The Fail-Safe Way To Learn Foreign Language Vocabulary

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
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The Fail-Safe Way To Learn Foreign Language Vocabulary

Recently I started another course of university study in teaching/education (sucker for punishment!) which has been a great chance to delve deeper into memory and cognition.

It’s one thing we covered in Applied Linguistics and I find the whole subject of memory to be such a fascinating thing – especially as a language learner since so much to do with language learning revolves around our ability to remember things.

Learning a language is a huge memory challenge.

I’ve used my own methods for memorization for a long time which have helped me learn many languages but it’s always such a tricky thing to articulate to other people.

I use the word chunking quite a lot but it’s an awful sounding word and doesn’t mean much to most people.

So let me explain it a different way in relation to memory and vocabulary.

Believe me – if you can grasp this then you’ll learn vocabulary a lot faster and more effectively.

How many new words can our brains handle at a time?

Most of us are pretty much generally aware that we have a short and long term memory.

Long term memory is where we want everything to go. When a word ends up there it means we’ve learned it.

Memory’s a really complicated topic but one thing I want to talk to you about is our short term memory capacity. How much stuff can our short-term memory actually hold at any one time?

Your short-term memory is basically what your brain is currently working on.

Transient information.

It’s transient because it’s moving from a temporary storage space to a long-term/permanent space (or at least it’s supposed to).

So think of your long term memory as a huge filing cabinet in your brain and your short term memory as a desk where you sort things out before they get filed away.

Sometimes they don’t make it to the filing cabinet however and just end up on the floor – forgotten.

The more stuff you pile on to that small desk, the more of it falls on to the floor and gets lost.

The significance of seven

Take a look at these numbers:

8 5 4 5 2 2 2 3 9 8 3 4 5 6 7 1 0 0 0 5 2 3 2 1 7 1 6 5

There are 28 numbers in this row.

Could you remember them all in order?

It would be very difficult for most people to remember all these numbers long term without a significant amount of time to rote memorize them.

But if I did this:

8545 | 2223 | 9834 | 5671 | 0005 | 2321 | 7165

Suddenly it’s not so difficult. 🙂

You could memorize these numbers in sequence very very quickly.

It’s generally agreed that your short term memory can handle about 7 individual items/chunks at any given time (give or take).

When you look at those individual numbers – 28 of them – your brain has a freak out because it’s trying to process 28 chunks of separate information which is more than it can handle at one time.

But when you group those numbers like I’ve done here, instead of memorizing 8 5 4 and 5 you’re memorizing 8545.

This is a chunk.

So by grouping those numbers you’re dealing with 7 chunks rather than 28.

It’s manageable and much easier to memorize.

You’ll have a far more effective study time if you focus on just a few words a day and learn them really well than if you try and cram a dictionary into your head.

As I always say – study for no more than 30 minutes a day and focus on 5 – 8 new words maximum.

Any more and you’re wasting time.

Turn lists of vocabulary into manageable chunks

Now we can actually take the concept of chunking a step further and group words into manageable chunks.

This means that memorizing a whole phrase like at the shop is much better than memorizing three words – at + the + shop.

Likewise, it’s better to learn the whole sentence Mary is at the shop than it is to learn Mary + is + at the shop.

So let’s say you have a bunch of new vocabulary that you’re trying to learn today.

Here are some random, unrelated ones:

Elephant, building, acknowledge, written, blue, desert, train, fat

If we create a single sentence out of all of these words:

The fat elephant on the train acknowledged what was written on the blue building in the desert.

We’ve taken those individual parts and made them much easier to remember as a large, single unit/chunk.

Rather than memorizing a list of individual words you’re memorizing one single sentence.

And the silliness of the sentence actually makes remembering it even easier.

So as an activity for you to practice, the next time you’re learning a list of new vocabulary, try to create whole sentences or phrases out of them and learn them that way.

The crazier and sillier the sentence the better!

The important thing to remember is that you’re condensing lots of individual parts down to one or just a few larger chunks.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Great idea. One way to amp it up would be to then record these short stories (have a native speaker record them) and put them on the ipod to listen to in the future. Building up hours of these very short but very fun stories would give you an simple way to review during your day.



While learning Korea, each day I would take the two or three line dialogue (new vocab and structure build in), personalize and write it in a language journal similar to your method, then practice speaking it right away by trying to naturally squeeze it in to a conversation with the next Korean I saw (a fun challenge).

That was one of the most beneficial regiments I've ever done.



I’ve always supported learning and practicing set phrases in context. In my opinion vocabulary should be learned and practiced first through input (listening and reading), and then used through output (speaking and writing) on each real life topic. But vocabulary is a broad concept; it includes not only phrases, but also separate words, idioms, proverbs, sayings, etc.

My idea below may be important to you to improve your language materials.
As you know word combinations in speaking are unpredictable. There are different word collocations/phrases and synonyms to convey a thought in a language.

It’s possible to encompass in ready-made materials a wide variety of phrases for each conversation topic. It is a good idea to prepare a potential list of phrases with sentences on each conversation topic, for example fixed conversational phrases that do not require English grammar knowledge (greetings, forms of addressing a person, thanks, well-wishing, apology, agreeing, disagreeing, emotions, etc.). Practicing with such materials can help a learner easier choose the most appropriate word combinations to convey a thought. Multiple frequent reading of such sentences will gradually ensure firm memorization of vocabulary and contribute to developing good speaking skills.

