this mean anything to you? You can also repeat the same mistakes over and over again, and perhaps you systematically forget the preposition “de” in the structure previously mentioned. Too bad.

 Our memory plays tricks on us, of course, but they’re not inevitable. You have plenty of options to take your brain “in hand” – to boost your learning and your confidence with it. As this is the first in a series of articles, I don’t intend to cover the subject of memory in a few paragraphs. Rather, you can consume this article as an appetizer, introduction, or summary of what you absolutely must know and understand in order to finally start optimizing your memory in French.

1. What is memory?

When we speak of “memory”, we are referring to multiple distinct functions and processes. Did you know that we have five major types of memory? They are: working memory, semantic memory, episodic memory, procedural memory, and perceptual memory. Some memories function in the short term (working memory), others in the long term (semantic and episodic memory), and others are related to the senses (perceptual, emotional memory).

“Memorizing” is, therefore, both our ability to preserve our memories in our daily lives (which seems obvious to us, basically) and our ability to process information (like data). Less obvious is the 3 cognitive functions we use to process memories/information, which are encoding, storage, and restitution. Knowing more about these three processes allows you to implement actions to strengthen them.

2. Create unforgettable experiences

Meet Noriko – she’s an American-Japanese-Peruvian student at B1 level who can speak to you in French with precision and conviction about the situation of farmers in France.

How is she able to do this?

During an immersion course in La Rochelle, we went to see the film Au nom de la terre directed by Edouard Bergeon. This film tells the story of the courageous and tragic destiny of the director’s father, whose economic policies led him to suicide.

The film was followed by a debate in the presence of the director. The room was packed and the exchanges were as warm as they were exciting. Noriko encountered words and expressions she didn’t know, which I explained to her in real-time. Other expressions she knew perfectly well. She also felt the emotions of the audience, those conveyed by the film, as well as the reflections of each speaker in the debate.

The overall experience allowed her to create strong associations between her feelings and the vocabulary she was discovering. She was able to effectively encode the meaning of new words and complex ideas and then to classify them in a neural file entitled “Agriculture” and “Debate in France.” That’s all!

Encoding is the ability to acquire new information by giving it meaning and categorizing it. It’s the first step in the memorization process, and it’s the one you want to keep in mind. 

You and I all receive a lot of information through our senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. To record it, our brains create associations. As you should now understand, encoding creates links through our senses and categorizes them into folders and subfolders.

To optimize your French-language encoding, several reinforcement strategies are available to you, including:

  • Use your emotions: during your next trip to France, live real experiences in the language such as an immersion course, a “meet up” or a language exchange group; participate in workshops in French on favorite themes (pastry, enology, art, history, etc.). If these experiences aren’t possible right away, be attentive to your feelings and use them to make words and expressions memorable! 
  • Make it personal and useful: obviously, you encode better that which is interesting and useful to you. If for one reason or another you are forced to learn about a subject you’re not enthusiastic about, make it interesting! Develop your thoughts and your critical spirit in French.
  • Give priority to attention and focus: inattention is oblivion’s best friend, making it your enemy. Creating an environment conducive to concentration is both simple (‘si si’) and crucial. Prioritize paying attention and focusing. If you are not ready to put in some effort, do something else and do it fully! Stop wasting your time 🙂
  • Create associations: your brain is already doing it! Now, it’s up to you to consciously reinforce this process. It will thank you! For example, associate the preposition “à” with the number 1 to dissociate “à” from the preposition “de” (phonetically similar to the number 2). Then make a list of all the verbs that use the preposition “à” called “1” followed by a verb with an infinitive: commencer, arriver, s’engager, autoriser…

I’m sure you will dramatically improve your mastery of French prepositions!

3. Overcoming memory loss

Storage is the second cache process and consists of an active consolidation device: it ensures that the information learned is maintained over time. In short, it fights against forgetting. How does it do this? By subconsciously repeating the information until it’s sufficiently anchored in the memory to be retained for a long time. That’s nice. Except it’s not enough.


Hermann Ebbinghaus, 19th-century German psychologist and father of experimental psychology, has shown that the probability of remembering information decreases rapidly. It even declines on an inverted exponential curve. This curve tells us that if we don’t repeat what we’ve just learned, we’re going to forget it very quickly.

More concretely, we forget 50% of the information from the first day, then 80% the day after, and finally, we only have traces left after a week… Without repetition, that it.

The best way to reverse the trend is to take into account this inescapable process of forgetting and to revisit what we want to remember at increasingly spaced intervals – i.e. revisit the information a few hours after learning, then the next day (D+1), then two days later (D+3), four days later (D+7) etc. These figures vary slightly from one cognitive scientist to another, likely because each brain is unique. But you understand the principle, don’t you?

The technique (known as spaced repetition) is based on the forgetfulness curve, taking into account the functioning of the brain to delay the process of forgetting and better anchor the information. The whole retention process is optimized! Combined with the flashcard method developed in the 1970s by Sebastian Leitner, a German science journalist, you are ready to optimize your retention. As a reminder, the principle of flashcards is very simple: you have information on the front and the associated information on the back. Several applications offer you already made flashcards, but I suggest you create your own – the more engaged you are, the more you memorize. Personalizing your own flashcard process is easy with applications like Anki or Quizlet.

At Speak Up French, you have access to a set of personalized flashcards after each individual or group coaching session, combined with a quiz and various games. Enough to make your storage “Premium”!

4. A good recall 

Restitution, also known as recall, is the ability to restore information. It’s characteristic of long-term memory, along with stability. Be careful, however, not to confuse recall and memory. They’re quite different. Sometimes we ‘remember’ something vaguely, but ‘restitution’ has to be crystal clear.

 When we listen, speak, read or write, we need to be able to retrieve previously memorized information. Processes, then, are used to “extract” the information and restore it. This process is intrinsically linked to that of encoding, so it’s is by performing quality encoding that we will ensure reliable restitution: the more organized and structured information is, the easier it will be for you to find!

To sum it up:

– Stimulate your emotional memory by promoting authentic experiences

– Create unforgettable associations

– Focus and pay attention, avoid distractions during your study time

– Make your studies very personal. Have fun!

Plus, go see the movie Au nom de la terre as soon as you get a chance and tell me what you think! 🙂

To gain in vocabulary and optimize your French learning with tailor-made techniques, I offer one-on-one coaching including level test, roadmap, supervision, flashcards etc. It’s over here!


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