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.
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’
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:
- Learning vocabulary groups that ‘travel’ together
- Reading engaging stories
- Using ‘smart’ flashcards
- Learning through audio materials and music
- Incorporating learning into your everyday routine
- Using the new words straight away
What’s your favourite method for learning vocabulary in your target language? Let me know in the comments below!
Do you need more motivation?
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!
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