Let’s start with a bold statement: everyone is good at languages.
I know lots of people are probably disagreeing with me right now. But the fact is, we all learnt our own language, so technically we should be able to learn another one. Right?
Of course there are lots of elements to becoming fluent in another language. Grammar. Sentence construction. Tones (for some languages). Perfecting your accent. Reading. Writing. Learning colloquial expressions. I could go on.
But let’s start at the beginning. Before you tackle any of this daunting list, you need to learn some words, or you’ll never get anywhere. And for a lot of people, a little bit of vocabulary is often enough to get by with – I survived a weekend in Naples with just a handful of essential Italian words, like ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘water’ and ‘cake’. (What do you mean, that’s not an essential word?)
And having spent January learning German with the uTalk app, I now feel like I could at least make myself understood in a restaurant, a shop, the hospital – although let’s hope that’s not necessary! – and I also know how to buy a train ticket or ask for the nearest cash machine. I might be far from fluent, but this is a big step for someone who knew no German at all a little over a month ago.
So, learning vocab is important. But what happens if you’re not very good at remembering stuff? Another language can look pretty terrifying at first, particularly if it’s one that bears no resemblance at all to your own. So here are a few tips for memorising new words.
The facial expressions are optional…
Start with the basics
This probably makes sense anyway – why would you learn how to say ‘Do you prefer reading or TV?’ before you’ve figured out ‘Hello’? But it’s amazing how much of a boost it is just to have a few simple words under your belt. That way, you know at the very least, you can greet someone in their own language, even if you don’t know how to say anything else.
Take it a bit at a time
Don’t try and learn everything at once. Even if you remember it at the time, by the next day your brain will almost certainly have rebelled and forgotten it all. So break it down into topics, and focus on one a day, or a week – whatever works best for you – remembering to come back to it at regular intervals to revise and make sure it’s all still in there.
Try to link it to a memory
When I find myself in a real-life situation, I try to think of how to describe it in the language I’m learning. The other morning, for example, when my train was delayed, I amused myself by remembering how to say it in German. (Yes, I’m that cool.) And now when I think of that phrase, it springs more readily to mind because I can imagine shivering on the station platform, waiting for a train that may or may not show up. It did… eventually.
Associate words with images
Another good tip – try and link words to an image or object in your mind, as it makes them easier to recall later. Even better, stick notes on things you see every day, so that when you need the word you can visualise the object with its translation attached.
Make it a game
This could be a game against someone else – see who can remember the most words, you or your friend – or against yourself, but it’s amazing how effective it can be at hardwiring the vocabulary into your brain. And the best bit is you don’t even need to win the game to be successful… The memory game in uTalk is notoriously difficult, particularly if your memory isn’t the best. I struggled with the fruit and vegetables sections, for some reason; I just couldn’t remember where they all were when the cards were covered, and after the tenth attempt, I was ready to throw my phone across the room. But by the time I was done, I knew all the names of the fruits and vegetables forwards and backwards, and can’t see myself forgetting them any time soon.
Try and connect it to your own language
Even if the language you speak every day is completely different to the one you’re learning, use your imagination. For ‘I had a good time’, which is ‘Mir hat es sehr gut gefallen’ I found the only way to remember it was to think of it as ‘my hat is very well fallen’. It makes no sense, but it works for me!
Talk to other people
Sometimes, telling someone else how to say something can help to cement it in your mind, even if they have no idea what you’re saying. I’ve been cheerfully saying random German words to my startled family and friends for a month now, and although most of them have no idea what I’m talking about, it helps me to say the words aloud to someone other than myself.
Study before you go to sleep
I don’t know if this will work for everyone, but I found it was quite effective. By revising the vocabulary at night before I go to sleep, I find it’s fresh in my mind when I wake up. Probably not recommended if you have trouble switching your brain off at night (not something I have a problem with, clearly).
Does anyone have any other tips for remembering vocabulary?