Learning a new verb involves moving it first to your short-term memory, and then to your long-term memory. The short-term part is easy — this is what you do whenever you look up an unknown word or study a vocabulary list. Most flashcard apps are designed to put vocabulary into your short-term memory. Where they fail – where many methods fail – is moving it from short-term to long-term memory.
Vocabulary gets moved to your long-term memory in an organic and somewhat random process that can take days to weeks. You can’t do it by force, by creating bizarre mnemonics, or by obsessively studying a vocabulary list – even I don’t have the patience to sit down and study vocabulary every day (though memory schedule software like Anki can help). The way it happens is by unexpectedly encountering previously-studied verbs in the process of reading and listening to things that interest you. To help this process along, you need to do three things:
- Look up and write down unknown verbs the first time you meet them
- Make reading and listening a routine part of your language study
- Be on the lookout for when you run into them again.
It’s a lot like how we make new friends. The first time we meet someone new at a party, we learn their name, what they look like, and maybe a little bit about them, but we don’t always make a big effort to remember that information, especially if we’re not sure we’ll ever see them again.
But then say we see them at another party a few weeks later. We might not remember their name, but we remember their face and the fact that we’ve met them before. If we think back to where we first met them, we might also remember a little about them, like what they do for a living. We apologetically ask them to remind us of their name, and this time we’re more likely to remember it, knowing that it’s possible we’ll be seeing them again.
The third time we see them, we recognize them immediately and hopefully remember their name. If we continue to run into them at different events, eventually they’ll become an acquaintance and maybe even a friend, at which point they become part of our familiar world and part of our long-term memory.
So it goes with learning verbs. I’ve found that I usually need to encounter new verbs 3-5 times before they become part of my long-term memory. Yes, there’s a bit of chance involved that you have no control over — it’s possible that you might never again see some verbs you’ve studied. But if they’re that rare, they probably aren’t worth your time anyway. The beauty of this system is that it selectively reinforces the most common, most useful verbs. And every time you do encounter a verb you’re previously studied, it’s a tiny bit of positive reinforcement telling you that this verb is one you might see again that’s worth your time to study.
Just because there’s some chance involved doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to help the process along. I like to keep a language notebook where I write down new vocabulary. Yes, old-fashioned pen and paper. Studies have shown that people remember more when they take notes by hand instead of typing. Something about the physical process of writing helps your brain make connections, and this seems like it would be especially applicable to language learning, where you need to memorize the minutia of spellings, accent marks, and genders.
It’s important to be selective about what you write down. There are thousands of English cognates in Portuguese whose meanings are obvious. I usually don’t bother with them unless I want to make note of an unexpected gender or alternative meaning. I also don’t bother with words that are so obscure, specialized or jargony that I am unlikely to encounter them again. The verbs that go in my notebook are ones with common meanings that are not immediately obvious from the spelling of the verb. Here’s how I take new verbs from known to short-term memory to long-term memory:
1. Encountering a new verb for the first time
Let’s say I’m reading an article in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo when I run into the verb nortear. I don’t know what it means and can’t figure it out from the spelling or context, so I do the following:
- I write it down in my notebook and underline it.
- I write down where I encountered it (a textbook, a particular website, a certain newspaper article)
- I look it up in a dictionary to get a sense of the range of meanings
- I write down a brief definition, including any synonyms I can think of in Portuguese: to guide (orientar), to be guided toward sth
- If there is an obvious mnemonic, I make note if it. In this case, there is: I imagine the north (norte) star guiding a sailor. But if there’s no obvious mnemonic, I don’t worry about inventing one.
- This is the crucial step. I make up an example sentence using the verb and write it down. The sentence should relate to the context in which I encountered the verb. It is much easier for me to remember the definition of a new word if I can remember where I first encountered it.
2. Encountering the verb again and recognizing it
Let’s say that 2 weeks later, I’m reading another article when I see the verb nortear. Very often it will take me a while to realize that I’ve seen this verb before, especially if it’s in a different tense or form. Even when I do recognize it, I usually won’t remember what it means, especially if it has an abstract meaning or a wide range of meanings. This can be pretty discouraging – Wtf, I already learned this verb! Why can’t I remember what it means? But I now see these moments as a necessary part of the learning process – the recognition, if not the recollection, of a new verb. I know that I usually need to see the verb 3-5 times before it’s in long-term memory. So whenever I have one of these wtf moments, I remind myself that this is part of the process and that the next time I encounter this verb, I’m a lot more likely to remember what it means.
