Cornelia and The Shell: Memory, Language and those Unforgettable Romans

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cornelia est puella quae in Italia habitat 

I’ll never forget Cornelia, the upper-class Roman girl who caroused through the viae and plateae of ancient Rome, playing with her friend, pointing at things and implicity condoning slavery through her silence.

More than Cornelia’s apolitical inertia, though, I shall always remember that sentence at the top of the page, and can guarantee that I will never make a slip or an error when it comes to recalling it precisely; it has been fixed in my mind ever since the heady days of Latin lessons in my First Year (Year 7, for those of you who are infuriatingly too young and vibrant to know when that was).

Cornelia est puella quae in Italia habitat. See? I just remembered it again. Easy.

The funny thing is that recalling this sentence has always brought with it a superficially unrelated visual. This:

I’d never given much thought as to why, until I started digging a bit further into the influence of memory in language learning. What follows is an admittedly lengthy summary of what I discovered, along with some suggestions for exploiting the theories and ideas about memory in class.

One final thing, before we begin. A big influence on this entire post has come from Nick Bilbrough, whose Plenary talk at the Cambridge Day last May, and whose Memory Activities for Language Learning (Cambridge University Press), both very much influenced the ideas that have been brewing away in my mind since the beginning of the year. I’d heartily recommend investing in a copy of the book, at the very least.


“The restrictions on the learner’s ability to speak the language are caused just as much by memory limits as by the difficulty of the syntax, vocabulary, and so on.”

from Second Language Learning and Language Teaching by Vivian Cook

We start our meander through the wilds of memory here, with this rather important point. What seems to be the case, if we are to believe research from people far cleverer than I, is that we – as in we, the ELT gang – have often misrepresented or underestimated just how important having a good memory is when learning a language. As Vivian Cook explains in Second Language Learning and Language Teaching, and as the quotation above suggests, the benefits of having a good memory are obvious; the better one’s ability for recall, the more language we might be able to stuff into our flumpish little noggins. We need only look at the research to see this.

And yet at some point over the last century or so, the very idea of developing a good memory for language seemed to become a ghost at the feast. In the concerted efforts to do away with the worst elements of Audiolingualism and Behaviourism, the mere word Memory became a very dirty one indeed, linked, as it undoubtedly was, to empty parroting of meaningless-yet-memorised chunks of meh. Did the development of Communicative Language Teaching lead us to an almost Stalinist revisionism proclaiming these approaches and theories to have been horrific mistakes, and – by extrapolation – that rote learning and dirty, dirty memorising are against the central tenets of language learning?

I’m being a little histrionic, of course (could you tell?). But I do feel that it’s not just the linguists and the methodologists throughout the last century or so who have questioned this rejection of ideology less than they should. As teachers, don’t we sometimes like to feel that some sort of wondrous magic has occurred during a lesson? When new language seems to sprout from the mouths of innocents, and lexical items or frames you worked with just the day before are now appearing, fully-formed, in new contexts and forms, without any prompting from you…Oh! what creative wonder you have unleashed in your classroom!

Well, maybe. Maybe your learners just went home and memorised it.

As much as I’d like to be that creative alchemist, coaxing emerging-yet-accurate language seemingly out of nowhere, the reality is rather more prosaic. Language needs to be encountered, processed, stored and memorised, ready for use. Is it not the case, especially if we follow any sort of lexical approach or theory, that all communication consists of memorised chunks of meh in some form or other? When was the last time any of us said anything without first having to reach into our language bank and fish out an appropriate phrase?


Onwards, then, to a look at how memory is said to function. Obviously, given that the workings of the human brain are ultimately impossible to pin down, we cannot state anything categorically, but let’s have a bash anyway.

This is the model of working memory formulated by Alan Baddeley, professor of psychology at University of York, whose well-received and much-respected ideas we can use to help to inform our ideas about language learning. From right to left…

The Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad is essentially a screen that projects images and locations. It is the part of your mind that you use when you remember, say, what the restaurant you went to last night looked like, how the table was laid out, or the route you took to get there. It also helps you to recall, when the waiter brings over the bill, exactly where at home you have mistakenly left your credit card, and burns into your memory the look on your partner’s face as you meekly try to explain that he or she will be paying for dinner that evening.

