Before we go any further, what do we even mean by “difficult words”? As you start learning a new language, whether it’s Spanish, Portuguese, or Russian, you’ll probably find yourself stuck on certain words that seem impossible to pronounce, let alone memorize. Difficult words might also be ones that have no English cognates, or lookalikes… making it hard to create associations or mental images that aid in committing them to memory. And then there are the infamous false friends. These are words that do look familiar, but are actually evil twins! False friends look like English words you know, but definitely don’t mean the same thing. So, what’s the best way to tackle all of these difficult words?
We want to share some tips to help you succeed in storing them in your long-term memory, and thwart these words’ plot to keep you from remembering them…
When we think about difficult words, we often first think about words that give us pronunciation trouble. Some examples? Écureuil (squirrel) or serrurerie (locksmith) in French, or sonrojado (blushed) and zurcir (to mend) in Spanish. They might have letters that we don’t necessarily know how to use, or sounds that we aren’t used to making in English. But these difficult-to-pronounce words aren’t the only challenges we face when learning a new language.
There are other words, for example the English word colonel, that aren’t spelled at all like they are pronounced. Of course you know that colonel is actually pronounced like kernel. Why!? Well, maybe to give English learners a bit of a hard time… But more likely, it has to do with the word’s origins (it comes from the Italien word coronel).
Then, there are other words that aren’t necessarily long or weird-looking. They might even be words you recognize. But wait, they actually have nothing to do with their English twins. This often results in confusion, and some difficulty when trying to memorize them.
These are what we call false friends, or false cognates: words that sort of look like words we know, but don’t mean the same thing. They’re not easy to learn because we have trouble separating them from their evil twin! A relatively easy one is pan. In Spanish, pan isn’t something we use to cook on the stove, but rather something we eat: bread. (FYI: sartén is pan in Spanish.) Spanish and English have quite a few false friends, as do French and English. Don’t try to take any books home from a French librairie without paying – you’re actually in a bookstore, not a library (bibliothèque)!
4 Tips for Learning Difficult Words
Whether it’s a question of pronunciation, tricky spelling, or simple unfamiliarity, here are some tricks to help you memorize difficult words.
Tip #1: Listen to Pronunciation and Record Yourself
We can’t say it enough: one of the most effective methods for learning new vocabulary is to listen to the language. Watch movies and TV series in the language you are learning, listen to the radio and podcasts, etc. By just hearing a difficult word spoken several times and in different contexts will help you become familiar with it. Words that seem impossible to pronounce won’t seem so difficult after all when you hear someone else saying them.
That being said, just hearing the words won’t help you very much when it comes to pronouncing them. To add another dimension to your language learning, you’ll need to practice pronouncing them and record yourself doing so. Record yourself repeating the words on your smartphone, computer, or an online voice recorder. Then, listen to a native pronounce the word, such as during a movie or in your MosaLingua application. Now, compare your pronunciation with the correct native pronunciation, and try to reproduce the exact sounds you hear. Of course, it may take a few tries to get right, but with a bit of practice, those difficult words won’t be so hard after all!
Tip #2: Forget About Spelling (For Now) and Rely on Sound
Sometimes we get caught up in a word’s spelling, which can negatively affect the way we remember how to correctly pronounce it. Our tip: forget about the spelling while you are learning the correct pronunciation, and concentrate on producing the right sounds. If, for example, you’re using our MosaLingua app, focus first on the listening and repeating exercises rather than the writing exercises. This works your auditory memory instead of the visual memory that we tend to rely on. This is especially helpful for words like colonel, whose spelling can actually make them more difficult to remember!
Another way to focus only on pronunciation is to learn phonetically. Certain letters or combinations of letters make different sounds. And the same combination can create different sounds in different languages. This is where international phonetics comes in handy. When you read a word phonetically, you’ll know exactly how it is pronounced, whether the word is in Spanish, Italian, German, or any number of other languages. To learn more, take a look at the International Phonetic Alphabet (including the sample below) and learn to read words phonetically. Did you know that Google provides an IPA reading when you look up definitions?
Tip #3: Break Down, Learn in Chunks
If you’re having trouble learning a long or complex word in one go, try breaking it down into smaller parts that are more easily digested and memorized. This will make a huge difference for you. Not only are smaller parts easier to remember, but you might even find out more information about a word this way. At first glance, a long word might not look familiar. But once it’s broken down, you may realize it has a root in common with an English word that you know.
This is especially true for the Latin languages. Take the Latin root gratus, for example. We all know the word grateful in English, but what about grato in Italian, agradecido in Spanish (or gracias)? Notice anything? Of course! Easy peasy. Lots of vocabulary words in French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese share the same Latin roots.
Tip #4: Memorize Use or Meaning
Last but not least, try memorizing words in context. If you try to memorize a long list of vocabulary with no context, trust us, you won’t remember most of the words in the long run. We recommend that when you learn a new word, also learn how to use it in a sentence. This way, you’ll not only learn what the word means, but also how it is generally used. Making these types of associations is a great trick for successfully remembering difficult words.
Let’s look at an example. Marchander means “to bargain” in French. When memorizing, it might help to think about “merchandise,” but that doesn’t quite capture the exact meaning. But let’s have some context, for example with the sentence: Tiens toi prêt à marchander dans les souks de Marrakech / “Get ready to bargain in the Marrakech Souks.” Now you have a simple sentence to remember that provides good context and imagery, both good techniques for memorization. If you ever need to talk about bargaining, you’ll remember the colorful spice stalls of the Moroccan souks, and you’ll remember the word marchander.
So next time you come across a difficult word, don’t despair! Remember these tips and try to learn the word’s learning, pronunciation, or origins. And why not share some of the words you’re have difficulty learning in the comments below? Our readers might have other useful tips and tricks for you.
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