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10 Proven Memory Hacks: How to Remember New Vocabulary Faster

by Michele
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Memory Hacks - How to Memorize Vocabulary Tips - Great memories are learned - Joshua Foer
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If you can memorize new vocabulary faster, you can learn a language faster too!  So, how do you memorize vocabulary faster and more effectively? Here are 10 proven memory hacks you should use!

How long it takes to learn a language? Well, that largely depends on your memory. What techniques should you use to help you to remember words in a foreign language? Simple. Use memory hacks! 

But first, let me dispel a common myth that you’re probably thinking. You don’t, I repeat, you DON’T have a bad memory. Just because you haven’t learned a language as quickly as you’d like or you forgot where you left your keys, that doesn’t mean you have a bad memory. You just didn’t make it a priority to remember.

Maybe you were multitasking and didn’t pay attention to where you put your keys or you have had something else on your mind. It happens. It’s totally normal and happens to all of us.

Our memory is a muscle. To build a good memory we just need to use simple techniques and methods for it to reach its full potential. Think of it like following a curated fitness programme with daily workout videos that help you build a strong and healthy body. Your memory is the same. It works best when it has been “trained” when it has a framework to work with.

The same can be said when it comes to remembering new words in a foreign language. Just because you see a word once, twice or even a hundred times, it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically remember it and so you can use it in a conversation. 

We often talk about people with great memories as though it were some sort of an innate gift, but that is not the case. Great memories are learned. — Joshua Foer, Author of Moonwalking with Einstein

Memory can be trained just like any muscle, and you know what else? Learning a foreign language is actually an excellent way to improve your memory and your overall cognitive abilities. The more you learn, the easier it becomes to memorize new information. 

So, trust me when I say, you’re NOT missing the so-called “language learning gene”. The only thing you ARE missing are these top 10 proven techniques that will 10x your memory so you can remember more and learn languages faster! I’ve used each of these memory techniques and continue to use many of them to learn Italian, Norwegian, French and Afrikaans.

But first, it’s important to understand…

How does our Memory Work? 

Oxford Languages defines memory as ‘the faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information’. Seems clear enough. But how does it actually work? Well, there are three main processes involved: encoding, storage, and recall.

The process of memory begins with encoding: acquiring or learning new information. Simply put, to remember something you need to learn it first. We take in information through different channels, but as we take it in we also analyze it and adapt it so it can be stored in our brain. 

This new information is usually encoded in one of the four ways: acoustically (how something sounds); visually (the way something looks); semantically (what something means); or in a tactile or elaborative way (how something feels and connects to other things). 

For example, if you’ve just met someone at a party and you want to remember their name you can repeat their name out loud, associate it with the way the person looks, place the name in a specific context or setting (like the exact place where you’ve met), or rely on the connections you can make with this name or person (maybe you know someone else with the same name). 

After the information has been encoded, it goes to storage so that we can recall, or use it later. This is what most people think about when they talk about memory.

The effect between short-term and long-term memory

There are two types of storage. When you first encounter something new, first, this information goes to your short-term memory. From here, it is either forgotten or, if needed and stored correctly, goes to your long-term memory. 

Short-term memory is very brief (hence the name!), lasting 15-30 seconds and can hold between 5 and 9 (the average number is 7) items of information. Your short-term memory is at work when you do something like read a list of words and then immediately repeat them. It helps you to quickly obtain the information you need at the moment, while you are performing a task, but it’s highly likely you will forget this information afterwards. 

Our long-term memory has a much longer time span (from a few minutes to a lifetime) with practically unlimited capacity. For information to be transferred from your short-term memory into your long term memory, you need to repeat it or interact with it at least a few times. 

The final step of the process is retrieval. This is where you access information stored in your memory. There are two different types of retrieval: recall and recognition. When you recognize something, you have some form of a clue that helps you retrieve information. You can often quite easily recognize new vocabulary when you are reading a text. But recalling it without any cues when you need to produce it in a conversation can be much harder. 

