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3 ways to remember vocabulary when learning a foreign language

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

How learning styles affect language learning

Have you ever wondered why some learning activities work well for you, while there are others you can’t stand? Some people love classes, others enjoy podcasts and others can’t get enough of writing and note-taking.

Depending on your learning style, some activities and materials will naturally and easily work well for you, whereas others might still be usable if you adapt them.

Learning styles

Auditory learners learn by listening. They learn well in classrooms, listening to teachers talk or by watching talks or speeches, or listening to podcasts. When learning alone or revising you may find that talking helps or you may even record yourself summarising some notes and play it back to yourself later.

Visual learners learn by seeing. They might like information presented in charts or diagrams, using written information or watching a demonstration. When you self-study or revise you might use diagrams, mind-maps or written notes that are highlighted or colour-coded.

Kinesthetic (or kinaesthetic) learners learn by doing. Movement and touching or interacting with what you are trying to learn works best for you. Tracing out words as you say them or walking while listening to audio can help to take in the information.

The VAK Learning Styles, useful for language learners. Credit OnlineEducation.net.

The VAK Learning Styles. Credit OnlineEducation.net.

Although in the VAK system there are three styles, many people are actually a mixture of two styles such as kinesthetic-visual.

NB. There are also other ways of classifying learning styles beyond VAK, such as the Reading-Writing learning style.

Tips to identify your learning style

Learning Styles Infographic

Quiz from OnlineEducation.net


You can take quick online quizzes or questionnaires or follow flowcharts like the one on the right.

It can be easiest to identify your learning style(s) by thinking back to your school days and how you revised for exams. I recently found some of my university notes and summary sheets and they were all colour-coded, which is very typical of visual learners.

What this means for language learners

There are different ways of learning a language from classrooms to audio courses to learning by immersion. Some techniques work better for certain learning styles than others.

But, Thảo, audio (aka listening) is really important in languages and I’m not an auditory learner. Help!

It’s not impossible to learn with materials designed for another learning style, you might just need more practice or to adapt them to suit you better.

For example, I’m a visual learner but I still learnt a lot of my basic Vietnamese vocabulary from friends. However they typically needed to repeat new words for me 7 or 8 times when an auditory learner might pick them up in 2 or 3. I also find that visualising the spelling helps me to remember words.

Likewise, I really struggle with audio courses that prompt you to repeat the word almost immediately. Rewinding to hear it a few more times or using an accompanying book to look at the spelling increases my success.

If you’re a kinesthetic learner, listen to audio lessons while walking or you could take notes or draw as you’re listening.

Great advice! Tell me more!

OK, since you asked here are some language learning study tips for each of the learning styles.

Auditory learners

You’re very lucky as you should be able to pick up tones quite well!

  • Follow an audio course like Pimsleur
  • Use flashcards with audio
  • Use rhymes as mnemonics
  • Read aloud
  • Speak aloud while studying
  • Listen to podcasts
  • Ask lots of questions
  • Consider recording your classes and listening to them again later rather than taking notes

Visual learners

  • Use flashcards with images
  • Use visual mnemonics
  • Learn the spelling of words
  • Watch videos instead of just listening to audio
  • Use colour in your notebook (eg. grammar in blue, vocabulary in black)
  • Take notes in class or while watching videos then re-read them later

Kinesthetic learners

  • Listen to audio while walking or working out
  • Trace out the spelling of words while using flashcards
  • Use lots of examples (these are easier for you to remember than rules)
  • Write things out by hand instead of typing
  • Write things down or draw while listening
  • Take lots of breaks
  • Listening to music in the background may help minimise distractions (eg. when you’re reading or writing)
  • Interact with people and take part actively in class

Over to you: What’s your learning style? Do you have any extra study tips to share?

Image credit: OnlineEducation.net

How to improve your Vietnamese spelling

It’s fairly easy to learn how to read Vietnamese words aloud. It’s a bit trickier spelling them due to letters which can sound similar like a and ă, or are essentially the same like gi- and d-.

