Remembering New Vocabulary

A common malady that affects language learners is remembering new vocabulary and all the new rules you have to  learn. I’ve talked about using mnemonics before, but I’ll use this article to go a little deeper into how to effectively remember vocabulary permanently and efficiently.

A Basic Method for Remembering New Vocabulary

  • Use a mnemonic device until the word sticks in your head. We’ll use the fictional word “Facowmar.” A mnemonic device might be, “The Fat Cow Goes To Market.” Say this over and over, emphasises the bits you need to emphasise. Then let yourself view in your head the fat cow going to market. If you can make the actual mnemonic in your target language, all the better.
  • Use Spaced Repetition to remember this over the next few seconds to a minute. For instance, once you’re reasonably sure you can remember the mnemonic and word for a second, try two seconds. Then try four seconds once you can remember it for two seconds. Then when you’re comfortable, go for 8 seconds.
  • Then abandon the mnemonic in favour of phonetic material. i.e. remember the sounds. Mnemonics are not for long term vocabulary acquisition. They are a short term stop gap to aid you whilst you’re getting familiar.
  • At this point, use imagery of the item/word you want to use. Don’t translate or think of the English word (or, your first language) at all. Picture image, think of sounds, repeat.
  • Repeat out loud, or write it down.

You have to learn actively. Language learners talk about active versus passive vocabulary. It’s a false situation. I can read Shakespeare or The Canterbury Tales, but I would never use the vocabulary contained within them. Other language learners might call this “Passive Vocabulary,” but you must persevere . It only counts if you can use it. Remembering new vocabulary has a litmus test; can you use it in a sentence in regular conversation?

Passive learning works in a similar fashion. You have to use it. The best way to do this is through simply reading and listening at the correct level to which you’re learning the language. If you’re intermediate and trying to become advanced, then there is no point in reading, “My First Story” or watching a subtitled kids show. Conversely, there’s no point in listening to televised presidential debates in your target language if you can’t understand dubbed Disney songs.

Your passive skills must be at the correct level for the vocabulary you’re trying to remember. Remembering new vocabulary comes with hearing your target vocabulary over and over again until you’re familiar with it. Making sure you do active learning is twice as important for the passive skills, because you’re creating that exposure yourself.

Following the blueprint above will make remembering new vocabulary easy. There are similar issues with remembering new grammar rules, which we”ll talk about at another point.

Language Bug