I’m pretty sure it has happened to you. You’ve seen Italian words in your books, heard them, or even memorized them. Thinking that you got them. That you can move on now. Then you go and join your next conversation and… they’re all gone. How so?
And it’s almost the story of your life: there are so many words that you know, but you don’t know how to say them. So easy to spot and so hard to take out. Why is this even happening? Let’s go and find out.
Why do you forget your words?
Let’s start with a necessary clarification: recognizing a word and knowing how to use it are two different experiences. When you’re using a word, you are making an extra effort. You’re thinking about it and you’re thinking about how, when, and where to use it. The level of attention and engagement is a lot higher compared to when you just see or hear a word. This is why you can’t use (yet) a lot of words that you can easily spot: you haven’t made that extra effort yet.
So, if you want to be able to remember your words when you speak Italian, some extra work will be necessary. But that work is there for a reason: it’s an invaluable tool to make your words become more and more automatic over time. In other words, it will help your words (pun not intended) reach your long-term memory.
What can you do to use the words that you know?
If you think that you can’t remember your words because there is something wrong with you… well, allow me to prove you wrong. There are strategies and techniques that can help you remember words, expressions, idioms… and allow you to use them when you speak Italian. So, without any further ado, here they are.
A first great technique is to connect your word (or words) to a vivid image that you can picture in your mind. For example, if you’re learning the word parcheggio (parking lot), how can you picture this parcheggio? What can you see in there? What can you smell? Is it a free parcheggio or a paid one? Where is it? By your house? By your friend’s house? By your kids’ school? Make sure you picture something that comes from your day-to-day life and experience. It has to be vivid and relevant to you. You can also connect your words to other words that you already know, both in Italian and in your language, as long as this connection helps you remember. Don’t forget that strong emotions help you remember too.
Did I say that, if you want to use your words, you have to start… using them? That’s right. There has to be a starting point somehow. And writing sentences is a great place to start. If you want to remember a single word, you can just write sentences with that word, but if you want to remember more than one word, you can even write a short story with your new words. We will see in the next step that repetition and revision are some of your best allies, but remember to not repeat too much. Four times is already a good standard.
Schedule some revision time
And here we are! When you revise your words, you remember them more. No doubt about it. But there’s something that you really need to include in your revision time, and it’s spaced repetition. How? Schedule your first revision time 24 hours after you’ve studied your words. Then schedule another revision moment 24 hours after the first one. And so on. You see, forgetting a word after a first contact is absolutely normal for our brain. But revising it at regular intervals helps you remember it for a longer period of time. And, contrary to what you might think, the effort that you make to remember your word is what helps you remember it more effectively. Surprised?
Again, an extra mental effort helps you remember more. We often think that, if we don’t remember something straight away, we will never remember it. But, of course, we’re wrong. Learning takes time. Learning something deeply takes time. And this is what you want, right? If you want to be able to ditch your online dictionary once and for all when you’re speaking Italian, you need to start to rely on your memory from the very beginning. How? You can make your own flashcards and test yourself to see if you remember your words. And you can think about which words you learned the last time that you had your study session. When you make an effort to remember, you start to strengthen your knowledge. This is why we should not be afraid of forgetting. It’s actually another great and powerful ally.
I hope I made you feel hopeful and relieved after reading this article. Please, keep in mind that forgetting is normal and it has nothing to do with you. You are in control of your learning and you can definitely do something to remember your words and be able to use them when you speak Italian. Remember to make deep connections, use your words in the comfort of your room or studio, space your revision times, and test yourself. Results won’t come overnight, for sure. But with time and persistency, you will surely see them coming.