Learning vocabulary is a significant part of language learning. A lot of learners believe mastering vocabulary is the key to fluency, and thus spend most of their time on learning new words and expressions. My teaching experience partially supports that assumption, and I have a good few tricks up my sleeve that might help you to acquire words in your target language. In this article, we’ll share them with you.
If you’re a total beginner
There are quite a few approaches that you can take to learning new words. None of them will work instantly, and the process itself doesn't suddenly become easier just because you know a few tricks. Learning a foreign language is not an easy thing, after all. These tips are just aimed at making learning more convenient and/or structured.
We also warn you that many things related to learning are personal, so don’t worry if some of these tips don’t appeal to you. Try all of them to see which ones you feel work best. If you can find one strategy that you feel good about, that’s enough to get through the beginner stage.
Vocabulary acquisition becomes much more natural later on where you can pick things up in context by reading, watching movies, having conversations, and generally enjoying yourself. All we’re concerned about right now is helping you to build the basic foundation necessary to begin doing those things.
Sometimes, categorization and/or alphabetization makes it easier to memorize words. If that’s the case with you, place the words in alphabetical order—or maybe according to their meaning. You might also try dividing words according to their part of speech: verbs, nouns, adjectives, and so forth.
The early stages of learning a language can be really messy, and this is just a small way to take control over what you’re doing. It also forces you to dedicate a bit of time thinking about each individual word, rather than just mindlessly running through flashcards.
Try educational apps
There are several apps designed to help you learn new vocabulary. Quizlet, for example, allows you to make your own personal flashcard sets and lets you take advantage of several different modes to learn those items. Drops introduces several hundred basic everyday words alongside cute animations.
Glossika also falls into this category. We curate your learning experience by introducing only vocabulary relevant to your current level. From there, our AI algorithm takes the pain out of learning by figuring out what you know well and what you need to review a bit more. This lets us offer a personalized learning experience that grows alongside you.
Make vocabulary lists
Don’t try to memorize the whole dictionary at once. Make short lists instead. Why torture yourself with hundreds of words when you can divide and conquer? If you’re feeling a bit anxious about all the words you'll eventually need to learn (an average educated native speaker might know 20-30,000… or more!), it might be good for your sanity to limit yourself to one set of words at a time. Eventually those lists will add up.
This is especially helpful if you’re interested in a specific thing, like basketball. You need to know a ton of words to master a language, but there are only so many words you need to make sense of what’s happening in a basketball game (or a recipe, or a story about your cat, etc.)
The dictionary is your friend
Work with a dictionary. Find the definitions of the words you’re learning and write them down in a specifically dedicated notebook. You don’t necessarily have to write all the definitions down: a few, just the most commonly used ones or ones you find especially interesting, is a good start.
Dictionaries are great because they employ a technique called circumlocution, which basically means using simpler words to explain more difficult ones. Figuring out how to do this yourself is very important because it lets you talk around words you don't know: if you can say the thing hockey players wear on their heads, you can get by without knowing the word helmet.
Seek example sentences
This strategy is closely related to the previous one. You might ask: if I'm struggling with individual words, why should I bother with example sentences right now? Well, the answer is pretty straightforward. It is one thing to know what a particular word means, and another thing to know how it is used.
That is why we recommended you to write out a few examples when you look up words in the dictionary. By doing so, you get important context. You learn not only what a given word means, but which words it tends to get used with. This context is really important because languages often translate the same ideas differently! Rain falls in English, for example, but it comes in Korean.
Thankfully, almost every major online dictionary offers a few examples for every word they include. Writing these examples down will help you memorize not only the word’s meaning but also its usage.
Make your own examples
After writing down 2-3 sample sentences with new words, try to make up at least one example on your own. It’ll help you cement it in your head — then you can use an app like HiNative or HelloTalk to get corrected.
Writing with your hand is surprisingly beneficial to remembering things. Typing is fine, but we type much faster than we write — for whatever reason, handwriting activates parts of our brain that typing doesn’t.
Take your time
Don’t expect to reach all your goals quickly or on the first try. Sometimes, you’ll confuse the meanings of the words you just learned, or worse, completely forget them. And that’s perfectly fine: learning a language is hard. Even if you remember just half of the 50 words you studied, it is still a huge win.
