One of the most frequent questions received during my time teaching English would have been, "How can I try and improve my memory for new English words?" With one of the most commonly heard ailments being expressed, "I always seem to forget words I'd learnt".
I can fully appreciate the pain and frustration students feel regarding this. For some reason I am able to remember words in Japanese, which I haven't used for 10 years, far easier than if I am asked to remember the Chinese word that I practiced last week in class. It makes me 'bakka' – which is the Japanese word for 'fengzi' - or crazy.
I remember my old girlfriend's phone number from 18 years ago – yet still have problems remembering my own current phone number. To get to the heart of the matter, I think it is a good idea to look at the work of a "brain expert", an English fellow by the name of Tony Buzan.
According to Buzan our brain and its capacity is virtually limitless allowing us to remember all sorts of things. What is important is the ability to make connections, to make memory bridges, from past known knowledge to presently being learned knowledge.
Buzan uses the metaphor of a jungle to describe the brain and the cutting of plants to make a walking path to describe something that is learnt successfully. Our memory is like this path, with the more we use information – the better cleared the path and the less likely it will be forgotten. Whereas like in the jungle, if you don't cut the trees often enough the path gets lost amid the trees, so too with our memory – it needs to be constantly used.
For language learning he states our ability to make connections – to join one jungle path to the next - is the key to its improvement. He has adopted what he calls mind maps to assist with memory and creativity whereby one idea or word is then expanded to its next idea or word and on and on until the picture resembles something like a red eye that has lots of other lines coming out from the center.
My wife who is Chinese and has taught English for several years and now works as a translator for government has a good ability to remember new words and when I asked for her advice she said first she likes to learn the sound of the word, the phonetics, then she likes to learn the components of the word, the root, prefix and suffix (e.g. 'dis' and 'ease' for 'disease') and then she likes to connect these words to other words she has previously learnt (e.g. a serious disease, heart disease etc).
The beauty of Buzan is his belief and optimism in the brain's potential. A common myth, which he challenges as false, is the idea that as we get old our memory gets worse. A complaint post graduates often make saying that the English they studied as an undergrad has now been lost. Buzan however says this knowledge has just not been exercised – that it is still present just that the connections; the brain paths have not been cleared as frequently as they should have been.
I think when it comes to learning vocabulary – the key is actually frequent use and exposure. Be it via flash cards, writing it down a hundred times, screaming it out at the top of your lungs like Li Yang's Crazy English – ideally what will occur is a connection made between a previously learnt word, or emotion to the new word that is sought to be learnt. Then ideally a connection from that new word just learnt to an even newer word – and so the jungle path gets more expansive.
I noticed once I started using mind maps in my language classes' students' ability to retell a lesson, using the just learnt vocabulary, was certainly enhanced. In particular the learning was more organic and exploratory – rather than linear – and replicated the very brain structure that Buzan suggests.
Likewise when it came to reviewing the previous lesson, by incorporating the mind map, students were able to recall and build and reach back into their memory much more effectively than if I was just to give them a word test numbered from one to ten.
It is a fascinating field and one he has written many books about. Go online and check it out or browse through any foreign language bookshop for books by Tony Buzan.