How to Memorize Vocabulary in a Foreign Language with These 7 Insanely Effective Techniques
Have you ever worried about how to memorize vocabulary?
Have you tried to memorize a word over, and over, and over again, but it just won’t stick, at all?
It’s happened to me plenty of times. And let me tell you, it’s frustrating.
You put lots of effort into getting one short sequence of letters into your brain, and, for some reason, it just goes in one ear and out the other.
And that’s just one word of many. Even languages with “small” vocabularies usually have tens of thousands of words, at least. That’s quite a mountain to overcome.
Considering that learning vocabulary is a completely unavoidable part of language learning, I’ve spent years researching and testing different tools and methods, trying to figure out how to make it easier, more effective, and more fun.
Today, I want to share with you my seven best techniques for memorizing words, so that they can be the tools to get you to the top of the mountain, and beyond.
Let’s jump right into it, shall we?
TOOL 1: WORD NETWORKING
Sometimes, a single word can have many different meanings.
Consider the word “game,” for example:
If I ask you “Are you game for the party tomorrow night?” I’m asking you if you are able to come to that party.
If I say “Ernest Hemingway often liked to hunt big game in Africa,” I’m talking about how the accomplished writer liked to hunt large animals, like elephants and rhinos.
That’s one word with two wildly different meanings. And that’s ignoring all of the other meanings game has, like in the phrases video game, game show, fair game, and others.
What can learners of English do to keep all of these meanings separate? How is it possible to make sure that when you see or hear the word game, you know exactly which definition is intended?
The answer is context.
If a word has multiple meanings, context—or the words that surround a specific word—can often help us narrow down our options, and identify the correct one.
For example, though “Are you game?” and “Hemingway hunted big game” both use “game” as a key word, it is easy to see that their surrounding contexts are completely different.
In “Are you game?” someone is asking you a question, specifically if you have the quality of “being game”
In “Hemingway hunted big game,” game is the direct object of the sentence, and something that is “hunted” by “Hemingway.” Even if you never heard game used in this context before, if you know the verb “to hunt,” you can safely assume that “game” has something to do with animals.
So how can context help you learn vocabulary more efficiently?
When you write down a word, never write it down by itself.
Instead, write down a full sentence or phrase in which it appears, along with a definition or translation, if necessary.
When you learn a new word along with other similar words that often appear alongside it, you create a sort of “word network” in your mind.
Every time you recall one word in the network, it will automatically bring to mind the other words you will need to express the correct meaning.
TOOL 2: LISTENING AND READING
Many people like to divide language into four separate skills; speaking, listening, reading and writing.
While this division can be helpful, it can sometimes hide the fact that very often, two or more of these skills can be practiced at the same time.
If you’re having a conversation, for example, you’re most likely doing a lot of listening and a lot of speaking, all in a short time period. In this way, speaking and listening are skills that support one another.
Listening is a skill that heavily supports reading, as well, in a way that can be extremely beneficial for language learning.
Take, for example, languages with unique scripts, like Japanese, Amharic, Georgian, or Korean.
Beginner learners of these languages have two major challenges to overcome:
It is possible to do both of these things separately, by devoting parts of your learning time to each individual task.
It is much more efficient, however, to do both at once; to listen while you read, and read while you listen.
If you’re reading a text that comes with audio, for example, play the audio while you read.
If your text doesn’t have audio, try to read the text aloud yourself, or ask a native speaker to do it for you.
Practicing listening and reading together is a great way to strengthen the connection between the spoken sounds and the written symbols of the language, so that you can learn from both quickly. It also adds a layer of context, which, as we saw in the last section, can greatly increase your understanding of any text or spoken audio.
This method is especially useful for beginners, since most language courses nowadays come with CDs or mp3 recordings of the written course material.
TOOL 3: SELECTION
Let me ask you something:
Dictionaries are massive collections of words and their definitions, right?
If that’s true, then why do we bother learning words from any other resource?
Couldn’t we just learn every word in our target language from some massive, unabridged dictionary?
Probably. But most likely not.
Even though dictionaries do at least theoretically contain all of the words you’d ever need, trying to read a dictionary in order to improve your vocabulary would be a language learning disaster.
