Tag Archives: learning

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?

Learning a language in a formal environment

The second part of our language learning series is about learning a new language in a formal setting. Last week, we talked about immersion, that is learning “on-the-go” by letting all the nuances of the language flow into you almost unconsciously. But there are limits to how efficient this way of learning is without being backed up by formal learning techniques.

Let me draw the scene: a blackboard, tables in a semi-circle around the teacher (preferably a native speaker), textbooks and exercise books. A lot of reading aloud, grammar exercises, writing and speaking prompts that are directed at preparing you to an exam… This form of teaching is far from being communicative-based, and some say it is outdated. I beg to differ, as I believe that learning methodically will help ground the informal experience that is so often incomplete by exploring all the little cogs of how a form of communication functions.

Learning how the language functions
There are numerous benefits to learning a language formally, particularly as an adult, if only to satisfy your curiosity about how it works. For example, understanding grammar, morphology and syntax will allow you to make perfect sentences from the get-go and identify that you may have been making mistakes or using slang or child speech. For example, in Norwegian, many young people would say, “Jeg har snakket med han” (/I have talked to he/) instead of saying, “Jeg har snakket med ham” (I have talked to him). Using this type of slang may be okay (after all, languages evolve), yet it would be useful to know what is right and make the difference between a subject and an object pronoun.

The exhaustive approach of explicit grammar
For those who attend classes, having a teacher explain rules and exceptions will prove beneficial and may answer questions that have been baffling you. Are you thinking back about your time in school, copying rules from a book? Don’t worry, adults will grasp explicit grammar better than children and will be more focused. What they have picked up implicitly from their immersion experience will be validated, corrected or explained. Don’t hesitate to ask questions.

Memory tricks
Learning in a formal environment will also provide tricks. There are some techniques to learn vocabulary, that your teacher or your book will communicate to you. For example, you can make comparisons with your language and learning first words that are similar. Another technique is to learn by roots, adding affixes. It’s a great way to learn as it forces you to think of how to make an adverb, an adjective, etc, from a substantive. For the verbs, it is knowing how to recognize the root and which ending to add.

In that regard, the influence of Greek and Latin on European languages is also important and being aware of which words are inherited from those two languages will help you identify them and learn them. On the other side of the world, learning what Japanese Kanji represented helped me pick up the meaning of some Chinese ideograms, as they share a common history.

Learning by rote
For some languages with conjugations of verbs or declensions, there is no escaping learning lists by heart. Not doing it will hinder your progression. Think about Latin languages and their numerous verbal forms. Or the Eastern European languages and their numerous cases. My Spanish teacher in junior high had a technique for the most difficult examples: print a list of irregular verbs and tape them somewhere where you can see them several times a day. And that’s how the back of our bathroom door showcased the irregular Spanish verbs in the preterito for several months.

Of course, due to their personal circumstances, some people will learn without a teacher, at their own pace, and it’s perfectly okay. As long as they have the right tools, their self-directed approach will pay off.

This discipline will teach you how to learn a language, which will open doors for your multilingualism.

So, as a conclusion, which of the two approaches that we have covered is the most beneficial? I would say that both are necessary to master a language, but that a good formal approach from the get-go will lay a solid base to whatever learning comes afterwards, be it only formal or in immersion.