We all wish for a magical way to memorize words in a foreign language.
And no wonder, since most modern languages are estimated to have vocabularies ranging in the hundreds of thousands of words.
If you're learning a language, you'll need to find a way to commit anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand of those words to memory.
That sounds like a lot of work—and it is!—but I know a secret that has helped me build a large vocabulary in over a dozen languages, without taking up too much of my time and energy.
A secret that can help you do the same, for your own target language.
Let’s dive right in!
The Recipe for Building a Huge Vocabulary in a Foreign Language
Before you can get started, you need 3 things:
- A portable notebook (and something to write with)
- Authentic target language content (that's well-suited to your level)
- My 6 rules for memorizing new words
Okay, okay, I know. That's eight things! But the first two are relatively easy, all things considered.
All you have to do is grab a small notebook like this and some good content in your target language. How to get good target language content is a topic for another video, but for the sake of simplicity, let me just make a few quick recommendations:
- For beginners, I recommend content from Assimil's "With Ease" coursebooks, Innovative Language's "Pod 101" or "Class 101" series, LingQ (affiliate).
- For intermediate learners, I recommend any short podcast, short YouTube videos, LingoPie (affiliate), or bilingual books (affiliate) that catch your interest.
Once you have your notebook and your content, you can then get into the meat of memorization.
Rule 1: Mark, Highlight, or Underline What You Want To Remember
When I go through a piece of content in my target language, be it an article, dialogue, or even the script of a podcast or video, the first thing I do is mark, highlight or underline any word or phrase that seems interesting to me, or particularly relevant to my life.
Rule 2: Transfer the Most Important Expressions Into Your Notebook
After I've marked, highlighted, or underlined all of the expressions that I think I want to remember, I then take a subset of those expressions and transfer them into my portable language learning notebook. To be more specific, I distill my list of expressions down to the most useful words and phrases, and then write them down in the notebook.
Rule 3: Store Just Enough Expressions To Remember the Gist of the Content
When you're choosing which important expressions to store in your notebook, it's beneficial to store just the right amount of expressions—neither too many, nor too few.
How can we determine the "right amount" of expressions for a piece of content?
You need to store just enough expressions so that, when you review them later, you're able to recall the "gist" or "main ideas" of the entire piece of content.
I like to refer to this as "density". If your selection of stored expressions is appropriately dense, it contains the cues necessary to help you remember most of the concepts contained in your text, podcast, or YouTube video.
Appropriately dense notes also help you remember the sequence of ideas within the piece of content. If you can go from your first expression to your last, and get a good idea of how the content flowed, then you've done a good job, and will memorize words within these expressions much more easily.
Rule 4: Connect Stored Expressions to the Context in Which They Were Learned
One problem most people face when writing down words and phrases to remember is that when they look at their notes later, they can't actually remember where any of this information came from!
Our memories are built like networks, so if you can keep the expressions you're learning well-connected to the context in which you learned those expressions, you'll have a powerful way to recall them, whenever you need to.
Rule 5. Translate the Expressions Into Your Native Language
My notebook opens horizontally—with one page on the left, and one page on the right. This is a purposeful choice—having two pages of notes next to each other like this makes it useful to practice my next rule, which involves translating my stored expressions into my native language.
Rule 6: Review Your Notebook Regularly
Once you've stored all of your notes according to the previous rules, you'll have reached the most important step of the process: actually reviewing everything you wrote down!
This may sound boring, but it is absolutely essential. If you don't review your stored expressions regularly, you'll NEVER remember them reliably enough to actually use them. And if you can't use them, then, well, what's the point?
That's it! Those are the rules I follow to memorize words in any language! If you put these to use, you'll be well on your way to memorizing as many words as you need to!
Let's recap everything I talked about:
First, grab a notebook and some quality language learning content.
After that, follow my 6 powerful rules for memorizing words:
- Mark, highlight, or underline what you want to remember
- Transfer the most important expressions into your notebook
- Store just enough expressions to remember the gist of the content
- Connect stored expressions to the context in which they were learned
- Translate the expressions into your native language
- Review your notebook regularly
If you'd like more information about how I incorporate memorization into my language learning routine (including super-cool ways to use your stored notes for speaking practice!), then I recommend checking out the second course in my Become a Master Language Learner series, Overcoming the Intermediate Plateau.
Happy language learning!