How to Remember Words When Learning a Language

“How can I remember words?” “How can I memorize new vocabulary and make it stick in my long-term memory?”


These are questions that nearly every language learner has asked him/herself at one time or another. Given that learning and remembering new words is such a huge and important part of foreign language acquisition, it would make sense to learn about how to become better at it. It might be boring, but learning new words is simply unavoidable.

You might remember my 12 tips on how to improve your memory that I wrote a few months ago. In these posts I basically gave a bunch of useful tips to help dramatically improve your memory in the more general sense. I gave tips, among others, on how to focus better, use mnemonics, use visualization techniques, eat healthily, and so on. I would strongly encourage you to go through the 12 tips (even if you’ve gone through them in the past, re-reading them is a good idea!), but today I’d like to provide you with some easy ready-made techniques used by many experienced language learners to remember words.

So today I’ll provide you with four techniques that you can use right from today to jumpstart your vocabulary acquisition ability. The four techniques are as follow: Using a Spaced Repetition Software (SRS), the Goldlist Method, the Luca Lampariello Method, and the GoBillyKorean Method. Ready to dive in?

A Quick Word on Context

Before introducing the techniques I’ve just mentioned, though, I need to make an important point that I believe is central to the acquisition of new vocabulary and the understanding of word meanings; that is, the importance of context. It is my belief that context is at the very foundation of vocabulary acquisition, and without it you will really make your life harder and things will be a pain in the neck to remember. Context, by the way, simply refers to the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage. So, in other words, what comes before and after a word.

Why is context so important when memorizing new words? Well, first of all, the meaning of words can change dramatically depending on context. Let’s pretend for a moment that you are learning English these days. How could you possibly memorize the meanings of the verb “get” out of a word list? “Get” is one of those words in English that has literally hundreds of definitions, and learning one out of those hundreds won’t get you very far, and won’t necessarily be that useful when you actually come across that word in real life, but find out it is used to convey a very different meaning from what you learned. Here’s an example sentence I borrowed from John Perry’s Structured Procrastination blog:

I got out of bed, got the paper, got myself some breakfast, got some coffee, and began to get dressed and to get ready for work. I got in the car, got to the office, and got to work. I got a lot done, and still had time to get some money at the bank and get a sandwich at the deli for lunch.

Do you get it? Now, if you were to try and memorize every single definition of the word “get” from the dictionary, you’d still be working on it next year. Of course, nobody tries to remember every meaning of that word. Instead, people learning English usually come across the word in a text and first try to understand what it means, and then they are usually made to memorize the two or three most common definitions of the word. The remaining meanings will all be learned inductively through context, without any deliberate effort on the learner’s part to memorize anything.

Now, of course here I’ve taken a somewhat extreme example, but the point is that words rarely have only one strict meaning. This is really important to understand. So learning a bunch of words from a list without having seen them used in context before is, in essence, a bad idea. It’s a bad idea not only because countless studies on the human brain have shown that we remember things in context and not isolated facts, but also because given that words can have many meanings, it’s important to see them used in sentences to get a feel for how they are used and how to plug these words ourselves in the sentences we make.

So with the techniques I’m introducing here today, I would strongly encourage you to make a conscious effort to remember words only after actually having come across them in a textbook/text/conversation/etc. If that is not possible, I encourage you to use example sentences in the target language along with the translations, so as to provide some context to the words you are learning.

Alright, enough talking for now, let’s take a look at the four methods right away!

Method #1: Using a Spaced Repetition Software

Anki logo

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent reviews of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect. That’s a fancy way of saying that you review flashcards in progressively increasing intervals of time. So if you’d try to remember the Chinese word for friend, “péngyou” (朋友), with a Spaced Repetition Software (SRS), you would first review that word and have the options of re-reviewing it right now, in 10 minutes, or four days later (this can be customized to your preferences).

The next time you’d review it, you would have the option to review it a third time thereafter with longer time intervals (for example, 10m, 5d, 9d, or 12d), and so on. So over a time period of a fewmonths, you’ll end up reviewing the same word at least 4 to 5 times, which will ensure that the information will stick in your long-term memory. Repeating and reviewing are essential to memorization, and I encourage you to go through the short blog post I’ve written for more on the subject.

