38 Language-Learning Experts Reveal Their Favorite Method for Learning Vocabulary

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vocabulary

Learning more words: experts share their favorite strategy.

Note: This is the very first edition of Ask the Experts.

Aaahhhh, learning vocabulary!

It must be the sexiest element of learning a language.

And perhaps the most controversial.

It’s not for nothing that polyglots call it the Kim Kardashian of the language-learning community.

(Actually, I made that up. ;-))

To add fuel to the discussion, and most importantly, to bring you fantastically useful advice on learning vocabulary in your target language, I asked a bunch of experts, authors, translators and bloggers the following question:

If there was one method for learning vocabulary that you’d recommend to the world, which one would it be?

The response was nothing short of overwhelming.

Almost 40 replies flooded my inbox — creating a bomb of extremely balanced advice and giving you the opportunity to judge for yourself how to best go about learning more words in your target language.

The number of hours I put in to create this resource for you is near the number of replies but it was worth every second of it. There are really some golden nuggets down the page!

So, without further ado, let’s get comfortable and dive in!

The participants are alphabetically ordered by their first name. You can simply start scrolling from the top or go straight to your favorite language-learning expert by using the list of quick bookmarks below.

Aaron Knight Albert Wolfe André Klein Anne Merritt
Anthony Metivier Ben Whately Lewis Camille Chevalier-Karfis
Catherine Wentworth Corrine McKay David Mansaray Donovan Lee Mcgrath
Flora Petersen Idahosa Ness James Heisig John Fotheringham
Kerstin Hammes Kevin Chen Lizzie Fane Lucas Kern
Lutz Marten Lynn McBride Mark Thomson - Martin Benjamin Olle Linge
Óscar Pellus Pat Wyman Professor Jabba Samuel Gendreau
Simon Ager Stuart Jay-Ray Susana Wald Susanna Zaraysky
Tim Bewer Tomasz P. Szynalski Wiktor Kostrzewski William Linney Yangyang

Aaron KnightAaron Knight

Aaron Knight is the founder of PhraseMix which aims to help you speak English more naturally and confidently. He also taught English in Japan.

Never learn a single word by itself. Learn groups of words that “travel” together.

For example, instead of memorizing the word “flock”, memorize the phrase “a flock of sheep”. Instead of remembering the verb “occur”, remember the phrase “if any problems occur”.

When you remember phrases instead of single words, you ensure that you know how to actually use the word in at least one sentence.

Albert WolfeAlbert-Wolfe

Albert Wolfe is the author of various books. Among them: Chinese 24/7: Everyday Strategies for Speaking and Understanding Mandarin. He also teaches English at the Peizheng College in Guangzhou, China and runs the blog Laowai Chinese.

It’s true that vocabulary is the concept that gets the most attention by language learners.

My theory is that it’s the concept / element we most easily relate to because it’s the one thing we can remember doing (and indeed are still doing) for our first language.

But very few people remember much about learning the pronunciation or grammar of their first language, for example.

So if I had to give one vocabulary learning tip, it would be:

There’s just no way around memorizing a bunch of words. So put the words where you’ll see them as often as possible: on a wall, in a notebook you carry around, on your computer desktop, etc. That way you can get in more review “reps” and memorize them more easily.

André KleinAndre-Klein

Andre Klein, born in Germany, is the writer behind the great Learn Out Live blog and several books on how to learn German like: Learning German Through Storytelling.

There are many methods for learning vocabulary, and every learner should experiment with a variety of approaches to see what comes most naturally. The most important part is not fall into a grind, but to find a method one is comfortable with.

For some people, using flashcards will work best, while for others writing down new words or using a vocabulary trainer app will do the trick.

My personal favorite however is learning languages through creative storytelling.

By reading engaging stories (aimed at the student’s level) language learners can begin to build emotional and sensory contexts around new vocabulary.

Instead of just studying isolated words by rote, new vocabulary can be memorized quicker and deeper because it is linked to characters, places and relationships, just like in real life.

To find out more about this approach, take a look at my article Your Brain On Storytelling: Foreign Language Learning Through Stories.

Anne Merrittanne-merritt

Anne Merritt is an EFL lecturer who’s currently based in South Korea. She writes about language learning for the Telegraph and her writing has been featured on CNN.

If there’s one tip I have for learning vocabulary, it’s to study it in context. We don’t communicate using individual words, we communicate with phrases and sentences.

Language students, especially independent learners, will often flick through vocabulary flashcards or flashcard apps to learn new words.

These cards are a great tool, but they’re not enough on their own. A student could learn hundreds of new vocabulary items, but none of that matters if they don’t know how to apply those words in different contexts.

When you learn a new word, look at its place in the sentence, and look at the words that typically appear with it. Look for patterns.

  • Is the context usually formal or casual?
  • Written or spoken?
  • Is the word typically used for one topic only?

If it’s a word you don’t know, look at context clues to try and deduce meaning.

Building your context deduction skills is an invaluable asset in a language learner. Once you’ve learned the word, try and use it in a few sentences.

When I was a child learning French, my teachers were strict about never giving one-word answers. It was an exercise in politeness as well as sentence-building.

It was never “No”, but instead “No, I don’t like bananas” or “No, I haven’t seen that movie yet.”

Back then, it felt rigid and unnecessarily mechanical. Now, I can understand and appreciate what those teachers were doing. Now, when I speak French, I don’t have to think twice about applying vocabulary, because using it in context is now second nature.

