How to Memorize Vocabulary: A Step-By-Step Guide

How to memorize vocabulary Count Von Count Mnemonic Example for Magnetic Memory Method Blog Featured PostYou’d love to know how to memorize vocabulary at epic speeds, right?

Whether it’s for improving your mother tongue or learning a new language, the desire to expand your vocabulary is natural.

In fact, if you don’t want to get better with language, you really need to sit down and think about why you aren’t devoted to lifelong learning.

Knowledge truly is power, after all, especially when you apply it to speaking.

People who speak well perform better at all aspects in life, love and professionalism.

A Brief History Of How I Fell In Love With Memorizing Vocabulary

During both high school and university, I loved looking through my thesaurus.

I would regularly “beef up” my term papers with “five” and “ten dollar words” to make my writing more interesting and to teach myself more words.

For example, I learned the word “solipsism” when researching and writing a 3rd year university paper in “Shakespeare and his Contemporaries,” taught by Dr. Derek Cohen.

Anthony Metivier with lots of books

He noticed that I used this word when grading the paper and this encouraged me to explore interesting vocabulary even more.

Soon I was talking about “architectonic tautology,” “paratexts” and whipping out all kinds of ancient Greek and Latin terms in my writing.

And never for the sake of my ego.

It was for the love of language and the knowledge that using words well brings.

These days, you can access an online dictionary and thesaurus in ways that are a lot simpler than thumbing through a well-worn set of word collections on your desk.

But no matter how you access your words, you really can make vocabulary acquisition effortless and limitless.

Why Rote Learning Any Word Is Painfully Slow

Back then, I used rote learning to memorize those words.

It was painful!

Why is rote learning so annoying?

image to express a student bored with learning

For one thing, it’s repetitive and boring.

It’s also not fun.

And research typically shows that you get only about a 40% rate of recall.

With mnemonics, on the other hand, anyone can boost that rate of recall to 80%.

And when you practice with memory techniques regularly, that rate will rise even higher. Here’s how to practice memory techniques for studying anything, including improving your language abilities.

I’m so glad I learned about memory techniques like the Memory Palace during my Ph.D. years.

This special strategy taught me how to memorize oodles of difficult vocabulary quickly.

So what if I told you that you could become an absolute Titan of word power in a way that is fast, easy and fun?

Well, you can. And you have this ability within yourself right now.

You have all the tools you could ever need to drastically expand your vocabulary, by improving your ability to memorize words.

Basic Rules That Let You Memorize Vocabulary Forever

Let’s begin with a bird’s eye view of vocabulary memorization.

Let’s face it:

You may be overwhelmed at the beginning with questions about where to start.

This feeling is normal.

After all, there are well over a million words in the English language alone.

How could you even make a dent in this number, never mind if you are learning a second or third language? Let me break it down in simple terms.

1. Your goal is to memorize the sound and the meaning of a word.

2. You do this by having a Memory Palace Network prepared in advance.

3. When you know how to navigate the Memory Palace Network well, you “encode” each word using Magnetic Mnemonic Imagery.

4. You use Recall Rehearsal to get the words into long term memory.

5. You use the Big 5 of Learning to speed up the process and ensure longevity.

If you have any doubts about putting these steps into action, please remember that bilingualism makes for a healthier brain. You owe it to your long term health.

The Amazing Truth About How To Memorize Word Meanings

Now, when I talk about memorizing the sound and meaning of a word at the same time, this doesn’t mean EVERY meaning of a word.

We’re talking about one, or at most two, meanings of any given word when we start.

Image showing a man frustrated by crossword puzzle multiple word meanings

Seriously:

Be willing to let the 430 other possible definitions and usages listed in the Oxford Dictionary go.

The same thing goes for German or any other language.

Speaking of German, here’s The Story Of How To Learn and Memorize German Vocabulary  It’s about my very first book on memorizing vocabulary and includes more mnemonic examples to help you memorize vocabulary forever.

You Do Not Have To Commit Every Meaning To Memory To Learn A Word

Again, just because multiple definitions exist, this fact does not mean you should commit them all to memory.

You need only to memorize the one, or very few, meanings relevant to you.

You do this by thinking about the Magnetic Station in your Memory Palace.

Then you create Magnetic Images that remind you of the sound and one core meaning of the word.

Then, take a deep breath.

Relax.

Walking Meditation works for improving focus and concentration

Come back and do Recall Rehearsal later and encode a few more words.

Or you can come back and add an entire phrase to the word.

Often less is more. Keep that principle in mind.

The Powerful Rule Of Difference In Vocabulary Memorization

Each word is different.

Words have varying syllables, different origins, and are fluid in certain grammatical contexts.

Words might also be changeable when you add prefixes and suffixes.

Don’t turn these changes into the enemy!

