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15 Techniques to Help You Memorize Vocabulary in Foreign Language

To memorize a ton of vocabulary, you need to channel your inner elephant.

Your memory is kind of like a muscle. With the right strategies, plus consistent hard work, you can memorize foreign language vocabulary efficiently and retain them for the long term.

First, let’s take a closer look at how memory works from a language learning perspective.

Contents

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 acquisition.

  • Encoding can occur through exposure to pictures, sound or meaning. In other words, you can remember a new vocabulary word through seeing it, hearing it or learning its definition. Both long-term and short-term memory use all three of these routes to encode information.
  • Storage involves holding information for a certain period of time. Most adults keep only a few items in their short-term memory at once, while long-term memory has a much larger, and possibly unlimited, capacity. For learning a new language, you’d naturally want to hold vocabulary in your long-term memory.
  • Retrieval, the final stage, is crucial—you won’t be able to remember a foreign word if you can’t pull it out of your memory storage. Put in another way, long-term 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 I’ll cover below.

Now that you 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 long 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 daily 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.

2. Build Rewards Into Your Schedule

When you’re memorizing vocabulary day in and day out, it can become tiresome and demotivating—especially if you don’t have concrete incentives to stick with it.

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Aside from having a routine, it’s also important to reward yourself for a job well done. For example, you can treat yourself to a guilty pleasure snack after a full week of daily practice.

3. Switch Up Your Vocabulary Acquisition Methods

Aside from exhaustion and demotivation, monotony can also get in the way of your learning. For example, flashcards are a great way to pick up new vocabulary, but they don’t always put words in context. In the same way, if your routine only consists of reading language textbooks, you might miss out on opportunities to apply what you’ve learned in the “real world.”

Instead, you can do flashcards on Monday, read textbooks on Tuesday, marathon TV shows and movies in your target language on Wednesday and so on. This way, you’ll be exposed to new vocabulary in a variety of contexts and applications. Of course, feel free to experiment until you find the specific combination and schedule for learning methods that work best for you.

4. Use Old School and New School Flashcards

I know I mentioned a quick caveat to flashcards earlier, but they’re still a great way to drill new target language words into your brain.

For starters, 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 English and one for the foreign language. This exercise works even better if you say the words out loud as you run your cards to help with memorization and pronunciation in one go.

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Are you more of a tech-savvy language learner? There are plenty of cool digital flashcard options, too. For example:

  • 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 and testing yourself on your 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 is also available for iOS and Android.
  • Chegg functions in a similar way, with more than 500 million flashcards and study tools already uploaded. These range from high school to the professional level. And if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, you can create your own cards for free!

If you’re convinced that flashcards are a great idea (and they are!), check out this article for more language learning flashcard apps you can use.

5. Group New Words by Theme

Create lists of similar words grouped by theme or category. For example, you might make lists of words for colors, 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 more digestible chunks. As noted above, creating these types of associations is key to cementing new words in your long-term 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.

6. Focus on the Most Useful Vocabulary to You (For the Time Being)

Another way to keep yourself from being overwhelmed is to limit the vocabulary you want to learn to the words you’re most likely to use. In fact, this technique has a scientific basis behind it—whether you have a “good” memory or not, you remember new words more easily when you have a solid reason to do so.

For example, if you plan to work in a Chinese company, you’ll make the most of your studies by focusing on essential business Chinese vocabulary. If you’re volunteering as a doctor in a Latin American country that isn’t Brazil, French Guinea, Guyana or Suriname, medical Spanish will be your new best friend.

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Since you’re going to use these specialized vocabulary words again and again in context, you’re more likely to remember them. You can then build on this knowledge and branch out into other aspects of your target language like general vocabulary, grammar and more—pushing you even closer to native-level fluency!

7. Use Mnemonics or Other Word Association Techniques

If you’re studying a language like Chinese and Japanese, you probably know that their writing systems are based on ideograms, where words are in the form of visual representations of concepts, ideas, etc. (This is in contrast to, say, Romance or Germanic languages, which use a standardized alphabet to represent the way words are spelled and pronounced.)

In that case, you have a bit of a leg up over many other language learners, because you can, for example, picture the character for “fish” in both languages (魚) as a fish facing upward with a hook in its mouth.

But don’t despair if your target language uses the Latin or Roman alphabet instead. Mnemonics can come in handy for these languages, too. For example, if you want to remember that the Spanish word for “carry” is cargar and not cagar (which can also mean “screw up” or a word you don’t use in polite company), you can use a mnemonic like “You need to carry an extra R, or you’ll screw up and be in the s**t.”

Of course, you can always make up your own mnemonic or word association technique. Different things trigger different memories in different people, after all. (For example, whenever I come across the word “magazine,” I automatically picture the stacks of old copies of Reader’s Digest back in my childhood home.) The important thing is that the mnemonic works for you. And if you need ideas on creating mnemonics and the science behind them, check out this PsychCentral article.

