Everybody wants to learn a new language, and everybody wants to do it right now! And when you think about it, the longest part is learning the 10,000’s of words we call vocabulary. But if you want to memorize vocabulary fast, then you must avoid these two things at all costs!
They are killer to storing information in the brain where it can be easily retrieved, and yet it’s how people are taught to learn in school and in textbooks!
Let me explain what they are first, why people teach languages this way, and how you can avoid it and still learn quickly.
The First Thing You Must Avoid is Called “Interference”
When you learn a new piece of information, you brain attaches meaning to it and stores it where it can easily find it later.
But what happens when you learn two or more similar sounding, or similar meaning words at the same time?
They get mixed up during the encoding process which then makes it hard to recall the correct word when you need it.
Let me give you an example (probably a common one) from my own experience with this:
I took Spanish in college. One of first things we did was learn the numbers 1-10. If you are familiar with them, then you probably already know the two numbers that I could never remember which is which!
They are seis and siete.
Not only do these two words have a similar meaning (numbers six & seven), but they both begin with the letter “s” and they sound very similar to one another, when compared with the other eight numbers!
I struggled for the longest time, and only overcame it through a lot of brute repetition.
Here’s the thing: I never struggled with any other the other numbers! I got them right away, so why the heck did I have to waste so much time learning that seis was six, and siete was seven?
Well, I struggled because of the concept on interference.
Have you struggled with any pairs of words like this? You knew both meanings, just not which was which!
Usually if you only learn one word, you will remember it for forever. But when you learn a second or third word that is similar to the first, you get them confused with one another due to the concept of interference – new information getting in the way of old information.
Let’s move on to the second thing you need to avoid.
The Second Thing You Must Avoid are “Sets”
A “set” is exactly what it sounds like. It is a group of words that all have some common theme among them. Here are a few examples:
- Numbers 1-10
- Animals at the zoo
- The names of countries
- Common fruits
- The months of the year
- Food at the grocery store
- All of the different usages of the particle に
The reason you want to avoid learning and memorizing vocabulary from sets is because your working memory can only hold a few new pieces of information at a time while it gets moved into your long term memory.
If you have a set of ten animals, you will probably remember the first two, the last two, and maybe a weird sounding one somewhere in the middle.
You also run into the problem of interference when using vocabulary sets.
One of the things I was really impressed about The Pimsleur Japanese Course when I took it, was that they only ever introduced one or two new numbers in a lesson.
That means it took about a week to learn the numbers 1-10 in Japanese, but I got them all right away, and never had any trouble remembering which one was which.
That story ought to give you a hint as to how to overcome the challenges we’ve talked about so far, but before I get to that, I want to answer the burning question of “why.”
Why teach language this way when it is so ineffective?
Why Are The Worst Ways to Learn, The Most Commonly Ways Taught?
In a word, because it is easy.
Simply put, it is far easier to create a lesson for your class that has an overall theme or topic. For example:
- Days of the week
When you’ve got a theme, you know what information to include in the lesson. And don’t those vocabulary lists look nice when you hand them out to the people in the class?
What’s more, it is easy to test this knowledge.
So the test might say “list ten different fruits” and you get a point for each correct answer.
From an educational institution stand point, that is a much easier way to give information, and then check to see how well it was retained.
What’s the only problem with this process? It’s not how language is actually used in the real world!
You may have learned 30 animal names, but when was the last time you ever used them in your day to day life?
I can’t even remember the last time I used the word rhinoceros in a sentence (except for just now!), but I can tell you that I use the word monkey almost every day (don’t ask why!).
Shouldn’t we be teaching (and learning) useful words that we will actually need the most, instead of handing out vocabulary lists that we can then later give a quiz on?
Having said all of that, there is definitely a way to learn and memorize vocabulary quickly so that you don’t have to spend a lot of time going back over it again and again.
It takes a little more time upfront, but it pays you back many times over since you’re not constantly reviewing them.
Would you like to know how to do it?
How to Avoid 1&2 and (actually) Memorize Vocabulary Fast
Here’s the thing, your brain is always looking for “meaning” when it takes in new information. So if you learn the Japanese word for cat as neko 猫 then you will have an abstract level of meaning for the word.
But if you go a step further and find a picture of a cat that you can mark as neko 猫, then when you hear that word again, you will visualize the picture of the cat. And vice-versa, when you see a picture of a cat, you will remember the word neko 猫.
It’s no surprise that our visual memories are some of the strongest (if not the strongest) that we have.
But in addition to (or instead of) using pictures to help memorize a single word, I actually want to you take a word and put it into a meaningful sentence that you will learn as one complete chunk of information.
What do I mean by making the phrase meaningful? Let’s take a look at few examples:
Do you personally have a cat? If yes, create a phrase around the word neko 猫 that reflects that fact, like this:
- I have a cat.
neko o katte iru.
Or perhaps you don’t have a cat right now, but you really want to get one someday. Then you could use the sentence:
- I want a cat.
neko ga hoshii.
Or still, if you are actually more of a dog person and you really don’t like cats all that much, you could learn the phrase:
- I don’t like cats.
neko ga suki ja nai.
There are a few very good reasons why you would want to put a single word that you need to remember into the context of a complete sentence:
- It gives the individual word more meaning, which is easier for your brain to remember.
- You learn not only vocabulary, but grammar since it’s needed to construct the phrase.
- You learn actual phrases that you can use in the real world.
The sentences don’t even have to be all that long. In fact, the shorter and simpler, the better!
Try to make them meaningful to you as a person, something that is actually true, so that you can memorize it easier and then (gosh!) actually use the phrase in real life when talking to someone in the language!
What Do You Think About it?
If memorizing words from a list works for you, then I honestly envy you!
It didn’t work for me, and after doing research on how people learn, I found it doesn’t work for the majority of people.
So I figured I would share what has actually worked for me so that you could do that same for yourself.
What are your thoughts on this whole situation?
Do you find it hard to learn similar words from a list? Do you think using short, but meaningful sentences is a smart way to go about it?
Let me know in the comments section!