Memory is context – in language and in general.
Context of words surrounded by other words and sounds within a sentence.
- apple orchard
Context of words surrounded by actions – actor, action, object affected (in whatever way or order your mother tongue expresses it).
- I pick an apple from the tree.
Context of words and the images they spur.
- An apple falls on Newton’ head.
- An apple falls off a tree in my grandparents’ garden.
- I bite into a green apple – a bit sour. I don’t like it.
- The first time I combine an apple part with peanut butter. Delicious.
Context of words and the feelings they evoke.
- I’m thirsty and hungry after a volleyball game. The first bite of an apple – what a relief.
- My grandpa cuts an apple and gives me a part. Safety. Home.
- I eat 2 apples and my mouth starts itching. Allergy? Fear.
When learning another language, you can link words to the context of your mother tongue.
But to truly understand them, you’ll have to create a new context too.
For example, an apple in Spanish: una manzana.
Seemingly the same object, now perceived through new sounds.
- huerto de manzanas (apple orchard)
- Yo limpio una manzana. (I wash/clean an apple.)
- I see una manzana in a Mexican supermarket. Someone is polishing it with wax to make it extra shiny. The first time I saw was in Mexico. So I didn’t see the guy polishing an apple. Vi a un hombre encerando una manzana. (I saw a guy putting wax on an apple.)
- Compré una manzana (I bought an apple) and ate it without washing it well. My stomach wasn’t happy with my actions.
Keeping all that in mind, are we really still talking about the same object? Is the Spanish manzana encerada that made me sick in Spanish the same as the apple my grandpa helped me pick? If it is, do I now have a richer perception of that object that once up on a time, I could only interact with through the limits of one language?
Learning vocabulary lists with isolated words will never get you fluent in a foreign language.
If you don’t build a new context of sounds, actions, images, feelings, you’ll always keep imposing your mother tongue on the foreign language.
That’s why you can’t just learn a foreign language. You have to live it.