“O, the sheer magnificence of words that come together like waves upon a beach, each telling its own story is a life worthy to be read” ― John M. Sheehan
The Difficulty of Learning New Words
Words are the building blocks of every spoken language. They are fascinating and yet often difficult to manage, especially if they are words of a foreign language you are trying to learn.
Has any of this happened to you as a learner of a second language?
Have you ever:
- Learned a word just to forget it a few days later?
- Struggled to recall a word when speaking or writing?
- Given up reading a text because you understood too few words or phrases?
- Had difficulty constructing full sentences?
- Misunderstood simple spoken sentences because you could not recognize certain words?
If so, there’s no need to worry; you are not alone!
Most language learners, in fact, find it excruciatingly difficult to learn and remember the large amount of words necessary to be competent and confident in a foreign language.
However, to be able to move beyond this, we must ask ourselves a few valuable questions:
- Is learning words always difficult?
- Are there any examples of people who acquire words quickly and effortlessly?
- If so, what can these people teach us about learning new words effectively?
Let’s use the answers to these questions to build a new, more effective approach to acquiring foreign language vocabulary.
A Natural Approach to Vocabulary Acquisition
So, let me ask you again:
Is learning words always difficult?
Think about it, in the context of your own life. Has learning new words always been difficult for you, across all the languages you speak?
Of course not.
Though you may struggle to remember new words in your target language, I’m 100% sure that you never agonized over how to acquire such essential words and phrases as “mommy”, “daddy”, “yes,” “no,” “want” and “don’t want” in your first language, the one you’ve spoken since you were a small child.
I’m equally as sure that even as the number of words you knew in your mother tongue grew exponentially, you never felt stressed or even conscious of any of it, at least until you started school.
You just learned words naturally and automatically, without giving much thought to them.
So the answer is no. Learning words is not always difficult. It can be easy, and you yourself have certainly experienced times in your life when it was easy.
On to our next question:
Are there any examples of people who acquire words quickly and effortlessly?
If you followed along in the last example, you know the answer already, since at the same time learning words was easy for you, you were one of these people.
The answer? Children. Young kids (usually pre-teens) have no problems acquiring and using new words.
Moving on to our third question:
What can these people (i.e. children) teach us about learning new words effectively?
Well, you tell me:
Have you ever seen a little boy with a list of words in hand, trying to learn each term by heart? Or a young girl repeating a complicated mnemonic to herself over and over, until a single word and its meaning sticks in her memory?
No. If you’ve ever witnessed a child acquire words, you’ll have seen them:
- Learn through exposure, by listening and repeating what their parents and peers say to them.
- Focus on learning and using words that are most relevant to their most urgent needs and desires.
- Build a basic vocabulary made up of the most useful words from their day-to-day life, and then supplement that with more specialized terms used in school and other domains.
- Acquire new words and phrases through play, and other leisure contexts, like movies, television, books, video games, and more.
All of these things happen nearly effortlessly in the life of all children with normal language function. However, that does not mean that it is a simple process; the truth is, acquiring words with these methods requires hours and hours of exposure, of hearing, listening, repeating, trying time and time again.
It’s not simple, and does take time, but does work exceedingly well. And it’s how you and the overwhelming majority of people you know have learned thousands and thousands of words without even thinking about it.
Adapting Childlike Methods to Adult Learning Contexts
Is that all it takes, then? To learn vocabulary effortlessly, all we need to do is learn words just like children do?
Well, yes. And no.
If you’re reading this, you’re clearly not a kid anymore. Even if you’re not a full-fledged adult, you have several advantages and disadvantages when learning a second language that the smallest first-language learning children do not.
Regarding the advantages, you have:
- The ability to speak, read and write one language (or more) already
- Pre-existing knowledge of the world and how it works, that you can use to help you learn new things even more quickly.
- Pre-existing knowledge of how you like to learn, and what methods and resources you prefer when learning.
As for disadvantages, you have:
- Less available time to dedicate to language learning, due to other priorities (work, school, family obligations, etc.)
- Less exposure to new words and language patterns, since you’re (probably) not fully immersed in a native-speaking family and social circle, as you were when learning your first language.
- One or more pre-existing native languages, which interfere with your ability and desire to learn another.
All told, the disadvantages probably outweigh the advantages, simply because you can’t live eighteen or more year completely immersed in your target language 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, just as you did when learning your mother tongue.
