Not very many, probably. These words come in through your eyes or ears, and fall right back out of your head again. They don’t stick in your memory.
This happens because our minds are too busy focusing on the task in front of us to pick out all the little words and phrases to store in our long-term memories. While this is a good habit for being productive, it most certainly is not a good habit for learning a language.
Not surprisingly, we barely pay attention to the things that happen around us. To have a better understanding of how we direct our attention as humans, watch this short video:
So how can I start paying attention more?
Well, you’ve already made an important first step. You’ve already started by deciding to read this article and making a conscious effort to learn new words. While it is important to want to make a change, even more important is to start taking action to actually make that change.
Firstly, you should remind yourself whenever you are reading or listening to something in English to pay attention. Make a conscious effort to switch on your language brain when you are focusing on an activity. Be aware of the words that surround you. Take a moment and say to yourself “I like this phrase, I should use it more often” whenever you see or hear something that you think will be useful.
But what exactly is “useful”? If you can imagine yourself saying that phrase, it is useful. Think about your communication events—every situation in which you speak or write something in English—and ask yourself if you would really use this phrase in one of those situations. Create connections with the phrases that are meaningful to you.
Secondly, you should be curious. Be an explorer of the language. One of my most effective learners was a genuine explorer. He used to be a tanker captain in the Arctic Ocean, and he took his mentality of exploring new and exciting places to the English language. He was constantly investigating every strange little phrase that the language had to offer.
Approach the language with the same attitude that a child would have. Don’t assume that you know something just because you’ve seen it in your native language. Learn it anew! People only get stuck because they believe they have learned everything that is necessary to be functional in their current environment. Keep yourself open to growth by believing that you can always learn more.
Thirdly, you should be a collector. Paying attention and being curious only takes you so far—if you aren’t systematic about keeping track of the new words you learn, you’ll forget them all as soon as you learnt them! When something gets your attention, write it down so you can find out more about it later.
This means keeping note of your words somewhere easy and convenient for you, and then setting time aside later so you can study them in depth. If you want to remember these words, you have to keep them organized so you know where to find them! Remember, the captain of a ship spends more time staring at maps and planning his routes than he does actually exploring the seas!
Finally, you should be spontaneous. Take advantage of every opportunity you have to use the new words. It’s not enough to just collect them and study them to remember, even if you write 10 example sentences for each word. The words need to be used in real life, or they will fall back into your passive vocabulary.
Your passive vocabulary consists of the words you recognize, but don’t usually use. You want to expand your active vocabulary by taking these words out and using them. Think of your mind like a library, and each word or phrase like a book. If you don’t open the book, it gets dusty. We want our words to be fresh and clean!
To remember words, you have to use them meaningfully.
To use words meaningfully, you have to understand them deeply.
To understand words deeply, you have to be a curious explorer of the language.