Words That Don’t ‘Stick’

superglue-shamingAs any seasoned language learner will tell you, sometimes you come across words that simply don’t ‘stick’ in your brain. Others, too, seem to stick easily and often effortlessly.

Why are some words committed to memory effortlessly after the first hearing, while others continue to torment you after several conscious attempts to learn them?

This can be because of several reasons. The main two would be:

  • You don’t understand the word properly. Did you hear the word in context, or are you simply trying to rote learn it from a word list? Words that you see in conversations or other authentic material are, in general, far easier to remember, as the context serves as a cue for your memory. When learning Chinese, it can be useful to learn the meaning of the individual characters that make up the word (just the Pinyin is fine for speaking). Also, if you don’t understand how it’s used, you’re unlikely to remember it, or, at least, you won’t be able to use it. And if you can’t use it, what’s the point, right?
  • The word doesn’t have enough perceived importance. If you don’t really care about a word, or, subconsciously or consciously, aren’t fully convinced that it’s worth learning at this point in time, then you probably won’t remember it. If you believe the word is essential to your survival in the language, then believe me, it will stick. The clear solution here is only learn words that are actually important for your current level. It makes no sense to learn the word for ‘biotechnology’ in your target language before you learn how to say ‘where’s the toilet’? Even if you are a scientist-type, the latter is going to be more important as a beginner learner. That’s not to say that learning complex words aren’t important – they are, but only when you’re at a higher level and looking to have more profound conversations with people.

How Do You Make Words Stick Like Superglue?

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When I was in High School, one of my favourite subjects was Psychology. We learnt a lot about the brain – in particular about sleep and memory. I thought that it was so relevant to be learning how to learn things.

Without boring you all too much, let me just say that the important things regarding memory that you should know is that your short-term memory can hold about 9 items. After that, without a proper ‘mnemonic device’ (memory technique) you will start forgetting them. I think the short term memory can store information for about 30 seconds, too.

Therefore, you gotta make a word sink through to your long-term memory in order for it to stick. The best way of doing that is through mnemonic devices. You can read more about them on Olle’s blog Hacking Chinese here, and here. An example of a mnemonic device I have used:

  • To learn 游泳 (to swim) – I broke down the characters into their individual parts, and then made a story. The first character, 游, I broke down into:氵(water) 方 (used a lot in characters to do with places) and 子 (child). The second character, 泳, has the water part again,氵, and the other part looks like the full character for water 水. So, my story was ‘To go swimming, you need a place with water, and there are usually a lot of characters.’ The second character I used to emphasis the water part (lots of water!). I hope that makes sense. 

When To Move On To Maintain Efficiency 

Sometimes words just don’t stick. If you keep forgetting, despite using mnemonics (this can happen), then you should ask yourself whether the character is really that important, or whether you should move on and come back later.

Also, when learning from dialogues (conversations), there will often be a lot of random words in there you really don’t need to know. For example, as a beginner or intermediate learner, you probably don’t need to know how to say ‘maternity leave’ or ‘kitty litter’.

When I come across words like these, I mentally take note of them, but don’t bust my ass trying to memorise them. I’ll learn them later, when I need them. I just focus on enjoying the content and understanding the meaning, whilst actively trying to learn the new words that are relevant for me right now.

It can take far more effort that it’s worth to squeeze every new word out of a dialogue. I find that once I ‘feel’ that I have taken what I need, it is better to move on. That way, you are exposing yourself to more new words, more of which will be relevant, as well as seeing other words you already know in different contexts, consolidating your knowledge of them. If you have a huge amount of content at your disposal, for example if you are a ChinesePod user like I am, then there is no reason to be shy about exploring other things.

P.S. I will likely be writing a couple of guest posts soon, both Luca’s blog The Polyglot Dream, and on The Language Dojo! I’m excited. I won’t tell you what the one for Luca is about, but I will say that the one for TLD is about how to get an authentic accent.


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Author: Dan

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