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« Top 10 Things to Remember When Using The Long List | Main | High Volume, High Speed, Low Resistance - Second Test »

A Simple Vocabulary Memorization Method

In a recent exchange on the Forum I promised to write about a simple method I used to remember tons of French vocabulary. I’m not claiming it’s perfect by any means, but I know it works - I passed two high-level exams using it more years ago than I care to remember!

Unfortunately I didn’t keep it going. The advent of electronic systems such as Anki and its predecessors and contemporaries seduced me away from it. But as I struggled through huge electronic backlogs of everything that I found most difficult, I remembered fondly how much easier my method seemed. 

The reason for its feeling much easier was that easy vocabulary and difficult vocabulary were treated exactly the same. Revisions included all items, not just the difficult ones. This meant that I didn’t get huge blocks of difficult words. They were spread out with the other words learnt at the same time, which had the added advantage that they were revised in context. When you get a word like chouette-effraie it does actually help the memory if it’s in a list of its fellow owls, and not in between barre de défilement and Syndrome de Guillain-Barré.

Anyway here’s how it works.

Although originally I used a bound notebook, these days I find a loose-leaf folder easier. The pages need to be lined and wide enough to include the traditional two-column vocab learning format. When I refer to French, it can of course be applied to any language. I’ve recently started using it for Welsh.

In the first column goes the French and in the second the English meaning. For languages that are written right to left, such as Hebrew and Arabic, you may find it easier to put the target language in the right hand column. It doesn’t make much difference either way.

Put the date at the top of the page on the left. Then add vocabulary. After each session of adding vocab, learn the meaning of the French words by using a card to cover up the English column and testing yourself until you have got every word right. Then do it from English to French. 

You may have several sessions during the day or just one. Either way it’s important to test yourself immediately after entering the vocabulary.

At the end of the day, cross out the date at the top of the page and enter tomorrow’s date. This is the date of your first revision.

The following day test yourself again both ways until you know every word and change the date at the top of the page to one week from now.

Same again in one week’s time, then one month later, then three months later, and finally a year later. By that time most of it should be firmly lodged in your long-term memory.

So the intervals are:

Following day
One week
One month
Three months
One year

The shorter the interval the more important it is to get the timing accurate. Revising the following day is essential. But it’s not going to make much difference whether you revise after 12 months or 13 months. This gives you some leeway if the revisions start piling up. Give priority to the shorter intervals.

I leave it up to you to decide how to check off the words six times during the course of the 16 months and 9 days. You could use pencil and erase the marks each time. Or you could do what I do and use the following marks superimposed on each other.

1. —

2. /

3. \

4. |

5. O

6. __


Reader Comments (17)

Tony Buzan had similar advice for mind mapping, as I recall, where you test yourself by redrawing the map.
July 4, 2018 at 10:08 | Registered CommenterWill
Thanks Mark, this is fab. I don't suppose you have explored best methods / advice for learning to touch type by any chance?
July 4, 2018 at 10:18 | Unregistered CommenterColin

<< Tony Buzan had similar advice for mind mapping, as I recall, where you test yourself by redrawing the map. >>

My method's specifically for learning vocabulary, while Tony Buzan as I recall is more for learning concepts. But yes the similarity is that his method also uses spaced reviews (though I can't remember what his intervals are) and a holistic approach.
July 5, 2018 at 1:14 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

<< I don't suppose you have explored best methods / advice for learning to touch type by any chance? >>

Hmm. I taught myself to touch-type when I was in my late teens. It was a very rare skill for a man in the United Kingdom in those days (though I think more common in America). Most male authors, journalists and clerks used "hunt and peck". My touch-typing didn't really come into its own until the advent of word-processors which meant I could easily correct my countless mistakes.

As far as I can recall I used "Teach Yourself to Type". I've no idea whether that is still in print, but typing is a manual skill so what you basically need is a book with graded typing exercises. Or you may be able to download some online for free.

What you need to remember is that once you've finished the training you will probably be typing considerably slower than you were before. You have to force yourself to use your touch-typing for everything. Otherwise you will never get your speed up.