Anki Korean flashcardThe most well-known SRS is Anki, and it’s the software I’ve personally been using for over a year to learn thousands of new words and sentences with. It’s free for your computer and for phones that run on Android, but the Smartphone app costs $25 for Apple phones if I’m correct. Anki also has a web version, AnkiWeb, which is awesome because it lets you use your flashcards on any device from anywhere around the world, and after every study session it synchronizes all of your decks that you have installed on other computers/devices, so as to keep them updated.

The way I’d suggest using Anki would be to take words that you come across in your studies, and write on one side the word in the target language, and on the other side the definition (if you’re an intermediate learner, try writing the definition also in the target language), along with three to four example sentences. Dictionaries often provide good and relevant example sentences along with definitions, but you can get them from anywhere, such as a blog, a movie, or a textbook.


Method #2: David James’ Goldlist Method

Viktor D. HuliganovThe second method I will introduce today was developed by David J. James, an English accountant and polyglot better known under the pseudonym of Viktor D. Huliganov. David named his method “Goldlist,” and the method is, to quote him, all about “putting back the long-term, unconscious memory into the learning process.” It does so by focusing on the pure enjoyment of writing out new words and just liking the experience of touching those words with your minds in a relaxed way, without pushing them on your memory. There is no need to rote learn or memorize on demand.

If you’re interested to read how the method works in full details, feel free to click here to read David’s article in full. Otherwise, here’s a summary of how the Goldlist method works:

You have to write words that you want to remember in a neat textbook along with the translations in your native tongue (make two initial columns). Do not use a computer, since handwriting is linked to tactile memory, which helps to solidify newly-acquired information into your long-term memory. You have to write the words on the right hand side of the page in your own language or the language from which you are learning the target language, and do 25 words at a time. You always note the date you added the words to the list.

You always have to write in 20-minute chunks. After writing out the vocabulary set of 25, and reading it through aloud (a process which should take 20 minutes), you should take a 10-minute break. Do not try to memorize the words you just wrote down. It’s all about enjoying writing them down in a nice book with a nice pen slowly and in pleasant comfortable surroundings. You can write a 25-word list once a day/week or anytime you want, really, but David recommends not to do more than about 10 such sessions a day (i.e. 250 words in a single day). If you get anywhere near that, make sure they are spaced out with other things going on between them.

An actual gold list mature bronze book for Spanish
An actual gold list mature bronze book for Spanish.
Image attribution:

After no less than 2 weeks and no more than 2 months, go back to the list you wrote and read it through. Be honest with yourself and simply look for the words you don’t remember. The prediction, based on memory research and experiments done by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, is that up to 30% of the words will be retained. You can then discard the words you remember (approximately 8) and write the remaining 17 words you have trouble remembering on the right-hand side of the same sheet you initially wrote your 25-word list on.

You are looking to “distil out” the “hard to learn” expressions and obtain a concentrated list of distilled words that are the hardest for you to learn. After having repeated this distillation process ten times with two weeks’ break in between each time, you will have effectively memorized every single word in the list and they will now be stored in your long-term memory. This sounds like a lot of time and effort just to learn 25 words, but really it’s simply a matter of re-reading the list you initially wrote and finding out every time the 70% that you don’t remember, and re-writing them on the sheet.

Method #3: Luca Lampariello’s Natural Approach to Remembering Words

Luca Lampariello is a highly successful language learner who speaks around 12 languages, and he approaches vocabulary acquisition in a different way from many other language learners (see his article for more on that; his book will be released around late 2013). In fact, his approach is quite interesting because he actually does not try to remember words by making lists or any such thing; memory, he says, does not work by using deliberate effort (something David James also talks about). If you constantly “try” to remember new words, you will spend considerable amounts of mental energy just cramming information into your short-term memory, information which will not be stored for a long period of time. Usually, information stored in your short-term memory will not stick for more than 2 weeks, on average.

