I get asked many times by friends on what tools or techniques I use to learn new words in Arabic.
Why Traditional Methods Don’t Work
We’ve all been there before – you write down the word in English, and then the corresponding word in Arabic. You stare at the word in Arabic and sound it out to yourself, then close your eyes and repeat it 5, 10, 20 times and hope and pray that somehow the word will magically stick in your head and that you’ll recognize it the next time you hear or see it. Except when you check the same word back several minutes later, you realize you’re still nowhere close to remembering it.
I know because I’ve been in that position many times. Research has shown that while this technique will keep the word in your short term memory, it doesn’t remain in your long term memory. So what we’re really looking for is not just learning the word, but retaining it.
Needless to say, it’s incredibly frustrating (not to mention incredibly dull), and when faced with time pressure and potentially tens of thousands of words in front of you, it can be easy to want to give up.
Don’t fret. The problem isn’t with you or your brain, it’s with the method that you’re using. Here are four tips I’ve gleaned from the masters and from personal experience that I’m hoping will help you to trash that traditional method and halve or third the time it takes you to remember new vocabulary words.
1. Create your sanctuary.
And chances are, it’s not going to be in a room where the TV or music is blaring or when you’re going to be constantly interrupted. Set some time alone in a quiet, comfortable corner, and focus on the work you need to do.
2. Context is king.
Sam of Lingholic has a great post about how important context is. For example, if we were to take the word ‘get’ in English, the amount of time it would take for you to remember each and every dictionary definition would be months. If however, you had a passage like this, (credits to John Perry of Structured Procrastination):
‘I got out of bed, got the paper, got myself some breakfast, got some coffee, and began to get dressed and to get ready for work. I got in the car, got to the office, and got to work. I got a lot done, and still had time to get some money at the bank and get a sandwich at the deli for lunch.
The truth is a single word may have multiple layers and meanings that change depending on context, and it would serve you better to learn them in context rather than randomly selecting words from a dictionary and attempting to memorize them from there.
Another good thing about learning in context is that you will be able to pick up phrases containing words that may be new to you. For example, one of the ways I learnt the word hammer مطرقة / maTriQa was by coming across the phrase ‘بين مطرقة و سندان ‘ / baina maTriQa wa sindan, which literally means ‘between a hammer and an anvil’, which is the equivalent of ‘between a rock and a hard place’.
Here’s my personal trump card when it comes to learning and retaining new words. I always tell other students that when they first sound out the word in Arabic, take note of what it sounds like in English and the first association that comes to mind. This is best illustrated by an example.
When I first heard the word تطرف / taTarruf, what it sounded like to me was ta-tar-ruf, or ‘two tars on a roof’. Knowing that the word meant extremism or excessiveness, I put the meaning and association together by imagining Osama bin Laden holding two cans of tar on a rooftop.
Here’s another: when I heard of the word شفة / sha-fa, I thought it was similar to the word ‘shuffle’. Knowing that the word meant lip, I just linked the image and the word together to imagine a pair of lips shuffling a pack of cards. The image was enough to make me giggle, which is why it sticks in my head till today.
It doesn’t matter if the image doesn’t make sense in any way, in fact the crazier, more ridiculous and more colourful it is, the better. As long as you tie the meaning of the word back to the image, you can be assured that the probability of you remembering it will be far higher. Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 months has great post on the power of using imagination and stories in vocabulary learning and this post on Build your Memory outlines the steps in greater detail.
It might seem like a long-winded method, but think of it this way – the amount of time you invest in it now will save you the amount of time later on having to flip back again and again to recapture the word. Moreover, you might find that with practice, you will be faster and faster at associating words with images and will be able to do it almost instantaneously.
4. Read, read, read. Then read some more.
One of the most tricky things about Arabic in my experience is that some verbs, when conjugated, can come across as foreign in a piece of text, especially when it comes to verbs with weak endings like و، ي، أ . For example, you know that the word for ‘he sees’ is يرى / yara. However, if I wanted to say ‘he saw him’, it would change to رآه / ra-aah. Not so similar to the first form anymore is it?
The good news is that all it takes is more exposure to written texts to be able to recognise the different conjugations when they appear. In fact, I’d go a step further and recommend starting by reading articles that you’re personally interested in, whether it’s football, hairdressing or celebrity gossip – anything that will keep your interest in the material for an extended period of time.
I’m not saying that these methods will work for every single person out there (I’ve never even taken anything close to a linguistics course) or for every single language, but I am saying that it has worked for me. And if it has worked for me then I’m hoping it will also be useful to someone else.
What are some of your tips and tricks for remembering new words? Did any of these techniques work for you? Share in the comments below!