How to Effectively Memorize Words in a Foreign Language: 5 Foolproof Techniques
To memorize a ton of vocabulary, you’ll need to channel your inner elephant.
Your memory is kind of like a muscle. With the right strategies, plus consistent hard work, you’ll be able to memorize foreign language vocabulary efficiently and long-term.
Let’s take a closer look at how memory works from a language learning perspective.
- How Your Brain Stores New Words
- How to Memorize Words in a Foreign Language
How Your Brain Stores New Words
Memories are the result of our brains encoding information so we can access it later. Psychologists have suggested that this process takes place in three stages: encoding, storage and retrieval. For language learners, understanding these three stages can help you maximize your own vocabulary memorization.
Stage one, encoding, can occur through pictures, sound or meaning. In other words, you can remember a new vocabulary word through seeing it, hearing it or learning its definition. Both longterm and short term memory use all three of these routes to encode information.
The second stage, storage, involves holding information for a short or extended period of time. Most adults keep only a few items in their short term memory at once, while longterm memory has a much larger, perhaps unlimited, capacity. For learning a new language, we obviously want to hold vocabulary in our longterm memory.
The third stage, retrieval, is also crucial—you’ll never remember a foreign word if you can’t pull it out of memory storage. The key here is that longterm memory works by association, meaning the organization and context of information is key to retrieving it. This principle underlies several of the vocabulary memorization tips we’ll cover below.
So now that we know how memory works, let’s talk about some ways to improve your memorization.
How to Memorize Words in a Foreign Language
1. Set a Schedule for Daily Practice
Ever wonder how musicians memorize their music? They play it over and over again, sometimes breaking it up until they can play a piece seamlessly. It’s a process, but it pays off on stage. Language is like that too—it needs to be used repetitively.
To make this as easy as possible, set a schedule so that vocabulary practice becomes a natural part of your day-to-day routine. If you’re a morning person, plan half an hour before you get dressed every day. If you’ve got a long work schedule, try to take time during your lunch break.
It can also be helpful to build rewards into your schedule so you have incentives to stick with it. For example, you can treat yourself to a guilty pleasure snack after a full week of daily practice.
2. Group New Words by Theme
Create lists of similar words grouped by theme or category. For example, you might make lists of color words, types of food, verbs for physical actions, etc. in your target language.
Organizing words into categories breaks down the much longer list of vocabulary into easier to memorize chunks. As noted above, creating these types of associations is key to cementing new words in your longterm memory. I personally like to write themed word lists vertically on a sheet of paper, with the English translations on the opposite side.
Aside from creating connections in your memory, this technique can also boost your motivation to memorize new words. By giving yourself small, manageable lists to work with, you won’t get overwhelmed or burned out so easily.
3. Use Old School and New School Flashcards
While they may seem old school, flashcards are a great way to drill new target language words into your brain. They’re simple, customizable and easy to use. All you need are some pieces of paper or index cards and a pen. I personally like to use two different colors of ink—one for the English and one for the foreign language.
This exercise works even better if you say the word aloud as your run your cards, to help with memorization and pronunciation in one go.
Are you more of a tech-savvy language learner? There are plenty of cool digital flashcard options, too:
- Quizlet allows you to create and use your own flashcards online or search for existing flashcard sets. That means it’s a perfect tool both for drilling a specific word set or testing yourself on overall vocabulary knowledge.
To find relevant flashcards, just type your target language in the search bar on top of the homepage. Best of all, you can take your cards anywhere since Quizlet also has mobile apps.
- The app and website Chegg functions in a similar way, with more than 400 million flashcards and study tools already uploaded. Theses range from high school to college to the professional level. And if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, you can create your own cards, for free!
4. Learn from Authentic Contexts
Which do you think is easier: memorizing a series of random words and translations, or memorizing words used in real contexts with actual native speakers?
Probably the latter, right? It just makes sense that when we’re engaged with words and hearing them in authentic contexts, they’ll stick in our brains better.
Whether you’re reading news articles online, watching a viral video or listening to a song that you just can’t get out of your head, immersing yourself in these activities can make new words stick with relatively little effort.
Of course, you can seek out these resources on your own, but there are a number of language learning programs that bring authentic contexts right to your computer or phone screen.
On the language learning program FluentU, for instance, you learn with authentic videos featuring native speakers like informational talks, trailers and music videos.
Each video comes with interactive captions you can click to get a definition, pronunciation, text and video examples and visual learning aid for any word. You can save key words as flashcards to vocabulary lists, then review them with personalized quizzes that adapt to your learning speed to boost your memorization.
Authentic context can make a world of difference in long-term vocabulary recall. It can greatly enhance your understanding of a language in an engaging and dynamic manner, so you’ll be far less likely to forget material.
5. Use Your Words!
Challenge yourself to use the words you’re memorizing as often as possible in real-life situations. By using them in context, you’ll not only remember them better, they’ll also feel more relevant to you in your journey to fluency.
After using flashcards, I like to challenge myself. I’ll try writing a paragraph or letter with my new vocabulary (and without using my lists or a dictionary). I’ll also record myself using my phone, just talking on a random topic, and try to incorporate a handful of new words.
Better yet, to make sure you’re actually using new words the right way, try to work them into conversation with a language exchange partner or in a post on a language discussion forum.
Testing yourself like this is a way to put all the practice time to work, and when it goes right, it’ll boost your confidence to use your target language with a native speaker.
Memorization in a foreign language is the steep part of the language learning mountain. Once you find some strategies that work for you, the process becomes smoother. Set time aside, even a coffee break, to work through your lists or flashcards, either paper or online.
Using a new language to communicate with others is a challenge worth the effort. Once we have a handle on the grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary, we need a boost of confidence to use our new skill. Practicing and building up a strong memory can do that for you.