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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. __