Here’s a fun video to help bring the process of memory to life.

Why do we forget? 

One of the main reasons for forgetting is actually failing to retrieve information. So, the information may still be somewhere there in your brain, but, you just can’t access it. 

In 1885, a German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted an experiment in which he tested how well he remembered a list of nonsense syllables over increasingly longer periods of time. Using the results of his experiment, he created what is now known as the ‘Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve’.  

He found out that the forgetting curve is exponential in nature. After you have just learned something, memory retention is 100%. However, it drops rapidly to 40% within just a few days. After that, the declination of memory retention slows down again. 

How to Memorize Vocabulary Tips - The Forgetting Curve by Ebbinghaus

He also found out that if you repeat or practice something a lot, the information is stored more strongly and the forgetting curve becomes much more shallow. Basically, you are faced with a use-it-or-lose-it situation, and the first few days are absolutely essential. 

Here’s a little explainer video to show The Forgetting Curve process.

So, what can you do to improve your memory?

With the following 10 super effective memory hacks, you’ll learn how to memorize vocabulary, store it in your memory longer, and retrieve it easier. 

Let’s dive in!

10 Proven Memory Hacks: How to Memorize New Vocabulary Faster 

1. Use spaced-repetition

As we’ve seen above, repetition is key to storing information in long-term memory. Spaced repetition is a popular method with polyglots and the language learning community in general.

Spaced repetition works by presenting you with information right before you forget it to make sure that it stays fresh in your mind. You don’t mindlessly repeat information over and over again; you repeat it across increasing intervals of time. 

For example, say you’ve learned some Italian greetings and other useful Italian phrases before your trip to Italy. You repeat them a few minutes later, then a few hours, then a day, then a few days, then a week…You get the idea! 

Spaced repetition is designed to ‘fight’ the forgetting curve and trains your brain by ‘lifting heavier and heavier weights’ so you can recall information at longer intervals. 

One of the first spaced-repetition algorithms was the Leitner flashcard system. The system was based on paper flashcards (does anyone still make those?) that in the process of learning were divided into different levels and placed into different boxes. Flashcards of different levels were repeated with a different frequency. For instance, Level 1 cards every day, Level 2 cards every two days, Level 3 cards every four days, Level 4 cards every eight days, and so on. 

The Leitner system can be quite cumbersome and laborious: not only do you need to make vocabulary cards, but to find some boxes to store them in, as well as to remember to move cards from level to level as you learn the words and phrases. Fortunately, nowadays you don’t have to do this. Various websites and language learning apps were created with the use of spaced repetition to help you memorize vocabulary more effectively.

Here are a few examples: Memrise, Anki, Quizlet, TinyCards, Memorion, Traverse. These apps may differ from each other slightly, but the main idea of spaced repetition is there. Most of them are free or have a free version – try them out for yourself and see which one you like better. 


Related: Memrise vs Duolingo: Which Language App is Best For You?


2. Convert new words to pictures

We are visual creatures. About 80-90% of the information we absorb is visual. A large percentage of us (65-80%) are visual learners. We recall information supported by images much more effectively. So, why not use images and visual learning to memorize vocabulary? 


Related: What type of language learner are you?


Here’s one of the ways you can do it. Look at the word you want to remember. Does it remind you of something? Do the characters look like or resemble a similar word in your native language or another language you know?

Some languages have done part of the job for you. If you are learning Chinese or Japanese, there are some characters that are based on real objects and actually look like them. Here is the Japanese character that means tree: . It may not be the way you would draw a tree, but it is pretty easy to convert this character into a memorable mental image. 

Let’s take a look at another example. The Spanish word for ‘bench’ is ‘banco’, which is very similar to the word ‘bank’. The solution is simple: draw a mental picture of a bench near a bank, and you’ll have no problem remembering this word. The Spanish word for ‘cat’ is ‘gato’ and it is quite similar to its English equivalent – you can also imagine the letter ‘g’ being the curled tail of this furry pet. 

