Are you up to learning how to study vocabulary using the strategies that experts use to double, even triple, their brain’s capacity to memorize info? You may have already seen people who can memorize huge amounts of information, or you’ve heard of polyglots who easily speak 10 languages or more. Do you think that you could never be one of those people because you just don’t have a good memory? One of the things that often seems the most difficult to learn is vocabulary. But with the right strategies, it’s actually the easiest part.
The Ultimate Guide to Learning (And Remembering!) Vocabulary
All you need to effectively learn vocabulary is you, your brain, and some motivation to strengthen your memory. You don’t have to be a genius – it’s within everyone’s reach! Knowing how to learn vocabulary is the biggest difference between polyglots like Benny and the “average Joe.”
This article is the culmination of lots of reading and numerous experiments. We want to share this info with as many people as possible because our goal is to help everyone learn a language. If you try just half of the strategies below, I can guarantee you that you’ll drastically improve your ability to memorize information. In this article, we’ve summarized many books, articles, and methods to try and make it interesting and helpful.
If you’d like an even shorter and more interactive version, why not see what Abbe has to say about how to learn vocabulary? Check it out:
VIDEO: How to Learn Vocabulary, Fast
Did that pique your interest? Want to know more? Then let’s dive right into our topic!
Before going into the amazing tricks and techniques that effectively boost your capacity to learn new words, it is helpful to understand some aspects of the learning process and how our brain works.
How Does Memory Work?
Rest assured, even though I love this topic, I won’t go into the minute details; a brief summary can still shed light on your vocabulary learning experience.
A network of neurons
Think about it. Our brain is made up of a titanic-sized network of neurons. Hundreds of millions of cells! Neurons transmit electric and chemical signals to other neurons. Each neuron is capable of connecting to tens of thousands of other neurons. Imagine all the possible combinations! It’s even more impressive than the most powerful computer and all the devices hooked up to the Internet.
Yep, it can be crazy to think about these numbers, but it’s all going on in our heads – 24/7. So if you think that there’s no room left in your brain to learn a language, or that you’re “too old,” think again. Go tell that to the polyglot who speaks 10 languages and is working on new ones every day! 🙂
An important concept to consider is that neurons never stop connecting and disconnecting from one another. That’s how our brain and memory work. These connections between neurons can be more or less strong, and there can be more or less of them.
Now that you have some insight into how your brain works, let’s find out how to study vocabulary most effectively.
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That’s why our brain works so well when remembering by association. When you can say that you know a word, it means that there are numerous connections that are strong enough to create pathways to this word in your memory.
It also means that the pathways are very short, and therefore transmit information fast.
For example, if I tell you “big clock in London,” you’ll probably think of Big Ben right away. Or, if I say, “statue of a woman in New York,” the Statue of Liberty will probably pop into your head before I’ve even finished my statement.
Your brain has gone looking for information based on the clues I gave you and has come up with it very quickly since you have lots of pathways or associations to these monuments. When you think of these words, associations to other ideas or even feelings may be conjured up…
However, it’s important to remember that connections between neurons weaken if they are not regularly used. That’s why they say that if you don’t use your brain, it goes to waste.
My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a terrible disease. A study has shown that learning another language decreases the risk of developing this disease since language learners are constantly creating new neural pathways and giving existing ones a workout. In other words, learning a language keeps your brain young!
That also explains why, when you learn a new word but don’t review or use it right away, you usually forget it. If the neural connections used to store the word are not used, they will weaken and eventually disappear (refer to the forgetting curve and the spaced repetition system for more info on this).
So, now that you know all that, how can you learn vocab without wasting time?
What Does It Take to Remember a Word?
If you’re wondering how to study vocabulary, look no further. Here’s a quick reminder of what is most important when you learn new words. If you follow these steps, you won’t waste any time or energy:
- memorize meaning – the most obvious step. You don’t have to learn and memorize the meaning by looking up the translation in a dictionary. It’s even better to connect the new word to an image or to your own definition, especially since most words don’t have one perfect translation.
- memorize spelling. But you can ignore spelling if your goal is strictly speaking. Thinking about spelling in some languages might even mess up your pronunciation.
- memorize pronunciation. A very important step that is too often ignored. It’s vital for certain languages, like English, whose spelling is different from its pronunciation (see our articles on English pronunciation for more information). It’s better to learn the correct pronunciation from the very beginning than to go back and correct bad habits.
- memorize use. If it’s a simple noun, that’s usually not too hard to do. But for other types of words, it’s important to know when and how to use them (our apps provide example sentences, which show how a word might typically be used).
