10 proven tips on how to remember words in a foreign language

Do you have difficulty remembering new words of the language you are currently learning? This normal. Of course some students learn more easily, while others need a bit more time and effort. To learn a new language is a great exercise for our brain, and is also good for older people. Nevertheless, it can be frustrating to try to learn new words in the traditional way with flash cards, and than then to forget them again. To help you with this I am sharing some proven tips, that I apply in the classes that I teach, which have helped many students, specifically those who couldn’t remember words easily. Check out which methods will fit best your learning style. Let’s dive into the different methods and tips.

1. How our brain works

Before we talk about the tips and the different methods we need to understand, how our brain works. If we want to remember something it needs to have many strong neural connections inside our brain. Such a connections could be an emotion, a feeling, another word, a location, sounds, a smell, etc.. The more connections a word or a phrase has, the more likely we can remember it. Thus the key is to create as many strong connections as possible. The following tips will help to achieve that. When you start learning another language, in the beginning our brain does not have many connections. That is why it is much harder to remember, yet when we are at an intermediate level we effortlessly learn words, sometimes even without translation, just through the context. In a way it is normal for our brain to forget unimportant information. In this way we need to make it important, which leads to the next point:

2. What is you motivation?

Yes, our motivation plays a big role in how well we can remember things. To say it in a different way; if you don’t want to remember, you won’t remember. If we are excited and motivated, it will help our learning process. Take a moment and write down why you are learning the language in the first place. Maybe because you want to travel, to learn new things, for you profession, because of love, or interested in culture. Get your motivation right and learning will flow much better!

3. Writing down new words

When I studied theology in Sydney, Australia, I was writing down new words on the last page of my notebook. At home I was learning and translating the term phrase. This is probably the simplest of all the tips, but don’t underestimate writing words down by hand. It helps our brain to remember better, specifically people who learn better in a visual way. For German and Portuguese I suggest including the article of the word, as Portuguese has 2 and German 3 different articles! Also, write down the plural ending. With this you’ll be able to master the languages faster and better.


Example:

– Das Bücherregal (Bücherregale)

– Das Haus (Häuser)

– a casa (as casas)

4. Repeat and use

This is the most basic and obvious one. We need to repeat a new word in order to learn it, the more often we repeat it, the more likely we’ll remember it. Nonetheless, the importance is to repeat in a specific time frame. For example, repeat on the spot, than 10 minutes later, 1 hour later, tomorrow, and in one week. Using flash cards can help with a more systematic repetition. Nowadays, many people prefer Vocabulary Apps like DuoLingo, Babbel, City of Words, etc., as we have our phones with us most of the time; some Apps use an algorithm to determine when a word is ready for repetition. For more details read tip “8. Using Apps for learning vocabulary”. Including very good language books that repeat the vocabulary, in the consecutive lessons. One book that does this well is the Interchange series from Cambridge University. Writing down an unknown word and learning it after class is also very helpful application of this method.:

5. Connecting new words with known words

This is a simple technique everyone can use, but a lot of people don’t know that this form of learning is very effective. When you start learning German and for example, you already speak English, there are some words that are very similar, for example ‘music’, in German ‘Musik’. Those words can be remembered more easily, as we already have a connection with them. Many books and teachers start with these common words. Another way of using this technique is to connect 2 words together. One the one hand use objects that fit together, like chair and desk (der Stuhl und der Schreibtisch), or pencil and eraser. This also works well with opposites, for example high and low, big and small,.. You should use this explicitly, when you have trouble remembering one term, connect it with another word, to build a bridge. For example ‘window’ (das Fenster), connect it with ‘door’ (die Tür): “das Fenster und die Tür”. Read the next point for an even more advanced method for connecting words


Example:

  • the chair and the desk  → Der Stuhl und der Schreibtisch
  • the door and the window   → Die Tür und das Fenster