To sum it up, the main idea behind this technique is to draw a mental picture based on the word’s shape, meaning, and/or sound. Creating this additional association with the word will help you store it in your memory longer and recall it easier.

3. Create your own ‘Memory Palace’

Memory palace – sounds fancy, doesn’t it? Well, it is also a powerful way to memorize vocabulary. 

The technique was developed by ancient Greeks, but it doesn’t make it any less effective. Many people use it today to remember all sorts of information such as cards in a game of poker, names at a party, formulas needed for an exam, grocery lists, and, of course, vocabulary. 

A memory palace is a place you visualise in your mind where you can store mnemonic images and other information. It doesn’t have to be an actual palace – in fact, it works much more effectively if you imagine a place that you know well, like your home or office. 

Creating a memory palace works by creating a strong association of the word with an image and, in this case, a physical location. 

Here’s how you build a memory palace:

  1. Imagine a place you know well in your mind, like your home or office.
  2. Map your way through it: entering the front door, walking along the corridor, entering rooms, etc. Imagine the furniture you see on your way and other objects.
  3. Take a list of what you need to memorize – say, some new vocabulary – and place the items or words along your way. 
  4. To make it even more memorable, make the objects and words you remember interact with the location and create other associations if possible. For instance, ‘el gato’ (the cat) can meet you at the gate scratching at the gate-post. 

Try it out! I’m sure the memory palace you build will be like no other – and that it will help you memorize vocabulary really well.

Watch this video by Joshua Foer to learn how to create your own memory palace.

Also worth checking out is his popular TED talk

4. ‘Stack’ your words with the Stacking Method.

A stack is a neatly arranged pile of objects put one on top of the other. You probably have at least one stack in your home: a stack of plates, books, DVDs, papers. But what does it have to do with memorizing vocabulary? 

You can also ‘stack’ information items to remember them better. Stacking works great with memorizing lists, like a grocery list, but it is also great for memorizing vocabulary, especially vocabulary on the same topic or united by some context. 

This method also relies on vivid visualization, but in this case, you don’t just create a vivid image for each vocabulary unit – you literally stack them one on top of the other.

Let us say you need to learn the names of some kitchen utensils in Italian. Start with a ‘tazza’, or ‘cup’. Imagine it vividly in your mind, the way it looks, the kind of shape it has. Then put a ‘piatto’ (plate) on top of the ‘taza’. What’s next? Maybe, a ‘forchetta’ (fork)? ‘Put’ it on the ‘piatto’ vertically and then try to balance something on it. 

It may sound just a tiny bit absurd, but it works! Creating a vivid image of a stack of ‘piatti’ (dishes) in your mind will help you remember the words better through a strong association. The more absurd the image, the better, as it’ll be more memorable to you.

The only drawback to this technique is that it puts the vocabulary units in a particular order, and retrieving them in any other order will be a bit harder.

5. Create fun mnemonics

Mnemonic devices or mnemonics are various techniques that help you store information in long-term memory and retrieve it more effectively. Mnemonics are based on creating meaningful associations with the information by using things such as images, memorable phrases, short poems, or even kinesthetic forms. 

Mnemonics work by building connections with the word. It becomes not just a word from a foreign language, but a concept connected to an image, a joke, a song, or something else. The stronger this image and this connection are, the better mnemonic devices work.

There are different kinds of mnemonics that you can use to memorize vocabulary:

