There are various techniques you could try to get vocabulary to stay in your memory. Some work well for some people but not for others, but they’re all worth a try. Perhaps one of the following, or a combination of them will work for you:
Flashcards involve writing the words or phrases you want to learn on one side of a card, and putting the meaning, definition and/or translation on the other. They might be physical cards or virtual electronic cards and both types have advantages and disadvantages. You can carry the physical cards around with you and pull them out to look through whenever you have a spare moment. The process with writing the words and meanings can also help you to remember them. While the electronic ones can include audio, video and spaced repetition systems which test you on the words at increasing intervals and bring up the ones you find difficult more frequently.
Associations – a method of making connections between new words and ones your already know, either in your native language or in other languages you know. For example, to remember the Russian word for juice, сок (sok), you could imagine drinking juice through a sock. The stranger and funnier the images, the better you’ll remember the words, and once the words are in your long-term memory, you probably won’t need the associations.
Rhymes – another possible way to remember lists of related words, such as days of the week, colours, numbers, etc, is to recite them regularly with a particular rhythm. You probably have a rhyme for remembering how many days there are in each month in your native language (e.g thirty days hath September, etc), and you could use similar kinds of rhymes for other groups of words. Or you could take their initial letters and make a mnemonic like “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” = red orange yellow green blue indigo violet (colours of the rainbow).
The most effective why to learn vocabulary seems to be learning it in context – i.e. by reading and listening to lots of material in the language you’re learning and by doing your best to learn the new words you encounter, and also by trying to work out the meaning of unfamiliar words from the context. Maybe the first time you read or hear particular words they will mean nothing to you, but if you hear them again several times in different contexts you might be able to guess their meaning. If you can guess the meanings of words you’re likely to remember them better than if you use a dictionary.
One useful exercise is to take a particular text or recording and to study it in detail. You could make sure that you know the meaning of all the words, that you understand the grammar and word order, and that you can pronounce everything. With recordings it might help to make a transcription, and with written texts it might help to have a native speaker record it for you, if possible, or to at least read them aloud to check your pronunciation.
Once you have a in-depth understand of the material, you could take individual words from it and find related ones – synonyms (words with a similar meaning), homonyms (words with a similar sound but a different meaning), antonyms (words with the opposite meaning, e.g. up / down, in / out, etc), and words with related meanings (e.g. car, bus, train, etc). This will help build your vocabulary in a fairly systematic way, and is something you can dip into when the urge takes you rather than trying to do it all at once.
One way to practise using the language you’re learning and to learn more vocabulary in context is with pictures or cartoons. You could choose any picture and try to describe what you see in it. If you choose cartoons the descriptions are likely to be amusing, which will make them more memorable.
You could describe what people look like, what they’re wearing, where they are, what they’re doing, where they come from and where they’re going, and so on. You could also focus on particular aspects of the picture such as colours, shapes, or the location of different bits in relations to others. Alternatively you could make up a story about the picture – e.g. what happened before and after it, and how are the people in it connected.
The descriptions could be as simple or as complex as you like – at first maybe you can only manage a simple description, but as your knowledge of the language improves, you will be able to go back to add more details.
When describing the above cartoon, for example, you could focus on the people – their appearance, clothes, relationship, back story, what they’re saying to each other, etc; the setting; the colours and/or shapes; or even the duck.
By tracing the origins or etymology of words you can often uncover interesting stories. Many words in English, for example, come from other languages, and some took a very meandering path to get there, while the meanings of others has changed completely over time.
Walnuts have nothing to do with walls, instead their name comes from the Old English wealh-hnutu, meaning “foreign nut”. The word Welsh and the -wall in Cornwall come from the same root (wealh), which was used by Anglo-Saxons and other speakers of Germanic languages to refer to speakers of others Celtic languages and Latin. It is also the root of such names as Walloon, Vlach and the names of a number of other places and peoples in Europe. In Welsh walnuts are known as cneuen ffrengig (French nuts).
