How to Choose Which Words to Learn in a Foreign Language 3

how to choose which words to learn in a foreign language

How to choose which words to learn in a foreign language

I recently started learning Japanese – a language I knew nothing about. ‘Where do I start?’, I thought to myself. What words should I be learning? I’m sure you often ask yourself a similar question whenever you pick up your vocabulary notebook or plan your vocabulary learning sessions. How to choose which words to learn in a foreign language?

My experience of learning languages shows that in a lot of language learning settings, a very traditional approach to learning vocabulary is favoured. This approach involves learning sets of easy, ‘everyday’ vocabulary, such as colours, clothes, animals, parts of the body, and so on, first.

The next step is building on that: learning vocabulary relating to work, looking for a job, expressing emotions. As you progress through the different levels, you probably get to the stage where you’re learning words relating to global warming, politics or science.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure when exactly I last used the word ‘elephant’, ‘foot’ or ‘vest’ in my native language or the languages I’m fluent in. I also can’t remember the last time I spoke to somebody about a ‘board meeting’ or the ‘ozone layer’.

You don’t just go around talking to people about animals, chemical elements or the economy. Unless you’re genuinely interested in these things.

It’s a shame that a lot of apps and language learning programmes follow this approach. In my mind, this is not how to choose which words to learn in a foreign language. I’m going to show you how you can do it instead, to make sure you can have actual conversations with people (rather than ones that force you to talk about pyjamas and turquoise perroquets).


Allow your goals to dictate your vocabulary lists

The first question you should ask yourself to decide which words to learn in a foreign language is: what is your goal? What do you want to be able to do with the vocabulary once you’ve acquired it? What kind of conversations do you want to have with people?

The answer to this question will dictate what specific sets of vocabulary you should be aiming for next.

For example, I often talk to people about learning languages, museum exhibitions I’ve been to recently, and dramas I’ve been watching on Netflix. If I want to form meaningful relationships with people, I need to know how to talk to them about the things I’m passionate about.

So, in Japanese, I’m going to ignore words such as ‘bird’, ‘flower’ and ‘tie’ – they’re easy but they won’t add value to my experience of using the language. Instead, I’m going to focus on vocabulary that helps me explain what a series I’ve been watching is about, how I learn foreign languages and what I think of an artist both I and my conversation partner know.

Be specific with your goals relating to the conversations you want to have in your target language! Don’t just say you want to be able to speak. Say exactly what you want to be able to talk about. This will help you narrow down the vocabulary areas that you need to focus on to achieve your goals.

Choose words that will help you move forward

To make sure you’re really focusing your energy on the right set of words, the next question you should ask yourself is: will learning this particular set of words help me move forward? Will it help me make progress towards my goal (see the section above)?

Always do the things that will help you move closer towards your specific goals – everything else is a distraction! Unless, of course, you’re at a point where you don’t want to or don’t need to make progress anymore (e.g. if you’re fluent enough to read a novel without setting yourself any goals because you’re treating it purely as leisure).

Learn words which will have the biggest impact

how to choose which words to learn in a foreign language

You’ve probably heard about the 20/80 rule (also known as the Pareto Principle) by now. When applied to learning foreign languages, the 20/80 rule means that you should learn the 20% of words that you will be able to use 80% of the time.

For example, if your goal is to be able to have a conversation about your family, explaining what they do and what they’re like, what are the 20% of words that you will use 80% of the time? What are the most common words in the language you’re learning? These are the words you should be focusing your energy on.

How do you know what they are, though?

One way to go about finding out is to simply google it. There’s no point reinventing the wheel. The internet is full of frequency lists. The most common verbs/nouns/adjectives in German, Polish or Spanish, or the most frequent Kanji in Japanese – google it in your native or target language and you’ll be surprised what you can find.

Another way to identify the most common words you will use is a bit more time-consuming but it will also give you a better indication of what words you personally use the most.

It involves going about your day and noting down the words you’re using in your native language. Listen to the things you say throughout the day and spot the patterns. You can do verbs one day, nouns the next day, and adjectives the following day. If you’re using them frequently on a daily basis, it’s likely you’ll need them in your target language as well!

Once you know the most commonly used words, you can use them to describe the ideas and concepts for which you don’t know the exact translation.

For example, you know how to say ‘car’ but you don’t know how to say ‘bus’. All you need to do is say that it’s like a big car for more than 20 people to travel around a city. Or if you know how to say ‘walk’ but you don’t know how to say ‘run’, you can say it’s like walking but much faster.

See? You don’t have to learn all the words in your target language to be fluent. You don’t need to know all the words out there. What you need to do is identify the words that will have the biggest impact and the biggest contribution towards your language goals.

And one more tip: don’t obsess over the words you don’t know but celebrate the ones you already know!

Choose words that you hear or see a lot

If you hear them or see them a lot, they will most likely come up again, and again. Record the words that you always hear in conversations or see in texts you read, and look them up. Make them part of your vocabulary learning plan and they won’t surprise you next time!

Choose words that make you feel like you

Do you know the feeling when you’re learning a foreign language and you know so few words that you can’t really be yourself? The feeling when you’re trying to say something in a funny way but you don’t know how to do that yet. And when being funny is part of who you are. I bet we all know this feeling!

That’s why, if you’re a more advanced learner, you can set yourself a goal of learning words that make you feel like you. Words that help you convey your personality. Words that help you express ideas in the way you would do in your native language.

For example, for me, it’s synonyms. I don’t like using the same words all the time. I like to have a range to choose from. I like to be able to describe things exactly the way they are – it’s part of my personality and my way of expressing myself. That’s why I focus on learning those words in the languages I’m already pretty fluent in.

How to learn vocabulary effectively

If you haven’t seen my article with effective vocabulary learning strategies, make sure you check it out. It contains a mega-round-up of advice from myself and other language bloggers and enthusiasts so it’s a must read!

Do you want to be fluent?

Well… I’ve got something up my sleeve. I’m working on a really exciting project right now. Want to know more about what it is?

Find out about Project Dragonfly.

Share with other language loversShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn
  • kokalafotis

    i’ve thought about this lately, too. i’ve been learning japanese for 8 years and like you, i almost never say necktie or elephant or monkey, not even in my native language, so i feel you. however, since i want to pass the n2 and n1 levels of the jlpt and since they have a set vocabulary for each level i have to learn those useless words even if i don’t want to because that is the only way to pass that exam. if there wasn’t an exam, i wouldn’t bother with those kind of words. great post and great blog.

    • That’s a good point Kokalofotis! If passing the language exam is your main goal at the moment, there’s not much you can do. At least learning the set vocabulary will be a nice ‘side effect’ of preparing for the exam!

      Good luck with your Japanese and thank you for leaving your comment!

  • jason

    Besides speaking a language, there is also listening comprehension and reading. So even if you will never say a word, it is still good to know if you might ever hear ir read it.