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Which is more important - memory or motivation?

May 2017

It is interesting to ponder which is more important, the ability to remember, or the motivation to learn. Particularly as regards foreign language learning, the ability to remember vocabulary and grammar is vital, and provided the student actually attends lessons, a good memory will see him/her pretty well through the course. Undoubtedly, the ability to learn quickly will be highly encouraging and serve as a motivator in itself, even without any other motivating factors. However, we know that motivation comes in many different guises and that even those amongst us with poor natural memory skills can, if we really want to, learn a foreign language. It’s not so much a case of “mind over matter” as “mind over memory”. Provided sufficient motivation exists, even the poorest memories can be trained and with the help of a good teacher the salient information can be retained and applied.

So, what is Motivation? 

Common motivating factors are normally looked at under two headings – external and internal. External are reasons imposed upon the student, for example the need to do a particular subject in order to take up the profession of choice. Internal ones are those that come from within students themselves, and as such are more interesting and more powerful. An inner desire to learn is always going to be more successful than the imposition of the need to pass a particular exam.   

One highly motivating internal factor, as we’ve already seen, is one’s natural ability. With foreign language learning, this comes down to having a good memory and being able to remember the vocabulary and the grammar. People like doing things they are good at, and this will probably be a huge motivator, for adults and children alike. How often have we heard people say they gave up certain subjects at school because they were bad at them? Being good at something tends to lead us to like it. 

As an adult of course, merely being good at something is not sufficient as a motivator, although it helps. Adults need to see that there is a reason for learning something, albeit that that reason might just be sheer curiosity or a desire to try something out.  Often, though, there are other reasons we impose on ourselves, as we see what we could gain from acquiring a new skill. It is also a time when we look back, possibly with regret, to our wasted school days and wish we’d applied ourselves that little bit more. As an adult, we can well understand the benefits of speaking another language and often this will motivate us enough to start learning again.

When Motivation Falters 

Unfortunately, partly because there is generally no external motivation for adult learners, there tends to be quite a high drop out rate from courses. This may in part be because people have unrealistic expectations. For example, adults often wish to speak a foreign language fluently because they’d like to converse with locals on holiday or carry out business transactions abroad. However, the problem with this is that they want to be able to achieve that goal immediately, whereas to reach the level of fluency desired would require several years of hard study. They don’t think of the timescale nor of the hard slog required in between and when the going gets tough, they lose interest. 

Even if they have realistic expectations, at the end of the day, adult students have other priorities and commitments and obligations, which may just mean that foreign language lessons are overtaken in importance. 

It does take time to progress, and students need to be able to work on their language regularly. If they are learning by themselves, this can be particularly hard, but even if they are attending courses, they really do need to attend the majority of lessons (ideally all of them), not always easy in the adult world, and also be able to do some work (using their “memory”) in between, otherwise they’ll find that they are starting to struggle within the class. 

If they do fall behind because of this, they lose confidence in their ability to continue with the course, leading them to feel bad about themselves and therefore less inclined to come, and/or they rate the course less highly, which in turn will also lead them to drop out. 

As mentioned before, with languages there is a very clear link between learning a language and “memory”. Certainly, in the early days of learning a language, it is almost entirely memory work, so the more we understand how our memory functions the more successful we will be both as learners and as teachers.

How we Learn 

It is especially true of adults, but also of children learning a second language, that we need to be able to “understand” what we are learning. We do that by relating it to information we already possess and classifying it. Just like coats on coat pegs, every piece of new grammar or vocabulary has to be put on its correct “peg” so that we can make sense of it and know where to retrieve it from when we need it. This way, we group pieces of information together that go together and we make links between them for ready recollection. 

Even so, we must hear/read that information frequently to get it to be retained inside our long-term memory. And then we must practise it over and over. We need to apply that knowledge, using it in “real” situations. Adults in particular must see the value in what they are doing. 

We learn through all of our senses, our sight, hearing, smell, taste. In fact, whilst information can be actively recalled from memory, the most deep-seated memories are often conjured up by the senses alone and are all the deeper for it. We all have different sensory learning styles: some people take information in better if they see it, others if they hear it and still more only really learn if they actually “do” something with the information. 