6. Build visual order

This is the advanced version of the point before, but even more creative and thus more effective. This method is great for learning a theme, or a category. This is a very practical approach that uses the benefit of creating strong connections in the brain. So how does it work? To learn the names of the different furniture would be a great example: Let’s start with learning the names of the furniture in your living room. What you do is you enter the living room and say the word in the language that you are learning: das Wohnzimmer (living room), then go and point to it, or even better, touch an item (in our example a piece of furniture) and say the name out loud ‘das Sofa’, ‘die Tur (door)’. The idea is to go from the more general to the more specific and smaller items, e.g.: das Haus(house) → das Wohnzimmer(living room) → das Sofa → der Sessel(armed chair) → der Spiegel(mirror). Afterwards you repeat the same order. It is important to always move physically through the room. Spice it up by using a different order of the items. Start with 4 to 5 words, when you can remember these words well, add more words until you remember all words of the category that you want to learn. If you don’t have a physical space with the items, use your imagination; this works in the same way. Just imagine an image of the word that you want to learn.


Example:

  • house → living room → sofa → armed chair → mirror
  • das Haus → das Wohnzimmer → das Sofa → der Sessel → der Spiegel
  • a casa → a sala → a sofá → a poltrona → o espelho

7. Using flash cards

Most of you know this system of using flash cards. To write down the word in the new language on a small card, and on the other side of the card in your native language, or even better to use images for objects. Now you put all cards into one stack, or start for example with 20 cards. You look at each, in case you don’t know the word, you learn it and put it back to the stack of words that you need to learn. If you remember the word you put it into another stack. This stack you go through in 2 days, and do the same, the words you know go to the next stack, that you’ll look at it again in 1 week, the words you don’t remember go to the first stack. For some languages you can buy flash cards for basic vocabulary. My recommendation is to use this system for difficult words.

8. Using Apps for learning vocabulary

Nowadays, with modern technology we have a powerful tools, that we have with us most of the time on our Smartphone. Instead of carrying around your flash cards, use your phone. Additionally Apps can help you with repeating the words in the correct times, for even more learning efficiency. Whenever you are waiting in a place, or in a bus, car, train, you can use that time to increase your vocabulary. The most popular apps are DuoLingo and Babbel, which are free to use, for the most part. For German there is also the App “City of words” from Goethe Institute. There are many other Apps out there; so try and choose the App that you like the most, and that helps you to increase your vocabulary.

9. Learning complete phrases

My English teacher in college always told us the remember phrases, to give the new word a context. So in his class we always had to write the full sentence, to give a context to the word we want to learn, plus giving it a great connection to other words in that sentence, and thus you are better able to learn the word. This is also a great way of increasing the expressions of a language.


Example:

Hallo, wie geht’s?”    → “Hello, how is it going?”

Guten Morgen, ich bin Herr Schmidt   → “Good morning, I am Mr. Schmidt”

10. Categorize words

To give the new words a category is very effective, yet typically easy task to do. Good language books use this method. This is a very subtle way of connecting words. Normally this is not a difficult way of learning, as it is close to how our brain works, as it connects each word to a category. If you can mix this in with words you already know and add some new words will even increase it’s performance


Example:

Wohnzimmer     living room
– Das Sofa       – sofa
– Der Fernseher    – television
– Das Bücherregal   – bookshelf

11. word network / word tree

This is a visual way of learning, is a bit more advanced and creative version of categorizing words. It is great if you are already at an intermediate or advanced level student. Nevertheless, I recommend this to my students that are preparing for the higher level language tests. To combine words the student already knows with new words, especially for processing complex and scientific texts. It works like a mind map. Indeed, this is an easy exercise, but very effective, because it reflects on paper how our brain connects items together. Create a word network for each text or for each topic/category. Besides, the new words, add words you already know! And you can even go into more than one level and subcategories.

If you now are interested in learning more, check out the other article I wrote, about the 8 tips for language starters

A good teacher will help you and guide you through all the points mentioned above!