Just treat these changes like the beautiful differences in a diverse experience of language that they represent.

And then memorize them as individual examples like you would any other word.

If you want to scale the process, you can sometimes create a Memory Palace series just for regular and irregular verbs.

If you’re still unclear about what this technique involves, here are 5 Memory Palace examples. Even better, try this:

Magnetic Memory Method Free Memory Improvement Course

But only use Memory Palaces if you find them helpful.

Whatever you do, don’t generalize the process too much.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” magic bullet that will work with every single word when it comes to memory techniques for language learning.

15 Reason Why Language Learning Is Good For Your Brain

Words do not all behave the same, and we cannot treat them as if they do.

Once we understand that we must work with vocabulary individually we are ready to hit the ground running.

The Magic Of Word Grouping for Memorization

Do you remember learning to count syllables as a kid?

Perhaps your elementary school teacher taught you to clap with each syllable as you said words out loud.

Maybe he taught to you hold your hand under your chin and count every time your jaw would “drop” when you said the word aloud as a syllable.

I have a friend who remembers practicing se-ven, el-e-phant, yel-low, and rock-et as a young child. She made a game of it.

She found it exciting!

And it is exciting. You can take a little bit of that wonder, that excitement, and put it into practice with vocabulary memorization techniques.

How?

Group words with the same number of syllables together.

Arranging words in a like with like form based on syllable is a powerful tool to help with memorization.

You can also experiment with arranging words by vowels.

Another professor I learned a lot from named Christian Bök spent a long time arranging words by vowel for his excellent book, Eunoia. Here’s a sample:

Do you notice what he’s doing here?

All of the words in this passage feature only one vowel. “I.”

Although you might not do exactly this in your own Memory Palace Network, I’m sure reading more of Bök’s works will inspire you to think up many games you can play with language learning.

Sure, organizing words takes a bit of initial legwork.

The Horrible Price Language Learners Pay When They Fail To Plan

But what happens when you don’t craft a vocabulary list and arrange it for strategic memorization?

Random chaos!

But when you tackle it strategically for use in Memory Palaces, you will have a simple key to success with memorization.

Why Practice Makes Progress Better Than Any Memorize Vocabulary App

Once you have your target vocabulary organized and know what you need to commit to memory, you are free to practice using memory techniques for language learning.

You can now focus solely on the task of expanding your vocabulary.

It really is that simple.

How do you improve your abilities with memorizing vocabulary with consistent growth over time?

Simple:

You memorize vocabulary.

Commit to practicing a word list every single day.

The Freedom Journal used for language learning will help because I’ve shown you how to combine it with a Memory Palace technique.

Gradually you will notice improvement – if not very quickly.

Chart this improvement in your Memory Journal. You will soon see how far you’ve come.

The Power Of Context For Memorizing More Words Quickly

Then, use your memorized words in context.

Just as with any other memory technique, the key is immersion.

Use your vocabulary when reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

Use The Big Five techniques to your advantage.

How To Choose The Words You Memorize Wisely

Another rule of context that is so simple, yet profound is to choose the words you memorize carefully.

Just as we discussed the bird’s eye view of memorizing relevant definitions, the actual words you seek to memorize should only be ones that will improve your life.

If the list of words is not improving your life and moving you towards your goals, then the words really have no business being memorized.

There are many sources of word lists, but Ogden’s Basic English is a great and free source for figuring out what words you might want to learn in any language.

You just need to make sure you have goals – meaningful goals.

Image of Scrabble letters saying Carpe Diem to express the need to take action now with memorizing vocabulary

What are some goals you might have for memorizing vocabulary?

* Learning a foreign language

* Studying Medicine

* Preparing to pass a law exam

All of these goals add meaning to your efforts, which is essential to the formulation of a life long skill that becomes habitual.

A Review Of The Fundamentals With A Few Mnemonic Examples

Why does meaning matter so much when memorizing vocabulary?

To really commit words to memory they must be more than just words.

In addition to having a reason for memorizing them, meaning will help you come up with associations, especially when the going gets tough.

For example, there are a lot of Sanskrit words I’ve been memorizing and it’s only because I have a meaningful goal driving my project that I’ve been able to push through.

In addition to the mnemonic examples in that video, recent research further validates the notion that the signing and chanting element also play a role in memory formation.

Of course, we usually aren’t singing the vocabulary we learn. Definitely do that in the shower if you’re worried that people won’t like your voice!

And with singing on your side, here are some every day words in English that are quite challenging.

All you have to do in addition to having a Memory Palace ready is to associate each word with images.

And think about how these examples apply to the words you want to learn and memorize.

“Account” Mnemonic Example With Magnetic Action

Think of the word “account.”

If you’re like me you grew up with Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and a host of other characters on the children’s show Sesame Street.

