It’s the same technique used by the world’s fastest language learners.
It’s the same concept employed by guys and girls who win memory competitions.
And it’s what I teach my private students.
Because let’s be honest, the old methods…the traditional methods… the methods you and I and all of us learned in school…
Well, they’re good for passing tests, and just about nothing else.
And the main reason is… they don’t address…
The #1 Problem With Learning New Words
You see a new word…
You find it in the dictionary…
You think “Hmm, could be useful. I should learn it.”
And then… you forget it.
Maybe you forgot it instantly.
Maybe it was after ten minutes.
But you forgot it.
Well, as we say in English, welcome to the club.
The #1 problem with building a huge, native speaker vocabulary is in fact not learning, it’s forgetting.
The problem is your memory.
But here’s an interesting fact:
Forgetting is normal.
Let me introduce you to a graph you’re going to see a lot of in the blog:
This is the curve of forgetting.
It shows how good – no, how really fantastic! – the average person is at forgetting new information.
We’re all experts when it comes to erasing memories.
It’s the truth.
But it’s not your fate.
Because if your goal is fluency, then in front of you are probably thousands of words you not only need to learn, but remember, and then use.
So how do you do that?
I Call It “Hook and Hammer”
Imagine you’re camping in Norway.
It’s a windy day.
It’s getting dark.
And it’s time to make camp.
So you pitch your tent.
But that’s not enough.
It could blow away.
You need to hook the tent to the pegs.
And you need to hammer the pegs into the ground.
Now your tent is secure.
It’s not going anywhere.
And now you’re ready to switch this analogy to your memory.
Because your mind is also a windy place.
Read an address, hear someone’s name, or try to put a new English word in there, and it’s probably going to blow away.
Step One: Find A Hook
A hook is a connector.
Fishing hooks connect the fish to the pole.
Christmas ornament hooks connect the ornament to the tree.
When you hook a new word, you connect it to something that’s stable and not going to blow away.
There are three hooks I recommend.
Hook One: An Old Memory
I was talking with a student about his visit to the doctor.
He wasn’t sick, he just went once a year for an examination.
The word he wanted, but which he didn’t know, was “check up.”
So rather than tell it to him and move on, which would have guaranteed that he forgot it, we began to hook it.
“When was the last check up you had?”
“What did the doctor do during the check up?”
“What were the results of the check up?”
“Did you have to pay for the check up?”
Now all the memories of the check up – the sites, the smells, the feelings, the sounds – are connected to the new words.
Hook Two: A Picture
Although we’re bad at remembering words, we’re great at remembering images.
Have you ever thought about why people say “I can’t remember names” but they rarely say “I can’t remember faces.”
It’s because the largest part of your brain is used for visual information.
And knowing this bit of information can help you remember names.
For example, I know a guy named Tomas.
I see him almost every Monday, but I never was able to remember his name.
Then I thought, who’s another Tomas I know?
I thought of Tomas Masaryk, the first President of Czechoslovakia, and an old black and white picture of Masaryk reading the newspaper in his private train car popped into my head.
And then I put the new Tomas into this picture.
In my mind I saw him sitting next to President Masaryk in his private train car asking to borrow the sports section of the paper.
And now when I see him on Mondays, I immediately say, “Hey, Tomas. How’s it going?”
Hook Three: A New Memory
This is how I learned the word for earthquake in French.
I was with some French friends at the new J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and I wanted to explain that the original museum had been damaged in an earthquake. But I didn’t know the word, so they told me.
I forgot how many years ago that was – 16…17…more? – but I remember that trip and the warm weather and the conversation.
And now connected to all those memories is the French word for earthquake.
It’s tremblement de terre.
This is why discovering words in books and articles is a good strategy. Because as you’re making the new memory of the story, you can easily connect the new words to the new memory.
Ok, so now you’ve hooked the word.
But you’re not done yet.
Because unless your hook is incredibly strong, the wind will still probably blow it away.
Step Two: Hammer Time
A nail doesn’t go into the wood with just one hit.
Likewise, a word doesn’t go into your long-term memory the first time you see it.
You have to see it again and again and again.
This is where the memory hammer method can be useful.
There are three types of hammers I recommend.
Hammer One: A Notebook
This technique is fairly simple.
When you see a new word, you write it down.
Later, you quiz yourself.
Important: do not simply look at the word. This is like going to the gym and admiring all the pretty machines.
You must write a sentence with a gap. On one side of the page is the sentence, on the other the new word.
And then cover one side of the page and quiz yourself.
Hammer Two: Flashcards
This is the method I used in school to learn hundreds of Latin vocabulary words.
I liked it better than a notebook because it was more active; I had to actually move the words. Plus, I could save time by putting the easy words in a second stack and focus just on the difficult ones.
Hammer Three: A Memory Machine
Some call them spaced repetition systems.
Others call them smart flashcards.
I call them memory machines.
These are software programs like Anki, Brainscape, Quizlet and SuperMemo.
The main advantage these programs have is they use an algorithm to delay the reviews.
If you review the same word every day that’s good.
But if you wait to review the word until you’re juuuuuust about to forget it…
Until it’s a little bit difficult to remember…
Until it’s on the tip of your tongue…
Then you’ll get a memory boost of 20 to 50%.
Plus, they’re fun. It’s like a game.