by Andrew Weiler

August 23, 2011

​How to remember vocabulary is a question that virtually all learners I have come across try to solve by drawing up vocabulary lists, usual translations in their mother tongue next to each word.  Then these very same students come up to me and say "My memory is so poor,  I can’t seem to remember the words." There is an excellent reason for that and that is because they are using the wrong methods.

Imagine trying to hammer a nail into a piece of wood using your hand alone.  Surely after not too long, you would be saying you can’t do it!  The secret is the tool or method.  Use the wrong one, like a hand, a spoon or virtually anything but a hammer and you will get nowhere fast. The secret is the right tool.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not your fault that you are using the wrong tool. If you look in most language learning books, exercises, language classes you will find that it is even recommended that you should learn your vocabulary using lists.  In fact, why not work at memorizing 10, 20 words a day in that way!

Most students persist with this method of remembering vocabulary and may even be successful and memorise them, but then how does one get memorized lists of words into one's WORKING vocabulary.  That is not often talked about… just assumed that once you memorise them, bingo, you will be able to use them.  Well, for the vast majority of people that is far from the truth!

Of course, there are those students that this works for, but from what I have seen very few.  And the few that it works for they are, I am pretty sure, doing something else, probably unconsciously, to enable this to happen.  I will not pursue this right here as to what they might be doing, but by all means, if you are one of them and you are aware of what you do, I would be very pleased to hear from you.

So what is a good method?  To understand that, we need to have a fundamental understanding of how our brain works.  I will not be talking here about neurones, synapses etc. Instead, I will be reflecting here on commonsense understandings we can all come to, based on our own experiences.  You will find that there is, in fact, a lot of research to substantiate what I am about to share.

In life, we do not usually set out to remember things but we do.  When we walk down the street and see a butcher in a shopping area close to where we are now staying, if we are interested in cooking or we have been asked to buy some meat, we will put that into our memory.  We make no real effort to memorise, but we do put it into our memory. How?  By linking it to our needs, which is important to us now, or what think might be important to us later.  I am sure that there are many people who would walk past the same butcher and not even notice it.  Why? Because it has no value or interest to them at that point in time.

Here is a very important key, that is overlooked.  Memory works best when we are dealing with things that are important to us, there and then.  The second thing to note is that there these links were made to our life, to what was already in our brain.  From all the research we know that memory works best when the new item is hooked into what we already know.  So the more the hooks, or the links, the more likely that we are going to recall the item… and the more personal and immediate are the links, the more chance we are going to remember it.

So let’s give you an example. For argument's sake, say you want to learn the meaning of “bottle”.  Note, I didn’t say memorise.  Well, let's say you came across it in a picture dictionary, or an article and you looked it up in your dictionary…  for now, let’s say a bilingual one.

You see the word or the picture of a bottle and you will immediately know the meaning, but how will you retain the meaning of that word…or how will you avoid forgetting it…or how will you put it into your working memory?

The trick is to put it into your life, into sentences in the language you are learning.  If you use your mother tongue, you will be asking your brain to do gymnastics of the kind that are difficult.  Remembering words in two languages at the time you are speaking one is difficult, and this is because different languages occupy different parts of the brain. In other words, when you speak one, stay in the one you are speaking.

Ideally write 3 sentences, each of which is personal, the more feeling, or memories they evoke in themselves the better they will be.

# My new shampoo comes in a lovely blue bottle.

# I dropped a bottle of milk yesterday and my sister got angry with me.

# That bottle of perfume that my wife just bought has a gorgeous scent.

Compare this sentence to The bottle is on the table. There is no personal element, does not appear to evoke anything and in fact, is a dreadfully dull sentence. So this is the kind of sentence you need to avoid creating or using.

This process might seem cumbersome at first ( and it is for a time! ) but once you get the hang of it, and use it time and time again, you will learn to do it so fast that you will be hardly aware that you are doing it.

Another reason why this method works well is that you have mobilized your brain to get the new language involved in your life.  AND you have been forced to make sentences, hence you have made linguistic contexts for the new words.  Can you see now why it is much much more likely that once you have done this, you will never forget the word in question, or if you do, it will only be a temporary lapse? And because you have placed it into a linguistic context, you have also strengthened the language you are learning at the same time. Now isn’t that a bonus.

There are clearly other issues in how to remember vocabulary in an effective way but this technique I have just shown you will transform your mnemonic skills.  That is of course if you utilize the technique and persist with it! For a more in-depth look at how this can work and fit into your overall strategies in learning a language, do check out my recently released book, Language Learning Unlocked.

For those of you who would like to listen to this post, here it is: 

​If you would like a comprehensive guide on improving your memory, superficially for learning languages, look no further than an ebook I have recently written on this very subject. It looks specifically at how to ​Dramatically improve your memory for language learning. Check out some more details at the link above. At $3.95 it is a giveaway! It will most certainly make your learning more productive AND enjoyable.

About the author 

Andrew Weiler

Andrew is passionate about doing what is necessary to enable language learners to not only improve BUT to keep improving.

  • I agree with the strategy you mentioned in this article….

    Thanks for sharing Andrew…. I would follow these strategies in my studies….

  • These are excellent ideas. I am constantly challenged/frustrated by the lack of retention of vocabulary by my students. I will gladly try this method. Thank you.

  • There are many ways to learn English vocabulary i.e. write a definition, use it in a example sentence, translate it into your language etc.

    Easy Way to Learn Vocabulary

    • I agree with you Julia, there are many ways to learn vocabulary, however not all ways work. We need a better definition of “work”. You want to not only remember the word BUT you also want to be able to use it spontaneously. Not all ways to remember vocabulary enable you to do this. One needs to find ways that actually do this, not something else.

  • The more you learn the vocabulary the more your will be strong in conversation and another competitive world in English. Lots of ways to memorize the vocabulary but above mentioned ideas are good to memorize the vocabulary. Making flash cards and now a day’s app of different phones are also a good way to memorize the words. Thanks a lot for sharing this.

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