Updated: Nov 30, 2019
It can be frustrating when you read a new word, go to the effort of looking up its meaning - and then promptly forget it. When it happens again with the same word later that hour, you can begin to wonder why you even try to remember.
But there is a simple solution.
Here is a system you can use to remember new words and their meanings. It will improve your recollection immediately, but don’t expect it to be perfect without practice. With only a little repetition you will improve and what may seem laborious to start with will soon be second nature.
As always, my mnemonics caveat applies - you need to get crazy and creative. So buckle up, things are about to get wild.
For those of you short on time, there is a video at the end.
1. Don’t Panic
I find this is a classic reason for not remembering a new word. It most often happens when we are under pressure, say when someone has just explained a new fact to us with words we are not familiar with. When we panic our brain is not in a receptive state and we can’t easily pick up new information. So even if we had the best memory in the world, we wouldn’t really hear the information in the first place.
The panic can be caused by an underlying lack of confidence in our ability to learn quickly. Be calm, tell yourself you can do this, and over time you will start to believe it. And the panic will recede, giving you a chance to remember.
2. Repeat the word back
Repeating the word back is good for a couple of reasons. First, if we have panicked (see point one) we get a second chance to absorb the word. Second, it holds the information in our mind so we can start to think how we might go about remembering it.
3. What does the word or any part of it remind you of?
The first thing you want to notice is does the word as a whole bring any image to mind? (no matter how crazy)
Or does the sound remind you of anything?
Break the word into parts, does any part sound like or remind you of anything?
Writing the word down and saying it aloud can also help you to see associations.
Normally its best to think phonetically (especially if spelling is not important).
Go with the first thoughts and images that come into your head even if they seem a strange connection.
Let’s use an example here. I have randomly chosen a word from the United States’ SAT top 300 most difficult words. You could work through the full list as practice : )
Garrulous - full of trivial conversation
Looking at the word I quickly run through the first things that spring to mind for me.
The first thing I notice is that the whole word reminds me of that name Garry – because I know a Garry. He’s a top bloke. The word Garrulous also reminds me of a barrel, because ‘garrul’ sounds a bit like barrel. If I go with Garry and barrel as images for the first part of the word then I need something for the second part ‘lous’. When I say it out loud 'lous' reminds me of loose, so now my barrel has broken loose somehow. And Garry's in it. Oh no!
4. Make images for these associations
Now turn these associations into images.
Garrulous reminded me of Garry, barrel and loose. I would see my buddy Garry stuck sideways in a barrel that has gotten loose and is rolling down a hill. Poor fellow. I would say Garrulous a few times while seeing the combined image in my head to make sure it works for me and I have it.
An important note – this image works for me, it’s the first thing that comes into my mind. This image may work for you, or you may need to go with what it reminds you of. Especially true if you don’t know a Garry.
5. Link the image back to the meaning in a story
This part is crucial but easy. Nearly any time I forget the meaning to a word it is because I skipped this step. I would see the rolling barrel and Garry having a hard time, but not know what it means. You MUST link the image to the meaning.
So I have this vivid image of Garry in a barrel rolling down a hill because it was loose. (The barrel, not Garry - he's a lovely guy, honest.) Now I need to link this to the meaning – “Full of trivial conversation”.
I simply adjust the image a bit to remind me of the meaning. Garry is still rolling down the hill in a barrel but the barrel is really full - he has it stuffed with trivial pursuit games and he is endlessly talking to himself about the game as he rolls. Why he isn’t just screaming in fear beats me.
I now repeat the word and its meaning ‘Garrulous, full of trivial conversation’ while I see the complete image that represents this in my head.
And that's it.
Normally, if I come up against this word the same or next day, I can pretty quickly recall the word. I will see the image and story if it is a really new or difficult word. Often I will jump straight to the meaning without needing the image and story, because simply going through the steps the first time has been enough for my memory to capture the word.
When it doesn’t work, you need to go back to the word and the meaning and check it still makes sense (to you) and that you can clearly see the images and story. If you can’t, then adjust them.
Most of the time though it will just work. This simple technique is a total life saver for anyone like me who wants to improve their vocabulary or learn another language.
After a few more times of seeing and revising this word, it becomes a permanent part of your vocabulary…thankfully without having to see the image. Garry would be relieved.
Below is a short video where you can watch me put this into practice with learning some Korean Taekwondo words. Hope I'm not too garrulous :)