Archive | Learning

How to Turbocharge our Memory (part 1)

memoria-cervello-computerHow can we make our working memory more effective and how can we pass an item from working memory to long term memory?

Our first step is to make our memories more memorable, but how?

In the first place, we should know that we have super sized visual and spacial memory abilities and that they help us to form our long term memory. As it was very important for our ancestors to be able to get back home after a three day deer hunt or remember where those plump berries where to be found in the forest, we developed these abilities over time. However, we don’t have very effective abilities to memorize numbers and names… they were not so important for our ancestors! If a friend of ours invites us to her new house, we are able to remember details about the house furniture, the colour of the walls, the carpet or the first aid kit located in the bathroom. If our friend showed us her pictures, we would definitely be able to spot immediately a picture that has been shown twice… no doubt about it! We probably wouldn’t be able to remember a phone number, a date or a name in the same way.

Therefore, to make our memories more memorable we have to tap in to our super sized visual and spacial abilities. Let’s associate our new vocab, rule, or idiom with an image to make it more effective…. let’s use a funny or weird image which is even easier to remember. Let’s see an example. Here is a rule that, we have to admit, is not very exciting: ‘In front of masculine nouns starting with s+consonant we have to use the definite article LO or the indefinite article UNO’…. we have to admit that it’s not very memorable either… but here is a strawberry which by chance starts with s+t and here we have a STRUZZO (the strawberry we’ll remind us of the pronunciation). Now let’s write here LO STRUZZO and UNO STRUZZO. I bet you that this is much more memorable than this (2 pictures below).

learning Italian effectively in Cork


In front of masculine nouns starting
with s+consonant we have to use
the definite article LO or the
indefinite article UNO

It is possible to use images to memorize rules, pronunciation and idioms. To get the most out of our super memory ability, we could make our flashcards (time permitting). In fact, if on top of using images we also pick our own images for our flash cards, the time spent to look for the images (on Google images for example) and the personal association we build with the images we picked will make our memories even more memorable. A young student of mine did a great job recently: every day she’d look for images on Google images and pick ones for the new words she wanted to remember. She printed them out and wrote the noun on the back. She also wrote a sentence/idiom with this word so that she would remember the connotation and the collocation of this word. She’d also recall the words before going to sleep (during our sleep our mind keeps working on what we want to memorize) and remind herself of the ones she couldn’t remember by turning the flashcards over. She achieved great results and she really enjoyed the process (and we learn more effectively when we enjoy our learning). 

We shouldn’t forget that understanding is very important and it is the first step towards memorization. In fact, it is like a super glue which holds together traces in our memory and links them to other memory traces.

Now we have our memorable memory and it is easy to remember it, but how are we going to store it in our long term memory? How are we going to avoid losing it with the natural dissipating processes which is forgetting?

Repetition is our answer, but repetitions over a period of time: spaced repetitions. 

In fact, repetition is the way to strengthen and solidify our neural pattern related to our newly born memory. To be effective, though, repetitions must be spaced out. It is as we decided that we wanted to become very muscledItalian for Beginners in Corkwe couldn’t achieve this result in one day… even if we tried to lift all the weight of the world! The same applies to our memory… we can’t expect to memorize by repeating a bunch of time in one day, but sporadically over several days. In fact, we can’t expect to remember something we crammed in to our memory by rote repetition. It might work to pass the test, but it is not useful for us in the future.

We also have to remember that repetition is more effective when practiced through recalling instead of reading. Research shows that recalling is much more effective than reading over time.

Screenshot from 2015-07-08 00:20:39Here is a graph which shows that students who studied a paper once and recalled it subsequently were able to remember it better over time. The other group of students who read the same paper twice remembered it better after 5 minutes, but they forgot what they had studied much sooner. To make our recalling even more effective, we can handwrite and say the items we are recalling. It has been proved that all the efforts, sweat and sometimes frustration experienced by recalling a word, a rule or an expression is what strengthens our neural patterns.Italian advanced in Cork It also appears that recalling items which are on the brink of being forgotten (our famous: I have it on the tip of my tongue) is the best way to fix these memories in our long term memory and to ensure them a long life. So… what are we waiting for…Let’s meet our friends on a Sunday and play with our hand made deck of flash cards!


What About Our Listening?

Italian grinds CorkAs many of you know I’m constantly thinking about how to help with your learning, improving and perfecting your Italian. As I started to learn English 10 years ago, I know what learning a language as an adult means… it is a great challenge, sometimes very frustrating, but a great journey, indeed.

The skill we exercise the least in our limited classroom time is the one that we need the most when we go to Italy: listening. We are ok to ask for information, food or a drink, but we might not be able to understand the answer. I remember when 8 years ago I was leaving my cv in all Cork shops, bars and restaurants. I couldn’t even understand the answer they gave me… a real adventure, trust me! 

When someone is talking to us in a market or in a pub or when we are watching a movie in our mother tongue sometimes we don’t get all the words, sometimes our brain (unconsciously) makes up the bits we missed. When someone is talking to us in our mother tongue we can go on ‘autopilot’ and answer what the other person is expecting… our cognitive unconscious is so good at it!

Everything changes when we are having a conversation in a different language. I don’t think pubs are the best places to have a conversation in another language… unless we start drinking a lot! Italian Conversation Cork

Here is the good news… we can educate our ears, we can get better at listening even if we are not living in Italy. We can use graded books which come with audio books. If a book is not graded, we can get very frustrated when we have to go through impossible grammar constructions to understand something essential to the story. These books are quite thin (they are not scary), they have comprehension exercises to help us remember the new words or constructions and we can find one we like. In our own time we can listen to the audio and start recognizing words and sentences and their meaning. The more we understand the more we are rewarded and the more we want to listen… and the more we learn!