As David James says, the reason many linguists believe that children under the age of 5 or 6 learn languages so well is that they learn unconsciously. What happens past that age is that an “extra layer” comes in as the child learns by then to be self-consciously learning. The child, by school age, is aware that it is “now learning something” and is making an effort to remember, not just being put through life’s algorithms passively, David explains. And so the short-term memory starts to come more and more into play, blocking the long-term memory function essential to the easy learning of languages.

Besides not actively trying to memorize anything, Luca’s method is also about learning through context and using back-and-forth translation exercises. First and foremost, he strongly encourages people to learn through context (what he calls “king” in language learning) by reading as much as you can, and by being emotionally engaged with what you are learning (i.e. something that you find really interesting and that you are passionate about). Finding a word in different contexts will boost your capacity to remember words, he says, so reading as much as you can is an excellent way to acquire vocabulary effortlessly in his opinion.

Additionally, in the second part of our interview on his way of learning languages, he talks about what he calls a “back-and-forth” translation method, in which he reads a bilingual text (usually a dialogue) and tries to translate the sentences back and forth into his native tongue. So after having initially read a text, he goes through it one more time in the target language, and this time, without looking at the translation, he tries to translate the text back to his native tongue and then checks for mistakes. A few days later, he goes through his translations and tries to translate them back to the target language. By doing so, he forces himself to convey a message. His desire to say again what he read/heard in a sentence helps him enormously to remember words. In fact, he says, the words “stick” as a consequence of wanting to say something, to convey a message.

So Luca’s method emphasizes that memorizing new vocabulary will come naturally as a consequence of being exposed to material in the native language, by being interested and passionate by the content (and by learning a new language in itself), and by wanting to convey a message and to express yourself in the target language. He will discuss his methods for learning languages much more in detail in his book, which will probably be published by late 2013, so stay put!

Method #4: The GoBillyKorean Method

Billy recently wrote a guest post on the blog in which he talked about his experience studying 5 languages. He made a YouTube video entitled “How to Learn 50 Vocab a Day,” and I thought I’d share it with you since it’s short, concise, and funny, and it can be of help for those out there who are short on time and need to learn a lot of words quickly. If you do choose to use this method, I strongly encourage you to use vocabulary you have come across in context and then write them down, rater than using just random word lists taken from a textbook. Once again, learning words removed from any context is, generally speaking, best avoided.


So here’s Billy’s video in which he explains his method:

Alright so that’s it for today’s post. I hope you will have found this useful for your own studies. I’d really love to know how you go about memorizing new words. Are you one of those who simply don’t really pay that much attention to memorization? Or are you actively trying to memorize a set number of words every day? Share your experiences with the community, I’m sure your successes and failures can be of huge help to many people!

By Lingholic

31 thoughts on “How to Remember Words When Learning a Language”

  1. Hey Sam,
    very nice post, I like your approach of comparing different methods. I just recently wrote a blog series about “how to learn vocabulary best”, too. But I solely focussed on how the brain processed new words.
    Unfortunately all my contents are in German but I would be more than happpy, to discuss them once I have everything written down 😉 …
    Anyway, you have a new follower 😉


    1. Hello Christian, and thanks for the kind words!

      I had a look at your site and it looks amazingly good! Everything looks so professional. I wish I could understand German :S

      I’d sure love to know more about your take on memory and how to learn vocabulary best. I always love to hear opinions and experiences from different language learners.

      Since I believe we all learn differently, I’ve been trying to provide different methods/ways of learning so that my readers can pick the one(s) that suits best their learning style.

      Glad you liked my approach of comparing different methods!


      1. Sam, many thanks for your kind words. talkREAL indeed is changing from a pure blog about language learning to a coaching service.

        And I absolutely agree with you, we all do learn differently and that is why I recommend people to test their learning style and type in a first step before they proceed their endeavour.

        Overall I think it is important that we discuss different approaches and exchange expierences, in the long run we will all benefit from it.


  2. Billy’s video was unexpectedly hilarious!

    I’ve used Anki extensively in the past, but it quickly turns into drudgery for me. I did the 2000 most common Spanish words in 40 total hours of study, and my goodness was that difficult! So lately I have been favoring something much more akin to Luca’s method, especially once I get more advanced in the language. I’ve never seen the Goldlist method before, and I really like the idea of studying, but at the same time not consciously “memorizing.”

    It is rather interesting though, that you begin the article stating how important it is to learn words in context, and then two of the four methods you list don’t include ANY context in the learning process. It seems rather … incongruous.

    Overall, a great article. Thank you!

    1. Hi Samuel!

      What I recommend is to get exposed to new vocabulary through context, and then it may help to use a method such as Anki or Goldlist or whatever, to help solidify them into your long-term memory.

      Simply learning random lists of words (say, for example, the 2000 most common Spanish words) is what I call learning without any context. But if you have come across the words multiple times in real life and you decide to put them in your system (such as Anki), I think there is nothing wrong with this. It’s especially good if, as I pointed out, you write down many example sentences to provide additional context.

      In any case, for a language such as Spanish (or pretty much any Romance languages), my approach is more similar to that of Luca. Since so many words are similar to each other (and to English), it’s easier to learn in a more inductive manner and to learn straight from context.

      However, with Asian languages I’ve found that vocabulary acquisition is much harder, and therefore I’ve made extensive use of Anki and it has helped me to retain words that would otherwise not stick. You can check out my post entitled “How many words do I need to know? The 95/5 rule in language learning, Part 1/2” for more on that.

      Lastly, since I know that we all learn differently, I thought I’d share different methods so that people can choose the ones that suit best their needs and their way of learning.

      Thanks for the kind words! And I’d love to hear more about your experience using Anki and learning in a more “natural” or inductive manner.

      1. Hi! Thanks for the wonderful reply!

        Thank you for the clarification. And I definitely think that putting full sentences in Anki is a really good idea. Honestly, my approach was one I would not pursue again, not even if I could remove the drudgery. I signed up for a two month volunteer program in Costa Rica where I would be living with a Spanish speaking only host family and (stupidly) barely studied at all before I went. Hence, my mad dash to cram the vocabulary that would theoretically allow me to understand 90% of spoken speech. Given my materials, it was a decent strategy then, although I did still have to hear the words several times before I knew how to use them myself. Given the frequent confusion about what a word really meant (due to not having learned it in context) I wouldn’t recommend my method as an efficient use of time and resources.

        Now that my Spanish is much more advanced, I mostly just pick up words through reading and watching telenovas, but it is very helpful that a lot of these words are very similar to English words. Now, if I encounter a word I don’t know, I will simply observe the context. Sometimes this allows me to understand what it means, although it can take a few tries of seeing it in different contexts. If a recognize a word that I have been seeing over and over but still haven’t figured out, then I will look it up, and simply the act of doing so is usually enough to remember it, so I don’t write down words to be learned anymore.

        I’ve only seriously studied German and Spanish at this point, so I don’t know what I would need for Asian languages. It is highly likely that I would end up using one of the other methods listed here. I completely agree that different methods will work for different people, even the same person in different situations, and that’s what I really like about this article.

      2. I second your point about SRS for less familiar languages. I learnt all my Romance languages fairly quickly just by hanging out with friends – ie. learning from context. I did virtually no formal study. When I started with Asian languages I kind of expected the same thing to happen, so I didn’t really apply myself to studying at first, and just went out instead! Big mistake! I think the fact that you can’t read in the beginning has a crippling effect – you’re reliant on spoken language for input and it’s not enough. So basically over time I’ve made two big changes to my approach to Asian languages: 1) learn the script from day one 2) As you say, use SRS to get to those words and phrases which won’t stick.

  3. Nicolás López Zerpa

    Once again, an excellent post, Sam!

    I really liked Luca’s “back-and-forth” translation method, it reminds me a little bit of Assimil. I think I’ll give it a try.

    Cheers, Nico

    1. Thanks as usual for the kind words Nico! Glad you liked Luca’s method, I think it’s a wonderful way of learning vocabulary and I would definitely wholeheartedly recommend it. Assimil indeed has some translation exercises too!

