Anyone learning another language knows the feeling of studying a list of vocab. They have a nice long set of 20-30 words. After studying for an hour, maybe you remember all of them, maybe you don’t. Later on though, when it comes time to speak, or maybe even the next review session, you find out you forgot a good portion of the words. It really sucks to have this happen. What can we do to learn more efficiently?
When I was in college, there were a few semesters I was taking three Chinese courses at a time. I was learning a least 120-150 words a week on average, and that included not just knowing the word, but being able to read and the write the equivalent Chinese character. My classmates would sit there and try to just memorize the words before the test. Of course, that didn’t help them. Especially when it came time to speak in class. No one could get the words out of their mouths. I realized I had to get creative if I wanted to learn so many words and actually be able to use them.
If you are learning a list of vocabulary, try to use them in a conversation with a native speaker. Language is meant to be used. If you learn a list of words and never use them, what’s the point? Words aren’t usually used by themselves out of context. Words have other words surrounding them with a variety of meanings. Taking this into consideration, we then simply need to use what we learn just like we will use it when we talk to someone.
So what I did to help learn the words for my Classes was skype one of my Taiwanese friends, and then have a conversation using the words I needed to learn. I would make sure I used every word in a sentence. Any opportunity I could find to use a vocab word was taken, even if it was making a stupid joke no one laughed at. If I forgot the word I wanted to use, I made a note to myself. Later that day, I’d find the vocab word I forgot, and then repeated the sentence that I originally wanted to say when I first forgot the word. Not only did I learn the words faster, I could also use them when I needed to talk. Having class discussions were easier for me because I had already practiced using the words before whereas my classmates were still struggling to remember which word was which.
If you don’t have many opportunities to speak, then try writing a composition using all the words that you want to learn. This way you are still getting used to actively using the vocab. If possible, try to make the sentences related to each other, not just a random jumble of unrelated sentences. If you can’t get it all the words to fit together, see if you can group some of the words together. For example, maybe you can’t find a way to relate a list of 10 vocab words, but maybe you can do two groups of 3 words and one group of four words. It helps because you can use a vocab word in one group to help you remember others (as in what was that sentence I wrote using X word and Y word?). Once you finish writing the composition, have a native speaker correct it for you and then read it out loud.
Listen to Sentences!
If you gather your list of vocab from watching TV shows and reading books, reread and re-listen to the sections that first made you need to look up the words. For example: maybe there’s a two minute argument in a TV show you watch that you cannot understand at all. Use the subtitles (or a native speaker) to help you find out the actual words that are being said in the L2. Then look them up. Voila! Instant vocab list. Now listen to the dialogue several times, looking at the subtitles as needed. Once you get the gist, stop looking at the subtitles and listen a couple of times. You will not only get repeated exposure to the words, but you will also ensure that if you come across the word later on in a conversation or text, you will be able to read/hear it without much difficulty. I personally used this when I first came to Taiwan to amass more vocabulary as well as improve my listening.
Our takeaway is when you study a list of words, don’t study them as just a word. Create sentences using the words. All the words that give me the hardest time to remember are the ones that I haven’t been using.
Make Sentences for Grammar!
Same with grammar. If you are having trouble remembering how to speak in the past tense, then use the past tense more. Talk to someone about what you did yesterday, then about what you did last week. Talk about what you did this morning. Is it easy? Not at first. You might need to look over a list of past participles and the like, but now instead of the past participles being these arbitrary forms, you get to use them in action. As you practice, they become easier and easier until they flow off the tongue. But if you don’t practice it now, you won’t be able to use it when you really need to.
I’ll give another personal example. When I learned French in high school, I sucked at prepositions. As in describing location. Where is the ball? It is on the box. It is in the box. It is next to the box. Ugh. Brings back repressed memories. It’s not that I couldn’t remember the words, I just couldn’t string them together. Every time I went to describe the location of something, I would pause, and it would take forever for me to think of how to say it. So what did I do? I started describing the location of everything in French.
When I got bored in my other classes, which never happened… cause I’m a good student… except for the classes where I wasn’t, I would look at classroom objects and describe where they were. So I’d pass time saying things like “The boy is next to the girl. The book is on the desk. A pen is under the paper.” Now if you are by yourself, you can do this out loud. Otherwise you might want to say it to yourself lest you want to the person next to you thinking you are possessed or crazy (in college, my roommate used to tell people I would mutter to myself in Chinese when studying). After a day of doing this I had no problem describing where things were. It worked so well that I did the same learning Japanese and Chinese. You just need to think of situations to push your skills. Think of it like doing free throws for basketball. Sometimes you just have to hash it out.
Remember, we learn languages to communicate with others. Not to match a word with a picture, not to do a fill in the blank exercise, but to communicate with others. Study the language just like you are going to use it: in context with other words, usually in the form of sentences. If you can apply this principle to how you approach your language studies, you will greatly speed up your progress.
What often stops you from using your target language?