Whether you’re a school student doing your teacher’s assignment, or a candidate preparing for your next entrance examination; whether you’re a traveller learning to interact with the locals of a foreign land, or an aspiring polyglot trying to learn a new tongue; or whether you’re a bibliophile seeking to extract the most from a book, or just a professional striving to be better at what you do; enhancing your vocabulary in a language of interest is as important to you as is a cool breeze redolent with the fragrance of the first buds, to a warm Spring day.
Yet, owing to our fast paced lives, our dwindling attention span and our rapidly diminishing capacity to retain words - thanks to our obsession with technology; most of us struggle to retain the meanings of words we come across and look up on a daily basis. The awareness of such words is so ephemeral that, in a matter of just two to three days, we lose all recollection of even having seen the word.
How do people with extensive vocabularies overcome this problem? What is it they do differently from others?
In this edition, we offer you a glimpse at one of the best techniques the pros use to learn new words.
We are no strangers to the Association Technique of Memorizing random lists of items, dates, names, etc. by associating them with unrelated objects, images, familiar locations, and the sort. For a long time now, students, teachers, professionals and even memory magicians have been using methods such as the Link method, the Loci method, the Peg system, the Image-Name Technique, or the Journey Method to memorize names, dates or lists of random items by associating them with an image or story, a familiar location, a pegging framework, a photograph of the person whose name is being remembered, and an oft travelled route, respectively.
But do these techniques apply to retaining the meanings of words as well? Well, yes and no. Yes, the Association Technique is a powerful tool for memorizing the meanings of words, but not in its simplest form. There are a few complexities involved.
Research on the subject since the days of the Psycholinguist Sigmund Freud has led to the discovery that memories have a strong connection with the emotional content of the experience and with the emotional state of the individual at the time of the experience.
Try this. Of all the days you’ve lived on planet Earth, how many do you actually remember? Certainly not all. Then which ones? Is it a mere coincidence that the only days we remember are those on which we experienced some form of emotional high? We remember moments when we were happy, sad, angry, jealous, hurt, betrayed, defeated, victorious, violent, kind, and in love. And the higher the intensity of the emotion, the stronger the memory. In 2004, cognitive psychologist Donald MacKay and a team of researchers asked participants to take part in an emotional Stroop test, in which they were presented with different words in quick succession. Each word was printed in a different color, and subjects were asked to name the color. They were also later asked to recall the words after the initial test. MacKay found that taboo words, which were intended to elicit an emotional response, were recalled more frequently than words which carried less emotional connotations.
This discovery has immense ramifications on vocabulary enhancement. The Association Technique involves consciously creating a link between a word and its meaning. The sight of the word must instantly trigger the recollection of that link, the thing the word is associated with; and that link must, in turn, instantly and unfailingly trigger the recollection of the meaning of the word. This is essentially the theory behind the technique. However, if we add emotions to the mix, we will enhance the impact of this technique immensely. And that’s the secret to powerful vocabulary enhancement!
Let’s look at an example. Say you’ve looked up the word “CACOPHONY” for the first time, and you’ve read that it means “a harsh, discordant mixture of sounds”. How do you ensure you never forget the meaning? Simple, create an association.
The natural way to do that is to think of examples of “a harsh, discordant mixture of sounds”. Some of the examples that come to mind are: the incessant honking of vehicles at a busy intersection; a noisy bunch of unruly students in a teacher-less classroom; vessels banging all around in a crowded kitchen of a busy restaurant; or a band of fledgling violinists practicing their instrument all at once at a local conservatory.
Now, each of the above is a modest example of the word ‘Cacophony’. But Association is not about just finding an accurate example. This is where most vocabulary enthusiasts fall out of the running. The secret ingredient to Association is “Emotion”. What this means is that the link or mnemonic must be of high emotional value to the learner. So, when coming up with an example, it is best to find one from memory of personal, emotional experiences.
For instance, for someone who has enjoyed reading Asterix Comics growing up, just remembering the untalented bard “Cacofonix” is enough to never have to look up the word again. The bard’s name has been derived from the word “Cacophony” because he cannot sing or play his harp to save his life. And every time he performs, the gauls beat him up, gag him and hang him from a tree. If you’re an Asterix aficionado, then none of the aforementioned examples would serve as a better mnemonic than “Cacofonix”.
But there’s more...
In 1977, researchers at Harvard published a paper entitled Flashbulb Memories, in which they noted that people are often able to vividly recollect where they were when an event occurred that was significant to them or that caused a state of surprise. This supports the idea that a person’s emotional state at the time of an event can influence whether or not it is encoded as a memory.
This implies that the memory of an event might be very different for two different people. That’s because the two individuals could be in completely different moods or emotional states at the time of the occurrence. This is why we cannot borrow other people’s associations or ask someone else to make such associations for us. The likelihood of success is minimal.
So, in simpler words, you need to make your associations yourself. You need to flip through the pages of your past to find that perfect example, loaded with emotion. Sometimes you might have to search beyond real experiences to find associations in the fictitious world of books you’ve read or movies you’ve watched. That’s fine, as long as you find that perfect, emotional link. You then need to revise that association a few times; and before you realise it, you would have memorised the meaning of that word.
Now, it’s no mystery that finding the perfect link can take some time. Although some associations happen spontaneously owing to the recency of that memory, others will usually take a little more effort. But don’t let that discourage you. Investing time into finding the right association could save you hours of having to revisit the word later, over and over again.
Believe it or not, this is how we learnt most of the words of our native language. All one needs to do to confirm this is to observe a toddler learn to speak. The child asks the parent repeatedly the name of objects he or she sees around him and is fascinated by. That fascination and a couple of repetitions are all the child needs to learn that word and the meaning that goes with it. It is actually that simple.
But as we grow older, we grow increasingly inured to the world around us. The number of things that truly excite us shrinks rapidly day by day. And very few of us genuinely want to learn a second language. Most of us end up doing out of compulsion and necessity, rather than passion. And that’s the reason we struggle so much to acquire this new information.
The Association Technique for learning the meanings of words of a second language breaks that barrier. All you need to do is follow it to the T.
Picture Credits: Asterix Comics - https://asterixonline.info