In language learning, there are two basic ways that you can learn a new piece of information. This applies whether you need to remember words, a grammar point, or something related to the culture.
You can either reveal the answer, or you can discover it.
It's simpler than it sounds – revealing an answer is simply looking it up, having someone explain it, or pasting the phrase into Google Translate. You go “huh”, and continue from where you left off in your studies.
Discovery is more about your own reasoning. You understand from the story that the “طائر” sits in a tree, the “طائر" flies in the air and the “طائر" sings, so you reason that the “طائر" must be a bird.
What goes on in the brain when you figure out a new word?
Imagine this scenario: You're reading in your target language and come upon an unknown word. If you're quick to pick up a dictionary, you're much more likely to forget it than if you figured it out by yourself.
Why is that? Because just finding the answer is an easy achievement. It's something that your brain knows that it can get upon request. The information is easily available, and there's no problem in looking it up one more time if you forget it.
Reasoning, however, takes effort. Your brain has to sweat a little to get it right, and your brain knows this. This is why the brain considers discovered, or reasoned information as something that is much more precious. The brain will therefore consider the information worthy of preserving for later use.
A much-needed caveman analogy
Let me try and come up with a little analogy! Your neighbor, a caveman, is a friendly guy. He knows where to get ripe bananas, and he takes you there every day, guiding you with his hand on your hairy back.
You gather a lot of bananas and then you return together happily wolfing down loads of sweet fruit. Now, one day, you wake up late and to your dismay, another neighbor tells you the upsetting news that your favorite neighbor has been eaten by a saber-tooth tiger.
You'll have to go yourself to the banana tree from now on, but you can't seem to remember where it was! - You have put too much faith in your friendly neighbor showing you the way.
So you sit down outside of your cave and think for almost an hour until you suddenly see something out of the corner of your eye – a banana peel! You go to it, look around, and suddenly discover a whole trail of banana peels leading you to the banana tree which, by the way, you have all four yourself now!
It's a little like the good old “you can give a man a fish, or you can teach him how to fish” - yet most people don't seem to make the obvious connection when it comes to the acquisition of new words.
We all prefer the easy solution, but if you just pick the quick fix, you'll find yourself with the same problem later. How to remember words? You need to figure them out yourself!
I deal with another aspect of creating associations in language learning in this article: Attack from multiple fronts to learn languages.
How to use discovery instead of revelation in language learning?
So how could you use discovery effectively in language learning? How to remember words by discovery?
Well, the simplest answer is already given in the example for the word “طائر" (it's Arabic, and is pronounced “Ta'ir” by the way!) Try to work out your answers from context.
Regrettably, however, it isn't always that simple. In the beginning stages of learning a new language, you won't have enough context to work with. All words will be unknown to you. Other words will just be too complex to figure out. Then what can we do?
We can try looking at other ways for your brain to work with the new word, because it appears that the more “thinking” you do for each word, the stronger a link you'll make.
Barry Farber speaks of a type of mnemonics, or “mind magic” that he uses to remember words in his book “How to learn any language”. The idea is to come up with an association that links the word to its meaning.
Remember words with language mnemonics
Let's take an example – the French word “betterave” which means beetroot (you know, that violet vegetable). In this case, I'd simply imagine an absurd sentence based on free association: “Beetroot juice makes for better rave parties” so “Betterave” that's the thing they make juice out of for my imaginary rave parties.
This is quite an absurd example, and it doesn't even fit entirely, because the word only includes the parts “better” and “rave” but nothing about juice, and so on. The point is that it doesn't matter. All that you need is the faintest of connections, and the more absurd the association, the better. It just got a lot easier remembering the word "betterave".
I also might add that these connections sometimes happen by themselves without you having to come up with anything specific for remembering it. A raccoon, in French, is called "raton laveur", which means something similar to "little washing rat-creature".
It refers to the behavior that raccoons sometimes have of washing their food in water, and it creates a vivid image in the brain of a big rat-like animal doing its dishes in a stream.
I find that pretty difficult to forget!
Where a dictionary look-up would be a simple kind of “A=B” statement to your brain, this kind of association is a complex construction that makes for a more complicated network of synapses.
If you were to forget one part, the others would still be there to remind you. These things are hard to forget.
Perhaps you're worried that this kind of association might pollute your mind with an infinite array of strange associations to accompany the vocabulary of your newly acquired language? – Don't worry – the associations are only temporary. They help you remember the first two or three times that you're searching for the word in question, and then you'll remember it without the need of a trick.
Other types of associations or brain work-out that might help you remember words
What else can help in remembering new vocabulary? If you've ever studied anything, you'll be aware of the importance of taking notes. But if you're anything like me, you may never again open up your notebook to consult your earlier scribbles. What are they for then?
The answer is simple – taking notes is just another kind of brain workout. It's like figuring something out from context or practicing mind-magic. Taking notes is about connecting nerve cells in as complicated away as possible.
As soon as you put your pen on paper, the “A=B” that you got from your dictionary gets linked to the memory of writing. It can be beneficial too, to make it a physical association: You're actually using your hands to put down the words on a piece of paper, so the memory created is more than just a thought.
The more complex and detailed you make it, the harder it will be to forget. This is why your notes should be as complicated as possible.
Writing something down can be helpful in itself, but if it becomes an automatic action that you do for every word that you come upon, then the effect might not be as strong. This is why your notes should be detailed and offer examples.
The examples should preferably be ones that you've invented rather than something you've copied out. And you can even make something up in the style of the “better rave party” association, and you'll be sure to never forget the word again.
Am I being efficient with my time, when remembering words?
You might ask yourself the following:
Taking notes, creating associations, and looking for clues in the context; How can I do all of this for the thousands of words that I'm going to need to remember?
It certainly seems like a lot of work, and you might wonder if your time would be better spent doing lots of quick look-ups and learning the words “the regular way”.
I don't think so.
These exercises make the words stick, and in doing so, they help create a network of information in your brain concerning that language. It will also provide for a more sure kind of progress, where you won't constantly suffer demotivating setbacks of looking up the same word again and again.
I'd even dare say that in the long run, the time spent looking up words will end up surpassing the time that forming a solid association takes.
I'd love to hear your comments, thoughts, ideas, experiences, or suggestions in the comment field below. Perhaps we could have a discussion!