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In today's guest post, Kerstin from fluent language shares her thoughts on learning new vocabulary. Enjoy!
My name is Kerstin and I’m a dictionary fiend. Learning new words and figuring out how they’re related to other languages is one of my favourite parts of language learning.
The following bits of advice about vocabulary learning are based on what works well for me, and even more on research into learning and teaching that I’ve done over the last year. Vocab is such a big topic that I found it was worth combining all the advice in a guide – my cookbook!
The whole process of building your vocabulary can be divided into four key stages: acquiring new words, memorizing them, revising and recalling.
Acquiring New Words
There are three ways that you can add new words to your vocabulary:
With the list of available words in any given language being potentially endless, a lot of language learners seek out high-frequency word lists. You can find these online, or purchase a curated word list like the French “Mot à Mot” or the German “Mastering German Vocabulary”.
For many people, this is a real strategy – the “I’ll study the 2000 most frequent words and then I’ll have basic fluency” approach. To be honest, that sounds about as appealing to me as getting to know new people by reading the telephone book.
Lists are for reference, they are there to remind of you what you already know. Starting with the list is not advisable in my book – that is not to say the lists aren’t useful, but your original vocabulary acquisition should come out of requirement and context.
I make one exception for times when you want to focus specifically on the writing skill, when I work with students to create and exercise involving common word lists. We create sentences featuring randomly selected words, building up to 10 common words into the sentence at once.
A fun and creative exercise, but for vocabulary acquisition I would recommend the following techniques much more:
You can work with texts and videos in your target language and make notes of all the words you don’t know.
Now we’re getting warmer. Learning new words is dull as dishwater unless you get a bit of context, and the best advice I know is to get input that you can understand. I always teach new words in context through pointing them out in texts, repeating them with lots of examples or telling a little story. In fact, storytelling is the most useful way of finding new words and putting them to use straight away so that you will remember them.
There’s a really useful set of vocabulary acquisition and revision guidelines over at Omniglot, in which Simon recommends that intermediate and advanced learners should start working with parallel texts (books that are printed bilingually, with a language on each page or each side of a column). I do this a lot, it’s the literary equivalent of watching original films and shows with your own language subtitles.
Don’t turn your nose up at having the translation so nearby – it’s practical and helpful for understanding stories, and what’s interesting and fun will keep you going. Other great materials for early learners involve short stories and children’s literature, even picturebooks.
Be organised about researching and recording your new words and phrases, so they can be repeated on a regular basis. The actions for learning words from videos and books are to highlight, research and record.
Highlight the new word as soon as you find it, research it in a dictionary or online, then record it in Anki, in your vocabulary notebook, in a database or anywhere
Assuming that travelling to the target country isn’t an option – it usually isn’t for my students, though Benny is a clear example that it’s possible to live your life wherever you want in the world, as well as someone who learns away from the target country — you can find expert speakers, strike up a conversation and learn new words in real life.
If you are a beginner, do not get too hung up on learning from a native speaker, trust that anyone who is ahead of you has something valuable to teach. The great thing here is that you will always encounter a new word in its natural habitat, meaning there is no doubt about how it’s used or pronounced.
There is not a lot of advice that I would add to Benny’s own instructions on how to find and talk to people. You can refer to this Fluent in 3 Months article for more information. One thing that I love to do when travelling or visiting a foreign restaurant or shop is to really look around me, noticing signs and labels and looking for familiar words.
The last three times I travelled to Russia, I could be found wondering around Moscow pronouncing street signs and shop names like some kind of crazy lady. I was not crazy – I was practicing my Cyrillic!
If you’re past that complete beginner level, there is one question I so want you to ask people, and that is How do you spell that? It helps because first of all it puts the other person into “teacher mode”, meaning they’ll be ready to correct and improve your language. And secondly, how else will you take good notes?
Words Should Be Learnt From Anywhere
Any source of a new word is fair game! It doesn’t matter if you learn it from a book or from real life. I get a buzz every time I learn something new, it doesn’t matter which language it is in or where I found the word.
In fact, my own favourite place to get a quick fix in a new language is the ingredients list on food packaging like cereal boxes and cakes.
On the Importance of a Good Set of Notes
If there is a single action point you can take to become some kind of super effective language learner today, it’s to get organised about your note-taking.
I love me some good notes, and every time I observe what my most successful learners do, it’s that they really organise themselves extremely well. Buy a large notebook or a project pad, work with vocabulary sections, exercise sections and grammar sections. I honestly cannot imagine paperless language learning!
And if you want a language shortcut..
Shared vocabulary, or “vocabularly divergence” for linguists, is about how many words in languages are shared – often because they used to be the same hundreds of years ago or because of historic takeovers. For example, you can see how many European languages have hundreds of words in common.
How could it be different in a continent where tribes and countries have been conquering each other for thousands of years?! In fact, there are even little consistencies in how the words have been built into those other languages, such as the circumflex rule that where a French word has an “accent circonflex”, you will often find an s in the English equivalent.
Examples include “hâte” (haste), “hôpital” (hospital) and “forêt” (forest). Languages come in families, they are related and they share common roots (on my blog, I’m sharing this awesome vocabulary divergence map).
Knowing more about the relations between different languages is not just interesting, but also extremely helpful. If you choose to study a language which belongs to your native language family, you have an easier time learning new words. This is because you already know them. The grammar will also feel a little more familiar, and so on. In short, many people consider closely related languages easier to learn.
If There’s One Thing You Can Do Today…
You are ready to start mastering new vocabulary. There is never a wrong way to learn a language, but if you want to take a quick step, here is a summary of what you can do right now:
- Ask how to spell new words that you learn in conversation
- Establish a routine of highlight, research and record
- Create a realistic and positive mindset – not “500 words this week”, but “every new word is a joy”
In the end, it’s about trusting the process. You’re not doing it wrong as long as you’re doing it. If you have built up that paperless learning system, by the way, I absolutely want to hear about it.
Kerstin is a native German speaker and has lived in the UK since 2003. She’s passionate about languages and has studied English, French, Italian, Latin, Spanish and Russian. Kerstin teaches and writes over at www.fluentlanguage.co.uk and her new book “The Vocab Cookbook” is out at the end of July. You can say hello to her on Twitter and Facebook and of course at www.fluentlanguage.co.uk.
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.