Dear Language Nerd,
You’re learning Turkish faster than me and it’s pissing me off. How can I learn it faster when my memory is so bad?
Your Roommate, Sal
No worries, roomie, here are my rad tips for vocabulary learnin’. Today, we’ll focus on vocab, not grammar or politeness or other fancy bits, because what’s gonna get your belly full, being able to say “Would you mind getting me a ___” or being able to say “hamburger”? Once you’ve got chunks of vocab to work with, you can worry about putting them together nicely.
But first off, some good news: learning languages strengthens your brain. Well, at least, it changes your brain, and we’re ready to guess that it’s for the better (scientists are still looking at what the exact changes are, but then, scientists rarely seem to finish anything). If you keep at it, not only will your memory and skill in Turkish improve, but you might be able to remember everything better.
Second off, I know you well enough to know that your memory is not particularly bad. You’re far more on top of things than me in actual-useful-life-stuff (I occasionally get caught up reading The Language Log and forget to eat, which puts me squarely in absent-minded professor territory). Your memory is excellent for the things that are important to you – I’ve seen you re-enact entire episodes of Friends with zero prep time. So don’t be negative about your memory. All we need to do is make learning Turkish important. Which takes us straight into tip #1…
1. Use it. Make Turkish relevant. In language classes, we tend to emphasize the overarching, philosophical reasons to study languages – languages are beautiful! Languages broaden your horizons! Languages connect you to new cultures! And this is great, especially for the people like me who really do find languages fascinating in and of themselves. But for the other 90% of the population, it’s not enough.* I know you’ve learned languages before. You picked up French, for example, when most of your friends spoke it, and that tells us what we need to do here – make it practical. Find the bits of language that come up often: things that our coworkers say, stuff we need to ask about at the store, getting directions, the mysterious questions the students are always pummeling us with. You’re the most extroverted person I’ve ever met – if you were in a situation where no one spoke English at all, and you had to speak Turkish to meet people, you’d start picking it up pretty fast! Nose around and find somewhere that only Turkish-speaking Turks frequent, and let your sociable nature lead you.
2. Get it in several ways. A word you’ve only heard, even if you’ve heard it several times, is likely to get lost in the language shuffle. Repetition is good (see next point), but it’s not enough. If you hear it, see it, say it, write it, think about it, and just generally interact with it, you’ve got a much better chance of hanging on to it. So do a few different things – read the Turkish book we’ve got lying around, listen to a podcast or two with the same vocabulary, and then practice it with the people around us.
3. Repeat it at reasonable intervals. Surely you’ve had those students that decide they’re going to learn all of English by writing every damn word in the dictionary 1,000 times. How often are these your best students?
…not often, is my guess. Repetition is important, but repeating a word you already know is a waste of time, and repeating a word you don’t know a dozen times in a row might not help you when you actually need it three days later. Much better is what’s called spaced repetition – repeating words often enough to keep them in your mind, but not so often that you hate life. In Ye Olde Days, the poor plebeians had to do this by making stacks of notecards and keeping them in “once a day,” “once a week,” once a month” piles, but now we live In The Future and our handy machines will do this for us. The handy machine I use is Anki, which lets you get other people’s lists of words already available in their database or make your own list of the vocab you want, which brings us to…
4. Learn the vocabulary for topics you care about. I’ve learned the Turkish words for “books,” for “library,” and for “Dungeons and Dragons,” because in case you haven’t noticed I am a huge friggin’ nerd. Learn words for topics you care about. You’re not in school for this – the teacher’s not going to flunk you if you don’t memorize a list of the irregular verbs, so spend that brain power on vocabulary about soccer, or hot guys, or dogs, or dancing, or whatever you’ll be motivated to talk about. Some of the words are likely to be similar to their English counterparts, and you’ll have more motivation for talking with people. If you can link this with strategy #1 – go dancing with a non-English-speaking soccer team of hot guys who own dogs? — you’ll be in business.
5. Visualize it (style #1). Pick a set of vocabulary words. Let’s go with colors. Now pick a place you’re familiar with, like Taksim. Now shut your eyes (well, uh, read this first. Wait, I wrote that too late! Open your eyes!!) and imagine walking through that place, putting your vocab in. So you arrive there in a bright yellow dolmuş (which is like a super cheap bus, non-Sal readers). Look at the dolmuş, and put the word sarı “yellow” on it. Now turn around and start walking across the gri “grey” pavement. To your right is the infamous Gezi Park, a bright blotch of yeşil “green” against the dark backdrop. Keep walking, over to that awesome little food stand with the tiny hamburgers and their bright kırmızı “red” sign. You get the idea. Go slowly, and fix each word onto the area, and then walk back through when you’re trying to recall them. It doesn’t have to be somewhere from your own memory, either. Google Art Project has walkthroughs of museums, and this artist has drawn out the floor plans of houses in famous TV shows, both excellent places to stick some words.
6. Visualize it (style #2). Say you’re having trouble remembering the word for “friend,” arkadaş. Well, that sounds like ark-uh-dash, so first imagine your best friend ever (me, obviously) standing next to Noah’s ark. Oh no, it’s raining, the ark’s about to go, and I’m still standing around with my mouth hanging open, going “uhhhhh…” So I have to dash over there! Keep the picture in your head and label the parts. And the more gory, sexy, or ridiculous you make the image, the more memorable it’ll be.
This technique comes with a warning: it can tie you into remembering words with bad pronunciation. Some Turkish vowels are slightly different than their English counterparts, and some aren’t in English at all. If you remember the word önemli “important” as “standing on a very important girl named Em’ly,” that’s all well and good – except that the <ö> here doesn’t make the “o” sound that we make in English “on.” You’ll have the right idea and probably be able to recognize it in writing, but people might not understand you when you say it. So try other techniques first, and come back to this one if you’re really having trouble.
On the other hand, this is not an issue if you’re learning a symbol, which is why the Heisig method for remembering kanji is so handy for students of Japanese.
7. Explain it to someone else. I learned önemli just now, and I’m likely to remember it tomorrow because I not only learned it, but thought about the spelling and meaning long enough to write out an explanation to someone else. Same reason I was happy to get that question about the Turkish alphabet recently – I had to really learn it myself to be able to explain it to others. Learn some vocabulary I don’t know and teach it to me, or teach a few phrases to our other expat buddies.
8. Make it part of your everyday environment. Many people, mostly people who didn’t do well in high school languages classes, claim that you can’t learn a language if you’re not in the country where it’s spoken. While living in the country is great, and offers you incredible opportunities, I absolutely disagree on the larger point. In fact the converse is true – it’s very easy to live in a foreign country and not learn the language. Think of the expats who live in a country for ten years and barely speak a word. The larger world is not what matters; what matters is your immediate environment. Listen to Turkish music. Watch Turkish TV, even if you’re just leaving it on in the background. Write the Turkish words for household objects on postits and stick them around the house. Make Turkish friends and pester them. Whatever, just so long as you’re interacting with the language frequently, many times a day.
9. Take a class. There’s gotta be something around here, right?
The Language Nerd
*This is not a real statistic, I’m just quipping. Too optimistic?
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The greatest website for those interested in really pushing the all-important interact aspect is All Japanese All the Time. It’s a fantastic resource, and applicable to people learning other languages, too. This is also the guy who turned me on to Anki.
Info on Sal from, uh, Sal.
Notes on the memory palace method (building up a place), from the Mnemonic Wiki. Full of other great mnemonics, too!
Color words via the ever-handy Google translate. Yeah, I don’t know ‘em myself yet. Better get to building my own memory palace.