Especially Difficult Learning Tasks

Lesson 13A: Shortcuts to vocabulary and foreign languages.

Posted Nov 17, 2020

Some memory work seems more difficult than others. We have already covered learning math. Here we will consider such tasks as expanding vocabulary, learning a foreign language, and remembering dates and places and music.


The obviously important factor in thinking is vocabulary (or, in math, number fluency). Everyday thought is conducted with words. A limited vocabulary limits the range and rigor of thought.

Sadly, young people generally have limited vocabularies. I see this every year, even with upper-division college students in a course where I require them to write essays. They frequently use words that don't match the ideas they are trying to convey and fail to use words precisely. Children who grow up in culturally deprived homes are handicapped because they are exposed to the limited vocabularies of their parents. Teachers and parents should make it a point to expose children to new works and to instill a commitment to using words precisely.

Research suggests that some review sessions need to be widely spaced by two months or more from the initial learning. The amount and spacing of foreign language vocabulary learning have an enormous effect on how well the material is retained years later. In one study, 300 English-foreign word pairs were studied with either 13 or 26 relearning review sessions at intervals of 14, 28, or 56 days. Retention was tested for one, two, three, or five years after the end of the training. Although longer intervals between learning and review impaired acquisition slightly, this was offset by substantially higher long-term retention. Thirteen review sessions spaced at 56 days yielded retention comparable to 26 sessions spaced at 14 days apart.

One experiment related to flashcards has examined the role that retrieval had on the ability to recall that same material after a delay of a week. College students were to learn a list of 40 foreign language vocabulary word pairs, which were manipulated so that the pairs either remained in the list (were repeatedly studied) or were dropped from the list once they were recalled. It is like studying flashcards: One way is to keep studying all the cards over and over again; the other way is to drop out a card from the stack every time you correctly recalled what was on the other side of the card.

The number of self-testing events and their spacing is influenced by the number of retrievals that are correct. It helps to repeat self-testing on cards already correctly recalled. In one study where students studied flashcards of 35 Swahili-English word pairs, the students were asked to practice until they got the vocabulary correct using either the entire stack or five stacks of seven cards each.

Researchers instructed students to study the flashcards until they had gotten each translation correct either once, five, or 10 times, before taking a final quiz a week later. Getting the stack correct five times was three times more effective for the final quiz than getting the stack correct only once. Also, the study of one big stack was better than five little ones.

A related study examined the correctness effect when college-aged students were asked to study for a week a pack of 48 paired Swahili vocabulary words with their English translations. To facilitate learning, students were taught to use a cue (word, phrase, or concept) to link both words of a pair. Students controlled how many times they felt they needed to repeat the study of a word pair until they reached one, three, six, or nine correct retrievals. Immediately after finishing learning, students gave an estimated rating of how well they thought they had learned the material. On an examination given one week later, gains in correct answers were larger, with more correct retrievals during the study period.

Student-predicted judgments of their learning are important in the real-world study because such judgments govern how long students will practice what their assigned learning. The judgment of learning success was found to depend on the number of self-testing events, their spacing, and the number of correct retrievals.

Another study established that the best learning occurs when students can correctly recall items multiple times during the initial learning experience. In that study, students studied 70 Swahili-English word pairs either one, three, five, seven, eight, or 10 times during encoding. For example, a cue and target pair was initially presented to study for 10 seconds. Then during practice, the cue was presented, and learners were given eight seconds to show they could recall the target. Incorrectly recalled targets were given a four-second restudy opportunity before moving on to the next word pair. Pairs continued to be rehearsed until they reached the assigned level of correct remembering (one, two, three, etc.). The subjects were divided into two groups, one taking an exam within 25 minutes after study and rehearsal and the other one week later.

Results revealed the best final exam performance occurred when the test-item presentation intervals were long, and when the final test occurred 25 minutes after the study and rehearsal. Almost none of the word pairs were learned when the learning occurred when the intervals were short, and the final test was delayed for a week. The best final learning occurred when the initial learning practice retrievals were correct and when more time elapsed between each recall attempt (six-minute lag versus one-minute lag).

There are some other general strategies for building vocabulary. I have a couple of ideas based on memory principles.

Learn common word prefixes and suffixes. Prefixes and suffixes are great aids. “Pre” suggests before or ahead of time; “ism” suggests a state of being; “re” suggests back or again; and so on.      

Learn word families. Many words come from the same family. If you know what one word in the group means, you can get the general idea for the others from the context in which they are used. The other words will be easier to remember because they are similar to the word you already know. Here are some word groups.

            despise, despicable, despot, despotism, despoil

            habit, habitat, habitation, habitual, habitué

            jet, jettison, jetstream, jetty, jet set, jetlag, jetsam

            line, liner, lineman, linear, line drive, line-up

            parent, paternal, pater, patriarch, paternity, patrician, patricide

Create images for strange new words. Here are some examples:

Gazebo: See yourself staring (gazing) at the ugliest boy (bo) you ever saw standing in a building that only has a roof, no walls. Feel disgusted.

Adumbrate (meaning incomplete understanding or explanation): See a “dumb brat” with a dunce cap, sitting in the corner, partially hidden by a screen. Sense the pain he must feel at being so ostracized and tries to hide.

Daguerreotype (an early photographic process on a metal plate): Visualize a picture on a sheet of metal, and you have stabbed it with a dagger because you hate it so much.

Perspicacious (meaning especially insightful): See yourself working up a sweat (perspire), scratching your head with question marks around it, then jumping up with a eureka moment when you realize you figured it out.

Foreign Language 

In this globally interconnected world, many people want to learn a foreign language. In my own case, decades ago, I stumbled through Russian and French because they were required for my Ph.D. Most recently, I am trying Spanish because I live in Texas.

One thing I know that helps when learning a foreign language is the use of flashcards for vocabulary (using images, not just words).

Another thing I know is the value of strategic approaches and planning. For example, I first have to confront my negative attitude (negative attitudes impair learning). I have a negative attitude about irrational things in language.

Take the gender business in Spanish and many other languages. Why does everything have to have a sex identification, like male and female endings for inanimate objects? That is just plain stupid. 

Irregular verbs are another problem. When I was in high school, I learned Latin, which wasn’t so bad because it was a much more orderly language than the modern languages that “evolved” from it. Latin wasn’t broken. Why didn’t people leave it alone?

My first strategic realization was that I had to get over my pique. Who was I punishing with my negative attitude? Certainly not the people who created the irrationalities in the language. No, my attitude would be a de-motivator for me to learn. I tell myself, “Get over it.”

Next, I think about some basic principles that might expedite my learning. You don’t have to be a professor of modern languages to know that certain key components in language include the following:

1. Meaning of words: Here, try to recognize cognates (words similar to English words you already know. For other words, try to think of mental images that represent the meaning.

2. Gender identification: Fortunately, you can usually predict whether a word is male or female just from the meaning of the word. Most macho-type words are male; soft, feminine type words are usually female. Unfortunately, there are exceptions, which you just have to memorize by brute force.

3. Verb conjugation: Look for patterns. All “regular” verbs have the same pattern. In Spanish, all verbs end in AR, ER, or IR. The conjugation pattern is similar. For each, you drop the infinitive ending and add endings to the stem of the word. For AR words, the ending is either o, as, a (singular) or amos, ais, or an (plural). For ER words, the endings are o, es, e (singular) or emos, eis, en (plural). For IR words, the endings are o, es, e (singular), or imos, is, en (plural). Even irregular verbs generally have predictable patterns, except for a couple of endings.

4. Counting: Here, again, look for patterns. In Spanish, you have to brute-force memorize the first 19 numbers, but thereafter, predictable patterns emerge.

5. Articles, like “a” and “the”: In Spanish, you only have to remember “un” for “a.” But since the article has to be a gender match to the word it refers to, you have to add an “a” (una) to refer to female words. If you are referring to a definite person, you must use “el” or “la,” depending on the person’s gender. Plural references add an “s” (as in “los/las”)

In Spanish, there is a definite pattern that includes gender recognition and singular vs. plural. It becomes easier to remember if you organize words in a table, as for these adjectives.

                                            Female                  Male                  

This                                     esta                  esto or este

These                                  estas               estos

The est form is used to describe a noun that is close to the speaker and listener. It is normally used to talk about something within reaching distance of the speaker.

That                                    esa                   ese

Those                                esás                  esos

The es form is used to point out nouns that are further from the speaker and not easily within reach. The noun may be close to the listener, but not the speaker.

Note that the feminine form uses the letter a, while the male form uses o or e.

You may not want to learn Spanish, so I won’t expand further. My point here is that learning is greatly facilitated when you look for patterns. Memorize the patterns, and it is easier to memorize the specifics.

The point is this: Structure your learning material in ways that work best for you. Develop a strategy. Look for patterns. A strategic approach should also include developing ways to categorize things in the most useful way for memorization.

Next Lesson:

13B. Dates and places, music.