So you can’t learn words in your target language by following the exact same two-decades-plus-long strategy, but you can use elements of that strategy to help you leverage your vocabulary-learning advantages as adults.
To be specific, you need to:
- Understand the cognitive principles behind effective vocabulary acquisition
- Use effective habit-building and time management techniques to help you build a solid routine for learning words.
- Utilize your pre-existing knowledge and interests as an adult to fuel and maintain that routine over time.
How can you accomplish these things?
By following my ten best tips for learning vocabulary in an easy, effortless and engaging way!
10 Tips for Effective Vocabulary Acquisition
1. Always Learn from Context
Words are multifaceted linguistic entities. Depending on the context they appear in, a word can function as a verb or a noun, have completely different meanings or just be part of a colloquial expression.
Take the single word “game”, for example.
As a noun, it could be a game that you play, like a card game or board game. Or it could be game that you hunt, like deer, rabbits, ducks, or geese.
As an adjective, it can describe a noun related to either of those definitions, like a game console, or big game hunting.
Those meanings of the word “game” are pretty standard. But in slang terminology, there’s also:
- “To have game” (as in “He’s got game”) to describe when someone has a high level of skill, usually with regards to dating.
- “To be game” (as in “I’m game”) to describe when someone is willing to do something, like go out for a drink or head out to the movies.
Looking at all these definitions, it’s clear that “game” isn’t really one word, but rather four or more words; a different word in accordance with each variation in meaning. And it’s the context that surrounds the word that makes each meaning clear, not the word by itself.
The role of context in narrowing down the potential meanings of a word is what makes context absolutely crucial for language learners. Without context, a word can mean everything and nothing, all at the same time.
To learn words well, then, always learn words in context, and not outside of it.
In practice, that means:
- Learning words by practicing and memorizing full phrases and sentences that contain that word (like “The hunter traveled to Africa in search of big game” instead of just “game” by itself)
- Studying the various parts of speech a word can take in a given context, such as how “game” can be both a noun (“Call of Duty is a popular video game) and an adjective (“Xbox is a popular game console”)
2. Read Intensively and Extensively
In order to learn vocabulary in the first place, you first need a source of vocabulary terms that you don’t already know.
This is easy as an absolute beginner, as nearly every word you’re exposed to is one that you’ve never heard before. With time, though, finding new words is an experience that will happen less and less, especially if all you do is speak the language.
The most effective way to keep encountering new vocabulary often is to read, and to do so often. Written media provide lots of opportunities to see new words in context, and record them for safekeeping and later reference during study time.
Whatever your current language level is, I suggest that you develop a habit of reading regularly in your target language.
When you read, however, don’t just read the same way every time. There are two different methods of reading in a foreign language that are each useful in specific situations. These are called intensive reading and extensive reading.
- Intensive reading is necessary when you want to fully understand a text. It requires you to dissect the text meticulously, and attempt to understand every word and nuance. This is a time-consuming process, so it is something that should only be done with short blocks of text at a time.
- Extensive reading is necessary when you just want to read as much as possible. Here, you’re not concerned with understanding every word, but with getting the gist of the text as a whole. Extensive reading is also helpful for learning how to deduce the meaning of unknown words by their surrounding context.
Intensive and extensive reading are both powerful tools that you can add to your vocabulary learning repertoire today, and put to use with any text that you seek to learn.
To make best use of these methods, you should get into the habit of reading at least one hour per day, so that you have a reliable stream of vocabulary that can fuel your learning.
If you would like more information on intensive and extensive reading strategies, check out this article, which covers each method in detail.
3. Use Comprehensible Input to Learn New Words
As we’ve just discussed, reading is an excellent way to find new words to learn in your target language. However, if you don’t take care to choose the right kind of reading material for you, you may risk adding extra stress to your entire language learning process.
In theory, a beginner learner of, say, Russian, could benefit greatly from reading a work of classic Russian literature, like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which contains thousands of words the learner does not yet know.
In practice, however, this would overwhelm the learner, and trying to process such a massive and complex text would be like trying to empty the ocean with a spoon. Neither intensive or extensive reading would be useful to our beginner Russian learner in this case, because the text is simply too far above his level to be useful.
The best texts for vocabulary learning, then, are not those that contain the greatest number of words that you don’t know, but those which contain a majority (70+%) that you already do know. This way, the quantity of new words is never too overwhelming, and you can use your existing vocabulary knowledge to help you glean the meaning of unknown words from context.
