Don’t Forget What You Just Learned – The Role of Memory in Vocabulary Acquisition

June 17, 2013


The previous article laid out the complex nature of vocabulary acquisition: new words are not learned instantly, but through a multi-stage, incremental process which normally proceeds from receptive to productive vocabulary knowledge.

The first stages of this process are essential: learning the correct spelling and pronunciation and the precise meaning(s) of a word builds a solid foundation for your language skills as a whole. But the next step can be defined as critical: if a learner is not able to memorize this newly-learned information, the ultimate goal, i.e. learning a new word permanently, will not be reached. In the following, we will explore the role of memory in vocabulary acquisition process in more detail, with the fact that committing of information to memory lies at the very heart of learning as a starting point (1).

Levels of memory

First we should briefly define the different elements of memory that are involved in the memorization process. The following classic, three-component model of memory is widely accepted in psychology (2):

(1) Sensory memory. When we first see or hear a new word, this perception of incoming information enters through our sensory memory. It can only hold information for less than a second, in fact, just enough to move the information to (2) working memory (also called short-term memory), which is considered the primary component of language processing and of learning in general. It controls the information coming from the sensory system and processes it for long-term storage, as well as retrieves information from long-term memory. Its duration and capacity are limited: it can only hold material for about twenty seconds and no more than roughly seven items at a time. (3) Long-term memory, in turn, has unlimited capacity: it contains all our knowledge and is much more stable than working memory. If a piece of information is successfully transferred to long-term memory, it will be remembered for a long time.


Words are easily forgotten

In an ideal situation, a new word, perceived through the sensory system, passes permanently to the brain’s long-term storage after being properly processed in the working memory. Unfortunately, it is estimated that up to 80 % of material is lost within 24 hours of initial learning (3).

Most of this forgetting happens right after the end of a learning session, but, although the rate of forgetting decreases after this first ”major loss”, the bad news is that forgetting may also occur with words stored in the long-term memory. (4) This forgetting, called attrition, has to do with some of key characteristics of vocabulary knowledge itself, analyzed in our last article: knowing a word is not a yes-or-no issue, but rather a continuum where the depth of the knowledge varies significantly. Words that are only known in a receptive manner are logically more easily forgotten. Lastly, it also seems that vocabulary knowledge in general is more likely to be forgotten than other rule-based linguistic aspects like grammar (4).

So what can be done to avoid forgetting?

As words are easy to forget, it is vital for language learning to find and exploit strategies that make the embedding of vocabulary in the memory firmer and long-lasting. Thornbury (3) has brought together, on the basis of relevant research results, an extensive list of principles that should be followed in order to improve the changes of long-term retention. We will share with you the first six of these propositions, which are, in our view, also the most substantial ones:

Repetition. Multiple encounters with a word are needed for making the learned item permanently remembered. Repetition becomes even more effective if it is done in spaced intervals while gradually increasing the space between these repetitions.

Retrieval. When a learner has to retrieve a word, e.g. use a new word in a written sentence, it makes the word much easier to recall in the future.

Spacing. Memory advantage is gained if the learning happens in several separate occasions.

Pacing. Better results are obtained if the language learners’ individual learning style and pace are respected and they are given enough time to carry out the required memory processing.

Use. Using words is the best way of ensuring they are properly added to long-term memory. This can be called the “Use It or Lose It” principle.

Cognitive depth. Words are better remembered when a learner has to make decisions about them (e.g. think about the spelling) –  the more cognitively demanding these decisions are, the better the results.


To summarize, learned words need to be rehearsed and revised to be remembered permanently. Simple repetition is an effective way to maintain the information in memory, but in order to transfer it to the long-term storage, it becomes increasingly important that they are also rehearsed properly, which deepens the level of their processing (5).

In this and the previous article, we have been examining the way new words are acquired in second and foreign language learning. The outcome is that increasing your vocabulary successfully is anything but an easy task, but also that there are ways to make this process more effective and effortless. Next month we will take more practical approach to the matter and, by summarizing the things we have learned in the first three part of this article series, outline some ideal teaching and learning strategies for vocabulary instruction.

Thank you for reading and happy language learning!


WordDive team

References and Further Reading:

(1) Kersten, Saskia (2010). The Mental Lexicon and Vocabulary Learning: Implications for the Foreign Language Classroom. Tübingen: Narr.

(2) Lefrançois, Guy R. (2006). Theories of Human Learning. What the old woman said. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth.

(3) Thornbury, Scott (2002). How to teach vocabulary. Harlow: Longman.

(4) Schmitt, Norbert (2000). Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.

(5) Goldstein, E. Bruce (2008). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience. London: Thomson Wadsworth.

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1 Comment

  • Reply How to Acquire Vocabulary | lingholic December 24, 2013 at 00:28

    […] which is designed to re-expose us to the word just at the point where we’d be likely to forget […]

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