1. How to Learn Vocabulary in 12 Steps (using science!)

    I’m not taking any language courses right now, but I’ve taken quite a few and I have a system for learning large amounts of vocabulary pretty quickly and effectively (i.e. so you’ll remember it later) that I thought might be useful to share since it’s exam season for at least some of the population. 



    Step 1: Get some paper, and divide each page into two columns (see pictures above of my old Latin notes). Group your words somehow that makes sense to you: by lexical category (nouns/verb/etc), by inflection type (e.g. verbs that take similar conjugation endings, nouns by gender), by textbook chapter (especially for chapter-specific vocab quizzes), or by related topics (e.g family members, things around the house). EDIT: you could also use flashcards here, although personally I’m not a fan. Make sure to do groupings though, they’ll be important later.

    Step 2: Write each word in the language you’re learning in column 1, with its translation(s) in column 2 (or if you’re learning more vocabulary in your native language, put definitions in column 2). You can also put extra information by the word, like its gender or conjugation type, irregular things about it, etc. Whatever you need/want to know about it. You could draw pictures in the translation column, but I find that this ends up taking more time and being less effective in the long run. Don’t worry, you’re going to move past translation by the end anyway.

    Step 3: Cover all the words in the translation column with your hand or another piece of paper. Starting at the top of the other column, read each word out loud and try to say its translation out loud. Guess if you can. You’ll probably know at least some of them from class and from making the lists.

    If you’re finding that you hardly know any, stop, and read the whole group of words out loud to yourself, alternating between the language and the translation. Then cover the translation column and try again.

    Once you’ve guessed a word’s translation, uncover the translation for that word that you wrote down and see if you’re right. Put a light pencil mark by a word you didn’t get or weren’t confident about.

    Keep going, and go through all the words in the list this way. If a word has multiple possible translations, you’ll need to decide for yourself whether you need to know just one, some, or all of them. 

    Step 4: Now you have a list of words where some have pencil marks beside them and others don’t. For each word with a mark, think about a way you could associate it with its translation. Does it share some sounds? Does it remind you of some other related word in any language? Can you make some other silly mnemonic connection? When every word has an association, cover up the translations and go through just the marked words again, trying to recall each one. 

    Step 5: Go through the whole list again with the translations covered up, saying each word and translation and uncovering after you guess. This time, you can erase the pencil mark beside any word that you remember (and add a pencil mark if you forget a word you knew on the previous run-through). Keep running through steps 3-5 until you no longer have pencil marks beside the words. 

    You can stop here if all you need is recognition vocabulary, i.e. if you’re only ever going to want to translate from the language you’re learning and not into it or to write anything in it directly. However, this is probably not the case. So do this set of steps for each sub-group or list of words you made, then proceed to the next phase. 

    Step 6: Repeat steps 3-5, but now cover up the language you’re learning and try to recall it from the translations. This is harder, because you have to remember how to spell things (or at least how to pronounce them clearly if you have a one-to-one spelling system). You also need to remember for each word any additional information you added, like associated irregular forms, gender, etc. However, you should already know some of them from going in the other direction.

    Tips: Make sure you’re saying everything out loud (picture the spelling in your head if it helps). I find pacing around the room with the piece of paper in my hand is also very useful (engages the kinesthetic side, and reduces technology-distractions). You may need to revise some of your associations/mnemonics if they’re not memorable enough.

    If you have several sub-lists, I like to get all the lists (up to about 50 words) to this stage before proceeding. If you do this, then when you’ve gotten all lists here, refresh  each list with another quick go-through (say words aloud) before the next step.

    Once you can get through the whole list with either side covered up, now it’s time for the third phase that really solidifies things.

    Step 7: Count how many words are in each group or sub-group. For example, you might have 3 main irregular verbs, 5 modals, 8 reflexive verbs, 15 verbs of coming and going, and so on. Or maybe: 10 family members, 12 body parts, 7 drinks, 14 fruits and vegetables, etc. You probably want to keep your sub-groups under about 10-15 in size.  Ideally, you should also find the names of the groups in the language you’re learning.

    Step 8: Now you’re going to try to recall (say out loud) as many words in each category as possible. The only trigger information you get is the name of the category and the number of items in it (write this down on a scrap of paper if you want). At this point it will be basically unnecessary to say the translation as well, because you internalized that a long time ago, so focus on saying each word in the language (along with any associated information like gender or type). Keep track on your fingers of how many you’re remembering, and when you can’t think of any more, check the list. If you manage to say a word but you can’t remember what it means, check this too. 

    Step 9: Keep trying to recall all of the words in a group together and checking if you can’t, until you can remember them all without checking. 

    Step 10: Go do something else. Preferably sleeping/napping, because studies have shown that sleeping helps consolidate memory. But you could also have a meal, take a shower, go for a walk, talk to someone, do something that constitutes a break for at least an hour and up to overnight where you’re not really thinking about language-related things. (Reading or catchy songs are probably not great here, much as I love ‘em both. Better would be something visual or physical - make something! clean up! cook food!) But the main thing is you need to give your subconscious some time to process all the stuff you just learned while at the same time giving your conscious a break. Don’t try to write an essay or study something else. 

    Step 11: When you wake up from your nap or finish baking those cookies or whatever else you decided to do, go through your words again. Don’t look at the lists yet. First try to recall them all out loud from just the group name and number of items in it. Check the list when you’ve recalled as many words as you can. At first just check the translation side and see if that triggers the other one. Keep recalling and checking until you can remember all of the words. 

    Step 12: Repeat step 11 the next day. At this point it should be fairly easy. Do it again a couple of days/weeks later if you want to remember the words for the long term. Repeat step 11 about an hour before a test.

    Advice on timing: If I were studying for a quiz (1-2 chapters of vocab) I would do steps 1-9 the day/night before, do something else for an hour, and then do step 11 just before going to bed, when I woke up, and again a bit before the quiz if it wasn’t first thing in the morning. For a longer exam, if I had done this process for all the quizzes, then I would just go through steps 6-11 the day before the exam and 11 again in the morning or slightly before. If I hadn’t, I would start a couple days in advance. Maybe do steps 1-5 or 1-6 one day and then go all the way to 11 the next, or go through the whole 1-11 for a new set of words each day. 

    Notes on the science: This process combines elements of no-stakes quizzing and feedback, spaced repetition, multi-modal learning (auditory/visual), sleep studies, and my own experience studying nearly a dozen languages. The part where you recall words independent-from-stimulus in groups is a key step for several reasons:

    Reason #1: The least memorable information (aka the quickest forgotten) is how many words are in each group. Fortunately, you don’t actually care if you remember this information, so by overlearning this part you end up remembering what each word means almost incidentally.

    Reason #2: Remembering related words can help you even if you forget the word you’re looking for. So if you can’t remember “apple” but you get “fruit” or “orange”, this is still useful. Or if you can’t remember the gender or conjugation group of a particular word, but you can remember the traits of a word it’s associated with, again this is useful.

    Reason #3: Recalling words based on essentially zero information other than “uhhh…I know there’s a word related to this topic somewhere” mimics as closely as possible the experience of actually trying to remember a word in context. Although you will have to actually practise conversations themselves if you want to get good at them.

    These steps are designed for vocabulary tests and other situations where knowing/recognizing more words is useful. For help speaking, check out 12 ways to stop freezing up when you try to speak a second language. If you’ve given up on learning a second language, try Now you’re just a language that I used to know (Gotye parody)

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