How To Memorize Vocabulary

“If you are not failing every now and again, it is a sign you are not doing anything very innovative.”
by ~Woody Allen~


One of the most common problems or issues that language learners talk about is how to memorize vocabulary. I have talked before about what strategies learner can employ to improve their ability to remember vocabulary in a number of posts.

Memorizing is something that many language learners want to do better, however what most of them don’t understand that memorized words can seldom be easily used in conversation as the words go into the wrong kind of memory. So I will not go over how to improve that now. Rather what I wish to address now is another related skill which we all use in our life. This skill we used exclusively when we were learning our mother tongue but it is hardly ever talked about. What I am referring to here is the capacity we have to retain “information”. With this skill, we remember our experiences without even trying.

When we talk to a friend, read an interesting article, watch a movie, etc we inadvertently, usually without trying, retain some or all of the “information”. Then at a later stage we can recall it and talk about it to someone else.  

At the same time there some people who say they have a terrible memory and so when they read an article, or talk to a friend they will forget it as soon as they walk away. However, what is interesting is that these very same people are able to recite chapter and verse about their favourite football team or the words of a song etc. In fact I have yet to meet anyone whose ability to retain information in this way is terrible in all areas. What this tells us is that we all have the ability to retain information- without knowing how to memorise it.

How does retention work?

We retain information when we are fully engaged in or interested in what we are listening to.  In this way events or information can leave impacts on us. This happens if we allow ourselves to be affected. Babies are great examples of being fully engaged and attentive to what is going on around them. As adults, we can be attentive, engaged and open when we are genuinely interested in the information, for any number of reasons.

Why is it that some people seem to retain so much whilst some people’s retentive ability seems quite poor and they only seem to retain selective bits of information?

From my observation of myself and others it seems that some people get totally involved in what they are doing, leaving themselves open in some way to what they hear. Whilst others seem to engage in some activities, conversations etc in a peripheral way. Some people don’t so readily relate to things they are involved in and it seems that on these occasions their involvement is only at a surface level. There can be any number of reason for this, but the bottom line is that what they listening to or reading does not interest them as much as say their favourite actor (who they know everything about), their profession, their hobby, etc

You may be able to relate to this yourself or with people you know. Reflect a little and see if you can see any patterns amongst people who can retain information readily and those who don’t. See if your experiences match mine. These ways of interacting with the world were formed early on in our lives and now it seems like that this is who we are. In reality, we trained ourselves to be attentive to certain kinds of information and to inwardly turn off at other kinds of information.

I have tested this in a number of areas and confirmed that by increasing my interest and attention in a different area my retention in that area improves. How can we use this understanding to strengthen our ability to retain vocabulary, sounds, grammar etc?

By becoming more interested in the content of what you are listening to or reading, you will start to pay more attention to the meaning. By expressing yourself exactly as you want, by being more precise about how you understand different areas and how you convey that understanding, you will start looking for words that match the meaning you want to convey and not settle for words (and structures) that don’t. Then when you read and listen to the language you will become more attentive to what people say and how they say it.

You can see what I am talking about primarily here is an attitudinal change, not a skill change. The skills can improve once our attitude changes. As has been said many times before by different people:

“It’s your attitude which will determine your altitude”

Zig Ziglar goes even further and says:

“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude”

Have a look for yourself and see what you can observe in yourself and others in relation to this. Experiment a bit and see if you can affect your ability to retain vocabulary. You may well be surprised to see that the question of how to remember vocabulary can be answered in an unexpected way and as a result you will see improvements, especially if you take on board what I have written about it before as well.

  • Lbushtea

    HI Dear Anrew, I’ve just dropped in from vacation. Your subject seems very interesting… Be sure I’ll comment on it soon … Now i’m so sorry, i’m dog-tired now !!!

  • Charlotte Toussaint

    Your article was very interesting because it confirmed what I have felt all my life, that I can only learn stuff I’m interested about. I absorb it all effortlessly when I can feel a connection to the subject/domain. But I’ve never been able to learn by rote things that are completely disconnected from my interests or have too little true meaning for me, like the multiplication tables and such nonsense they try to force into our brains at school. So really, I always try to find materials I want to understand and get taken in by when I want to practice my language skills (I wouldn’t even say ‘study’ because I don’t really see how you can ‘study’ a language, you can learn it through contact and practice, but it’s not a finite domain you can really tackle in a course, it’s a way of life you have to experience, IMHO).Anyhow, keep up the good work, I wish all the best for your book, and lots of motivation!