  • Acronyms or Expression Mnemonics – Take the first letters from the words that you need to remember and build a word or an acronym with them. For example, you can remember the points of the compass – North, East, West, and South – with the acronym ‘NEWS’. You can also take other words that begin with the same first letters and make a whole phrase with them. For instance, you can use the phrase ‘PLEASE EXCUSE MY DEAR AUNT SALLY’ to remember the names of mathematical operations: Parentheses, Exponents, Multiply, Divide, Add, and Subtract.
  • Music Mnemonics – Remembering lyrics to a song is much easier than just remembering a text. The rhyming and the melody makes it easier to remember and also more fun. I can bet you still remember some nursery rhymes from your childhood. Do you remember the ‘ABC song’? This is an example of a music mnemonic. 
  • Rhyming Mnemonics –  Things that rhyme are easier and more fun to remember as well. Here is an example of a rhyming mnemonic you can use to remember the number of days in each month of the year:30 days hath September, April, June, and November.
    All the rest have 31
    Except February my dear son.
    It has 28 and that is fine
    But in Leap Year it has 29.
  • The Rhyming Peg System – The Peg system uses visual imagery to create a ‘hook’ or ‘peg’ from which to ‘hang’, or associate, your memories. It works like linking words that sound alike to create new associations. When they rhyme they tend to be more effective, but it’s not essential.. (11) See if you can remember this short list of words (say the numbers out loud): 
    1. Bun 
    2. Shoe 
    3. Tree
    4. Door
    5. Hive
    6. Sticks
    7. Heaven
    8. Gate
    9. Vine
    10. Hen

These are just a few examples. There are many more varieties of mnemonics and you can even mix and match them to create your own personal associations. 

Mnemonics can be used to learn the alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, and other aspects of the language. 

For example, many French students mix up these two common French prepositions – ‘au dessus’ (above), and ‘au dessous’ (below). Since they are similar in spelling, how can you remember them? By using a mnemonic, of course! 

A phrase you can use to help you remember the difference is: ‘If in the air you see a bus, it must be ‘au dessus’. If on the ground you see a mouse, it must be ‘au dessous’.’ 

Sound bizarre? That’s exactly why you’ll never mix up these two prepositions again!

This video perfectly explains how mnemonics work.

6. Share and Teach Others with The Protégé Effect

There’s an old Latin proverb that the best way to learn something, is to teach it to someone else. “By teaching, we learn,” – Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC – 65 AD). This is also known as The Protégé Effect.

Memory Hacks - How to Memorize Vocabulary Tips - By Teaching We Learn - Seneca the Younger

Does this really work and, if so, how? If we refer back to how our memory works, recalling information is one of the key processes involved in memorizing something. The more you use and interact with the information, the more effectively you’ll remember it. So, by teaching others and sharing your knowledge in a meaningful way, you’re actually helping to solidify your knowledge into your long-term memory.

Share with someone you know what you’ve learned. Let them ask you questions about it. This will help you identify not only practice what you’ve learned but also to make sure you’ve understood it yourself. No one home? Explain it to your “gato” (cat)! 

This works even if you’re a beginner. When you share your knowledge with other beginners, you’re not only consolidating for yourself what you’ve learned, but are building friendships and also more opportunities to recall this new information. Not only that, but learning together is fun too!

7. Always write it down

Memory Hacks - How to Memorize Vocabulary Tips - Write it downVery few people write things down nowadays. Let’s be honest, most of our lives are documented in an electronic format, either on our phones or laptops. There’s nothing wrong with this, but when it comes to actually remembering things, it’s much more effective to write things down. That’s right, using a pen and paper will actually help you remember more.  Why is this?

The Association for Psychological Science states that, “there is something about typing that leads to mindless processing. And there is something about ink and paper that prompts students to go beyond merely hearing and recording new information…”. 

One of the reasons why writing things down is so effective is because it requires more in-depth processing. We often summarize things into our own words too, which only adds to our interaction with the information. But it doesn’t stop there. The way we choose to organize information on the page, such as which parts to highlight to make them more visible also requires additional processing. 

Making good notes quite often means you don’t even need to refer to them later because you’ve already processed the material when you wrote them! 

Try it out! The next time you sit down to study, close Google docs, and physically write down what you’re learning. I guarantee you’ll retain more.

8. Memorise with little effort using The Goldlist Method

The Goldlist Method is another technique that is based on writing things down and popular with polyglots. The Goldlist Method works by writing down lists of expressions you want to learn in a notebook. Then, at least two weeks later, you copy them again, sorting out the expressions that you remember from those you don’t. As if by magic, you’ll see that you’ve remembered 30% of the expressions from each list without ever having studied them! No bad, right?! 