Anthony MetivierAnthony-Metivier

Anthony Metivier is the author of several books about memorizing vocabulary by using his Magnetic Memory Method. He’s also the man behind the How to Learn and Memorize the Vocabulary of Any Language video course. He holds a BA and MA in English Literature, an MA in Media & Communications and a PhD in Humanities.

Imagine the following two scenarios, if you will.

John is using index cards to learn foreign language vocabulary. He sits at his dining room table with a dictionary and fills out word after word on card after card.

He carries these cards around with him and occasionally gets around to looking at them on the bus as he goes about his life.

Sometimes John uses spaced-repetition software. These feed him the same words again and again until he “guesses” them correctly. Sometimes John gets them right because he’s learned them, but this is rare.

When John fails, the spaced-repetition software puts the words he hasn’t memorized into a loop and hammers them at him again and again until he either gets them or gives up.

It’s all rather tedious.

Now let’s visit Tracy.

She’s a bonnie lass with many of the same experiences as John. She’s filled out index cards and spent hours using them when studying her dream foreign language.

She actually likes spaced-repetition programs because they give her greater exposure to her dream language and when she takes the time to program the software, she can study entire phrases.

The difference between Tracy and John is that Tracy also uses her mind in a completely different way, a way that increased her fluency a hundred fold.

Instead of sitting at the kitchen table with a dictionary and index cards all the time, Tracy often curls up with her dictionary on the couch. She uses a completely different memorization strategy, a Memory Palace technique based on Ars Memorativa or mnemonics.

It allows her to absorb words into her mind by drawing upon her past experiences, places she’s familiar with and by exercising her expansive creativity.

This practice also makes her more creative as a result, not to mention far more fluent than John will likely ever be.

If there is one recommendation for language learners that I have, it’s to learn a dedicated memorization strategy that uses some form of mnemonics and steers clear of rote learning as a stand-alone method.

I recommend Memory Palaces for reasons I detail at length in my books and my video course.

Ben WhatelyBen-Whately

Ben Whately is the community manager and chief-assistant-to-all-content-creators of Memrise.

The key when learning a new piece of vocab is to engage with it. To think about it.

Once you have actually thought about a word, given your mind a way to engage with it and to put it into some sort of context – even an imaginary one – your brain has got something to grip onto and can remember it.

The trouble with learning new words in a foreign language is that you don’t have any context to link it to. So you need to find a way to make some context. Finding English words that sound a bit like the foreign word can be a huge help – the sillier, the more ridiculous the better. That is a mnemonic.

As you become more advanced in the language, your store of context within that language will grow, and you won’t need to use such elaborate mnemonics. You may find that sample sentences in the foreign language become more useful to you.

Mnemonics and sample sentences are both examples of “mems”. Mems are anything that helps you to put a new word into a context, and make it more than an abstract piece of vocabulary.

Using Mems is my best recommendation to learning lots of vocab, fast!

Benny LewisBenny Lewis

Benny Lewis runs the biggest language-learning blog on the web: Fluent in 3 Months. He’s also the guy behind the Speak from Day 1 package. He speaks 11 languages — including American Sign language.

Ask a native speaker what the word is, keep talking to them for practice, an opportunity to use the word will come up and you’ll have forgotten it, and then when you get reminded of it, the embarrassment will burn the word into your memory!

While it’s true that flashcard studying in the app Anki, very useful mnemonics given on Memrise.com, and lots of reading in more advanced stages can be effective and how I acquire most of my vocabulary, the first example is the one method that has burned the word into my mind for good every time.

Get out and practice with people!

Camille Chevalier-KarfisCamille-Chevalier-Karfis

Camille (together with her husband Olivier) runs the website French Today where she blogs and offers a series of products and services to help you learn French. She has been teaching French for 19 years.

I am a big fan of “smart” flashcards.

On one side, write the English word, just as a backup, and to test yourself. On the other side, write the word, then the word in a short sentence.

Make the sentence close to “home” - use real people / facts in your life, it will help your brain remember it better.

Then write everything there is about that word, in singular and plural with articles, synonyms, notes of pronunciation (specially liaisons or glidings), flags (like “j’attends” doesn’t mean “I attend” – je vais à un concert), anything you can think of.

I also think that for beginner and intermediate students at least, working with audio is essential since French is not pronounced the way it is written.

A student who learns French to one day speak it (not only to read or to pass exams) should train to understand “street French”, French like it’s spoken today, and understand the modern glidings and “eaten up” words (words that are so much glided that they totally disappear in spoken French, like the “ne” of je ne veux pas.)

The audio you learn with should be using modern French, but at a level you can grasp: not too fast, yet doing the glidings, and using simple yet useful vocabulary and constructions.

Catherine Wentworthcatherine-wentworth-2

Catherine is the founder of the Women Learn Thai blog where she shares how she makes her way through the Thai language and culture. She lives in Bangkok.

It’d have to be repetition.

Whether they use a strict SRS (Spaced Repetition System) or not, reading, writing, and repeating words out loud until they are set in memory is a simple but powerful way to learn new vocabulary.

Corinne McKaycorinne-mckay

Corinne McKay is a certified French to English translator. She’s also part of the Board of Directors of the American Translators Association, author of several books about translation and writes on her blog: Thoughts on Translation.

I would say: consider learning vocabulary through audio materials.

These days I “update” my French vocabulary by listening to podcasts and watching YouTube videos, and I find that the new words stick with me a lot better!

