An overview of the science and strategies for long-term vocabulary memorization. Everything you need to know to memorize vocabulary and never forget it.
Inadequate strategies lead to inadequate results
Effective and long-term vocabulary learning is something a lot of learners misunderstand. We are fed a lot of myths about retention and how best to memorize new words. "Repeat them to yourself before going to bed", recommend some. "Write it 100 times", recommend the others. While all these methods might help you in creating some memory, this memory won’t be resilient and lasting. But learning these words and never forgetting them is exactly our goal. So what do we get wrong?
Often the vocabulary-learning strategies that we use are ineffective.
I interviewed a bunch of German learners and many reported that they usually write down the new vocab in a notebook as a list. Some diligent ones even add an example sentence. They might go over this list a few times and pronounce each word out loud 10 times. Yet as the list keeps growing, they actually don’t have enough time to make sure that they solidified the words in their memory. There is also no way to track and confirm it. What we end up with is a notebook full of useful words and phrases which we don't actually remember.
We might resort to strategies which are hard to maintain.
Some of the learners create physical flashcards. Flashcards can be quite effective if used correctly, but creating physical cards and carrying them around is not something quite effortless. As a result, the gained effectiveness is lost to the inconsistency the method brings.
We use digital tools designed for other use cases.
My interviews, facebook and reddit discussions also showed that people might turn to some tools not designed for long-term language learning. For example, quizlet or cram apps. Both were created for students to cram before exams. So their algorithms are optimized around creating a “bright short-term memory” which is enough to clear an exam but is ephemeral These tools are effective at solving the “oh shit, I have an exam in 3 days!” use case but not so much “I want to learn these words and never forget them!” use case. Here is an excerpt from the Quizlet Tech team:
Research shows that the most effective way to learn involves spreading studying out over a long period of time and reviewing terms with longer and longer delays each time, a process known as spaced repetition. However, students don’t always have the luxury of spending days or weeks repeatedly reviewing material. They’ve got a test tomorrow, and they need to learn the material now.
Why exactly can’t we review the vocabulary just once and remember it forever?
That’s because our memories tend to fade away over time and the weaker a memory, the faster and starker its disintegration. As a language learner, you are in a race against time and your brain's tendency to weed out everything that it considers irrelevant. Something we call the Ebbinghaus effect.
Long story short, he ran a few experiments that involved memorization back in the 19th century. Through these experiments, he discovered that the information we learn fades in our memory unless we try to retain it. He calls it a forgetting curve. The forgetting period depends on how strong that memory is what means that no 2 memories are identical.
So if you memorize a random word without any context and never see or use it again, this memory is weak and you will forget it faster than if you picked up a word from a movie, tried to learn it and then used it a few times in class or at work over an extended period of time. The latter implies that you retrieve this word from your memory on multiple occasions and associate it with other memories or contexts. This strengthens the memory and extends its lifetime. it brings it to life 🤩🥳.
Words have to be chewed on. Words have to be smelled. Words have to be touched. Words have to be sung. Words have to be painted. We must make love to words. Dance with words. We need to put words on the table. And we need to pick them off trees. Words have to be sliced, grilled, sauteed and baked. Do things with words.
Gabriel Wyner's Ted Talk
How do we beat this?
Luckily, there are many effective strategies that help us retain the vocabulary we learn and drive it so deep into the long-term memory that we might never forget them. I am sharing wiht you 4 strategies to effectively learn vocabulary:
Never learn vocabulary in isolation.
Learning a word-translation pair alone is not as effective as learning it in multiple forms, first seeing it in use in a few examples, hearing it, reading it and so on. You should learn words in their context and also pay close attention to their usage in context. Here is a detailed post on how to do that effectively.
Prioritize relevance over quantity.
Do learn the vocabulary that's relevant for you. No really, Read this again. Don't blindly follow the pattern that many textbooks suggest. Those topics are useful in the grand scheme of things, but when they are useful is different from person to person. At any given moment, there are words and phrases that you are likelier to need because of your life circumstances. Just arrived in Berlin and gotta look for an apartment or register at the Bürgeramt? Learning German at University? Have been living in Germany for 2 years and working at a startup? Needs differ, context matters.
Moreover, sometimes it’s not even about relevance from practical standpoint. There might be topics that you find more fascinating than others. Tap into that. Learn what engages you, not what someone else prescribes for you.
Learning vocabulary which is relevant for you also helps your brain to stay engaged and more willingly find time and energy to review and retain it. Have you ever tried to wake up early at 6 am only to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep? And then one day you again want to wake up at 6 am, but this time it's because you have a flight at 10 and you gotta get to the airport in time. I bet your getting out of the bed was much swifter. It's because you have a reason to get out of bed in the first place. There is a sense of urgency and purpose.
Use spaced repetition as your secret weapon.
Spaced repetition is a godsend for language learners. You see, we waste so much of our effort without realizing it when learning languages. For example, reviewing your wordlist every day is not the best strategy as studies show that you need to space out the review of the information to memorize and retain it for the long-term.
Essentially you need to keep track of the review sessions for each and every word. The timing is key. If you review too early when the memory is still fresh, then you wasted your effort. If you review too late, it means you cannot recall the word and have to start from scratch (and wasted your effort).
You could try to do it yourself - create flashcards, print them, organize them in a box, somehow track the timing. Can you feel the struggle?
Digital tools come to help
However, I have a better suggestion. There are digital tools that make spaced repetition easy. You’d better use them. One such app that that enjoys the trust and respect of the language learning community is Anki. It is a spaced repetition tool that helps you retain whatever you want to learn.
The downside is that it was not created for language learning exclusively and its UX and features give that out. Nevertheless, it’s flexible enough to work for the use case. The thing that many users don’t like about Anki is that it has quite an old-school design and the apps cost a fortune.
Another option is the Heylama app. It's a vocabulary trainer based on science. As language learners, we wanted to build a tool that would offer a high degree of flexibility and be based on scientifically proven learning techniques. Heylama app helps to discover practical German words and phrases, add your own vocabulary and learn all of it with Spaced Repetition and bite-seized quizzes. And most importantly, it's absolutely free!
Use what you learn.
The fourth strategy is the most powerful in the end - try your best to put what you learn to use. If you have been following the above three principles, the last one should not be a big problem.
There are two ways to use what your learned - what I call passive use or active use.
- Passive use is when you practice what you learned through passive exposure rather than actively retrieving it from your memory. Activities that fall into this bucket include watching movies, listening to music, reading books and blogs, listening to radio, etc.
- Active use is when you get exposed to the situations where you can retrieve what you learned from your memory. These are conversations, chatting and writing emails.
While both approaches are useful and even required to achieve fluency, speaking is the single best tactic to learn a language. Yet not all of us have the luxury of having friends for whom German or our target language is native. I, for example, despite living in Berlin, still use iTalki to talk to tutors every week to practice my German speaking skills. I am also lucky to have colleagues who support me a lot.
Now you know a simple, but powerful model of memory and effective strategies that you can apply to improve your German or any other language you are learning. To retain something, you need to retrieve it from memory once in a while just like you would stimulate the muscles by hitting the gym on a regular basis. In this race against time, it’s helpful to use the right tools and strategies to avoid wasting your time and effort. Keep in mind, there are millions who have done it before us, we can do that, too 💪🏼🚀.