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3 ways to remember vocabulary

Thảo ơi, I have a hard time remembering vocabulary. What can I do about it?

Some experts reckon it takes 6 or more meaningful exposures to a word to truly learn it, so it’s perfectly natural to struggle with this.

Luckily there are many tools out there designed to help language learners speed up the process of learning and remembering vocabulary.

Let’s start with the end goal.

What does “knowing” a word mean?

For most words, your aim is both to be able to understand it (passive knowledge) and to be able to use it yourself (active knowledge).

As I explained in a guest post on Lingholic, there are actually three stages to learning active vocabulary.

These stages take you through not only understanding the word, but also knowing what it sounds like, how it works in a sentence and how it’s spelt.

Situation 1: You’re missing some of this information

If you’re missing one of these pieces of information, that is the first thing you should tackle. Go to Forvo to hear how it’s pronounced, look in a dictionary to check the spelling or do a quick search to find example sentences.

Knowing words is important, but using them is even better.

Knowing words is important, but using them is even better.

Say Situation 1 is not your problem. Say you’re already familiar with these basic pieces of information about the word, but you’re still having problems. Again, we need to get more specific.

Is the word not going in the first place or are you forgetting it?

Let’s take that second case: you keep on forgetting the word.

Memory Tool 1: Spaced Repetition

As I said in the introduction, you need to see or hear a new word repeatedly for it to sink in.

You’re also inclined to forget it over time. This is the premise behind Spaced-Recognition Software (SRS). This software is designed to re-expose you to the word just as you’re about to forget it.

Projected forgetting with and without spaced repetition Source.

Projected forgetting curves. Look at the difference spaced repetition makes! Source.

These systems are designed to help you with that second stage of learning vocabulary – internalising the new word.

They’re not supposed to be a way to find new vocabulary to learn.

For this reason, a lot of people recommend creating your own cards rather than memorising a list of someone else’s vocab. Personalising your learning also means you are more engaged and motivated – a key to success in language learning!

Top Tool: Anki

Anki SRS is a program available in a desktop version (free) and as an app for Android (free) and iPhone (paid).

These sync through a simple website (free), which you could use to study on the go if you have an internet connection but you don’t have a smartphone.

Using Anki to review Vietnamese vocabulary

Anki is highly customisable. You can add as little or as much information as you want. You can use categories, tags or extra fields. You can add pictures or sound files. You can use cards that translate to your native language, or keep it entirely in Vietnamese.

I’ll have more tips on using and customising Anki in a future post.

Other systems

Anki was the first spaced repetition software I tried and I liked it so much that I haven’t actually tried anything else. But there are many other similar programs such as Flashcard Deluxe.

SRS revision of new vocabulary doesn’t have to be flashcards. The principle is also built-in to some courses like Pimsleur lessons.

SRS won’t solve everything

It’s not a replacement for other study methods like taking a course, reading articles and actually speaking to people in Vietnamese.

But by using these smart flashcards for a few minutes a day, you can increase the speed of learning new vocabulary and retain it for longer.

Even then, SRS won’t solve all your vocabulary problems. You will still forget words. This is part of the learning process. Sometimes you will have to go back to your notes or textbook to look at the word again. Perhaps you need more information or you need to take a different approach to learning it.

Memory Tool 2: Mnemonics

Back to the question – how can we improve how we remember vocabulary? Especially for words that just seem to go in one ear and out the other.

Mnemonics can be really useful.

mnemonic (noun)
A device, such as a formula or rhyme, used as an aid in remembering.

You probably remember some rhymes designed for this purpose – like the one for the colours of the rainbow (Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain) or how many days are in each month (30 days have September, April, June and November…).

The rainbow rhyme helps you to remember the colours of the rainbow.

The rainbow rhyme is an example of a mnemonic to help you remember the colours of the rainbow.

They’re a pretty good memory tool, but the dictionary definition seems to overlook the fact that images are one of the most powerful aids to the memory (especially for visual learners).

Mnemonics and language learning

These rhymes, word associations and imagery tied to locations or stories can be applied to language learning. They can be used to remember words or phrases and even to learn to read new scripts.

The links above give you some great examples on how to get started and make good mnemonics.

When using mnemonics to learn Vietnamese words, you may well find it helpful to include the tone in your rhyme or image.

Top Tool: Memrise

A website that combines mnemonics with SRS and gamification is Memrise.

The basic idea is that you create a ‘mem’ to represent a word or idea. As Memrise themselves say:

“In order to learn anything, you first have to connect it to what you already know. Memories aren’t stored nowhere, you know, they’re always made by creating connections to existing memories. Now, the more your brain does to encode a fact or word, the richer and more robust the resultant memory.”

You can map it to something in your own language or your target language. Whatever works for you.

The best mems are creative – they’re funny, or silly, or gross. That helps make them memorable.

When you input a word, you can see the mems or images that other people are using and select one of those if you like, or use their database to find an image to make your own. If there is already audio for the word you’re learning, Memrise will automatically integrate it for you.

One of my 'mems'.

One of my ‘mems’. It’s not the most creative but it helped me stop mixing up two words that both begin with giải.

Once you have your ‘mem’, Memrise then takes you through a series of game-like exposures to the word where you win points for correct answers.

Like with Anki, there are pre-made sets of words but again finding one that matches your textbook or making your own ‘course’ with words you want to learn is generally more effective.

While Memrise started as a website, there are also Android and iPhone apps so you can easily review vocabulary while on the go.

A word of caution…

Memrise by default emphasises recalling words (Stage 3) very early on and prompts you to type them correctly into a box. The mems are not used as part of practice. You might find it beneficial to stick to courses labelled ‘no typing’ that focus on multiple choice instead or just use the app where you (usually) don’t have to type in the answer.

What’s the best way to combine these 3 approaches to remembering vocabulary?

Going back to what I said at the beginning, you learn new words by getting repeated exposure to them. You don’t actually need to use any tools if you don’t want to. However accept that it will take some time, just like it does when learning your native language as a child.

This article presented you with 3 different solutions to your vocabulary problems, depending on why you are struggling to remember a word.

Here’s a handy flowchart reminding you how to find the root of the problem and my solution for tackling each one.

The steps to tackling tricky words. Download PDF.

The steps to tackling tricky words. Download PDF.

Over to you: How do you remember vocabulary? What problems do you encounter?

Image credit: HikingArtist and monique72