David MansarayDavid-Mansaray

David Mansaray is addicted to learning and a strong believer in self-directed learning. He’s shares his experiences and teaches you to (self) learn more effectively at DavidMansaray.com. He’s currently pursuing the Big Self-Education Project with which he aims to answer questions like: How much can one person learn without going to an institution?

Trying to describe the world around me regularly in the language I’m learning. This exposes gaps in my vocabulary and gives me ample opportunities for active recall.

For example, I may try to describe what a man crossing the street is wearing. And then I’ll ask myself:

  • Do I know the name for all his items of clothing in my target language?
  • Do I know all of the colors?
  • If there’s a woman pushing a pram, do I know the word for “pram” in my foreign language?

When I’m exposed to something I don’t know I write it down and look it up later.

The possibilities for this method are endless. And it’s one of my favorite ways for learning and practicing vocabulary because I can do it at any time of the day and all I need is something to write down new words to look up later.

Donovan Lee McgrathDonovan-Lee-McGrath

A lecturer, writer and researcher, Donovan Lee Mcgrath has taught Swahili since 1993. He’s co-author of Colloquial Swahili: The Complete Course for Beginners and was also included in the Black 100+ Portrait Exhibition of Britain’s Most Influential Black People.

I would have to say make the target language relevant (e.g. tag familiar things around your home using the target language, which should also include such things as shopping lists, etc.).

This should help to raise the language above the level of merely a code (another way of saying something) to something that has relevance to the way you live.

Of course, you can’t beat the old faithful index card system (selected words of the first language on one side with the equivalent in the target language on the other – ticking them off as you get them right), but you asked me for one example!

Flora Petersenflora-petersen

Flora Petersen is the Communications Manager of Babbel.com where you can learn a host of languages online. Babbel has 17 million users.

For vocabulary learning there is not one single method. Indeed, there are as many ways as there are personalities in this world.

Embed your new language into your life and into your daily routine, not the other way around! Vocabulary varies with the situations in which you find yourself.

This is why Babbel dedicates a special part of its courses to a vocabulary trainer section called “words and sentences”. You will find 3000 words with example sentences for practical application plus a further 1000 useful sentences for specific everyday situations.

All you need to do is to find a pattern with which you can repeat your newly acquired words regularly.

Vary the situations and ways in which you review your vocabulary, write the words, listen to them, spell them, sing them, be creative and play with them! And take them out with you, which is all the easier with our handy apps.

Don’t lock yourself in your room, as learning in such a way will be exactly what you don’t want it to be: dull and isolating.

Another tip: Be aware of yourself and your goals. Don’t limit your studying to preconceived notions or set situations given by someone else.

What do you talk about in your native language? Saying something in your new language will become much easier once you really want to say it.

Your way of learning changes with your mood. Develop a sense of what works best for you straight away.

And don’t be afraid to make mistakes or to forget a word, as this is where interactive flashcards and the Babbel review manager will help you.

Idahosa NessIdahosa-Ness

Idahosa Ness is the creator of the Mimic Method and Flow Training. He teaches people how to sing, rap and mimic foreign languages with a perfect accent.

In my experience as a learner and teacher, the stronger one’s mastery of the sounds and “flow” of the language, the easier it is to pick up new vocab and expressions through simple listening and interaction.

You can memorize an entire dictionary of vocab on paper, but that information is useless if you can’t recognize the sounds of those words in real speech or wrap your mouth around their articulation when trying to express yourself.

So for me the best method is to avoid the trap of turning language-learning into a Vocab Easter Egg Hunt and focus on maximizing real life interactions with native speakers.

James HeisigJames-Heisig

James Heisig is the author of various books on Japanese and Chinese. Among them the classic: Remembering the Kanji 1: A Complete Course on How Not To Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters. He’s also a philosopher in the field of philosophy of religion.

Not being a language teacher, I can only tell you what I do: read, READ, READ.

And to be more specific: begin by reading children’s books, and then pass on to the harder stuff.

John FotheringhamJohn Fotheringham

John Fotheringham is the man behind the blog Language Mastery. He’s also the author of various guides on how to master a new language.

There are many powerful techniques one can use to acquire vocabulary more efficiently (e.g. spaced repetition, creative mnemonics, strong emotional connections, etc.), but no matter the method, the key is to focus on learning vocabulary in context.

Focus on topics and materials you enjoy, avoiding rote memory, non-contextual vocabulary lists, and flashcards with only single words. If you do use flashcards, make sure they include complete sentences (preferably taken from authentic content you have heard or read).

Kerstin HammesKerstin-Hammes

Kerstin Hammes, a native German speaker, is a language tutor currently teaching German, French and English — both on and offline. She’s also the woman behind the Fluent Language Blog.

My best vocabulary building method is to ask, check, find out – whenever you don’t know a word and it keeps appearing, look it up because it’s probably important.

When you’re in the country, use everyone you meet as a potential tutor, try out new words on them and make sure you know the local words for “how do you say…”.

It doesn’t build the most topical vocab, but it will associate most new words with specific memories and makes them stickier.

When reading, listening or watching at home, learners should also make an effort to look up new words.

Most of the time inferring from the context will do a decent job of teaching them the gist, but anyone who wants to expand their vocabulary should actively look up more unfamiliar words, write them down and revisit them.

This doesn’t require travel or even a native speaker.

Kevin ChenKevin-Chen

Kevin Chen is co-founder of italki. italki helps connect people learning foreign languages with online teachers around the world. italki has roughly 1.5 million users.