It’s the part of the brain that learners use when they describe the place they live, or how they get to school, or what they would buy if they won the lottery. Not that we’d ever ask our class to do that sort of thing for, like, the millionth time…

The Episodic Buffer covers storytelling, sequencing and arranging events. It comes into play when you remember what you had for a starter, then what you chose for main course, then for dessert. It allows you to recall what you talked about in between courses, what you did before and after you left the restaurant, and fixes into your memory the grovelling series of excuses you were forced to make to your partner about forgetting to put your credit card back in your wallet / purse the night before when booking the table online, but you will pay them back IN FULL tomorrow, promise.

It’s the part of the brain that learners use when they are developing an anecdote, or putting together a jigsaw reading task, or guessing what happened when The Jim Twins met each other for the first time. Not that we’d ever ask our class ask our class to do that sort of thing for, like, the millionth time…

Also, I try not to go on about it too much in these blog posts, but it is so useful to link language to emotion to memory; you might wonder where emotional response fits into Baddeley’s model above. From what I can gather, the Episodic Buffer is most likely the element through which emotion and emotional memory can be accessed. It can help you to remember anything from a snapshot to a series of events, helping you to dip back into the past, into long term memory, dredging up images and showreels of your life that you have stored for safekeeping.

The Phonological Loop is sometimes referred to as the ‘Articulatory Loop’, and is where inner dialogues with yourself can happen. New sound patterns circulate around this loop, consciously or unconsciously repeating themselves to form stronger links with long term memory. It is the part of working memory you use when trying to remember a lexical chunk or a phone number by repeating it over and over again to yourself, or when you practise again and again the exact wording of an apology which, on the journey home, needs to be delivered to your angry partner, lest you find yourself sleeping in the spare room.

It’s the part of the brain that learners use when they are trying to remember new lexis, or practising where prominence appears in a sentence, or rehearsing a dialogue from Role Plays For Today. Not that we’d ever…etc…

NOTE: Interestingly, the existence of the Phonological Loop – or Articulatory Loop, as it is sometimes known – supports any insistence on rehearsing or practising language in class (I prefer both these terms to ‘drilling’). But it also functions quite happily without spoken output; in other words, getting your learners to repeat a chunk in silence, over and over again in their heads, could actually be as useful as their saying it out loud.


What happens next? Well, when you combine these three components together as a functioning unit, they act as a conduit between working and long-term memory. They are controlled by the Central Executive, which sounds like a job Peter Mandelson would cut out his Hypothalamus to get, but isn’t. It actually distributes information to these three sub-systems and is the processor of cognitive memory, essentially helping you to make the first choice over what you want to remember and what you don’t. Not that you actually have control over what language actually finds its way to long term memory, mind you. As we are well aware, as classroom experience has taught us, the final decision on what sticks and what falls by the wayside in our memories is often not our own, as this diagram from Nick Bilbrough’s Memory Activities for Language Learning shows:

This is an adaptation from Earl Stevick’s Memory, Meaning and Method and captures the haphazard nature of this process rather well.


Working memory is what we encounter every day in class. We try and stimulate our learners in such a way that whatever language happens to be flying around the room that day has a chance of finding its way, eventually, somehow, to automatisation. Which is the tricky bit. How can we help this along?

“Working memory allows for immediate processing of material that we are exposed to in the short term. At some point […] we need something to happen so that it gets stored in long term memory for retrieval when required. We need to make language memorable.”

 from Memory Activities for Language Learning by Nick Bilbrough

Here, then, are a couple of examples of activities I have tried and tested that I believe can help students with their language learning; activities that do indeed make language memorable.

Silly Grammar 


Milk Danger Rabbit



And so on to the epilogue.

Remember this?:

Cornelia est puella quae in Italia habitat 

Why do I always think of a shell when I recall that statement in Latin? I can’t remember tucking into a single scallop in class when I was eleven, so what did I do at the time of study that made this become so?

Well, Cornelia is the little Roman girl’s name, obviously. Moving on from that, my word attack skills back then helped me to surmise that:

est = is
in = in (clearly)
Italia = Italy
habitat = live
quae = who   (similar to ‘qui’, which I was also learning at the same time in French classes)
But ‘puella‘…pu-ella…hmmm…unlike any word in English, or in French.
And I realised, as I was researching this project, and while thinking about the linking activity in particular, that the eleven-year-old me had come up with a simple visual to help me remember the word.
Because ‘Puella’ sounds like ‘Shell’. Even at the age of eleven, I appear to have been creating mnemonics to help me remember new language.
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