Six Ways to Remember New Vocabulary

When you’re learning a new language, some new words are going to come naturally to you. For example, if you live in a Spanish-speaking country, signs in the produce aisle are going to clue you in that the word “Manzana” refers to the red, green, or yellow fruit that you pick off a tree. You infer that meaning from all the contextual clues.

By Scott Bauer, USDA ARS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Scott Bauer, USDA ARS, Image Source

In fact, some language teachers think this is the way you should learn all vocabulary–naturally, the way children do.

I’m of the mindset, however, that explicit vocabulary instruction is vital to language learners. The problem is that words are notoriously difficult to remember. With effort, you might learn and be able to recall 20 today, but then forget 15 of them by the end of the week.

In simplest terms, the challenge is moving words from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. Here are six ways to help do that.

1. Use spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition systems (SRS) are incorporated in one form or another into some of the most popular language learning programs: Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Babbel, Readlang, Bliu Bliu, Memrise, and probably a bunch of other programs I don’t even know about.

With spaced repetition, you see or hear a word again and again, in increasing intervals. So after you see the word the first time, you might encounter it one minute later, then 10 minutes later, then one day later, and so on. Some educators call this method “distributed learning.” Pimsleur calls it “graduated interval recall.”

The idea is that with repeated exposures, you get the benefits of something called the “spacing effect.” As you are exposed to a piece of information over time, your ability to remember it improves.

If you want to build your own SRS deck of vocab words, you can use the free program Anki. Or if you don’t like SRS but are looking for some of the same benefits, you can try out the method I described here.

2. Encounter the word in different contexts.

An issue I have with using SRS exclusively is that oftentimes you are seeing the word only in a single context. Or in a pure flashcard system, you’re seeing the word without any context at all. You just drill that “manzana” means “apple,” and that’s it. Repeat. Forever.

I firmly believe that the more contexts you see a word in, the better you’ll be able to remember it. Your brain associates the word with a greater variety of situations, and it develops multiple pathways to take to recall the word.

I wrote an article about the Backwards Method of vocab learning a while back. A lot of people keyed in on the fact that you can learn words from lists. But in my mind, an equal benefit is that with that method, you see one word used several different ways.

3. Learn the word in a chunk.

To chunk or not to chunk? That is the question.

Should you learn vocabulary words by themselves or as part of a chunk? I discussed the issue at depth in this article. Cliff’s notes: do both.

But if you are having difficulty recalling a word on its own, learn it as part of a phrase or short sentence. If you can’t remember what “manzana” means, try: “Tengo una manzana.” (“I have an apple.”)

Or if you still need help, give that sentence a little more detail to make the word come alive in your mind: “Mi perro tiene una manzana roja.” (“My dog has a red apple.”)

Then when you’re doing your flashcard drills, try to recall the entire chunk instead of just the single word.

4. Listen to the word.

There’s something about hearing a word, rather than just reading it, that makes it come alive and easier to remember.

Quick. How does the theme song of “I Dream of Jeannie” go?

If you’re familiar with the show at all, you remembered. (Or you remembered the theme from “Bewitched” by mistake.)

Isn’t it amazing how you’re able to remember songs that you haven’t heard in months and years? It’s almost like our brains were designed specially to process and store auditory input. (WINK)

If you can’t remember a word, listen to it. Pay attention to the syllable lengths and stresses. Try to pronounce it yourself.

Even better, if you can, listen to the word in music. No English Language Learner has ever forgotten what “sea” means after hearing it in The Little Mermaid as part of “Under the Sea.”

5. Write the word out by hand.

When you write something out by hand, you remember it better. As this article in the NY Times reports:

“Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information.”

Brain imaging has shown that when you write by hand–and not just type with a keyboard–more of your brain becomes activated. The jury’s still out on how big an impact this makes on learning, but at the very least it’s worth giving a try now.

When I was in language school, a student who had been there longer told me that if I couldn’t remember a word, write it down seven times. That was almost twenty years ago, and I still do this today.

6. Use the word in conversation.

When you learn a new word, take every opportunity to use it in conversation, even if you’re just speaking to yourself.

Keeping with the example from earlier, you could go around saying, “Yo quiero una manzana” (I want an apple).” Or if you don’t want one, “No quiero una manzana” (I don’t want an apple).

The other techniques mostly focus on recognizing the word, but with this, you’re trying to produce the word. And just as with spaced repetition, the more you force yourself to recall the word over time, the better off you’ll retain it.

  • Jorge Sivit

    Hi Ron, thanks for the tips!

    For me, encountering the word in different contexts is crucial.

    Also, taking some time to savor the word—how it feels when I pronounce it and when I hear it—helps me with retention. Otherwise, I sometimes end up remembering that I have looked the word up in the dictionary and even remembering the context in which I found it, but I can recall it.

    • Ron G.

      Hey Jorge! Savoring the word–that’s a really good idea. I know exactly what you mean. When I learn a word and hear it pronounced at Forvo, I notice that I turn it over in my mind a few times and that helps me retain it. But you put it very clearly (and eloquently)…gonna add that to the trick bag. Thanks!

  • Kerstin

    You had me at “by hand” (well actually at I dream of Jeannie) <3

    • Ron G.

      *wiggles nose to make spell happen*…dang it, I messed them up again…