One thing I love is self-study. I even have a course, Successful Self-Study, dedicated to teaching you how to improve your language learning when you’re doing it solo.
And one question I’m always asked about is how to learn vocabulary. So when I was chatting with Gabriel, one half of Clark and Miller, and he shared the idea for this blog post with 2 self-study techniques to help speed up learning vocabulary, I knew I had to invite him to share it right here. Take it away…!
“Why can’t my brain just learn this! It’s just information, after all!”
This is my regular cry of frustration. And a fair point, too.
But no matter how much we’d like it to be, learning new vocabulary isn’t like learning how to cook a new dish, or what to do at the gym, or the names and sizes of the lakes and rivers of southern Mongolia.
It isn’t just a case of “absorbing information.” There’s a complicated, mysterious system that comes into play when language is involved, covering areas of psychology, identity and emotion. And why shouldn’t there be? Language is a living, complex being that reflects the complexity of the human condition itself.
In short, language is slippery.
In this post, I’d like to look at two strategies we can use to make our way across this slippery landscape of language learning without falling over too much, and thus make faster progress.
Why did I choose these particular two? These learning strategies complement each other. One of them works on a general level — I’m going to call it the meta-level strategy — and the other on the everyday level — the micro-level strategy.
The micro-level strategy is the more fun and juicy one, but first, let’s check out the meta-level strategy.
The meta-level strategy
We’ve all done it. You sit down on a Sunday morning and study until 5 p.m. Feeling pleased with yourself, you consider progress made, and put your feet up. Perhaps feeling a bit smart and smug.
The following Sunday you sit down for another learning session, have a quick look at the previous week’s vocab and find that … you’ve forgotten almost everything.
“I must be one of those people who just can’t learn a language,” you think. Your motivation goes out the window and you console yourself by thinking of all those famous and successful people who never learned another language. As if that somehow makes sense.
But the problem isn’t you. It’s the way you study.
You’re probably intuitively aware of the fact that when you study more regularly in shorter study sessions, you tend to remember much more than when you do the opposite: study intensively, but less regularly.
If that’s the case, then well done. You intuitively understand the (confirmed) theory of “Distributed Practice.”
Distributed Practice is basically the study of how frequent and how long study sessions need to be in order to be more effective.
So how effective is Distributed Practice?
What the studies have found is that, although they don’t perform quite as well in the short term, those who use Distributed Practice remember up to twice as many words in the long term as those who don’t.
But we know all this, right? As language learners, we’ve figured out that regular practice is better than intensive study sessions. Surely this is just some science to back up common sense?
But there’s more!
It isn’t all just about sticking to regular study sessions. The studies on vocab learning and Distributed Practice have also revealed some pleasantly surprising results.
The regularity of the practice session is not the only factor at play here. How much time you leave between those sessions also makes a difference. How long should you leave between sessions? Well it turns out that longer gaps are more effective than shorter gaps within the same time period, at least for long-term retention.
Yes, that’s right. Less studying can actually be more effective.
But I’d be giving terrible advice if I just said “study less.” Of course we need to get that crucial spacing right. So what’s the ideal period of time? No one seems to completely agree on this, but what’s clear is that gradually increasing the space between study sessions helps. One particular study showed clearly that spacing over a period of 2 days, then 5, then 9 then 15 was particularly effective.
So here’s how I’m framing my advice:
Let’s say you learn a set of new words on a Monday. Don’t go back to revise those words until Wednesday. Then leave it until Saturday. Then the following Wednesday. Then a full two weeks (if you haven’t nailed it by then).
So … in it for the long(ish) haul? A cornerstone of successful learning is organisation.
Set aside 5 minutes a day and distribute your revision. Don’t feel bad when a week goes by and you haven’t done more. That regularity will work wonders!
Especially if you combine this with my next piece of advice:
The micro-level strategy
In 2012, I started learning Russian. Although I’d learned a foreign language before (Turkish), Russian was not coming easily (as the Turkish phrase goes).
