One of the most challenging parts of learning a new language, especially when you’re just starting out, is building your vocabulary.
It can seem like a huge task at first—learning new terms for everyday objects, not to mention their gender (is it die Drucker or der Drucker for “printer” in German?)—but there are a few ways to make it easier.
In this post, we’ll give you a handful of memorization techniques and tricks to help those new words stick in your brain more quickly and for a longer period of time so you don’t have to keep reviewing the same basic vocab and can start conversing sooner.
First off, a little information on how memorizing vocabulary works in the brain.
How does memorizing work in the brain?
There are two types of memory processes: implicit and explicit. Implicit memory (also called “nondeclarative memory”) is for automatic processes such as breathing and walking—things that have become second nature to us, which we don’t have to think to remember. Explicit memory (also called “declarative memory”) is for recalling information, such as the date World War II began or the name of a new friend.
It’s explicit memory that we use when we’re learning and recalling foreign languages. At first, it’s hard to remember new vocabulary because it’s all in our “working memory store,” which is like a holding tank for new information that hasn’t yet entered our long-term memory store.
Trying to keep all those words in the front of our minds is like trying to memorize the digits of Pi—we can’t look at the series of numbers and suddenly commit them all to memory, and that’s because our working memory capacity is limited to around seven items at one time (unless you happen to have a photographic memory). Once we’ve reviewed the items enough times that they’re transferred to our long-term store, we can more easily pull that information up when we need it and can therefore memorize even more information on top of it.
Remembering new foreign vocabulary is a type of explicit memory. Until it’s transferred from working memory to long-term storage in our brains, it’s hard to recall. So don’t worry—if you’re having trouble remembering new words, that’s just the way the brain works.
1. Background method
This method, recommended by foreign language instructors at Vinnytsia National University in Ukraine, draws from a long-established memorization technique called the method of loci, which has learners imagine placing new words in rooms within a “memory palace” so that the brain has a way of organizing the new information.
Because you place a word or an image of what the word represents in a spatial location, you ground the word in context, which can be helpful before you start using the words in everyday conversation, which is eventually a way of grounding them in context as well.
Similarly, a “background” is a familiar environment such as a home, street, or native town. Learners are encouraged to imagine placing new words along with images of what they represent around the familiar environment so that they can more quickly access them in memory.
2. Associative learning
One of the most defining characteristics of the human brain is its associative learning ability. We learn much more quickly when information is grounded in context, whether that’s spatial, emotional, physical, mental context, or otherwise.
That’s because we’re giving the brain two ways of recalling the same thing—the thing itself (e.g. foreign word) and another thing we associate with it (e.g. a song we heard using the foreign word)—which means we’re twice as likely to be able to pull it out of long-term memory storage.
You might start off by writing a new word down on a flashcard, giving an example of the word in a sentence, creating an association for the word, and writing the association down on the other side of the flashcard. For example, if you’re an English speaker learning French, you might write the word “le truc” in French, which means “the thing,” on one side of your flashcard, and since it sounds a bit like the word “trunk” in English, drawing an elephant trunk or writing the term “elephant trunk” on the back of the card.
That way, every time you hear the word or want to use it in a sentence, you’ll have an extra mental pathway to help slide the word from your long-term memory store to your working memory.
3. The mimicry method
This method focuses on the sounds and “flow” of the foreign language. The idea is that it’s easiest to pick up the meanings of new words and get them to stick in your mind through listening and interaction.
The mimicry method recommends diving into conversation with native speakers as soon as possible (also called the “immersion method”), stopping to ask the meaning of words you don’t know and repeating the word several times until you’re pronouncing it correctly, then writing the words down later in your native language.
You’ll then have all the contextual sounds, feelings, sights, and other associations surrounding the memory of the conversation which will help you try to recall the foreign words. The idea is to match the sound of the word with the situation in which you heard it, effectively mimicking the sound and flow of the conversation.
4. Gamify your learning
Several studies show that creating games around foreign language learning can help make vocabulary stick faster. Researchers in Indonesia devised a “codename game” to help students learn English, which helped them improve their memorization of new vocabulary.
The game involves dividing students into two teams, assigning each team a “Spymaster” who gives clues by pointing to multiple words on a board, while members of each team try to guess their team’s words while avoiding the words of the other team. The students reported higher motivation and greater ability to memorize new words.
Gamification works because it is a form of active learning which, in contrast to passive learning, engages more parts of your brain, including the social, emotional, motor, visual, and auditory regions. In fact, this is one reason why many of us find vocab memorization so tough—because simply reviewing a word on a flashcard over and over, trying to commit it to memory, is often too “passive” for it to stick. More active forms of learning like gamification not only help us learn faster because they are interactive; they’re also enjoyable, which boosts memory as well.
5. Make it embodied
A research team at the University of Toulouse found that holding a real object while learning a new foreign vocabulary term helped students better memorize the term. Studying Rwandan children learning French words, they found that learning with a real object led to a higher memorization rate than learning with pictures. The researchers consider their study proof of the power of “embodied learning,” which means engaging the body in the learning process.
Touching and holding a real object not only helps ground the new word in real life, but also creates a bodily memory of the word. They write: “Taken together, the findings underscore that learning vocabulary with real objects is particularly efficient and support the idea that the embodied theory of language is a key element to effectively master a foreign language.”
6. Music and songs
Music provides a few different ways of engaging with foreign vocabulary. New words presented as lyrics (even as a poem, without the melody) give the brain a rhythmic structure for organizing the new information. Remembering rhythm is often much easier for the brain than remembering words, so once the words are presented in a rhythmic framework, we can rely on the rhythm to help us recall the words.
When the rhythm is melodic, in the form of a song, we’re even more likely to remember. In fact, musical memories are often more resilient than other long-term memories, and are even preserved in cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. If that’s not a great argument for using memory to learn foreign vocab, we don’t know what is.
Aside from the special nature of music itself, songs help us place new words in the context of what the song is about, aid correct pronunciation, and offer chances to learn less formal and more conversational forms of the language we’re learning. So, how to use songs to build your vocab exactly?
Choose a song in your target language with a catchy rhythm, write down the lyrics, and practice singing along with and without a visual aid until you can recall the words on your own. If you can add a musical instrument into the mix, even better—then you’ll be engaging more of your motor system, which is a type of kinesthetic learning!
Memorizing new vocab can seem intimidating at first, but it doesn’t have to be. You already have a life’s worth of experience to use as material for memory palaces, association, and songwriting—so have fun with your choice of memorization techniques.
The ultimate trick is to slow down and enjoy the learning process, as anything that we enjoy becomes easier to learn about now and remember later.