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Non-Stick Vocabulary : Separating Similar Words

We’ve all been there in the early stages of language learning. Somehow, certain words just seem to blend into each other. Does X mean Y or Z? I keep saying X for Y! And why do all those little words look so similar? You want your vocabulary to stick in your mind, not the individual items to stick together

These recall problems are pretty normal, particularly when you throw in the social pressure of speaking with others, which can even mess with your native language. With a foreign language, the problem is compounded by differences in phonemic salience – that is., which sounds count as important markers to distinguish one word from another. Something really subtle in your native language, like the difference between a hard stop and a palatalised counterpart, can completely change a meaning. Take the pair of words adabu (good manners) and ajabu (wonder, amazement) in Swahili. When I started Swahili classes, I could not separate them in my head for the life of me. It’s likely that my brain just found it tricky to meaningfully separate the sounds represented by d and j, as /d/ often morphs into /dj/ in my native dialect (try saying induce or and you).

Other times, words might get sticky because they share similar structures that co-trigger, like rhyming sequences. That would explain why I also found it tricky to separate the word asali (honey) from the previous two. Latching onto that aXa pattern, it somehow ended up occupying a very similar memory space to adabu and ajabu. And of course, it probably didn’t help that you spell all three with just five letters! It’s the cost-economising (read: lazy) part of the brain spotting patterns and making heuristic shortcuts – even when these are very unhelpful. Tsk. (Incidentally, the brilliant Daniel Kahneman writes about dodgy heuristics in Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is well worth a read if this piques your interest!)

Revisiting Vocabulary

Interestingly, it’s an effect that isn’t confined to brand new languages. It can even happen with old languages we’re dredging up from the past, or low-level maintaining.

Hebrew is one of those for me. It’s not quite a maintenance language; in fact, I can barely even count it as a fully-fledged language of mine. I barely reached A1 in the modern, spoken language, so it doesn’t take a lot of maintaining. I keep it in that list, chiefly, for reasons of nostalgia!

Anyway, a couple of years ago, I sought to do that minimal maintenance a bit more systematically. I grabbed my copy of Routledge’s Colloquial Hebrew, trawled the first six chapters for vocabulary, and dumped it into Anki. I set my Hebrew deck to drip through a single new card a day, and just let time do the rest.

Overall, it’s been a brilliant, low-key method for solidifying all that ultra-basic stuff. But, every now and again, I do struggle to recall certain words. And surprise, surprise, it’s usually those that look a little bit similar to others. It’s adabu-ajabu all over again!

Seeing it through Anki eyes gave me a new perspective on it, though. In test mode, mix-ups are largely artefacts of the isolated vocabulary item problem. It crops up time and time again in polyglot social media circles: don’t drill words, drill structures. Disembodied parts of speech have little salience on their own. Your brain needs something to hang them onto.

Damage Limitation

Of course, when all your Anki cards are done, you’re already in a bit of a bind over this. You could go back and update all your cards to be sentences (sourcing them from a bank like Tatoeba, for example). But that’s a lot of work.

Instead, you can embed mixological words in some kind of context on the fly. When cross-contamination occurs, think of a phrase – however short – to include the word in. Use alliteration, rhyme, any trick to make it stick. Say it out loud, enjoy the sound of it, visualise it. And try to recall that same phrase whenever the troublesome word pops up again. For my Swahili pair, I came up with:

  • mji wa ajabu (a wonderful town)
  • dada mwenye adabu (a good-mannered sister)

In both cases I’ve chosen a word repeating the troublesome letter (d/j) to highlight the problem sound. I won’t say I never mix them up now – but it has certainly helped.

From my novice Hebrew, another example shows that you can sometimes even combine them together. Take tsar (tight, narrow) and tsad (side). Smoosh them up into tsad tsar (narrow side), and they might just end up sorting each other out.

What words do you tend to mix up in your target language? And how do you go about fixing it? Let us know in the comments!

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No Stress? No Stress! Are languages without accent cues good for the memory?

Some years ago, when I started learning Russian, I had one huge bugbear. Stress marks – or the lack of them.

If you’re a Russian learner, you’ll recognise that initial frustration. Firstly, Russian is an unfixed (or phonemic) stress language. That means there’s no predictable rule to determine where the stressed syllable of a word falls. Stress patterning varies from language to language, even in the same family. Russian’s close cousin Polish, for example, is a fixed-stress language, with stress so regular that you could set your watch by it. In Polish, almost without exception, the penultimate syllable of every word carries the weight.

So, with unfixed stress languages, stress can come anywhere, and that gives you a little bit of extra information to learn with each new word. Granted, some languages do give you a helping hand. Greek, for example, has stress as unguessable as Russian, but (so considerately!) the stressed syllable of a word is always marked with an accent. Thank you, Greek!

Not so in Russian. And it’s crucial to know where the stress is, especially in words with the vowel ‘o’, which is pronounced differently in stressed and unstressed positions.


An excerpt from a Russian textbook. No stress is marked.

No stress = more stressful?

But perhaps it’s less of a nightmare than it might seem at first glance…

Memory Stress Test

The fact is that unmarked stress does leave you to provide that extra information from your mental lexicon, which is tough at first for non-natives. In the early stages, it will involve a lot of looking up in a dictionary, where stress is usually indicated.

But as I gained confidence in Russian, a bit of magic started to happen. I started to enjoy a big boon of satisfaction when recognising a word ‘in the wild’ straight away, knowing where the stress was from previous learning and exposure.

It’s just a guess, but I wonder whether the extra bit of brain work is actually a helping factor in committing  those vocab items to long-term memory. You have more information to store away with each word, and more mental heavy lifting involved to recognise and retrieve them when reading. In short, that’s more work to master them, and more work means more time for your brain to mull them over. It’s like a constant fill-in-the-gaps challenge to keep the language-learning mind in a constant state of workout.

Extreme ‘Fill-in-the-gaps’

The effect is even stronger in the case of Hebrew. Now Hebrew is quite a different kettle of fish, but the same phenomenon crops up for learners in another guise. On one hand, the stressed syllable is quite regular in Hebrew. Rather, it’s the entire category of vowels that isn’t usually indicated at all in text.

An excerpt from a Modern Hebrew text. No stress - but no vowels either!

The great Hebrew vowel challenge!

That means that the onus of filling in the phonetic shape of the word is completely on memory and experience. As a learner, you have to draw on all sorts of clues to match the word on the page to the item and its pronunciation.  It’s a kind of fuzzy-matching process that really sharpens your recognition of vocab.

I haven’t come across any research into this yet, but it might make a good dissertation topic for some enthusiastic linguist at some point!