You’ve come here because you’re thinking: Why the %#@! can’t I learn foreign vocabulary?
Let me ask you a few questions before we proceed.
Is your brain all muddled up with huge lists of words but unable to deploy the proper vocabulary in conversation?
Have you tried memorizing words with flashcard apps, only to find that you can’t fit these isolated words into full-on sentences?
In this situation, we’ll always end up blaming ourselves and our own bad memories. Other people, we think, are good at memorizing words—but we just don’t have that ability.
There’s also a chance we’ll pass the blame on to our flashcard apps and waste precious time testing all the available options, instead of spending that time learning our target languages.
Let’s put the blame game to rest and figure out what’s really going on here.
Why Your Brain Forgets Isolated Foreign Vocabulary
The real problem has nothing to do with some genetic ability. The real problem is that you’re too trusting.
You believe the common wisdom that learning vocabulary is as simple as learning loads of words. It isn’t.
Your brain has not developed to remember isolated words. Neuroscience has found that our working memory has developed to remember short patterns of no more than four items at a time. That’s only one more thing than a monkey can hold in its memory.
It doesn’t matter how many individual words you memorize. Without fitting the words into patterns, your brain will have trouble retrieving them in the heat of the moment.
The Solution: Hack Your Brain with Chunking
Thankfully, science has also come up with a foolproof way to harness our brain’s natural abilities: Chunking.
With chunking, you find self-contained groups of words and learn them as one unit.
Simply put, chunking is learning phrases.
You mean by using phrasebooks? I hear you asking.
Lets use an example to demonstrate chunking. I’ll take the following phrase from this list of advanced Spanish phrases:
¿Qué pelicula te gustaba mucho cuando eras niño/a? — What film did you love as a kid?
This is a pretty long phrase, which contains far more words than the three or four items needed for a chunk. You don’t want your chunk to be too long and complicated, either.
It’s actually made up of a few chunks. For example, two of these could be:
Te gustaba mucho — You really liked/loved
Cuando eras niño/a — When you were a boy/girl
These phrases both sound natural, and are extremely versatile. Now you have two proper phrases that you can mix and match with others to form new sentences.
Sometimes, chunks don’t make sense when you try to analyze the words separately. For example, take this French phrase:
Ça te dit? — You up for it? or Sound good?
These words literally mean something like “It tells you?” This is pretty nonsensical, but as a casually-used phrase the words come together to make complete sense.
5 Steps to Use Chunking to Learn Any Foreign Vocabulary
Learning through chunking is as simple as “one, two, five” but it can take a bit of getting used to. You have to retrain yourself not to just look things up in a foreign dictionary, learn the isolated word and then leave it at that. You need to get into the practice of combining the words into little phrases.
Here are four steps to help you, plus a great shortcut in Step 5.
1. Gather Your Vocabulary
The first step to use chunking is to list all the words you want to learn. So, grab a piece of paper or a blank document and list down all the words you need to memorize.
Haven’t got any specific foreign vocabulary you need to learn? You can skip this step and go straight to the phrase-finding.
2. Find Some Great Phrases
Next, you should find some phrases that use those words. If you can double up words into one phrase, then you’ll reduce the amount you have to memorize. That’s not necessary though—it’s fine if you can’t fit the words on your list together. The main goal is to find a phrase for each word on the list.
Where to Find Great Foreign Phrases
Here are four places to find useful, correct foreign phrases. Don’t rely on automatic translators, which might produce badly worded phrases.
Also, focus on finding phrases made up of useful chunks, not sentences that will only make sense in one situation.
The good old fashioned phrasebook can be a good starting place. However, before buying one, make sure that it’s of full sentences, not just word lists. It’s surprising that many modern phrasebooks are filled mostly with isolated lists of words.
One excellent option that never fails is Lonely Planet. The phrasebooks put out by Lonely Planet go way beyond a handful of words.
- Online Phrase Lists
The modern version is the online phrase list. These are easy to search and there are more being written on blogs every day.
- Books and Other Learning Material
When you’re reading in another language, list those words that you don’t know. This is part of the intensive reading strategies that you should definitely be using to boost your language learning.
