Language Tips

Get expert tips on language, grammar, style and vocabulary

Can scent really help you learn a language?

5 min read
6 December 2019
student holding a flower

Learning a new language can be tough. It requires constant practice, full immersion and a huge amount of dedication. So, are there any tips or tricks to help you remember the mountain of vocabulary words and grammar rules just to get a sentence out?

Well, there might be. Scent. Smells have the unique ability to instantly connect us to memories or experiences.


The Proust Effect

Scents recalling memories is known as the Proust effect. The idea was first mentioned by the French novelist Marcel Proust, where he vividly recalls a memory from his childhood by having a Madeline biscuit. And we’ve all definitely experienced it.

The link between smell and memory comes from the fact that the smell sense is very closely located to the emotional brain. It’s a well-known fact that scent can recall detailed images and memories, but does it go far enough to remember words, dates and facts?


How is it connected?

When you first smell something the upper part of your nose sends an impulse to the olfactory bulb, where it processes the signal and sends it on to other areas closely connected to it, known as the limbic system. This system is responsible for controlling mood, memory, behaviour and emotion. So, it is true that scent can definitely help will remembering context and memory recall.


Want to find your dream destination?
top view students in kaplan school

Discover Kaplan’s fantastic, worldwide English schools


Can it work on demand?

Smell plays a crucial role in how we associate memory and place. However, it’s not necessarily something that we can spontaneously decide to use. Memories associated with smell happen naturally and over time. Say for instance, as a young child you visited your grandparents house every Sunday for tea and lemon cake. In the future the smell of tea and lemon cake might take you right back to those moments where you can vividly remember small details.


Take a look at our video to see if you can guess these scents in another language: 


State Dependant Memory

The concept of state dependant memory does give hope to being able to actively use smell to help you learn. The idea is that you can actually recall information if you’re immersed in the exact same experience you were in when you learned it. That applies to both your physical surroundings and emotional state. Whether that’s listening to heavy metal, smelling fresh lemons, or being happy or sad when you originally took in the information.

The idea is that you’re not just storing a memory in isolation but including the entire memory with it. And smell can trigger the memory, more so than other senses that are more likely to degrade (such as visual and auditory senses). It’s not a given what exact information you will recall but it can be any aspect of the moment you were learning it in.


So, can you scent help with learning?

Trying to associate a particular smell with learning a language will not harm your efforts. It might make the process of recalling information easier. It’s not a guarantee you’ll remember the details that you might be hoping to, but the chances of memory recall are definitely higher with scent association. So, good luck in your new language adventure.