Published: Dec 8, 2022 | By: Lucas Weaver
Anytime you want to learn a new language, memorizing new vocabulary words will be crucial. Unfortunately for those vocabulary learners with busy lives, there are no magic pills.
However, there are techniques for memorizing vocabulary backed by science that have been proven to help you memorize words faster, and actually retain the knowledge for the long term.
This post will mainly focus on vocabulary memorization from a language-learning perspective, but the techniques discussed can still be applied to a number of other contexts, from medical school to legal terminology.
I'll cover the science behind how your brain learns new words, as well as how you can take advantage of that science to use learning methods that take advantage of that neuroscience. If you're not interested in the science and just want the memorization techniques, you can scan the table of contents below to skip to any individual parts that are more relevant to you, starting with "4 components of vocabulary memorization."
Table of contents:
When speaking a foreign language in real-life situations, you will regularly encounter moments where you can't remember a word you want to say.
This is because even though you know the meaning of a word conceptually or when you hear it in context, you may not have fully mastered the use of the word.
The reason is that there are many levels of "knowing" a word, and a different area of the brain controls each level.
The part of the brain that controls retrieving and using words in the correct context is the prefrontal cortex.
When we speak or write, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for selecting the appropriate words and organizing them into clear sentences. This process involves several different brain regions working together in a complex way, including the temporal lobe and the parietal lobe.
Suppose we actually know the meaning of a word and can use it correctly in a sentence. That means that this neural process in the brain with that word has been developed enough.
However, we still might not have the ability to use the word right when we need it when speaking to someone in-person.
The cerebellum is the part of the brain responsible for using your mouth, lips, and throat to speak a word out loud, including pronunciation, accent, and more.
When we speak, the cerebellum receives input from the motor cortex, which contains the instructions for the specific movements needed to produce the sounds of a particular word or language.
The cerebellum then uses this information to coordinate the movements of the facial, mouth, and throat muscles to produce the sounds of the words we are trying to say. This coordination is essential for producing clear and accurate speech.
Therefore, even when we understand a word, we may not be ready to speak the word yet. So when we talk about learning new vocabulary words, we're using one term to group together multiple complicated processes.
Anyone who has ever learned a new language before traveling to a new country can attest to the experience of not being able to use the language that you think you've already learned.
After studying Spanish for over a year when I lived in the Netherlands, I was excited to return to Spain and use my Spanish skills in real life. However, when I tried to speak, it wasn't working.
Even though I knew the words to say, I couldn't get them to come out. I walked up to the counter in Barcelona, wanting to ask for help about which bus to take, and I quickly had to revert to English.
I was admittedly more than a bit frustrated. However, after spending a few days in Barcelona, I noticed the words started flowing more freely. The connection between thinking of words and then being able to speak them out loud was happening more quickly and easily.
Now, all of the Spanish language I knew was bubbling up from under the surface and becoming readily available for me to use in conversation.
Even though I had learned a lot of the Spanish language by completing the first three levels of the Pimsleur Spanish listen and repeat courses, I had not taken any classes that required speaking. I had also not sought out any other places to speak Spanish consistently.
Therefore, when it came time to use the vocabulary I had learned, the neural pathways in my brain that controlled my ability to speak Spanish were not entirely as developed as they needed to be.
The good news was that it took me only a little bit of time of practicing speaking Spanish in real-life situations to start improving quickly.
Now even though you won't be able to use your new words effectively just because you've memorized them, you still have to start somewhere.
Conceptualizing the new words and memorizing the new vocabulary is an essential first step.
After all, you can only try to practice speaking words if you know the words to begin with.
So our first step, and why you're here reading this post, is to start by memorizing vocabulary.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is primarily involved in the formation of new memories. When we study new words when learning a new language, the hippocampus encodes this information and stores it in our long-term memory.
This process is essential for language learning, as it allows us to retain new words and use them correctly in the future.
The exact way the hippocampus encodes information and stores it in our long-term memory has yet to be discovered.
It is thought to involve the creation of new neural connections, or synapses, between neurons in the hippocampus.
When we try to learn a new word in a foreign language, the hippocampus may encode this information by strengthening the connections between the neurons that represent that word.
Over time, these connections may become consolidated, enabling the words to be stored in our long-term memory. The hippocampus may also play a role in retrieving words from our long-term memory. This is crucial for using the word correctly in the future.