Be sure to copy out a whole chunk from the text, not just one word alone.
As an example, here’s a sentence from a random book in English, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” by Charles Dickens:
“At these words he fell into a reverie, in which he thought of several things.”
The word to learn, reverie, means “a state of being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts; a daydream.” It’s not a very common word, so it could be hard to remember
But the chunk we can use is “fell into a reverie.“ This chunk means something like “started daydreaming.” Keeping these words together will be easier for us to remember than just trying to learn the word alone.
Firstly, you can learn the whole phrase “at these words he fell into a reverie.” Then, when you’ve really learned it, try shaking it up by following Step 4 below.
Videos are a great place to find vocabulary in context, with the added bonus that they already include the correct pronunciation.
YouTube, along with other online services, are full of videos where you can find useful phrases. Many of them also have subtitles or “closed captions” which allow you to see the phrase written down.
However, for a shortcut, FluentU provides a completely self-contained vocabulary learning system, which uses chunking and includes subtitles. The most useful videos are already chosen for you, meaning you can spend less time “sentence mining” and more time learning.
Jump to the bonus Step 5 at the end of this post to find out more about FluentU.
3. Learn the Phrases by Heart
Once you’ve gathered some phrases, you need to learn them all by heart. You can do this the same way you used to learn individual words. For example, you can:
1. Play recordings of the phrase and repeat it back until you can say it properly (try Google Translate’s “Listen” button if you have no recording of the phrase). Then, record yourself and compare with the original.
2. Put the whole phrase into your favorite flashcard app and learn it in the usual way.
3. Use mnemonics to fix the chunk into your brain.
4. Write down the phrase from memory and compare it to the original phrase.
There are many ways to remember phrases which are really quick and effective.
4. Shake It Up to Avoid Over-reliance on Scripts
Learning specific phrases by heart is fine, but it can mean that you’ll become overly reliant on scripts. If you’re memorizing those scripts, you might not be able to change them up in conversation. You want your phrases to be flexible.
The real power of chunking is that you can reuse the same chunk in many different phrases.
So, taking our example of the chunk “fell into a reverie” from the last step. The original phrase “at these words he fell into a reverie” might not be very useful in most situations. But here are some other possible phrases you can use this chunk in:
- We were chatting, then suddenly she stopped talking and fell into a reverie.
- After watching the film I fell into a reverie for ages, it really made me think.
- My grandpa used to fall into a reverie every time we talked about the war.
If appropriate, use the chunk often in conversation and when talking to yourself—try to say it out loud 10 times in a day and see how effective it is.
Changing the chunk
Some chunks are self-contained and only make sense as a unit. However, many words can be applied to lots of chunks. When you’ve learned your first chunk, you might want to apply the same word to a new chunk.
For our word “reverie,” we could use the following chunks:
- When writing his sermon, the priest drifted in and out of reverie.
- My five-year-old broke out of her reverie and asked a difficult question.
- He tried to rouse her from her reverie.
I found these chunks by searching for terms like “a reverie,” “her reverie,” “into reverie,” “out of reverie,” etc. (with the quotation marks included) in Google Book Search and Google News Search, which are multilingual resources.
5. See Chunking in Action in Under 2 Minutes with FluentU
Still not convinced that learning phrases in context is the best way to learn new foreign vocabulary?
Sign up for a free account with FluentU to see it in action. Simply go to the homepage and click the “Sign Up For Free” button.
FluentU takes videos from all around the web in your target language. With dynamic subtitles, it teaches you loads of new vocabulary using a few methods. As well as learning the individual meanings of words, it takes phrases directly from the video and applies the vocabulary to meaningful chunks, ensuring that you can use the vocabulary in context.
So, sign up now and check it out. It’s free and is a great demonstration of how chunking in practice is an easy, quick and lasting way to learn foreign vocabulary.
Alex Owen-Hill is a European freelance writer. He writes about science, travel, voice-use, language and any of the hundred other things he’s passionate about. Check out his website at www.AlexOwenHill.co.uk. Any questions? Connect with him on Twitter at @AlexOwenHill and ask away!
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