You can find graded books + audio books here (I got 5 of them). They are about €9.20 and €3 for the shipping. I couldn’t find the Italian e-books, so I emailed their customer service a couple of days ago and I haven’t received an answer, yet (it usually takes about 4-5 days). In the meantime, I found another place where you can find graded e-books + audio books (I haven’t ordered anything, yet). The e-books are €9.99 with the audio books included. No shipping needed. Both websites offer a sample of the book you may be interested in and a sample of the audio. To save some money you can swap books and audio books with other students…

I hope you’ll find it useful and that you’ll be soon rewarded with great improvements.



How to STORE OUR VOCAB… and How to LEARN IT (part 2)


learn Italian vocabWe attend our Italian class and we learn (or we think we have learnt) a great deal of new vocab and use of prepositions… the week after, when we want to say that word or we want to say that sentence again… but which is the right preposition… comincia a piovere/comincia di piovere/comincia piovere… sugar, WHERE DID I WRITE IT? A frantic word hunt in our copybook has started, it should be there… the conversation goes on and we’d better stop looking for that word.


Italian words

La rubrica/address book

We can get a special and cheap copy book… I found out it is called an ‘address book’. You write the new words under the appropriate letter and remember to write a sentence to define the connotation and the register of this word (the other words it goes with and when we use it). Per esempio: C Il cenone di Natale era molto buono, il cenone di Capodanno, un bel cenone, un buon cenone. Prepositions can also be stored more effectively than in a normal copy book. We could write under i ‘in’ and several examples with the rule (if there is one). Per esempio, in nave, in aereo, in macchina (in+mezzi di trasporto). In Calabria, in Sicilia, in Sardegna (in+regione), in banca prendo i soldi, in negozio compro, in chiesa prego. Usually, writing sentences helps us remember more. We’d be better not to use translation as we don’t want to pass through English and we want to think in Italian as much as we can (and we’ll be fluent only when we stop thinking in our mother tongue and translating into the target language). Therefore, instead of using English to translate our new words in our address book… let’s use images. Here is an extract of Doctor David V. Martin (2006) from his lecture on Psychology of Human Behaviour on imagery as a mnemonic device:

”Probably because as our ancestors evolved, they had to remember scenes long before having to remember words, we are naturally better at remembering images than such abstract concepts as words… If you have ever had someone show you hundreds of pictures of a vacation and one picture was accidentally repeated, you may have discovered how good you are at remembering pictures… Those who teach memory systems recommend that the more bizarre the picture, the easier it is to remember, although there are mixed findings in laboratory research concerning the advantages of bizarreness”.

Learn Italian prepositions

In barca

Therefore, as images are a powerful evocative means and they help us remember better we could draw a small sketch beside our new word, preposition or sentence. Either a sketch that helps us remember the meaning or the sound or both. On top of that, the action of writing the new word, sentence or preposition, is one of the greatest ways to deepen the neural pattern in your memory (you remember part one, don’t you?) and make your learning permanent.

When you’re at a more advanced stage and you want to start pinpointing your mistakes, you could use an address book to register them with their corrections. You will see them quickly disappear in your writing and in your speaking.

Buono studio (as some of you guessed we use buono because studio starts with s+consonant and it is masculine) and keep practising… practice makes permanent.



How to Turbocharge Our Language Learning (part 1)

Private tuition leaving certDo you want to learn Italian effectively and enjoy it? Bene, I’ve been thinking about something that may help my students and I decided to put together a series of tips.

First of all, I should tell you I’ve learned French (I studied and worked in Paris for a year) and English (in addition to my native Italian) and I’ve been applying all the following for years… therefore, I’m happy to share my ‘tricks’ with all the eager learners in the world and especially with those who attend my classes!

Secondly, you should probably know that I’m quite aware about learning as I have a masters degree in Educational Science and I’ve been specializing in language learning since before I started teaching Italian 6 years ago in Ireland… and I have one big, devouring passion: teaching. On top of that, I’m raising my son… multilingual. Kevin is 4 and he’s now fluent in Italian and English, his French is coming along fine through games, songs and Sam le pompier (fireman Sam) and he started learning Irish in pre-school. Since Kevin came along, I’ve extended my interest to multilingualism.

This is the first of our learning tips… ‘How to get the most out of our lesson(s)’ 

Attending Italian classes once a week is useful, but it won’t help anyone learn Italian as effectively if they walk out of the class and forget about it until the next lesson. Those students will find themselves lost very soon, overwhelmed by what seems sterile information and dreading their next lesson. Learning Italian doesn’t happen effectively, just by being exposed to the native Italian teacher once a week… we don’t learn through osmosis (too beautiful to be true!).

So, we attend our lesson and we understand what we are learning, it doesn’t matter if it is about grammar or a new expression or an idiomatic structure, we understand it. That’s great, but remember that the neural pattern we’ve just created in our brain is very light. Our working memory can’t manage too many things at the same time. The best thing we can do is to revise as soon as possible in order to carve this very light pattern into our long term memory… to make it permanent: through repetitions, drilling, writing and conversation practice.

Italian for children

Creating a neural pattern

Every day, we should do a little bit of revision and use our newly learned language. If we don’t have time we should listen to something in the target language… maybe a song that we know, so that we can exercise our ears to recognise the words… maybe a few minutes of the news. Let’s revise again before class, so that we will already be tuned in to the Italian language when we walk in and we’ll find ourselves familiar with it and happy to be there. The new topics of the lesson will immediately find their place in your ‘Italian mental map’ and you will be rewarded by your learning experience and you’ll learn even more (this is how dopamine works!)!

That’s all for now… Buono studio until the next one! Ps: let’s keep our language awareness on at all time… why did I use buono instead of buon?

Italian for children

Practice makes permanent

Part 2 will be out soon.


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