Techniques for learning vocabulary

Posted on 02/03/2012


Get a vocab book

I know I’ve said this before (and will probably say it again), but the single most useful item you can use for language learning is a pocket-sized notebook which you can slip into your handbag or pocket. Down one side, write the word in the target language, and down the other in your native language. Add to it regularly; have a quick read of a page before sleep or between stops on the train.

Test yourself

First, hide the English and see if you can remember the translation of the word in the other language. Once you’ve mastered this, try it the other way round.

Write the word out over and over

Many of us are visual learners; many of us also learn best when we are actively engaged in an activity. Handwriting is both a visual and a kinaesthetic technique, and if you speak it out at the same time, you can add the third basic learning style, auditory.

Word association

Whole theories have been built on this, and I’m not sure that doing it for every word you learn is advisable, but for vocab that just won’t stick it might be a good idea to associate concepts in your mind. For example, almost all my students had trouble remembering that equis is the Spanish word for the letter “x” until one of them helpfully pointed out that it sounds like a kiss, which is what you put on the bottom of a letter – as an “x”.

Use post-it notes

If you are learning the names of everyday objects (and if nobody in your household minds!), label the objects. You can also stick lists of vocab in places where you are forced to be stand still for a little while: on the bathroom mirror to read while you brush your teeth, or on your laptop so that you can gainfully use those frustrating few minutes that it takes to load, or on your dashboard to glance over while you are stuck in stationary traffic in rush hour.

Brainstorm the word

Write a new word at the centre of a sheet of paper, then brainstorm it. For example, if you are learning the words for seasons, this could lead to: summer -> holidays-> clothes -> shorts -> sunburn -> suncream. And if you’re stuck on a word you want to use, look it up and add it. Words that relate to each other are easier to remember since your brain has a “peg” to hang it on.

Write sentences

The brains of adult learners tend to filter out any information which they don’t perceive as being relevant to their lives. By writing out sentences which link the word back to you and your interests, you’ll increase the chances of remembering the vocabulary. Can’t get into your head the the Spanish word for wing is ala? Write out the sentence, El Ala Oeste de la Casa Blanca es el mejor programa en toda la historia de la televisión, and hey presto, you’ll never forget it again. If you’re me, that is.

And that’s the thing with learning vocab. The more you can personalise both the words and the process of learning them, the more likely they are to stick in your mind.

— for more hints and tips on language learning, buy Conquering Babel: A Practical Guide to Learning a Language here in the US and here in the UK.
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