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!
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 – Benny Lewis – Camille Chevalier-Karfis
Catherine Wentworth – Corrine McKay – David Mansaray – Donovan Lee Mcgrath – Idahosa Ness – James Heisig – John Fotheringham
Kerstin Cable – 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 – Steve Kaufmann – Stuart Jay-Ray – Susana Wald – Susanna Zaraysky
Tim Bewer – Tomasz P. Szynalski – Wiktor Kostrzewski – William Linney – Yangyang
As six years have passed since this post was first published, I thought it would be nice to see if the experts still think the same about the best way to build foreign vocabulary. The results are below. Some experts have updated their opinion, others still stand by what they said years ago, and some I couldn’t reach or didn’t want to take part in the 2019 update. I also updated the design of the post a bit. I hope you like it.
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.
I tried to reach Aaron by email, but did not get a reply.
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.
I’d like to rephrase my suggestion slightly: learning vocab is trying to remember a new acquaintance’s name.
We’ve all been in this situation: someone at a party introduces herself, you shake hands, chat for a few minutes and then at the end of the conversation, you’re horrified to realize you have no idea what her name is.
So why does that happen sometimes, but not ALL the time? I think it comes down to one thing: give it a second thought.
For example, I meet a girl named Tiffany, so I think of the song “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and imagine her singing it. I meet a guy named Bob, so I think of him floating (bobbing) in a pool with a yellow rubber ducky floaty around his waist.
But so often vocabulary in a new language is like meeting people whose names you’ve never even heard of!
So that’s when the 2nd (or 5th) thought is extra important. Could be you need to write it down, post it on a wall, record someone saying it, take a stroll through the dictionary looking at, discuss with a friend how funny/harsh/beautiful the word sounds, etc..
In summary: if we can’t even remember names of people we meet without putting in some mental effort, it’s pretty unreasonable to expect ourselves to remember vocab in a new language without giving it a second thought.
That’s one reason I like electronic dictionaries that have history features. Even in my own language I can’t remember all the new words. Which reminds me, I better go check that word from the other day…oh that’s right: gallimaufry!
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.
André stands by his original opinion.
f 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.
Anne stands by her original opinion.
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.
Anthony stands by his original opinion.
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!
I tried to reach Ben by email, but did not get a reply.
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!
I tried to reach Benny by email, but did not get a reply.
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.
Camille stands by her original opinion.
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.
I tried to reach Catherine by email, but did not get a reply.
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!
I tried to reach Corrine by email, but did not get a reply.
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.
I tried to reach David by email, but did not get a reply.
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!
I tried to reach Donovan by email, but did not get a reply.
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.
Here’s how I build my vocabulary when I learn a new language.
Whenever I enter a real life conversation and I don’t have the word for the thing, I ask the person what the word is.
Then I listen to the person, and repeat what they said several times by ear until I know I’m pronouncing it correctly.
Then I quickly write down the word IN ENGLISH in the notes app on my iphone.
Then when I review later, I move those English words to a simple google spreadsheet with three columns: Actors, Actions, Things.
I quickly go through all the english words on that sheet and highlight the ones I can’t quickly recall the second language word for.
For those, I look it up on google translate, and listen to its pronunciation on forvo.com.
I also play around and try to make different sentences with the words on the list.
So it’s not a list of “words I know,” it’s actually a list of words “I know I’ve wanted to use in real life conversation.”
So my mind goes back to that moment in my episodic memory, with all the sights, sounds, scents and feelings associated, and it strengthens the intuitive connection.
Do this for a dozen words a day and after a few weeks things start to flow naturally. I’m not memorizing and recalling vocabulary like a robot anymore – I’m just expressing and understanding myself organically like a human being.
Problem with studying vocabulary outside of a real life context is that there are no real experience to anchor the sound to.
In essence, the words are dead to us. So when we enter into a real life scenario, they’re inaccessible.
The words you want to know are the words you experienced the acute pain of not knowing. That emotion then anchors the word in your experiential memory, so that it’s more accessible next time that situation occurs.
Actually, in The Mimic Method, we don’t focus too much on words – we focus on sounds. Because conversation is just the act of matching sound to situation.
If you don’t have the capacity to properly perceive and produce those sounds, or if you haven’t lived the real life situations to connect those sounds to then you won’t be able to speak the language.
Without real sounds and situations, all you’re doing is memorizing letter-sequences that mean nothing to you personally.
Might as well be back in high school Chemistry class.
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.
James preferred to not to participate this time.
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).
