How to learn difficult vocabulary and remember it forever

by | Feb 16, 2021 | Vocabulary grammar & pronunciation | 0 comments

How do you learn difficult vocabulary?

Try as hard as you might but you just can’t learn that darned word!


Some words are trickier than others; it’s a fact. No matter how many times you repeat it, it doesn’t stick. Or it might stick for a while but then it decides to go AWOL

It’s frustrating, isn’t it? I know how you feel.

I’ve learnt (and tried to learn) a few languages over the years. I know how annoying it is when you invest hours learning vocabulary but when you need it you can’t find it anywhere.

Don’t despair! I’m going to share a vocabulary learning strategy that you can use to learn and remember more difficult or less common vocabulary.

But first let’s remind ourselves why vocabulary is so important.


Why learn vocabulary?

Vocabulary is one of the building blocks of language. The more vocabulary we can understand and produce, the more confident we will feel and the more fluent we will be in a language (including our own!)

Given that learning vocabulary is necessary to communicate effectively we need to find the strategies that work best and get results.


How should we learn vocabulary?

One strategy you are probably familiar with is the word-list or list learning method. It’s the traditional method of writing on a piece of paper the word in the target language (e.g English) and its translation or definition in your first language. You learn the words by repetition and memorization.

Although repetition is necessary for remembering vocabulary, the problem with this method is that there is usually no context and learning is not meaningful (a definite no-no for the brain!) Another reason the brain doesn’t like it so much is that it’s quite boring!

The good news is there are other strategies we can use alongside the traditional method of repetition and memorisation which help us recall vocabulary better. One of these is the Keyword Method or Keyword Mnemonics.


What is the Keyword Method?

  1. We choose two words which sound similar (or a part of them sounds similar)
  • The target word (the new word we want to learn)
  • The keyword (the familiar word; the word from our first language.)

2. We create an image that links the two words.

  • The stranger the image, the more our brain will remember it, so let your imagination run wild!
  • Interactive images in which the keyword and the target word interact with each other seem to be even more effective for remembering in the long-term.
  • Also it seems that if we can touch, smell or taste things in the image we create, then the more likely the word will make it to our long-term memory, exactly where we want it to go! So get your favourite treat in your image!


Although my examples are for Spanish speakers learning English, the Keyword Method works equally well for other languages.


Example 1

I’m a Spanish speaker and I want to learn the word “bendy” in English (target word) which means to move something or your body so that it isn’t straight.

  • I choose my familiar word which sounds similar (my keyword) to bendy (my target word): Duende (elf in English)
  • I create my mental image which links my target word and my keyword: Me at yoga with the new teacher, a duende (elf) doing all kinds of amazing yoga postures!


Example 2

I am a Spanish speaker and I want to learn the word “avocado”in English (target word)

  • I choose my familiar word which sounds similar (my keyword) to avocado (my target word): Abogado (lawyer in English)
  • I create my mental image which links my target word and my keyword: An avocado dressed as an “abogado” (lawyer)

learn difficult vocabulary

The Keyword Method

What makes a good keyword?

  • The keyword should sound as similar as possible to the new word you want to learn, or at least a part of it (preferably but not necessarily the first syllable)
  • The keyword should be something concrete not abstract as it is easier to create a mental image.
  • To avoid confusion the keyword shouldn’t mean the same as the words you are trying to learn.

The benefits of using the keyword method

Research shows that our brains are much better at placing things into our short and long-term memory through visual input, such as images and videos rather than auditory alone.

Apart from being easier to store and retrieve new vocabulary, it’s a more imaginative and creative way to learn.

Just remember you need to revisit words regularly and it’s a strategy to combine with other strategies, not to use exclusively.

I recommend that the next time you have difficulty learning a word or it’s a word that is not so common and you’re likely to forget, try the Keyword Method. Apart from learning it faster and better, you’ll have a lot of fun in the process. It’s a no-brainer!


Why not have a go yourself?


Happy creating and smarter learning!


Expanding our vocabulary is one of the ways we can achieve better fluency. Guess what, I know some more!

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