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Why forgetting is the secret to learning vocabulary

You probably find it hard to memorise vocabulary in a foreign language. But don’t worry – you’re not the only one.

Anyone who has ever learnt a foreign language has struggled with learning and memorising words – myself included.

There have been times when I’ve been convinced that my memory is actually a sieve.

There is one thing I’ve discovered, though, that has helped me a lot.

One surprising mind-shift that has done more than anything else in helping me grow my vocabulary and learn 7 foreign languages.

What’s that thing? Well, the title has already given it away, but it’s worth repeating.

Forgetting.

That’s right, by forgetting more, I’ve learnt more. And in this article I’d like to tell you how you can steal my simple strategy to take your vocabulary learning to the next level, whatever language you’re learning.

Shall we begin?

Why is it so hard?

We’re always looking for a newer, better way to memorise vocabulary.

But this is a mistake. A strategic error.

They key to learning more isn’t to reinvent the wheel. The key is to look at your current system…and make it better.

To start doing this, you need to be honest about the problems that are stopping you memorising vocabulary in the first place.

You know what it’s like…

You’ve got a list of words you want to learn, and you’re determined to learn them all.

And you try your best to make them stick, using a tool like Memrise every day to help you.

Except, of course, that you don’t learn all those words. You never do.

Some words stick, others don’t.

What happens next? You get frustrated.

“Why won’t these damn words stick?”

So you press on, doing the same old things, thinking to yourself: “It’s okay, just a few more rounds… it’ll stick next time!”

But still it doesn’t stick.

So you try even harder. More time studying, trying to force it in.

And still it doesn’t stick.

So you feel like crap. You start to wonder what’s wrong with you.

STOP!

Your own worst enemy

You probably think it’s the vocabulary that has caused the problem.

But you’re wrong.

It’s you.

It’s your mindset that’s sabotaging your efforts before they’ve even had a chance to work.

You’re expecting too much, too soon.

You’re expecting to remember it all, and getting frustrated when it doesn’t happen.

…but you need to forget. It’s part of how to learn a new language.

Want to get rid of frustration and start learning properly?

By accepting the inevitability of forgetting, and planning for it, you can eliminate frustration and get much better results.

But more on that later.

“But sometimes I remember things first time!”

Your mind likes playing tricks on you.

You know how there’s some vocabulary that sticks easily, and other vocabulary that never sticks, no matter what you do?

Well, that’s just the way it is, and you can’t control it.

There’s some vocabulary that will always behave randomly.

However, rather than treating them as the extreme cases that they are, we tend to fixate on them and use them as our benchmark.

Think about it…

When a word sticks first time, don’t you feel like a natural memoriser?

When it doesn’t, don’t you feel dumb?

But none of that is normal – I’ve found that less than 20% of vocabulary tends to fall into this “extreme” category for me.

So, how can you deal with those annoying words that won’t stick?

Simple.

Get rid of them and focus on the other stuff.

You need to leave behind the stuff that causes you the extreme emotions, so that you can knuckle down and get on with learning all the other vocabulary in the language – the smart way.

Memory demands the path of least resistance.

This means being ruthless, and pro-actively excluding vocabulary that’s too easy or too hard (we’ll call these the “outliers”), so that you can focus on the rest.

Yes – I mean actually deleting words from your decks.

Don’t worry – they will come up again in the future, but at a time that you’re actually ready to learn them.

With the outliers out of the way, you’re left with the other 80% of vocabulary that’s “up for grabs”, providing you’re prepared to put the work in.

How to learn vocabulary

In order to properly learn a word, two things have to happen.

  1. You’ve got to see it lots of times in different places (so it’s familiar to you)
  2. You’ve got to have a reason to learn that particular word (so it’s memorable)

…and these two things explain why you often can’t seem to learn certain words, however hard you try.

Too often you try to learn words that you’ve only seen a couple of times, out of context and you’ve got no particular communicative reason to learn them.

And this is where that frustration comes from – you’re basically not ready for that vocabulary yet.

So you’ve got a choice.

You can do what you normally do – keep hammering away at your decks until one day, hopefully, it sticks.

Or you can do something different… something brave.

You can plan to forget.

Creating a “familiarity framework”

So, because you’re not ready to learn most of the vocabulary in your decks yet, you’ve got to give it time to become familiar.

You can’t do what you normally do and expect to remember it right away.

