Word Retention in Language Learning

Over the years I have spent teaching English to Japanese speakers, the one complaint I have heard more often than any other is “I can’t seem to remember the words”. Obviously, if you are learning a language, you need to learn (and remember) words. When I ask my students how they go about learning words, almost all tell me they attempt to memorize the words by rote. Some have vocabulary books, with lists of random words, which they try to memorize. Others write each word over and over again in a notebook.

The issue with this is that it only engages the mechanical brain and not the emotional brain. It takes the words out of context, and turns them into a line of letters which corresponds to a certain word in Japanese.

When I study languages, I make learning vocabulary a priority, but I don’t learn by rote or memorization. I am currently learning Chinese. When I see a new word in my textbook, I write it in a small notebook, with the reading and the English, and move on. Of course, I don’t remember the words just by doing this. I do three things to get the vocabulary to stick. First, I make a sentence using the word, which has relevance to me. This relevancy is important, as it gives the word an emotional element. So, if I have learnt the word for “mobile phone”, I write a sentence related to me and my mobile phone, for example, “I called my friend Stephen on my mobile phone this morning.”. This sentence is true, and connects the word “mobile phone” to an emotional element – talking to my friend.

Next, I read and listen. I read other textbooks and websites, and I listen to videos on YouTube. While I don’t understand everything that is being said, I often catch the words I have learnt. Words in textbooks tend to be high frequency words, so they appear in texts and crop up in audio often. The more I see and hear the word, the more likely I am to remember it. The last thing I do is use the word. When I have a Chinese lesson with my teacher, I work the word into the conversation. Once I have used it, I rarely forget it.

Vocabulary acquisition is one of the benefits of extensive reading. If you choose a book which you can read easily without a dictionary, you are encountering words you have already seen. Seeing the words again reinforces them in an emotional way, especially if you are reading fiction. It is more fun, and (for me, anyway) more effective than mechanical memorization. This was the method I used to learn Japanese, and it served me well. It is also working well with my Chinese.

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