Have you ever had the experience that you were given a list of word to memorize—perhaps a list of foreign language vocabulary—and you found it slow to memorize the list, and even harder to put it into practice? Perhaps you studied an extensive vocabulary related to greetings and smalltalk, and yet you might find yourself constantly stammering, making mistakes, and not knowing what to say next when you try to actually chat with someone you've just met.

That's a common experience. Many people trying to learn foreign languages find that they not only have difficulty committing the new vocabulary to memory up-front, but then have difficulty recalling the new vocabulary quickly and easily when it would be useful. Oftentimes they eventually remember the word they are looking for, but the time and effort it takes to recall it dispels any pretense of fluency.

More neural links mean faster and more reliable recall

Think about the concept of the neural network that makes up your brain. Each neuron is linked to many other neurons. That is essentially the physical counterpart to the way that ideas link to other ideas.

Imagine that each neuron fires whenever enough of its inbound links fire. Although not quite true, because the brain is somewhat holographic, imagine that the neurons correspond to ideas. To reach any given idea, we need to fire a neuron that is somewhere upstream in the network.

The more inbound links there are to an idea, the faster and more reliably we reach our target idea.

This is an oversimplification, because it doesn't cover the issue of the many different ways that memories are encoded, or if we are to be successful how they migrate from short-term to long-term memory. It works well enough as a model for how to learn new information, if we just add the concept of creating more memory links over time. Create links between information you want to remember, and then do it again and again and again.

This suggests a strategy:

instead of trying to learn new words in isolation, learn them as groups of related words, and link them to words, concepts, and ideas that you already know.

Why pimple-mooses don't work, and how to fix them.

When the author was about 10 years old, he read a story about how you can learn new vocabulary in a foreign language. The example given was the French word “pamplemousse”, which means “grapefruit”.

Imagine a moose covered in pimples the size and shape of a grapefruit.

That did it. After visualizing that a single time when I was 10 years old, I still remember many decades later that the French word for “grapefruit” is “pamplemousse”, There are some language-learning systems that make use of these bizarre visualizations. They work in part because they are so odd; whenever your brain experiences something totally new and unexpected, it is likely to use the process for “instant memory”, where you memorize something instantly without even trying.

The problem with this strategy is that the memory is not triggered by the words, sights, sounds, tactile feelings, and smells that are likely to trigger discussions about fruits, breakfast, citrus, or anything like that. Instead, it's likely to be triggered by discussions of strange ways to learn vocabulary instantly.

I could still remember it in a conversation, but this is not fluency:

(see the grapefruit tree)...let's see, what's that story?...moose...with pimples...pamplemousse

The access state principle

It works better to link new vocabulary with other vocabulary, ideas, and images that are relevant to discussions involving the new vocabulary. For example, you might want to remember the word for "grapefruit" if you happen to be in a situation where it would make sense to talk about it, such as if you were discussing what you want for breakfast, or what the citrus tree with the big fruits is called, or what's on your shopping list for the green-grocer.

This is called the “access state principle”. There's a joke about a college boy who can't find his way back to the fraternity house because he never tried to do so sober before. The access state principle refers to the fact that it's easier to remember something when you are trying to remember in the same frame of mind you were in when you learned the information.

This is the reason that some people study for exams, and then when they walk into the exam room, to their horror discover that their minds have gone totally blank. They studied relaxed, in their favorite coffeehouse, feet up on an ottoman, leaning back, snacking as they read. They set themselves up with a memory trigger that said “when you come to this place feeling relaxed, start thinking about Elizabethan literature”. Later, they walk into the exam room nervous and uncomfortable, in a completely different state of mind than they were used to, and nothing triggers the memories!

Instead, as this problem happens again and again, they learn a new behavior: exam anxiety! “Whenever you are in a classroom feeling nervous, make your mind go blank. That will produce the result you already expect, which is an 'F' on your exam”. People who do that are accidentally hypnotizing themselves to fail.

You probably don't have access to the exam room to study in it, but that's not necessary anyway. One way to fix exam anxiety is to “rehearse” taking the test in your imagination, over and over again, and each time you do it, imagine feeling excited to perform as you walk into the exam room, and then enthusiastically writing answers as fast as you can trying to keep up with them as they leap from your memory.

Now think about how you learned your first language: chances are, most of the time when you learned a new word, the thing that the word refers to, or the action that it refers to, was present or happening at the same time or just before you learned the word.

Maybe when you were a toddler your grandpa encouraged you to “pet the kitty”, and lo and behold, there was a living, breathing, purring kitty in front of you, that you could see, touch, hear, and probably even smell its musky smell. The new vocabulary (“kitty”) was learned within the context of a lot of sensory information to link that new word to. Maybe grandpa talked to you about kitty, linking the new vocabulary to words you already knew.

Use your imagination to supply the props

The problem is that it's impractical to try to surround yourself with the right context to learn new vocabulary and be able to recall it in appropriate contexts. What you can do instead is just use your imagination. The more you use it, the better you'll be able to use it to link new words to other new words as well as words you already know, in order to learn them faster, with less effort, and retain and recall them better when needed.

You've probably noticed that children before the age of about 12 learn foreign languages MUCH faster than adults. You've probably also noticed that children tend to have vivid imaginations. That's part of the reason WHY they learn foreign languages faster.

How to apply contextual learning of vocabulary

Using these methods, I find that I can learn roughly 50 new words an hour once the word lists for stories and the cards for setting up a feedback loop have been prepared. The good news is that even the time preparing the study materials is usually well-spent as you will psychologically prime yourself for learning the target vocabulary.