Remembering Vocab.

Perhaps the most common question posed to me as a teacher of Biblical Hebrew is, "How can you help me remember the vocabulary?" Ultimately, the answer must be that I can't, because I am not in the position of the Most High.

In spite of my mortal status, I would still like to share with you some of the tips that I have learned along the way that have assisted me in learning numerous languages over the past ten years.

  • Mind games. Don't let your mind play tricks on you. When you first see a long list of words to learn, your first impression is that you will simply never be able to remember them all. This is invariably not true. The human mind is an extremely powerful machine that has a very capably memory. In 1999 I spent the Summer here in Israel learning a new language for the first time in twenty years. When I was first told that I had to remember approximately 100 words a week, my first thought was that it was impossible. Once I got past that feeling of helplessness (and after my wife slapped me across the face and told me to get a grip of myself) I found that the task was not as daunting as it looked
  • Effort. For some reason, people think that after attending a lesson and being introduced to fifteen new words that they should, miraculously, know all of these words, and that if they don't, they have poor memories or are not very good at languages. What they don't realize is that only about 1% of society can learn this quickly. The rest of us have to invest some kind of time and effort into learning the vocabulary. The next big problem is how you can utilize your time and efforts to get the best results. The following points may or may not be of assistance.
  • Recite. Always recite aloud the new words in your vocabulary rather than saying them to yourself. That way you have two of you senses (speech and sound) working together to help you remember. Don't worry too much about the precise pronunciation. With the Hebrew consonants and the vowels you should all be able to pronounce the words relatively consistently. This should be enough!
  • Association. The challenge of remembering vocabulary is creating a link between the Hebrew word on a piece of paper and an image in our minds that recalls the meaning of the word. I have found that this is best achieved via association. How does this work? If I were given a Hebrew word such as Be'ER to remember, I would look at the word and as ask "what does it remind me of? For me the answer is the word "Bear". I now have a concrete image that I need to link to the meaning of the word Be'ER, which means "well (a hole with water in)". This, with my imagination, I would do by picturing a huge grizzly stuck in well. Now, when looking at the word Be'ER, the meaning is recalled together with the image. Anther example would be from the word 'AMA'H, which means "maid". For this word, my closest association was the English word "Armour" (I know, I know, its not exactly the same, but it works for me!). The image I now conjure up in my mind is that of a maid (not that I have one of course) clanking up and down my staircase in armour whilst she is cleaning the house. I have found that the more crazy the picture the more easily it sticks in my mind. You may also find that if you add smell and sound to the images you create they may also help you.
  • Stickies. In certain instances you may find that it is not possible create a suitable image. In these situations, it is wise to write the word down on a post-it note with the translation on the back, and stick to your fridge or a door or some other object you frequently walk past. First this will help you refresh you memory with the meaning of the word (if you try to remember it every time you pass it). Second, you may soon be able to associate the image that you stuck the note to with the meaning of the word in question.
  • Flash cards. An alternative, or supplement, to the above, is that of flash cards. I found that creating my own flash cards (Hebrew word on one side and its meaning on the other) and flicking through them was especially helpful when traveling on the bus every day to university.
  • Substitution. Some of you may also find it useful to play with sentences, by writing English sentences down and substituting Hebrew equivalents whenever possible. Thus you could end up with something like, "ANI said to my BANIM not to climb the ETZIM in the GAN" (such phrases can also be spoken in real life situations as well).

I can only hope that some of what I have shared above might be useful to some of you at some stage. Further information can be gleaned from a man named Tony Buzan, who has written on the topic of memory and memorization in an easily readable form (search for his name on Amazon). Alternatively, try the website:

I hope this helps a littleĀ