How to learn vocabulary effectively 4

words - how to learn vocabulary effectively

Image: Pierre Metivier

Vocabulary is the core of language. We learn it to be able to describe the world around us better, to be able to express our thoughts, opinions and feelings more accurately, and to be able to choose the tone of what we’re saying. But how to learn vocabulary effectively?

Every language learner has their own favourite vocabulary learning technique that works for them. Below, you will find a summary of ten articles that discuss the most effective vocabulary learning methods. There’s also a bonus paragraph at the very bottom of this page which links to advice from 38 language experts on how to learn vocabulary effectively.

1. Spaced repetition and the ‘Goldlist’ method

Sam Gendreau at Lingholic talks about the advantages of using ‘spaced repetition’ software when learning vocabulary. Spaced repetition is a technique whereby you revise vocabulary with breaks between your revision sessions. You increase each break until you reach a stage where you don’t have to revise the words any more.

He also discusses David James’ ‘Goldlist’ method, which involves using a pen and a notebook to distil out hard-to-learn words and expressions and to obtain a concentrated list of those ones that you find the most difficult to memorise. That way, you save time on not going over the vocabulary that you already know (even if you thought you didn’t know it!).

2. Engaging your imagination to learn vocabulary effectively

Benny Lewis at Fluent in 3 Months talks about why being able to recognise words in a foreign language is not enough – the key is to be able to retrieve them from memory when you need to use them in speech or in writing.

The tip he gives language learners is to use their imagination and to come up with stories that explain why words are what they are – for example, what does the French word ‘gare’ have to do with Garfield the cat? Head over to Benny’s blog to find out and see how to learn vocabulary by engaging your imagination.

garfield - how to learn vocabulary effectively

Image: JD Hancock

3. Using Google to learn vocabulary in context

Martin Boehme at Powlyglot explains how you can use Google search and Google Images to check whether you’re using new words in the right context. For example, if you use the French word ‘casque’, will people know that you’re talking about ‘headphones’ rather than a ‘helmet’? Check out Martin’s post to see more examples of his recommended vocabulary learning technique.

4. Mnemonics and the ‘memory palace’

palace - how to learn vocabulary effectively

Image: slack12

In his guest post on Fluent in 3 Months, memory trainer Anthony Metivier talks about the ‘memory palace’ technique which can be used to learn vocabulary. The technique uses mnemonics, which is a way of translating information that’s difficult to memorise into a form that the brain can digest and retain better.

The ‘memory palace’ technique involves drawing a ‘floorplan’ and ‘stations’ – check out Anthony’s post to find out what they’re for! And don’t worry – the technique is not too complicated. Anthony says that if you can see your bedroom in your mind, then you too can build a ‘memory palace’.

5. Learning related words and phrases

Simon Ager at Omniglot recommends techniques such as associating the familiar with the unfamiliar, learning words and phrases related to the ones you’ve just learned (for example, ones that have the same root) and learning how words work in different contexts.

6. Learning in the shower and being realistic

Kerstin Hammes over at Fluent talks about the traditional notebook and pen type of exercise – write, look, cover, repeat. She also recommends using sticky notes everywhere – including your shower!

In another of her blog posts, this time on the Fluent in 3 Months blog, Kerstin says you should create a positive and realistic mindset when learning vocabulary – not “500 words this week” but “every new word is a joy”.

7. Interest, focus and comprehension

Luca Lampariello at The Polyglot Dream discusses how we can improve our capacity to retain new words in our memory. He talks about how memory needs to be constantly stimulated, and the importance of repetition. He also talks about the role of interest, attention and comprehension in the process of memorising new words.

8. Using vocabulary notebooks

Olly Richards at I Will Teach You A Language asks whether your vocabulary notebook is out of control. He says keeping vocabulary notebooks is not for everyone and suggests ways in which you can use them more effectively. Olly also provides some tips for choosing the vocabulary you should actually learn and explains how to decide which words you should ignore.

9. Mono-tasking and using mind maps

The website Lifehack lists 15 practical tips and resources on how to learn vocabulary effectively. They include using apps for learning vocabulary, mono-tasking to improve attention and using mind maps.

10. Vocabulary learning tips from 38 language experts

The Smart Language Learner blog lists advice from 38 language learning experts on their favourite vocabulary learning methods. They include:

What’s your favourite method for learning vocabulary in your target language? Let me know in the comments below!

Do you need more motivation?

The Motivation Journal

If you need a little bit more motivation when learning vocabulary, check out the Motivation Journal. It’s a simple tool I’ve created for you guys to help you keep motivated, stay on track with your goals and celebrate your language learning achievements. It might come in handy when trying to learn lots of new words! :)

Agnieszka Karch, founder of 5-Minute Language

Agnieszka Murdoch, founder of 5-Minute Language

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  • This is an incredibly comprehensive list of techniques and ideas, Agnieszka. I’m proud to be representin’ for the girl linguists on there.

  • I use the notebook method like Olly, but I also like to incorporate some of the other methods you’ve mentioned. I think using a combination of methods is a really great way about it. I’ve found that when I stick to just one method, my learning stagnates.

    • I know what you mean Shannon – I find it more effective to mix and match my methods. Their effectiveness depends so much on little things like the mood you happen to be in, your motivation on a given day, etc.

      • It does! I also try to pay attention to the areas I struggle with and work more of the appropriate study in.