Why? Three reasons, mainly:
- 1Dictionaries contain many, many more words and meanings than you will ever need to use actively.
- 2Many dictionary entries do not show words in context (which, as we’ve already seen, is unhelpful for learning)
- 3Dictionaries are not very interesting reading material.
The truth is, no language learner needs to know every word in their target language.That would result in a lot of wasted time, and a lot of useless knowledge.
In reality, the only words you need to know in your target language are the ones that you’re:
If you know this, then you can be very selective about which words you learn, and which you don’t.
To build your vocabulary in an efficient way, I recommend that you focus on learning words that meet three main criteria:
- 1Essentiality – In any situation, there are words that you will absolutely need to know, or you will not understand what is going on. If you love gardening for example, you will definitely need to understand essential words like “trowel”, “pesticides”, and “flowerbed”, even if these words aren’t very common in other situations.
- 2Personal relevance/interest – Even if two people speak the same language, their individual vocabularies are probably very different. A doctor, for example, will know more words for human anatomy than a painter will, but that painter will have more words for artistic techniques than the doctor. This is because we have a natural tendency to learn words that are relevant to our lives, our jobs, and our interests. You should do the same in your target language.
- 3Frequency – There are lots of words that you need to know, no matter who you are or what you do. Usually these are words for common activities like “eating”, “sleeping”, and “walking”, but also function words like prepositions/postpositions (to, above, below) and articles (the, a/an). These differ from language to language, but you can find “frequency lists” for many languages online.
If you’re in a situation where you encounter a lot of unknown words at once, try to focus primarily on the unknown words that meet the above requirements.
If there are too many, then just focus on learning a fraction of them. About one third, or one fourth is a good start.
Whatever you do, don’t try to overwhelm yourself by cramming too many words into your brain at once.
Take it nice and slow, and with enough exposure and time, you’ll learn all the words you need.
TOOL 4: ASSOCIATION
Earlier, we mentioned how context can help you identify the correct meaning of a word, out of several options.
Context is useful for committing new words to memory as well.
Think of all the words you know like flies in a massive spider’s web.
A word like “sun”, for example, is stuck in the web next to other words, like “moon”, “stars”, “sunshine” and “sunlight.”
When you hear the word “sun”, all of these other words will also come to mind quickly, because they are all strongly associated with “sun” and the contexts in which it appears.
If you already have a web of strongly associated words in your mind, then it is easier to add more related words to that web, and easily remember them.
This happened to me recently with Greek, and it helped me remember a series of complicated words on the first try.
When I read the word “ήλιος” (“ilios”, meaning “sun”), I automatically understood what it meant, because I already knew the Italian word “eliocentrico” and it’s English equivalent “heliocentric”.
When I read the word “έκλεψαν” (E-klepsan, “they stole”), I was reminded of the Italian “cleptomane” and the English “kleptomaniac”.
These brand-new Greek words had similar meanings to words that were already deeply-ingrained in my long-term memory, so I was able to commit them to memory almost instantly.
When you learn new words, try to look for associations and relationships with ideas and concepts you already know.
Even if you’re learning a language that’s completely different than any you currently know, you may be surprised to find clues and other small details that will help activate your mental “spider’s web” of words, and so result in easier memorization and learning.
TOOL 5: DECONSTRUCTION
So far, we’ve mostly discussed tools and concepts that will help you memorize whole words.
Sometimes, however, words can be easiest to remember when you deconstruct them, or break them apart, and look at the meaning of the resulting pieces.
This is especially common with languages like English and German, that allow for words to be combined together into so-called “compound words”.
English compound words are relatively short, with examples including “newspaper” (i.e. “news” + “paper”), “doorbell” (“door” + “bell”) and “spaceship” (“space” + “ship”).
German has longer compound words, which can be intimidating for learners to try to memorize.
For example, how would you feel if someone told you that you had to memorize the word “Freundschaftsbeziehung”, or “Unabhängigkeitserklärungen”?
