Use Color Coding Techniques to Learn Vocabulary More Effectively

Color-coded words in various languages.


Expanding your vocabulary is an important but difficult aspect of learning a new language. One way to make it easier is through the use of color coding. This article gives you a brief explanation of why and how color coding improves your memorization ability, and shows you how to implement it in your learning.


The benefits of color coding

In general, color-coded material is a more effective study aid than black-and-white material, because it helps you better process new information as you’re learning it. In the case of learning a foreign language, studies found that color coding new vocabulary words helps people learn those words better.

While there are several possible mechanisms which could be used to explain this improvement, the overall consensus is that color coding new information increases the chances of that information being “encoded, stored, and retrieved successfully” by the learners. This is a valuable mechanism, that learners can take advantage of in order to enhance their vocabulary-learning process.


How to use color coding in your learning

One of the main reasons why color coding is such an effective technique is that it is easy to implement regardless of which vocabulary-learning strategy you use. When using it, there are two main factors that you need to consider:

  • How to categorize the words. First, you need to decide according to which criteria you are going to color the different words. Common options are grammatical gender (e.g. masculine/feminine) or part of speech (e.g. noun/verb). In languages with tonality (such as Mandarin Chinese), you can also color syllables according to their tone.
  • Which coloring scheme to use. Once you choose based on which criteria to color-code the words, you need to decide how to color them. The best option is somewhat subjective, so use whichever coloring scheme makes sense for you. If possible, use colors that you would intuitively associate with the categories in some way. For example, if you color-code words based on their grammatical gender, you might want to color feminine words in pink, and masculine words in blue. Another example is to use one set of similar color for adverbs and verbs, and another set for adjectives and nouns, in order to help you distinguish between them.

You can implement the color coding itself in various ways, including:

  • Writing the words in an appropriately colored font.
  • Highlighting the words in an appropriate color.
  • Writing the words on colored sticky-notes or flashcards.

Note that you can also decide which words to color-code, based on how familiar you are with them. For example, over time you might decide to only color new vocabulary words that you encounter in a text, while leaving old words that you already know in a default color. This can help draw attention to the new words, and might facilitate their acquisition.


Examples of color coding

Below are some examples for color-coded words in various languages. Keep in mind that this is just a small selection of the ways in which you can implement color coding.


Color-coded words in French, based on grammatical gender (blue for masculine, pink for feminine):

L’enseignant fâché cuisinait dans la vieille camionnette.

The angry teacher cooked in the old van.


Color-coded words in Spanish, based on part of speech (green for nouns, orange for adjectives, blue for verbs, and light blue for adverbs:

La madre rubia finalmente consiguió sus naves.

The blonde mother finally got her ships.


Color-coded characters in Mandarin Chinese, based on tonality:

媽     1st tone = red

麻     2nd tone = orange

馬     3rd tone = green

罵     4th tone = blue

吗     neutral tone = black


Summary and Conclusions

  • Color-coded material is generally a more effective study aid than black-and-white material, because it improves your ability to encode, store, and retrieve the material that you’re trying to learn.
  • Language learners can use color coding in order to improve their ability to learn new vocabulary words in their foreign language.
  • When color coding words, you first need to decide how to categorize the words; common options are grammatical gender (e.g. masculine/feminine) or part of speech (e.g. noun/verb). In some languages, you can also color other linguistic particles aside from words, as in the case of Mandarin Chinese, where you can color syllables according to their tone.
  • You also need to decide which coloring scheme to use. Try to use a scheme that involves colors that you intuitively associate with the categorization scheme that you chose. For example, if you chose to color words based on their grammatical gender, you might want to color masculine words in blue, and feminine words in pink.
  • The greatest advantage of color coding techniques lies in the fact that they are versatile, and can be easily implemented regardless of which overall vocabulary-learning strategy you decide to use. As such, you can integrate them into your learning in various ways, from using colored vocabulary flash cards, to highlighting (in specific colors) new words that you encounter as you read a text.


How Self-Distancing Can Help You Make More Rational Decisions

Picture of LeBron James throwing a basketball.


“One thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision. I wanted to do what’s best for LeBron James and to do what makes LeBron James happy.”

– LeBron James, legendary basketball player, when interviewed about his decision to leave his old marketing agency.

It’s hard to set your emotions aside when faced with difficult decisions. Often, these emotions cause us to make the wrong choice, in many areas of life: from our relationships to our finances, to our habits, and so on.

The problem is that setting these emotions aside is easier said than done. However, one way to at least reduce their impact is to use a relatively simple self-distancing technique, that helps us shift our perception in a way that enables us to make more rational decisions.


How self-distancing works

The method described here is based on a study which examined people’s self-talk mechanism: that inner monologue that most of us use when we think. The researchers’ starting point was that using the second person pronoun (i.e. “you”) or your name when when thinking about yourself during introspection, promotes emotional self-distancing.

This concept is consistent with the construal level theory, which suggests that creating psychological distance in one domain, in this case linguistically, promotes psychological distance in other domains, such as our decision-making system.

As such, the researchers asked the participants in their experiment to recall two personal experiences: one which was anger-related, and one which was anxiety-related. There were two groups of participants:

  • Participants in the first group were instructed to think about themselves in the first person. For example, they would ask themselves “Why did I feel this way?”
  • Participants in the second group were instructed to think about themselves using second person pronouns or using their own name. For example, they would ask themselves “Why did you feel this way?” or “Why did John feel this way?”

The researchers then measured participants’ self-distance during their recollection of their past experiences. What they found was that the simple change in perception allowed participants to increase their emotional self-distance when considering these events, as we see in the graph below.


A graph which shows how a variation in linguistic perception impacts psychological self-distance. When thinking of events which are anger-related or anxiety-related, using non-first-person pronouns increases self distance compared to using first-person pronouns.


Essentially, when people referred to themselves in the second or third person, they were able to improve their ability to detach emotionally from the situation. This improvement is so important because increasing emotional distance has been shown to improve individual decision-making ability.

One study, for example, showed that increasing self-distance reduces decision biases, under a variety of experimental conditions. Another study found that psychological distance improves decision making during information overload.

Furthermore, the scientists who conducted the current study also published the results of several other experiments in the same paper. These experiments showed that self-distance helped participants cope better with socially distressful situations; this was true even for individuals who are inherently prone to social anxiety.

Overall, this research shows that using self-distancing language, where we refer to ourselves in the second or third person while thinking, improves our ability to detach ourselves emotionally from tough situations. This can help us cope in such situations, and improves our ability to make more rational decisions.


Summary and Conclusions

  • Our emotions often interfere with our decision-making process, and make it more difficult to make rational decisions.
  • Using language that promotes self-distance can help us detach ourselves from emotional situations, which can help us think more rationally.
  • To take advantage of this, avoid referring to yourself in your head using first-person pronouns (i.e. “I”) when you’re trying to make a rational decision in an emotional situation.
  • Instead, during introspection, you should refer to yourself using second person pronouns (i.e. “you”) or using your own name (e.g. “John”), in order to create psychological self-distance.
  • The same technique can also help you reduce negative feelings such as anxiety, when thinking about stressful situations.