The art of vocabulary retention: 6 tips to making vocabulary sticks

Welcome back, learners!

Have you ever memorized lots of new words but then struggled to use them when you’re actually talking?

It’s like those words just disappear when you need them!

You’re definitely not alone in this experience—it’s a common challenge on the path to language fluency!

In today’s blog, we’re going to dive into this very issue. Why do those memorized words seem so elusive during real-life conversations? More crucially, we’ll share some effective strategies to help bridge that gap, ensuring that the words you learn are not just stored away but are ready and waiting to be used when the moment strikes!

Get ready to unlock the secret to not just knowing words, but actually using them fluently and confidently in your everyday chats!

Active vs passive vocabulary: what’s the difference?

When we dive into learning a new language, we’re not just collecting words; we’re building two distinct vocabularies: the active and the passive. 

Active vocabulary consists of words we’re comfortable with, ones we’ve used repeatedly in various contexts until they’ve become second nature. On the other hand, passive vocabulary words might be those we’ve encountered while reading or listening but haven’t practiced enough to use spontaneously in conversation.

The journey of language learning involves moving words from your passive vocabulary into your active vocabulary. It’s about getting comfortable with these words, giving them context, and practicing them until they’re ready to jump off your tongue in the flow of conversation!

In the next part of our blog, we’ll share some cool tips on how to do just that. So, stay tuned, and let’s get ready to make our vocabulary bigger and better!

1. Learn like a kid – immerse and imitate!

Remember how effortlessly you picked up your first language as a kid? 

You didn’t sit down to memorize grammar rules or vocabulary lists. Instead, you soaked up the language around you like a sponge. You listened, you copied, and before you knew it, you were chatting away!

This natural way of learning is powerful because it’s all about immersion. When you’re surrounded by a language, your brain starts to pick up patterns, sounds, and words, even if you’re not actively trying to. And when you imitate what you hear, you’re practicing those patterns in the most natural way possible.

You might not be a kid anymore, but you can still learn like one. Here’s how to create your own immersion experience:

  • Listen and repeat: Dive into audiobooks or podcasts in the language you’re learning. When you hear a phrase that catches your ear, pause and repeat it out loud.
  • Rewatch and relive: Pick a TV show or movie you love, and watch it in the new language. With familiar plots and characters, you’ll focus more on the language and less on trying to follow the story.
  • Mix reading with listening: If you’re reading a book, try finding the audiobook version too. Listen to a chapter, then read it, or vice versa. This combo helps reinforce the words and their pronunciation.

2. Learn in context

When we use words, we don’t usually use them all by themselves. They’re like pieces in a puzzle, fitting together with other words to tell a whole story. So, when you learn a new word, try to learn it in a sentence!

When you learn a new word within a phrase or sentence, you’re not just learning its meaning. You’re also seeing it in action, playing its role among other words. This gives you a much richer understanding of how to use that word when it’s your turn to speak.

Words often team up in specific ways (think “fast food” or “heavy rain”). When you learn words in context, you’ll start to notice these teams or collocations. Knowing that “priority” likes to hang out with “top,” “high,” or “make it a” (as in “make it a priority”) arms you with the combos that make your language sound more natural.

To really get this down, immerse yourself in real-life language through resources that use actual dialogues, like movies, TV shows, or language apps that feature real-world interactions. Seeing words live in natural settings helps them stick and makes it easier for you to pull them out when you need them!

3. Forge emotional connections

Ever notice how some memories stick because they made you feel something strong or painted a vivid picture in your mind? That’s a secret trick our brains love, and it works wonders for learning new words too!

Think about the things you really enjoy – maybe it’s a cool TV show, a thrilling book, or a hobby that makes you happy. Using words from these fun parts of your life helps you remember them better! For instance,if you learn the word “courage” while watching a superhero save the day, that word becomes a hero in your memory too!

Moreover, our brains love visuals. Try to picture each new word in a vivid image or scene. If you’re learning “serenity,” don’t just memorize it—visualize a tranquil scene that embodies the word. This mental picture becomes a hook that keeps the word readily accessible in your memory!

And don’t underestimate the power of emotions. Words learned during emotional highs and lows, or those that resonate with your personal experiences, tend to form deeper roots in our memory. So, the next time you come across a new word, tie it to a personal memory or feeling. For instance, connect “euphoria” to a memory of pure happiness, and it becomes more than a word; it becomes a part of your story!

4. Use it or lose it

Now, let’s talk about putting those words into action!

Start simple. Why not weave new words into your daily tasks? Label things around your house with their names in the language you’re learning, or switch your phone’s language setting. 

Keep a journal in the language you’re learning, and try writing about your day, your dreams, or anything that sparks your interest. Don’t worry about making it perfect; it’s all about getting comfortable with the words!

Engage online in the language you’re learning. Whether it’s commenting on a post or joining a discussion, each word you type builds your confidence. And if you’re feeling bold, strike up conversations with language partners or even practice speaking aloud when you’re alone. Narrate your actions, talk about your meals, or discuss your plans for the day—all in English!

By actively using new vocabulary in these small but meaningful ways, you’re not just memorizing words; you’re breathing life into them. Every word used is a step closer to fluency, transforming passive knowledge into active skill!

5. Share your knowledge

There’s a saying that goes, “To teach is to learn twice.” And it hits right at the heart of language learning!

Imagine you’ve just learned a cool new expression. Now, think about how you’d explain it to a friend. You’d probably think about it more carefully, right? You’d want to make sure they understand, so you’d find clear examples and maybe even come up with a little story to make it stick. This isn’t just helpful for your friend; it solidifies your grasp on the word, embedding it into your memory!

And there’s something special about learning with others. It’s fun, it’s friendly, and it makes those words and phrases more than just sounds or letters. They become part of your shared laughs, high fives, and maybe even your inside jokes. That emotional touch is like a super glue for your memory!

So, next time you learn something new, don’t keep it to yourself. Share it, teach it, and watch how it helps both you and your friends grow in your adventure to fluency!

6. Engage in active recall regularly

Active recall isn’t just a study technique; it’s a daily habit that can transform the way you learn and use new words. By challenging yourself to recall words and their meanings regularly, you’re giving your brain a workout that builds strong, lasting connections!

Incorporate a bit of active recall into each day. You could set aside a few minutes every morning or evening to mentally review the words you’ve encountered recently. Challenge yourself: Can you recall their meanings? Even better, can you craft a sentence with each word?

But why stop at daily? Make it a point, once a week, to look back over all the words you’ve learned. Mix it up with words from the past week and older ones you haven’t revisited in a while. This way, you ensure no word gets left behind, forgotten in the corners of your memory.

Now, here’s the creative part: during these recall sessions, challenge yourself to craft sentences with these words. But don’t just make any sentences—create ones that you could see yourself using in real-life situations or that relate to your interests. This approach makes the recall process more engaging and personal, turning abstract words into living, breathing parts of your everyday language.

In essence active recall transforms passive absorption into an engaging mental workout. Each time you successfully recall a word, you’re not just remembering it; you’re reinforcing the neural pathways that make that word more accessible to you in the future!


And that’s it, folks!

From embracing the curiosity of a child to diving deep into the contexts that give words their color, from connecting emotionally with what you learn to actively using and teaching these words, and finally, to making active recall a part of your daily life – the journey of English learning sure is an exciting one!

So, take these tips and make them your own. Experiment, explore, and most importantly, enjoy the process!

Happy learning!

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IELC Academic Director