The practice of naming unfamiliar things as “foreign” or including their country of origin in their name is quite common in many different languages. In Thai, for example, tomato is มะเขือเทศ (ma-khuea thet), “foreign eggplant”, lemon is มะนาวเทศ (manao thet) “foreign lime”, and ostrich is นกกระจอกเทศ (nok kracok thet), “foreign sparrow”, while the English word peach comes from the Latin malum persicum or persian apple, and the Mandarin Chinese for walnut is 胡桃 (hútāo) or “barbarian peach”.
You never know what you’re going to discovering when you look into the origins of words, and being familiar with the roots of foreign words can help you to remember them.
Language and culture are closely related. To learn a language thoroughly it really helps if you become familiar with the culture of people who speak it. If you haven’t grown up in that culture there will probably be things that seem unusual or strange to you, but there will be just as many things in your culture that seem normal to you but are strange to people from other cultures. There are probably many things you learnt while growing up that you take for granted and assume everyone knows – these are the kinds of things that help you become familiar with another culture, and to become really proficient in the language associated with it.
For example, there are probably songs, rhymes, poems and stories you learnt as a child that most people in your culture know. To become familiar with the equivalent songs for a different language and culture you could read children’s books and use of materials for children. You could also ask any people you know who speak the relevant language to teach you some of the songs, stories, etc they learnt as children. People tend to remember such things well, although they may need some prompting, and will probably be happy to help. There might also be books of popular songs that most people who speak a particular language know.
Learning these things will not only help you understand a different culture and improve your proficiency in the language, but you will also really impress people if you can sing along with their popular songs, recite their poems, and/or tell their stories.
When learning a language you will probably be able to understand more than you can say, and read more than you can write. Understanding and reading a language as somewhat easier than speaking as writing as you don’t have to actively put your own sentences together, to apply grammatically transformations to verbs, nouns and other words, or to articulate the songs of the language. Languages written with non-Latin writing systems, such as Greek, Arabic or Chinese, can be quite a challenge to write as well, especially Chinese.
So, if you want to improve your writing in a foreign language, how do you go about it?
Practise! As with other aspects of language learning, practise is the key to improving your writing. You could write a line or two in your diary or on your blog each day, and gradually increase the amount you write as you become more confident of your writing abilities. At first you’ll probably have to look up many if not all of the words, and will probably have to check the grammar as well. The more you write, the less you’ll have to do this, at least for the words you use most often. On a blog you can also ask readers to correct your mistakes and to comment on your writing style. When you can write a piece in the language you’re learning without having to refer to a dictionary or grammar book at all, you’ll know that you’ve made significant progress.
You could write about your life, hobbies, interests, thoughts or dreams. You could comment on current events, write about your favourite TV or radio programme, or about the books you’ve read. You could make up an alternative you who is living in a country where the language you’re learning is spoken and write about your imaginary life there. Or perhaps you could write a story. It doesn’t really matter what you write about as long as you keep writing and enjoy it. If it starts feeling like a burden or a chore, try to find ways to make it more enjoyable.
There are various programs around that help you learn languages. Some are free, others are quite expensive. Many work on more or less the same principle of flash cards – they present you with a series of cards containing words or phrases, you can ‘flip’ the cards to check if you got the meaning right, then tell the program if you remembered the meaning correctly. The ones you have most difficulty remembering will be presented to you more often then the ones you got right.
Some such programs, known as spaced repetition systems (SRS), present items at intervals that gradually increase until they are securely fixed in your long-term memory. The idea is that each repetition will reinforce the memory, and as the spaces between the repetitions increase, the items will move from short-term to long-term memory.
