“How can I remember English words easily?” is a question I get asked often.
But even when I get asked another question, it usually relates to remembering words and memory.
Now, before we get started, let me just say this:
Your memory is an incredible tool. Learning how your memory works can make learning English much easier.
Knowing how your memory works can help you to remember, understand and use more.
But it goes beyond just practising more.
And it takes a bit of effort.
But have faith. In this article, you’re going to learn a few things:
- How your memory works (in simple language)
- Two fatal mistakes (which make it hard to remember new words) to avoid
- How to choose what to learn next
- What you need to do to remember what you learn
How Your Memory Works
When you learn something new, the information goes through a complex process. The first part is like this:
Notice the information -> understand it -> Decide that it’s important -> Store it.
(Note: this is my description of the process…)
If you miss out one of these steps, you won’t successfully remember English words.
It’s also why it takes you a while to improve your English through passive learning (ex. just watching movies for fun).
When learning English, a lot of people make a fatal mistake… They stop at the ‘understand’ stage because they *think* they have stored the language. But really, they have only understood it.
The problem here is that if you stop at the ‘understand it‘ stage, the language you are learning will not ‘stick in your mind’. As a result, you’ll forget the words that you’ve learnt.
Let’s look at an example.
While you’ve been reading this article, you’ve probably noticed a few new words which have jumped out at you, such as ‘stick in your mind’. So, you probably looked up the definition for the phrase ‘stick in your mind’ and found that it means “to remember something clearly for a long time”…
Now you have two choices…
You can either stop at the understand it stage… or you can practise using the phrase or word to push it into the ‘store it’ stage.
Most people will just stop when they understand the word, but the people who really want to remember the English word will keep reviewing it until they store it.
Do you see what I mean? When you understand a word or a phrase and stop there…. you’ll soon forget all about that word or phrase.
So, as you can see, stopping at the ‘understanding’ stage is the first fatal mistake that a lot of people make. The second fatal mistake is stopping at the ‘store it’ stage.
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Once you’ve stored the language, you need to be able to use it. This stage comes after the ‘store it’ stage and is called the retrieval stage.
So far, the process looks something like this:
The retrieval stage is where you actually use the new language. To make this even more complicated, each word or phrase in the retrieval stage is on a gradient:
Your aim in this stage is to learn the language so well that you can retrieve it automatically.
To do that you need to practice the new words and phrases that you’re learning.
And that leads us to our next section and question…
How Do We Remember English Words and Use Them Easily?
As a language learner, you have a lot of decisions to make…
- What should you learn?
- How should you practise?
- What should you read?
- What should you listen to?
- Who should you speak to?
- What should you speak about?
… Just to name a few…
We’re going to look at two of these decisions.
The first is:
What Should You Learn?
If you choose the ‘right’ language to learn, you can make it much easier for yourself to remember English words, so you can use them easily.
I see a lot of English learners wasting their time focusing on lists of phrasal verbs or outdated idioms. These English learners could use their time better if they thought more about the English they were learning.
Rather than looking for the next ‘cool slang’ or ‘obscure idioms with the word blue’, they should be thinking about:
- Learning language that is relevant to their lives
- Learning language that fits in with their purpose/why
Generally, this means you should be thinking about when and where you’ll use English.
It’s kind of like working backwards.
Instead of just ‘learning English’,
think about when and in which situations you’ll use English,
and then learn it.
A lot of learners find this part difficult… And for good reason… It’s not easy to become your own teacher when you’ve always been a student. So you can either spend time to learn the art of thinking about the situations you’ll use English, or you can just find someone who is quite knowledgeable about situational English to help you.
Whichever way you decide to do it, learning English that is relevant and useful to your life is a definite way to make it easier to remember English words.
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And that brings us to our second decision…
How Should You Practise?
Most competent teachers will tell you that if you want to become really good at English, you need to practise a lot.
Unfortunately, there are some ‘teechurs’ who like to pretend that you can become ‘fluent’ without doing any work.
That’s not true.
There is no ‘magic trick’ or ‘secret’ to learning English.
You just have to do it.
However, just because you have to practise a lot, it doesn’t mean that it has to be boring.
Not at all.
There are many ways that you can practise speaking, writing and using English. But to do it successfully, you need to ask yourself some questions:
- What skills will you practise? (Speaking/listening/writing/reading etc)
- Why are you learning this English? (For conversations? To write essays? etc.)
- How often will you practise? (Every day? Every week?)
- How long will it take you to practise? (10 minutes? 1 hour?)
- Who will you practise with? (Alone? With others?)
- Who will you use this English with? (Friends? Colleagues? Lecturers?)
Without asking yourself these questions, you’re just walking in the dark.
And again, it’s a mistake that I see a lot of English learners making…
Here’s what I mean:
I get a lot of emails from English learners who ask me questions like:
“How can I improve my English speaking, so I can talk quickly?”
But when I ask them “how do you practise?” They say “I read some books and watch some YouTube videos”…
So, in other words, you want to improve your speaking, but you’re not speaking?
(Yes, I get frustrated with it.)
If you want to improve your English speaking, but you’re not speaking… then maybe that’s where you should start.
And then you should think about who you’re going to speak to and what you’re going to talk about…
But back to my point…
The way that you practise should be fun, simple and effective.
It should help you use English in the situations that you need.
And it should allow you to practise the language you’re learning often, so that you can retrieve the language automatically.
Most people practise English the same way that they did in school. Unfortunately, some of these methods, such as rote learning from wordlists, are either outdated or ineffective. These methods won’t help you to remember English words easily.
Knowing the best way for you to practise can take some time because everyone is different. Some people enjoy making their own word banks, while other people enjoy speaking to as many people as possible. What is important, though, is that you use a variety of learning strategies and that you practise with a purpose. I wrote an in-depth article on how to learn vocabulary here.
Putting it all Together
So, in this article we’ve discussed a few things:
- How your memory (kind of) works: You know that noticing or understanding isn’t enough… you actually need to store and retrieve the language.
- Two fatal mistakes that many people make when learning English: 1. Stopping at understanding and 2. stopping at storing the language. You need to go further.
- What you should learn: The most useful language you can learn is the language that you will use!
- How you should practise: Using methods that will help you to get the results you want.
Figuring everything out takes time and effort, but in the end it is worth it. It’s worth all of the time and effort because you’ll notice that you can remember English words and use them easier than before.
Your next steps are these:
- Join the English For Study mailing list if you’re not on it. I share regular English learning tips, stories and advice. Just click here to join. (You’ll also get a useful list of 30 commonly misspelled words)
- Use the questions in this article to help you to explore the way you’re learning English.
- Practise using English today.
And if you’re someone who likes to learn by ‘doing’ and from example, then take a look at my monthly program ‘The Difference’. It is not for everyone… but it might be for you: