Why Remembering Vocabulary is so Hard and How Can I Fix It

Katya , 03-13-2018

Has the following situation ever happened to you? You are taking a vocabulary test and you see a word that looks very familiar. You remember spending time looking it up in the dictionary, studying the word, walking around the room, repeating it to yourself over and over again, and maybe even making a flash card, but now — nothing. Now, you have no idea what the words mean anymore. All the answer choices look identically correct and you are very upset. If this is your worst nightmare — keep reading!

In this article, I will show you why learning vocabulary could be so challenging and what we can do to about it.

Are you good at remembering people’s names? If you said no, you are not alone. Human beings, in general, are notoriously bad at remembering other people’s names. It's not a learning disability of any kind; it’s a natural extension of our survival brain.

Your brain’s main job is to keep you alive and protect you from danger. Period. When you meet a new person, your brain is hardwired to look for clues of danger. You think, Is this person threatening to my survival? Usually, the clues are not found in their name, but the clues are found in their facial expressions, posture, and nonverbal communication.

How much information does the name Jess contain? Now, compare that to an angry frown on Jess’ face.

Because of survival instincts in our brain, we are generally better at remembering faces rather than names. And unless you make a conscious attempt to remember a new neighbor's name and connect their name to the individual, you will continue to have awkward moments when you can’t recall your neighbor’s name.

Here is what you can do to remember: when you meet your neighbor, pay attention to their name. Let’s say their name is Steven. If you know another Steven, you can mentally connect your two friends together. Or you can imagine that this new Steven likes to run in Central Park with Steven Spielberg and have lunch with Stephen King.

Here's why I am telling you all of this: vocabulary words are just names that represent concepts. It's the same way that Steven represents your neighbor. The word contrite represents either the concept of feeling remorseful or the concept of feeling regretful. Contrite is the name; regretful is a concept.

In simple terms, regretful is important to our brain. However, contrite is not. Just like how your neighbor is important, but his name is not.

Unless we conscious attempt to connect the concept of regretful to the sound of its name, contrite — just like we did with Steven — the word will continue to be difficult to remember.

Here is what you can do:

Step One: break up a word contrite into parts.

Con - t - rite

Now, let’s think of a person, animal, or thing that can represent the first part:

Con-

We can think of a country like Congo, of a Conch (it’s a name for a seashell), or you can think of a Con man.

If you don’t know, a Con man cheats other people by gaining their trust and persuading them to believe something that is not true. For sake of time, we should stick with the Con man example. It will be easier to connect a Con man with the concept of remorseful than to connect a seashell with a state of feeling remorseful or regretful.

Now, we have our Con Man. What do we have left in terms of sounds?

T - and Rite

Think of what meaning we can assign to it. These two sounds sound like: Tried or To make something right.

Now, let’s try to put a mini story together:

Contrite: a con man is feeling regretful because he is trying to make it right.

What just happened? We created a mnemonic — a memory tool that will help us remember this word.

Now, because you have a mnemonic, you have very high chance of recalling the meaning of this word on a test.

Here's another example: let’s look at a Vocabulary Word — Egregious.

Egregious means outrageously bad or shocking.

Step one: let’s break up a word into parts.

Eg - reg - us

Step two: let’s think of a person, animal, or a thing that can represent the first part.

Eg-

Lucky, we don’t have to think hard. Egg is the first thing that comes to my mind. For now, let’s just stick with an egg.

Step Three: what do we have left in terms of sound?

Reg -us

These sounds sound like reach us.

Let’s put a Mini Story together:

If we were to do something outrageously bad, people would throw eggs at us. So, eventually, Eggs would Reach Usegregious.

Can you see what I’m doing here? I am trying to connect the concept of the word to a memorable object. I am trying to create a movement that the brain can picture and understand.

So let’s discuss a fundamental question: What is memory?

The answer? Memory is the retention of sensory impressions. When I say sensory, I am talking about all the information you receive through your five senses. Right now, as you are reading this article. When you read, you are getting information through your eyes. As light travels from your device into your head, the information turns into an electrical signal which causes a chemical change in your brain.

When you learn something new, a new memory trace is being created. Each new memory trace heavily depends on the quality of the original imprint.

Pay close attention to this conversation:

  • I'll start the conversation: Hi, I am Katya. I am the inventor of a memory method that I teach online.
  • Now, Jess comes into the conversation: That’s so interesting! I love online learning. I’m Jess by the way. I am an avid traveler and I am actually on my way to a biking race in Australia right now. I would love to check out your course while I am on my 23-hour flight.
  • K: Are you taking your bike with you?
  • J: Oh yeah, it goes everywhere I go!

Now, let's imagine that we parted following the conversation and three weeks later, I run into this lady again in the elevator. What do you think I will remember? Her name or that she went to Australia for a biking tour?

If you said biking tour, you are right.

Let’s see what actually happened:

  • K: Hi, how are you? How was Australia? (I pretended like I didn’t forget her name and it was never used in a conversation.)

Multiple people complain about having a poor memory for names, acting as if there is a biological reason why. There is: our brains are wired to exclusively remember the facts that are important.

The sound of the name Jess does not give you any information about the person. So, the brain thinks of the name is irrelevant. In order to remember Jess’s name quickly, we must make a conscious effort to picture Jess standing next to another Jess we already know.

When we meet a biker, we don’t have to make any effort. Our brain naturally accesses the concept of a bike and remembers that someone rides a bike.

Going back to word memorization, do you remember what the two words were?

If you said contrite and egregious — good job! Remember, the quality of your memory will depend on how well your story sticks to your brain. We will talk about how you can make stories stick to your brain in the future articles.

The best way that I know how to learn memory tools is by observing another person, like myself, create those memory palaces. You can learn how to create memory tools by watching our 20 - Episode vocabulary course.

If there is a word you are dying to learn and want my help creating a Mini Story for it, leave a comment below this article. I will do my absolute best to help you. I may even create a video upon your request.

Also, if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to us on social media — you can find us on Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook. Our username is the same everywhere you look: @SebersonMethod.

Share this article with someone who is also preparing for a vocabulary test or is just looking to be articulate!