As anyone studying a new language knows, learning new vocab can be a big pain in the you-know-what. Unfortunately, without vocabulary we can’t communicate well in our second language. In fact, learning new vocab words is often the most important aspect of what we do as language students.
But learning vocab is an arduous process, with lots of study and memorization. It can feel like a hard grind with only slow progress. What can be done?
In order to make this process easier, there are seven simple tricks you can start using today to make your vocab stick. Read on for the tips after the break.
7 Secrets to Mastering Vocab Faster
1. Give your new vocab words context in your personal daily life
It seems like a simple enough thing to do, but context for your words doesn’t just come automatically. You will need to actively search out links with your life that apply to each word. Rather than thinking of “madre” in Spanish just as “mother,” associate the word with your own mom. What do you think of when you think of your mom? Consider her face and her name, sure, but also her perfume or her favorite foods. If you can, make the associations in your new language as well. Not only will you practice more words, but they will also be connected to a strong image in your mind, which makes them more likely to stick.
2. Make flashcards to practice new vocab
This tried and true trick is a classic for a reason. The repetitive nature of flashcards gives you exposure to the words over and over until they come naturally. Nowadays, online smart flashcards like you can access through the Brainscape app make this process even more efficient. You will get instant feedback on your progress and the app will analyze your knowledge of each word so that you are exposed more to the vocab giving you trouble.
3. Use mnemonics (the sillier, the better)
Think of a phrase in English that reminds you of the meaning of the vocab word and use it to create a mental picture. Often times, the stupider the phrase, the easier it is to remember. You may feel silly making up these phrases to remind you of what a word means, but they really stay in your brain. For example, I know only a few words in Russian, but I will never forget pivo (pee-vuh), the word for beer. A friend taught me the word using the mnemonic “Every time I drink a lot of beer, I have to pee vuh-ry much.” Simple enough (and yes, silly), but a strong association that stuck.
4. Read familiar or simple material in your new language
By seeing words in context on the page, you will inherently understand the new meaning of some vocab words. Plus, you will have the added bonus of connecting words you do know in context. The important thing is that you are able to understand a certain percentage of what you see. Whether you choose to read a very simple children’s book with a lot of pictures as a beginner or to re-read an old favorite in your new language, you will have enough context to figure out what is happening. Sometimes it can help to even listen along as you read in your native language. If you find that distracting, get both copies side by side for when you get stuck. The most important part is actually reading in your new language.
5. Hear words used in culturally relevant and natural conversation
Of course the easiest way to hear your new language spoken in a natural way is to have a conversation with a native speaker. They will use current slang and know important cultural references in the culture where you would use the language. Unfortunately, this isn’t always easy to access. Thanks to the internet, though, you can still find tons of videos online where native speakers are talking. Watch the news in a country where your language is spoken. Check out a popular movie made in that country and watch it with subtitles. You can even just check out random YouTube videos by people from the country. You will hear vocab as it is commonly used in everyday speech, which gives you even more context for the words.
6. Listen to music in your target language
Music activates your brain differently than spoken language does. When you listen to a song or even a jingle with a catchy tune, you are more likely to remember the lyrics than if you just read or heard the words out of context. Try and choose songs with slow, clear lyrics so that you can understand more words, and check out what the lyrics are online in order to make sure you are understanding the words well. Once you can understand a word well in a song, it is much easier to transition that word into your permanent vocabulary.
7. Make it fun to use your new words
This is a very personal aspect of language learning, but perhaps the most important. You will learn vocabulary so much faster if your brain gets a “reward” for doing the work. You need to pick a way to make learning fun that works well for you personally. Maybe you are really competitive and want to dominate a Scrabble game in the new language. Maybe you love to cook and you will buy a recipe book in your new language to make something delicious. For many people, a chance to travel abroad is a great reward. Just keep in mind that there is a fun reason to learn the vocab waiting for you at the end of the tunnel. When you keep the reward in mind (and reward yourself with smaller benefits along the way), you are going to master the vocab much faster.
These seven simple strategies are designed to help you acquire new vocab faster, and they will work if you choose to do as many of them that work for you. In the end though, these are all simply extensions of one important part of language learning: practice. So keep on practicing that vocab in as many different contexts as possible. You will be surprised at how fast you pick up new words for good.
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