Memorizing vocabulary in another language is one of the many challenges faced by foreign language learners.
But the good thing is, irrespective of the language you want to learn, your brain still memorizes vocabulary in the same way.
I’ve asked 8 memory experts for their best tips on how to memorize vocabulary in another language.
Let’s steal their secrets!
Memory gurus and their techniques
A person’s brain has various ways to retain memory. You can memorize a word by using flashcards, picture association, or even association by numbers. These techniques are called mnemonics.
There’s a whole field of science investigating memory. Individuals with exceptional memory are called mnemonists. Some of them also work as memory coaches.
Memory gurus contribute to a ton of techniques similar to these which makes language learning even more fun and productive.
Below are the contributions we’ve received from 8 mnemonists.
Understand their techniques and apply them to your language-learning endeavors.
Bartosz Czekala: Encode and retrieve when you fail to recall
The science of memory is indeed a vast field. There are lots of outstanding memory principles that might help you with memorizing words in another language.
However, the best one I can offer is to pay close attention to the inevitable failure to recall a word. It doesn’t matter if it happened during a conversation or while doing your flashcards.
This failure is the feedback that is ignored by 99.9% of all language learners.
Most of the time, it tells us that you haven’t encoded or encountered this word enough times or/and the contexts in which the information was encoded.
The critical thing is to focus on such words. If you fail to recall them, make sure that you encode them again in different contexts.
The more considerable the overlap between what we encode and retrieve, the more likely we will recall the desired information smoothly.
Pay close attention to the inevitable failure to recall a word. The critical thing is to focus on such words. If you fail to recall them, make sure that you encode them again in different contexts.
“If you fail to recall words, make sure that you encode them again in different contexts.”
– Bartosz Czekala
Katie Kermode: Visualize scenarios to remember a word
Focus on the words that you don’t remember easily. Think of a word or phrase in your native language similar to the term you are learning, then create a short sentence or scene linking the two together.
Mentally place it in the first location that comes to mind when you think of the original word.
For example, if I were learning the Finnish word for fan, which is ‘tuuletin‘, I would notice that ‘tuuletin‘ sounds a bit like ‘to let in, and I might imagine myself feeling too hot and saying, “I need a fan to let in some air”, then switching on the fan and enjoying the cool air.
This sentence helps us cement the link between the word ‘fan’ and the phrase ‘to let in’.
I would visualize this little scenario in the first location that comes to mind when I think of a fan: the area of my bedroom where I would usually plug in the fan.
Then when I am trying to remember the word for ‘fan’, I mentally go to that location and recall the scenario. You can use flashcards with spaced repetition to review these items regularly.
“Create a short sentence or scene linking a word in your native language similar to the term you are learning.”
– Katie Kermode
Katie Kermode is a memory athlete from the UK, competing since 2008, a freelance translator, memory coach, UK memory champion on four occasions. and holds the title IAM Grandmaster of Memory (Silver).
Sushant Mysorekar: Have several interests to understand vocabulary
To understand the vocabulary of any language, the first and foremost requirement is to have several interests. Interest is the mother of memory, and secondly, attention, which is the father of memory. Others are cousins– curiosity, focus, and many more.
You have to sound, smell, hear, taste, and live the language you wish to learn. I have designed and copyrighted a technique to learn vocabulary, and the acronym I created is SAB-CINEMAS.
- S– Create a scene out of that word in front of you.
- A– Associate, connect, combine or collaborate with similar sounds or like things.
- B– Bizarre- Make a weird story out of it.
- C– Add colors to the words, light-dark, so you know the intensity of the word
- I– imagine the use of the words, expressions, your mouth movements
- N– Use number, sound from different languages to connect with ease
- E– While sounding a particular vocabulary, if you could also add your expression, it helps connect to recall that word better.
- M– Any word that is connected with yourself as a tag, sentence, or proverb tends to be recalled for a long time.
- A– Animate the word in iconic representation for doodle with the word to get a better insight.
- S– Use your senses consciously.
“Interest and attention are the mother and father of memory.”
– Sushant Mysorekar
Sushant Mysorekar is an author and Internationally Certified Intelligence Coach and the author of ‘Super Power Memory for Busy Professionals and ‘Super Tips for Super Memory’, 2019.
John Graham: Use the Linking Method
Use the Linking Method! It’s a memory technique that involves creating a simple, visual story. You essentially “link” an association for the foreign word with an association for the meaning of that word.
Wind in Italian is vento. My association for vento is a vent. Now I simply visualize in my mind wind blowing through a vent.
Another example is Beach in Italian is spiaggia. Spiaggia sounds like “spee ah juh”.
My associations are “spee = speed” and “ah juh = agility”. Now, I combine the beach with speed + agility in a visual story. I imagine on the beach are people doing speed and agility training. Spiaggia!
There are no rules here. Just sound out the word and create an association based on what the word sounds like to you.
I don’t recommend using this technique for every word you’re learning but use it as a tool to retain the trickier words and phrases that aren’t sticking.
“Creating a simple, visual story with the Linking Method.”
– John Graham
John Graham is the 2018 USA Memory Champion and a Grandmaster of Memory.
Nishant Kasibhatla: When learning is fun, it is easy
One of the best ways to memorize words in a new language is to use a combination of Visualisation, Association, and Fun.
Since most people remember pictures better, visualization helps you to ‘see’ the word in your mind’s eye.
Association means linking the word you want to remember with something you already know. This helps you to pay attention and to remember the term for a long time.
Doing it in a fun way will help you to have fun in the process. That’s why I say: When learning is fun, learning is easy. Here’s an example of how you can do all that.
Let’s say you want to remember the Italian word for Apple is ‘Mela’. The pronunciation of ‘Mela’ is somewhat similar to the English word male.
