This post is the second half of a two-part article containing ten tips to help you acquire vocabulary in any target language. To view the first five tips, check out 10 Tips for Learning Vocabulary in Any Foreign Language – Part 1 here.
6. Draw Connections Between New Words and Previous Knowledge
Though the human brain stores information, it does not store information in the same way, say, a notebook does. It is not an empty slate that just passively receives any information given to it.
Instead, the brain stores information in a network, an interconnected series of billions and billions of nodes that make recalling stored information happen at lightning speeds.
Since all these nodes are interconnected, activating any one piece of information in your brain will also activate other, related information, too. Any time a node is activated, the surrounding nodes will also fire, and the bonds between them will strengthen.
You can see this in action by reading the following word:
What you just read is a simple combination of seven different letters of the English alphabet. However, what you “saw” in your mind’s eye as a result of that eight-letter word was probably something very different.
If you’re anything like me, you imagined:
- A large, gray animal with big ears, tusks, and a long trunk.
- The natural habitat of this animal; the grasslands and rainforests of Africa.
- The last time you saw an elephant in real life (I saw one in a zoo in Budapest).
These are images that popped into your head instantaneously upon reading the word “Elephant.”
But that’s not all that could have come to mind. You could have also recalled:
- The English expression “The elephant in the room,” meaning an obvious problem that people are hesitant to discuss openly.
- Another expression, “White elephant,” meaning a possession you are struggling to get rid of, despite wanting to do so.
All of these images, words, facts, and expressions are nodes in your mental network that surround and activate when you read “Elephant”, which is really just a series of lines that don’t amount to much more than scribbles on a page. It is your neural network, however, that gives these scribbles life, and help you use them to unlock previous knowledge.
To learn words in an effective, natural way, it is important to make use of this neural network. You can do this by making sure any new word that you learn is “connected” in some meaningful way to something else that you already know.
Suppose that I am learning Hungarian and I stumble upon the word “traditional” (hagyományos).
Instead of just jotting down the single word and trying to remember it that way, I associate it with phrases and ideas that are already relevant to me and my life.
I like to talk about language learning, for example, so I could use the Hungarian word for “traditional” to describe the old-school language learning methods that are often taught in language classes:
Az iskolában a hagyományos módszrekel tanítottak.
At school (they) teach with the traditional method.
Since language learning is an area that is interesting and relevant to me, the word hagyományos fits right into my Hungarian neural network, supported by other interesting and relevant concepts like school, teaching, and methods.
Any time you learn a word, or phrase, try to do the same. Take the word, and embed it into a sentence containing other personally relevant words and concepts that you’ve already learned. This strengthens the memory, and will make sure that you will be able to recall it when you need it.
7. Keep a Vocabulary Notebook
As powerful as your brain’s neural network is, we can’t pretend that it’s not prone to failure. This failure takes place in the form of forgetting.
Some words and concepts simply don’t stick in your brain the first time. It can take several times or attempts to acquire a new piece of information before it can be recalled reliably at will.
Sometimes, you just encounter too many new things at once, and your brain can’t handle trying to commit it all to memory. A few words or concepts will take hold in your mind, but the rest will simply fade away.
In times like these, it’s good to have a backup, or tool that you can use to record information in case your brain doesn’t catch it all the first time. An ideal backup, of course, would probably be a second brain; in the absence of that, you should use a notebook to store all new vocabulary you come across.
A dedicated vocabulary notebook can serve several important purposes. It can be:
- A record of new vocabulary, to be studied later.
- A record of old vocabulary, to be reviewed.
- A reminder to look up certain words or phrases in your target language.
- A place for example phrases and sentences.
For more information on my personal strategy for vocabulary notes, check out this article.
Look for a notebook that is small enough to carry with you at all times. If you don’t like physical notebooks, a note-taking app on your phone or mobile device will also work. If you do use a digital notebook, however, be aware there are special memory benefits to writing notes by hand that are lost when typing.
8. Break Down Words Into Component Parts
In the realm of physics, it was once believed that atoms were the smallest units of matter, and that it was impossible to divide them up into anything smaller.
It was a revelation when, in the 19th century, it was discovered that atoms are, in fact, arrangements of smaller parts, now known as subatomic particles. The same subatomic particles, when arranged in different ways and different combinations, give us atoms of all the different elements known today.
For the language learner, words are very much like atoms. You may think of them as pure, indivisible entities, but in many cases they are actually combinations of smaller component parts.
This is especially true in the case of long words. The longer a word is, the more likely it is that you can divide it into smaller pieces, ones with their own independent meanings.
Just like knowing an atom of hydrogen contains one proton and one electron, knowing the identity of the component pieces of words can often tell you something about the whole word, and in turn, make it much easier to remember.
Let’s look at an example:
In Hungarian, the word for “Italy” is “Olaszország”.
That’s a long word with a lot of repeating letters. On its own, it may be difficult to remember.
But “Italy” is a country name. There are lots of other country names out there, too. Maybe by looking at those, we can discern a pattern:
France – Franciaország
Czech Republic – Csehország
Estonia – Észtország
This doesn’t work for all country names, but if you compare these to “Olaszország,” you should see a pattern.
Country name = Something + “ország”
“Ország” is the Hungarian word for “country”, so it naturally appears on the end of many country names, just as “land” does in English (i.e. England, Scotland, Ireland, etc.)
Knowing the meanings of these smaller linguistic pieces (usually prefixes, suffixes, root words, etc.) can help you to memorize longer words more easily, and help you naturally expand your target language lexicon.
