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Building Muscle Memory Is the Key to Speaking Fluently

By: Giancarlo Di Mizio & Vikey Chen |

You may associate muscle memory with walking, swimming, playing a musical instrument, or riding a bike. When you continually practice a physical action many times, your brain develops muscle memory for how to do it easily without even thinking.

In fact, learning a language requires the same kind of repetitive practice. Building muscle memory enables you to use the new language naturally. Once you develop muscle memory, you won't make people wait for long to get your response, because you have all the words you need to express your idea.

By utilizing your muscle memory, actively participating in a conversation becomes intuitive and automatic.

Do you know self-talk is a powerful tool to develop muscle memory?

I always encourage students to build muscle memory through repetition. You can do so by practicing self-talk, which means talking to yourself in the target language out loud. Sounds crazy? Yes, you may be crazy, but only about languages.

Self-talk is a powerful tool to improve your language skills. My student Daniel once complained that he had no chance to practice speaking outside the classroom, “I'm an introvert, and I don't like talking to people.” Therefore, I introduced the self-talk approach to him, and he decided to try it out.

When he learned “voy a,” which means “I'm going to,” in our Spanish class. He thought it was a very useful phrase, because he could use it for directions like “a certain direction I'm going to” or for actions “a thing I'm going to do.”

So he talked to himself in the car and said in Spanish, “I'm going to go to the post office, and then I'm going to go to work, and then I'm going to have a cup of coffee, and then I'm going to take a break … ” He had all of these vocab words “voy a … ” “voy a … ” “voy a … ” to use, and he could just talk to himself. Somebody next to him at the top light might think he was singing along, but he was really just talking to himself in Spanish.

That's a good way of introducing a new Spanish phrase into his memory! With such a simple phrase, Daniel could develop the comfort to speak and think in Spanish.

Why is muscle memory essential in language learning?

Again, the idea is for it to be automatic. Eventually you will be able to think in the new language rather than try to translate.

Through muscle memory practice, Daniel was no longer thinking of “oh, this is first person conjugation or present tense” or translating his thoughts from English to Spanish. He could just think and express himself in Spanish straight away. That's exactly how muscle memory works in language learning.

Under the current pandemic, you surely do not go out as much as you did before, but you can still practice a language through self-talk to build muscle memory. Talking to yourself in the shower, while cleaning the house, or when driving is a great way to find what words you can use, and also to explore the boundaries of your ability.

When you say the same thing over and over, which is called repetitive practice, the relevant muscle memory is established. You get to a new level of confidence and familiarity with all those words and phrases. Like Daniel, the more he said "voy a" out loud, the quicker it came out of his lips without going through the whole "I'm going to = voy a" translation thing. Instead of having to do all that extra work, he went directly to Spanish. As you can see, it is a very physical thing and not so much mental.

How to train your brain by using muscle memory techniques?

At the beginning, you may feel strange to think and communicate your thoughts in the new language. This requires a lot of effort. However, if you dedicate more time outside of class to practice, the established muscle memory helps automate thinking processes in your brain. You will soon remember how to use the right words to express yourself with little or no effort.

You've probably heard of the 10,000-hour rule. According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to master a skill. However, it really depends from person to person, and It likely requires much less time than that to benefit from muscle memory in language learning. As you continuously repeat speaking and listening to the new language, it decreases the attention required to perform it. The new language slowly becomes part of your brain muscle memory.

Isn't it fascinating? This is the magic of muscle memory. Over time, with repetition and continual practice, actions as complicated as communicating in a new language, can be performed almost automatically and without thought.

Book a language class with ILC!

We have classes in any world language with online, in-person and hybrid options. Send a DM, email us at:, or simply call 844 503 1237 for more info.

Giancarlo Di Mizio, Education Director at Indy Language Center, is a native Italian and fluent Spanish speaker who grew up in the heart of Rome. He thinks the best thing about his role is creating community and bringing people together speaking each other's languages and experiencing each other's cultures.

Vikey Chen is an education columnist from Hong Kong, and now she calls the US home.

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