So, I will visualize a MALE eating an APPLE.
Similarly, if you want to remember the Italian word for Door is ‘Porta’, I will visualize that my front DOOR is a PORTAL to a secret world!
In addition to these points, if you understand how memory works (especially when it comes to retention and recall), it will speed up your memorization process.
“One of the best ways to memorize words in a new language is to use a combination of Visualisation, Association and Fun.”
– Nishant Kasibhatla
Nishant Kasibhatla is a Grand Master of Memory, a Guinness Record Holder in Memory (2011), and also a creator of the ‘Supercharge Your Memory Power’ Online Course, a result-oriented course on quickly remembering names, books, speeches, words, and more!
Francis Blondin: Use memory techniques
To remember the word “lapalissiano” and its meaning (evident), I might imagine a runner running “laps” while being annoyed by some giant “lice” on his head.
This is “evidently” not a great way to run, I would think. “Laps” + “lice” = an approximation of “lapalissiano“.
Far from a perfect trick, but it will help, at least in the beginning. Even a terrible trick that roughly represents only one part of a given word can still be useful.
You don’t need those tricks for easy words, but for everything else, you can always choose to use the dark voodoo magic of memory techniques!
The more you use them, the easier and the more fun it becomes.
Very quickly, some even more important tools:
- Sleep! As much as you need. At a consistent schedule. Stop functioning at a fraction of your full potential!
- Pay attention! Shorter periods of full attention are more productive overall than much more extended periods of constant distractions.
- Use retrieval practice. Don’t just listen or read; test yourself. This isn’t just a way to check what has been remembered, and it’s also an extremely efficient way to learn.
- Use spaced repetition. Review as often as you need at first, then progressively less frequently after that. Rule of thumb: you can double the interval every time you get it right. Free software like Anki can help simplify the process.
“The more you use tricks, the easier and the more fun it becomes.”
– Francis Blondin
Francis Blondin is a two-time Canadian memory champion. He teaches what he knows about memory and learning for free in French here and in English. He’s also organizing various memory and mental math competitions in Canada and online for anyone worldwide.
Dr. Boris Nikolai Konrad: Use a memory palace
My recommendation is to combine the keyword mnemonic with retrieval practice.
I look for an image for the word I would like to learn, reminding me of the known word. I then combine my keyword image with the actual translation.
In my mind, I picture myself using a taser to heat the drink in the tazza. I see myself scribbling a van on my desk.
To make sure these words enter my long-term memory, I test myself early. A tool like Anki is excellent for that.
Occasionally I will also use a memory palace to collect several words and phrases from a given context.
“I look for an image for a new word reminding me of a known word. I then combine my image with the translation.”
– Dr. Boris Nikolai Konrad
Dr. Boris Nikolai Konrad is a world-known memory coach and a four times Guinness World Record Holder.
Edward Cooke: Learning must fit into your life easily
The ultimate question: how to learn a new language effectively? Where to begin? And do I have time? Before thinking ‘How do I learn?’ Ask yourself:
- When do I have time to learn?
- Can I learn a language on my own?
- Why do I want to do this? And how do I keep myself motivated?
The key to language immersion is to input your target language in different forms.
For example, you can:
- Learn a language with movies and TV series (Yes: You can learn languages with Netflix).
- Learn a language while playing games: video or board games.
- Learn languages through audiobooks and podcasts.
- Watch TV shows and films in your target language (with subtitles).
- Learn a language by listening to music on Spotify and following the lyrics as you listen.
- Learn a language by reading children’s books in the language you’re learning to familiarise yourself with words, phrases, and sentence structure.
Diving into an adult novel is only going to confuse you at this stage. It MUST fit into your life easily, letting you learn at your own pace and on your own time while keeping yourself motivated.
All of the above points will help you pick up vocabulary in any language and remember words easily in that language.
“The key to language immersion is to input your target language in different forms.”
– Edward Cooke
Edward Cooke is a world memory coach and an award-winning memory and language, coach.
Follow this advice from the 8 experts
Here’s a quick recap of the advice shared by our contributors:
- Pay close attention to the inevitable failure to recall a word
- If you fail to recall words, make sure that you encode them again in different contexts
- The more considerable the overlap between what we encode and retrieve, the more we recall the desired information smoothly
- Create a short sentence or scene linking a word you want to memorize and the equivalent in your native language together
- Use flashcards with spaced repetition to review these items regularly
- Visualize this little scenario in the most appropriate location when you think of that word, then mentally go to that location and recall the scenario
- Have several lists of interests to understand the vocabulary of any language
- You have to sound, smell, hear, taste, and live the language you wish to learn
- Use SAB-CINEMAS
- Use the Linking Method – Link an association for the foreign word with the meaning of that word
- Sound out the word and create an association based on what the word sounds like to you
- The Linking Method is a tool to retain the trickier words and phrases that aren’t sticking
- Use a combination of Visualisation, Association, and Fun
- Visualization helps you to ‘see’ the word in your mind’s eye
- If you understand how memory works, it will speed up your memorization process
- A terrible trick that roughly represents only one part of a given word can still be useful
- The more you use techniques, the easier and the more fun it becomes
Dr. Boris Nikolai Konrad
- Combine the keyword mnemonic with retrieval practice
- Look for an image for the word
- Use a memory palace to collect several words and phrases from a given context
- Input your target language in different forms
- Your target language or word MUST fit into your life easily
- Learn at your own pace and on your own time while keeping yourself motivated
From theory to practice
As a language learner, who is trying to memorize words or vocabulary in another language, the process might be a daunting task at the beginning.
But, if you follow the various methods pointed out by the above memory experts, you will find yourself learning vocabulary in other languages effortlessly.
To learn more about the science of language learning, check out this short review article “How to learn languages fast”.
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