November 26th, 2007
Many English learners often complain about not being able to remember the new words that they learn. They feel frustrated, and unmotivated to continue studying. These students often feel that they have a memory problem, as if there is something physically wrong with this part of their brain. Since they feel they can’t remember what they learn, they find studying to be a waste of time.
If you want to have a better memory, it’s essential to understand how memory works. Many people think that simply looking at something many times should allow them to remember it. This seems sensible, but it is very untrue. Think about something that you see everyday. (Maybe a one dollar bill of your country’s money) You’ve probably seen this piece of paper thousands of times, but how well do you remember it? Could you draw a picture of it without looking at it? Do you even know which side of the president’s face (left or right) you can see? I’m sure there are many things that you see everyday that you can’t draw a picture of.
Here is an interesting thing to think about. Imagine that I have never seen your country’s money before. Now let’s suppose that you give me a one dollar bill (or something similar) to study for 2 minutes. After only 2 minutes, I’ll probably know more about what is on that picture than you do, even though you’ve seen it thousands of times before. Why is that? Remembering something takes energy, so our brains will only remember what we think will be important in the future. Knowing what exactly is on the money is not important. It’s only important to know if it’s a 5, 10, or 100 dollar bill.
Seeing or hearing something does not make us remember it. We don’t remember most of what we see or hear each day. If we want to remember something well, we need to pay attention to it. We need to notice many things about it. We need to use it. We need to feel that it’s important to remember.
Here is an exercise for you to try.
1. Choose one NEW English word that you want to learn. Get mentally prepared to remember it. Tell yourself that this is a very important word and you must remember it. (If you are tired or not motivated to remember, you will be much less likely to remember it.) Get excited about it!
2. Read it out loud 3 times (make sure you know how to pronounce it, use a dictionary if you aren’t sure).
3. Write it down and make sure you know how to spell it.
3. Look up the meaning in the dictionary and make sure you understand it.
4. Write 3 different sentences on a piece of paper with that word in it.
5. Read those sentences out loud.
6. Think of 2 situations that you might actually be in, where you plan to use that word in the future.
For example, let’s suppose you wanted to learn the word, “pediatrician“.
A pediatrician is a special kind of doctor who works with babies.
Now you should think of some sentences using this word that you might actually use.
Depending on your situation, your sentences might be,
“My mom told me that I never saw pediatrician when I was a baby”.
“A friend of mine is thinking of studying to become a pediatrician because she likes babies”.
“Do you have many pediatricians in your country?”
This might sound like a lot of effort, but at least it will help you to not only remember the word, but also be able to actually use it in the future.
I’ve actually seen students with a long list of words that they are supposed to remember. They simply write each word down 20 times on a piece of paper, and then hope they remember the words in the future. This is a terrible method of studying! Even if you do remember some of the words, you have wasted a lot of time and effort. You will also be less likely to be able to think of those words quickly during a conversation. If you want to use words, you need to know how to use them in sentences.
Try this method, or something similar, and share with us your experience.
I’d love to hear from you as always.