An effective guide to building up your vocabulary in a foreign language (part 1)


Building up a vocabulary in a foreign language is one of the most common struggles when it comes to learning the language. From my experience, I could never just memorize a list of words and then go use it in real-life conversations. Not even when I had to take a test.

So I started to look on the internet for methods and how to approach this matter. Before I jump into the actual methods, I’ll list what I think you should consider when learning new words (whether you are a beginner or an advanced learner).

In the following articles, I’ll test each method and provide my insight on them (what I took into account, how did I do it, for how long, and whether it actually works).

What should I take into account to build up my vocabulary?

#1st thing: the environment

Do you study a foreign language at the university or a language center? Do you use an app? If so, which app? What are the pros or cons of that app? Do you live where this language is spoken or not? How much exposure do you get to that language? Do you have a person or a group with which you can talk in that language?

At this stage, you should assess your current situation and see what you can do to get as much exposure as possible to the foreign language.

#2nd thing: time

Honestly, how much time do you have? You should spend as much as possible when learning a new language (and watching videos in the foreign language counts as well). No matter how much time you have, use it effectively.

#3rd thing: the language

If you do a little research, you’ll see every language has its characteristics. Two things are widely known: the closer a language is to your native language, the easier it will be to learn it, and the more exposure you get to it, the faster you will learn it. Although it may not apply to everyone, or be as smooth as it sounds, take these two things into consideration.

Think about the differences between your mother tongue and your foreign language (so that you can pay attention to these differences and study more effectively). Do these languages have similar roots for words that mean the same thing? Is the spelling the same as the pronunciation? If not, you should include spelling exercises too.

#4th thing: why

Do you want to memorize some words for a test? Look for short memory methods. Do you want to build up a vocabulary for a long time usage? Look for ways that help you maintain it in your long-term memory. Do you wish to learn general vocabulary or specialized terminology?

An effective guide to building up your vocabulary in a foreign language (part 1)

The methods

Method 1: Memory techniques.

One of the most mentioned techniques is mnemonics.

You associate the word or words with an idea, a song, an acronym, or other known words. For example, let’s say you want to learn the Dutch word bazig that means bossy. Both words start with a b, so you can say something stupid like: ‘the b is for the boss, and bazig is his way’. Or ‘bazig has an a, and so does autoritair, and they are close to each other’.

Method 2: Words in context.

I think this is a popular method that you see in textbooks. Try to think about where you can use the words you want to learn. Then make sentences with them, use them while talking with someone, or look for media where you can encounter them. For example, if you want to learn words for food and cooking, try watching a cooking show in that language or read a cookbook.

Method 3: Do not translate it

If you are an advanced learner, a good method is to look for synonyms, antonyms, or definitions of those words. Try to give them yourself, and then check them with a dictionary.

Method 4: Play with the words

That means that you should interact with words via crosswords, word puzzles, anagrams, or flashcards. If you are a creative person, you can use flashcards for tons of games that include synonyms, antonyms, match definitions, match words with images.

Method 5: Visualize the words or stack them

Try not to think words are separate units, but see them in categories. For example, you can think about your room, what is in your room, and how you can say it in your foreign language (room – bed – sheets – pillow – chair). Or think about categories (moving your feet: to walk, to run, to dance, to jump).

Aim for spaced-repetition, usage in as many contexts as possible, and with as many senses as possible.

Next time, I’ll share with you my results regarding the first method.

If you want to learn more, check this out.


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