Memory techniques are an important skill for English learners. Most linguists agree that you need a vocabulary of about 3000 words (or word families) to be proficient in any language. This number seems perfectly manageable. In theory, if you memorise 9 or 10 words a day, you could get to proficiency level within a year. However, this rarely happens. Even people who have excellent memories tend to forget within a few months. For most students, it is often difficult to remember vocabulary items from the previous class, let alone from months ago. So what can you do to avoid this problem?
Over the next few blogs, I will be discussing some common techniques for remembering vocabulary items; some simple, some a little more complex.
The Science Behind Memory Techniques
Let’s start with a little bit of science. Back in the 1940s and 50s, scientists ran a series of experiments to discover how memory worked. First, they trained rats to find their way through a maze. When the scientists were certain the rats had memorised the route, they began to surgically remove parts of the rats’ brains to see how it affected their memories. The results were surprising. Regardless of which parts of the brain were removed, the rats never forgot the route out of the maze. This led to an import discovery about memory; that memory isn’t held in the neurons (brain cells). Instead, memories are made by connections between the brain cells. Hebb, a neuropsychologist, summarised the concept as ‘neuron’s that fire together, wire together’.
So how can we use this knowledge to help us memorise vocabulary? Firstly we must realise that memory is based on ASSOCIATION. When a child first learns a word, for example, ‘orange’, the child automatically makes associations; the smell of an orange, the feel of an orange, the taste of an orange etc. He might also make more abstract associations; a toy he has which is orange colour, a memory of eating an orange with a friend etc. All these associations fix the word orange in his memory permanently. So how can we apply this to language learning?
Memory technique #1: Associating your own language with English
There are basically three ways to do this, through cognates, false friends, and forced-association.
Cognates are words which are the same or share the same origin. False friends are words that look or sound the same but have a different meaning.
Forced associations are words you have artificially connected to your language. Today, I will discuss the first two categories: Cognates and false friends.
Depending on which language you speak, it will have a certain number of cognates with English. Nearly fifty per cent of English words have cognates in French (either taken directly from French or from shared Latin sources). Even languages that are quite distant from English have cognates (think of Arabic car parts or Japanese vegetables!). These are very easy to memorise, as you have already made the associations in your language. However, be careful as they often have slightly different spellings or pronunciation (especially in French).
False friends are also very easy to memorise. Take, for example, the Russian word ‘Pagoda’ which means ‘weather’, or the Spanish word ‘embarassada’ which means ‘pregnant’. I already have lots of associations with those words in my own language. ‘Pagoda’, in English, is a religious building in Hinduism or Buddhism, and ‘embarrassed’ means to feel self-conscious or ashamed. So how do I put new meanings to those words? The answer is simple. I make a mental image of the two meanings together. For example, for ‘pagoda’, I imagine an Indian pagoda under a sky of constantly changing weather. For ‘embarassada’, I imagine a young girl who is embarrassed because she is telling her family she has accidentally got pregnant. The more vivid you make your mental picture, the better the memory.
Try the techniques above, and your memory for vocabulary will increase.