By combining the most inclusive phrase books, conversation books, general English thematic dictionaries, software, audio and video aids and websites you can create the most practical and thorough content for mastering each conversation topic in English for all levels including a wide selection of ready-to-use phrases, vocabulary and sentences for daily use. Your own ready-made materials could be superior to (more helpful than) any conversation book or a phrase book in terms of useful comprehensive content and vocabulary.



That actually very good tip
"Write out a one sentence or one paragraph narrative using all those words."
I'll remember it next time I teach Arabic to my students.
By the way, I'd like to present a 12 extra tips to learn new language if you don't mind.



I love this method. The curious thing is, the more nonsensical situations you imagine, longer will be your memory. Imagine complete absurd, illogical situations.



insanely helpful. i have been lazy with learning chinese vocab because I always feel like I always forget it but the fact you said 8 words max kind of relieves me and makes sense.



I like your point about numbers in chunks. I'm currently living in Spain and I have to rattle my phone number off in Spanish quite often. But I never say it in English. Because of that I actually have to recite it to myself in Spanish before translating it to English. On another note, I wonder why we chunk phone number into different patterns in different countries...

Bill Budd

Bill Budd

Language learning is in a very sorry condition. It is the language polyglots who have new and meaningful ideas for learning languages but there is little to no follow through from them. And what is there is modivated by greed! Why didn't Mr. Nagel follow through and offer some seven work sentences that are memorable for learning some foreign words in say german, french or spanish. That would be really helpful but no, the concept is offered with no follow through. Thanks for nothing Mr. Nagel. On the other hand there is this Luca Lamperareo guy that offers his ideas on learning vocab but at a very steap price. Your greed Luca is disgusting. Call it greed, lazyness or what ever, but the polyglots are not being very helpful to to the people who are struggling to learn a new language and that is a very sad state of affairs. The alternative is to take a foreign language at a school or college but that is even worse. They give you lists of vocabulary words to memorize but no method for memorizing them.



This is such a great article with super strategies. Thank you so much for sharing all this with the world. I'm sure there are language learner out there that will treasure this info! Keep up the great work!!

Bill Budd

Bill Budd

The academic world thinks that if you teach people vocabulary and grammar, students will string words together correctly and speak the language. That works less than 20% of the time. On the other hand, babies and young children simply “listen and repeat” language and that works every time. Why can’ t the academic world get their act together? Because college courses follow the lesson plan provided by a text book that is published to make money, as opposed to actually teaching a language in an effective way. Throw the text book away, walk in the class room and say something in a foreign language. Then tell the students what it means and ask then to repeat it. Do it again, and again for the full 50 minute session and you have an effective foreign language course. Will the department allow that teaching method? Not very likely, but it does work.

William Budd

William Budd

My mind decides what it will remember and what it doesn't and I cannot change that. Furthermore, it saves the memorable and important events such as where were you when you foundout that president John F. Kennidy was killed, and discards the ordinary, such as what is the German word for he is. We remember what happened in a striking movie but not what we ate for lunch last year on this date. Most of the advice for learning foreign language is based on tricking or overwehlming thru repetition, the mind into remembering what we want it to remember, and in most cases that just doesn't work. What we need is to experience vivid experiences where the vocabulary we want to learn is involved and will therefore become part of our memory of the experience. VR to the rescue. We need short stories that use new vocabulary in a memorable way, filmed in VR because VR makes any experience vivid and memorable. Of course these kinds of tools don't make money for textbook publishers so we will likely never get that kind of help.



There are a lot words I knew but the main reason I lose them is that I don't know when I should use them and then when I don’t use them I lose them completely!!! Undrestand each word with all states of it is so importand, we really need to know when we need to use adjective,noun,adverb,or something else and that is one of the most hard part of learning English and use them in our sentences.



I agree with completely "chunk" idea or concept, but I believe there is advanced concept of chunk, what I call pattern.
I would give an example in German
Eingang : entrance
Durchgang: passage
Ausgang :exist
This an easy pattern. It is easy to memorize and visualize it.
Another example
Essen: to eate
Naschen: to eat a little bit
Fressen: when an animal eat
Versclingen: to eat in big bites
Aufessen: to eat till you finish
Rauben: to prey
... Etc
As you see it is all related to "eat" sometimes it "how" differs and sometimes "who, the subject" differs
Learners learn vocabularies either individual words or topic-based.
The problem with topic-based learning is there are overlaps, which bring us back partly to first issue.

Jane Brunton

Jane Brunton

I am so grateful for all the effort you put into helping us learn another language or two.

The time and effort you put into providing such great resources to us is remarkable.

Thanks so much.

I just send you a link on what Irish Gaelic has contributed to New York (and possibly many other place's) slang. I thought seeing the way we have "bastardized" the original Gaelic word might also be a sort of study aid.

Sabina Seidel

Sabina Seidel

Thanks for sharing - that's a really easy way to think about chunking!

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Vernon Jones

Vernon Jones

Thank you for taking the time to share this.
I am HOPELESS with languages, words will not stick in my head very well.
I paint, am good at making stuff, problem solving, but language is my downfall.

I will try this method because retaining words I try to learn are gone almost instantly, to my shame sometimes.

Maybe the key for me is to get creative, use my imagination, have fun with it.
If I can learn what I have been trying to learn for years with your method anyone can.
Thank you again.
I appreciate your effort.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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