Recently I’ve been experimenting with a free program called BYKI, which works on the SRS principles. Words are presented in a foreign language in written and spoken form, and you can check if you know them by flipping the cards. It also tests whether you know the foreign equivalents of English words, and tests your ability to write the words. Words you don’t know or are not sure of are presented to you as many times as it takes for them to sink in. There are numerous sets of cards in many different languages put together by the company that made it, Transparent Language, and by users. It’s easy to use, seems to work well, and I like the fact that users can make their own sets of cards and share them with other users. Another version of this program with more functions is available, but you have to pay for it.
Musicians and others who have received musical training have advantages over the non-muscial when it comes to hearing language and perceiving individual sounds. In noisy environments, for example, musicians can understand speech better than non-musicians as they’ve been trained to hear individual sounds and tunes within complex musical pieces.
According to a study at Northwestern University in Chicago, hearing and understanding speech in a noisy environment is tricky for everyone, and especially for older people who may have some hearing and memory loss, and also for people with dyslexia and other difficulties with reading. Musical training improves improves our ability to distinguish the pitch, timing and other aspects of sounds, or in other words, improves the tuning of our ears and brain. This is useful not only for perceiving individual elements of complex musical compositions, but also helps us to distinguish speech from background noise.
People who have problems with reading may have a tendency to mishear certain consonants, especially when there’s a lot of background noise. This can result in them misinterpreting and misunderstanding words. Musical training can help solve this problem.
Although the article doesn’t discuss the affects of musical training on foreign language learning, other studies have found that there are some. Musicians’ ability to perceive subtle differences between sounds helps with the pronunciation of foreign languages, and with understanding languages, for example.
When learning words in a foreign language it can help you to remember them if you associate them with as many things as possible, including different senses.
Words have a visual and spoken form which you can associate with sight and hearing. The movement of your mouth, throat and other speech organs is different and unique for each word, so that gives something else to help you remember them. You could also try associating words with textures, colours, smells and tastes and make each one unique and memorable. If you’re talking about food or drink this is easy to do, and you could do the same for other words referring to physical objects. For abstract concepts, such as freedom, justice or happiness, you could try imagining yourself experiencing these sensations, and for verbs you imagine yourself performing the actions or being in the states.
If you know a sign language or are learning one, you could associate foreign words with equivalent signs. For example, if you know British Sign Language (BSL) and are learning Spanish, you could associate the Spanish words you’re learning with the appropriate BSL signs, or you could even learn the signs in Spanish Sign Language. If you don’t know any sign languages you could still make up your own signs to associate with words. This will help you to remember foreign words without having to translate them into your native language, and the physical memory used for the signs will reinforce the other kinds of memory you use to remember the spoken and written forms of the words. Another advantage of using signs rather than translating into your mother tongue is that you can speak and sign at the same time – if you translate there will be a delay while you think of the word, translate it, then say it.
One possible reason why people choose not to learn languages is the costs involved. While it can be expensive to go to classes, buy courses, dictionaries and other materials, and/or to study abroad, you don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money to learn a language.
There are many free online courses, dictionaries, and guides to grammar that you can use to learn languages. The quality of them varies greatly, but some are excellent. I particularly recommend the BBC languages website, which offers free courses in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Portuguese and Chinese. The courses include audio and video recordings, and cover all levels from complete beginners to advanced. The site also includes basic courses and collections of phrases in many other languages.
On the BBC World Service site you can find written and recorded news reports in over 30 languages from Albanian to Vietnamese. Other radio stations which offer similar services include Radio France Internationale, Voice of America, China Radio International, Radio Free Europe and Deutsche Welle, which also offers free German courses and information about German dialects.
Once you’ve acquired some knowledge of a language, you could practise using it via sites such as Shared Talk, where you can find native speakers of the language you’re learning who are learning your mother tongue. You could contact them using the text chat or voice chat tools available on the site, or via Skype or similar programs.
Using online resources like these you can learn a language for free from the comfort of your computer. You can also spend time in places where the language you’re learning is spoken while earning a living, rather than having to fork out large amounts on languages courses, as I mentioned the other day.