My favorite vocabulary building technique is — storing new words that I encounter from chatting with friends into an SRS program (like Anki).

What’s hard for me is to learn new words out of context.

I used to download word lists of subjects that I aspired to learn (e.g. “Business Chinese”). However, I found that it’s hard for me to keep up my motivation when it is pure memorization. SRS works, but only if you’re motivated enough to use the SRS program.

I still can’t remember the Chinese words for “liabilities”. I think what’s most important is to learn words that you’ll encounter over and over.

Some people like to get new words through reading, which is great. However, people who are studying Chinese know there are non-trivial differences between written Mandarin and spoken Mandarin.

At my Chinese level, reading a normal news article is still hard work — I have to be constantly checking for abbreviations, dropped characters, proper names, and unfamiliar sentence structures.

For my language level (intermediate Chinese), I find that chatting with friends online or through my phone are the most interesting sources of new words. Words that come up in conversations are generally words that I’ll encounter again.

What I do then, is look up the new words in a dictionary (either Pleco on phone, or MDGB on the web). I copy the definitions into either Anki on my laptop, or add it to a flashcard on my phone. (If I’m being studious, I also copy the full sentence where I ran into it.)

When I review the words, it’s also a nice reminder of the conversations I’ve had with my friends.(I don’t know if this will work for other people but… it’s the way I’ve been doing it.)

Lizzie FaneLizzie-Fane

Lizzie Fane studied Italian and History of Art at The University of Edinburgh and is the founder of ThirdYearAbroad.com, the UK’s biggest network of students who study or work abroad during their degree.

I have two recommendations if that’s ok?

1. Language Immersion for Chrome. This neat little Google Chrome browser extension means that you can pick your language and your immersion level, and it translates individual words on the webpage you’re reading.

When you mouse-over a word you don’t know, it’s translated back into English, so you are subconsciously learning while you work/study!

2. Listen while you read. A cunning tactic is to listen to an unabridged audiobook read in English, while reading the same book in a foreign language.

It really works!

I read Harry Potter e la Pietra Filosofale while listening to Stephen Fry reading the Philosopher’s Stone, and I absorbed a huge amount of weird and wonderful words and expressions.

It’s strangely effective!

Lucas KernLucas-Kern

Lucas Kern is the founder of Leicht-Deutsch-Lernen.com, where he offers several products to help you learn German while having fun.

I have encountered many vocabulary-building methods and I think a lot of them are great and very effective to a certain point.

And many of them seem to work in the beginning but then most language learners come to a point that is really hard to overcome. And I think that is the main problem.

You can use the best learning materials and the best methods but if you are not motivated anymore – no method will work.

So I think a good vocabulary-building method is a method that keeps you motivated.

I create German vocabulary lessons myself and I try to focus on fun as a main factor to keep people motivated.

Lutz MartenLutz-Marten

Lutz Marten is Professor of General and African Linguistics and (co)author of various books like Colloquial Swahili: The Complete Course for Beginners.

I don’t think there is one right method.

I think it varies from learner to learner. And indeed for the same learner over time.

You might be really excited about sticking little stickers on your furniture one week and then get bored by it the next.

I personally used to use a little note-book which I’d carry around everywhere and write down new words, and nowadays it’s easy to do on your phone or iPad.

And of course there is a lot of good learning support material, like audio material, flip cards, on-line tests, etc.

Having said this, I think the golden rule is, whatever the method, to spend some time on language learning every day, even if it’s just 20 minutes, rather than, say, an extended session once a week.

Lynn McBrideLynn-McBride

Lynn McBride, is the author of: How to Learn a New Language with a Used Brain written especially for adult learners who want to successfully learn a new language or revive a stalled effort. She also writes about life, living and cooking in France on her blog: Southern Fried French.

Especially if you’re a visual learner, a great way to improve vocabulary is by reading and writing.

For reading, the fastest way to learn is to pick up a bilingual book. As you find words you don’t know, you can simply look at the translation on the facing page. Writing is great because it forces you to use the dictionary and look up words you’re likely to need again.

Try writing a note to a friend, or recounting a story.

Also I keep an Ultralingua dictionary on my mobile devices. If I have a wait somewhere, I’m happy just poking around in the dictionary or using the flash card app.

Mark ThomsonMark-Thomson

Mark Thomson is a self-taught, fluent speaker of Russian (currently living in Ukraine) and the creator of the online course Russian Accelerator, as well as the chief consultant for the course Japanese Mastery Method.

The Five Steps For Learning Vocabulary

Step 1: Listen and repeat

You shouldn’t be aware of the word’s meaning. Just practice saying it. This mimics how children learn: They hear words first, and deduce the meanings later. Unfortunately, most people’s encounter with a new word will be with the meaning already attached, as in: “The Spanish word for ‘beach’ is ‘playa.’”

Step 2: Determine meaning from context.

The ideal is to learn all new words from the context of sentences in that language, but if you’re a beginner, then you need to learn it from the context of an English sentence (or whatever your native tongue is). Take the Russian word “pivo”. (Sounds like “PEE-vuh”)

Contextual phrases:

Coors and Heineken are my two favorite types of pivo.

In that bar, the only pivo they have on tap is Budweiser.

As children we figured out the meaning of virtually every word we know in this same way.

Step 3: Create a mnemonic device.

For the word ‘pivo,’ I’d use: Every time I drink BEER, I have to pee.

