‘My memory is like a sieve (very poor memory). I forget what I’ve learned from one day to another. I’ll never be able to speak the language fluently!’ I’ve heard this from many students that I teach, and I’ve also experienced it myself.
Being able to memorise and recall vocabulary is crucial for effective language learning. You can dream of speaking like a fluent bilingual speaker, debate about who’s the best italki teacher or which is the most useful vocabulary revision app, but without good memory, there is no retention or recall. And without retention or recall - you just stand there, your mouth open, your mind empty and your eyes filling with tears…
Before you start searching for symptoms of early dementia, let me tell you, if you’re not aware of it yet, there is no effective vocabulary memorization without sharp focus.
Focus is a filter, which allows information to get into your attention and then - your memory. Just like a clogged coffee filter yields a weak brew, your unfocused brain yields poor retention.
And if you try using the same filter between several pots, you'll end up spilling and wasting a lot of your coffee. The same happens when you're learning while distracted - the words you’re trying to memorise don't get into your memory and don't stick.
This article presents four strategies to immediately improve your focus and supercharge your vocabulary learning. I explain what changes in your environment can help you reduce distractions, how to maximise your body and mind for continued learning and how to make your study sessions effortless and effective.
- Why is it difficult to focus and remain focused during vocabulary learning sessions?
Focus is the ability to direct your attention. Sadly, human attention has its limitations - we tend to start losing it after about 20 minutes. That’s often not enough to learn anything new.
Moreover, vocabulary learning sessions tend to be repetitive and monotonous, which makes the task of staying focused an even more challenging feat to attain. What can you do to improve your focus?
Strategy 1) Create an environment that facilitates focus
Our study environment is often underestimated as a learning factor. Many students don’t realise how noise, workspace ergonomic or technology can impact their ability to focus and retain information. Here is what you can do to create a focus-boosting environment.
- Optimise your workspace
While you may be able to revise on the sofa, or on the beach, a properly set-up (ergonomic) study area can boost your learning effectiveness. Even if you prefer to study ‘on the go’ or don’t care much about special study space, try studying at a desk/table and compare the results.
Ensure your desk and chair are comfortable for writing, reading, and any computer-based tasks involved -- even for something as simple as clicking buttons. Adjust your chair height to avoid slouching or straining your neck. Support your lower back with a special chair, or a small cushion/rolled-up towel tucked behind.
- Manage the lighting
If you’ve ever tried reading off a screen in a sunny spot, you’ll know that backlit screens appear washed out, and hard to read in brightly lit spaces. Adjust the brightness of your screen to the light level in your study space.
Also, avoid studying with the sunlight (or any light) shining directly in your face, as glare from both incidences can tire your eyes.
- Reduce the noise around you
Even if you don’t notice it anymore, background noise can affect your ability to focus and memorise things. If you can’t find a quiet spot for your study sessions, try noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs, or put on some white noise or music (see below for tips).
- Don't let technology control you
Technology is ever-present in language learning, but it comes with a price. Pop-up notifications, beeps, flashing lights can all get distracting and if you don’t manage them, they can destroy your focus.
- Turn off notification for email, messages, social media, etc. on all your electronic devices when you are studying.
- When using offline software, turn off the Internet to minimise distractions.
- If you revise using a website based service, minimise temptations to web surf by working in the full-screen mode.
Strategy 2) Optimise your body to boost your memory
You may already know this, but let me say it out loud: a tired, hungry or sleep-deprived body is not a learning body.
- Get enough sleep
While you sleep, your brain consolidates what you have learnt during the day, enhancing memory formation. Sometimes you are better off catching up on your 'zzz' before an exam or an important conversation than cramming all night. Check these tips on getting a good night sleep.
- Don’t forget to feed your brain
***I am (and also italki are) not nutrition expert(s), so this is for your information only. Seek appropriate advice from appropriately -trained and trustworthy health professionals.***
Do you know that a drop in blood glucose can reduce your ability to concentrate and form new memories? For effective learning, make sure your brain has a stable supply of its favourite fuel - glucose. Eat regularly and include complex carbohydrates, (e.g. whole-grain bread, starchy vegetables such as potatoes) and protein in your diet. Omega fatty acids, which are present in some fish, may also help contribute to improving concentration and learning ability.
- Exercise to boost your memory
I’ve saved the best one for last. While ‘brain training’ has been debunked recently, there is one type of exercise that undoubtedly improves memory, learning and other cognitive skills.
It’s good old physical exercise.
Yes, anything from walking, through running and even dancing, can boost your memory and other cognitive skills. 30 minutes 2-3 times per week can do the trick. Always check with your doctor on what type and how much exercise is suitable for you.
Strategy 3) Manage your mind to keep on track
Boredom and monotony of study sessions often lead to distractions and procrastination, so break through it to keep your mind on track.
- Make your sessions fun
Use visual aids - writing irregular verbs with coloured pens, or drawing funny pictures to remember tricky idioms can work well here.
Keep it short and sweet - remember to take breaks.
Add variety to your sessions - e.g. Try studying in a different spot, or use another studying tool.
- Hack your memory with this little secret
Emotions can enhance your ability to remember. Your brain treats any information ‘tagged’ with emotion as a special case making it stick better in your mind. Whether it’s happiness, anxiety, anger or excitement - all emotions can act as helpful triggers, as long as you stay in that sweet spot: of enough but not too much.
Take advantage of this evolutionary trick and hack your memory system using emotions to your advantage.
- Do something that makes you laugh or smile before your session.
- Use music to boost your mood.
- Use a looming deadline (e.g. set a timer) to break through a stalled session.
- Keep your thoughts in check
If you often find yourself distracted by your thoughts, here is a simple but effective system for managing all those ‘free-range thoughts’ that pop into your head when they should not...
Capture your thoughts by writing them down in a special notebook. Code them so you remember what’s that about and file - out of sight out of mind. Read more about this strategy here.
Strategy 4) Build a study routine for revisions
The fastest way to create effective vocabulary learning sessions is to put them on automatic pilot.
A good study routine, like any other habitual activities can save you a lot of energy and time - because it helps you just ‘get on with it’ without all that fuss around ‘motivating yourself’ and ‘getting ready to study’.
- How can you build a study routine?
Lukas Van Vyve, a polyglot and language coach from The Polyglot Life recommends to have your study routine divided between:
- Focused Study Time (e.g. vocabulary revision, grammar session).
- Exposure Time (when you use the language).
His approach is to keep your routine simple (by limiting the skills or material you use) and make sure it fits into your lifestyle. If you can only spend 10 minutes revising, spend 10 minutes. If the only place you can do it is on the train on your way to work - so be it.
The easier your routine is, the more likely you are to stick to it. And the more you stick to it, the easier it becomes, and the faster you learn.
If you’re struggling to retain vocabulary, despite long hours put into your revisions sessions, look at your ability to focus. Assess your study environment, check how well your body is doing, and manage your mind. Dare to try any of the strategies described above.
If you don’t have time or energy to make big changes, start with something small. If you’re really serious about language learning, invest time and energy into creating a robust study routine. It does not have to be hard or complicated - keep it simple and fit it into your lifestyle.
Even small changes can really have positive effects on your learning process, vocabulary retention and finally - on your ability to speak the language of your dreams. Go and try the tips from this post and see your focus, along with your ability to learn, both take off.