Who taught you numbers? Count von Count, right?

He’s the one who taught me, and because he is deep in my brain’s chemistry, he’s the perfect “sound-match” for “count” in “account.”

But we have an additional “AC” to add to that word.

For that, think of an air conditioner falling out of a window onto the Count.

To get the meaning into the image, this air conditioner also looks a fair amount like a calculator – the tool used by an accountant while engaged in the act of accounting.

This action and object-based visualization with a meaningful character from pop culture almost guarantees you’ll not forget that word.

Why?

Because movement catches the “mind’s eye.”

Even if you have “aphantasia,” you will likely find this imagery shocking to you.

The only “trick” is that the images and actions are meaningful to you.

The next example will demonstrate this principle a bit further.

“Agreement” Mnemonic Example with Personal Magnetic Imagery

As with the Count in “account,” the word “agreement” needs some tender loving care.

Since I took Agriculture 11 in high school where we learned to farm and about different cuts of meat, I can visualize my teacher of that class, Mrs. Sanderson.

Although I never saw here getting greedy with mints or cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West at her desk, it’s useful to think of her that way.

Why?

Because she taught Agriculture and her being greedy over her drawer full of the red and white disc peppermints helps create the sound “agreement.”

Mnemonic example of how to memorize vocabulary words like agreement with teacher greedy for mints

Next, all I have to do is see, feel and hear myself agreeing with her greed so that I’m in agreement with her actions.

This visualization easily helps me commit the word agreement to memory as I paint this picture in my mind.

The Truth About Mnemonic Examples For Learning And Remembering Vocabulary

Mnemonic examples like these can only get you so far.

You need to understand and then practice the mnemonic principles that underly the memorization techniques.

Take what is relevant to you from these examples and apply the techniques to the words that will help you achieve meaningful goals.

Create engaging mental pictures that come to life in your mind as you break the words down into parts.

You can also create stories from the actions you create if that helps you.

Here’s the best part:

Because you have taken the time to play with these words and interacted with them you will naturally start to remember them.

It’s so simple once you break it down, word by word, piece by piece.

Why Memorizing Vocabulary Is The Most Important Skill In The World

Memorizing vocabulary is not only the easiest skill, but it’s also the most important skill you’ll ever have.

Almost all of the most important information we use to survive is transmitted through words. They are the building blocks of all language and information.

Vocabulary is crucial and essential to improvement in all areas of life. In short, words are fundamental to success as a lifelong learner.

To grow you must have a solid foundation.

So let me know:

What vocabulary are you going to memorize now that you know these memorization secrets?

11 Responses to " How to Memorize Vocabulary: A Step-By-Step Guide "

  1. John D Hipsley says:

    Anthony Metivier’s article entitled “How to Memorize Vocabulary – A Step-By-Step Guide” is owrthy of close scrutiny. The author offers a solid foundation to understanding and practicing valuable memorization skills. Anthony describes the importance of planning, use of mnemonics, and context – these and several other principles are rarely taught in traditional language learning. The claim is made that memorizing vocabulary is the most important skill in the world. Anthony supports this contention with the explanation: “Almost all of the most important information we use to survive is transmitted through words. They are the building blocks of all language and information.” The article merits study and indeed memorization of its life-enhancing skills.

    • Thanks for this comment, John.

      Planning is indeed sadly absent from so much language learning instruction. Yet, it is easy and fun to do and primes the mind and memory for the encoding to come.

      Thanks again and look forward to your next post on the MMM blog. 🙂

  2. Martin Huanca Cordova says:

    I’m Martin from Peru and I really appreciate what you do for all of us to improve our awesome tool we have “our memory”
    Thanks a bunch It’s really really useful all these techniques to improve our memory.

  3. Maricela says:

    Thanks, for the deep introduction to memorize vocabulary, Anthony!

    I like that you are giving details about the words. (examples). I am curious about other vocabulary when i am reading the Toefl. In this group there are different people from other countries. Even right now i have enough to memorize when i get my goals of Health and life Insurance, Math, Pedagogy and the Toefl I want to get immersed in Hebrew, Sanskrit, …I want to get my Freedom Journal also.

    • Thanks for this, Maricela.

      I understand just how much desire most of us have for multiple languages, so do enjoy the emotions around that.

      From a learning and memory perspective, most of us are likely to get better results from focusing on one language first for a decent amount of time. Familiarity with that process then creates skills and decision parameters that make the next language easier – especially when you have a whole extra set of colors to paint with using mnemonics.

      Thanks as ever for your comments on this blog and look forward to your next post!

  4. Jeremy Mahoney says:

    Thanks for writing this informative guide! These resources are really helping me step up my language learning. Reading this has left me wondering something:

    Is it possible to use the same location of the same memory palace to memorize multiple words in different languages? For instance, do you think it would be effective to put a Chinese word in my bedroom closet and a week later put a Spanish word in there as well, or would it be better to make separate memory palaces?