The above phrase has the English meaning (beer), and the start of our target word (“pee” which leads us to the word “pivo.”)

Step 4: Write the word onto a flashcard. By hand. On cardstock.

The physical act of writing helps in remembering. Also, put an ‘X’ on the corner of the card each time you get it wrong, to keep track of your progress. As you become more advanced, your cards should include phrases featuring the most common constructions of the language.

Step 5: Use the new word right away, even if it’s the first word you’ve learned in that language.

Returning to our word ‘pivo’, imagine you’re with a Russian friend in your kitchen. Gesture to the six-pack of Coors, then ask, “Pivo?”

Also, use it in whatever fundamental constructions you’ve learned in that language. For example:

I like pivo.

I don’t drink pivo.

…and so on.

These five steps are the ideal way to absorb new vocabulary in your target language.

Martin BenjaminMartin-Benjamin

Martin Benjamin is the founder and executive director of the Kamusi Project, an international effort to produce learning and lexical resources for languages worldwide. He is a senior scientist at EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne. He taught Swahili for several years at Yale and Wesleyan Universities.

The DIY is flashcards.

Make your own cards, work through them in batches, shuffle them, retire the ones you know, once in a while pick up the ones you’ve retired. This builds vocabulary, but doesn’t break you out of thinking in your own language first.

My favorite method is language exchange, e.g. a program here in Lausanne called Tandem. You get together for coffee once a week, for an hour or so, with someone who wants to learn/ improve in your language, and has the language you want to learn.

You talk half the time in your language and half the time in theirs. As you speak, you are forced to dig deep in your memory for words you know you know.

At the same time, you realize there are words you need that you’ve never encountered – so you can check with your partner, with the bonus exercise of trying to explain the missing concept in the language you are learning, or look it up in a dictionary if neither knows.

When it is their turn, they will also have vocabulary issues, and you’ll learn more words by having to help them. It’s a lot more effort to arrange tandems and block out the time, but conversation goes to the core of why you are learning a language in the first place.

Olle LingeOlle-Ligne

Olle Linge, a Swede living in Taiwan, runs Hacking Chinese, a website dedicated to unveiling the mysteries of learning a language in general and about learning Chinese in particular. He speaks three languages.

The ideal way of acquiring vocabulary at a rapid pace is to see the vocabulary in a context that can be understood (comprehensible input).

However, this isn’t enough for most adult learners for two reasons.

  1. It’s hard to find suitable immersion material before you reach a level where native material becomes comprehensible.
  2. Most learners find it hard to spend enough time to make relying on reading and listening only a viable strategy.

Enter: Spaced repetition software.

SRS allows you to retain a large number of words without spending too much time.

This increases our passive understanding of the language a lot and allows us to gradually increase the amount of the target language we can absorb and therefore also increasing the efficiency of our immersion effort.

So, in essence, I think reading and listening in combination with SRS is the best way to expand vocabulary.

Then, gradually, once we have understood the words, they can be activated and increase our ability to use the target language to express ourselves in speaking and writing.

Óscar PellusOscar-Pellus

Óscar is the founder of Unlimited Spanish, a system that aims to help you speak Spanish with confidence. He lives in Barcelona, Spain.

Most experts agree that a key process in learning a language is how we acquire vocabulary. The more words you understand in the target language, the better you’ll read, listen, write and speak.

There is a key idea that is very important to keep in mind: “Your brain loves context”. I will talk about it in a moment, but first let’s take a look at a few different strategies for learning new vocabulary.

The first approach you might take for learning words is to make lists. Many people do that. The main advantage of making lists of words is that it is easy to do. However, there is a little drawback with this approach…It simply does not work!

Lists are not usually so short – they grow and grow and become huge — and the worst of all, the words are weakly related to each other. A list of words does not provide any context for your brain.

A better approach for learning vocabulary is to learn phrases instead of just words.

It’s easy to create a picture in our minds when we see a phrase because something is happening. The more vivid the image is, the better you will learn. And remember, your brain loves context.

There are multiple advantages with this approach:

  • You can learn faster.
  • You can learn the correct word order from the beginning.
  • You can subconsciously learn grammar.

A good practice is to have a notebook of phrases. You can write down phrases you want to learn and review them from time to time.Learning phrases is good, but there is an even better approach for learning vocabulary.

Instead of just being limited to phrases, learn words through stories, through texts.

Stories are built up of phrases, and therefore they have all the advantages I talked about before, and the best of all is they provide a much richer context, because many things are going on in the story.

This way your brain can learn in a more subconscious, natural and deeper way, making it easier to write and speak the target language. You remember what I said before, right?

Your brain loves context.

Pat WymanPat-Wyman

Pat Wyman is the founder and CEO of HowToLearn.com. She’s also author of several popular books like: Vocabulary Made Easy: Learn New Words in HALF the Time! Her learning strategies are used in more than 2000 schools worldwide.

The best way to recall vocabulary is via pictures with association.

Neuroscience says this makes memory stronger and faster. If you connect a picture of the word in your mind with what it reminds you of (ask the question – what does the sound of this remind me of?) then when you want to recall the word, you look up and see the image and the connection of what it reminds you of.

For example, a Portuguese word Lago means lake. If you draw a log in a lake (lago reminds you of lake), then take a mental snapshot of it and look up during your test to recall the image, connected to the lake, you will recall that lago means lake.

Professor JabbaProfessor-Jabba

Professor Jabba, is the character that represents Jabbalab, where you can learn German, French and Spanish online.