However you can improve your Vietnamese spelling with practice.

Tip #1: Write more

Because I learnt a lot of my basic Vietnamese by talking to friends, my spelling used to be awful.

My spelling used to suck

My spelling sucked until I started to practice writing

By getting your writing corrected and learning how to spell the words you got wrong, you can drastically improve your spelling.

Sometimes you’ll be able to remember these corrections right away. Sometimes you’ll have to practice spelling the words until you can consistently get them right.

Tip #2: Use Memrise or Anki with an input box

You can review vocabulary and test your spelling with a flashcard system like Memrise.com. You could also do this in Anki by creating a text input field and adding a third card to practise typing it.

Learn how to spell the words you get wrong

If you’ve done some writing and made a list of the words you got wrong, add them to a flashcard program so that you keep reviewing their spelling over time.

Use memrise to test your spelling

Words I’ve misspelt recently

Do this often and you’ll learn to spell common words correctly.

Learn to spell words correctly before you need them

Even now, there are a lot of Vietnamese words that I can say but can’t spell or can’t remember the tones for.

A good way to learn spell to familiar words like this is to download a deck in Anki or select a Memrise course with vocabulary you’ve already studied.

memrise-review

I’ve learnt about buildings but can I spell them all? Let’s see.

Practice the vocabulary through the Memrise system.

If you can spell the word correctly – great!

If you get it wrong, take note of the correct spelling and continue revising it in Memrise.

memrise-test

Is it ngoại thành or ngoài? Looks like I need to review this.

By reviewing words before you need them, you’ll improve your spelling and cut down on the number of words you have to look up in the dictionary.

Over to you: Do you struggle with Vietnamese spelling? How do you practice?

How an afternoon in a park taught me to pronounce ng-

Readers have been asking me questions about Vietnamese pronunciation. It’s an important part of learning Vietnamese but I didn’t know where to start. Then last week I read this short article explaining how to get over your big language issues.

It all became clear how to break down the big topic of Vietnamese pronunciation for you.

The short answer? Get specific. Then tackle each of your issues one at a time.

How I learnt to pronounce ng- words

Today I’m going to tell you how I learnt to pronounce ng and how you can do it too.

some Vietnamese ng words

I started learning Vietnamese just a few days before I arrived in Vietnam. In some ways this was great because I was surrounded by native speakers from the beginning. If I didn’t pronounce something correctly, I’d be met with a blank look.

Even so, after one month there was one consonant sound that was still troubling me… ng-

I wanted to be able to say ngon (delicious) but my attempts to say the ng- sound were really hit and miss.

It all changed in an afternoon

One afternoon I was in a park in Saigon and chatting in English to some university students. During the conversation, I mentioned that I was learning Vietnamese. They encouraged me to say something so I said “Tôi là người Anh” (I’m English).

As you may have guessed, I didn’t pronounce người right. One student decided to teach me to say it.

She modelled the sound for me, showing me how her mouth was positioned as she simply said ng. After she did this a few times, she encouraged me to try.

Me:  ng
Her: Yes!
Me:  n
Her: No.
Me:  n
Her: No.
Me:  ng
Her: Yes!

This went on for a couple of minutes.

Little by little I started getting more yes’s than no’s. I also started hearing the difference myself and being able to tell when I was saying it correctly and when I wasn’t.

I kept practising for the rest of the week. One day it just clicked and since then I’ve had no trouble pronouncing ng. I’ve even taught other people to say it correctly.

How you can learn to pronounce ng- too

Start by listening to the sound ng, paying attention to how it should be formed in your mouth and how it should sound.

This video by Stuart Jay Raj explains it really well as even though only a few examples are Vietnamese, the Thai and Indonesian examples have a similar ng sound.

