I learned most of my French vocabulary by cutting up pieces of paper or cardboard, writing the English on one side and the target language on the other, then placing ten of them English side down to see if I recognised the meanings. If I did, I would turn that card over but continue to try to get the others right. I was very strict, in fact I was absolutely ruthless. If I couldn’t remember, or the meaning wasn’t exactly correct, the card stayed face up on the table. The position of each card on the table or floor, wherever I was working, would help me to “see” the meaning in my brain.
Once I was confident that I understood all ten words, I would turn them over and begin the more difficult task of saying the French word aloud (with gender, in the case of nouns), and visualising its spelling. Again, only when I really knew all ten words would I consider them “learned”. I would repeat this process several times that day, using the same set of words, and the following day I would add another ten, so that by the end of the week I was working with seventy cards.
At this stage, I would select any that had caused me problems but put the others away in a box. The difficult words would be added to my new words for the first day of the next week. At the end of that week, I would open my box and test myself on all the vocabulary. Anything that caused me hesitation stayed out to be practised again over the following week. When a box was full, I might leave it for a month before revising its contents.
Before an exam, I had a ready-made fast and convenient revision system using these boxes, but the words were already in my head. I found the physical process of writing vocabulary out useful, while the frequent repetition over days and weeks combined the advantages of intensive and slow learning. Once I had completed the initial learning process, I would shuffle the cards to find out whether I had really memorised the meaning, or was simply remembering a word in the order it came on the table. I learned thousands of words in this way and used the same method for all my languages. I often found myself in an exam room, thinking of a word I wanted and “seeing” it lying on the table, top right, next to “le gazon – the mown lawn”.
If this all sounds challenging or tedious, I should admit that sometimes I gave myself a reward for completing a set of words. It was a game I was playing against myself, so why shouldn’t I win sometimes?
These days there are plenty of apps available to speed up vocabulary learning and make it easier, but the principle of repetition remains. I discovered, through all this memorising, that I was the only person who could learn the language for me. It didn’t matter whether I had an inspirational teacher or one who was bored with their job and therefore incompetent, and over the years I had a number of both. In the end, if I wanted to acquire a language, I had to learn it. Some people have photographic memories. I don’t. So committing vocabulary to memory played a large part in my language acquisition.
Another way of looking at repetition is “use”. Using the language on a daily basis, in genuine real-life situations, is the only way to achieve confidence and fluency. My breakthrough moments usually came when I spent time in a country and used the language naturally. But you may not have the opportunity to visit an English-speaking country and experience that kind of immersion. So what can you do?
If you’re using my “vocabulary card” method, or a similar app, to memorise words, phrases or points of grammar, try this. Once you’ve mastered a particular word or expression, put it into a sentence and say the sentence aloud. If you need help with a particular verb form, write out an example from a book or app you’re using, so you have a correct structure to memorise, but make sure it’s one that’s relevant to you. Then add it to your pile of cards and you’ll find that soon you are using that structure without hesitation. To make this even more effective, try changing one word in the sentence each time you look at it. Make sure it still makes sense! If possible, write out three different versions of each sentence when you’ve been working on a new structure.
Obviously, we don’t learn a language so we can play with words from a box. We want to communicate. First, we have to understand others. So read, as widely as you can. Read books for babies, young children, comics, school books your children are using, news stories, technical journals you need for your profession, novels that may seem too difficult but that inspire you to learn more … read everything.
If you find a sentence or a paragraph you particularly like when you are reading, memorise it. Say it with passion, if that’s appropriate. Stand up and use gesture, if it helps you to remember the words. Using audiobooks [link] is a good way to make sure your pronunciation and intonation is correct.
One benefit of those audiobooks is that you get your listening and reading done at the same time. Good news for a busy person! But there are a lot of listening choices out there. If you watch films, television programmes (documentaries are easier than comedies), or TED talks, remember not to use subtitles. Concentrate on the English you’re listening to and the visual clues from the screen. The more you do, the easier it will get, I promise. If you can listen to BBC Radio 4 for several hours a day, your understanding will improve very quickly. In addition, your speaking will get better. What a bonus!
Now, back to those sentences. Use them in your writing. If you don’t have to write English for work, school or college, and you don’t have English-speaking friends you can write to, start writing creatively. Poetry, short stories, articles, be imaginative. All that vocabulary you’ve learned, now you can really start playing with it. Keep a diary in English. It will help prepare you for the conversations you’ll have one day, when people ask “What did you at the weekend?”
Conversations! Yes, I’ve reached the fun part, where you speak to real live people. Well, maybe not at first, because, as I said earlier, you might not know any English speakers. Begin by talking to yourself. Literally. When I memorised vocabulary, an important part of the process was saying the words aloud. As you work on phrases and sentences, try saying them, with feeling and expression, to anybody who’s around at home, the cat, your children, the pigeon on the windowsill…
The beauty of ear buds is that nowadays we are unsurprised when people appear to be talking to themselves in the street. We assume they are using Whatsapp. That’s your cover. Put some headphones on and nobody will notice you’re holding a conversation with yourself. On the street, on the train, while jogging, practise the conversation you would be having if you were in an English-speaking country. “Look at that amazing building!” or “I’m on my way to a meeting with our marketing team”. If you’re more comfortable holding those conversations in your head, that’s fine. But do speak aloud whenever you can.
Real people are the best source of practice. Look for social groups or language exchanges but if you can, find a good one-to-one tutor. There are many online choices so you’ll be able to arrange a timetable that suits you. Before you know it, you’ll be an English speaker and you won’t think twice about saying so. Enjoy the journey!