Ok, so if we could only recommend one vocabulary building method, it would be conversation.

Listening to, analyzing and most importantly taking part in conversations is the quickest and most valuable way to expand your vocabulary.

The reason for this is the breadth of words used in conversation, as well as the immediate understanding of how and when they are used.

In an ideal World, you would have conversations with native/fluent speakers of the language you are learning, but even practicing with others learning is also valuable. It’s for this reason that our learning modules have animations at their heart. These animations are spoken by natives of that language and subtitled with our Double Translate method.

This method allows you to follow the language being learned and easily understand the words being used and how the sentences are structured.

The animations are always scripted in a conversational manner around specific topics. This allows you to not only learn the core vocabulary around a topic (e.g. restaurants), but also supporting vocabulary that you would often experience in those situations.

Samuel GendreauSamuel Gendreau

Sam is the writer behind the Lingholic blog where you can find lots of useful tips on language learning.

You may be familiar with a post I wrote on the subject in the past.

Simply put, the method I would recommend the most is to learn through context. I’m especially drawn towards Luca’s method. (See suggested post above.)

Simon AgerSimon-Ager

Simon Ager is the man behind Omniglot.com, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages. The site was setup in 1998(!). He speaks 10 languages and has a BA in Chinese and Japanese and a MA in Linguistics.

I don’t know if there is one particular method I could recommend as I tend to use a variety of methods.

I tend to pick up a lot of my vocabulary from extensive listening and reading.

When I come across unfamiliar words I try to work out what they mean from the context. If that isn’t possible I look them up.

I use associations to help me remember some words, and also find that knowing the etymology of words can be helpful.

Note: Simon has now updated his view on learning vocabulary.

Stuart Jay RajStuart-Jay-Raj

Stuart Jay Raj is a true jack-of-all-trades. He speaks over 12 languages and is also a TV host and jazz pianist. He lives in Bangkok.

My answer would be – for myself, I use any technique I can to extend the time I can keep vocabulary in my short-term memory so that I can use it and understand it and so that it can settle in my long-term memory.

In saying that , I personally use association, colors / emotions and the Major Method in combination to extend the short-term memory shelf-life of new vocab.

Susana WaldSusana-Wald

Susana Wald is the author of Spanish for Dummies. She’s also a translator and has taught visual arts in Chile, Canada and Mexico.

In my experience while learning languages, vocabulary was possibly the biggest hurdle.

My first language is Hungarian. My parents had to leave Hungary when I was 11. I had to learn Spanish, English and French, almost simultaneously.

Now I speak them fluently. I write well in Spanish, somewhat less well in English. 

I have a “bad” memory. Have had one all my life. Actually I remember many things, even now that I’m old, have good short-range and middle and long-range memories. But rote learning, learning by heart, has been a huge hurdle for me, all my life.

I had no trouble picking up vocabulary in Spanish. My parents took me to Buenos Aires: and I was immersed in Spanish. French and English were the problem.

I now think that the way I really picked up vocabulary in these two languages was by constantly reading, very rarely going to a dictionary (in dead-end streets, so to speak) and listening to others talk, in films, on the streets, when I was able to travel and much later on TV.

I now live in a place where I have no chance to hear or speak Hungarian. I try to talk to myself in this language each night before I fall asleep. It is soothing and surprisingly, words that I couldn’t remember suddenly appear.

I also read in Hungarian, buy books that interest me in that language, and that amplifies my vocabulary too.

One exercise that I have created for myself from very early on is NOT to worry about vocabulary, imagine situations in the language I wanted to practice and insert the word I couldn’t remember from another of the languages I knew.

When learning English, I simply inserted words in Hungarian.

Somehow, quite quickly, the sentences that in the beginning had many Hungarian words in them began to change and were more and more often filled in by English ones, up to the point where I had the feeling that I was “forgetting” Hungarian.

Susanna ZarayskySusanna-Zaraysky

Susanna Zaraysky is the author of Language is Music and Travel Happy, Budget Low. She has studied 11 languages and traveled to over 50 countries.

Music activates more parts of the brain than language does. So when you listen to a song or advertising jingle, you are more likely to recall the words from the song or jingle than if you just read them or heard them spoken.

Find songs where the words are not sung very fast so that you can hear each word distinctly. Mana for Spanish learners, is a good choice.

Find music that you like and that you can easily decipher and learn the lyrics of the songs. You can find song lyrics easily online at www.lyrics.com and other websites.

Tim BewerTim-Bewer

Tim Bewer has written or co-written over two dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet, Moon Handbooks, and other publishers. He lives in Khon Kaen, Thailand where he runs a tour company called: Isan Explorer.

Here is my vocabulary building tip, which I used to learn Thai, and am still using today to continue to improve.

I write all my new vocabulary words on a piece of paper that I always keep in my pocket. I pull it out when I have any free time – waiting in line at the store, riding a bus, standing in an elevator, etc. – and use it to practice.

When I feel I am remembering the word well enough I write it in a notebook. I then use this notebook to review words, going through, usually, two or three pages each day.

When I come upon a word that I have forgotten, I put it on the list in my pocket again.

Tomasz P. Szynalskitomasz-szynalski

Tomasz Szynalski is one of the (two) creators of Antimoon, a website for learners of English as a second language. He also writes for the Antimoon blog.

  1. Natural input
  2. SRS (if you’re an introvert)

Wiktor KostrzewskiWiktor-Kostrzewski

Wiktor Kostrzewski is the writer behind 16Kinds.com, a website on teaching yourself a language and guerilla language learning.

