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Learning new words: bane, or just a bit tricky?

February 4, 2009

I have problems learning certain words.  Specifically, foreign words over a couple of syllables, and scientific terminology of similar length.

I assume that this is because my mind has settled into its adult configuration.  It’s left the input-rich child phase in which the neurons fall into place; its layout is more or less static now, making it more difficult to retain information.

Not that it’s impossible.  In my adult life alone, I have had no problems learning “deoxyribonucleic acid” (genetic code!) “humuhumunukunukuapua’a” (snorting, leaping fish) and “Raxacoricofallapatorius” (a planet from Dr. Who).  So it is clear to me that the capability is in there somewhere; I just need to learn how to access it.

I was thinking about this today, and wondering – what did I do differently when learning these words – as well as several of the Japanese words I know, such as tsukinukete or mangekyou?  Then I remembered: syllablic memorization.

These words come with a double problem: not only are they foreign, but they are long and difficult to pronounce just by reading through them once or twice.  I was forced to pick through them syllable by syllable, then repeat them in the correct order until I could recite the entire word.  If the word wasn’t quite long enough to merit syllabic analysis (such as cotelydon), I could still remember it if the actual pronunciation of the word was significantly different from the way I pronounced it instinctually.

The words stuck with me that way.  And so did the meaning.

It seems, then, that all hope is not lost for our stagnant adult brains.  While it may be more difficult for us to retain the information (and this method does not work particularly well with Japanese words, where one character may represent several syllables), it is possible to burn the information into our brains one syllable at a time.

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