The kind of language content that contains a majority of things you already understand is called comprehensible input. By searching for and learning from comprehensible input sources, you can maintain a steady flow of new vocabulary learning while keeping the actual process of trying to understand a piece of spoken or written language as low-stress as possible.
As a learner, you must know that searching for comprehensible input is an ongoing process, and one that you must do regularly to ensure that you’re learning from materials that are appropriate for your current level. As an advanced learner, it won’t do to keep reading your beginner textbook, and vice versa. As you grow and adapt to the language, your input sources must change with you.
Here’s a quick rule of thumb which will help you find good comprehensible input:
If you can understand 70% or more of the resource you are using (7 out of every 10 words), then that resource can qualify as comprehensible input for your current language level.
4. Learn What Matters Most to You
In any spoken human language, there are thousands and thousands of words that you could potentially learn. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, lists 171,476 words in current use in the English language, and many thousands more that have fallen out of use.
With so many words, should you worry about having to learn them all?
Of course not!
Every speaker of a language has both an active and passive mental lexicon that is unique to him or her. Though any two speakers of a language might share a majority of active vocabulary in common, it is likely that each individual knows several thousands of words (or more) that the other does not.
The active vocabulary of a farmer is very different from the active vocabulary of a car mechanic. The passive vocabulary of an Olympic athlete could be completely different from that of a rocket scientist. Even if all of these people speak the same language.
In general, native speakers acquire vocabulary that meets (at minimum) one of two key characteristics:
- High relevance – Words that are likely to be used often in daily life, by both the individual native speaker and the native speakers around him.
- High interest – Words that are connected to the individual’s passions, desires, and personal interests.
What is relevant and interesting to one person is not necessarily what will be relevant and interesting to the next. This is why speakers of different languages can have large differences in their individual vocabularies.
As a language learner, you should specifically aim to learn only the words that are the most relevant and most interesting to you, personally.
To put this in a way that most learners will relate to:
If a beginner’s language textbook has an entire chapter dedicated to learning the names of zoo animals, but you personally have no desire or intention to ever discuss zoo animals in your target language, you do not have to learn those words.
Instead, find something that will teach you words that you are interested in. Words that have to do with your life, and your experiences.
In the same way, you don’t have to strive to understand every word of a text, a video, a song, or a conversation, if you don’t ever intend to pursue that topic again. Over the course of your language learning, there will be lots of words you only ever hear once, and will never encounter ever again.
Your goal should be to be as comfortable and confident as you can be in the situations that you’re likely to find yourself in. You don’t need to be a walking dictionary or phrasebook.
Learn the words that you care about, and the words that you will use. It’s that simple.
5. Listen to What You Read, and Vice Versa
In Tip 2, I recommended that you read as often as possible in your target language, preferably every day. This tip builds upon that.
Reading is all about processing written language. Written language is an attempt to put spoken language to paper. Since written language can never fully convey all the nuances of speech (phonology, intonation, etc.), it’s hard to get a full idea of a piece of written language without also hearing it spoken aloud.
As learners, if we can find a way to always listen to the audio of a text while we read it, we are able to get maximal value out of any piece of language. This is because doing so exercises our reading and listening skills all at once.
Listening and reading is also a great way to improve your pronunciation. Many languages, like English, have spelling systems that are not a reliable representation of the spoken sounds they are supposed to represent. Listening along to whatever text your reading helps bridge this gap, and will help you see where the written symbols and spoken sounds differ.
Now, if you remember our earlier section on learning like kids do, you might find this step unusual. Small children, after all, speak long before they can read.
This, however, is one of the areas where you can leverage your pre-existing adult capabilities (i.e. literacy) to help you make faster gains with spoken and written language than a small child ever could.
If practiced frequently at the beginner to intermediate stages, listening and reading simultaneously can greatly boost your comprehension skills overall.
Looking for tips 6-10? Stay tuned for 10 Tips for Learning Vocabulary in Any Foreign Language –Part 2, where we’ll explore tips that will help you utilize your brain’s natural learning capabilities to better memorize words!
In the meantime, if you’ve found these five tips useful, why not check out my course at LinguaCore An Easy Way to Learn Words – Part 1. , dedicated entirely to my best techniques for learning new words in any foreign language!
Written by Luca Lampariello