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How learning vocabulary can improve your memory

Learning vocabulary
Studying other languages and learning vocabulary has become a problem for many students. One of the possible reasons for this is that modern technology has outsourced our need to memorise information. We all have a mobile phone which to some extent replaces our memory and acts as a kind of external hard drive.

Today, it is no longer necessary to memorise phone numbers, addresses, appointments or multiplication tables, because smartphones are always with us everywhere we go, so we no longer need to remember the information.

Advantages and disadvantages

Despite all the advantages of modern technology, there are also disadvantages. The way we use mobile phones today means we are losing the skill of rote learning, or memorisation through repetition. First of all, this poses a big problem for vocabulary learning; many students are hardly able to memorise vocabulary words and their meanings anymore.

For those who have difficulties learning vocabulary, the following explanations may be helpful as they are cover both the benefits and different types of vocabulary learning.

What is the purpose of vocabulary learning?

Vocabulary learning is a skill primarily used for language acquisition. When learning a new language, you not only have to know the grammar, but you also have to expand your vocabulary, otherwise you cannot claim to have mastered the language in question. Learning vocabulary is an essential part of language acquisition and is unavoidable.

Memorising vocabulary stimulates memory and it helps to create connections. These connections are necessary to be able to think, because thinking is essentially the linking of information. Without these connections, we would only make isolated, separate and therefore meaningless statements.

Vocabulary memorisation promotes three different language skills or three types of vocabulary:
  • Vocabulary memorisation develops passive or receptive vocabulary, i.e. words that are understood but not used. For example, a Year 5 student may understand the words subjective and objective if explained to them, but they will not actively use them in their daily lives.
  • Memorising vocabulary also helps to develop active or productive vocabulary, or vocabulary that you already consciously use yourself. Your active vocabulary is by definition smaller than your passive vocabulary. By learning vocabulary, you can expand your active vocabulary.
  • Memorising vocabulary also promotes potential vocabulary, which means that one can understand more words and eventually use them by deduction. For example, someone who already knows some English could guess the meaning of the French word forêt, because in English, forêt translates as forest.

Semantic memory

The last two bullet points show that language learning in general, and vocabulary learning in particular, always involve linking processes. This is because the vocabulary learned is stored in your semantic memory, where information is linked to other memories, resulting in a huge network of stored knowledge.

The more connections there are, the more powerful your memory is! Semantic memory is also responsible for interpreting and organising our knowledge of facts and the world. This background knowledge concerning the structure of our memory makes vocabulary learning more relevant.

What should you pay particular attention to when learning vocabulary?

To achieve good results in learning vocabulary, it is important to learn in a sustainable way. You should not simply learn vocabulary for an exam and then erase it from your memory. As stated in the previous section, learning vocabulary is not just about mastering a language, but also about developing memory strength and the ability to link information together.

What are the different methods of learning vocabulary?
In addition to regularity and repetition, there are other methods of ensuring the sustainability of the vocabulary to be learned.
  • Form word families and lexical fields with vocabulary: This contextualises the words and makes it easier for you to classify the vocabulary by topic. It also makes it easier for you to link the words together.
  • Visual cues: If you have a picture of the words, you can better remember the concept and therefore the meaning of each word. When you hear the word tree, can you picture a tree?
  • Sensory association: The senses must be involved in order to link semantic memory with perceptual memory. Hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste play a role here. Perhaps you could learn quantities in German by baking a cake according to a German recipe?
  • Emotional and personal association:This means creating mnemonics for yourself. These are often linked to personal experiences and backgrounds, which influence the connotation with the word to be learned.

So no one should be afraid to learn vocabulary! Learning vocabulary certainly can be tedious, but it can also be very rewarding.
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