Something that can safely be said for all students, is that they need to be interested and entertained in a class. If they are enjoying the lesson and having fun, they will be learning without making any conscious effort, which is actually a more effective way of learning. It’s certainly the natural way that children learn, and games are often successfully employed in MFL classrooms. However, the power of fun learning can sometimes be forgotten in the adult classroom, where games can appear “beneath them” or as a waste of time.

How can the teacher help with learning?  

In explaining new information, teachers can classify it for students, relating it to material already covered, or to prior knowledge shared by the students, helping them to make sense of it within their own understanding. With languages, we can relate vocabulary to words in our native tongue, explain how to interpret similar things, give them the tools to be able to do it themselves – empower them! One example might be from French where an explanation that a circumflex indicates where an “s” used to be in an older French word often allows a parallel to be drawn with an equivalent English word, e.g. “vêtements” (clothes) and “vestments”. It is also helpful to point out similarities to English phrases they will have come across e.g. “comme si comme ça” or “laissez faire”. 

In fact there are many words that can be pointed out in this way, since thousands of English words either come directly from French or at least from the same route, and all the students have to learn is how to pronounce them correctly. In just teaching the rules of pronunciation, a whole wealth of foreign vocabulary can be opened up to students. As Spanish has close parallels with French, this is also helpful for Spanish acquisition, while German too has many vocabulary links with English (e.g. Bad - bath, Hunger - hunger, Mann - man) , and is also closer to English in terms of pronunciation.

To impart new knowledge, teachers need to be using as many different senses as possible and to vary this in each lesson. Maybe one week playing a dialogue, then looking at the transcript, before getting them to act it out? Or another week letting them look at the dialogue first then hear it, before making up their own similar dialogue? Sometimes teachers should explain the pronunciation rules, the vocabulary and the grammar before working on a piece of language, but at other times it may be more fruitful to let students work things out by themselves. 

New information then needs to be recalled the following lesson and at regular intervals thereafter. The more it is revisited the better it will be lodged in long-term memory. Setting homework will encourage the students to revisit that “new” information during the week, thereby reinforcing what has been taught in the lesson. A few minutes can be spent at the beginning of the next lesson going over the homework, which will not only encourage students, it will also provide a recap of what was covered in the previous lesson.   

As important as the imparting of any information is the importance of making lessons enjoyable. As mentioned before when looking at motivation, a fun lesson will encourage students to attend and to participate. Fun also helps us learn. Language games can work supremely well. Even adults enjoy them, although teachers need to be careful not to patronise or make anyone feel awkward who perhaps doesn’t want to join in.


So, which is more important - motivation or memory? Well, when it comes to learning a foreign language, I don’t believe the two can be separated or the differential calculated. They are both vital to the learning process. Students with a good memory will be able to learn a language to a certain extent even if the will isn’t there, but they’ll learn even better if sufficient motivation exists. As for students who lack a good memory but have the motivation to study, they can still learn a language although they may find it harder.  The vital ingredient to successfully learning a language is neither purely motivation nor purely memory, but a good teacher who knows how to harness both elements. What better motivation can we teachers find to be successful!  Now, how are we going to remember that?              

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May 2017

Hello and welcome to this very first blog entry on various matters relating to language in general and foreign language learning in particular.

I'm Marjorie, language teacher and owner of "Language Gateway", provider of personalised language tuition through online lessons and homestays/immersion courses. Understandably, I'm very enthusiastic about the importance of languages and the benefits they have to offer, and not surprisingly I have lots of things I'd like to share with you, ranging from the "sublime" - thought-provoking reflections on research into languages and the many benefits they can bring (apart from the ability to order the correct beer or wine when on holiday!),  to the more "ridiculous" - personal anecdotes on language mistakes or misunderstandings I have personally encountered. I'd be delighted if fellow teachers, language professionals or keen students would like to contribute their own views, advice and hilarious stories as we go along. However, you don't need to be an enthusiast to have an opinion on language or languages -  we all have our own way of thinking, gained from years of speaking at least one mother tongue, and most of us have memories - good or otherwise - of learning another, so please do share your views and experiences as well. The wonderful, and in my view fascinating, thing about languages at the end of the day, which makes them stand apart from any other academic subject we study at school, is the fact that above all else, they are communication vehicles enabling us as humans to connect with others.  So, here's to meaningful communication! 


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