    Thanks in advance for any thoughts on the matter!

    • Thanks for this question, Jeremy. I’m glad you’re finding these resources helpful.

      It is entirely possible to memorize the vocabulary of more than one language on a station by station basis in a Memory Palace.

      In your case, Spanish and Chinese are different enough that you should be able to do manage this without one image interfering with the other, provided you’ve gotten the first word into long term memory and you are skilled in dealing with “ghosting” and/or “The Ugly Sister Effect.”

      (If you want to search Magnetic Memory Method + Ugly Sister Effect in Google, you’ll find a whole blog post about this issue on that page and podcast. There’s also an interesting discussion on that page you will likely benefit from.

      The reason I’m not posting the link directly in this discussion for you is because we’ve been seeing a speed penalty when linking in the comments and don’t want to harm the performance of the site. I appreciate your understanding and for looking up that previous resource manually if you’re interested in learning about dealing with “ghosting.”)

      About “better” questions, generally, I would say that for most people it is better to use separate Memory Palaces for a few reasons:

      1. They don’t have to deal with intermediate issues like “ghosting.” It’s actually not a problem as you’ll learn from the other resource. But new people can experience it as a problem if they don’t see it for the memory triumph that it really is.

      2. Creating multiple Memory Palaces is beneficial for helping unlock more spatial mapping skills, spatial memory, autobiographical memory, episodic memory, figural memory and other levels. Without enough Memory Palaces, it is unlikely for the full competence that anyone can achieve with these memory techniques to emerge.

      3. The purpose of the Memory Palace is to have a “canvas” for both encoding and decoding, but especially decoding so that the information gets into long term memory as quickly, efficiently and thoroughly as possible.

      Depending on your existing level of skill, it is completely possible that you really can hunt two rabbits at once and catch both. That’s up for each individual to decide.

      I am currently memorizing two long form texts in the same Memory Palace as a means of stretching my skills. I was trying for 3 texts, but the challenge was too much, so I scaled back to two.

      And that is my final point: You need to balance what I call the “Challenge-Frustration Curve.”

      If you’re not being challenged, you won’t grow with these techniques. But if you get frustrated, you will understandably give up.

      So always keep yourself challenged, but scale back from frustration until your skills can handle the higher levels of challenge.

      And keep your outcome in mind.

      If you really want to have the information you’re dealing with in your memory, then frustration is much less likely to arise because your strategy will be more precious to you. It’s the old Abraham Lincoln line:

      “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

      The only point to add to this quote is that one should spend a bit of time fully deciding that they actually want to chop the tree in question down. A lot of people go after entire forests with dull axes before they’ve even properly assessed that they really want even the bark of one tree.

      I hope these pointers help and look forward to your next post here on the blog soon! 🙂

      • Jeremy Mahoney says:

        Thanks for the reply! I think I’ll give using the same palace for Spanish and Chinese a shot, though I think I’ll use a different one for French due to its similarity, and I’ll share the French one with Russian words when I start learning it.

        Do you think that organizing memory palaces by letter of the alphabet would be the best way to organize words? That would involve creating over 50 memory palaces, but I’m eager to do so if it would be a good memory technique.

        • Dive in an give it a shot.

          If you use the Magnetic Memory Method and the principle of alphabetization along with the other tools we teach, you won’t need 50 Memory Palaces.

          You will likely create many more than that after feeling the benefits of having them.

          As for “the best way” and this being a “good” memory technique, here’s the reality:

          The best way and the good way is the one you actually use to get results.

          So many people hop around from technique to technique without giving any single one of them their due. It’s like flipping between piano, saxophone and sitar and then wondering why you’re not getting anywhere. But the “best” instrument that is “good” to play is the one you devote yourself to learning how to play.

          It’s the same thing with memory techniques. When you devote yourself to one kind of memory instrument, learn its “keys” and play the “compositions” as described, you’ll develop mastery with it.

          Then, it’s much easier to hop over to another instrument (or memory technique) and hit the ground running with it.

          In sum, if you want to master memory techniques for language learning, pick one, learn it to the point that you can use it predictably, and then continue to study the other approaches out there to supplement your core skills.

          Hope this helps!

      • Jeremy Mahoney says:

        Thanks for the reply! I think I’ll give using the same palace for Spanish and Chinese a shot, though I think I’ll use a different one for French due to its similarity, and I’ll share the French one with Russian words when I start learning it.

        Do you think that organizing memory palaces by letter of the alphabet would be the best way to organize words? That would involve creating over 50 memory palaces between the two language sets, but I’m eager to do so if it would be a good memory technique.

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