August 18

How to Remember Words / Vocabulary in English

One problem that a lot of people have when they're learning English is that it's difficult to remember words. You may see a word one day and then forget what it means the next day, and when you have to use it in speech, you forget that word and you can't remember it.

In this post I want to run through some ideas, tips and techniques that you can use to remember words more effectively in English.

Why people often forget words in English 

Your brain likes to learn through making connections, you often remember where you were when you smelled a smell or when you met a person for the first time. You connect these things together. You may also remember where you were when you tasted a specific food. Your brain likes to make associations.

Therefore, when you're learning vocabulary you need to make these kinds of connections. If you just learn words from a list, it's very difficult to remember and make those connections. 

Secondly, people are often learning lists of vocabulary that other people have made. The problem with this is that these vocabulary lists are not related to your own life and your own studies. That's why it's better to make your own vocabulary lists, so that way you can make more connections and it will be more personal to you, so you will remember the words more easily.

Learning vocabulary the natural way

In fact, the most natural way to learn English is just by listening to and reading more English, not really trying to learn a lot of vocabulary at all. If you are just learning from a list, it's a very unnatural way to learn.

Try to choose texts where you can understand 60 to 70%. When you come across a new word, you could look it up in the dictionary or online, make a note of that word, and learn in a more natural way. 

As you see words more often, you will remember them more effectively and the act of looking up a word online or in a dictionary will help you to remember it.

How to make vocabulary lists

However, in practice, sometimes you do need to write words down in order to remember them, especially older learners. You may find that it's difficult to just remember words just by looking them up, so you may need to make lists of vocabulary and new words.

My advice to you would be not to just learn words by themselves: learn full sentences. This will teach you how the words are used. You will remember the context of how that vocabulary is used in a sentence. I recommend that when you write down example sentences for a new word, you write down at least two sentences, so you can see how this word is used in different situations. Don't just write down one word, write down the original sentence where you saw this word, and maybe one or two more sentences. You can find example sentences in a good dictionary or you can just Google to find example sentences.

Alternatively, you can look in a corpus, which is a collection of different sentences. For example, you can look at the British National Corpus or the American National Corpus. You can just enter a word and find a lot of different sentence examples. And also you can write down some common collocations - words that are often used used with that piece of vocabulary.

For example, don't just learn 'competition', learn 'fierce competition' or 'take part in a competition,' and then you will remember these common usages and common collocations. Another example could be the word 'challenge', don't just learn 'a challenge', learn 'a serious challenge'.

Also you might want to learn the prepositions with a word. For example, the verb 'remember' is often used with 'to', 'remember to do something'. So you could write down 'Remember to wear a watch'.

'Interested' is often used with 'in', so for example, you could learn 'I'm interested in gardening', but if you just learn 'interested' on its own, you might not know how to use it, and you would make mistakes with usages and collocations.

Use vocabulary software or spaced repetition systems (SRSs)

Secondly, you can use some Spaced Repetition Systems, vocabulary software that can help you to learn a word. One piece of software that I like to use is Anki - a free piece of software that you can download to your phone or your computer. You can also sync your vocabulary lists between your computer and your phone.

Or, if you prefer, you could use paper flashcards, if you find it difficult to use computer software, but revision of vocabulary is important. You might think that you can't learn a word the first time and it's very difficult to remember, but if you see it a few more times in different contexts, then you will be able to remember it. You might not remember it even the third time or the fourth time. Then, probably on the fifth time or the sixth time you will remember this word.

It's really important to look back over words, and that's why vocabulary software or flashcards can be really useful. 

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