There are four essential aspects to memorizing new words. These four components involve all the neurological processes and steps we've already discussed.
Repetition is the father of learning and is undoubtedly one of the keys to language learning. When looking for the best technique to memorize vocabulary, you need to make sure the method allows for generating as many repetitions as possible. This is why flashcards are such an effective learning technique to memorize vocabulary.
Association involves connecting the words to their meanings. When you memorize new vocabulary at the beginning of learning a foreign language, you will translate the words back into your native language. Contrary to what some may say, this is okay in the beginning, as the highest priority in the beginning stage is to learn new words. The more you understand your target language, though, and the better you get with it, the more you'll be able to add context to terms and connect them to other words and meanings in the target language. At this point, you should stop translating back to your native language and start to strengthen your neural pathways in the foreign language.
Adding on to what we just said in 'Association,' when we start to use the words more fluidly, we can build out our memorization of words by connecting them to more words and meanings in the same language. This will help us to avoid searching for words in conversation later and help us to stop translating.
The great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden famously said, "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." And that couldn't be more true in language learning. Practice will help you memorize vocabulary. But when it comes to speaking your new language fluidly without making mistakes, you need someone to guide you through your journey so you form good habits early on and can practice these.
The best friend of college students everywhere, flashcards are an effective tried-and-true method for memorizing vocabulary words.
The process of using flashcards usually involves creating a set of cards with the word on one side and the definition or translation on the other. You can then go through the cards, trying to recall the meaning of each word and checking your answer against the word's definition on the back of the card. This process can help to reinforce the meaning of the words and commit them to memory.
If you're learning a language at the complete beginner level, like learning basic Korean, I recommend you use flashcards where you put the translation on the back.
Since you don't know any Korean words at this point, it wouldn't help you to put the Korean definition on the back because you don't know what any of those words mean either.
If you're a B1 or higher level learner of a language you're already quite familiar with, like an intermediate-level English learner, your best technique would be to put the target word on one side and the definition in English of that word on the other side.
This helps you build out the context and neural network in the target language, and it's how we design the included flashcards for our more advanced online English courses.
There's no hard and fast rule about how many flashcards you should study at one time. It depends on your intelligence level, speed, and ability to process information.
We structure our courses to include 15 required new vocabulary words per week. Still, we encourage students to read outside of class and look up any words they don't know.
The more you study a new language, the more you learn about your learning capacity. Try and learn as many per week as keeps you slightly uncomfortable but not overloaded.
The best answer for this is to study them when you will be most consistent. Whether that time is first thing in the morning or last thing at night, staying consistent and not skipping study sessions is crucial.
Pro tip: One technique that will help you if you're taking live courses or lessons with a teacher or other students is to review your flashcards right before your lesson starts.
The reason for this is because even when you study consistently, you'll usually find a bit of rust when your lesson first starts, and you'll have that "Ah man, I knew that word!" moment. To prevent this, if you brush up on your flashcards just before your lesson starts, you can remember vocabulary terms from the very beginning of your lesson.
The short answer is until you know the words. If you don't remember vocabulary words when you need them, that's a clue that you need to study more. Depending on the difficulty of the vocabulary, you will need to adjust the frequency of studying.
For example, if you're trying to memorize vocabulary from complicated medical terms, you might need to study more or use more advanced memory techniques. Again, adjust your study habits until you routinely remember the words you are learning when you need them.
Spaced repetition is a learning technique that involves increasing the period of time between reviewing previously learned material.
It's based on the knowledge that our brains can better store information in long-term memory if we review new material at increasing intervals rather than trying to learn it all at once and then forget it soon after.
Spaced repetition can be used to learn new vocabulary words faster and more effectively as a memorization technique for vocabulary learning. The idea is to review the words regularly but with increasing periods between each review.
For example, you might review a new word on day 1, then again on day 3, day 7, day 14, and further. This spaced repetition helps reinforce the meaning of the word in your memory. It makes it easier to remember over time.
Spaced repetition can be used as a memory technique for your vocabulary study in various ways.
For example, if you're using flashcards, you might use an app that incorporates spaced repetition into your lesson plan. Additionally, you can incorporate spaced repetition into your regular study routine by setting aside regular review sessions and slowly increasing the intervals between your reviews.
