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How to Learn and Remember Vocabulary

Have trouble remembering the right word?When you learn another language, vocabulary is important. The more words you know, the better you will be able to say what you are thinking. Also, the more words you know, the easier it will be to listen to native speakers.

So, you decide you will study vocabulary. You write a long list of vocabulary you want to learn, and you study them. You read the list a few times. Then you repeat the word and its meaning several times. Finally you put it aside.

Did you learn new vocabulary?

Well, can you remember the new vocabulary?

Learning new vocabulary is one thing. Remembering new vocabulary is quite another!

How can you learn and remember vocabulary words? Let’s take a look at some helpful tools.

Tool #1: Mnemonic – Association

What is a mnemonic? It’s a memory trick. In other words, a mnemonic is a special little way of thinking about something that helps you remember it easier. Memory tricks can be used to help you learn and remember vocabulary. Let’s look at a couple of different mnemonics. We’ll see how you can use them for remembering vocabulary. Association is an especially powerful mnemonic for learning vocabulary.

Make a mental picture of the word you are trying to learn.

Many times it is helpful to make a mental picture of the word you are trying to learn. For example, suppose you want to learn the German word “Hexe,” which means “witch.” You can easily picture a witch in your mind. You want to connect the witch (the meaning of the word) somehow to its representation (that is, the spelling) in German, “Hexe.” So you think a little bit, and then you remember that “hexagon” is the term for a shape with six sides. It’s not exactly the same as “Hexe,” but that’s okay – it’s close enough to remind you of the German word, since the first three letters in both are “h – e – x.” So, you can picture a witch with a six-sided (hexagon) magic wand. Or a witch wearing a hexagon as a hat. Or a witch turning someone into a hexagon with her magic spell. Come up with your own connection – the sillier, the better. The main idea is to connect the word’s meaning with its representation in the target language.

Here is another memory trick with association that you can use. Does the vocabulary word kind of remind you of a word in your own language? Does the word’s pronunciation sound similar to a word you already know? Then connect the meaning somehow to the sound. For example: “fjell” means “mountain” in Norwegian. Its pronunciation is similar to “fee-yell.” (Not exactly, because “fjell” is only one syllable, but “fee-yell” is two. But it’s close enough to remind you.) So, you could imagine somebody yelling from the top of a mountain. Or, you could think of the pronunciation of “fjell” as being similar to that of “fell” and imagine someone falling off a mountain. You could even imagine somebody yelling as he fell off the mountain! Either way, you want to use your imagination to associate the meaning of the vocabulary word you are learning with its representation or its sound / pronunciation. (Usually, the representation of a word is its spelling, but it doesn’t have to be – for example, instead of spelling, the Chinese use “characters” to represent words.)

The key is to use some sort of association. Association is a powerful mental technique that can help you learn and remember vocabulary.

Tool #2: Self-quizzing and Spaced Repetition

Quiz yourself over what you’ve studied.

Just like many other situations in learning, your memory will improve if you quiz yourself over what you’ve studied. Do you want to remember things long term (for a long time)? Then the best thing to do is combine self-quizzes with spaced repetition. Don’t try to study everything the night before a test. Instead, spread your learning out over a longer period of time.

Here is a short article that explains how to set up a flashcard system for self-quizzing and spaced repetition. Using flash cards with spaced repetition will help you to remember things long term.

Tool #3: Categorization

Group vocabulary words by category.

The human brain loves to sort, organize, and classify things. How can you take advantage of this love for order? Group vocabulary words by category, or “family.” Then learn these related words as a unit. Word families like this are easier to learn and recall than a list of arbitrary, unrelated words. So, for example, you might have a vocabulary list (a “word family”) based on the concept of weather:

sun sunny rain rainy
cloud cloudy breeze breezy
snow snowy wind windy
 hot  cold  dry  wet
 overcast  clear  partly cloudy  partly sunny
 drizzle  sleet  fog  precipitation
 high pressure  low pressure  warm front  cold front
 chilly  freezing  frost  wind chill
 warm  humid  humidity  heat index
 thunderstorm  thunder  lightning  storm
 tornado  hurricane  ball lightning  heat lightning
 temperature  forecast  barometric pressure  

Tool #4: Usage

Make new vocabulary your own by using it.

Language is not like an artifact in a museum. It is not something that we put on display and then forget about it. No, language is something to be used. The more you use it, the less likely you are to forget it. The same is true with vocabulary words: Make new vocabulary your own by using it. Try using it in a sentence, either in writing (email, blog post, journal – there are so many ways to practice writing in English!) or in speaking.

It is also helpful to see how native English speakers use your vocabulary. Read some examples – stories, articles, blog posts – to see how that particular word is used. It is used literally? Figuratively? Does it occur in a collocation (a set phrase)? Is it part of an idiom? Is it a phrasal verb? Is it used in a proverb? All these will give you clues, not only to what the word means, but what the different shades of meaning are as well as proper usage of the term. In addition, listening for examples in newscasts and podcasts also provides clues to proper usage and pronunciation.

These are some of the things I’ve found useful in learning vocabulary. I am sure you will find them beneficial, too. Give these tips a try – any of them, or all of them – and let me know how they work for you! Or, if you have other suggestions, be sure to leave a comment – maybe I will use your suggestion in a future article Smile !

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