Learning Vocabulary

When I was at school, we had a geometry lesson once a week for a year. At the start of each lesson, the teacher would draw on the blackboard an icon for each of the theorems that we had learned so far; occasionally he would ask somebody to state the theorem that he had just drawn, so we all had to pay attention. It seemed boring at the time, particulary toward the end when there would be 30 little icons on the board before we started 'the proper studying'... but most of those theorems stayed in my head for years.

When you see a word for the first time, it goes into short term memory: you can remember it for an hour or so but a week later it will probably be gone. Repetition is essential for learning: you need to see and say the same word at least three times, preferably within a short space of time, to get it into your long term memory... and then occasionally boost your memory by either using or reviewing the word.

If you simply memorize a list of words in a foreign language and the corresponding words in your own language, you will probably learn to associate the word in the foreign language with the word in your own language. This is useful if you simply want to translate the foreign language into your own, but you probably actually want to have conversations in the foreign language: for that, you need to be able to think in the foreign language.

To think in a foreign language, you need to associate the foreign word with the meaning (a thing, an action, etc) it describes, rather than the word in your own language. When you want to learn a new word, you should read it and/or listen to somebody saying it, then visualise the meaning of the word. For example, if the word is 'cough', think of somebody you know coughing. If you can think of something funny or impolite, you are more likely to remember it! Next, say it out loud three times, and try to think of sentences that use the word.

The most effective way of learning vocabulary is with an app that uses Spaced Repetition System. The Egyptian Arabic Dictionary apps all use this: alternatively, you can use an app like Anki. Anki can also be used to learn a whole lot of other things!

With the app, you can create a personal vocabulary list. To start with, the app picks a small group of words from your list. It repeats them randomly until you say you are confident with all of the words, then it adds a word at a time to the set. It concentrates on the added words, but occasionally throws in a word that you have said that you are confident about, just to make sure.

The best way to use the app is to start by adding and learning 10 words a day: if that seems easy, you can increase it to 20 a day. Conversely, you can decrease to 5 a day if you are struggling.

Learn the words you've added by reading and listening to the word, saying it out loud three times, visualising the thing or activity that the word relates to, reading the example sentences and making your own sentences that use the word. Try to learn the gender, plurals etc at the same time: it's not as easy to 'hook in' additional information later.

Once a week, go back to revise the week's words. The app remembers which words you had difficulty with first time, and will initially concentrate on those.

You can also do a monthly revision session, or even dive in and be tested on your entire vocabulary list!

Mike Green 24Sep2015

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