How to use the The Goldlist Method:

  1. Divide a page into 4 sections, A, B, C, and D. In section A, write down a list of 20 vocabulary units you want to memorize. Read every phrase and its translation out loud. Put this list aside and “forget” about it, for now.
  2. Over the next 13 days, create new lists with 4 new sections. 
  3. On day 15, go back to the 1st list (Step 1) and test yourself by covering up the translation of the items into your native language. You will see that you remember about 30% – about 6 words/phrases from it. Copy the remaining 14 words into section B. 

You probably see where this is going. You repeat the process with all the other lists, then go back to the first one and do it all again. According to David James, the creator of the method, as long as you are relaxed and enjoying the process, you will naturally pick up a few items into your long-term memory each time. For the items you don’t remember, you simply learn on the next round. 

Watch this fantastci video by Lýdia Machová who explains how to use The Goldlist Method.

9. Focus makes progress!

Memory Hacks - How to Memorize Vocabulary Tips - Focus by turning off Push NotificationsSo many things distract us throughout the day and that can keep us from really focusing learning languages. Do your best to cut out as many distractions as possible whenever you want to dedicate some time to learning your target language. If you’re at home, explain to members of your household that you need this time to study. If you are somewhere in public, try noise-canceling headphones or listening to relaxing ambient music to help you drown out the noises. Put your phone away or, if you are using a mobile app to learn, turn off all notifications quickly by switching to night mode. 

When you are focused and engaged, when you pay attention to what you are learning, you will retain much more from the learning session compared to when you are constantly distracted.

10. Combine words with images with Dual Coding 

Dual coding is where you combine both visual and verbal information. Developed by Allan Paivio of the University of Western Ontario in 1971, Paivio based his method on the idea that the formation of mental images aids learning. For example, you store the concept of a ‘cat’ in your mind as both the word and an image of a cat, and you can retrieve them together, or separately. 

Here are some examples of using dual coding in language learning: 

  • Drawing out a historical timeline of events
  • Using comics or storyboards to remember stories and texts 
  • Visual note-taking with part of the information presented as images
  • Flashcards that include images
  • Visual cues used during quizzes 

As you’ve seen in the previously mentioned memory tips in,  creating visual associations are a really powerful tool which is why dual coding is so effective.

Have you ever used a visual dictionary with high-quality images illustrating each word? That’s dual coding!

Need help improving your memory?

If you’re lost in the weeds when it comes to effectively learning new words, check out the Your Solid Vocab Memory. This online was developed by my friend Kerstin Cable, an experienced language learner and teacher who really knows her stuff.  I always follow Kerstin’s tips, and this course is excellent. If you feel the need to stop chasing your tail and remember any word easily, take a look at Your Solid Vocab Memory.

This course has been one of my favourite resources of the year because it teaches you how to learn and remember vocab in 3 simple steps:

  • GROW your word list with strategic goal setting and a solid system for taking notes in seconds
  • MEMORIZE any word, even the ones you forget all the time, in less than a minute
  • REVIEW with fun and easy methods, not overwhelming lists and card decks

Check out Your Solid Vocab Memory here – I know you’ll love it!


Want to know more about learning languages? Start here!


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Memory Hacks - How to Memorize Vocabulary Tips


Over to you!

Which one of these memory tips and hacks will you try first? What is your current method for learning languages. Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation. Remember, if you haven’t already done so, find out what type of language learner you are here.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.

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2 comments

Susan Brodar January 22, 2021 - 08:12

Amazingly detailed and well-researched article with so many interesting links for further information on each topic! Love it! Thank you Michele for creating such an informative and useful post that I will definitely share with my students to inform & encourage them to choose what best fits their learning style! Great work!

Reply
Michele January 27, 2021 - 11:54

Thank you so much, Susan. I really appreciate your kind feedback 🙂

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