Help! I want to help my students master English but they find it so hard to memorise so many new words!

Are their brains full of holes? Why do they leak words?

No, despite what you may think, their brains are not sieves. Neither is the plug missing. However the brain is a very mysterious thing. You can shovel words in, make a concentrated effort to remember them, and then the moment you turn your back — pouff, they've gone. Vanished without trace. Not even a lingering syllable is left behind. So much for those long vocabulary lists.  They're a painful waste of time!

Why learning new words is so difficult

What is it with learning new words? We all know that to be proficient in a language you need to learn a lot of them. And they need to be readily and reliably available at short notice, in sufficient varieties to build sentences without thinking too hard. 

However for many people the struggle to learn and retain new words in a language other than their mother tongue, is very difficult. The reason for that is not anything to do with having a brain like a sieve! Native speakers of English can learn new English words very easily — because they have a deep intuitive knowledge of the complex rules which govern how sounds fit together to make "English sounding" words. Foreign students learning English simply do not know these rules and find it difficult to memorise new words.

How we learn new words

To learn new words we look, or listen, for similarities - patterns, sequences of sounds we already know.

We take a word, for instance “idiosyncratic”, break it into chunks (syllables) that we already know and then remember their sequence - idiosyncrat ic.

Because we already know how idio, syn, crat, and ic sound through having met them before in other words, (eg. idiot, synthetic, aristocrat, arctic), adding this new word to our vocabulary and remembering how it sounds it is not difficult. It is more likely to stick because its component parts are already familiar.

This system works perfectly — in our own language. Unfortunately it's not so useful when we come to learn words in a new one.

The problem with the way we learn

If I am a native English speaker attempting to learn Russian then my prior knowledge of the sequence of English sounds in words is about as useful as a thick winter coat in the tropics.

Take the Russian word "zdravstvuitje". It means hello. But how does one remember it? Little of "zdravstvuitje" is familiar. Its even hard to tell where the syllables start and end. An English speaker has nothing stored in the memory to help string its components together to memorise it as a whole word so that it can be recognised the next time it is heard.

And that is the heart of the challenge faced by your students who want to master English.

Until the student is able to remember the sequence of sounds that make up a particular word there is little point in further confusing their brain with additional information about what that word means. It will literally go in one ear and out the other because there is no inbuilt hook to catch and hold it in the memory.

The most important first step

The most important first step a student can take to help themselves on their language learning journey is to learn how to remember the words. That means learning to recognise the more common sound sequences that occur in their target language but which don't occur in their native language.

It also means giving up any attempt to apply the knowledge of their mother tongue to that language. A Hungarian or Chinese person can not learn how to remember English words the same way they add new words to their vocabulary in their native tongue.

Chunking to learn complex tasks

We all learn complex tasks by “chunking”* smaller sub-components together. Learning how to change gear and use the clutch simultaneously seems like an impossible task to a beginner learning to drive. Soon enough, however, after some practice, dozens of small muscle movements coalesce into one smooth, coordinated action which requires no conscious thought. This is chunking.  

Learning a new word is also complex task. To learn the phonological form (the "sound shape") of a new English word, so that we can recognise it the next time we hear it, we have to string its various components together. But this presumes that we already know the sub-components such as syllables and can process each one within microseconds! If we have no feeling for how English syllables are constructed and how they combine to form new words, the brain simply cannot (and does not) process the new word properly. The truth is that if you cannot even hear a word clearly, it is very difficult to create a memory of it!

Recognising phonological form (sound shape)

If a foreign learner of English is faced with learning the word "idiosyncratic", her brain will quickly pick it up and remember it the next time she hears it if it already recognises that "-ic" commonly comes at the ends of words, and that "idio" and "syn" and "crat" are common combinations of sounds in English.

Once students have learned the most common "building blocks" (i.e. pre-chunked sequences of sounds) they can instantly memorise new words by chunking them together.

The ability to “chunk” enables us to build vocabulary. It's a two step process. First we remember and recognise the commonest sound combinations (syllables) of a language, and then we remember the unique order of sound sequences (syllables) that make up each specific word.

Speed up the learning process  for students

If you want to speed the process of learning English, and help your students avoid a lot of painful frustration, you can help them make friends with the most commonly used sound combinations in English. Learning to recall what a word means is so much easier when the task of memorising its phonological form is reduced to an instant, automatic, intuitive process.

This is the goal of our  iPhone app English DNA. It presents English words that your student is unlikely to know, but which contain all the most common syllables in the English language. The app trains the student to recognise them at increasingly faster speeds until his or her brain is able to process them at a speed comparable to a native speaker's. At that point, learners will be able to hear all the components of new English words on first hearing them and string them together – just like a native speaker does!

Help your students break through the barrier of English's unique sound structure and then watch them quickly build a powerful vocabulary with English DNA.


*"Chunking refers to an approach for making more efficient use of short-term memory by grouping information. Chunking breaks up long strings of information into units or chunks. The resulting chunks are easier to commit to memory than a longer uninterrupted string of information." See: