In many ways, computers are made in the image of our brains. But we can look at how computers work and get some useful ideas for how we can use our own minds. In this post, I'd like to explore adding "fields" or a kind of "metadata" to elements we are storing in our memory.
If you learn a new word in a language, there is a lot of information associated with that word that you will need to know in order to be able to use it effectively. This is one of the reasons flash cards can be misleading if all they contain is a word and its translation. For example, you first need to know what part of speech a new word is: is it a noun? Is it a verb? Is it a noun formed from a verb? This is important because the morphemes that make up a word are often used to make up related but different words. To use a language effectively, you need to have the entire sphere of meaning associated with a collection of morphemes.
In addition to part of speech, there are many other "fields" that need to be filled in. For example, does the word have a gender? Does it belong to a particular declension or class or conjugation? Is it used in formal or informal speech? All of these are important questions to answer when learning new vocabulary. If you know what you're looking for, you can gather this information most easily by learning the vocabulary in context. You have to go a step further, however, to actually store this information.
When using memory techniques for learning vocabulary, you can visualize additional fields surrounding main vocabulary items. For example, if you are learning German and know that there are three genders, you might have three boxes beneath the word in your mental visualization. The box on the left might be masculine, the center box feminine, and the box on the right neuter. If you learn a new word that happens to be neuter, you can ensure that mentally the rightmost box is filled in so that visually you have a reference to the gender of the noun.
You can take this even further. Beneath the boxes of gender, you can add fields related to whether the noun is strong or weak, and how it forms its plural. You can also add fields related to register and frequency. The possibilities are limitless. The important thing is to take the time to set up a system for yourself that functions visually at the outset of learning a language. By doing this, you create the framework for storing all the metadata associated with vocabulary beyond just its immediate translation.
Setting up a structure like this is not easy, and goes very slowly at first. If you are patient with this process, however, you will be able to internalize the patterns of the language much faster and more accurately. It may not feel quick, but over time it will be.