By the end of the video you should be able to say ng correctly, though you may still sometimes get it wrong like I used to. Keep on practising Vietnamese words beginning with ng- like ngonngười and the most common Vietnamese surname – Nguyen.

Here are some great examples for Vietnamese. If possible, ask a native speaker if you’re pronouncing it correctly.

Although this article is about ng, you can use the same technique with any sound, tone or word you are struggling with.

Over to you: What sounds do you find hard to say? What do you do to practice them?

12 topics to kickstart your Vietnamese writing

Choosing writing topics can be difficult Do you feel like you should write in Vietnamese, but you don’t really know what to write about?

Choosing the right topic enables you to practice your Vietnamese in a low-pressure setting. Writing gives you time to think about what you want to say, to build on what you’ve been learning and to try out new things.

But sometimes it can be hard to choose what to write about. If you pick the wrong topic for your interests or your level, it can frustrate you, kill your motivation and even cause you to give up and avoid writing.

Similarly, different styles of writing are suited to different levels. If you’re a beginner trying to write an essay or letter of complaint, you’re going to have a hard time.

It can be tricky to know what to write about. Here are 12 ideas to get you started.

  1. Make up a conversation

    This is a great one for beginners. It can be hard trying to write when you don’t have much language to work with, so go with what you know and write a fictitious dialogue between two friends or colleagues.

    Intermediate learners can also use this to practice different types of writing because you can vary how formal it is by changing characters. This can be a good way to check if you’re using slang or polite words like thưa in the right way.

  2. Keep a diary

    Write about your daily routine or recount something unique or different about your day. If you’re struggling at first, commit to just writing one sentence each day. It will get easier over time.

  3. Describe a trip or event

    Write about an interesting event like a dinner party or wedding you attended or describe a holiday or day trip you’ve been on.

  4. Practice vocabulary

    Think of sentences or stories based on new vocabulary you’ve come across.

    Eg. If you learn the word ‘leo’ (climb), you could write a few sentences about any mountains you’ve climbed, climbing trees when you were a kid, or why you’d never do either of those things.

  5. Write about a hobby

    Describe when and why you got started with one of your hobbies (or why you’re learning Vietnamese) and how often you practice it.

  6. Describe a familiar place

    Write about a place you know well – like where you grew up or went to university. As well as describing it physically, say what you like about it.

  7. Write about a local event

    Explain about a festival or annual event in your town, why it started and what usually happens.

  8. Comparisons

    Make a comparison between something in your country and that in Vietnam. Eg. differences in climate, eating habits, transport…

  9. Story summaries

    Summarise what you watch or read in your free time. Even if that film or book was in English or another language, you can still practice Vietnamese by describing the basic story, key events and why you liked (or didn’t like) it.

  10. Use the same topic as your study material

    Write your own take on a topic that you’ve seen/read about in Vietnamese.

    Eg. If you listen to someone describing their best friend, write about your own.

  11. Translate something

    Find a short article or letter that you’ve read in your native language and translate it into Vietnamese.

    This is a harder task than writing something directly in Vietnamese, but on the other hand you don’t have to think about what to say.

  12. Ask questions

    Ask questions in Vietnamese about the language or culture.

    If you wrote a sentence while chatting that you didn’t think was natural, rewrite it, ask questions and find out a better way to say it.

    Or you could ask about something you’ve read or pose a cultural question like if people really chew betel nuts.

    Post your questions on a peer-correction site like Lang-8 or iTalki*, wait for answers from native speakers and make it a discussion by responding to them.

Top Tip: Keep a list of writing topics

Instead of trying to think of a topic every time you’re in the mood to write, keep a list of things you want to write about.

As you go about your daily life, look out for potential topics and jot them down. That way, when you want to write you can simply look at your list and go with one of those ideas.

Over to you: Do you struggle to think of things to write about? Did this list of topics inspire you, if so… What’s your next piece of writing going to be about?

Photo credit: ralaenin

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