This happened to me once when I saw the Turkish word for “on duty” pass me by on the sign of a bus in Istanbul. I put the word into my phone’s translator, looked at it, said “Oh yeah, that makes sense” to myself, and then immediately directed my attention to something else (probably Instagram or something useless like that).
The next time a bus went by with the same word on it, I thought to myself, “Oh, I know that word!” but didn’t check because it didn’t seem important at the time. After all, I can figure out the basic concept: the bus won’t stop for me because it’s busy.
This is a terrible way to learn words.
What went wrong here?
Well, if I wanted to use that word in my speaking or writing, I can guarantee you that I would not be able to use it correctly.
The word represented only a vague idea in my head—not an exact concept. Sure, I might be able to explain the general meaning, like that it means the bus is busy, but I wouldn’t be able to use it accurately in a sentence, like a native speaker does effortlessly.
This is why you can’t remember new words. You check it, match it to an unclear concept, and then drop it out of your mind as quickly as it came in.
Why does this happen?
A keyword here is memory retention. Memory retention means how long we can remember something in our memories before losing it.
Research shows that we forget most of what we learned within the first day, or even within the first few hours!
As you can see, learning is not something that happens only once and then it is finished. You have to encounter that word multiple times in a meaningful environment, and then you have to use it in a way that is meaningful to you, if you want to remember it.
So if you really want to remember something, you need to make it relevant to your life. You need to personalize it.
So what must I do to remember these words?
First of all, stop translating! Translating a word is like trying to find the easy way out. When learning a language, there are no shortcuts.
It requires a lot of effort to remember a word. We can put words into our short term memories quite easily, but to keep them in our long term memories is quite difficult.
(This is a Ted-ED lesson as well if you are interested in learning more about the subject)
In order to keep a word in your long term memory, try these steps:
- Select only the words that are useful for you. According to Oxford, there are more than 170 000 words. How many of them are actually relevant for you?
- Look them up in an English-English dictionary. This helps you to understand the concept from an English perspective, rather than from your own culture’s perspective, which is radically different!
- Study the collocations (groups of words that go together). Note down the most common ones.
- Read the example sentences carefully. Note down your favourite one(s).
- Create an example sentence that connects the word with your personal experience. Check it with your teacher.
- Create a Memrise course with these words (Memrise was developed using theories of memory retention!)
- If absolutely necessary: translate (but beware the limitations of translation!)
- Review regularly!
This process will give you a deeper understanding of the word because it requires more mental effort than a simple translation does. Sure, it may take more time, but at least you won’t waste time learning words that you’ll forget later!
If you have greater mental engagement with a word, your chances of remembering it will be higher. This is because when your brain establishes neural pathways (through mental or emotional connections), the concept goes deeper into your brain and becomes a memory.
The deeper it goes, the longer you will remember it!