You’d probably feel a bit queasy, I think. At least you would feel queasy until you realize that these words are just shorter, simpler German words chained together, like so:
Freundschaftsbeziehung = Freundschaft-s-beziehung = “displays of friendship”
Unabhängigkeitserklärungen = Unabhängigkeit-s-erklärungen = “declarations of independence”
These smaller pieces can be ever further broken down, too. In “Freundschaftsbeziehung,” the unit “Freundschaft” can be divided into “Freund” and “-schaft”, a division very similar to the one found in “friendship” (“friend” + “-ship”).
So, if you’re ever confronted with a word that seems too long or complicated to handle all at once, try deconstructing it, and see if the smaller pieces aren’t easier to absorb.
TOOL 6: DYNAMIC REPETITION
When you were in school when you were younger, what was your preferred strategy for studying for exams?
Most people, if they studied at all, would try to reread or review the material over and over and over again until they were convinced they had memorized every detail.
This kind of review, called rote memorization is extremely common, and most of us were taught to believe that it was effective.
But if you’re like me, and you actually tried it from time to time, you know that rote memorization doesn’t really work. You’d see the same information over and over, but since you never got anything new from it, you wouldn’t actually process anything.
When the Romans said “repetita juvant” (“repeating helps”) I don’t think that’s what they meant.
I mean, sure repetition does help, but you need to do it in a way that keeps the material fresh and engaging, every time you review.
My strategy for that is known as “Dynamic Repetition”, and I think it’s a technique that can greatly help improve your vocabulary learning.
It goes like this:
- 1Start by covering a resource as you normally would (read a text, listen to an audio clip, etc.).
- 2Wait a few days, and return to the material.
- 3When you return to the material, use a different approach. If you first read a text, now make an audio recording of yourself reading it aloud. If you listened to some audio, try to write out what you heard by hand.
- 4Wait a few more days, and return to the material again. Repeat from step 3 as needed.
- 5Every time you return to the material, try to absorb it in a new, unique way. This will help keep you interested in the learning process, and allow you to review the same content dozens of times before you get bored of it.
I recommend trying dynamic review even with older materials that you’ve already gone through. With a little creativity, you’d be surprised how easy it is to breathe new life and usefulness into an old resource.
TOOL 7: NOTE-TAKING
I’ve spent nearly this entire article sharing methods and techniques for organically memorizing new vocabulary words.
However, I’ve failed to mention one of the biggest drawbacks of memorization—even with the best techniques, it’s not always guaranteed to work!
You know how memory is. One day, you can recite whole scenes from your favorite movie at a moment’s notice, the next, you can’t even remember where you left your car keys.
Simply put, your memory is not always there for you when you need it.
Not to worry, though! There’s an easy way to keep all of your important vocabulary safe, even during times you can’t remember. All you need to do is take notes!
It may sound anticlimactic, but it works.
To use note-taking as an effective vocabulary memorization tool, you want to purchase a notebook that is small enough to carry with you at all times. If you’re the tech-savvy type, you can alternatively use your phone.
Keep your note-taking tool handy, and whenever you discover a new, unknown word in your target language, write it down, along with the date and context when and where the word was found.
When you’re home, and in front of your language resources, you can then look up the words you didn’t know, and maybe even look online for sentences or phrases to give you deeper meaning and context.
Take lots of vocabulary notes, and consult them regularly, and you will have an indispensable tool for learning words, and never forgetting them.
When you’re just starting to learn a new language, the vast amount of unknown words before you can seem incredibly daunting.
Even when you have a decent amount of words under your belt, you still have to figure out how to connect them, and make them work together to say the things that you want to say.
The seven tools that I’ve shared with you in this article will help simplify and speed up the memorization process.
One by one, these tools will help you take the huge mass of words in your target language and divide it up into smaller and smaller pieces, which will be much easier for you to digest.
As you go, you will also learn the value of context, and how connecting words to each other will make your memory for vocabulary stronger and more reliable.
But these techniques will not work for you if you just use them once, and forget them. You need to use them every day, and make their use a habit.
So today, pick one of these seven tools. Use it the next time you try to learn new words. And then stick to using it for at least the next week.
Once that tool is a habit, pick up another, and another, and do the same thing.
If you think you’re up to the challenge, try to implement all seven tools in seven weeks. If you can do that, let me know in the comments!
Written by Luca Lampariello