Learning vocabulary is the most important and time-consuming part of language learning. If you suck at it, you might be wasting dozens of hours each month due to the ineffective learning strategy.
Better make sure that your vocabulary learning strategy is not based on … (drum roll)
Passive Rehearsal Through Repetition
The typical vocabulary learning routine goes more or less like this – you encounter a word you don’t know, you translate it and place it in a notebook, or even better – in one of SR programmes like ANKI.
It might look like this:
You feel great.
Why wouldn’t you? You have just extended your vocabulary.
Next day, you start reviewing your vocabulary. You see the word “apple”, you say it in your mind, click to confirm that you recognize the word and move on to another one.
Oh…if you only knew how useless such a method is. The only worse method is probably watching TV and hoping that you will absorb the language one day.
You see, passive rehearsal through repetition has a very little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).
I know it might be painful to take in such news but think about it. How many times have you rehearsed someone’s name, phone number or address, only to forget it a few minutes later?
Where does the problem lie? Passive rehearsal doesn’t ensure long-term storage. In fact, nobody knows what ensures transfer of information from short-term memory to the long-term memory.
But we DO know what helps A LOT! The answer is:
The depth of processing
The deep processing is the level of activity devoted to processing new information. The more effort you put into processing new information, the better the chance to remember it. Each new association is a new “mental hook” which you can attach to a piece of information. Such associations create a rich web of connections which makes later retrieval much easier.
The associations are even more important as the length of the words increases. It’s pure logic, isn’t it? It’s easier to remember “schnell” in German than “die Urheberrechtsverletzung” (copyright violation).
This phenomenon is known as the wordlength effect. Longer words take longer to rehearse (duh).
The studies of phonological memory span conducted by Baddeley and colleagues estimated that the average person’s phonological loop can retain approximately 2 seconds’ worth of speech (Baddeley, Thomson, & Buchanan, 1975).
DIY – How To Deep-Process Your Vocabulary
With some practice and a little bit of imagination, it’s not that difficult to do.
Let’s start with some basic facts – you have 5 basic representational systems.
Basic representational systems:
- Kinesthetic (sensations)
- Olfactory (smell)
- Gustatory (taste)
As you can see, you have a wide array of, let’s call them, “sensory” tools to deep-process the vocabulary you learn. Compared to that, passive rehearsal of words seems kind of silly, doesn’t it?
Treat these systems as your point of reference. Now, onward to the example!
Let’s assume that you want to memorize the Spanish word for “to joke”.
We have already established that saying the translation of this word in your mind is a waste of time.
Here is what you can do instead:
Say this word out loud!
It’s ridiculously easy but also quite effective. Uttering words out loud combines both auditory and kinesthetic stimuli.
Of course, you don’t have to stop here. Why not sing the word with the voice of Michael Jackson or Louis Armstrong?! Sure, maybe they will lock you up in an asylum. But at least you’ll be the only patient with such an impressive vocabulary!
Create a picture of the word
You can imagine it. Although it is much better to find some pictures on the Internet. Let’s say, that you google “to joke” and find the following picture which you really like:
Break down the word into smaller, familiar parts
Rarely will you find a word which doesn’t contain any familiar words or elements? You just have to concentrate a little bit to notice them! Let’s write down familiar parts of this word:
– BROmear (bro, you jokin’ or what?)
– broMEar – give me another joke!
– EAR – bro, you are always spitting into my ear when you tell jokes!
– bROMEar – they don’t like joking in Rome
These are just some of the possible suggestions! You can also associate it with:
– a cartoon character – Brome
– a species of grass – (Downy) brome
– a chemical element – BROMine
I think you get the idea!
If you want, you can always additionally associate a given word with a smell or taste. I rarely do it, since such associations are usually much weaker than the ones previously mentioned.
The Final Effect
This is how a card in ANKI looks like for this word. With the right associations, it’s incredibly hard to forget the vocabulary learned this way. Just remember not to overdo it! Try not to spend more than 5 minutes per word.
It seems like a lot of time, but considering the potential benefit of memorizing every word after the first try, I would say that it is well worth the time investment!
Question for you – have you ever deep-processed the vocabulary you learn?