Different Ways to Learn Vocabulary Through Association


root: ع-ل-ق / noun / plural: علاقات or عَلائق / definition: association, relation, connection

There are some words in your target language that will cling on in your memory and others that will dig in their heels and refuse to go any further than the “vaguely familiar” section of your brain.

For those stubborn words, you’re going to have to put in a little more effort to help them migrate to your long-term memory. And one of the most effective ways to do that is through the technique of association.

Most of the time, association isn’t a conscious process. Our brains function on a network of connections, whether we’re aware of it or not; but sometimes–if something just isn’t “clicking”–we can consciously create a memorable association to help our brains out.

(And if you are studying intensely, it can be very easy for whole hordes of target language vocabulary to simply disappear in plain sight among the dozens of other words you’re attempting to shove into your stash of active vocabulary.)

So how can you learn foreign words through association?

There’s definitely more than one way–here’s a few:

1. Breaking down the TL word

Sometimes words in your target language (TL) can be broken down into separate units.

Take the Arabic word for رَأْسماليّة (“capitalism”), for example. The first part of the word, رأس, actually means “head”. The second segment, مال, means “money”. And the suffix ـيّة is a typical ending for words that refer to concepts.

So if we think about capitalism as being a concept where people’s heads are filled with money (an oversimplification, I know), mentally conjuring an image (like the one below) of “capitalism” can help you to remember the Arabic term رأسمالية.

2. Sound association

There are many instances where you can associate the phonetic sounds within a TL word to its meaning.

For instance, سُقوط means “falling”. Try picturing it this way: the initial س (“s”) sound is the sound of something slipping, the long قو (“qoo”) in the middle is like the sound of the object dropping off of an edge and falling and falling… and the final heavy ط (“T”) sound is the sound it makes as it hits the floor.

The word تَنَهَّدَ (“to sigh”) is another example, where the doubled ـهـ (“h”) simply sounds like the action it refers to.

(We really need to talk about how the phonology of some Arabic words reflects their meaning, by the way, because it really is fascinating… but we’ll save that for another time.)

3. Linking the TL word to a word in another language (…preferably one you already know)

This one doesn’t have to be direct at all. Often, we’ll be able to link the TL word to a word in our native language that sounds roughly similar.

Take the word صَقيع, for example, which means “frost”. I remember thinking it sounded like “sucky” when I first came across it. So I told myself “when there’s frost, the weather is sucky“.

I don’t know if the word “sucky” is even in use, but that just makes it more memorable, anyway. So now, whenever I think of “frost”, I think of “sucky” which leads to me straight to “صقيع”.

4. Through other words of the same root

In this whole social media age, you’ll hear about فيسبوك (Facebook) and تويتر (Twitter) a fair amount.

In Arabic, the word for “tweet/s” (the social media kind) is تَغريدة/تغريدات, which is derived directly from the مصدر (verbal noun) of the form II verb of the root غ-ر-د.

So it’s easy to remember–if you ever find yourself talking about birds (standard conversation, obviously)– that the verb meaning “to twitter/tweet” is غرّد / يُغرِّد.

Another example: if you needed to remember the word for “to ignore”, تجاهل / يتجاهل, associating it with a different word that you already know from the same root (like جَهل, “ignorance”) makes remembering it a lot easier.

The Arabic root system, especially when used alongside the word forms, is a key foundation for association–so get to know the systems and it’ll make learning vocabulary so much simpler!

5. Through immediate context/phrases

Remembering vocabulary in the context of phrases is much more effective than remembering words in isolation.

Take the Arabic phrase for “protection is better than cure” as an example:

الوِقاية خير مِن العِلاج

Learn the word وِقاية (“protection”) in context like this and you’ll find that it’ll be fixed more firmly in your mind. Not only that, but if you know that it’s the مصدر of the form I verb from و-ق-ي (use your Hans Wehr!), the phrase will also help you to remember that the verb for “to protect” is وقى / يقي.

6. Through the wider context

This one’s not about the linguistic context, but the greater setting of how/when/where you first came across the word.

Did you first hear it in a particular class? At the airport as your passport was being checked? Or maybe it was in a film or shouted in a heated debate on the news (these can contain rather interesting language)? Did you learn it when you made an embarrassing mistake and someone corrected you?

The important thing is to try to link those hard-to-remember words to particular memorable experiences, sights, etc. so that they’re less forgettable.

7. Make your own memorable context

Write short stories or create little rhymes in your head–the more ridiculous the story lines, the better you’ll be able to remember them!

Imagine you need to remember the words for “waterfall”, “lizard”, “skiing”, and “shelf”. Now find these words in your TL and try to make the most imaginative sentence, short story, or rhyme you can think of (write yours in the comments if you’re brave!).

8. Actions

At a workshop a few months ago, I (and a whole room of people) learnt the Japanese numbers from 1 to 10 in literally about two minutes–just by using a series of actions related to how the words sounded.

Translating foreign words into actions in physical space can help us to visualise meanings, as well as just providing a tool for remembering pronunciations.

For example, if you wanted to remember the prepositions in your TL, imagine there’s a box in front of you. Put your hands in the “box” and say the word for “in” (in Arabic, it’s في). Then do the corresponding actions for “on top of”, “above”, “below”, “between”, “beside”, “behind”, “in front”, etc.

After you’ve repeated this enough times, you’ll find that you can quickly remember the prepositions off of the top of your head as you’re essentially able to picture their meanings.

Okay, so that’s all the association technique tips I’ve got for now. Try out the different methods… and don’t let that vocabulary slip out of your grip!

!مع السلامة

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