Let’s be smarter than that.

Your first mission is to tackle the problem of familiarity, by creating a “familiarity framework” for your studying.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Stop learning vocabulary in single words

Remember, for a word to become familiar, you’ve got to see it in context. So either put those words in full sentences or get rid of them.

ようと use,usefulness 用途 … is no good. (Source: Memrise JLPT Level 2 course)

我陣間要開會 later I have a meeting

… is exactly what you need. (Source: Memrise Cantonese at Work course)

2. Now that you’ve put those words in context, you’re going to have to see those sentences lots of times in order to become familiar, and this is where forgetting comes in.

When you revise your decks, don’t expect to memorise it right away.

You should be saying to yourself:

I’m playing the smart game. If I expect to memorise it all right away, I’m going to get frustrated. But that doesn’t make sense. I need to get used to it first. I’m going to review my decks every day and forget it all as often as necessary for that to happen.

As soon as you catch yourself getting frustrated, stop, and remember that forgetting is part of the process – it should be happening.

If you feel like you’re wasting your time and not making progress, remember that what you’re actually doing is creating a familiarity framework – laying the foundation, making it familiar.

So, review it regularly, every day, and let time do the work.

As you get less frustrated, your brain will take more in.

It’s one long process of familiarisation, and you need to play that game, rather than look for short cuts.

Having created the familiarity framework, your second mission is to create genuine reasons to actually use all that new vocabulary.

Use it or lose it

The second part of memorising vocabulary is creating a real communicative need to use it.

The problem is, however, that it’s often really hard to actually use new vocabulary in conversation… because you forget it!

Forgetting the word you need in the middle of a conversation or even forgetting what vocabulary you want to practise in the first place can be really demoralising, but remember… it’s only natural.

By now you should know that forgetting is part of the process, and absolutely not your fault.

So, in just the same way, you need to plan to forget during a conversation, and figure out ways to support yourself, such that you can keep the conversation going and intentionally practise the new vocabulary that you’ve been learning.

Here are the three most effective ways I know to make this happen:

  1. Create a list of your latest vocabulary on a separate piece of paper and keep it next to you during conversations with your tutor. This is a simple but effective way of reminding you to actually try and use the vocabulary you want to learn. If you don’t trust yourself to do this, you can also give your list to your tutor and ask them to feed the vocabulary into the conversation themselves and “test” you on it.
  2. Write short monologues that make use of your new vocabulary. Learn them from memory and rehearse them. Doing this gives you practice at using the vocabulary – everything from forming the words in your mouth to using them in a meaningful way. Have your tutor correct it and record it, so you have a model.
  3. Use text chat to practise using what you’ve been learning. This is extremely useful, because it’s real communication on meaningful topics, but slowed down enough to give you time to think and use your new vocabulary. You also get feedback from the other person if what you’re saying doesn’t make sense. Don’t have friends to talk with? Go to Lang-8 or iTalki, write a diary entry and have it corrected by a native speaker. Make friends with helpful people on those platforms, then get in touch on messaging apps like WeChat or Whatsapp. There are also lots of Facebook groups that are starting to create dedicated Whatsapp language groups so you can practise 24/7.

What’s important, once again, is not to expect to be able to remember everything you need and use it right away.

However, these three tactics give you the best possible advantage, by putting the new vocabulary on centre-stage and letting you use it for real communication.

Action steps

If you like the ideas in this article, here are the action steps you can take to start putting it into practice.

For a free, printable PDF cheat-sheet of these steps, just click here.

  1. Look through your Memrise decks and delete right away the stuff you know, the stuff that you know won’t stick, or that you don’t think you’ll ever actually use in conversation
  2. Next, take all single words and either put them in full sentences or delete them
  3. Stick to a consistent, daily schedule of reviewing your sentences until they start to become familiar. Plan to forget most of it. Remember that it’s a familiarisation process – I don’t give you permission to get frustrated for at least three weeks!
  4. Write a list of 10 vocabulary items from your decks that you’d like to prioritise learning
  5. Then choose one of the three practice activities from the article and commit to trying it out this week, targeting the vocabulary items you just chose

Take a deep breath.

Go!


“Olly Richards speaks 8 languages and runs the I Will Teach You A Language blog. Originally from the UK, he currently lives in Egypt, where he can be found rubbing shoulders with camels and smoking oddly-flavoured shisha.”

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