A Jedi-Mind Trick and Three Other Approaches to Learning Vocabulary

UPDATE: I now offer one-on-one language coaching. Read more about what it involves and what kinds of problems it's best suited to addressing.

[My last post on the study of languages seems to have been well-received so I thought I'd add a few thoughts on the study of vocabulary. For some reason it's another stumbling block for many people who lack a system to be able to manage their vocabulary learning. I hope that by the time you finish reading this post you'll have some approaches and tools to think about, at the very least.] There are three things you need to know about and do when it comes down to learning vocabulary, possibly four.

1. Word Association

This is pretty basic stuff as far as vocab learning goes, but if you don't know it it can be something of a revelation. See this (and click through the following links) for a basic outline.

The basic task here is to associate the meaning along with the sound of the word.

The trick with word association is to make the images in your head as crazy as possible. You need to make it stick in your mind, so the more outrageous the image, the more it's going to stick. You might think it takes too long to imagine these scenes/images (that I'll describe) but it'll pay off in the long-run.

So, what you have to do is take a word and mentally associate it with its meaning. Take the Arabic word mumill (meaning 'boring'). Close your eyes if you need to. When I see that word, I think of two things -- MOO (the sound that the cow makes) and then a flour MILL. And somehow I have to try to associate those two things with the concept of 'boring'. So I imagine a flour mill, an old slightly dusty stone flour mill. You can hear the slow grinding of the mill on the flour, grinding it down to a fine powder. You can smell a bit of the flour in the air; perhaps the particles in the air are brushing against your face, getting in your hair. You can see the dark stone. When you touch the mill itself, it's a bit warm to the touch from all the grinding it's been doing. When you turn and look to see who's driving/pushing the millstone, to your surprise you see that it's a cow, who makes a gratifyingly loud 'MOO' sound when she sees you. When the cow walks past, you can smell the 'cow smell' and she's warm to the touch as well (having worked so hard). You see that she's extremely bored doing her milling, and you see that in one paw/hand/foot she has a sudoku game (or whatever) that she's doing while she pushes the millstone around and around to stop herself from being too bored.

Anyway, that's more or less what you have to do for every word. Split it up into sounds and then do this word association. The important things are to:

a) use all the senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing) in your association, because that's what will make it really stick in your mind and

b) make the images/scenes you create as wild as possible.

Learning professionals usually suggest to play on the deeper patterns, including things that are embarrassing etc etc, so try to bring all of that into your visualisation. Also, personalise the images. It needs to resonate FOR YOU. Use objects that evoke very specific and strong emotions: love, sex, war, your late relative, object of your infatuation, whatever it is; it is well known that emotional states and the full sensory palette can facilitate recall.

The point with all of this isn't that you are going to remember all of this image when you hear the word 'mumill'. Your brain will move much faster than that, and you'll just get a glimpse at the image and that'll be enough to jog your memory to provide the translation 'boring'. After a while (I'll explain below), you won't need the image any more, but it'll be there if you need it.

For Arabic, one of the issues is often that you have a long list of verbs, all with 3 letters with the same vowelling -- darasa, faqada, hamala etc etc -- and that can sometimes make it difficult to distinguish the words. But, like I said, split them up into two parts if you can, or find some way to make them stand out or associate them with something you already know.

2. Iversen's Lists

You should have gone through your list of words that you have to memorise and do this for every single word. I will assume that you will have a bit of learning to do each week or each day, incrementally, rather than getting all your words at once to learn for the entire year all in one go.

So do the association technique first. Then take a blank piece of paper -- A4 is good (or whatever the US equivalent is) -- and write a list of the words you have to learn today on the left side of the page. Try not to take up too much space. Maybe it's 20 words. Write them down on the left side of the page.

Then take a ruler or draw a line alongside that list and to the right of the line, (perhaps in a different colour pen), write the translation of that word. Do that for all the words. If you don't know the word, then the memorisation image/association hasn't stuck, so you can look up the correct answer and make sure that your association sticks this time.

Once you've completed this first test, take another piece of paper (or, better still, something thicker like a book so you can't cheat) and cover up the first column. Now you only have your answers to look at, and you should draw another line and then write the translations. (i.e. translating things back into the original language). Do all the translations for the list, then check whether you got them right.

Then you should repeat this until the entire piece of paper (both sides) are covered with translations back and forth. If you write small-ish, you should be able to get a good 6 or 7 rounds of translations/testing in (if not more).

Perhaps don't do all of these sessions at once. Do one side of the page in one go, and then leave other sessions for later in the day (for reasons I'll explain now).

3. Spaced Repetition & Anki

The really Jedi vocabulary learning trick requires that you know a bit about how the mind works and how quickly we forget. Take a look at this graph. This basically shows how the memory forgets.


So, following the red line, when you first learn a word (or a piece of information, or anything) if you try to remember it within an hour or so, the memory is pretty good. If you try to recall that fact 6 days later (without any study in between), you'll see (by following the red line to day 6) that the memory for such facts can swiftly decline pretty quickly.

There is a way to avoid this, though, which is something called spaced repetition. Because this half-life or rate of decline of memory is predictable (i.e. everyone has this curve, and how quickly it takes you to forget stuff is more or less stable/calculable), if you remind yourself of the word or fact within certain times, then you will be able to 'reset' the forgetting curve. The great thing about this 'reset' process, is that each time you do it, it takes longer to forget.

