How to remember English vocabulary

Most of you have kept a notebook with all the new words noted down in alphabetical order. Some have carried the famous five-word list* around with them, to revise during coffee breaks. The most resolute of you have even labelled every object in the house with the English word for it — and then stopped inviting friends over.

But despite all these ingenious strategies, the biggest struggle all of you face in learning English is retaining vocabulary. You know these words, but whenever you need them — puff! — they’ve disappeared to the pub with their phones off. Totally unreliable.

I know how you feel. Been there, done that**.

The truth is: your brain is essentially lazy. It’s that person in the office you ask: ‘Can you make me 10 copies of this, please?’ and they say ‘sure’ and then spend the rest of the day on Facebook.

Except, unfortunately, you can’t fire your brain.

So it’s not surprising that, soon enough, you forget your five-word list on the bus, Buddy eats your precious notebook and you simply stop seeing the labels you’ve scattered all around the house. And then invite your friend Pablo for tea.

Pablo: ‘You okay, mate?’

You: ‘Sure, why?’

Pablo: ‘There’s a label on this cup of tea saying… well, “cup of tea”’.

You: ‘Oh, that… Sorry. I forgot about it’.

The first result is that Pablo leaves immediately and goes tell everybody you’ve gone mad.

The second one, however, is that you will never forget how to say ‘cup of tea’ in English.

Because this, my friend, is exactly how the mind works. It feeds on memories. From now on, your brain will remember what happened that day with Pablo — and it will never let you label a cup of tea again.

Now, even though this system works particularly well with embarrassing episodes (such as my ‘baked beans’ mispronunciation trauma), the good news is that you can use it with happy memories as well.

The first time I tried it, it was by accident. I was sitting among the fallen leaves in Green Park. It was a golden Sunday morning and my friend Giulia and I were soaking up the sun before the October rain came to ruin our picnic.

All of the sudden, a small white dog started running towards us. It was a happy, friendly dog, but its hair was a total mess and it had orange-brown leaves stuck all over its coat.

‘’What a scruffy dog!’ my friend laughed.

Scruffy, I thought. I had never heard that word before, but looking at that cute little creature I could see exactly what she meant.

It’s really scruffy’, I repeated, while my brain saved this memory. And to this day, I’ve never forgotten the word ‘scruffy’ once.

Not bad, right?

Hey, wait …

What are you doing?

S-seriously?

Oh, come on. Take that label off Buddy now. I mean it!


*You know, that list where you write five new words every day and try to learn them? No? Never mind…

**Except the labelling bit. Mum didn’t approve.