Visualization is a way you can learn new vocabulary faster. The idea is to create a mental image or association for each new word that will help to make the word more meaningful and memorable for you.
For instance, if you are trying to learn the word "sweater," you might visualize someone interesting wearing a sweater. This mental image can help to reinforce the meaning of the word and make it easier to remember.
It helps you connect to other words since you can also visualize the person wearing a bow tie, a hat, or something else that might contextually connect with the word sweater.
Here are some helpful tips for using visualization to learn new vocabulary words:
Using memorization techniques like visualization can make your studies more effective and enjoyable.
Writing down new vocabulary words can be a helpful technique for learning and reinforcing their meaning. Writing the words down by hand can help support the spelling and meaning of the terms and make them easier to remember.
For me, while learning Korean while living in Seoul, writing helped speed up my process of learning new words.
When learning a language like Korean with a non-Latin alphabet, writing down new words is essential anyway because you can't write them in the Latin alphabet.
But by writing the words down, I noticed the added benefit that I remembered the words I wrote down much easier than the ones I didn't.
Here are some things to keep in mind for using writing as a way to memorize vocabulary words:
Incorporating writing into your vocabulary study routine can make learning more effective and enjoyable.
Testing is a technique proven to be one of the most important activities you can do to learn new information.
The idea is to regularly test yourself on the words you want to memorize to reinforce their meaning and improve your ability to remember them. This can be done in various ways, such as using flashcards and quizzes or enrolling in online language lessons like ours that include consistent testing as part of its lesson plan.
Here are some tips for using testing to memorize vocabulary:
By incorporating regular testing into your vocabulary study routine, you can make your learning process more effective and improve your ability to recall and use new words.
A recent study in humans has shown that you can increase your learning speed by 10X (or more) by tapping into a process in the brain called "neural replay" using a phenomenon called "the spacing effect."
Neural replay is a process in the brain during sleep involving the reactivation of neural activity that was present during a recent learning experience. This "replay" occurs during certain stages of sleep and is thought to play a role in the storage and formation of new memories.
The spacing effect has traditionally referred to where instead of having long uninterrupted learning sessions, you instead break lessons up into shorter sessions with breaks in between.
For example, if you have a one-hour long lesson and take semi-frequent breaks throughout the lesson of at least 10 seconds, you can enhance the effectiveness of the learning.
Even as long ago as 1885, German psychologist Herrmann Ebbinghaus found in one of his memory experiments that 38 learning repetitions distributed over three days resulted in the same memory performance as with 68 repetitions all at once (Ebbinghaus, 1913).
In the recent study we mentioned, researchers showed a 10X increase in subjects' ability to learn keyboard typing by taking short 10-second breaks after around every 30 seconds of practicing.
During the 10-second breaks, subjects were directed to do absolutely nothing.
The researchers found that during these 10-second breaks, the subjects' brains were replaying the learning repetitions they had just been doing for the past 30 seconds, doing what can be thought of as "simulated repetitions."
This meant that subjects were tapping into neural replay while awake and during their learning session. The same neural replay that was previously only thought to occur during sleep.
Taking random 10-second breaks when studying new vocabulary, such as when studying flashcards or doing listen-and-repeat exercises, will allow your brain to replay those repetitions you just completed.
By taking these short breaks, you're taking advantage of proven memory techniques to improve your language learning ability. You're giving your brain the chance to do the same thing it usually does during sleep and simulate doing many more repetitions of the flashcard or exercise than you could normally do, which will help you memorize the words faster.
As we said earlier, the way you reach higher levels of a foreign language is to learn new words and how to use and speak them correctly. It's pretty simple.
The process behind that is complex, however. When trying to learn and memorize new vocabulary, the neural processes in your brain are complex and take time and effort. But don't stress.
Our language courses were built with this complex neuroscience in mind but designed to make it simple for you to learn new languages effectively.
In your program, you'll receive weekly flashcards for your new vocabulary, weekly quizzes, and monthly tests.
We've carefully considered all the details, so you don't have to think about it.
If you're ready to reach fluency in your target language, sign up for an account with us today and enroll in one of our online English courses or Thai classes online to start your path to fluency. We'll be here to help you every step of the way.
Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.