The Fail-Safe Way To Learn Foreign Language Vocabulary
- Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW
Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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.
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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