The only system worth recommending is one that works ahead of you, not against you – easy to set up, painless to access, flexible and intuitive.

That’s true for all systems you’re using.

In learning, another key thing is important: building on what you know already, and reaching out for the next thing you need to learn – always being challenged, but never too baffled by the challenge.

Finally, language learning and vocabulary: it helps to create a rich context for the items you’re learning – audio, visuals, example sentences all help here, and should be available the moment you encounter, memorize and re-visit your item.

If I had to choose one thing that’s out there today, it would have to be based around Memrise – it ticks many of the boxes listed above, and despite its limitations, it’s good enough for vocabulary learning.

But I’m always looking out for new and better things – and I know there are amazing solutions out there that are just waiting to be unleashed!

William E. LinneyWilliam-E-Linney

William E. Linney is the author of the popular book Getting Started with Latin. He offers additional Latin learning material for free on the accompanying website and on Linney’s Latin Class.

For me, the answer to that question has changed over the years.

At first, I thought it was rote memorization. Flash cards and such. Later, being a student of Latin and ancient Greek (which are mostly learned in order to read texts) I thought the answer was to read lots of texts and see the words over and over in texts.

Nowadays, however, I feel that the best way to memorize new vocabulary is to use the word in spoken conversations.

Of course, it’s good to study the word separately, away from the conversation, using a dictionary, or seeing it written in a text — those methods are indeed helpful.

But ultimately, one should use the word in conversation, and hear others use it in conversation.

That’s my two cents worth.

YangyangYangyang

Yangyang is the CEO of Lang-8, a language exchange social network that has over 250,000 registered members.

Personally, I think remembering words with sentences or paragraphs is good way to learn vocabulary.

 

What a mammoth of a post!

A HUGE thanks to all contributors! Without you this wouldn’t have been possible, of course.

Thanks to you, my readers, as well. If you consider this post as helpful as I do, please share it with your friends.

That’s it! You’ve reached the end of the post. There’s just one little thing left to ask:

If there was one method for learning vocabulary that you’d recommend to the world, which one would it be?

Let me know in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. What illustrious company.
    Thanks so much for asking and preparing this post!

  2. What an amazing resource of vocab learning methods! I took out a notebook and a pen in order to jot down these ideas and brainstorm new ones. As a language learner and a teacher (Mandarin Chinese) I’m always looking for new and useful ways to learn vocabulary.

    I personally used SRS for Chinese up until advanced level. Right now I get my words from thesis writing, reading, work and using Chinese as my main communication language.

    My method would be something like this: Study with a textbook to have a structure, complement it with other tools. Learn new words in context, use pictures too. When you know the word, review it with a SRS software. Read more and more as your skills improve.

  3. Camille Chevalier-Karfis is amazing! She has taught me so much and helped me get so far beyond the textbook french that I learned in school.

  4. I did exactly the same as Tim Bewer! I always wrote down new words and/or expressions! I come from Barcelona, Spain, I learnt Spanish and Catalan as a baby, I am bilingual though education was mostly in Spanish and several hours a week we had Catalan and French, with some old Latin and Greek at school. As a teenager several hours a week came English and German after schooltime. Then I started to work as a secretary and along the years I have always kept one homemade pocket notebook with alphabetical index for each language and I still keep them! I chose graded books in topics I loved as required since the very beginning. I can speak, sing, pray in all the above languages, but maths only in Spanish and with a calculator at hand. :-)

  5. Great set of ideas here. I’m surprised not to see one of my favourites. Cheryl and I are very different. She loves the flashcard method. I like immersion methods. One thing I’ve done in three different languages, and it works great for me. As soon as I have a minimum number of words, I throw away my English-Other dictionary and buy a good school-level dictionary in the target language. So, for German, I’d look up words I needed to in my Schülerduden. At the beginning, I’d have to look up half of the definition as well, and it can get slow and frustrating. But it gets easier and you learn a lot of words in context in the process. Going the other way sometimes meant I’d have to use a paragraph instead of a word, hunting around to describe what I wanted to say in words I already knew, “You know, that white stuff that mothers feed to their babies, … what’s that called? Ah, milk, yes.” Again, very slow and frustrating at first, but the payoff over time is that I’m thinking in the other language sooner. Anyway, thanks for all the tips here, will definitely try some! Paul

  6. Rena Dunne says:

    I use the agenda in my mobile phone. I enter like an appointment and set it ahead for 3 days. That way I get to see it again after a short passage of time. When I’m reminded of it and I felt that I’ve remembered it, I edit it on for 3 weeks and keep doing this until the word is really familiar to me.

    When I started learning first, I used to write new words in a little notebook and take it our whenever I had a chance – on the bus, standing in a queue (line) etc.

  7. Thanks for this very useful post.

    My method is actually a mix of what all these people say. I use anki with full sentences, memrise with memes, and I try to speak the language as soon as possible to use the words in context really quickly and remember them better.

    At the end everyone has it’s own method, but knowing how other people learn and try different methods is the best way to know what works best for you.

  8. This is such a useful post. I will share it in my online community of English language teachers and learners. Thank you for compiling this!

  9. Great post! Great advice! I agree that reading and listening to stories is a great way to provide context and improve your vocabulary!

