Written by Allan Ngo


You’re on a roll.

The final paper is due for tomorrow, and as any good student would do – you just started TODAY! No worries though, you’re blazing through this paper like crazy. You pound on your desktop to churn out page after page of insight until you’re just a few measly steps away from the finish line when…


…The power goes OUT.

Sweat dribbles down your face as the most horrifying question pops into your mind.

“Did I just save that?”

Your heart palpitates as you nervously wait for the power to come back up. Hoping against hope that your auto-save function was on or your auto-recovery system works.


You hit yourself on the side of the head for being a knucklehead.  All this stress could’ve been prevented by a simple ‘Save’. You could’ve just developed the habit of pressing CTRL+S (Command+S) every time you stop writing or at the end of each paragraph – transferring everything from the RAM to the hard disk in a snap!

The difference between having lost that document forever and saving it in your hard disk is NOT all about smarts – the content came from you either way. A lot of it is simply about TECHNIQUE.

It not only applies to computer memory but to human memory as well. Let me tell you of two simple techniques to help you increase the retention of new vocabulary and go from tip of the tongue frustration to smooth as silk conversation.

The Power of Shorter Lists and More (yes, more) Breaks!

If you have ever tried cramming a list of vocabulary for an exam or tried remembering a list of grocery items, you might have noticed a peculiar pattern. Chances are – you tend to remember the first and last items on the list pretty well.

This is called the serial position effect. It refers to the improved recall that can be noticed for items at the beginning and end of lists. Items at the beginning of the list get rehearsed the most and are stored in the long-term memory (primacy effect), while items at the end of the list immediately go to the short-term memory and get recalled easily because it’s the last item you encounter (recency effect)*.

Serial Position Effect [New]-1

Being equipped with this knowledge, Tim Ferris, in his book 4-Hour Chef, suggests breaking down say a list of 50 words, into two lists of 25 words and adding a 5-10 minute break in between. It also applies to the length of your study session; you can cut down a 90-minute study session into two sessions of 45 minutes each with the recommended break in between.

Your recall will look something like this

Serial Position Effect [New]-2
By doing so, you are multiplying the number of start and end points in your study; hence words in the middle of your list will enjoy better recall compared to studying it as one big chunk. You study the same items in virtually the same amount of time (with even more breaks in between) and get better results.

What the Incredible Hulk (yes, the huge green dude) can teach you about recall.

Ah… yes, Superheroes.

The Avengers movie was a BIG hit worldwide. How could you go wrong with Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the gang, right? You are definitely familiar with how movies are remembered best by just one scene (or a set of scenes).

And for this particular movie, it didn’t come from the superheroes mentioned above, in fact, it came from someone who didn’t even have much speaking lines at all.

Remember this?

Good times, isn’t it?

So what does the Incredible Hulk’s beat down have to do with increasing recall?

The thing that made this scene memorable was its unpredictability. It jolts your senses to pay attention because you won’t know what’s coming next… and that’s where the Von Restorff effect comes in.

The Von Restorff effect states that we have a bias towards remembering things that are unique. It’s quite logical, isn’t it? We always turn our heads when we see something peculiar.

So let’s me show you how this applies to increasing you memory.

Picking up from our earlier graph here.

Von Restorff Effect-New
Let’s say this is the list of words in that graph

USB Port

Now let’s see the Von Restorff effect in action

USB Port

Immediately, the two words in the middle jumps out at you. There are two changes 1. Change in the font (size and color) 2. Change from noun to verb. With the insertion of these changes in the middle of the word list, your graph will now look something like this.

Neat, huh?

As you can see, this does not take super discipline to implement. Instead, it leverages our quirks as people and uses them to our advantage – simple, easy and implementable. I hope you found these tips useful in your pursuit of language learning. The sooner you use these strategies, the faster you see results.Neat, huh?

That’s it for now. Until next time…

Whoa! Whoa!

I almost forgot…

… (pressing) CTRL+S.

Whew! That was close. We’re good now.

Until next time!


Ciao! 再见!

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About Allan –
Allan Ngo writes at Money in Mandarin. Click here to get his free E-book 10 Clever Chinese Idioms: Express Yourself Better and Be Absolutely Impressive


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