We talk about learning languages and how quickly we can do it. We look for the best courses to get us to the best level possible at break-neck speed. But is all this all in vain? Is language learning at this accelerated rate a myth?
Well, you can pick up a book, read it or follow a course and learn all of the grammar, as if it were Latin in school. Many aspects of grammar are akin to equations we learn in other subjects, like maths. You add X to Y and you get Z. Languages being languages though, we often love to factor in the exceptions to make things more fun.
OK, so that’s your grammar sorted…you have the skeleton of the language and you get how it works (in theory). Practice is then needed to really fully appreciate what the machine can do to when you put it together. Now you need to flesh things out a bit. The flesh of a language is its vocabulary. Learning the vocabulary and how it can be manipulated within the rules of the grammar is a different story.
One of the most common questions people ask me is: “How do you memorise the words?”
Learning vocabulary requires much effort. There are several courses and books out there to help you to do it. They have their own tricks, secrets and methods. It has grown into a multi-million dollar business. From Michel Thomas to Vocabulearn, Teach Yourself and a number of other names I could list off here…they all want a piece of the pie and they all give their ideas on how to do it.
There are so many courses and so many ideas. Who is right?
All of them and none of them. What works for Peter doesn’t work for Jane. We are all unique and we remember things differently. You need to figure first of all what helps you remember best. How does your brain work?
What floats your boat?
What sort of things interest you as a learner? Do you visualise words in your head, like you see them on a page? Do you concentrate more on the sound and remember the sounds of a word best? Are you someone who likes to learn similar words together or groups of topic-related vocabulary?
Answering these questions is key to figuring out what works best for you. If you can’t answer those questions with a 100% degree of confidence, then mix and match until you figure out what works for you.
Here are some techniques I have tried:
- Write out words on pieces of paper – you can do this with related words you look up in a dictionary (in English this would be something like: able and ability). You can also include entries around the word you’re looking at if they stand out to you as interesting. I learnt the word “Ufuk” in Turkish this way! Can you see why it stood out to me? 😀
- Look out of topic-related words. I used to like to learn all of the animals, birds, flowers etc. and then go on walks and spot them in the park. Recalling these words in real situations is vital.
- Learn songs off by heart and know what each word means.
- Select texts that interest you, looking up unknown words. Try learning the text. Try translating the text into your own language and back again (as suggested in Assimil courses and by Luca).
- Speak words you want to learn onto a sound file/video and listen to it. Use pre-recorded examples too where possible.
- Listen to the radio, TV, people talking and try to write down words you don’t know that you hear a lot. Then look them up in the dictionary and try to figure out the meaning of things. If you hear them a lot anyway, that repetition will help the word to sink in.
- When you read anything in the language that you don’t understand, look up the meaning and write it down. Revisit the words often and see if you can spot them elsewhere and perhaps related words too.
One thing is true for all of the techniques you can use to remember vocabulary. You need to hear or see a word a lot to remember it and make it part of your active vocabulary (that is to say a word you can use and not just recognise and understand). Some words will be easier than other to learn. These words tend to be words that are cognates (with similar variations in the language(s) you already speak) or they could be words that stick out because they are funny (like my Turkish example above).
If you find you are having trouble remembering a word because it is just not memorable, you can try some memory tricks to make it work for you. Think of a funny story connected to the sound of the word. For example, one word for “strange” in Turkish is “tuhaf”. If you say it out loud it sounds like “to have” in English, so I remember it by saying to myself, “It’s strange tuhaf this word for “strange” in Turkish”.
Testing yourself on vocab is a great way to see how you are getting on with it. Rosetta Stone and many other applications have made a lot of money using these repeated tests for memorising words and phrases. They are based on a simple quiz of words seen. You can do this the old-fashioned way by writing down the vocab you want to learn on one side of a piece of paper (or flash card) and the translation on the other side. Start by going through the target language and see if you can translate the word. When you can do that, then look at the translation and see if you can translate back into the target language. You will need to repeat this a lot to get them all in your head.
I keep forgetting words? Why?
You’re human. I do too.
If you remembered everything you had ever seen or heard, you’d be something to be studied. Seriously, don’t put pressure on yourself with unrealistic expectations. Learn what you can and keep repeating things.
It’s not your age either…
Kids are not the sponges people portray them as being. My daughter is considered good with her languages by her teachers, but she needs to have things repeats millions of times before she remembers them! The difference is that kids don’t give up learning their languages because they find it hard to progress. They have to carry on (as did we) to become a fully functional adult in society. This is down to repeating the same words and patterns over and over again and trying them out with people daily.
How many times have you heard a native say, “you know…that thingy…what’s it called? “ . It happens to us all to a greater or lesser degree, you’re completely normal if you forget things!
I always feel more comfortable when I start using words I have studied in real conversations or in my writing. You can challenge yourself to use certain areas of vocabulary in your own life. This works with grammar too. You need to come out of your comfort zone for this, but it is definitely worth it! If you make a mistake, get a word wrong or if you are not understood – laugh! You will have learnt how not to say it and it’s a lesson learnt for next time! 😀
How do you learn words best? What experiences have you had in doing it? Have you got any funny words you have confused? Or is there a word that sticks out to you in a language like “ufuk” in Turkish does for me?