I still hold to the same basic language learning principles (i.e. that we acquire vocabulary and syntax primarily through lots of exposure and practice, NOT conscious study).
But one thing has changed in the past six years: the availability, quality, and diversity of online language learning tools.
It’s now easier than ever to immerse yourself in your target language(s) anywhere in the world using authentic audio and video content.
One of my new favorite tools is a Chrome extension called Language Learning with Netflix (LLN), which adds cool interactive subtitles and a built-in pop-up dictionary right within the browser version of Netflix.
As Katie Harris from Joy of Languages mentioned in her talk at the 2019 Polyglot Gathering, “Languages are about people. If you don’t have real people, films and TV are the next best thing.” And LLN makes films and television shows that much more effective!
But input alone is not enough, and I highly encourage learners to practice and apply the words and structures they encounter while watching videos with an online tutor using a site like iTalki.
This powerful coupling of input and output will give your brain what it needs to internalize the language, build thick layers of myelin (neural “insulation” that drives skill acquisition), and ultimately understand and use the language in rapid, real-time communication.
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.
Make sure that you have a great place to capture new vocabulary from whatever source you find.
When you watch TV online, have online lessons, use apps and practice using an audio course, keep a quick note of the new things you’ve learnt.
If you set up a system where you have a notebook (physical or digital) to capture new words, you are setting yourself up for a win because you can review from one central place and determine the most useful words over time.
Trust yourself to know which words will be the most relevant to how you study.
I like to review my vocabulary by re-reading stories in my target language, followed by hand writing it in a notebook. Other learners enjoy using flashcard decks or reviewing vocabulary through quizzes with a 1-to-1 tutor.
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.)
Kevin stands by his original opinion.
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!
I tried to reach Lizzie by email, but did not get a reply.
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.
I tried to reach Lucas by email, but did not get a reply.
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, online 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.
I tried to reach Lutz by email, but did not get a reply.
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.
I tried to reach Lynn by email, but did not get a reply.
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”)
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.
I tried to reach Mark by email, but did not get a reply.
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.
I tried to reach Martin by email, but did not get a reply.
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.
It’s hard to find suitable immersion material before you reach a level where native material becomes comprehensible.
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.
I emailed back-and-forth with Olle but in the end it seemed he preferred not to participate this time.
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.
Óscar stands by his original opinion.
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.
I tried to reach Pat by email, but did not get a reply.
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.
I tried to reach the folks at Jabbalab by email, but couldn’t find an email address or working contact page.
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.)
I tried to reach Sam by email, but did not get a reply.
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.
Here are my current thoughts on learning vocabulary:
Try to learn words in context, rather than individually.
Look for any many examples as you can of how they’re used in writing and speech, and make up your own sentences using them.
You can make your own sentences more memorable by combining ordinary words with extraordinary words.
For example, the sentence ‘A lion is dancing on the table’ makes a memorable and unusual mental image, and helps you remember the words lion, dance, and table, and how to say something is on something.
Then you can play with such sentences by changing one part at a time – there might be more than one lion, or another creature.
This event might have happened in the past or future, or another piece of furniture might have been involved.
You can even use such sentences as the basis of a story, poem or song by answering questions like, Where did the lion come from? What kind of lion was it? What was it called? Why was it on the table? What kind of dance was it doing? Where was the table? What kind of table was it? Who or what else was involved? What happened next?
This can be fun, and can help you build a web of related words.
Did not participate.
LingQ is the best app for learning vocabulary. That’s what it was created for.
You learn vocabulary from engaging with content, not from doing flashcards or studying lists or using other such systems in my opinion and I believe that.
That’s why I created LingQ together with my son Mark.
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.
I tried to reach Stuart by email, but did not get a reply.
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.
I tried to reach Susana by email, but did not get a reply.
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.
Susanna stands by her original opinion.
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.
Tim stands by his original opinion.
1. Natural input
2. SRS (if you’re an introvert)
Tomasz stands by his original opinion.
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!
I tried to reach Wiktor by email, but did not get a reply.
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.
The big thing in second language acquisition these days is Comprehensible Input (CI).
That’s when you get understandable messages in the target languages.
For example, if you are learning Spanish, and you listen to a recording in which you understand most of what is being said, and you listen to it over and over, that will build your facility in the language as you hear that understandable material over and over.
Personally, I think remembering words with sentences or paragraphs is good way to learn vocabulary.
I tried to reach Yangyang by email, but did not get a reply.
What a mammoth of a post!
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 us know in the comments below.