Sometimes, words are even combinations of multiple full words. These are known as “compound words”, and knowing the component parts of these long words can be just as effective as it was above.
The German language is infamous for these. Take the famous word “Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften,” which means “insurance companies providing legal protection”.
At first glance, that word seems impossible to spell, let alone memorize. However, it becomes much less intimidating when you know how to break it up:
These “component” words are all relatively common words in their own right:
Rechts = Legal, law
Schutz = Protection
Versicherung = Insurance
Gesellschaften = Companies
By themselves, these four words are much easier to remember and spell. If you can do that, then putting them back together to make “Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften” isn’t so intimidating.
Another bonus: If you remember my advice about drawing connections between words, then you can understand why breaking down larger words is so helpful—all of the component words already form their own mini-network!
So, whenever you come across a long word, think of how you can possibly break it down and if it relates to words you already know.
9. Combine Different Modes of Learning
If you’ve ever sat in a classroom with other students, you’ve probably noticed an important reality of learning: no two people learn in the exact same way.
Some people like hands-on learning. Others prefer learning via pictures, videos, and other visual aids. Still others like to learn by listening, and talking over important details.
All of the above are different modes of learning. And these are only a few examples of them. Many, many details about the learning process can be actively changed and modified to help learners absorb the same content in different ways.
For your vocabulary learning, I suggest combining a variety of learning modes, so that your process of learning new words never becomes boring, or stale. Over time, you will gravitate to a few learning modes that you prefer, but it will still be important to mix and match them to keep your experience of learning novel and interesting.
Let’s look at a single example:
You’re a big fan of movies, and you’re learning French.
You decide to watch the film L’auberge espagnole, and learn as many words as you can from it.
You could just watch the movie with subtitles, and be done with it. Maybe you learn a word or two, as a result.
Or, you could:
- Watch the movie in French, with English subtitles
- Watch the movie in English, with French subtitles
- Watch the movie without subtitles, and see how much you understand
- Read the script or transcript of the movie in French, and mark up the text
- Watch the movie, and then read a French-language review of it
You could do any or all of these things, and each would help you experience the language used in L’auberge espagnole in a subtly different way.
By varying how you process language content, you strengthen your ability to understand and reproduce those language forms on your own.
Which language modes and which types of variation you use are totally up to you, but the important thing is to experiment, and keep things fun. If you can do that, vocabulary learning will never become a chore.
10. Interleave Your Vocabulary Learning Activities
Like Tip 9, our last tip will involve introducing a variety of vocabulary learning methods and techniques into your routine. However, this time we want to focus on not just varying what you do to learn words, but varying when you do what you do to learn words.
If you like a certain method for learning vocabulary, you may think it wise to employ that method over and over and over again, until you get tired of it. Then, you can find a new method, and start the same process again. Rinse and repeat.
But science shows that that is an ineffective way to learn new skills. When you have a variety of skills (or learning methods) to practice, you shouldn’t just practice one at a time until you consider each to be fully mastered.
Instead, you should engage in a practice called interleaving.
Interleaving is the process of alternating the practicing of a variety of skills, one after another. Instead of devoting all of your time to one method or skill, you move from one, to another, and then to another, until you’ve covered every skill you need to practice. And then you start the cycle anew.
Say, for example, that you want to develop your listening and your reading skills, both for the benefit of learning more relevant and interesting words.
Instead of doing all listening one day, and all reading the next, you can:
- Read and listen to a podcast on Day 1
- Listen (only) to the same podcast on Day 2
- Watch a short YouTube video on the same subject on Day 3
On day 4, you can then start the same cycle again, by reading and listening to a new podcast episode.
By rotating through different learning modes, methods, and resources, you build both your listening and reading skills at once, while keeping the learning process varied and interesting.
Let’s recap our main points:
- Adults struggle to learn words in a foreign language not due to a lack of ability, but due to the methods and strategies they use to learn.
- Children excel at vocabulary learning because their learning involves universal cognitive principles.
- With certain modifications, these cognitive principles can be used just as effectively by adults.
The following ten tips can help any adult learn foreign language vocabulary with ease:
- Learn from context. Always make sure you learn words in their context and never in isolation
- Read intensively and extensively. Reading is the best way to maintain a reliable stream of new and interesting vocabulary to learn.
- Learn from comprehensible input. Learn from materials that you can already mostly understand, so that you can learn the rest from context.
- Learn what matters to you. Not all words are useful or relevant, learn to zero-in on what you need and build on that going forwards.
- Listen and read. Listening and reading are complementary activities that can help you process spoken and written language more efficiently.
- Draw connections between new and old knowledge. Learn to associate words with other words, sentences and ideas that are personally relevant to you.
- Keep a notebook. Make sure to carry a notebook that you can use to write down and study vocabulary whenever possible.
- Break down words. Learn to break down words into smaller components, which greatly helps memorization and recall.
- Combine learning modes. Learn to vary learning techniques, methods, and sensory modalities to keep vocabulary acquisition fresh and interesting.
- Interleave activities. Alternate different vocabulary acquisition techniques over the course of a day or week.
If this article has taught you anything, I hope it’s that learning foreign vocabulary is not only possible, but easy, if you use the right techniques and brain-friendly learning strategies.
Don’t just take my word for it; test these tips out for yourself. Practice each technique, and really put them to work for your benefit.
If you find that they do work (and I’m sure you will) I’ve got several other high-level vocabulary-learning techniques that could make an even bigger difference in your language learning.
The strategies taught in this course are the same ones that I use every day to learn dozens of words in my target languages—and the ones that, until now, I’ve only shared with my coaching clients.