How do we learn vocabulary?
Students often ask: is it something you just absorb, or do you need to study it?
If you’re in an English class, or an English speaking environment then, yes, you hear and read new words all the time, and your vocabulary improves – but by how much?
Learning vocabulary raises two questions:
- How do you find it?
- How do you remember it?
In this post, I will explore both and offer some thoughts and suggestions based on my experience, not as a teacher, but as a student.
This is the easier bit. Vocabulary is omnipresent: on the bus, on the TV, in a school, at a station, on your shoes, in your neighbour’s bathroom. You can see, and hear, new vocabulary everywhere, every day.
When I lived in Argentina, my main goal was to learn Spanish. At first, my vocabulary was limited and functional: I could buy coffee and charge my Sube card. But when I looked through the collection of short stories I’d bought when I’d first arrived, I could only understand one word in 20. Because my grammar was improving, I’d mistakenly thought my vocabulary was, too.
Knowing so few words, and always forgetting new ones, I decided I’d take note of everything around me – in a shop, I read all the signs on the walls and the food names on packets; on the bus, I read traffic signs and adverts. I listened to music, watched films and TV shows, and I read books. With books you could find the richest variety of words and check their meanings in a dictionary. You could also reread things, slowly, whereas, with a film, once you’d heard a new word, it’d gone.
But the problem was, even though I’d realised where I could find new words, I was still forgetting them. I got so frustrated I decided to investigate how people other learnt vocabulary, later I noticed that people with great vocabularies had worked really hard to get them. I also discovered that remembering things required conscious effort.
Remembering new vocabulary really is no different from remembering any new information – it’s a question of how our memories function.
Here’s what helped me:
Instead of buying a beautiful, new notebook to write my vocabulary in, I decided to carry round in my pocket a horrible bit of paper, which I filled up with new words. Once the words were in my head, I threw the paper away. I did that with Spanish, and now I’m doing the same with Italian.
Here’s my current horrible bit of paper:
I once asked a group of students how they learnt vocabulary, and then showed them my paper. They laughed:
- Teacher, can’t you afford a notebook?
Well, actually no, I couldn’t, but that wasn’t the point.
Seriously, this bit of paper is amazing!
Studies say you need to see a word between 7 – 10 times to remember it. Get yourself a bit of paper and write down on it all your new words (from books, films, buses, bathroom, etc.,). Later, when you’re on the bus, or in Burger King, or in bed, you can quickly pull your bit of paper out of your pocket (pyjamas) and read it. Take your paper out 10 times a day and repeat in your head all the new words you’ve written. Then test yourself. By the time you wake up next morning, the words will be in your memory. It’s absolutely true!
Notebooks are bad. If you have a notebook, you won’t look at it. Your book will be in your bag, your bag will be shut, probably on the floor, and it will be far away from your arm. A bit of paper in your pocket is much easier to reach.
Plus, because your paper is so old and horrible, it will fall to pieces, then you’ll have to throw it away and get a new one. And if you have to do that, you’ll have to learn all the words on it first – and quickly.
Once you’ve checked your new words, what else can you do to ensure you remember them?
You can put the words into a sentence. Write sentences with all your new words. Speak them. Use them the next time you have a conversation. Even if they don’t fit the context 100%, so what? Thinking about them and processing them will make sure the information passes from your short to your long-term memory.
Next, type your new word into a search engine then press “images”. If you type, for example, “lunatic”, a photo of “lunatic” will appear. You can use this image to help fix the word in your imagination. Leave the photo on your computer or phone all day and keep looking at it, repeating the word to yourself – by midnight, you’ll know it. Sure, this technique is harder with abstract words like “wellness” or “orthodoxy”, but is great with common nouns like “lunatic”:
Remembering things is just a question of getting the information from your short-term memory into the place in your head where things live forever. If you understand this process – repetition combined with forming emotional and/or intellectual connections – you can control the process – and then, you can remember anything! That’s also what we are trying to do in our General English courses when teaching new vocabulary to our English Students here at LVC London school of English.
By using a technique like this, you can really increase your vocabulary. Focus on six words a day, and you can learn 2016 words a year. That’s a lot of words.
So, learning vocabulary means:
- Finding new words
- Understanding them
- Remembering them
Now, once you’ve memorised all the words on your horrible bit of paper, throw it away. Since all the words are now in your head, get yourself a new piece of paper, and start again. Six words today, Six tomorrow. If you want to go more in depth of other effective methods you can head to the Two Dozen Tips and Techniques or just visit our library!