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The Linguistics of Melancholy – Memory, Language and Loss

As I’m writing this, I watch the sun rising over my city. I see the roofs change colour and I see thin mist rising over the bay. If I opened the window, I could smell the sea from here.
I’m moving out in less than a week’s time. Which means that – despite my determination to keep coming back to this charming bit of land – there are some things that I’m currently doing for the last time ever.
It’s a powerful feeling, and I’ve noticed that it changes the way you perceive and remember things. Sights, conversations, meals – everything seems to have more value if you know this might be the last occasion for it! This made me wonder – is there a way to tap into this emotional state that would benefit your language learning?
As it turns out, there might be. Read on for a brief discussion of how melancholy impacted memory (several distinguished memories, in fact), how psychology defined what’s going on – and for a few suggestions that could make your everyday language learning a lot more memorable.

1. Sleds, biscuits and ratatouilles – At Your Most Joyful

A brief cultural detour here. You probably know these three stories – but it’s still a pleasure to relive them every time. I will explain these in part two.
The first story: “Citizen Kane” focuses on the word “rosebud.” The entire film is basically an enigma centered around the meaning of Kane’s last word. I don’t want to spoil the film for you – but I need to say this here: “rosebud” is Kane’s code for the only time in his life when he was truly happy – one of the most joyful childhood memories.
Story no. 2: Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” This is a monumental exercise in remembering – a literary work examining memory, melancholy and nostalgia. For the protagonist, the wonders of memory are triggered by an involuntary remembering of a madeleine – a biscuit dipped in tea or coffee that he used to get as a child.
The last story: Pixar’s “Ratatouille.” This scene is, for me, the perfect visual representation of a “madeleine moment” (yes, it’s a thing):

2. Defining Precious Fragments

The stories mentioned above have a few things in common with each other – and with my nostalgic feeling from the intro. The memory in each of these stories works in a particular manner, selectively amplifying some feelings, senses, and emotions – so that years later, you are likely to remember these things vividly and feel as if you were there again.
Psychology has already focused on these phenomena. A vivid childhood memory such as the ones above can be defined as a “reminiscence bump” – whilst remembering a particularly surprising, spontaneous and pleasant moment is called a “precious fragment”. You can read more about them, if you wish – but our discussion will only pick on the most important features of this research for the purpose of this blog: language learning.

3. “Rosebud Moments” in Language Learning

Most language courses you can sign up for are planned, programmed and scripted in advance. You can find out at the very beginning of your course what you will learn. There’s a syllabus, a set of materials, a system of guidelines and tests to make sure you follow the prescribed path and come out “successful” at the other end.
At the same time – as I’ve tried to show above – a vast portion of things you’re likely to remember for longer works on a completely different basis. It’s the spontaneous, not the pre-planned. It’s about the surprise, not the preparation. It’s about the awareness of the ephemeral – knowing that, in all likelihood, this moment will never happen again.
The bad news is that very few language courses take that into account, and that it’s practically impossible to design a course based exclusively on these moments (although a language school willing to prove me wrong would probably make a fortune!).
The good news: you can take care of that for yourself. The “precious fragments” are yours to collect – and so is the responsibility for attaching a layer of language to them. Since you tend to verbalize your memories – attach a narrative to everything you think about or remember – why not go for a foreign language?
Here’s a list of possible starting points:
– Be conscious and aware. This sounds easy – but a lot of our waking moments are wasted because we fail to notice them. Worst case scenarios include being hit by buses; most of the time we’re just letting awesome memories escape. Read up on Leo’s tips and start paying attention.
– Log it. Have I told you lately how important it is to note down the things you learn? Well, I’m telling you again. This time, remembering is more or less assured – since we’re focusing on “memorable” moments anyway. What needs to happen, though, is that you apply a foreign language commentary to the thing you remember – so that the words come to mind whenever that vivid recollection appears before your eyes. That’s what a good journal log will do.
– Go for many media. Here, finally, is a good use for your Instagram (if you’re visually oriented) or things like Audioboo (if, like me, sounds grab you more strongly). Here’s a good excuse to blog, scrapbook and start a Pinterest page. The more stimuli you gather – and garnish with a foreign language description – the better your chance to remember them. Who’s to know how and when a moment will become legendary? Make sure you give each one of them a chance!
– Do awesome stuff. This should probably go without saying, but – not every language course will earn your money, time and effort. Now that you’ve seen how enjoyable and permanent learning can get – you can think again about doing things in the foreign language of your choice. Is the course you’re on helping with that, or bringing you down? Would you rather be learning in another way?

That’s all for now, folks. I’m off for a walk along the coast (definitely not my last) and some legendary fish and chips.
Oh, and a small challenge for you: what’s the “precious fragment” that you can now recall in a foreign language?


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