There are two big advantages with touch typing:

1. Speed. Potentially a touch typist can type considerably faster than a "hunter and pecker". I say "potentially" because some people can type pretty damn fast without being touch typists.

2. You don't have to look at the keyboard while typing. This means you can compose directly onto the screen - as I am doing at the moment. It also makes copying much easier should you need to do any because you don't need to look at the screen either.
July 5, 2018 at 1:22 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Try Mavis Beacon typing tutor download and I think it is free.
20ish years ago I spent my lunch breaks doing the games/lessons.
After a few months I could touch type 40 words per min without looking at the keyboard.
Well worth the time investment!
July 5, 2018 at 10:31 | Unregistered CommenterMrBacklog
Dance mat typing is an excellent online program. My daughter used it, and her teacher later accused her of hitting keys at random, because there was no way she could type that fast. Daughter stood up for herself and told teacher to watch her type. Proud mama.

It uses Flash, which is becoming less popular, so you may need to try a few different browsers.
July 5, 2018 at 13:38 | Registered CommenterCricket

<< Dance mat typing is an excellent online program.>>

It certainly seems good for children, but I think too much exposure to Mr Goat and his friends would send an adult up the wall very quickly!
July 5, 2018 at 19:55 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

<< Try Mavis Beacon typing tutor download and I think it is free. >>

Yes, it is and I think it is probably the best one for an adult. Sadly it appears the beautiful Ms. Beacon never really existed. Oh well.

<< After a few months I could touch type 40 words per min without looking at the keyboard. >>

That's what I just clocked in at on the speed test. Not bad considering I still have quite a bit of neuropathy in my fingers.
July 5, 2018 at 20:16 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
SuperMemo has been doing the spaced repetition approach for years in an automated way:
July 6, 2018 at 8:32 | Unregistered CommenterFrank
Thanks for the info and tips everyone. I type while looking at the keyboard then looking up to check, and I just clocked 54 words in a minute (The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog * 6, and 3 corrections), so I doubt I would speed up much if I was touch typing properly, The main attraction would be looking up so can "think aloud" on the screen without the typing process getting in the way, but I would be likely to sacrifice some speed at least for a while.
July 6, 2018 at 10:32 | Unregistered CommenterColin

<< SuperMemo has been doing the spaced repetition approach for years in an automated way: >>

I used SuperMemo for years and it's included in "Anki and its predecessors" in the post. It suffers from exactly what I was complaining about - you end up with a huge backlog of intractable items. It's algorithm is currently on its 17th version, precisely because of repeated attempts to overcome that problem.
July 6, 2018 at 10:35 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

<< The main attraction would be looking up so can "think aloud" on the screen without the typing process getting in the way, >>

That's the main reason non-secretarial people learn touch typing.

<< I would be likely to sacrifice some speed at least for a while. >>

Yes, almost certainly.
July 6, 2018 at 10:39 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Colin, at that speed, you're probably very close to touch-typing already. Test yourself by closing your eyes or taping paper so you can't see your hands. (My typing class went into shock the morning we found paper taped to all the machines, but it worked!) It might take a few days to actually trust yourself.

One benefit of the standard method is your hands always know where they are, even if they aren't on the home row. That means they always know how to get where they need to go. My hands only return to the home keys when they're resting. (My old keyboard had bumps on the middle-finger keys. It took a day to adapt to one that has bumps on the index-finger keys.)

Typing is also faster. I type 60wpm (possibly 70), legibly, but am much slower on paper, especially if anyone else has to read it. Plus it's easier to edit.
July 6, 2018 at 16:49 | Registered CommenterCricket
Hello Mark,

I have some recent experience with foreign language vocab. I've been using the LinkWords app for Spanish, which is a large collection of vocab mnemonics. I found their app to be disappointing, so I ended up tipping all the translations into Anki. I don't feel quite the same level of frustration with it as you do - my daily backlog is now about 100 words out of about 1200 - but it is a psychologically draining approach, so I've started using an alternate strategy.

I believe my issue isn't so much with the frequency algorithm but the abstract prompt and recall method of study. It dosen't consistently work well for me and the system simply magnifies the problem - I end up doing more of what's not working!

