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Learning Foreign Vocabulary

10 Jan 2019
Learning Foreign Vocabulary

When I was at school I dreaded vocabulary tests. My teacher was a Frenchman with a love for his language which he hated to see students mangling. He would say, “That’s not French. It’s Chinese!” His Gallic passion led to a reputation of a quick temper. This wasn’t really true, but he did have theatrics in his class with the occasional rant on somewhat random topics. Another favourite saying of his was, “The Village Idiot can learn vocabulary” but he never taught us how. It was simply expected that each week you’d learn a list of words as homework. If you scored less than 80% in the test, you were branded a ‘slacker’ and had to report to his office before school to repeat the test. Despite my best efforts, I had several early morning re-tests. In the end, thanks to his tough love, I got Grade A in GCSE French. Ironically, nearly thirty years later, I can recall a fair amount of the vocabulary I struggled with but I have forgotten all the rules of grammar. 
My story is far from unique. It is almost ubiquitous for teachers to expect their students to memorise things without ever being told how. Those students who are good at studying are the ones who go on to become teachers. Since they somehow managed to learn effectively from ‘chalk and talk’ they teach in the same way and the system is perpetuated. There are however, simple techniques to easily memorise language vocabulary. It turns out that my teacher was almost right. With the correct method, the Village idiot can learn vocab.
Modern humans are not very different from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In geological time we’ve been on the planet for the blink of an eye. Like all other intelligent animals, we learn best from experience. In pre-history a young man would accompany the hunt to learn from the tribal elders. There were no theory lessons! Memories acquired through experience are called ‘Episodic Memories’. They refer to episodes in life. Episodic memory is natural and effortless. You do not have to sit down and memorise things you’ve done though you may choose to reminisce for pleasure. Facts, figures and language vocabulary on the other hand, are known as ‘Semantic Memories’. These are un-natural and hard to remember. As a species we have never evolved to learn in this way. It usually requires work or ends in failure. Virtually all memory techniques rely on a system to convert semantic data into episodic memories. The brain treats vividly imagined experiences exactly the same way as real ones so learning becomes near effortless.
To learn a foreign word, you think of an object or action that sounds like the pronunciation of the word. For example, manteau sounds like ‘man toe’. This means coat in French. Make a link between the sound association and the meaning: A man’s toe with a tiny fur coat covering it. The combined image in your mind means you can translate from French to English or English to French. Be playful and enjoy the process of coming up with imaginative links. Avoid mundane associations or links that seem logical initially but do not directly create an experience in your mind. Tapis is French for carpet. You could think of a tapestry (both words come from the same Latin root). If there is no associated experience this can easily be forgotten. (In fact, this was a crucial piece of vocabulary in my GCSE French exam paper. I forgot the word but was able to write alternative sentences in correct French using terre – meaning earth – instead so lost few marks.)
Many languages assign a gender to words. There are some general rules of thumb to determine whether a word is male or female but there a lot of exceptions you mostly just have to learn. Techniques can help here too. When we experience the real world there is always the context of our surroundings. Everything happens in a location. Eight times World Memory Champion, Dominic O’Brien, suggests using two towns that you know well. One is populated with male worlds whilst the other is female. For example in la brasserie in the female town you have la carte (the menu - or literally the card), la nappe (the tablecloth) and la salade (the salad). In le restaurant in the male town you le poulet (the chicken), le porc (the pork) and le poisson (the fish). You memorise the words in the same way described above by making imaginative associations but can easily identify their gender by their imagined location.
Using these techniques, you can very quickly build a very large vocabulary. Make sure you review your associations to maintain recall. Review 10 minutes after a learning session, then one day later, after one week, one month and 3-6 months. This should be enough to transfer the memory to long term memory. If you find you are forgetting certain words modify your associations or review more frequently. Once you start using the words in conversation you may find that you will ‘just know’ many and can dispense with the associations.
I wish I’d known about this at school. It would have saved a lot of stress and all those early morning tests!
Grammar rules can be learned using Mind Maps but that’s a topic for another time.