How To Learn Vocabulary In A Foreign Language – Part 2

how to learn vocabulary foreign language part 2Welcome to part 2 of this special series where you’re discover how to learn vocabulary in a foreign language… my way!

If you missed part 1, you should start there. (This post make much sense otherwise!)


In the first part, we looked at:

  • Some common misconceptions about memory
  • The first crucial step in memorising vocabulary
  • The beginning of the A.R.T. technique

Oh yes, and I use the British spelling for “memorising”, in case you were wondering!

(You’d be surprised how many emails I get criticising my “spelling mistakes”!)

In this post, we also see the introduction of Mr. Miyagi… everyone’s favourite linguist!

Let’s see what’s going on…

NOTE: This is a long, 3-part series. If you don’t have time to read it right now, why not sign up for my free email course on improving your memory?

Part 2: Wax On, Wax Off

foreign language memory

It the 1984 classic The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi instils in Daniel an appreciation for repeating seemingly mundane tasks.

Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don’t forget to breathe, very important.

Among other things, Mr. Miyagi wants to show Daniel the importance of patience and trust.

No-one becomes great overnight.

When it comes to foreign languages, however, people are prone to having unrealistic expectations of themselves.

Maybe you’ve been guilty of this, too?

I often get told:

Olly, I just don’t know how you do it. I can’t seem to remember any new words!

There’s an assumption that some people are naturally good at remembering things, without having to work much at it.

But it’s quite the opposite.

Every prolific language learner I know works exceptionally hard at their new languages, every day.

And that goes for learning vocabulary, too.

Take me, for example… I forget every new word I learn. (Almost without exception.)

Maybe 5, 10, 20 times or more!

But rather than get annoyed or frustrated at how “terrible” my memory is… I work at it.

Every day.

Wax on, wax off.

Why Repetition Is Important To Memory

This brings us to the second part of the A.R.T. technique we met in Part 1 of this series:

  • “R” = Repetition

Here’s why repetition is an essential part of the memory process:

  • Your brain naturally forgets things
  • Forgetting things is normal – it’s not a problem!
  • Because you know you will forget new words, you then need to put a plan
    in place to encounter that word plenty of times

(No-one becomes great overnight, remember?)

You’ll notice I used the word plan.

That’s right – even if you acknowledge the importance of repetition, that doesn’t mean you’ll actually do it!

You’re a busy person, with lots of competing commitments. Systematically repeating new vocabulary probably doesn’t happen by accident in your daily life 🙂

So, a sensible system for remembering new vocabulary needs to plan for repetition from the outset.

What Does A System For Repetition Look Like?

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you need to encounter a new word 10 times for it to stick.

That means you need to plan to review each new word 10 times over a few days or weeks.

This principle is commonly represented using the Forgetting Curve:

the forgetting curve memory

For this to be effective, you need an organised system for reviewing your vocabulary that you can repeat at will.

What are all the different ways you could do that?

1) You could take a “natural” approach to language learning, where you simply listen to and read things you enjoy.

This is fun, but you quickly become overwhelmed with new words, and the same words don’t come up often enough for you to be able to memorise them.

An effective system needs to help you repeat vocabulary in a more isolated way to have any hope of remembering it.

2) You could take a specific passage of text and read it over and over.

This is more controlled, because you see your new words over and over. But the problem with this is that you start to “learn the text”, and know what’s coming, which is not much help for your memory.

3) You could use activities specifically designed to isolate and practice
new words:

  1. Make a word list and read it over and over
  2. Practise using new words with your teacher in conversation
  3. Write a speech and memorise it
  4. Make sentences using your new words

These are better, and more targeted.

But the problem you will face is this:

The responsibility for how and when to review each word is yours alone!

Keeping track of reviewing all your new words can quickly become overwhelming when you’re juggling 101 other things in your life.

Creating Your Repetition System

The difficulty of managing your system for Repetition of new words is what makes flashcard-type apps so popular…

  • They show you your chosen words at strategic intervals to help you remember them
  • There’s no need for you to track when each new word is “due for review”…the software looks after that for you
  • All you need to do is show up each day and give your full Attention to every new word you’re learning

Many people have a love/hate relationship with flashcards, but given what you’ve learnt so far, using A.R.T., a couple of things should be clear…

  • Attention – this is the deep thinking you bring to each word, before you even start the review process
  • Repetition – this is the system of reviewing words and their associations, it’s not the memory strategy

Flashcards are popular, but they’re not the only way to review your words.

There are many other powerful systems that ditch technology altogether, and rely on the power of the mind:

But, whatever system you use…

Repetition of vocabulary should NOT be an excuse to blindly “hammer in” new words until you remember them!

Your system should be used to simply:

  • Store your new words
  • Keep them organised
  • Periodically test you on them, so you can reinforce the associations you’ve made in your mind and commit them to your long-term memory

Your memory and mind still does the heavy lifting.

The system for Repetition just facilitates it.

Best of all, because this all happens over a period of days or weeks, your brain has the chance to thoroughly memorise the words on a subconscious level, and commit them to your long-term memory.

When you come to have conversations in your target language, you’ll find you can recall the words with great ease, because you’ve been conditioning your brain over a period of time.

So, next time you catch yourself getting frustrated at forgetting a word…

Remember… Forgetting is normal!

Mastering anything takes time, and more than one attempt!

Mr. Miyagi knew this.

So, stack the deck in your favour, and plan a reliable system for repetition of the new words you’re trying to learn.

Once you understand what works for you, the whole memory process becomes predictable… and that’s the secret for effective, stress-free language learning!

Ready for more? Click here to read Part 3.

  • What are you thoughts on how to learn vocabulary? Let me know in a comment below!
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  • If you want a better memory, why not sign up for my free course…

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How To Memorize Words In Any Language...And NOT Forget Them later!

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  • Diego Cuadros

    Repetition in my opinion is essential, as you say, it’s not about memory skills. I think it’s more of taking the words deeply into your brain and you achieve this by repetition.

    One very useful technique that I’ve used is using stories, repeating them will help your brain associate words and expressions with certain situations or even the story itself.

  • Mike Thomas

    I remember when I started to learn how to hit a small ball on the golf course with a stick that seemed to have a mind of its own and the resultant actions never reproduced the same result. My coach simply stated that to create the muscle memory we have to reproduce the same movements at least 100 times to start to get some consistency. The brian is just another (although extremely clever) muscle that needs to be trained. When I learn a new word I try to engineer situations with my friends to use it even just to get some feedback on my pronunciation of it and its applicability to normal everyday opportunities to use it.

    • That’s a great thing to do… I always come up with excuses to use new words. Even if you end up using it in the wrong context, you get feedback (as you say) and it goes that little bit deeper into your brain.

  • Thank you Olly. I really enjoyed this post and I agree that flashcard apps are great…I practise on the tube.

  • Kevin Richardson

    Love this post. Mr Miyagi was very zen too … new language falls like delicate snowflake and melts in the warmth of my mind …. yet, even snow settles when it snows hard.

    • Very zen, Kevin, but I’d expect no less from you!

  • Tomáš Bednář

    What about learning vocabulary IN CONTEXT WITH PICTURE? This is how I learn and teach. Thank you for your opinion. Tomas

    • Hi. Yes, I think pictures can be great! For simple vocabulary like this, I think single words are fine, and pictures can help for sure.