The method I've switched to is to use contextual phrases rather than just the words in abstract and to add further examples for persistently tricky words. My aim is to stop similar sounding words from interfering with each other by making their meanings clearer when I'm memorising them.

I use short, simple sentences featuring the target verbs in their infinitive form, built where possible from cognates and the 100 most common Spanish words.

An example for the verb 'to run' (correr) would be:
Q: I have to run for the bus
A: Tengo que correr para el autobús

I put these in Anki and use the AwesomeTTS plugin to create sound clips for them. To keep the process fast I answer verbally and only score the cards based on whether I got the target verb correct.

If I'm still struggling to recall 'correr' after a couple of days, I add in two additional cards for that verb - another English to Spanish contextual translation and a Spanish to English one. This is really easy for Spanish because there are so many good resources - has loads of usage examples for every word.

I guess the idea is like using a new word in a few different situations in order to make it stick.

I've had to be careful to use examples where the verb has a consistent meaning in order to keep things straight in my head - correr can also mean 'to move'. Verbs that are synonyms are also tricky - I'm adding the first letter of the target verb as a hint, but this has it's own issues.

An example for the verb 'to finish' (acabar) would be:
Q: I want to finish (a...) the excercise if possible
A: Quiero acabar el ejercicio si es posible

I've also tried the LingQ website, which is a clever language learning system that focuses on context and comprehension with a sprinkling of spaced recall. I'm not quite sold on the quizzing element, but it's certainly an interesting approach. There's no Welsh option, but you might find the method interesting.
July 14, 2018 at 10:23 | Unregistered CommenterJD

Thanks for the details of the various methods.

You might also try the cloze method (which I think can be used in Anki) in which the two sentences you give would be tested as follows:

Q. Tengo que [....] para el autobús
A. correr

Q. Quiero [....] el ejercicio si es posible
A. acabar

One advantage of this method is that you can test more than one word in a sentence. So you could also have:

Q. Tengo que correr [....] el autobús
A. para
July 14, 2018 at 17:43 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I'm currently re-reading your book "Do It Tomorrow" and remembered that you had other useful ideas on your website. So I popped over to take a look.

How are you getting on with the Welsh? Are you following a course? Duolingo is OK up to a point, but If you haven't already found it, I can highly recommend Say Something in Welsh ( Not only is it an effective course that really gets people speaking but there's a very friendly and helpful forum of learners of all levels. Disclaimer: I'm nothing to do with SSiW other than being a satisfied customer. :)

I've been learning Welsh for many years and am now reasonably fluent, but I've just started learning Spanish so your vocabulary learning method interested me. I've tried Anki but found I quickly got behind and it felt over-demanding being nagged by an app. I have had a lot of success with physical flashcards and a manual spaced repetition method, but it's time-consuming to make, print and cut out cards and a box of cards isn't very portable.

I'm currently experimenting with the Goldlist method which I think is similar to your method, only you keep all the words whereas Goldlist distils out the words that have been learned. Anyway, thanks for an interesting post. I like having different methods to try as when one stops working, switching to another can really help.
July 31, 2018 at 8:35 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret H
Margaret H:

<< How are you getting on with the Welsh? >>

Slow but sure! I certainly wouldn't call myself anywhere remotely near fluent. But I do find it a most interesting language.

My main inputs are Glossika and Gareth King's Colloquial Welsh. Gareth is a member of the SSiW forum as you probably know.

I tried Duolingo but it irritated me for a number of reasons which I won't go into. My aged brain found SSiW too difficult, so I gave that up. Say Something in Spanish though I found too easy,so I gave that up as well!

I agree with you about Anki - one just ends up with a huge backlog of difficult items. Not my idea of fun! But nevertheless what you do succeed in learning with it sticks.

The Goldlist Method is interesting. You'll find I'm quite active on their forum. As well as what you say about it, it's different from my method (and all others I know about) because it just uses the one length of interval of 14 days (minimum) instead of lengthening intervals. It's probably the best for learning vocabulary in bulk, but you do have to accept that quite a bit won't get learnt very well. That is less of a problem than it sounds because if you are active in a language you will keep coming across the same bits of vocabulary.
July 31, 2018 at 21:52 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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