In the traditional brute-force method of memorizing vocabulary (the default approach worldwide), the learner writes a particular word or character dozens and dozens of times, hoping that it will somehow stay in their brain long enough for the next test or conversation. But unless you have a photographic memory, you will probably find that the information you worked so hard cram into your noodle is nowhere to be found just a few hours later. It’s demoralizing. You think to yourself, “See? I told you I’m not good at languages! I told you I have a crappy memory! Screw it; I’m just gonna watch House of Cards and eat an entire pint of Cherry Garcia.”
But before you give up, waste the entire weekend on Netflix, and develop insulin resistance, please realize that YOU are not the problem! Despite its ubiquitous use, rote memorization only works for an extremely small percentage of learners. Fortunately, there are three superior vocabulary acquisition approaches that work with (not against) how the adult human brain encodes and prioritizes information: 1) Mnemonics, 2) Spaced repetition, and 3) Context.
1) Create Crazy Mnemonics
Most of you have probably already dabbled in mnemonics in school, perhaps when trying to memorize the order of the planets. For example, the silly sentence “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” might help you remember the that the planets are ordered Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. You would of course need to update this mnemonic now that Pluto has been demoted from planet status.
Even better would be a “linking system” that relies not on sentences but vivid stories. Tony Buzan shares the following example in his book Master Your Memory:
“Imagine that in front of you, where you are currently reading, is a glorious SUN. See it clearly, feel its heat, and admire its orange/red glow, Imagine, next to the Sun, a little (it’s a little Planet) thermometer, filled with that liquid metal that measures temperature: MERCURY.”
“Imagine that the Sun heats up, and eventually becomes so hot that it bursts the thermometer. You see all over the desk or floor, in front of you, tiny balls of that liquid metal Mercury, Next you imagine that, rushing in to see what happens, and standing by your side, comes the most beautiful little goddess. Colour her, clothe her (optional!), perfume her, design her as you will, What shall we call our little goddess? Yes, VENUS!”
“You focus so intently on Venus with all your senses, that she becomes almost a living physical reality in front of you, You see Venus play like a child with the scattered mercury, and finally manage to pick one of the mercury globules, She is so delighted that she throws it in a giant arc way up in the sky (which you see, as light glistens off it throughout its journey), until it hurtles down from on high and lands in your garden with a gigantic ‘thump’!, which you both hear and feel as a bodily vibration. And on what planet is your garden? EARTH.”
And on Buzan goes through all the planets, using vivid imagery, multiple (imagined) sensory inputs, a full color pallet, sexuality, stark contrast in size, etc. All of this seemingly extraneous information accomplishes one thing: helping your forever remember the order of the planets. It may seem like extra work up front, but in the long run, it is far more efficient and effective to learn information this way than through tedious rote memorization.
Rote memory fails because you are not giving your brain any hooks to attach the new information to. Crazy stories like above tie new, abstract information to memories already in our brains, things we can see (whether in our mind’s eye or on our own bodies like with knuckle mnemonics), or to concrete concepts that we can more easily recall.
So when trying to learn a new word, phrase, or Chinese character, create imaginative stories with multiple “hooks” that help to dig out the specific meanings, spellings, pronunciations, or strokes.
Here is an example on how to remember the kanji 朝 (“morning”) from Remembering the Kanji, a systematic mnemonic system designed by James Heisig to help independent learners memorize the meaning and writing of all jouyou kanji:
“On the right we see the moon fading off into the first light of morning, and to the left, the mist that falls to give nature a shower to prepare it for the coming heat. If you can think of the moon tilting over to spill mist on your garden, you should have no trouble remembering which of all the elements in this story are to serve as primitives for constructing the character.”
If you are learning Japanese, don’t miss my interview with James Heisig.
2) Use Spaced Repetition
As the name implies, “spaced repetition” shows you flashcards at specific intervals based on how difficult or easy you previously rated them. The more difficult something is, the sooner (and more often) it will be repeated. Spaced repetition systems (or “SRS” for short) like Anki, Memrise, etc. are far more efficient than randomly reviewing a stack of unsorted flashcards since they (ideally) focus on just the information you need to practice at just the right time.
But a word of caution: although spaced repetition can increase efficiency, make sure that you don’t fall back on bad rote habits. Fill your flashcards with complete sentences and useful phrases taken from—and applicable in—real-life. Better still, add audio recordings of each sentence (ask your iTalki tutor or use Rhinospike to get free audio recordings by native speakers of your target language).
Read my post What is Spaced Repetition and Why Should You Use It? for more about SRS methods, apps, etc.
3) Learn & Use Vocabulary in Clear Contexts
The most potent way to improve the initial encoding and subsequent recall of new words is learning (and actually using!) vocabulary in context. By “context”, I mean out and about in the real world, doing real things, talking to real people, ordering real food, getting on real trains, flirting with real girls/guys, etc. Trying to memorize words at your desk is not only boring; it’s also far less effective. Studying alone in isolation creates far less robust memories because there is less urgency, less sensory input, less emotional feedback, and let’s face it, less of a point!
Read Anthony Metivier’s guest post Why It’s Impossible To Learn New Words And Phrases Out Of Context for more about the importance of context and how to create effective mnemonics.