Tag Archives: language

8 easy tips to memorize vocabulary

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?

An introduction to learning a foreign language through immersion

There are several approaches to learning a language. In this entry, I would like to talk about immersion.

When people talk about immersion, they often refer to international schools or classes in which part of the curriculum is delivered entirely in a second language. If started early enough, beginning by telling or listening to stories, or playing games in the language, young students are adequately equipped to develop bilingualism. Their young brain is more malleable when it comes to processing new sounds and vocabulary; they will be more susceptible to pronounce their new language without any trace of an accent. Enabling students to deal with complicated concepts in a foreign language prepares them for higher education or employment in foreign or multicultural environments.

But there is another way to learn a language by immersion – be it complemented or not by formal classes – and that would be to move abroad, in  a land where your target language is spoken.

There are different ways of doing it: younger people can spend a holiday with a family or go on an exchange program with their schools. Here, in Europe, with the development of programs like Erasmus, there has never been such a movement of students across the continent, spending the last year of their BA abroad, being teaching assistants, getting enrolled for PhD in dynamic research centers… Some are expats, moving for prolonged holidays or for employment reasons, while others, like me, have joined a volunteering program.

All of these people may not have the comfort of a classroom to practice their language skills. Depending on their daily environment, they may have to depend on their target language or at least English as a communication tools. Here are a couple of tips that could help.

The power of absorption

Think about people in the Nordic countries, who understand English so well. Fair enough, they may have strong accents, but their mastery of the language is impressive. But ask yourself how it came about. Was it particularly successful language classes, or constant exposure to non-dubbed American and British TV-shows? Scandinavians also like to travel around and, considering that their languages are not very commonly spoken, they need to turn to English to make themselves understood. This passive exposure to English gives them amazing skills without having to rely on a lot of formal education, as the process functions as an absorption.

Let it go!

Being immersed in a foreign language is like learning how to swim. All your bearings are lost and it kicks off your survival instinct. You become more resourceful, while learning practical vocabulary that you use everyday, before building up on that. Of course, without prompts learned by heart in a classroom, knowing how to begin a conversation can be tricky. People often joke that starting to speak in a foreign language is best done while drunk. It all boils down to inhibitions. In other words, let go! Remember that we all make mistakes. Log on to Livemocha’s blog to read some funny mistakes we have made. Yours truly once mistook the word “gravy” for the word “gravel” when she was talking about the trail she went hiking on…

By the way, the picture on top of this page shows me singing the poems of Jakob Sande in a little Norwegian café. I dared!

Build up vocabulary

Once you start being able to understand “niche” programs like political broadcasts or scientific documentaries, you will notice recurrent vocabulary and phrases, and reading on those themes will reinforce what you have heard. For example, here in Norway, I log on to the NRK radio online and listen to Politisk kvarter, a 15-minute daily political program. The representatives who are invited talk about current issues that I will be able to read about in the newspapers. If they use a word I cannot spell, chances are that I’ll pick it up later in Aftenposten. This is a good example of (double) contextual exposure.

Cultural communication

Spending time abroad will give you the advantage of learning nuances and idiomatic expressions that are not always taught in a classroom. Picking up a regional accent or a dialect is a very good incentive to travel. You will learn to speak like a native and not like stock characters in a school book.

Immersion helps you communicate, learn the non-linguistic components of a form of communication, like facial expressions or even silences. It is a form of language learning that is turned towards other people and is dependent on their existence and willingness to communicate.

Of course, few people will get immersed in a language and pick it up entirely by ear or by reading the newspaper without backing up their learning by formal exercises and activities, but we will cover this aspect in the next blog entry.

What about you? Have you ever learned a language by immersion?