Words are without a doubt the basic elements, the “bricks” of a language. Learning new words represents a serious challenge for many language learners. Acquiring lots of words fast is a dream for every language learner. For some, it is a real obsession. Quite often, these efforts are met with disappointment and frustration.
It is no surprise, then, that one of the most frequent questions that I get here and on YouTube is about how to learn vocabulary.
Why is it so hard to memorize new words?
Memorizing new terms seems a difficult task for many reasons. In general, the brain tends to select the information that it receives, discarding what it considers unnecessary. Imagine remembering every single detail that enters your brain: you would remember thousands of words effortlessly, but would also be paying a terrible price: your brain would be constantly fighting against a permanent, unwanted and annoying interference of useless information. Fortunately, our brain works on its own rhythm and it “self-regulates” when it comes to organizing information.
So, forgetting information is actually a good thing. The goal is to help the brain to remember the information that we consider important. Language learners want to remember as many words as possible and they often cannot. They come to the conclusion that they simply do not have a good memory and thus language learning is not for them. This is another myth that must be dispelled.
Whatever its limitations, the brain possesses an extraordinary ability to learn and retain information. The secret is to how to really use it.
A famous graph exists called “forgetting curve”:
If we learn a new word or expression on day X, this information will fade in our memory within just a few days. Do not be surprised, then if you cannot recall a given word after having learned it just a few days earlier.
How can we improve our capacity of retaining new words?
The process of acquiring new information can be generally divided into 3 categories: decoding, storage and retrieval. When the brain receives new information, it decodes it and then stores it. The stored information can then be retrieved in the future. If we cannot recall something (the so called “knowledge-gap”), something went wrong during one of these phases.
There are several types of memory: short and long-term memory, sensory memory etc. The latter receives information through the stimulation of the senses such as sight, touch, smell. The short-term memory, also called working memory, retains small amounts of information for short periods of time. We use it when we do mental calculations, remember a password, a code or a phone number. If we want to store a word, we have to put it into our long-term memory. How can we do it efficiently?
Memory is like a muscle, it atrophies if it does not work. Each capacity/faculty that is neglected tends to weaken and eventually disappear. So it must be constantly stimulated. The best way to do it is to repeat continuously. If you want your memory to work well, make it work a little bit everyday. The repetition of an operation has a cumulative effect whose main goal is that of forcing information into our brain without us making deliberate efforts.
Here are some key factors for improving your overall capacity to remember new terms and expressions
In order to improve your ability to recognize and memorize new words and expressions you need to be interested in and passionate about what you are doing. Cultivating an interest in a particular field and constantly reminding yourself why you are doing it provides an incredible boost in your learning process. When you start learning a language; imagine the immense possibilities that speaking it would bring in terms of work, friendships, feelings. Emotions enhance memory. It is up to you to make this happen.
Concentration and attention are key factors in the learning process. In the Internet era, concentration is diminished due to multitasking. So, I suggest you eliminate the music radio and all other potential distractions and focus on the task at hand. Concentration helps boost your performance enormously.
We only learn what we can understand. Whenever you fully understand a sentence or a concept, you also understands its single parts and the connections among them. An engineer who figures out how an electronic circuit works is more likely to understand its single components. The same goes for a language learner: if he understood a given sentence, he will remember the words better.
Our brain is a huge network of neurons: every single neuron is connected with tens of thousands of other neurons So if we want to make the best of learning processes we should adapt them to the way our brain is structured. One of the most effective tools for doing this is association, that is, linking new information with old information, which is stored in our long-term memory. This can be done in many ways.
One of these ways is through images. Our brain also processes information via colors, forms, etc. If you link a given word with an image, that word will be more likely to be linked with other information already stored in our memory. As a result, we will remember it better. For example to remember the name of a person, you can put it in relation to a particular feature of his appearance. The more the association is absurd, the easier you will remember that person’s name.
Take the time to process and store information. One of the best and simplest ways to do this is simply to review what you have learned at regular intervals. Repeating something makes your brain realize that it might need that information and it helps you to fix that information in a much more effective way.
Context is king in language learning. It is important to always learn words in their context which helps your brain to form images, associate the word to other words. The more interesting a text is, the more we will be motivated to understand it and thus remember it.
Reading makes us connect the dots. When we read a lot, we enormously raise the possibility of finding the same word in different contexts, which enormously reinforces our capacity to retain it. Once again, associates plays an important role.
Learning a language is a skill that we acquire. A dynamic learning process is preferable to a static “study” of the language, where parts are analyzed in isolation and without a context instead of being absorbed within interesting content.
I have developed 2 specific techniques which abide by the factors/principles that I mentioned above.
I use the first one when I am at STAGE 1 and STAGE 2 (deliberately learning) and the other one deals with expanding the vocabulary at STAGE 3 (advanced learners, interpreters). I will expand on this subject in my book…
Written by Luca Lampariello