How to remember foreign words when learning a language

avatarMille Larsen
13 mins read

When learning a foreign language, there are a number of different skills that you need to work on. Pronunciation, grammar, listening and reading are some of the main ones. One that's even bigger, and more fundamental is remembering words.

To learn another language, you need to build your vocabulary.

And that can be hard. Everyone who's tried to study a foreign language - whether that be in a classroom setting or as a self-student - knows this.

  • You look up things in a dictionary when you need them, and 2 minutes later when you see the same word again, you've already forgotten what it means.

  • When you're conversing in a foreign language, you keep searching for the same words, and no matter how many times you're reminded they don't stick.

  • You constantly get that feeling of familiarity. "I know this word.. I just don't remember it."

This can be extremely frustrating, and to some people it's so demotivating that they end up giving up learning languages all together! (On a side note - go read my article on motivation)

But before you throw in the towel, know this:

By using certain techniques and strategies when learning languages, you can learn to remember words much more easily. It's all about creating stronger associations in your brain and making sure the word has value, and isn't just a neutral, random piece of information to you.

Read the following to learn more!

To remember words, they need to stand out

Imagine that your brain is a vast library full of books. You step into this library with a new book, that you want to add to your collection. You find an open slot somewhere, push in the book, turn around and walk away.

In this metaphor, a book is a word, or a piece of information that you want to archive in your brain. Now imagine coming back a week later, looking for that book that you've put in. Where did you put it?

The book didn't have a colorful binding that made it stand out. You didn't really notice the surrounding books, or the section or topic that you filed it under. You've got no chance in finding it again.

What you should have done, was to make sure you'd know where you put the book. If you made a note out of the book being about motorcycles, you'd go look where the other motorcycle-books are stored. If you remembered that the book was tall and slim, you'd scan the shelve for that shape, and if you were certain that it was a yellow book and you stuck it in among mostly red and brown bound books, it would really stand out!

Your brain is an archive, and when you put in a new word in that archive, you need to make sure that you can find it again. You need to make it rememberable!

A word that you've done something with is a word you have a memory about

Imagine that you see a word for the first time. "Lapin", it says. You look it up in the dictionary, and see it means "rabbit". Oh, you think to yourself and you carry on with whatever you've doing.

With this activity, you've created a mental note of the word "lapin" with the added piece of information "French word for rabbit".

This won't help you remember much.

A direct translation is neutral, bland and uninteresting. It does not stand out in you brain at all. If all you've got to remember it by is a label that says "French word for X", you'll quickly forget, because your brain just isn't convinced that the piece of information is important enough to remember.

That's how the brain works. If it remembered everything thrown at it, it would be a mess, so it needs to weed out the things that seem unimportant.

A way to make the word seem more important to your brain, is to attach a context. An experience.

If, instead of looking up the word "rabbit" in the dictionary, you figure it out by yourself, you'll be way ahead.

The lapin is a little, furry animal with long ears, known to be fond of carrots... Carrots, you say? Oh, so naturally, "lapin" must mean "rabbit"!

Now, the word "lapin" becomes a word that you have worked with. You spent time figuring it out (even if it's five seconds). It was a word that represented an obstacle for you, that you overcame in order to proceed with what you were doing.

This kind of thing seems much more important to your brain! It's much more likely now that you remember the word, because you've made your brain understand that it's significant.

Add to that, that you created an association while figuring it out.

"Lapin" involves furryness, long ears and carrots.

The word has become a complex piece of information connected to a lot of other information in your brain. All of these pieces of information are connected with strings that form an elaborate network, creating strong bonds that hold the word in place.

Only stating that "Lapin = Rabbit" would be creating just one connection. Just one string anchoring the word in your brain.

If you use a dictionary, take notes and elaborate on the words you're learning.

This touched on what I just discussed above. Yet I'd like to point out that dictionaries should never be used as the sole means to learning words.

Dictionaries only provide very basic, almost mathematical information.

Y = X. Or Lapin = Rabbit.

While this can be helpful, if you just need to understand an unknown word, you can't figure out, it's not a good way to learn that word.

You'll quickly unveil the meaning of the word, but then you'll forget it. This is why dictionary look-ups should always be accompanied by examples, notes and concrete use.

So if you cannot figure the meaning out from the context, it's okay to look up the word in a dictionary. But then you should write notes!

  • Try to write your notes in your target language if you can

  • Use synonyms, or try to explain the word briefly

  • If you need to use English, it's okay. Just make sure to plot down your understanding of the word.

Attack the word from multiple fronts and read and listen a lot

When you're in the beginning stages of language learning, it can be hard to keep your approach varied, because you simply don't understand much else than your beginner's course.

This is why I recommend that you do two beginner's courses simultaneously in the beginning.

When you first begin studying a foreign language, all words will be unknown to you. Especially in the beginning, however, you have a great need for remembering the first few words. I've found that it helps doing daily revisions and going through past lessons every day.

But this only gets you so far. Seeing the same word in another context is much stronger in terms of stimulating connections in your brain. This is why I strongly recommend doing two beginner's courses simultaneously.

This way, you'll hear the words you're struggling with from two different voices and two different contexts. You might even get the opportunity to notice the slight differences in meaning and use depending on the context of the word. This will help you learn words in the beginning much better than staying with just one voice and one story.

