Published: Jul 7, 2023 | By: Lucas Weaver
Remembering vocabulary when you need it is one of the most essential skills for language learners. Nothing is more frustrating than spending valuable hours of your free time learning a new language, only to have your brain draw a blank when you actually try to speak it.
But fear not friends, with the right strategies and methods, you won't have to deal with this frustration ever again. Here, I'll discuss some simple but proven to be effective techniques for making sure you remember all of those new vocabulary words you're learning exactly when you need them.
The process that’s responsible for remembering vocabulary words when you need them is called “memory recall.” Memory recall is a complex process that involves various neurological mechanisms. When it comes to the neuroscience behind memory recall, there are several key factors to consider.
Firstly, memory recall is closely tied to the brain's ability to encode, store, and retrieve information. When you learn new vocabulary words, your brain goes through a process called encoding, where it converts the information into a format that can be stored. This encoding process is influenced by factors such as attention, repetition, and emotional significance.
Once the information is encoded and stored in your brain, the process of memory recall involves retrieving that information from your memory storage. This retrieval process can be influenced by various factors, including context, cues, and associations.
Neurons play a crucial role in memory recall. When you learn new vocabulary words, the connections between neurons in your brain are strengthened. These connections, known as synapses, form the basis of memory storage. When you need to recall a specific word, your brain activates the neural pathways associated with that word, leading to its retrieval.
Additionally, the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in memory formation and consolidation, plays a significant role in memory recall. It helps to organize and retrieve memories, particularly episodic memories, which include personal experiences and events.
Overall, memory recall is a complex process influenced by various neurological mechanisms, including encoding, storage, retrieval, neural connections, and the involvement of specific brain regions like the hippocampus. Understanding these processes can help language learners develop effective strategies for remembering vocabulary when they need it.
Luckily for us, neuroscience provides valuable insights into how we can physically aid our brains in this process. It might sound silly at first, but it’s not much different from making sure you do warm-up sets at the gym before exercising, or stretching before you run. Your brain is a physical part of your body that functions in a certain way. By learning how it best functions for the task of learning, you can make sure to set it up for success so that you can learn the information faster and recall it easier, since again, these are just physical processes in your brain.
When faced with large amounts of information, our brains often struggle to process and retain it effectively. However, by employing a technique called "chunking," you can transform this overwhelming task into more manageable smaller ones.
Chunking involves breaking down information into smaller, meaningful units, allowing your brain to store and retrieve it more efficiently. How does it benefit you? By organizing information into smaller chunks, you create a mental filing system that your brain can navigate with less effort.
Think of it like organizing your file system on your computer. If you had all of your files in just one folder, it would be insanely difficult to find the ones you need quickly when you need them. It’s similar with storing information in your brain.
This chunking approach optimizes the brain's ability to process, encode, and recall information, making it easier for you to store and retrieve what you've learned. Whether it's studying new vocabulary for exams or absorbing complex engineering concepts, chunking empowers your brain to store information in a way that leads to seamless recall later.
Did you know that engaging multiple senses during the learning process can significantly enhance your memory recall? Instead of relying solely on reading or listening, incorporating visual aids, auditory cues, and even physical movements can create a rich sensory experience that activates multiple regions in your brain.
I won’t cover the full concept in-depth here, but I covered it extensively in my post about the best way to learn a language according to science. Essentially, finding ways to use more senses than just one when learning vocabulary makes the learning process a more natural one for your brain and has enormous effects on memory retention and recall.
How does this multisensory learning benefit you? When you involve more senses in the learning process, you create multiple pathways for the information to be stored in your brain. By utilizing visual aids, such as diagrams or mind maps, and explaining the material out loud, you reinforce neural connections associated with the information. This multisensory approach enhances memory encoding and retrieval, enabling you to remember and recall information more easily and accurately.
Imagine studying a new language hard for hours, only to find yourself struggling to recall key words when you start speaking it in a real-life situation. This frustration of course happens to everyone every now and then, and the main way to prevent it is to actually practice speaking the words you’re learning, rather than just memorizing them.
But this frustration can also be lessened by incorporating “retrieval techniques” into your learning routine. Retrieval practice involves actively recalling information from your memory on a regular basis, thereby strengthening the neural connections associated with that information.
How does it benefit you? By engaging in techniques like flashcards, quizzes, or spaced repetition, you actively exercise your brain's memory retrieval process. This practice strengthens the neural networks involved in encoding and retrieving information, making it easier for you to recall and retain what you've learned. Embracing retrieval techniques helps solidify your knowledge and enhances your brain's ability to retrieve information when you need it most.
It’s one thing to be presented with new information. It’s another thing to actually learn it. You might memorize a set of vocabulary words initially, but that might only be in your short-term memory. By reviewing the words frequently every few days until you commit them to long-term memory, the words will be more readily available to you when you need them.
Mnemonic devices can be a useful tool in remembering vocabulary when you’re in a pinch. It’s a topic I haven’t discussed much in related posts I’ve written on this topic, so let’s explore it a bit here.
First of all, mnemonic devices are powerful tools that can significantly enhance your vocabulary learning by providing memorable associations between new words and your existing knowledge or mental imagery. These devices leverage your brain's natural ability to remember vivid and unique information by associating it with something familiar or easy to recall.
Mnemonic devices provide a creative and engaging way to remember and internalize vocabulary. By leveraging associations, acronyms, mental imagery, or spatial memory, you tap into your brain's capacity for recall and create strong connections between new words and existing knowledge.
There are several easy and practical techniques that you can use to make use of mnemonic devices and improve the formation and recall of vocabulary words.
Mnemonic devices are memory aids that help learners remember information more effectively. Here are three mnemonic techniques that language learners can use to enhance their memory recall:
Acronyms: One effective way to remember vocabulary words is to create acronyms. An acronym is a word formed by the first letters of a group of words. For example, if you want to remember the Spanish words for "to eat" (comer) and "to drink" (beber), you can create the acronym CEBD (comer eat beber drink). By associating this acronym with the words, you can easily recall them when needed.
Association with images or stories: Another technique is to associate vocabulary words with vivid images or stories. Our brains are wired to remember visual information better than plain text. For instance, if you want to remember the French word for "cat" (chat), you can visualize a cat playing with a ball of yarn in front of the Eiffel Tower while saying the word out loud. This visual or narrative association will help you remember the word more effectively.
By incorporating these mnemonic techniques into your language learning routine, you can improve the formation and recall of vocabulary words. Remember to be creative and have fun with these techniques, as they can make the learning process more enjoyable and effective.
In my in-depth post on how to memorize vocabulary, I discuss flashcards at length. 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.
By taking advantage of spaced repetition like we discussed before, you can use flashcards to make sure you commit information to long-term memory, helping you remember the information down the road when you need it.
If you’re interested in learning more about memorizing vocabulary, you should definitely check out that post.
Learning new vocabulary is one of the cornerstones of all language learning. It’s also an essential task in almost all university programs. Since there are many factors that go into it, I’ve tried my best to cover each one in a unique way that tackles that specific aspect individually.
Hopefully after reading this post, you feel confident with how you can most effectively go about making sure you can remember vocabulary words when you need them. If not and you still need help, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to help you further.
Thanks for reading and good luck in your language learning journey.
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.