Tips to Improve Your Vocab Memory

Tips to Improve Your Vocab Memory

Do any of these describe your relationship with vocabulary?

I keep forgetting new words.
I don’t like using lists, flashcards, etc.
I feel like I’m not making progress because I don’t know enough words.

When it comes to language learning, vocabulary is a different kind of monster. Instead of jumping out to scare you (like grammar), it hides until you figure out the right trick to help you learn. The most frustrating part is that what works for someone else might not work as well for you.

But if that’s the case, what can you do to find a method that truly helps you learn new vocabulary?

Why are you learning?

All language learners have a reason for why they’re learning a language in the first place. But what’s your motivation for learning a particular set of vocabulary words?

Maybe you’re still working on the basics or using a list of words to learn from a textbook or an app. Either way, it’s not the most exciting material. In some cases, it might not even seem useful.

One of the benefits of learning solo is that you can choose exactly what you want to learn next. You can focus on vocab for more interesting topics or ignore words you’ll probably never use. Even if you’re having trouble learning essentials like numbers or directions, you can put them in a context that’s important to you.

Give Your Vocab Meaning Any Way You Can

You might not care about a list of numbers in a textbook. But you do want to know how to say dates and times, and knowing numbers can also save you money!

A snapshot from my old life, representing my university on the road in Kazan.

A snapshot from my old life, representing my university on the road in Kazan.

Back when I was a regular business traveller, I spent a good amount of time in Kazakhstan and Russia. These are not places where a regular taxi will give you the best deal. Most people just stand at the side of the road, flag down a car, and haggle for the cost of a ride.

I’m a people person and ever curious about everyone’s cars, so for me this sounded like heaven! The only problem was that I spoke no Russian at all.

After several half-bungled negotiations (“Holiday Inn…Ulitsa Shevchenko! Hundred Tenge??”) and some support from local colleagues, I picked up the expression “tri sti” for 300.

From then on, every single ride in Kazakhstan AND Russia had to cost me 300 of whatever their local currency was. I simply couldn’t agree on a different amount! 😄In Kazakhstan this may have been driving a bargain…in Russia I was more like their best paying customer, every single time.

After a few months of this, I did start picking up Russian and the motivation to learn numbers was top of my list.

What’s your motivation to learn these words?

How can you see yourself using them? Most textbooks will at least give some sample dialogues, but it’s just WAY cooler to say your own birthday in your new language.

In addition to making note of your motivation, it helps to understand learning vocabulary as a process or a system that includes three stages:

Growing vocabulary (figuring out what words you need or want to learn, selecting your sources, and taking good notes)
Memorizing vocabulary (strategies to make your words stickier so you don’t forget them easily)
Revising or reviewing vocabulary (using new words or testing yourself regularly so that they become anchored in your long-term memory)
Not sure what you should learn?

Before you even start trying to memorize new words, you have to figure out which ones you should try to learn. Once you’ve covered basics like greetings, colors, directions, etc., it’s easy to feel a little unsure about where to go next.

There are a few different options you can choose to start feeling more in-control of your vocabulary learning:

Download My Topic List for Beginners

Using a list that is already created can save you quite a bit of time when you’re busy. It’s perfect for you right at the start of learning a new language.

My vocabulary checklist for beginners is different from most lists because it gives you topics and skills. This is more useful than just a list of words, and it will help you create a solid foundation without getting bored.

Create your own list of words

Word List

What do you want to talk about in your target language?

Consider your interests and hobbies as well as things you’d usually talk to your friends or coworkers about. Consider both individual words and expressions.

One great way to go about this is to choose a topic and do a mind map or create a quick list of every word or expression you can think of that relates to your topic. Then, edit your list and translate the words into your target language.

If you want to add on more vocab to your list, try searching social media with your translated words as well.

Learn more vocabulary from what you enjoy

You can also choose to create a list based on the things you watch, read, and listen to in your target language.

Here are a two great apps that help you understand and find resources in your target language:

Lingq for books, articles, videos, and podcasts with transcripts
Yabla for native videos designed to work for language learners

Pay attention when you listen or read something in your target language. Is there a word that keeps coming up when you listen to songs or watch your favourite tv series? Put it on your list. Do you have a book you’d like to read in your target language? Go through and write down all the words you don’t know to start learning them.

Most importantly, remember that you should always have a solid system for compiling new words and expressions.

Switch up your language learning methods

Even if you’ve got a great list of words to learn, it doesn’t help if you can’t remember them. This is especially true for abstract vocabulary. You can’t see the word for “brave”, so how are you supposed to remember it in another language?

Luckily, there are 4 different methods that can help you learn both the simple words and the more difficult ones.

The Post-it Method

For words like “coffee” and “door”, it’s easy to write the word in your target language onto a post-it note and stick it on the actual object.

But what do you do for those abstract words?

You can still write them on post-its, but you’ll have to get a little creative on where you place them. Think of quirky places that have some sort of connection to the idea. For instance, you might decide to put a post-it with the translation for “awake” on your coffee cup.

As a bonus, the added creativity involved in connecting the abstract concept to the object will help you remember even more as you have to spend time contemplating the word.

The Language Play Method

Google Etymology

In addition to associating abstract words with an object, you can also use the linguistic characteristics of the word you’re trying to remember. Link the word you’re trying to learn with similar sounds or spellings or take the time to look into where it came from.

Quick tip: Google the word you’re learning and “etymology” together, and you’ll find out more about its history.

You can use rhyme or look at the cognates of a word, or the parts of a word that borrow or share origins with another language you already know.

Chunks of Language

In this method, also called “chunking”, the idea is to study chunks of language rather than individual words. That might mean choosing to learn short sentences or phrases, such as “I’m so hungry” or “Where is the bathroom?”

This can be even more helpful if you’re trying to learn abstract words because you can connect those words to a sentence you might actually use or remember.

Examples of the concept in music and art

Have you ever learned a new word only to suddenly see or hear it everywhere you go? If so, it probably made you more likely to remember the word later on.

Seeking out examples in music, movies, or even advertisements can help reinforce words that might otherwise slip your mind.

Final Tips to Keep in Mind

Don’t beat yourself up for forgetting something.

The leading scientific theory is that humans tend to halve their memory of newly learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless they consciously review the learned material. This is known as the forgetting curve.

In other words, you simply can’t expect to remember everything all the time. Even native speakers forget words in their native language from time to time.

Remember to continue reviewing and revising your vocab list.

You might find that some words still give you trouble, so you need to make use of a few different methods if you want to learn them. If there are words that you find difficult to remember, it is okay to also decide that some of the words on your list might not be as important as you thought.

True fact: If a word is important enough, it will make sure that you remember it!


Make sure to apply what you’re learning.

You should always make a conscious effort to use a few new words outside of dedicated study sessions. This might mean actively using new words in conversation, using your vocabulary list to search social media or find new hashtags to follow, or looking for news articles about related topics.

Above all, don’t worry about your level when you’re trying to learn vocab. As long as you’ve got a handle on the basics using new words in sentences and questions, you can learn any vocabulary words you want. After all, you never stop learning new words.

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