Everyone possesses a different intelligence: some people react to colours or shapes, other to sounds. Some like to learn by rote, out of context, while others only manage to learn a language by listening to it. Knowing how your brain functions will help you learn new vocabulary in a better and durable way. I know for sure that I would be nothing without the written word. My Norwegian improved greatly by listening to the radio or watching TV on a daily basis, but I need to support that way of learning by seeing the words correctly written, compiling a list, or writing them down a few times.
Here are a few other tips on how to learn and memorize vocabulary:
1 – Stay in context: I’ve noticed this works well with newspapers. Let’s say that I want to learn vocab on health. For one week, read 5 articles a day in your target language and underline all the new words or the phrases you want to memorize. By the second article, you will notice words that pop up again.
This works particularly well with connecting words and phrases that are not usually found in fiction. Phrases like “on the other hand”, “besides”, “as a conclusion”… all those rhetorical bits that make up a good essay abound in the press.
2 – Repetition is key: Once you have made a list of the words you want to memorize, find a way to repeat them. My Latin teacher always said that you memorize by forgetting and relearning 7 times. So take a pen and jot down the words 10 times, or repeat them orally. Finding a way to put them into context by creating imaginary dialogues in which they could be used is equally effective.
3 – Finding the root and identifying affixes: Some words share the same root, which is modified by a prefix or a suffix. Take the word “identity”, for example. Several words can be created from the same root: identical, identify, identifiable,… Knowing your affixes will help you “guess” new words and learn them more easily. It also works well with a language that is very different from yours, as finding resemblances is a good mnemonic trick.
4 – Learning cognates first. This works if your target language is similar to your native one, or if you master another in the same family. It simply means that there are some words that sound and mean just the same in languages from the same linguistic tree. This allows me to understand Swedish and Danish while I can only master Norwegian, and I identified in my Norwegian vocabulary book a lot of words I already recognized. It will give you a head start.
5 – Make topical lists and learn them. Looking up every new word is not enough. You have to compile them in thematic lists, a trick I learned in high school and at university. This is half of the work as you pick them up from context, check them, copy them down, re-read them and try to use them. You see, you’ve already repeated the word 5 times.
6 – Learn by heart… but adapt it to your strengths. I had a problem learning some practical vocabulary out of context, like botanical terms, for example. Once, way before Desperate Housewives, I came across “wisteria” in a translation exam. I had learned a list of flowers by heart so I knew the French translation, but it made me realise that I couldn’t picture them in my head, and it explained why all that vocabulary disappeared from my mind over the summer. When I come across the name of an animal, a flower, an architectural or pictorial term I’m unsure of, I search for a picture of it on the internet, and it’s usually enough to make me remember both the foreign name and its translation.
7 – Play with words. My favourite crosswords are “skeleton”, in which the black squares are missing. I discovered them while living in Britain and I’ve started doing word puzzles in Norwegian. I’m sure that, in the age of interactivity, you can find apps that offer word games.
8 – Keep accountable. You have to learn everyday. Set aside 15 minutes a day and a longer period during the weekends to learn by heart, clean up your lists or simply read a difficult text or listen to the news, pen in hand. You will notice an improvement within 6 weeks.
There are, of course, other ways of learning. Word associations, for example. Some people also use riddles or little stories to remember complicated words. For example, they will learn “subconscient” (unconscious) by associating it with a submarine, going under the surface of the conscious (don’t laugh). It works for them, but I prefer doing the suffix thing and staying linguistically aware, or my head would explode, learning too many stories.
For a little bit of recreation (and inspiration), watch Daniel Tammet learning icelandic in one week. Of course, his autistic brain allows him to learn by synesthesia. Fascinating, isn’t it?