This might seem like a lot of work to memorize just one word, but rest assured, we’re going to present many techniques for optimizing the learning process and making it worth the effort.
How to Learn Vocabulary More Efficiently
Reactivate knowledge by spacing out review time
This is one of the most important aspects of this article. Simply repeating a word you just learned ten times in a row is useless. You need to space out the repetitions of the word. Of course, the number of review sessions depends on the word and your personal struggles.
For example: review the word for the first time 10 minutes after you learn it, again after 8 hours, again after 24 hours, again after 3 days, 10 days, 25 days, etc.
This technique will enable you to store vocabulary in your long-term memory and spend the least amount of time reviewing.
MosaLingua uses the SRS, invented by scientists, which calculates a personalized review schedule by analyzing your memory and learning difficulties. To this day, it’s the most efficient method for learning new vocabulary.
You can learn more about how the MOSA Learning method® works if you’re interested.
Learn the most useful vocabulary first with frequency lists
It’s very important to base your learning on the frequency of use of vocabulary words.
It’s a simple concept. How to learn vocabulary fast? Don’t waste your time on words you’ll never use. Why would you learn words and phrases that people rarely use in conversation (curiously, lots of these words are still in our language textbooks)?
If you understand 100 of the English words from this list, you can probably understand 50% of written English. Of course, I recommend going beyond that and learning more words, but it just goes to show how important frequency lists are.
Here is one great frequency list that you can check out, thanks to Wiktionary:
Some lists have been created by analyzing thousands of movies and TV subtitles found online.
Of course, MosaLingua’s apps also use these lists. By learning the 20% of the lists that allow you to communicate 80% of the time, you can learn languages really quickly.
How to Learn Vocabulary – A Few Tricks
Spaced repetition permits quick, effortless vocab memorization.
But sometimes, certain words or phrases may seem harder to remember than others. In this case, turn to these strategies for help etching the words into your memory. Here are some tips and tricks about how to learn vocabulary.
First, check out Cédric’s best tips about how to memorize new information (like foreign-language words!) and actually retain them:
If you liked that video, be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more tips and facts about language learning!
Think about images
All of the big experts in memorization agree on one thing: to have a good memory, you must be able to make mental visualizations. If you have to remember information, try to associate it with an image. In language learning, it’s especially important to come up with mental images.
If I have to remember the word “soleil” (French for “sun”), I’ll have an easier time if I associate the word with an image of the sun.
How to learn vocabulary by creating effective mental images
You want to come up with very specific images so that you can remember particular characteristics or nuances of meaning.
An effective mental illustration should meet the following 4 criteria: exaggeration, movement, creative association, and emotional reaction.
A good mental image should be exaggerated so that its dimensions and proportions are not realistic. If you want to remember the word for “foot,” you may think of an enormous foot stomping on grapes, or someone with on very hairy foot. Whatever you do, make it an unforgettable image.
Our attention is better caught by things in movement than by things that are static. That’s why images in movement are better recorded by our brains. If you want to remember the Spanish vocabulary word “coche” (car), think about a car racing down the street.
Groups of people and objects that you usually put together are considered routine, and they won’t be special or remarkable. But if you make creative and bizarre associations, they will have a better chance of sticking out in your mind. The new association pushes your brain to process the word, so this is quite a powerful trick. Some examples? To remember the word livre (book), think about a cat reading a book that he has open between his paws. It’s bizarre, but you won’t forget it!
It’s hard to forget people or places that you associate with intense emotion (this could be sadness, joy, fright, anger, etc.). We are often surprised by how well we remember insignificant details. You may go to work every single day and never notice the color of the building’s walls. But if you are old enough, I’m sure you remember the events of September 11th well, including where you were when you got the news, who you were with, and other vivid details. That’s because it was an emotional experience.
Note: Mental images work best when you are the one visualizing them (rather than looking up images online, for instance). This way, they are personalized and easier to remember. Plus, the act of thinking up a mental image is a task that helps you in the memorization process.
Invent fun stories with words
I often use this method for learning hard words like false friends. I use the word to invent a story that I won’t forget.
For example, I had the hardest time remembering that “jubilación” in Spanish means retirement. So I imagined a group of people who are older, singing and partying with flutes of champagne and little treats—real jubilation—to celebrate a retirement. Now, each time I think about it, it comes to me automatically.
The sillier, funnier, or even ridiculous that the story is, the better you will remember it. Your imagination has no limits, so for each difficult word, you can make up your own story!
