Alex Rawlings discusses the importance of learning vocabulary and how best to remember it with fellow experts Chester Santos, motivational speaker and the US Memory Champion, and writer and broadcaster Susie Dent, (resident word expert on Channel 4’s Countdown for over 25 years).
Who better to ask than memory expert Chester Santos? Here are his three top tips for memorising words:
“You need to make it more exciting,” Chester explains. By creating a context for the seemingly random word you’re trying to remember, you use more of the brain and “make something boring really interesting”. You can put all these techniques into practise and take part in Chester’s amazing word-memory test during the podcast.
Chester is enthusiastic about how Rosetta Stone helps you learn a language by using images and sound. That’s because with Rosetta Stone words are learnt with pictures and audio. Chester also suggests creating your own mnemonics. He takes the example of vilka, the Russian word for fork, and urges us to imagine a fork prodding some veal and then a crow bursting out and cawing – ka ka. That way you’ll never forget it!
Chester explains that you won’t always see strange visuals for every word you learn. His techniques are just ways of getting vocabulary from working memory (seconds/minutes) to short-term (hours/days/weeks) to your long-term memory. Chester also warns against “cramming” as that information only stays in your short-term memory and is then forgotten. Instead he explains: “spaced repetition is better for long-term memory.”
Rosetta Stone’s customised learning plan can help here. You can tell it how often you want to study and it will set reminders for you. As Alex says: “With all memory, consistency is key.”
Susie explains that psychologists have researched the idea of emotional granularity “which is the ability to put feelings into words”. Findings suggest that being able to articulate your feelings to a high degree of specificity can lower levels of depression. “Plus of course there’s the confidence”. To feel that you can talk and share with others can be cathartic and help you feel happier and more at ease.
Susie recommends themed vocabulary lists as well as following your interests, and not being too concerned about all the areas you’re not so knowledgeable about – use what you’ve got. Alex says that for him, “the best way to learn vocabulary is when you really need it’. He suggests talking to yourself or even journaling in your chosen language: “You’ll quickly identify the words that you’re missing […] And once you’ve identified that need, I personally find it’s a lot easier to remember that word”.
Alex’s take is that “Vocabulary is extremely important, and it’s the one part of language that you can communicate with, even if you don’t use anything else”. Though of course in the long term, without grammatical structure, you can only get so far. It’s a balance, but vocabulary is a great place to start your language-learning journey.
Chester warns that our 21st-century dependency on technology, in particular our attachment to mobile phones, is not helpful for our memory skills. But you can get those skills back! You can keep your memory strong and improve it at any age, you’ve just got to work on it. “It’s a bit like going to the gym,” Chester explains.
The simple answer is yes; scientific studies do support this idea. “One of the best ways that scientists say to build up your cognitive reserve, which is your resistance to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia […] is learning foreign languages,” says Chester. “You’re just forcing your brain to really exercise and build so many new connections”.
Alex confesses he does occasionally use an automatic translation tool “with caution”! He also uses social media for useful access to authentic foreign language accounts and feeds. Whilst Susie urges us to, “Read, read, read!” It can be anything: magazines, graphic novels, or newspapers. And watch TV programmes, watch films, listen to the radio. You might only understand 10% but you’ll still be getting a feel for the rhythm and flow. Just immerse yourself in the language because, as Susie reminds us, “the more exposure you have to vocabulary, the more you’ll absorb it.”
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*All quotes from the transcript of the full podcast which you can view above
Language learner, teacher and contributing author to the Rosetta Stone magazine
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