8. Practice Naming Everyday Things in Your Target Language

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.

For example, if you’re learning Spanish, you can think to yourself Ah, mi casa! (Ah, my house!) every time you set foot inside your home after a long day at work. If you’re studying Japanese and you’re in the shower, you can call the water mizu (if you’re using the kun’yomi or native Japanese reading) or sui (if you’re using the on’yomi or reading based on the Chinese pronunciation).

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Compared to mnemonics, this technique helps you build a more direct association between the words you’re learning and their meanings. It also trains you to think in your target language as much as possible, which helps you pick up new words much faster than if you’re simply translating them into your native language.

9. Read as Much as You Can in Your Target Language

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you no longer have to lug around a giant dictionary every time you get stumped by a word in a book. You can simply download that book to an e-reader like a Kindle or Kobo. E-readers allow you to look up the definition of or translate any word. Just tap on the word in question and you’ll pull up a detailed entry about it.

Not only does reading increase the chances of you encountering new words, but it also allows you to see those words in context—making them easier to remember. You can then write them down, check them with your language textbook or online tutor and learn more about how the words are used. You don’t want to accidentally use an archaic word in modern everyday conversation, after all.

10. Pick Up New Vocabulary From Songs

Let’s be real: no matter how determined we are to pick up a new language, there are times when the usual learning techniques just don’t cut it. In that case, why not spice up your vocabulary learning routine with music—specifically, songs? (And no, I’m not just talking about the background music you line up on Spotify while you study.)

There are so many ways to learn vocab from songs. You can listen to the song in its original language and look up the translation online. You can listen to the song in its original and translated forms. Or you can make it extra challenging and listen to the song without looking up its translation at all and try to make sense of it as you listen. Chances are there will be words you understand and words you need to look up in a dictionary. 

Regardless of the method you use, you’ll end up forming an association between the words you already know and the words you have yet to know. In fact, research has shown that music can help you remember words better than plain spoken language can. Hey, there’s a reason Disney songs from back in the day are still popular!

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11. Watch Authentic Videos That Are Appropriate to Your Language Level

As you’ve seen, whether you’re reading books 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, like the FluentU program.

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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’re far less likely to forget the new material.

12. (Try To) Write In Your Target Language

I’ve already given you a few techniques for learning new vocabulary. Now it’s time to apply what you’ve learned!

Personally, I’ll try writing a paragraph or letter with my new vocabulary (and without using my lists or a dictionary). I’ll also try to make posts on language learning forums in my target language, so I can get constructive feedback from other learners. 

If the idea of writing on a public forum gives you the heebie-jeebies, you can also have a diary where you can write random thoughts in your target language. Don’t worry about getting the grammar right for now—your goal is to see how well you understand the new words and how to use them in context. You can always clean up any mistakes later.

13. Record Yourself Saying the New Words Out Loud

Sometimes, I also record myself using my phone, just talking about a random topic, and try to incorporate a handful of new words. This way, I can further reinforce what I’ve learned about those words and their context. I can also play back the recording later, listen for any issues with pronunciation and usage and rinse and repeat—or have my language exchange partner do it for me. 

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14. Get Yourself a Good Language Exchange Partner

To make sure you’re actually using new words the right way, try to work them into your conversations with a language exchange partner. In case this is the first time you’re hearing the phrase “language exchange partner,” it’s exactly what it sounds like: you ask someone who’s fluent in your target language to teach you their language in exchange for you doing the same for them.

Luckily, there are plenty of apps where you can find language exchange partners. The challenging part is finding someone whose personality meshes well enough with yours that you’d feel comfortable talking to them for an extended period of time, but is also knowledgeable and tactful enough to correct you whenever you make mistakes. It’s a lot like dating—it takes time to find the right person, but when you do, it’s more than worth it!

15. Don’t Be Scared to Make Mistakes

I know this is probably the least concrete piece of advice I’ve given so far. But I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to keep your morale high when you’re learning a new language.

If you keep beating yourself up because you mixed up mierda and miedo (and, to be fair, Spanish has plenty of confusing words), you’re going to feel too miserable to try to pick up any more new words. Instead, you can laugh it off with your Spanish language partner and say something like “Remember the time I said something like ‘I’m poop?’ when I was trying to say ‘I’m afraid?’ I’ll never forget what mierda and miedo mean ever again!”

 

Memorization in a foreign language is the steep part of the language learning mountain. Once you find the strategies that work for you, the process becomes smoother. Set aside time (like your coffee break) to work through your lists or flashcards, and try to apply what you’ve learned in authentic contexts as much as you can.

Using a new language to communicate with others is a challenge worth the effort. Once you have a good handle on vocabulary, you can become confident enough to move up to the more complex aspects of language. And you can do all that by practicing and building up strong memory techniques.

And One More Thing...

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With FluentU, you'll learn real languages—as they're spoken by native speakers. FluentU has a wide variety of videos as you can see here:

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