How to memorize new words faster
By Mónica Barnkow
Reaching a high level of proficiency in a new language requires the acquisition of thousands of words as well as learning the mechanics of how these words combine in a system through which communication is possible.
There is little doubt that memory plays a vital role in this process. Without a healthy memory, acquiring a new language is an impossible task. In today’s world, the average language learner is used to relying on outer devices for recollection, such as computers and smart phones, and this reliance hinders the development of an active memory.
With technology at the peak of its game, memorizing information seems like a thing of the past, and gone are the days when we used to register phone numbers, birthdays and last names, all inside our brains. What is the point in memorizing data that can be readily available at the touch of a screen or at the raise of a voice?
But here is the good news: Your memory, dormant as it may be, is still there and it is time to call it back into action. I can give you a few suggestions that can help you register, remember and retrieve your Spanish words when you need them.
But not all words are created equal. Particularly hard to remember are content words - nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs - because these are the ones that have the most lexical charge and their number is practically infinite. Other words, like determinants, prepositions or pronouns, are very limited in number and have a more functional role without adding much semantic information.
Next time you learn a new content word, I suggest you first carefully visualize it, and then read it aloud. At this point, you should be able to identify groupings of letters/sounds that you already know in the new word.
For example, the word enamorado combines three morphemes, or units of meaning that cannot be further divided: the noun amor, the preposition “en” as a prefix, and the suffix “–ado.” Each one of these parts contributes to the full meaning of the word.
Then, to help your memory retain the meaning of the new word and remember it later, associate it with other words that are similar in structure. In this example, the word enamorado may yield terms like enojado, encerrado, encantado and so on. This mental exercise can be effective at helping you incorporate this word to your vocabulary. The longer you take registering the word in you brain, the higher the chances you will remember it later.
It could also happen, especially to beginner students, that none of the components of a word is familiar. In that case, allow your playful brain to make associations of any kind, linguistic or extra linguistic. Perhaps a word may remind us of another word in our native language, it may remind us of an event or a person in our lives, it may even remind us of a color or a smell. Things, including words, resonate differently in each person, and there are as many associations a word can originate as language learners are out there.
For example, the word mariposa may immediately trigger the words marido and esposa, which are words that most beginner students know. But you may also think about the duality in the nature of the butterfly, as it originates from a caterpillar. Or the word may remind you of a familiar landscape in Spring, or a song, or a meal.
These types of associations are very personal and what works for a student doesn’t necessarily work for others. What matters is that these connections help our memory retrieve vocabulary from its storage when you need to use it.
Another good tip is to memorize basic sentence structures. For example, the sentence La casa tiene ventanas has the structure Determinant + Noun+ Verb + Direct Object, which is a very common structure in the language.
This sentence structure is very versatile. We can change each word in the sentence for another one that belongs to the same class and transform the message entirely. For example: Esa mujer vende libros, or Un gato come ratones. Internalizing these basic sentence structures is very helpful!
We can go a step further and personalize sentences in order to make them more memorable. The sentence Ella tiene un coche, for example, lacks specification on the subject and object, which makes the sentence dull and unmemorable. But Mi tía Esther tiene un coche rojo, provided that the learner has an aunt, whose name is Esther and has a red car, is much easier to remember. Don’t you think?
Finally, I recommend writing it all down. Take notes, make index cards, write on your textbooks, write all over the walls if necessary! The more you put things down on paper, the more opportunities you will have to reencounter new vocabulary. Do not take pictures, if you can write. Taking a picture of a whiteboard filled with knowledge in your Spanish class may seem like a good idea to register the material, but the truth is you are doing little if all that takes is the tap of an icon in your phone.
Don’t be disengaged and passive. Be proactive, be persistent, be memoriosa and keep on learning!
Mónica Barnkow is a Spanish Language Instructor at Berges NYC.