  10. Great article! Many experts recommend flashcards, which are also recommended by Paul Nation as a particularly efficient way to build up high-frequency vocabulary. I remember him mentioning that some research had shown that usually sentence examples were not actually especially beneficial for retention – but I expect that greatly depends on the language pair involved, how directly translatable it is and other factors.
    The downside of flashcards is that they are boring, so I made a game which is more engaging and requires production of the target word – giving hints as necessary. It imports flashcards from http://www.quizlet.com, an excellent flashcard website. Try it out online at http://www.lexwordgameapp.com
    There is also a widget version so anyone can embed it on their site with designated Quizlet lists. There is an iPhone app (”Lex Flashcard Game for Quizlet’, currently free), with Android coming soon.
    My other tip would be to use a webtranslator tool like http://www.readlang.com to read articles online, which saves your lookups to a list which you can then export to a flashcard program for review. It also saves the sentence so you can be reminded of the original context. From these it can also export cloze sentences with translated hint (e.g. hombre – ‘Yo soy un (man)’) , which is an excellent format because you can get the context but also use sentences that are not in themselves enough to be defining.
    Cheers,
    Oliver

  11. Phil Bowler says:

    This is a very useful compilation. The value of mnemonics has been mentioned several times, and I concur. Memrise.com is especially good for this, as has been said. For example: “…very useful mnemonics given on Memrise.com…” I’d just like to point out, though, how important it is to create mnemonics (‘mems’, in Memrise terms) for yourself. I’m using Memrise for learning Chinese vocab, and it really is excellent, but it’s only occasionally that I find an existing mem that grabs my attention – and memory! It’s the thinking up of a suitable mem for myself that I find most useful for learning. Though even that doesn’t always work. As others have said above, it’s finding contexts for the vocab and *using* it that’s of the utmost importance.

  12. Thanks Noel for compile all these useful tips!!!
    All roads lead to Rome, So I’d like to add: Take whatever method(s) works best for you.
    Free associations works very well for me: my first word in Dutch that I’d remember was “leren”=learn . I linked the sound of the pronunciation to the word Lyre in spanish, because it comes very close by.
    Although I learn Dutch from an English platform and not from my mother tongue (spanish), the hardest part of learning a language is the accent. To achieve a decent accent will take you a life time, (I’m still working on it after 25 years).
    Now a days we have google’s translator. So we can improve pronunciation without consulting/annoying a native speaker all day long :-). Highly Recommended for introverts, like me.
    Finally, I think that to learn languages makes a nice contribution to increase the amount of new neuron pathways on your brain.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Hi Willy,

      You’re welcome.

      Yes Dutch (my native tongue) is difficult for Spanish native speakers to pronounce but from what I see around me (I live in Costa Rica) English is even harder.

      Thanks for the contribution.

  13. Wow! lots of good advice here.

    But I have to agree with Benny Lewis, The only method that’s worked for me EVERY TIME is being embarrassed in a conversation when you don’t understand a word that you had heard before.

  14. Perhaps I have never read such a helpful article about this subject before!!
    I’ll test some of those advice above to find out which of them fit me better, expecially the so-called Luca’s method. It seems to be both simple and effectveness; a kind of Columbus’ egg :-)
    Thanks again Noel for having put another interesting piece together.
    Cheers, Luke.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      I’m glad you’ve found it useful, Luke.

      Yes, that’s a great way to learn vocabulary.
      The best part is that it isn’t just good for vocab. It’s quite a complete method especially suited for people in the intermediate stage and beyond.

  15. Noga Spira says:

    I use Lingua.ly to improve my vocabulary: it’s a Chrome extension that helps you pick up new words from any webpage you visit, reminds you to practice them in an SRS model, and then finds new content that is just right for your level and vocabulary.

  16. We share some favorite words with you. Let’s connect at favoritewords.com It’s a neat and fresh app that’s free to use and it seems to offer some nice benefits.

  17. I’m using SRS with an English-English monolingual dictionary and a tool I’ve created to facilitate card creation given a word is brings up an entry from the dictionary where I can pick the definition I’m interested in and examples and it allows to choose whether to put an example on the front or back of the card, when put on the front it replaces the word with gaps.
    This tools allows me to significantly speed up the card creation as I have it all in one place, I don’t have to manually copy paste definitions and examples from the dictionary and replace the word on the front of the card with gaps.
    The method is similar to the one described by Tom on the Antimoon website.
    Also I’ve a site where I keep a list of new words (and phrases) I encounter, these are automatically sorted by the frequency of occurrence with the most frequent ones at the top. Words can be added from a java app one my phone or from the website. With the app and the website suggesting possible correct alternatives when a word is misspelled which happens when trying to spell it when encountered in the spoken form in an audio book or a podcast.

    The web card creation tool is freely available in the form of a Chrome extension called “English vocabulary card creator” if you google for it, the limitation is that it only works with the ankiweb website (I’ve created it for my own sake and nobody else is actively using it as far as I can tell but in case anybody is interested it is freely available)

  18. My favorite way to improve my english is reading a lot. For example, in this moment, I’m reading a great novel called “Jane Eyre”, also I try to listen news, or read news in english. I like a lot this article, because it give me some excellent tips for learning english in a funny way. Thanks a lot!

  19. I’ve been learning French off and on for the past 10 years but now that my kids are in a French immersion school I’ve been more intentional about it. Reading has been key for me. I devour French novels and only when I absolutely need to look up a word I do (using the French larousse app). It keeps a record of all the words you look up which I then write down into a moleskin that I carry with me at all time. Also listening to podcasts all day helps too.

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