When you advance, it gets even more important to vary your study approach.

I suggest that you listen to different radio stations, audio books, podcasts, read the news, books and short stories and watch TV, movies and documentaries.

All of these different channels of input give you the opportunity of recognizing words you've briefly touched upon before.

If you've come upon the word once in a book and looked it up, you'll only have a very weak recollection of it. Seeing it again in another context will ring a bell. It'll evoke the feeling of recognition. You'll hear yourself saying "I KNOW this word" and even if you only recognized it very faintly, you'll now have a much stronger memory of it, because recognizing it created a positive feeling of actually advancing.

Involve your senses when remembering words

Another way to create a more elaborate web of information in your brain, is to use all of your senses.

One aspect of this is the visual sense. When you learn new words, you stand a better chance of remembering them, if you connect the word to an image.

You can physically look up a photo of what you're looking for. For nouns, this is mostly easy. Pretty much all nouns you're learning should be easy to find images of. Adverbs and verbs are doable for the most part too.

But then there are the words that have a more abstract meaning. Things that are hard to illustrate with a picture. This is, in fact, not a huge problem, because the pictures you choose don't have to match 100%.

In fact, they don't have to match at all, if only they make at least a little sense to you.

The key to remembering words is not to match the correct pieces of information to the right correspondent imagery. It's about creating connections only, no matter if they make sense or not!

So if you're trying to learn the word "imperative" and the only image you can come up with is that of a policeman shaking his finger, don't worry! The simple fact that you're creating an association helps you remember.

It's the fact that you're making connections in your brain that helps. Not the things you're connecting. It's like throwing an anchor off your boat to stay in place. You don't really care what's at the bottom. The simple fact of attaching your anchor to something helps your boat not float away.

Does that make sense?

You can ether draw your own pictures, look them up in a google search, print them out or make them up in your head. All of this works.

And in the same way as you can use your visual sense to remember words, you can create associations by your other senses too.

Try connecting the word for "lawyer" to the smell of the kind of cologne a lawyer could wear (in your imagination). Or the word for "enjoyment" to the sound of people screaming in a roller-coaster. Or you could even think of the actual feeling of enjoying the warmth of the sun on a summer-day and try and connect that to the word.

Go crazy with mnemonics to make it impossible to forget words

This method can be extremely funny to use!

Mnemonics is a memory technique as old as the ancient Greeks. It's a method of coming up with associations that help you remembering information.

One of the ways I like to use mnemonics is to come up with as crazy, hilarious, outrageous and absurd associations as I can!

Well, it's not always as crazy and outrageous, but I've found that the weirder the association you come up with, the better it will work.

Over a decade ago, I took a course in philosophy. I remember when learning about the Philosopher Immanuel Kant and his "Categorical Imperative".

Let's not discuss what the concept is about here...

I had simply trouble remembering the name of the concept. My course was in Danish, and in Danish the "Categorial Imperative" is "det kategoriske imperativ". Pretty much the same thing as in English.

In a matter of minutes, I figured out how to remember the name, and have not forgotten it since. I cut the word into these parts: "Katte, gori, ske, I'm Per, Ativ". "Katte" means "cats", "Gori" is the name of a brand of paint, "Ske" means spoon, "I'm Per" is just a guy called Per (A Danish first-name) and "ativ" sounds sort of like a sneeze.

So I imagined seeing some cats a bucket of paint a spoon and then a guy named Per presenting himself and then sneezing.

If you find this silly, stupid or just very weird, I completely understand.

I can also understand why you'd think that this would be ineffective and complete nonsense.

All I can say is this: Try it yourself! Chances are that it will work. It doesn't take that much time to work out and it's extremely effective.

Mnemonics is much more than this, of course. There are various techniques that I encourage you to read up on. People use mnemonics to remember huge amounts of information, like the number "pi" and things like that.

It's an interesting subject, but in order to not go too far off topic, I'll just encourage you to go read more on mnemonics yourself!

Remember words with spaced repetition

And then finally there's spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition is a technique that helps you review words or sentences that you've learned, just before you forget them. It's based on the theory of the "forgetting curve".

The forgetting curve is a model that indicates the time that goes from you first learn a new piece of information until you forget it. The idea is that each time you refresh your memory by reviewing the information, you'll push the forgetting (can I use that word as a noun?) gradually further into the future.

One of the most popular tools for using spaced repetition in language learning is Anki. Anki is an extremely effective app that you can use for making flashcards. For each time you review a word or a sentence, you can choose how well you remembered it (if at all) and the app will reschedule the word for later review based on your choice.

Anki exists both for your computer, your Android phone or your Iphone. It's only free in the computer an Android version, however!

I recommend utilizing the above techniques when making your flashcards. Try incorporating sounds, images, synonyms or strange associations when filling new words into Anki. Then refresh your vocabulary every day using the app.

There are also other tools that use this concept of Spaced Repetition to help you retain words and sentences. One of my favorites is Glossika, and you can read more about it in the article I wrote about it.

And that's it

Whichever method (or methods) you choose to get better at remembering words, I hope that you've gotten something out of this article.

If you have your own techniques that you'd like to share, please let me know! And if you've found this article helpful or have anything else to add, don't hesitate to write a comment below!