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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

3 more ways to learn Vietnamese through facebook

Use facebook to learn VietnameseA few months ago I shared 3 ways to learn Vietnamese through facebook.

To recap, they were:

  1. Chat with native speakers
  2. Translate your Vietnamese friends’ status updates
  3. Consider changing your language settings

I’ve since become a bit more conscious about how I practice and learn Vietnamese through facebook and come up with 3 more.

1. Click on the links your friends share

Instead of scouring the web, or picking things at random from our Resources List, just select the things that your friends recommend. Chances are a lot of these posts will interest you as you have things in common with your friends.

This is my favourite way of finding interesting authentic materials – whether that’s articles, songs, videos or even infographics.

2. Write statuses in Vietnamese

Quicker and less pressure than writing a diary about your day, share short funny anecdotes from your day or ask questions. Interact with the people who comment and continue a short conversation.

In some ways, this is a bit like chatting with someone but you have more time to look up new words and consider how to phrase what you want to say. You’re also just talking about one topic and don’t need to think of different things to say like you do in a chat.

3. Like fan pages

To get more exposure to authentic material (ie. Vietnamese written by and for Vietnamese people), you can like fan pages for Vietnamese a favourite musician, magazine, cooking blog or other celebrities like the most famous ‘foreigner’ who can speak Vietnamese, Joe Dâu Tây.

By liking a page you can take part in the community – read news updates about the person or magazine, read other fans’ comments or even post comments yourself. These news updates should be easier to understand than friends’ status updates which often use a lot of slang or shortened ‘text speak’.

Though if you just want to chat about learning Vietnamese, there’s always the More Vietnamese page.

Over to you: Do you use facebook to practice or learn Vietnamese?

An unusual use for google translate: as a spellchecker

Google translate has advantages and disadvantages. For a computer I think it does an alright job, especially for European languages, but it’s no substitute for a human and should be used in moderation.

A problem it does have is that when it doesn’t recognise a word, it won’t translate it. In fact, this can be a handy problem.

I often use google translate as a quick spell checker when I don’t have a spell check facility on hand. If I’ve written an email in Vietnamese for instance, I post my text in google translate.

I then quickly read through the English side and look for any words that haven’t translated. Most likely it’s because I’ve made a spelling mistake, so I can look at the word and see if it needs fixing.

Whoops, that should have been 'chưa' (yet).

Whoops, that should have been ‘chưa’ (yet).

This does seem to work better for European languages such as French or German, as a lot of the time google translate seems to skip over missing tones and translate it anyway. It can also be a bit hard to read through google’s English translation.

I’d still say you can catch some errors with your Vietnamese this way, though I do use it more for other languages.

3 ways to learn languages through facebook

Facebook. Love it or hate it, let’s look at how it can be used for learning languages.

1. Chat with native speakers

Use facebook to learn Vietnamese

Use facebook to learn Vietnamese

If you have any Vietnamese friends, whether in you know them in person or people you’ve met online, you can use the chat feature to have conversations with your friends. Probably best not to add random people just for the sake of learning Vietnamese, though!

As well as being fun, this can be a great way to pick up new language in a natural and authentic way. It carries less pressure than writing emails or talking someone face-to-face as you tend to read and write one or two sentences at a time. You also have the time to look things up as you go along.

2. Translate your Vietnamese friends’ status updates

Another great way of picking up natural, everyday language is taking notes from your friends’ status updates. This is more useful for intermediate learners who just need to look up short phrases. If you put whole sentences into google translate, it’s probably not going to help you very much.

I often copy sentences into my question notepad to get clarification later. You can probably pick up some good colloquial expressions and slang this way.

If friends post statuses without diacritics, you could try websites that automatically add them so you can then look phrases up in a dictionary.

3. Change your language settings

Many other people suggest this, and it is a way of getting a bit more exposure to Vietnamese. If you’re also using facebook to chat in Vietnamese and the rest of the site is in Vietnamese, then you have a nice little digital immersion environment.

Bonus: Like More Vietnamese and interact with us there 😉

Come say hi, ask questions, share your experiences. Join us here.

» Check out Part 2 here: 3 more ways to learn languages through facebook.

Over to you: Have you used facebook or other social networking sites in your language studies?

Using lang-8.com to correct your writing

When you start writing in Vietnamese, whether you keep a diary or write topical short essays, it’s vital to get your work corrected by a native so you can learn and improve.

If you don’t have, or don’t want, your teacher or native-speaker friend to correct every single thing you write, that’s where a website like lang-8.com can come to your aid. You can write something of any length, any title, any topic and native speakers will be able to read, correct and often also include explanations for their corrections or provide alternative ways of saying something.

Example of a correction at lang-8

In return you should read and correct journal entries written by other people learning your native tongue.

In my experience, I get a lot of corrections on my essays as the number of native Vietnamese users is higher than the number of Vietnamese learners. If you get so many corrections that you find it hard to go through them all, consider making your journal entries only viewable to your friends.

Friends-only journal setting

Over to you: Do you get your writing corrected? Have you used lang-8? Tell us in the comments!