Learning words is part of the process of learning a new language. Building up your vocabulary is one of the more important things to achieve, because to speak you need to know the words that express your ideas, and to be fluent in a language means also to know exactly the words needed. But this is also quite though to achieve. It requires time. The problem is that when you learn a word you work with your short-term memory, so you store this word in a place of your brain from where it will probably disappear if you don’t use it again.
To remember words for a longer time and solidly build up your vocabulary, you have to store the words in your long-term memory. This means you have to transfer the words from the short-term memory, where they enter, to the long-term memory. It’s like painting: if you do just one coat without due preparation, the colour will fade, but if you do more coats properly prepared, the colour will stay nicely for years. Let’s now say that the wall is your brain and the paint is the new word you learn: working on it just once will make the word fade from your brain, but repetition will make it stay.
How do you achieve it? Exactly like that: through repetition. This doesn’t mean you have to sit there and repeat like a broken record the new words hundreds of time: this won’t help you much. What is more useful is, apart from eventually repeating the new words, using them in context and creating connections, because creating connection corresponds also to physically creating more neural connections in the neurons of your brain where the words are stored.
There are a few practical ways to do this. You can try and see what works better for you. Actually, deciding what works better for you is also an important step. There are several ways and techniques when it comes to learning, but if something works for me it doesn’t mean that it will surely work out for you. Everybody is different (“Il mondo è bello perché è vario”, “the world is beautiful because it’s varied”, we say in Italian), meaning that everybody has also a different approach and a different way to go through the learning process.
Going now to the ways to do this, here’s what you can do:
1. Write the words down.
Going through writing adds more effort into learning the words, as it adds manual work and gives you a visual result (the written word) that will make your new words being more repeated and have more neural connections. What can be useful is having one of those notebooks shaped like an address book, so that under each letter you can write the new words beginning with that letter.
e.g. if you learn the Italian word indirizzo, meaning address, you can write it under the letter i.
To add something extra and go a step further, not so much if you are an absolute beginner in a language but if you are a little more advanced, you can also try to accompany each new word with a definition in the same language you’re learning.
e.g. if you learn the Italian word titubante you can also add “indeciso su cosa fare, che non sa cosa fare”, you can see that the definition doesn’t have to be something difficult, just use what you know and what you can manage.
2. Say the words out loud
Speaking the words out loud can help improve your memory of them in a similar way as writing them down, because by adding more work through the speaking process and by giving you the new word also in sound it makes the same word be more repeated and, as a consequence, have more connections.
Moreover, this also helps you practicing your pronunciation by physically training on one side your body to articulate in that particular way, and on the other side your ear to realize if you get the sounds right.
e.g. from my own experience as teacher I’ve noticed that, because of the pronunciation rules of their own language, some Dutch people have problems in saying properly the Italian word moglie (meaning wife). So if, for example, a Dutch person would say out loud the word moglie to learn it, this would also help improving the pronunciation by adding the effort to say it correctly.
3. Create synonyms and opposites
Of course this won’t work for every word you learn, but for many it can be useful to reason in synonyms and opposites. What I mean is that when you learn a new word you might want to learn (or recall if you already learnt) also an opposite and a synonym (if they are available). This will add some extra work to create those handy neural connections, and will really build that suitcase called vocabulary because you will become used to play with your words, switching from one to the other… and what is better than this to give also some extra mental elasticity?
e.g. if you learn the Italian word gentile (meaning kind), you might want to learn also the opposite sgarbato (meaning unkind), and the synonyms cortese and garbato.
4. Create groups
This is similar to the previous one. When you learn a word, try to learn also the other words coming from the same root. For example, if you learn an adjective, try to learn also the noun, the adverb and the verb coming from the same root, of course whenever they are actually available. This will help again in creating and strengthening those needed neural connections and building your vocabulary; imagine the bricks are the words and you want to build a wall (i.e. your vocabulary): would you prefer constructing it putting brick by brick (and sometimes the same brick over and over because it keeps falling) or putting more bricks together that reinforce each other?
e.g. if you learn the Italian adjective lento (slow), try to learn also the noun lentezza (meaning slow pace), the adverb lentamente (meaning slowly), and the verb rallentare (meaning to slow down).
5 Create sentences
After you learn a word, try to make sentences with it. It doesn’t have to be anything long or complicated (of course, it depends also on the level you are when you learn the new word), what is important is that you make the effort to produce something (remember, understanding is always simpler than speaking or writing) using what you know. This is actually a nice exercise because it not only improves your vocabulary and creates more neural connections to your new words, but makes you work also on your grammar and gets you used to produce ideas in the language you’re learning (again producing your ideas is more complicated than just understanding). Furthermore, it makes you understand better the new words you learn by using them in a context, in a situation.
e.g. if you learn the Italian adjective grande (meaning big), you can make the sentence “Vedo una casa grande ” (meaning I see a big house) or, if you are at a higher level than this and you want something more complicated “Penso che la tua casa sia grande” (I think your house is big).
One final remark: remember than, as in most cases, what is important is to be constant. After you learn a word, don’t let it just sit there because you’ll probably forget it, but try to use it every once in a while through the exercises that I’ve just showed here.
So, my lovelies, let me know how all this works for you, and what is your experience. Ciao ciao!