Why and how did learning Russian changed our perspective about learning a second language?

Today’s topic is actually “how to memorize words efficiently”, a topic you probably find extremely relevant while learning Hebrew. Whether you’re about to study Hebrew or you are already in the process of studying Hebrew, you probably notice that most of the words in Hebrew don’t resemble words from your language, unless your native language is Arabic. Unlike learning Spanish or Italian for French speakers, or German for English speakers, Hebrew’s set of sounds and roots is completely different than what you are used to, which makes it harder to memorize.

All of the teachers at the Ulpan had to face the exact problem while learning Russian. All of the teachers at Ulpan Bayit are always engaged in learning a new language, and our goal with Russian was to understand how does it feel to be a student that has to learn a different alphabet and a language so different than ours. Not to mention that the words in Russian are probably strange for us just as words in Hebrew are strange for you. So the first problem we faced was how do we learn these words from lesson to lesson (our Russian teacher Alla was a lot less patient with us than how we are with you, trust me).

We started to do some research and pretty soon we surprised Alla with a pretty decent vocabulary – knowing each and every word she asked us to. Yes – we found a technique. Let me introduce what I find to be two complementary and equally important techniques: Association and Repetition. You can’t have one without the other. Here is how to do it:

Step 1: Make yourself a list of words you need to learn and their meaning. Write it by hand, in a column, and leave a couple of lines between the words. Dedicate a special notebook for that if you can.

Step 2: Transcribe the words – next to each word write it phonetically. Separate the syllables (those are the “chunks” that a word breaks into when you say it). For example: לבקר – to visit – le-va-ker

Step 3: Try to see a meaning in the syllables – one by one or together. Maybe they resemble a name of someone you know? Maybe it’s a word in your language? Maybe it’s a word in a foreign language you happen to know? Maybe it’s what you say when you are surprised? And maybe it rhymes with something? And if it doesn’t work with the syllables try to change the vowels or to break the syllables. It doesn’t really matter.

Step 4: Build a complex/strange/interesting/real/fantasy story that combines the associations and the meaning. Write it down.

Here is an example made by one of our students at the Ulpan called Adam. What Adam did was to take the word לבקר – le-va-ker – to visit, and split it into two words: Lev, which for him reminded of a friend called Lev (a Russian name) and care (ker). So he built a story about some argument he had with this Lev guy when he was sick and expected a visit. Adam didn’t visit him, and Lev yelled at him that he doesn’t care about him, and that he is not a real friend. “Lev cares, you don’t care” he shouted. It’s a strange unreal story, but it has all the elements that made Adam remember it. Pay attention that the story is PERSONAL, and it can be as bizarre as you wish – the more it is the higher the chance you’ll remember the word eventually.

Now that you have done the tedious job with each and every word, you can actually say you LEARNED the words. Sometimes you’ll face hard time associating so here is a really COOL advice: take your smartphone and start dictating. Just say the words you want to learn in Hebrew and see what comes out. Google will probably find some cool associations for you (I got liver care with levaker). Now there is a second part and equally important remember? Introducing Repetition.

In the 1930’s some psychologists invented something called “spaced repetition”. It incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect. Many applications use an algorithm based on this concept – our favorite is the free app called Anki (AnkiDroid, AnkiWeb or AnkiApp). It’s the simplest app that allows you to create decks of flashcards. You should add words and their meaning and do a daily memory workout with the app. The concept is that every day you’ll face different words that are in your deck, the app asks you for feedback and decides which cards to show you according to the score you received on previous sessions. It’s very efficient as the main consequence is that every time you practice you only have to do a certain amount of words, and not your entire vocabulary, and the set you practice is decided according to your knowledge. It tries to guess when you will forget the word, and ask it a few days before you actually forget it. Genius. So simple. So genius.

Once you combine those two you are guaranteed to expand your vocabulary immensely: learn the words through bizarre stories, add them to your app, practice daily. Soon you’ll have a great vocabulary to start using! Good luck!

Next time we’ll discuss how to practice sentence building – so stay tuned!

Until next time,

Link to all of the current August-September Courses: https://ulpan.co.il/summer-courses/

Link to anki: https://apps.ankiweb.net/

Link to the post about why we started learning Russian