If you learn 5 words per day you’ll cover nearly 2,000 in a year. These efforts add up.
Find a tutor
Sometimes, figuring out what to do or where to find learning materials can be a challenge. Textbooks can be difficult to navigate; more to that, it is hard to know which textbook to pick from the myriad of offers available on the market.
A tutor is a person specifically trained to help with things like that. Not only do they know a language well, they’ll help you find your way through this difficult world of language learning.
A crash course in memory
We briefly discussed how memory works in a post entitled Knowledge or Skill: What is Language. Go ahead and read the post if that topic interests you, but in a nutshell, you should know that we actually have several different "types" of memory.
Recognition entails being able to understand information that we’re presented with (seeing Buenos Aires, Argentina and acknowledging that it seems to be correct)
Cued recall involves pulling information out of your brain after being given a hint (seeing Bei… when prompted to name the capital of China, then filling in the blanks to get Beijing)
Free recall involves the ability to summon information from your brain even without a cue (being asked for the capital of Portugal and just knowing that it’s Lisbon off the top of your head)
Being aware of these distinctions is important. Here are your two essential takeaways:
- It doesn't take that much effort to reach a point where you can confidently "recognize" a foreign vocabulary word — see sueño and know that it means dream. If you mostly care about consuming content in another language, you can reach that point much faster by learning vocabulary from [target language] > English rather than English > [target language].
- It takes significantly more effort to achieve "free recall"-level knowledge of foreign vocabulary words. Don't be surprised if, during your first conversations, you discover that you can't remember some (perhaps many) words that you'd previously learned. That level of mastery will come with time, but if you know that you're going to need to perform in your target language, be sure to find an opportunity to practice beforehand.
Grammar matters, too
Most of my students are very upset to hear that. Despite the importance of knowing the words, one cannot be fluent by just knowing them. You also need to know how to use them. If a language has a grammatical gender system, for example, you must know the gender of a given word before you can use it in a sentence. (If you don't, you'll make a mistake that could be as simply as just sounding funny or as serious as rendering yourself incomprehensible: Leiter means ladder when preceded by the pronoun die and leader when preceded by the pronoun der.)
Grammar also helps with word building: if one adds a suffix or a prefix to a word, not only can its meaning change, but also its part of speech. For example:
- Will — willing — unwilling — unwillingness
- Eins (one) — ein (a) — einsam (lonely) — Einsamkeit (loneliness)
Another way learning grammar helps you with vocabulary is in how it rebalances the mental work you have to do to communicate. Once you know all the rules well, you won’t have to think twice about things like which tense to use or what type of syntax a particular sentence requires. That all just comes automatically, and you thus get a little more time to focus on choosing the right word.
Finally, you’ll be surprised to know how little grammar you actually need to speak the language on a daily basis. No matter how complex the language may be, knowing just half of its grammar would be enough to enjoy its culture in the original without having too much difficulty.
In other words: When you don’t have to worry about how to say something, learning what to say becomes much easier.
Fit your language into your lifestyle
Language is merely a tool to consume, generate, and spread information. Furthermore, not all languages make the same assumptions about the world. For example, my native language makes a distinction between two shades of blue, which its speakers perceive as two different colors—not just shades of one color. Small things like this form views that, in turn, may affect how speakers of different languages see the world.
As you might imagine, then, you must understand how the speakers of another language live. And to do that, you must become one of them. How? Live your life in that language. Moving to another country isn’t necessary in this day and age: setting your phone to your target language, watching YouTube or Netflix in it (with subtitles, of course), listening to music, and reading some articles or short stories will be enough. With a bit of effort, you can achieve near total immersion no matter where you are in the world.
We have to warn you, though: it takes a lot of time to get used to familiar things looking and feeling different, and this time does not fly. It descends from the sky and starts crawling—which is absolutely fine. By doing this, you walk the same path a small child does when they learn their native language.
Of course, there’s a lot more that could be said about remembering vocabulary. For the time being, you just need to worry about three things:
- Find an accessible means to consistently learn new words
- Continue until you reach a point where you can begin living in the language — having conversations, working through books, watching television, and so forth
- From that point, begin doing the things you enjoy in your target language, and your vocabulary will grow naturally
If you want to learn more, stay tuned to the updates, a new piece will come soon! I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. Have a nice day, and bye!