How we learn and memorize new words

Everyone has a very personal way to learn a language. Some of us just learn by repeating what they hear, others need to learn the structure, the grammar in order to consolidate the new language.

Every new word that we hear does make a long way to land eventually in our long term memory. When we read or hear it for the first time, the word lands in our very-short-term-memory (i.e. sensory register or sensory memory) and usually disappears from there, unless we focus our attention on it and concentrate and transfer it to the short term memory. Here, the new words spend approximately 20 minutes (some say even shorter). During this time we should repeat the new words, otherwise they’ll get “erased”. The way from the short term memory to the long term memory takes approximately 6 hours.

How does this work? It is like our brain would push the save button and the data, like on our computer, is saved on the hard disk. But even if the new words are memorized and fixed in the long term memory, they can’t rest.

They have to be repeated in regular intervals, otherwise they’ll go into the (passive) storage room of our long-term memory, i.e. in our receptive vocabulary, the vocabulary we comprehend, but don’t use. We could recall and maybe use them later on, if we want or need them.

This can happen with languages we don’t use regularly but want to reactivate at some point. – We don’t have to re-learn them from scratch, we just have to reactivate them by stimulating our knowledge by reading, listening, speaking or writing, and use them again. It’s interesting to see that this doesn’t only apply to language we used orally, but also language we used mainly in writing. If for some time we stop writing in them and want to reactivate that skill, our way to re-access the language, its words, expressions etc. can also happen through writing!

Let’s go back to how we memorize words.

It seems complicated, but through constantly stimulating our new inputs we really can memorize up to 200 new words per day in our long-term memory.

The single steps a new word takes, make it clear why we need a certain time to master a new language and become proficient, aka fluent enough to feel confident speaking it.

The way the storage of words and their networking with other words we already know works, depends on the type of learner we are.

The visual learner memorizes new words when he sees them written, i.e. when he reads them. The haptictactile  or kinesthetic learner needs to write the words in order to memorize them, the auditory learner needs to hear them. – I personally believe that most of us are a combination of them all, only that in each individual, these types are combined in a very unique way and one type or more, can be more prominent than others.

Some people prefer approaching a new language by understanding its grammatical rules. These are called cognitive learners, who really need a systematic textbook. Whereas imitative learners seem to memorize the best by listening and repeating.

Independently from what kind of learner we are, we need to practice, speak, if possible, read and write the new language whenever we can in order to improve our skills.

Adding the creative aspect to the learning process, the learning languages is never complete. We all learn language in the domains of life, with the vocabulary, registers etc. we need them. We can not learn all the expressions, nuances, registers in all regional variants and dialects of a language, in its sociolects etc.!

We will never reach a complete knowledge of a language, not even if we are a native language speaker! (Li Wei)

Dr. Diane Larsen-Freeman held a very interesting speech about Empowering the Language Learner (very long!) where she used a combination of lecture “and experimental exercises (…) and traced the evolution of language teaching methods over the past 60 years, discussing how each evolutionary phase has contributed to a more “whole-person” view of language learners. Larsen-Freeman suggests that when educators treat language as a closed, static system, they create a critical barrier to student empowerment. When language is instead seen as the complex, dynamic system, teachers are able to help their students transform their linguistic world, not merely conform to it. Larsen-Freeman illustrates how this shift in understanding has implications for what and how teachers teach.”

It is not easy to decide what kind of learner we are. It also changes depending on the phase we are in during our learning process.

For example, I am definitely an imitative learner in the first phases of learning a new language. I imitate sounds, sound chains, intonations of even whole sentences. But during these first phases I also need to read and hear the words I’m learning, in order to understand their spelling and some basic orthographic rules of the new language.

I then expand this to the grammar: the morphology, the syntax, the vocabulary, semantics and pragmatics. During the whole process I constantly compare the new language to those I already know, more ore less consciously. It is like integrating the new into a network that already exists, creating new pathways and connections.

The dynamics Dr. Diane Larsen-Freeman mentions about the system of a language and what it implies for teachers who teach a language, is also recognizable in the learner himself who is going through different stages of comprehension that involve all the senses.

If you want to find out learner you are, you can find it out here  or here.

Further readings:
Ways to expand vocabulary

(cfr. ©”Wie landet das Wort im Kopf”, P.M. 7/04)

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  1. Pingback: Some thoughts about fluency in language - Ute's International Lounge

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