Create ties and relationships between words
Remember our discussion on how the brain works? When you learn new words, it’s helpful to find links with other words that you already know, or to even take advantage of learning new words. That’s why it’s good to learn vocab by category (e.g. travel, food, health)
Sometimes you even look for common roots. For example, you can put “Krankenhaus” (hospital) and “Krankenschwester” (nurse) together in German. Or you can note down all the words that end in “-zione” in Italian, or “-tion” in French, “-ción” in Spanish, and in “-ção” in Portuguese.
Associating concepts and words is an efficient way to use your reasoning ability to learn new words. It’s one advantage that adults have over kids.
Break it down
Another interesting and efficient solution to the problem of how to memorize words is to deconstruct words and phrases.
If you have to memorize a long number, like a phone number or a credit card, it’s easier to do it in chunks of numbers, right? Well, you can do the same with words.
In English, to remember “tablecloth,” you can think about: “table” and “cloth” and figure out the meaning easily. You don’t have to have studied Latin, and you don’t need to do a formal linguistic breakdown of a word. Break it down in any way that helps you!
If these tricks interest you, take a peek at our article on advice for memorizing difficult information.
Imagine yourself in a context where you’d use these words
You’ve surely noticed that you remember words more easily when they interest you and are of use to you in the immediate future.
To learn a language, you don’t have to force yourself to learn vocab that isn’t helpful. That’s why at MosaLingua we dedicate time to picking out and sorting vocabulary and useful expressions.
So, one great strategy is to imagine yourself using this word in a pleasant situation. If you want to learn the sentence, “Tu veux venir avec nous pour boire un verre ?” (do you want to come get a drink with us?) imagine yourself at a beautiful restaurant in Paris, sitting with your new friends and speaking French fluently. Then, repeat that sentence: “Tu veux venir avec nous pour boire un verre ?”
Check out more tips here.
Use All 3 Types of Memory to Learn New Words
We often say that people are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (movement) learners. But most people are a combination of all three. If you want to know how to learn vocabulary faster, test out these three types of memory and find out which ones work best for you.
Visual and auditory memory
When we learn a new word, we invent or imagine an image. We also must think about its pronunciation, though. Listening to a word said aloud and repeating it aloud is great practice for your brain. It’s s a way to tap into two types of memory that are connected.
Re-write vocab: Writing requires kinesthetic memory, which is tied to movement. So, it’s often useful to recopy words and sentences that we study, especially when memorizing. You can also work on reading aloud and rewriting in a notebook. Here’s an interesting fact: writing by hand is better than typing on a keyboard.
Movement: When you create mental images of words or concepts, you can also do gestures or body movements to accompany them. It may seem strange, but it works very well. Give it a try! I was skeptical at first, but I forced myself to study pronominal verbs by pretending to brush my teeth and wash my face, and I do think that I know them better now because of this.
Everyone seems to have their own theories on how to learn vocabulary and their favorite tricks. One of our users reviews vocab words on our app while walking. He told me that it was much more effective for him! (I take no responsibility for possible accidents 😉
Modify Your Environment and Learn New Words Quicker
Choose the right time to focus on memorization
How to learn vocabulary is important, but so is when to learn it. Morning is the ideal time for mental activity. Your brain is refreshed and rested, which allows you to be much more efficient.
After a good lunch, you can start to memorize new words and sentences that you’ll study again in the evening before going to bed.
Don’t forget to take short breaks to get up and move around.
Sleep plays a major role in your mental processes. Getting enough sleep is too often neglected. But it can really affect your performance.
In fact, after a good night’s sleep, not only are you refreshed, but it has been proven that during sleep, your brain reviews the new information that you learned during the day. That’s why repeating words right before bedtime can be very effective.
Change your lifestyle and your eating habits
This can be a particularly challenging task, but we have put together a comprehensive list of easy strategies for making your life more adaptable to learning:
Food and Lifestyle Choices for Improving Your Memory
Practice What You Have Learned!
Now that you know how to learn vocabulary, it’s time to practice! Nothing helps your memory more than practice. Not only is it good for consolidating new knowledge, but it’s also a good way to stay motivated. That’s why in this blog we talk about activities that you can do to practice the language you’re learning:
You should be able to learn and have fun at the same time. With the internet, everything is so simple now that you don’t even need to travel to learn a language (but you can if you want to!).
Now you know all about how to learn vocabulary—and maybe you even learned something about how your brain works in the process! I hope that this article has helped you in your efforts to learn languages.
Write your comments and questions below, and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.
Excellent article, great techniques with logical explanations.