The biggest headache for those learning a new language is certainly the amount of vocab that has to be memorized. Perhaps you’re learning words one day and forgetting them all the next. Maybe you’re learning a bunch of vocabulary but actually have no idea how to properly use it. It can be frustrating feeling like your memory might be worse than your peers, or like you might not be suited for language learning after all. Everyone starts out learning a new language filled with excitement, but slowly starts to feel discouraged by the amount of words they have to learn. Many even give up language learning entirely.
Please let me say this first before you consider giving up. If you are struggling to memorize vocabulary it isn’t because you aren’t smart enough, or because your memory is weak. The reason why you struggle is because you’re using the wrong study methods. Many students ask me how to effectively memorize vocabulary, so I’m going to share some strategies I’m currently using as a beginner learning Japanese. These strategies won’t just apply to Japanese as I also used them when I started learning Chinese all those years ago. No matter what language you’re studying these four methods will work!
1. Use all your senses
I think the best method to memorize vocabulary is to let your five senses enhance your memory. I’m reminded of my days practicing violin concertos for competitions where I wasn’t allowed to look at the sheet music when I performed. On stage I had to rely on the memory of my fingers and ears rather than a sheet of paper. Find out for yourself which of your senses has the strongest connection to your memory. If you’ve only been looking at flashcards to memorize vocabulary, then try recording audio and listening to the flashcards instead. You can also incorporate another one of your senses by writing down the vocabulary in a notebook as you study.
If you learn best through sight, then I recommend using Google images to look up your vocabulary. For example, if I want to learn the Japanese word そわそわ, then I can type that into Google images and get a bunch of pictures related to that word so I have a better idea of what it means and how native speakers use it in different situations.
2. Create the right environment
Studying a language by yourself outside of the place it is spoken does not allow for natural immersion to take place. However, you can create an environment for yourself that creates artificial immersion. For example, you can constantly stream content from the internet in your target language allowing you to listen both passively and actively.
You can also switch the language on your phone and computer to the target language. By flooding yourself with the language you’re increasing your chances to memorize words. I subscribe to the belief that the most important part of language learning is input, so by increasing input your language level will naturally increase as well. I know it sounds crazy to say any aspect of language learning will occur naturally, but this method really works and is the basis for how you learned your mother tongue as well!
3. Use what you learn
When you encounter a new word through content consumption you should immediately look it up in your dictionary and write it down in your notebook. Take it one step further by writing the entire sentence that contains the word and practice saying it and writing it down multiple times. This will not only enforce the word, but also the context in which it is used by giving you an example situation in which you can employ the word yourself.
I’ve never been one to keep a diary in my target language, but if that sounds interesting to you then you could take the new words you learned during the day or the past week and write a short story or diary entry using all the new words you want to remember.
If you have access to native speakers of your target language, you could also practice using the words in conversation by preparing some sentences with the new words you learned into a dialogue you might have with a friend, and then try to use them in conversation when you get the chance.
4. Focus on what you need to know
The 80/20 rule applies perfectly to language learning. Japanese has about 250,000 words in total, but Japanese people only use about 5,000 to 10,000 words. Knowing this, it is effectively useless to spend time learning all 250,000 words. You should only be learning the words that are useful to you. I like to take a generalist approach to my vocabulary learning so I prefer to learn the words from standardized tests like the JLPT or HSK.
We only have limited amounts of time and energy to learn languages, so you will never learn everything there is to know anyways. If you want to improve in a short amount of time then stop trying to learn every new word you encounter in every piece of content. Think about what situations you will be in with the language and seek out the vocab only for those situations first.
What separates different levels of language learners the most is the amount of words they know how to use. I hope you try out some of the methods I’ve discussed in this article and work towards knowing all the words relevant to you. I think you’ll find the more words you already know and the stronger your habits develop, the easier it will be to memorize more words and successfully employ them in your life. Let me know if you have any other methods you like to use!