Why Don’t I Remember Words When I Need Them?

You’re having a conversation when you suddenly can’t remember a word you want to use. Then a couple hours later, it just pops into your head out of nowhere. You can’t help but think, “That’s what I wanted to say! Why couldn’t I remember it?”

Unfortunately, using a word is a lot harder than simply knowing it. As Cambridge’s guide to learning vocabulary puts it, “Productive knowledge of vocabulary requires more learning than receptive knowledge.”

Luckily, there are many ways to solve this problem and dramatically increase the amount of vocabulary we can use in conversation. We’ll go over three vocabulary learning strategies that’ll help you do just that.

1. Be Picky

Our first piece of advice is to be picky about the words you learn. It takes a lot of work to become familiar enough with a word in order to use it properly, so don’t try to learn all the words that come your way. For example:

  • If you’re watching a TV show or reading a book which uses a lot of words you don’t understand, don’t look them all up. Focus on learning the words in the parts you find most interesting.
  • If your textbook has long lists of vocabulary words, think about which words you actually need and focus on remembering those.

But how do you know if you need a word? Of course, it helps to have a native-speaking friend or a tutor who can tell you if the word is actually used in real life. 

However, you should also keep in mind that you are ultimately the one who decides whether or not a word is useful to you. For example, let’s say you encounter a new word, “homebody” (i.e. someone who likes to spend a lot of time at home). 

Stop for one second to ask yourself if you’d ever need to actively use this word. If you aren’t a homebody, your active vocabulary can probably do without it. So, you can move on to learning vocabulary that is more useful to you. 

2. Practice Saying the Words Out Loud

One reason it takes us a long time to learn to use new words is because we don’t practice saying them enough. 

It’s easy for us to think we know a word just because we understand it. However, more often than not, we don’t know its pronunciation well enough to use it in conversation.

Native-speaking children face the same issue actually. For example, they’ll often confuse words like “alligator” and “elevator,” “chicken” and “kitchen,” and “pitcher” and “picture.” Like them, we are also trying to make sense of a new language and all its sounds.

So once we’ve decided that a word is useful, the next thing we want to do is practice saying it. This will train our “muscle memory” so the word can come out automatically in conversation. 

3. Practice Recalling the Words

Since our goal is to be able to recall words in conversation, we’ll want to get practice recalling them in general. For example, if you’re learning the word “yellow,” you can make flashcards with the pictures of yellow things on the front and the word “yellow” on the back.

Research suggests that fill-in-the-blanks exercises help learners remember new vocabulary. For example, this study at the University of Haifa found that students better remembered words when they completed a fill-in-the-blanks summary of a text they had just read.

Here are some ways we can use fill-in-the-blanks exercises to practice recalling new words:

  • If you’re reading an article, underline the words you want to learn. At the end of the article, go back to each of these underlined words, cover them up with a finger and try to remember them.
  • When you’re watching a TV show, write down the lines that use a word you’re interested in, but make sure to remove the word from the lines. Then after the show, see if you can recall the word from the lines.
  • Make fill-in-the-blanks flashcards: On the front of each card, put some sentences that use the vocabulary word you’re learning, but make sure to remove the word from the sentences. Then on the other side, put the answer.

Need More Help?

Learning vocabulary in English is easier said than done. For example, you might spend time learning a word and later realize that nobody actually uses it. Or you might practice saying a word many times and then find out that people still don’t understand what you’re saying.

If you ever need help, remember that our tutors are here for you 24/7. Plus, your first lesson is free, so you’ve got nothing to lose!