Posts Tagged ‘muscle memory’

An audacious tool for improving language fluency

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

In the last post on cool tools and gadgets to give your language learning a boost we looked at recording your own voice as a way to improve your language skills. There is often no fiercer critic than yourself; and having the cold, hard light of day shone on your dodgy pronunciation is a great way to improve, I hope you all gave it a try?

Today’s tip is slightly more nerdy, but still free and simple if you stick to the basics. A great way to learn a language; and particularly improve your listening skills, fluency, muscle memory and pronunciation is by listening and singing along to music in the language you are learning. There are a load of studies on how music can improve memory and focus. I won’t go into those now but I think intuitively we know that music can change our mood (for the better and worse) and for most of us remembering large chunks of a chorus is inherently easier than a paragraph from a book.

So today is all about using music to help your fluency, but following the theme of tools and gadgets we’re going to focus on a great free tool called Audacity. Audacity allows you to slow music down while maintaining close-to-the-original pitch and tone, so you can master the lyrics at a pace you can manage without having to distort the words.

First things first, we’re going to be working with MP3 files in this example (though if you have music in other digital formats it will probably work), this is a standard music format and is likely what you have on your digital player (unless you have an Ipod in which case read this tutorial). If this is all Greek to you (and you don’t happen to be learning Greek) see the bottom of this article for links to more information.

  1. OK, so we’re assuming at this stage you have a supply of MP3s in the language you want to work with (otherwise try Amazon), so now go to the Audacity web page and download and install the latest version (currently in BETA) for your system.  For licensing reasons you also need to install a separate MP3 encoder/decoder called Lame, instructions are here.

  2. Once installed you will see a screen looking like this – don’t be intimidated by it, you can do a million things but we only want to do one for now.

  3. Next you need to open the MP3 file to work with so go to File > Import > Audio and find the file on your hard drive, then click Open

  4. If you have done this correctly it will look like this:

  5. Go to Effect > change tempo (NB specifically “change tempo” not “change speed”)

  6. From this screen you can set the amount of speed change you want. There is no right or wrong setting, if the song is naturally slow you may not need to reduce it much, but start with a small amount (say 5%) and increase as you go, use the preview function to give you an idea of how much it has slowed down.

  7. Once you have clicked ok, you will notice the wavy lines look like they’ve been pulled apart a bit, click on the play button at the top:

And there you have it. If all has gone well you should hear the song in good pitch (this will deteriorate somewhat the more you reduce the tempo so you need to find the balance), go through the song a few times and then try speeding it up.  You can then either export the slowed down version back to MP3 for your music player, or just keep it in Audacity.

As part of the process it is well worth writing out the lyrics as you go as well it will only add to the value you will get from this exercise, use it as a fun listening test and have your tutor or a native speaker friend check it out.

Have fun!

Oh, as promised here are some additional links:

Convert iTunes to mp3

Buy mp3s from Amazon

What are MP3s?

Installing the MP3 encoder in Audacity

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Ultimate memory tricks to boost your foreign language vocabulary – part 3

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

In the first of this series on memory tricks to improve your vocab I talked about the simplest of vocab tricks, word associations. In the second we got a bit more technical with an extension on word associations known as mnemonics. In this post I want to wrap it up by discussing how best to use these very powerful tools, and just as importantly how to avoid any potential pitfalls while using them.

Both of these things can be achieved simply by really understanding the role that these memory tricks have, namely establishing a mental hook so the word is forced into your short term memory. What they are not are speaking aids you should be using in the normal flow of conversation.

Fellow Bitesizer Gareth commented on the last blog that mnemonics in particular are great for words that just “won’t go in”. I’m a bit more enthusiastic than that in that I believe at very least a memory association for most of the words you look at will speed up your recollection and can be a good default option. Perhaps I don’t have as good a natural short term memory but I find that particularly at an early stage of learning most words don’t actually sink in without one of these tricks (or loads of repetition which can often be impractical if not tedious). What I remain acutely aware of however, and with practice this just becomes second nature, is that once I have the word in my mind that the mnemonic or word association becomes a background tool only to be used if I’m struggling to recall a word.

