Remembering foreign language vocabulary

Psychologists of memory say there are about seven factors that make it easier to recall things, like foreign language vocabulary. Let's be honest: language learning must involve building up a resource of foreign language words in your brain. Having a huge vocabulary will help you communicate, there can be no doubt. It will show that you are well informed and keen to know about the country or culture whose language you have learned. The following are my adaptation, tips and advice. It's easier to remember if:

1. It's bizarre - it gives you a shock. Strong emotional experience.

2. It's hilarious, humorous, funny. It gives you a giggly shock. Humour is also a great tension breaker.

3. It's accompanied by music (advertisers know this so well). You like the rhythm or the melody of the phrase. "Doesn't that sound good?" Or cute? Or "I just can't get that tune out of my head." Use your auditory memory. Sing words and phrases to yourself with your own made up tunes. Learn simple songs in the target language.

4. It's personally meaningful. You convert the model message given by teacher or textbook into a message that has personal meaning or connection for you. This is important. Make it your own. Make it about yourself, your experience and environment, your world. After all, you will spend much time explaining to others about your background and your views in your second language later.

5. You discover it yourself rather than just having it handed out to you.That could mean you find it in your own reading, or dictionary flicking, or through a personal encounter in the target language community. This is experiential rather than abstracted "objectified" learning.

6. You are active in using the language. Producing. Not just sitting, "absorbing". You are not a sponge. You are a member of the human species, the languaging species par excellence. Your brain is a machine for meaning and connection making. Talk to yourself in the language you are developing. Write yourself messages. When you progress somewhat, monitor then join an online e-group or some such. Be active. No-one else can do the learning for you.

7. It has real life purpose in the world. You use the language to get things done in the social world, you make that effort to dredge your mental resources and in achieving some goal, you reinforce those elements of the language you need. Even if you are frustrated and cannot say what you want, that is motivation to find out how to. Use your language to write a letter, make up a story, purchase something, enquire about something, get to know somebody. Let's face it, you will learn something that you need to and want to. (Marketing people try to create needs in consumers. Do some marketing on yourself.)

8. You associate it with images. In your mind, picture a tree and say albero/arbre/baum/pohon (or whatever language you are learning), don't just build a bilingual dictionary in your head. That would ultimately slow you up because you are translating all the time. The more you know "automatically" - concept-linked-directly-to-foreign-language-word - the more fluent you will be. You probably "know" and can use some words that you learned in the first week absolutely effortless. Believe that you can eventually know and use tens of thousands like that, too. You can. (Making a picture dictionary, a scrap book or computer album for those with the time and lack of inhibition is a good thing.)

9. Repetition. Boring. Old-fashioned? But it works for some for some of the time. Say things over to yourself again and again. Do you know any actors who do not rehearse their lines? Massive rote memorisation will not make you a totally proficient second language speaker, it is not a complete method by any means, the whole business is too complex for that. But it won't hurt. I suggest learning whole phrases, useful phrases more than single words. Learning whole, brief, model dialogues can be really useful. Some people find they can still say them 30 years later. Then go to suggestion 4 above. Make a personally meaningful sentence with the same vocabulary. Using flash cards with a blank in a phrase (rather than English cues) and the right word on the back. Bilingual word lists with the right hand column covered are not a total waste of time. Or a stack of flash cards you create yourself. Mix up the order as you go through your cards next time. Do them in reverse order. Ask  a friend to test you on them. Stick them on the fridge. Make up a new simple sentence with each one. Make it funny. Just writing anything in your foreign language is using your visual memory to inscribe it in memory. Recording your own voice and coming back to it later is a good exercise too. Rote learning (learning by heart) the first 500 or so words gives you planks to build a life raft in the sea of foreign language sounds.

10. Use mnemonics – this means, make a pun, or a rhyme, or a joke, make an association that triggers this word in your mind.

The Indonesian word for white is putih. I tell students to think of "a white putih cat."

The Indonesian word for seven is tujuh. One of my students once said: "So, on your seventh birthday, they sing "Happy birthday tujuh!"

I use mnemonics to teach grammar as well - students enjoy it (well, they laugh) and forget my silly jokes but remember the rules they incarnate, hopefully.

11. Teach someone else, mother, brother, child, partner, less advanced student, anyone who will learn a bit. You learn a lot by teaching and having to explain to others. Their pronunciation or grammatical errors make you attend to theirs and your own. It's all useful time on task. Foreign language learning doesn't take genius. It takes time focussing on the language and using the language. It simply takes "stick-with-it" power.

12. Enjoy language learning. Don't think of learning vocabulary as the punishment of Sisyphus (forever rolling the stone uphill to have it roll back on you). Think of it as a pleasurable hobby with quick day-by-day rewards and fantastic long-term benefits. Praise yourself when you know you've mastered something new. It's a very step-by-step by quantum leap by serendipitous process (depending on your learning styles and personality and disposition on any day and month and year). Attitude is important.

12. Read authentic materials. Start looking at things you are interested in (fishing, fashion, politics, base jumping, alleviating poverty, whatever) on the internet or at a library in your target language. Even if you can only read a headline, half a headline at the beginning, reading is yet another important way to expand and expand your language resource. You will gradually understand more and more and find many things of interest along the way. Comic books contain humour and many visual tips for meaning (paralinguistic elements). The internet is an endless source of stimulating materials at all levels. And also learning partners.

So, combining several techniques, read a model dialogue, about a topic that interests you, repeat it five times, make up a version of your own that would be useful in your real personal world, commit it to memory by singing it to yourself, teach your flatmate, sing it in the car or bus or on your bike on the way to class, and then use it on someone in the real world. And be brave ... learning a language involves some risk to the ego (I know!), you may be afraid to appear foolish. Forget that! Errors are your friends, they are signposts that tell you where to go and what potholes to fill in on the way. Keep a sense of humour and academic adventure and know that every person who speaks more than one language makes the world a better place.

13. This is the age of the internet and the iPod. You can download lots of recorded sounds in your foreign language and carry them around nowadays. Besides authentic Indonesian speech or pop songs, you can make your own recordings of really relevant materials and practice listening and learning as you walk or ride on a bus. Poems, kids rhymes, proverbs, political speeches, anything that has your target language at an appropriate level for you. Listening comprehension is a key skill that no course can give you enough of. So, listening is both excellent vocabulary reinforcement and preparation for real world interaction.

Interaction Almost all the ideas above are exercises you can do yourself without a partner or group. However most of us learn our first language through using that language in interaction with others. Experience is the best teacher. Experience welds learning into our neural networks and pre-existing meaning networks with all the reinforcement of the senses, emotional engagement and real purpose. Experiential learning is better than all the artificial rehearsal under the sun. In-country experience is most beneficial of all for communicative ability. So, if possible, find an Indonesian friend on campus or in the community or online. This will be enriching culturally and language-wise for both. Some Indonesian migrants or students are shy and isolated from the wider Australian community and will welcome the opportunity.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; that’s how we learn. Indonesians laugh with you, not at you – they love language games, having to learn three or more languages themselves. Also, don’t be afraid to guess the meaning if you don’t know. Take calculated risks.  There is an e-group for beginning Indonesian learners at  Sign on, listen in, then write something when you are ready.

(Thanks to Richard Curtis of CDU and Geoff Woollams of QUT for feedback and some ideas incorporated above.)

Phillip Mahnken
Languages Coordinator
University of the Sunshine Coast
18 May 2005
Feedback welcome to

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