10 Tips for Learning Vocabulary

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So, it’s been a while since my last post. Not sure about you, but this hot weather has put me in lazy summer mode and I’m finding it hard to put much effort into anything at the moment. One thing I have been doing (while lazing around on the balcony) is learning/reviewing a bit of vocabulary.

When it comes to making progress in a language, there really is no getting away from learning vocabulary. But it can often feel intimidating. Like this “to do” that you can never tick off the list. Like a marathon you can never finish. Or a marathon where you get to the end and then find out you’re actually doing an ultra-marathon and there’s another gazillion kilometres to go! Where does it end??

As a result, people are always on the lookout for a quick fix. My clients often ask me “What’s the best way to learn vocabulary?” and my answer is always the same. Despite what a lot of books and people might tell you, there is no best way. If there was and it was proven, wouldn’t we all be doing it and speaking six million languages like C3PO?

c3po

Maybe it’s a strange comparison but think about dieting for a minute (bear with me here!). How many times do you hear that one specific diet is THE best way to lose weight. But if that were really true, wouldn’t all overweight people do it, lose weight and that would be the end of it? The point is, like dieting, learning vocabulary is a personal thing. While eating grapefruit all day brings great results for one person it might make you sick to your stomach. Just because it works for someone else, doesn’t mean it will work for  you. Try different methods and tailor your own system which is both manageable and most importantly, sustainable.

So, I’m happy to share my own top 10 tips with you. Feel free to adopt, ignore, mix and match or add sugar to any of them. And remember, results may vary!

1. When you come across a new word, use your intuition and look at the context. I was recently in a situation where I introduced my dog Polo to a group of Germans. They asked me if he knew any tricks. His tricks are limited (although he does a great one where he poops in the middle of a zebra crossing and holds up a huge line of traffic!) but he does know the basics. Polo only speaks English so I told him to “Sit” and then said “Paw” to which he very politely lifted his furry paw in the hope of getting a treat.Paw One of the Germans then asked me “What does paw mean? I don’t know that word”. Really?? You just watched him lift it! Intuition and context. Don’t expect a language to be fed to you on a spoon. Use your head and make an educated guess.

2. Use as many senses as possible. Learning is a multi-sensory process. Using multiple senses creates more cognitive connections and improves the retrieval of what you have learnt. For example, if you are using an app to learn vocabulary, use headphones and listen to the word as well as reading/writing it. If you are in a situation where you only hear the word, write the word down so you can see it or look it up in Google. Even better, click on Google Images and get a picture to match your new word.

3. Make sure it’s relevant. We talked about this in my last post about homework. It’s always hard to learn things if they are not relevant or useful. One of the problems of learning from a textbook or even an app is that the words you learn are dictated to you by the person who created it. And they often work through topics e.g. food, family, jobs. While some of that vocabulary is useful, it’s not really necessary at an early stage to learn the names of 30 different professions or exotic fruits that you might never need. Creating your own flashcards (for example on Quizlet) means you only learn what you really need/want and is relevant to you.

4. Never be ashamed to ask. You know how it is. You’re sitting in your class and someone uses a word and everyone seems to know it (or pretends they do) but you haven’t got a clue and you’re too ashamed to ask. Get over it!ask moreIf you can’t figure out the word from context, ask a native. I’ve been learning German for years and I still do this from time to time. Most people are more than happy to tell you (lecture) you on its meaning and uses. Why be ashamed? Kids ask questions all the time because they want to learn new things. Asking (non-“paw”-related questions) and wanting to learn is not a sign of being stupid, it’s a sign of intelligence.

 

5. Mix and match. Always using the same method to learn can quickly get boring. Tired of Duolingo, try watching some YouTube lessons. Bored of your flashcards, try the post-it method. I use Duolingo for my Spanish but I use old school flashcards and textbooks for my Japanese. As I said before, it’s a bit like dieting. Eat the same slimline milkshake every day and you’ll lose weight but you’ll also quickly lose interest. Variety is a good way to keep things sustainable.

6. Look out for your new words. While you can’t beat active learning i.e. creating flashcards, writing sentences, using words in conversation or emails etc., don’t underestimate the importance of passive learning. With this I mean reading something or watching/listening practice. A lot of language learners start by sitting with a dictionary while watching a film or reading a book. I tried it too. And it didn’t last long. There is nothing more boring or frustrating than looking up every other word. It takes forever and kills all the fun. But that doesn’t mean passive activities are not useful. The key is to accept you won’t understand everything but if you keep your eyes and ears open long enough, your new-found vocabulary will start popping up all over the place. You’ll see/hear it in context which strengthens your understanding of a word. No major work involved, just a bit of attention.

7. Use it or lose it. This one is hard if you don’t live abroad or you don’t have many opportunities to use your target language. But to transfer a word to your active vocabulary range, you need to use it as soon as possible and numerous times. Studies have shown that simply speaking a word out loud to another person helps us learn a word more effectively. I like this method and often have “phrase of the week” that I inflict on my husband. A while ago I learnt the German phrase “Man munkelt / rumour has it”.

         Husband: What’s for dinner tonight? Me: Man munkelt we’re having pizza.

         Husband: What time will you be home tonight?  Me: Man munkelt about seven.

         Husband: Can we please give it a rest with the Man munkelt!!

Sounds silly but “Man munkelt” is now firmly fixed in my active vocabulary.

8. Use mnemonics. Use what? Read any book on memory skills and you’ll soon come across mnemonics. Basically they are learning techniques that assist learning, memory and retrieval skills. Which is kind of ironic because a lot of people don’t know the word mnemonic and have a hard time remembering it! The Germans call them “Eselsbrücken / donkey bridges”. A bit random but memorable at least. So, how do you create a “donkey bridge”? For example, people often remember words better when they are linked to an image. If you are creating your own flashcards i.e. on Quizlet, there are tons of images you can copy and paste from Google images.

letter blocks
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Another mnemonic method is to try and break a word down into sections. For example, I remember the German word “erinnern” (to remember)by switching the first two letters (er-re) and thinking that the  second part of the word sounds like “inner”, so to keep something “inside”. People have all kinds of strange mnemonics for words. For example, I remember the Japanese word Samui (cold weather) by thinking it sounds a bit like Samoa where it’s NOT cold at all. My sort of twisted logic but it works for me! Mnemonics are very personal, so you really need to make your own to suit your own logic.

9. Review. There’s no getting away from this one. You have to review your new words. There is no magic pill. Some ways of reviewing are proven to be more effective than others, like SRS (spaced repetition system), but whatever method you choose, there is no getting away from it. Try to find a way that is fun and fits into your schedule. But quit the moaning, accept it and do it.

10. Have some fun. It doesn’t all have to be painful. The more fun you have, the quicker you will learn. Watch series, films and YouTube videos. Listen to podcasts. Listen to music in your target language and try to translate the lyrics. Learn a song in your target language, go to a karaoke night and sing it! (my current goal in Japanese). Read a blog on a topic you love. Think of your favourite book and find a version in the target language. Ther are plenty of ways to keep learning fun.

So, that’s my list. Maybe you have some other tips you would like to share? As always, feel free to comment below. To follow my blog, just add your email address to the box on the right. Until next time, happy learning!

 

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