Then I discovered what I call “memory hooking” and managed to eat up vast tracts of new words for breakfast (possible exaggeration).
How does it work? Well, it’s similar to the memory championships.
Have you ever read about these memory championships that seem to be a thing now? These guys can remember things like 1,000 binary digits in five minutes, or a deck of cards in 20 seconds.
The remarkable thing about these guys is that none of them claims that their ability to remember eight decks of cards in a number of minutes is innate. It’s all down to simple techniques.
What are the techniques?
We’ll go through one of them in detail below. But first, the sciencey bit:
Researchers in the psychology community were particularly fond of “memory” as an area of study back in the ‘70s. (They got into a lot of mad stuff in the 70s.) In one important study, subjects were presented with 12 random word pairs (e.g. “dog” and “bicycle”) and asked to remember them. They generally ended up remembering about 33% of the pairs.
Then they were given a new set of word pairs and asked to create an image in their heads combining the two words (e.g. an image of a dog riding a bicycle). This time, the same subjects ended up with an 80% retention rate. Much better, no?
It’s all down to the way we remember stuff. Evolutionarily speaking, reading and writing have been a part of our psychological makeup for only a short period of time, but sounds and images have been with us right from the start. Images are particularly strong.
So how does this apply to learning new vocabulary?
Well, also in the ‘70s (fun times), a guy called Atkinson looked at the implications of this research and applied it to learning new vocabulary.
Here’s how his system works:
When most of us learn a new word, we tend to form a linear connection between the new word (how it sounds and how it looks) and the meaning in our native language (usually some sort of image):
If we follow Atkinson’s logic, we can create what I call a “triangle of meaning” with three points:
… much like the guys learning word pairs in the ‘70s.
Here’s how the above example works for me:
Here I imagine myself throwing a cooler off the tower. Because that would be really fun, right? “Cooler” sounds like “кула/koola”, which means tower. Triangle closed!
Remember that the more unusual, shocking or even lewd the images are, the more likely you’re going to remember them.
Here are some examples from my Russian and Bulgarian learning experiences:
(Notice that we can use our own language to make these connections. In fact, I’ve found it particularly effective).
It may feel counterproductive to spend a little extra time for every new word you encounter, but it’s well worth it. You’re saving yourself a lot of time in the future by shortcutting the learning process like this.
So although the complexities of languages mean that learning them requires much more than simply ingesting information, there are ways to make the process faster, more enjoyable and actually ridiculously hilarious on occasion (I’m thinking of some particular memory hooks of mine right now that I really can’t share here).
Go ahead and give it a go. You’ll be surprised what you’re capable of.
Chances are, you’re already applying some of these ideas already. What techniques do you use when you have to learn new words and is there a way you can strengthen them.
Gabriel also gave a few references that he’s mentioned in this post…
Bahrick, H. P., Bahrick, L. E., Bahrick, A. S., Bahrick, P. E. (1993). Maintenance of foreign language vocabulary and the spacing effect. Psychological Science, 4(5). 316-321.
Bloom, K. C., & Shuell, T. J. (1981). Effects of massed and distributed practice on the learning and retention of second-language vocabulary. The Journal of Educational Research, 74(4). 245-248.
Fritz, C. O., & Morris, P. E. (2010). Distributed practice learning foreign vocabulary — the effects of interval length. https://www.phase-6.com/system/galleries/download/lernsoftware/phase-6-2010-exec-summary.pdf
Rohrer, D., Pashler, H. (2007). Increasing retention without increasing study time. Current directions in psychological science, 132. 354-380.
Bower, G.H. (1972). Mental imagery and associative learning. In L. Gregg (Ed.), Cognition in learning and memory, 51-88.
Atkinson, R. C. (1975). Mnemotechnics in second-language learning. American Psychologist, 3 (8), 821-828.
How do you strengthen your vocabulary learning? Have you tried any of Gabriel’s techniques? Share how it goes in the comments!