Learning new vocabulary is one of those things you simply can’t do without when acquiring a foreign language. It’s impossible to speak, write, or understand anything without knowing the words, isn’t it? And that presents a big problem for many older language learners, who struggle with committing new vocabulary items to memory. While it does get harder remembering new words as you get older, there are some steps you can take to help you along the way. And you certainly shouldn’t give up on learning your target language, especially because being bilingual itself is a proven way of keeping your memory good and brain healthy.
This is the first part of our two-part blog post. In this one, we’re taking a look at some adjustments you might want to do to your language learning process in order to memorise words better. In the second part, which you can find here, we’ll introduce some general tips for keeping your memory fit even as you get older.
Finding the right strategies
It’s important to realise that age-related memory loss can start as early as in your 40s, although it’s more common in people over 65. That, of course, doesn’t mean that everyone affected by this change is automatically unwell. Losing brain plasticity is a completely normal sign of the accumulating years. However, it does mean that after you reach a certain age, you might need to work a bit harder to acquire new languages. The good news is that if you’ve spent some time doing the same in your youth, research shows that you will have an easier time picking up a foreign language in the later years.
But even if you haven’t, there are still plenty of ways you can make language learning work for you. It might take a while to find a combination of strategies that suit you, so you should try out a couple and see what fits. As ever, it’s important to make the language learning process enjoyable, so that you find it easy to stick to.
Learn vocabulary that interests you, in context
Word lists might still be a valued learning technique in foreign language classrooms around the world, but if your memory is not as good as it used to be, it might be better to try something different. The problem with word lists is that they present the vocabulary out of context, making it a lot harder to memorise. With enough practice, it’s surely doable, but becomes harder the older you get.
Instead, start focusing on new words in areas that interest you: concentrate more on learning vocabulary related to your hobbies, family, favourite media, and so on. Stuff that you’re happy to learn and talk about. Keeping your interest and getting emotionally invested in what you’re learning is key to your success here. When you’re young, it can seem easy to simply soak up new vocabulary, but as learning gets more time-consuming, it becomes more important to focus on the parts that actually matter to you, helping you stay motivated in your learning process.
Slow down and create structure
Which brings us to the second point. It might seem counterintuitive to slow down your learning process in order to acquire more, but it will help you in the long run. Research shows that one of the things hit by ageing is the ability to pay attention. Because of that, you should compensate by making an extra effort to concentrate on what you’re learning.
For example, reading is one of the best ways to learn vocabulary in context. Choose a magazine on a topic you’re already interested in and you’re good to go. But don’t go too fast. Instead of skimming the words on the page, make an extra effort to mark new vocabulary items. This type of intensive reading might be boring but it will help you retain new information a lot more. Really tune in on the meaning of what you’re reading and the context new words appear in to get the most out of your time.
Another thing related to improving your concentration is creating a fixed learning schedule. Make your own language learning routine, choosing times when you know you won’t get disturbed by other people or errands that need running. Your brain needs time to encode and store new memories, but tuning out distractions becomes increasingly difficult as you get older. Having a concrete schedule you can stick to will create structure and organisation, helping you limit the negative effects of interruptions. A stable learning routine will also give you plenty of chances for revision – another tactic successful language learners swear by.
Focus on one thing at once
With concentration in limited supply, don’t try to multitask your way to fluency. When reading, just read and, if you do get distracted, return to the same point and continue from there. If you want to write out new words to memorise them, just go over the text again and don’t forget to include some context for new vocabulary. But do these things in turn, instead of switching from one task to the other.
You could also try combining this tip with the first one. That means you should learn vocabulary while focusing on one specific topic at once. Instead of jumping from words for body parts to gardening to family members, choose an area and dedicate time to learning not only lone vocabulary items but also larger chunks of language. Focusing on phrases (or parts of phrases) can, again, provide more context and also help you start using the language.
In general, it’s a good idea to be mindful of the whole process of learning. Pay special attention to which strategies work for you in order to create a custom system for yourself.
Conclusion – Try different strategies to compensate for ageing
As the brain gets older, it gets more difficult to commit new things to memory. While this is a completely natural process, it can be frustrating when you’re trying to learn a new language. So, in order to compensate, try out different strategies for learning and figure out what works for you. You can experiment with slowing down your learning, focusing on a single aspect of language, and creating a structure of learning for yourself.
In the second part of this blog post, we’ll take a look at more general things you can do to improve your memory as you get older.