Once you have the word held in your mind, it is vital that you work on establishing both contextual patterns (i.e. by using the word in context as often as possible) and muscle memory. While above I described repetition as tedious; what I am specifically referring to is the unconstructive, flashcard-after-flashcard repetition that seems to pass the time but not achieve all that much. Repetition in terms of speaking phrases over and over, writing stories and sentences that use as many words as possible or trying to converse with native speakers is absolutely vital, and for me personally very satisfying.

Memory aids provide a foundation, contextual repetition solidifies muscle memory and embeds the word in your long term memory, and in the times when a word just won’t come out the memory aids can provide that little kick to keep the conversation going. Gareth mentioned “letting them go” when they have done their job, for me it is more about understanding their place, and not using them as a crutch – this is pitfall number 1 to avoid.

The second potential source of problems is the possibility that by allowing tenuous links between words (because they mean something to you) that bad pronunciation may be encouraged. This can happen because your associated patterns aren’t a perfect match. In my example I used the word “itu” which is Indonesian for “that” and my mnemonic was “’Eh Tu Bruté’, now that is Shakespeare!” The problem here is obvious; “itu” is not the same as “eh tu”) and if I relied on the mnemonic literally then I would end up pronouncing something that wasn’t actually a word (or worse meant something inappropriate!) This is an important issue and one you should be conscious of, but my own experience is that as long as you stick to the process that is: mnemonic first then follow up with the contextual repetition second, the risk of dodgy pronunciation can be minimised. Remember you should start practicing with the word in context as quickly as possible to iron out any glitches, the word will become part of your natural vocabulary without needing the mnemonic any longer.

As a part of the rigorous academic testing we do as part of our daily routine here at Bitesized ;) I’ve been working on some language learning games lately, one in particular around mnemonics and flashcards. I’ll talk about those in a future post, but last week I was able to knock off about 60 new words with no more than 10 minutes review per day using mnemonics, so if you haven’t done so already I urge you to give them a go, let us know how it works out.

Have fun!


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Language press ups – “get down and give me 20″….

Friday, March 26th, 2010

If you have been keeping up with the excellent series of posts Gareth has been writing on 4 muscles you never knew you had you’ll know that here at Bitesized we’re all about increasing your capacity to learn a language as much as the actual learning itself.  While we’re on the theme of muscles I thought I would briefly expand on a comment by Ursula relating to the muscles in your mouth.

Repeatedly exercising the muscles in your mouth by speaking out loud is a vitally important element of learning a language.   “No kidding” you say, but it is important to remind ourselves now and then about the mechanics behind this so its full importance is understood.  Speaking the language that you learn repeatedly establishes words not just in your regular memory but also establishes patterns in your muscle memory, that is, your mouth muscles will recognise the pattern in the words you are saying and will pronounce them more fluently the more often you say them.

Muscle memory is described by the indefatigable contributors to Wikipedia as “a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task; eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort.”  This is as applicable in language learning as it is in sports, music or any of the other repetitive processes we may engage in.  It goes without saying the more you do something the easier it becomes.

So the golden rules for language muscle memory are:

  1. If you are reading new vocabulary or a section of text make sure you read it out loud to maximise the benefit you will receive  - try not to kid yourself reading quietly to yourself is far less effective overall.  If you’re in public and don’t want people to hear you at very least mouth the words silently.
  2. Whenever you come across a common phrase or saying, specifically repeat it out loud several times (the more the better).  Just as the 100 most important words to use are important to focus on, making sure you have established muscle memory on key phrases will see a disproportionate boost to your fluency.
  3. If you overhear a native speaker speaking, try and repeat something they have said (it doesn’t matter what they have said) while it is fresh in your mind you will be able to mimic them more closely and establish a good habit.
  4. If you have developed bad habits in speaking (i.e. poor pronunciation or mumbling) consciously try to break them through muscle memory re-training.  Get a native speaker to record the phrase(s) to your phone or iPod, and then listen and repeat them consistently until you have broken your habit.
  5. Finally, make sure you use the language whenever you can.  Read signs out loud as you pass by, order from your waiter in the language you are learning, sing along to foreign language songs.  The key is repetition and mimicry, keep focussing on correct pronunciation and eventually it will become second nature.

Have a great weekend all!


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