Ask for help or look it up: Partial recall and the tip-of-the-tongue syndrome

Ask for help or look it up: Partial recall and the tip-of-the-tongue syndrome

My mum asked me lately if I wanted anything from the grocery store. I turned around and said: Yes please, could you get soy milk, some apples and a… a… — I could see it with my mind’s eye, it’s long and looks like a cucumber. As I thought a bit harder, my eyes started to squint. I knew the word sounded non-English and one letter was doubled, if only I could recall the first letter…

Courgette! — I exclaimed with relief.

Being a tad of a paranoid person, these moments worry me. I immediately picture an early onset of dementia despite plenty of articles telling me that my language learning attempts will definitely postpone it.

We often forget words in our mother tongue and probably even more in the languages we’re learning. It is very frustrating, especially when we can remember so much ancillary information about the item in question—where it was on the page, the sentence it was a part of, the time of day we learned it and the number of times we revised it.

There’s a popular belief that it is good to force yourself and try to recollect information that you’ve previously learned. We create stories, write sentences, imagine funny memes aiming to create connections between the words and the meanings. When revising our flashcards we strain our brains to the point where we can almost feel the brain cells get tense. Frustratingly, the more we focus the harder it is to retrieve the missing information. We were lead to believe the effort we put into recalling the word—somewhat like the attempts we make in the gym—will help us strengthen the recollection path so that next time we won’t struggle so much.

Research by psychologists Karin Humphreys and Amy Beth Warriner found that that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Ask for assistance

Tit for TOT

In their study on the tip of the tongue (TOT) phenomenon, published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, the researchers showed 30 participants questions that they either knew, didn't know or had the answers on the tip of their tongues. The groups were assigned a specific amount of time to recall the answers, 10 or 30 seconds.

The longer they stayed in that tip-of-the-tongue state on the first day, the more likely they were to get into a tip-of-the-tongue state on that word on the second day”, said Karin Humphreys. Instead of strengthening their memory of the correct word, it seems the participants had reinforced their inability to remember it.

By trying to recollect words or grammatical constructions that you can easily look up, you not only lose valuable time, but also risk remembering an incorrect spelling, stroke order or word use—something that will be very difficult to correct in the future. This is what the researchers call “incorrect practice” time.

Look up to understand

If you have a dictionary, encyclopædia, or a knowledgeable person nearby, you should always ask or look up information you aren’t sure about. If you don’t, try to explain what you are trying to say in other words.

This will prevent misunderstandings, avoid retention of false information, and help expand the richness of your spoken expression. Otherwise you’ll end up only digging yourself in deeper.

"You’re spinning your tires in the snow. You’re digging yourself in deeper."— KARIN HUMPHREYS

A musician wouldn’t practice a piece of music that he knows to be incorrect just for the sake of doing music practice, the same should go for language learning and academia in general.

You can take this thinking one step further by having a ready-made bank of ‘ways around’ saying words you forget. If whilst during a conversation in a second language you forget the word for ‘enormous,’ use the word for ‘very big’ or ‘not small.’

Being nimble in your learning means that you’re more ready to be nimble in your speaking and writing of the language you are learning.

Don’t mind asking

Many people are afraid to ask when they’re unsure about something. You shouldn’t be! Most native speakers are happy to answer questions about their language, and for your fellow students, this a great opportunity to learn by teaching.

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”— MATTHEW 7:7

Equally, it can be a good idea to ask your native friends to correct you when you talk to them. Out of politeness, most people wouldn’t do that unless you ask them in advance.

There are a number of websites dedicated to this pursuit. One of the most vibrant and helpful communities is Lang-8, where upon submission of a diary entry or other post, native speakers from around the world will provide you with corrections and useful feedback.

If you are looking for a more dynamic interaction, try HelloTalk, where you can communicate with native speakers via texts and voice messages. If you’re lucky you can find someone who not only can help you, but who is also looking to improve their skills in your first language so you can become a teacher yourself.

Last but not least, there is italki, an online tutoring service where you can find professional tutors as well as experienced conversation partners in an extensive choice of languages.

Your potential excuse of not knowing any native speakers has been invalidated.

Look up to review

The process of looking up will give you even more references for you to remember the information and serve as additional repetition, which is so important in learning anything.

There are plenty of online resources offering quality information about languages. LinguaLift’s textbook is conveniently divided into short chapters and you can always go back to a place where you encountered difficulties. It’s better to take time to re-read something and create a solid knowledge foundation before proceeding. Building up further knowledge on shaky ground will make the structure likely to collapse sooner or later!

Different sites, textbooks, blogs and youtube channels often explain the same information slightly differently, providing you with a variety of angles to look at the same topic. For one grammatical point you may find the best explanation on Youtube, while for another perhaps a blog post of Mr. Language* will resonate with you. With especially difficult concepts it’s vital to read widely until we cover all the angles.

“You cannot open a book without learning something.”— CONFUCIUS

Multiple sources means multiple chances to cement the information in your head!

Warriner’s research suggests that apart from repeating the forgotten piece of information to ourselves, it is also beneficial to see the answer on the screen. This helps create a visual memory and gives further support to computer based flashcard systems like the vocab section on LinguaLift.

Take note

To form stronger memories and prevent the tip of tongue effect try taking notes of what you learn. You will create a good resource to refer to when you do need to look up information and won’t be relying on someone else’s way of presenting information, but will have chosen one that works best for you.

Try to use different methods of note taking to process the information you’re learning in multiple ways. It’s similar to looking up explanations in different sources, except that this time you are creating the resources yourself.

Vary your note-taking methods for better recall.

Use colour coding, symbols and doodles to add memorable details to your notes. Mind maps are also a good way of displaying information, especially organising vocabulary.

Mind map


Next time when TOT attacks you will know where to look for the right answers!

Focus on the positive

Rather than focusing on the process of recollection, direct your attention to the correct answer. Bringing to mind increasing amount of surrounding detail about the concept you lost in your mind may eventually help you recall the piece of information, but you will be likely to go through the very same process again next time you have to recall the same concept.

Teach your mind to take a shortcut and jump from not knowing to knowing, rather than develop a habit of taking a long-winded path before reaching the answer. If you can’t recall something quickly, look it up or ask someone. Then, to enforce the positive connotation repeat the correct answer to yourself a few times.

Teach your mind to take shortcuts.

Such repetition will help override the negative effects of the tip of the tongue effect, suggests further research by Warriner.

If you are a teacher, or are helping your friends to learn, do not push your students to recall something at all costs. If you see they are struggling offer a helping hand—tell them the answer and repeat it a few times together.

Keep up the good work!

The research by Humphreys and Warriner does not disqualify all the popular methods of memorising new information. Mnemonics, creating emotional connections, building memory palaces and rhyming are all still valid methods for memorising new information.

The take home point here is that if it takes us a long time to recall a piece of information once, we are likely to take a long time to remember it the next time. Thus, rather than boiling your brain and squinting in focus, give yourself a break after 5-10 seconds and search for a helping hand.

You will not only save yourself time and frustration, but also help build a stronger and more efficient recollection path.

Do you often experience the tip-of-the-tongue effect? Share your stories with us on Facebook & Twitter!

*just to resolve all doubts and prevent fruitful Google searches, to my humble knowledge Mr Language doesn’t exist.