How great would it be if you could learn new words and expressions quickly, and easily, without having to waste time with flashcards or endless vocabulary lists?
Once upon a time, this might have seemed impossible, but today it's something anyone can do, so long as they follow the right strategies.
Today, I'll share these strategies with you, so that your vocabulary learning can go from a difficult chore to something you actually look forward to, and enjoy!
Why Most People Fail to Learn Vocabulary Fast
Learning new words is one of the main challenges facing any language learner.
No matter if your target language is similar to your mother tongue or quite distant from it, you'll have to figure out how to take tens of thousands of words and expressions and get them into your long-term memory correctly.
To be quite honest, most people don't have a lot of luck with this. They stick to old and inefficient memorization techniques they probably learned from high-school language class, and never learn that there are much better—and much less painful—ways to get the job done.
I'm going to give you an overview of a few strategies that will help you tap into the world of more effective vocabulary memorization.
We'll start with three, for today. These strategies are:
- Learn new words through repeated exposure to the right content
- Use your listening skills to learn and to review
- Use new vocabulary for meaningful communication
1. Learn New Words Through Repeated Exposure to the Right Content
Like most people, I once thought that learning new words in a foreign language was all about repetition.
To add a word to your vocabulary, I thought you had to write it down, review it using flashcards, and even repeat sentences containing that word over and over, until it stuck in your mind.
That's how school tells us the process goes, and most people tend to believe it. I fell into the same trap too.
But lately, I've been focusing on a less-common memorization technique—one that doesn't involve any mindless repetition whatsoever. Instead, the technique revolves around one thing: repeated exposure, in context.
Those last two words—"in context"—are the most important. Normally, when you review words using vocabulary lists and flashcards, you are getting exposure to those words or expressions out of context.
Basically, you are seeing the word itself, and not the many situations and sentences in which you would normally see it appear.
Reviewing words in context is about always seeing the word in its "natural habitat", so to speak. If you see it again and again within the right kinds of content, you'll memorize it automatically, without having to resort to vocab lists or flashcards.
This is what I do myself, and what I recommend to other learners:
Seek out content that has three characteristics—content that is rich, comprehensible, and compelling.
Rich content is content that you partially do not understand. This means that it contains words that you can learn, and therefore add to your vocabulary over time. My go-to platform for that is LingQ (affiliate) thanks to its enormous library of content in over 20 languages. It even allows you to upload your own content, which gives you complete freedom to learn your target language through the resources you want.
Comprehensible content is content that you mostly do understand. The words you already know will help you figure out the meaning of those "rich" words you don't know, often without even using a dictionary.
Compelling content is content that is interesting and relevant to you. It connects with your interests, hobbies, and passions, and so you actually feel compelled to learn with it. For that, I recommend Lingopie (affiliate), which is a super cool platform that allows you to learn your target language through your favorite movies and shows.
Once you identify content that contains these three characteristics, circle, highlight, or underline any words or phrases from that content that you think you'll want to use for the future.
Since the content is rich, comprehensible, and compelling, the words within that content will automatically be much easier to memorize, simply through seeing them or hearing them in various podcasts, videos, or texts.
So that's my lesson for you:
If you get massive exposure to good content in your target language, your brain will gradually and automatically build an intricate web of patterns and connections.
When you learn new words from that content, they will become a part of that web, and will be much more likely to stick in your mind.
2. Use Your Listening Skills to Learn and Review New Words
Consuming content that is interesting, rich and engaging is a powerful practice, and it's exactly where you should start your effective vocabulary memorization process. However, it's far from the only thing you can do to make sure new words stick to your long term memory.
In fact, while you do need to keep consuming new and fun content (affiliate), it is also important to find creative, efficient, and effortless ways to review the content you've already learned while you're moving on to new content you haven't covered yet.
So, find the perfect balance between going through new material and learning old material, and you'll be able to improve your ability to both learn and memorize new words.
In this regard, a lot of people use flashcards for vocabulary lists. They resort to something called "Spaced Repetition" and apps or "Spaced Repetition Systems" (or "SRSes" for short).
To briefly summarize the concept, Spaced Repetition is a memorization technique that somewhat resembles how most people use flashcards, but with a twist (Feel free to skip the next 5 paragraphs if you know how SRS works),
Following traditional memorization methods, you might learn a series of words, and then decide to write them all down on flashcards. Then, you might decide to go through the deck of flashcards from top to bottom each day, as a form of review.