      1. hadeel Abdelnasser

        Yeah seriously monsieur Sam your articles are amazing and i personally find them very helpful! especially as regular reminders….thank you for your efforts 🙂

  4. There is one question I’d like to ask to you all. It’s about how you check the meaning of new word that you can’t guess by context. Do you go for: (1) a definition of a word by consulting an online dictionary or (2) do you look for synonyms of the unknown word to figure out the meaning?

    1. Hi Red! I usually look at the definition in an online dictionary. Depending on my level in the language, I’ll often try to look for the work in a dictionary that is only in the target language, not an English-Foreign Language dictionary.

      1. Since google toolbar disappeared I didn’t find anything as reliable. The addon wikitionary and google translate works good. The main difference between the two is that the first one gave a translation, the second one offer a translation plus a definition.
        Often, however, I consult google translate because it offers many different results and synonyms for a given word, so essentially I became used to give an eye to others terms. Also, I try to pay attention to shades of meaning of a word. And into my (electronic) lists of new words for every new word it may happen that I report until three or four translations. Without be conscious of that, I got used mostly at reasoning for synonyms.
        Now I want to consider to use the wikitionary addon, to see what kind of feelbacks I have.

  5. What a well-written and informative post! And that video made me chuckle. xD I’ve used all these methods or at least some variation of them, but I’m basically a fan of acquiring vocabulary in a more unconscious way as Luca recommends. I’ve never followed his method exactly because I don’t have the patience to do the back-and-forth translations, but what I like to do is watch movies or read books that I’m already really familiar with in English so I can follow everything that’s going on even in a foreign language without having to look anything up.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Jana! I think the way you are remembering vocabulary is great (i.e. read books that you are already really familiar with in English). I’ve used that too in languages such as Spanish, for example, and I’ve found it to work quite well.

      I remember Mike Campbell recommending this method in the past. Similarly with you, I haven’t had the patience to follow Luca’s back-and-forth translation method, although I certainly want to invest the time and effort in the future to give it a try~

  6. Great Post! I’ve shared the video on our fb and referred to this page.
    We’ve been trying to incorporate some of these methods in our free chrome extension, you can collect words in context while you browse the web, practice them with our spaced-repetition-system and ‘following’ your new words to real articles that are just right for your level and interests. I invite you to check it out at:


    1. Hi Orly,

      I’ve downloaded your free Chrome extension and I will definitely be trying your app! It looks good and helpful. Thanks for your interest in my blog!

  7. Great job! Sam. I’m on the side of the method of forgetting is the secret to rememmebering of Luca’s and also, bidirectional translation is a feaking amazing approach to learning new words. Further than that, “back & forth translation could do some of great help leading to entire transformation of the brain on how the language feels to you. Actually, language learning has been a controversial discussion of philosophers of language. It’s partly the same to native language in terms of “deliberately concious meaning” which leads to the way of expression included feelings, emotions, intention,…In the sense that, the core of this factor would probably force you to speak out of what you urgently want to convey. On the other hand, once you encounter a different language, that means the same to the fact that you encounter a different countries in which cultures, arts, history, and much more decisively important is the mindset of the target language, which is going to determine the way of your saying.

  8. In the Goldlist and Gobillykorean method, don’t have space to put two sentence from native and target language, we would use two lines. Putting sentence I said because of the context.

    The Goldlist method require you to review much later, how it can be retained in the memory? I put in another paper the words that I could not remember, only spoken loud one time?

  9. Shampa Thakur

    Reading is good “Passive” way of improving vocabulary, but when you are resorting to making lists, that is “Active” method. Problem with active method of learning words is that it is cumbersome and boring, and you doing retain and unless you use it in writing sentences to apply the word, very little chance is that you increase your lexical size.
    Improve Your Vocabulary – VocabMonk is an active learning tool which is personalized and makes sure you grasp the learnt words by applying it. It is lot of fun too as you can play vocab challenges with your friends.
    Give it a shot!

  10. I totally agree. I’ve come to use what are effectively all of these methods over the years. This is probably the best short article on language learning I’ve ever read.

    1. Hi kozushi. Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated! Are you learning Japanese by any chance? Would be curious to know what method you’ve found most useful at one stage or another of the language acquisition process. Cheers.

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