So the important thing at this step is not that you instantly remember what the verb means. It’s that you recognize the verb as one that you’ve seen before and written down. This process of recognition is important, because it performs the function of moving the verb from the outside world of unknown words to your personal vocabulary of known words. Sometimes I will go to look up a verb and in the process recall that – Oh yeah! – I think I’ve seen this one before. Remembering where you’ve seen it previously and connecting the dots is a powerful way to burn the verb into your long-term memory. So once I recognize it, here’s what I do:
- Go to my notebook and find where I’ve written it down. I review the definition and the sentence I wrote previously.
- I write down a new sentence using the verb. The sentence should relate to the context in which I just saw the verb again.
This step might have to happen several times before, finally, I arrive at the final stage.
3. Encountering the verb and remembering the meaning.
A few days later, I might run into … again. This time, it makes an instant impression as one of those verbs that I’ve been learning. I’ll probably remember a few of the contexts that I’ve seen it before, and that I have it in my notebook.
- Find it in my notebook, review the definition and sentences again.
- Write down one last sentence based on the context in which I just saw it.
At this point, the verb is in my long-term memory, and I should be able to not only recall the definition when I see it, but recall the verb itself when I’m thinking about the concept that it represents. If it’s not a verb that I use often, I may still have to go back to my notebook to review it from time to time. That’s ok, and it’s part of the process. The time between reviews will get longer and longer until I know it.
Lately I’ve started using Anki to help the process along. I like Anki because unlike most flashcard apps, it keep track of how often I’ve reviewed each card and how easy it’s been for me. It also schedules just a couple dozen or so cards for me to review each day so that I don’t get overwhelmed and don’t spend any more time than I need to studying vocabulary. Plus, Anki makes sure that I don’t forget words that I haven’t seen in a while, by bringing them back for review every so often.
I started using Anki because I noticed that after I came back from my class with my Portuguese tutor, I would have one or two notebook pages full of new words that I’d written down in the course of the class. Often I wouldn’t look at them or think about them again until a week later when I went to my next class, by which time I’d forgotten them. Obviously, this system wasn’t working out.
I now make a point of entering all my new words into Anki after I get back from my class, maybe 20-40 new words each week. Every morning I do a quick 10 minute review session with Anki and that’s it. Painless and I even look forward to it. It takes almost no time at all and I feel like I can let Anki take responsibility for which cards I need to review each day, instead of paging through my notebook. The most time consuming part is entering the new words, but other than that, it’s a very tiny time commitment.
Some verbs are just especially hard to remember. Sometimes the reason they’re so hard is that the concept they describe is fairly abstract, and so the dictionary definition just doesn’t help much. What we need is to see how the verb is used in context, because it’s much easier to remember a meaning contextually – recalling a specific instance of a word in use. One way to study these verbs is to use collocates to see what other words are commonly associated with a verb. Very often it’s helpful to see what kinds of objects a verb takes. See Using collocates to better understand the meaning of a word for an example of this kind of solution.
Another option is to use Linguee.com to search for translated examples of the verb in context.
Phrasal verbs and their translation
Another pitfall in learning verbs is that verbs in English often have a huge range of potential meanings. The way we make them specific is by combining them with prepositions or particles to form what are called “phrasal verbs”. These are verbs that are made up of a verb plus a preposition or other particle, which combine to produce a more specific meaning that often can’t be predicted from the individual words. For example, think about all the unpredictable meanings that the verb “to make” can take on when combined with various prepositions:
to make (= to create, build, construct, produce, fabricate)
- “make up” (to invent or imagine something, to reconcile with someone, or to complete missed work)
- “make out” (to kiss passionately, or to write a check)
- “make over” (to transform the appearance of something)
- “make do” (to live on just what is necessary to survive, subsist, get by)
- “make up for” (to compensate for a loss)
- “make sure” (to ensure, to pay attention to something, to guarantee)
Notice that even a single phrasal verb like “make up” can itself have multiple unrelated meanings. And some of the definitions are phrasals themselves – “get by”, “pay attention”. People often talk about phrasal verbs as being a pain in the butt for students of English, but they can also make things hard on us Portuguese learners, too. Why? Because phrasal verbs are not nearly as common in Romance languages, so when we try to translate them literally into Portuguese, it just doesn’t work.*
For example, say we’re speaking in Portuguese and we want to translate a thought like “Are you gonna go out tonight?”. The temptation is to translate the phrasal verb (go out) literally, using a verb (vai) plus a preposition (fora) in Portuguese: Você vai fora hoje à noite? But this sentence, besides being ungrammatical, would convey a different meaning to a Portuguese speaker: “Are you going outside tonight?”
The key is to recognize when we’re dealing with a phrasal verb in English, and catch ourselves. Phrasal verbs in English almost never translate literally. Usually there is a single verb in Portuguese, or an idiomatic expression, that expresses the meaning we want. In this case, the verb sair (to leave, to go out) does the job just fine: Você vai sair hoje à noite?
Look at the list of phrasal verbs with “make” again. Where English uses just one verb ‘make’ plus a preposition to produce this entire range of meanings, Portuguese uses completely different verbs for each meaning, and none of them involve the literal translation fazer:
- “make up” = inventar, resolver, completar
- “make out” = beijar, preencher
- “make over” = aperfeiçoar
- “make do” = sobreviver
- “make up for” = compensar
- “make sure” = certificar-se, garantir, prestar atenção a alguma coisa
So again, the key is to be aware of how often we use phrasal verbs in English and know what they look like. Then catch yourself whenever you find yourself trying to translate a phrasal literally, and try to find a specific Portuguese verb that expresses the precise meaning you want.
One way to do this is to try to find a non-phrasal synonym in English that might have an obvious translation into Portuguese. For example, the other day I was having trouble translating the concept “to keep out”, like “The warden’s job is to keep poachers out of the reserve”. If I were to try to translate this literally, I might use guardar or ficar, both of which are dead ends. It actually took me a while to realize that I was dealing with the phrasal verb “keep out”, because as with most phrasals, the object of the verb is sitting right in between the verb and the preposition: “keep poachers out”.
But once I recognized this, I went searching for a non-phrasal synonym in English, and came up with “to exclude”, which happens to have an exact Portuguese cognate, excluir. Now using the word “exclude” in this context might sound a bit overly formal to us because “keep out” is a more informal alternative in English. But in Portuguese, excluir sounds just fine because there is no phrasal alternative (that I know of anyway). As you study Portuguese, you may often find yourself using Portuguese verbs with English cognates that would sound a bit formal or erudite in English – just realize that they sound this way to us because we have so many phrasal alternatives at our disposal. To Portuguese speakers, they sound perfectly natural.
For example, a while ago I noticed that I use the verb chegar a lot in Portuguese, which is weird because I hardly ever use its equivalent “arrive” in English. Then I realized that’s because I almost always use phrasal verbs to communicate the same idea: “to get someplace”, “to show up”, “to come by”. But Portuguese doesn’t have these alternatives, so chegar is used more frequently.
Linguee is also great for translating phrasal verbs, because it allows you to search for a complete phrase and then see how actual human translators have dealt with it. For example, check out Linguee’s multiple translations for “make up“. Oftentimes, there is no one exact translation, but Linguee at least lets you see the range of possible translations.
* I’m not a linguist, but it’s probably not true to say Portuguese does not use phrasal verbs at all. Portuguese verbs *can* change their meaning depending on which preposition they are paired with, though they can’t be split up by an object like the English “lock it up“, “put the candle out” – the preposition always has to immediately follow the verb. It also occurs to me that Portuguese might have an equivalent to phrasal verbs in those hundreds of idiomatic expressions that use fazer, dar, pegar and a few other verbs to create a kaleidoscope of different meanings.
Unsurprisingly, these expressions are difficult for Portuguese students, because the literal meaning only hints at the actual meaning. For example, dar à luz makes sense once you know that it means “to give birth”, but you probably couldn’t guess the meaning until you looked it up.