Spaced Repetition changes up this formula by adjusting the intervals over which you review each card. If you test yourself on a word and remember it correctly, you would increase your review interval, allowing more time to pass before you review that card again. By contrast, if you test yourself on a word and can't remember it, you would decrease the review interval, and perhaps review that card sooner than the others in the deck.
By allowing yourself more time to possibly forget the words you think you know well, you're actually strengthening your memory of those words. If you can review something just before your brain forgets it, you'll increase your ability to actively recall it over the long term.
There are entire apps that automate this process for you. Anki is the most popular example, but if you've followed my more recent videos, you know that using Anki is not something I recommend.
Instead, I prefer a more manual approach, which simply involves taking content you've already learned, and regularly listening to it at random intervals. This engages the core neurological principles behind Spaced Repetition, without forcing you to navigate clunky flashcard software like Anki.
Here's how I review new words:
As part of your daily learning time, make sure you do at least these two things:
- Dedicate one chunk of time to learning brand-new listening content (or listening and reading content), that you've never seen before.
- Dedicate another chunk of time to relistening to content that you've gone through previously.
No sitting down, no reading, no writing.
Just listening. Plain and simple.
This allows you to relisten to the vocabulary in context, and also gives you a powerful review activity you can do anywhere you have access to your computer or your phone, and possibly a pair of headphones.
For example, I like to listen to Hungarian podcasts while going grocery shopping, and Greek podcasts while I take my regular walks in a nearby park.
It's a useful habit that will give your brain ample opportunity to gain repeated exposure to previously-learned words and phrases, just like Spaced Repetition Systems do.
The advantage here, though, is that this practice, which I call "Listen to Review", keeps your reviewed language material connected to its natural context. This allows you to use context cues to strengthen your memory of learned words and expressions much more easily.
3. Use New Words for Meaningful Communication
So, repeated exposure to target language words in context is one of the most powerful ways to build your vocabulary.
I still stand by that lesson wholeheartedly, but the truth is that it's only ONE piece of a much larger puzzle: there are still many other things you can and should do in order to make new words and phrases stick in your mind.
This time, my lesson on vocabulary is a little more advanced, and it's all about how you can take things to the next level, during and after you've regularly been exposed to new and interesting words.
To do that, you need to engage in something I like to call "Smart Review".
At first, my use of the word "review" here might remind you of the "review" you did in school, where you would just mindlessly revisit content and topics you had covered earlier in the school year, likely in the very same way you did the first time.
But that's just a regular, run-of-the-mill review, and it's hardly effective. Smart Review, by contrast, is much, much better, and a heck of a lot more fun.
To review vocabulary in a smart way, you need to make a habit of actively using the words and expressions you learn. So not by re-reading them, or even repeatedly writing them down (those are passive things), but by using them for meaningful communication.
What do I mean by "meaningful communication"?
I mean using the word, phrase or expression to communicate with another person, either verbally or in writing.
This sounds harder than it actually is. While you might be imagining having to use the word perfectly in a live, dynamic, off-the-cuff conversation, you don't need to set your sights so high (at least at first).
Even at the early stages of your learning, you can use learned words for meaningful communication in simple ways, such as:
- Sending a short text message to a native-speaker friend that contains a recently-learned expression or two. If you don’t have a native-speaker friend yet, then maybe you want to check out italki (affiliate). There you’ll find language exchange partners, community tutors and even private teachers.
- Recording a short voice message about a video or podcast you recently found, and using new vocabulary in your short summary of the content.
- Having a pretend "conversation" with yourself, where you try to verbally summarize some language material you recently covered.
All of these are interesting and nuanced ways to make active use of new expressions, and their effectiveness goes far beyond the more common review strategies of re-reading, and repeatedly rewriting words over and over. And the best part is that they help you engage with native speakers, even as you review!
So, there you have it: 3 powerful strategies you can start using today to learn new words and expressions in any language.
Let's quickly review these points:
- Learn vocabulary through repeated exposure to the right content
- Use your listening skills to learn and to review
- Use the new words for meaningful communication
If you'd like to learn more about my favorite memorization strategies (including the "Listen to Review" and "Smart Review" techniques), check out my Become a Master Language Learner courses, where I go into these methods (and more) in a lot more detail.
Happy language learning!