For example, let's say you learned the word for mumill just now. You'd ideally want to recall that word 30 minutes after you learned it. Then an hour later, then 3 hours later, then 6 hours later, then 12 hours later, then 24 hours later, then 3 days later, then 1 week later, then 3 weeks later, then 5 weeks, then 2.5 months etc etc).

So if you keep catching the words at the point just before you forget them, you can steadily put the fact/word deeper into your long-term memory.

But, you may ask, how do you remember when the last time you tested yourself on a particular word? How do you ensure that you catch this 'forgetting curve' and know how far along you are with memorisation...

Luckily, a bunch of people have already taken care of this and thought it through, and there's a piece of software which will save your life. I wish I'd had it when I was learning languages at university.

It's called Anki, and you can download it here. They've just released version 2.0. It's free. There are other imitations, but Anki is really the gold standard here. Don't bother looking around. Anki is the real deal.

So with this programme you create a 'collection' of words. You have to input your vocabulary (just one side -- i.e. just Arabic-English or English-Arabic) into the programme. Once one person has done it, then you can share the decks of flashcards (either online or as offline files), so you can immediately become the most popular person on your course if you do a full collection for your course, I would guess. (For more obscure languages, and I include Pashto in this pantheon, there are some true heros who assemble vocabulary lists and upload them to sharing sites for others to use).

Anyway, once you've inputted the cards, it will test you on the words in both directions (i.e. Eng-Ar as well as Ar-Eng) automatically.

Then you just start learning. You can state how many new words you want to learn each day. I'd recommend no more than 20. And, IMPORTANT POINT, you should do steps 1 and 2 (as I explained above) BEFORE you do a round with Anki. i.e. first do the word association stuff, then do a day learning the words with the lists and the blank piece of paper and the columns, and then the next day you should learn those words in Anki. It'll auto-test you the words and you pick an option whether the word was easy to remember, hard, very hard, or whether you didn't remember it at all.

Depending on which option you pick for each word (when you see the answer), it'll then remember which forgetting curve to assign to the word, and it'll remind you that you need to review that piece of vocabulary/fact at the appropriate time.

So let's say in 1 month from now, the word mumill shows up on the screen, and you eventually remember it, but it took a bit of time. You press 'very hard to remember' and it'll remind you of that word in 18 days (approx) since it recognises that you need a bit more time before it really ends up in your longer-term memory.

Then once you've started with Anki, you just have to make sure to return to Anki once a day and study the words that show up for review. Luckily there is a mobile version of Anki available (for iPhone/iPad as well as Android). I'll assume you have a phone which is either an iphone or an android. The mobile versions you have to pay for. But it's completely worth it.

This means that whenever you're stuck in a bus, or waiting in a queue or something, you just need to pull out your phone and you can review a few words on Anki. It has all the same features as the desktop version (apart from the ability to add words, I think). It's also a good idea to include audio along with each vocab entry which will be another sensory association and input that will help imprint the word in your mind.

The trick here, and it's really important, is to do it every day. If you only do it once a week, then you'll forget words more often (as the forgetting curve means you'll have missed the chance to reactivate or 'reset' the curve on words during the week). I really strongly recommend you do your Anki words once a day. Some days there won't be any words, or very few (depending on how many your course has you learning).

4. (Writing/Reading for Extra Imprinting)

If you really want to get to a high level in your vocab learning, then use it to support your more general skills. i.e. you should use the vocab words in context.

When I use Anki, I sometimes like to take each word (when it comes up on the screen for testing/study) and before I give my answer, I first make myself use that word in a sentence. This allows me to practice grammar structures, and also creates new associations for that word with other pieces of material. (For the memory, more associations are better, since things are recalled via these webs/networks of signals in the mind). Even better, write these sentences down (although by now we're talking study/exercises that take a bit of time, rather than just Anki etc, which would take maximum 20 minutes per day).

The ideal place for practicing your writing is lang-8.com, where you can get a free account. The principle here is that everyone corrects everyone else. i.e. when you put up a few sentences of writing practice, native Arabic speakers (or whatever language) will correct your sentences, but ideally you should correct their English sentences etc to return the favour. It's all free, and done on an honour system, so you get as much as you give etc.

I use it for my Urdu, Arabic and Pashto studies, and you'll usually get a correction for things you post there within 12-24 hours, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.

Another really good way to reinforce your vocabulary is to read a lot. Most of the studies of language study and learning (see last week's post) now agree that 'intensive reading practice' is the best way to build up your vocabulary. Obviously, you need to start with texts that are somewhat comprehensible and then slowly build up, and it can be really difficult. Sometimes you think that you're just reading gobbledegook. But slowly, if you stick at it, weeks later, you'll be able to read more and more, and you'll be learning words without the need to memorise and go through all the systems above (although if the word's giving you problems, or if you'd really like to remember it, then by all means add it to Anki etc) because you'll be using and seeing that word in the context of the sentence / words around it etc.


Anyway, none of this is a substitute for the somewhat-hard work that goes into learning vocabulary, but it certainly can shortcut things. Particularly if you start inputting your vocabulary into Anki early on in the course of your language studies, and reviewing it every day throughout the year, by the end of a year you'll be in a really good place compared to others.