Words are the basic blocks of the language, and one of the key predictors of someone’s education level, profession and social status. Yet most students struggle to increase their vocabulary effectively, as new words go one into one ear and out the other.
It’s not that we have difficulties grasping the vocabulary when we see it. Rather, we struggle to recall when we get the opportunity to use it, or worse yet, forget to use frequently enough only to end up back where we begun.
Below I describe ten proven tactics to overcome this struggle and learn new words faster, recall them more effectively, and remember them forever.
How to improve your vocabulary
1. Make use of spaced repetition algorithms (SRSs)
Although the scientific community is still debating some aspects of learning, there is consensus on how memories form, and solidify in our brains.
You can read more about spaced repetition in my earlier blog post, but the basic concept is that memories begin to fade shortly after they’re formed, and disappear into oblivion lest we are exposed to the information again.
With each exposure, the ‘forgetting curve’ of the memory becomes longer, and longer until it eventually outlasts your lifetime. This is why reviewing what you’ve learned regularly is so important to effective learning.
The biggest benefit of using a spaced repetition approach to learning, whether you follow the Leitner system with your old paper flashcards, or go for spaced repetition software on your phone or computer (have you tried LinguaLift yet?), is that it prevents you from wasting time on vocabulary that is still fresh in your memory.
The way most students use flashcards is by adding more and more cards to the deck, and then reviewing them all together every day, or every week, or eventually never at all. No surprise, given how unmanageable the pile becomes after a few learning sessions.
SRS goes beyond regular flashcards by predicting the point when the memory is about to fade based on your past performance, and then reminding you at this optimal moment. In theory, if you review regularly every day, you shouldn’t see the word more than 4-5 times before it enters your long term memory!
2. Study vocabulary in context
Research shows that the vast majority of words are learned from context. I can’t emphasize this enough, as learning in context of situations and sentences has huge benefits for all three aspects of vocabulary acquisition: learning, recall and retention.
This means that you should never learn vocabulary from isolated lists of unrelated vocabulary, without seeing them as part of a wider picture.
Think of words as puzzle pieces--when they’re scattered around the table, it’s almost impossible to remember or use them for anything useful. But once you combine even just a couple of the pieces together, a more meaningful context begins to appear, and the end result no longer appears unattainable.
There are many ways of introducing context into your vocabulary learning, the simplest being to learn vocabulary in sentences. This has additional benefits of introducing you to several words at a time, and clarifying their meaning, which may not always be obvious from a simple dictionary translation.
Beyond sentences, you can experiment with learning words with stories, songs or just everyday situations. For example, rather than learning weather related words on their own, look up a weather forecast online, and try to imagine a conversation about weather next week, and how it’ll affect the fishing trip you’ve been looking forward to so much.
Finally, you can also embed the vocabulary right into your surroundings with post-it notes. You’ve probably tried this method with nouns, but there’s no reason to stop there! Simply prepend the label on the fridge with ‘white,’ the clock with ‘wall,’ and the notebook with ‘my.’
3. Make the vocabulary personal, and emotional
You’ve probably heard stories of car crash survivors who can remember every little detail before the accident. We’ve also all experienced how difficult it can be to forget something we’ve been told that touched us to the heart.
Neuroscientists have flashed different words and sentences in front of subjects, scanning their brain activity. Unsurprisingly, the heatmaps lit up like a christmas tree whenever the subjects were exposed to personally relevant and emotionally notable information.
This effect can be put to great effect in vocabulary learning when combined with the previous tip. Rather than settling for a boring sentence like “The photo is on the table,” try something like “The photo of my wife fell of the desk just when I got the call.”
The benefit is three-fold. There’s now a very visual story forming around the vocab, it is emotionally impactful, and assuming you keep a photo of your significant other on your desk, also immediately relatable!
Throw that sentence into your SRS, and I can guarantee that you’ll never forget the words photo, desk, or wife ever again!
Try to think of new vocabulary in context of the people you know, places you’re familiar with or important events in your life. Just make sure not to go overboard with the imagery, lest you get traumatized every time you need to use one of the words...
4. Read regularly, and from a variety of sources
Reading exposes you to the same vocabulary at regular intervals, integrated it into the context of a longer story, personally relatable once you identify with the main protagonist... all central characteristics of effective vocabulary learning.
This makes reading one of the most effective ways to increase your vocabulary. The stereotype might portray bookworms as boring and asocial, but studies have in fact confirmed repeatedly that regular readers are much more expressive if you give them a chance to speak.
While you read, pay close attention to words you don't know, but don’t try to look up everything right away or you’ll fail to appreciate the narrative and eventually burn out. Instead, highlight words that appear to be particularly useful or central to the story, then try to figure out their meanings from context before checking the official definition.
Make sure to engage with material on many different subjects, and in different formats. The language will be very different depending on whether you’re reading pulp fiction, a glamour magazine, or daily newspaper.
If you the book you’re reading is also available in audio form, you should also consider listening to each chapter before or after you read it. If the text and the audio match accurately, also make sure to try shadowing, an extremely effective learning method I’ve covered before.
5. Link vocabulary with mnemonics and word associations
Once you get a hang of the language, learning new words gets easier and easier as you can associate new vocabulary with homonyms, roots and other components you know already. But what about given names and locations? How do you remember what are often just random sets of letters?
Last month, I’ve asked this questions to Mattias Ribbing, a three-time Swedish Memory Champion, and Grand Master of Memory.
Matthias travels on speaking gigs around the globe, encountering hundreds of new faces every month, yet he never forgets a name! What’s his secret? Rather than putting pen to paper, or resorting to cheesy smartphone apps that would break the flow of the conversation, Matthias follows a simple, three-step approach every time he comes across a new name:
- Think of an image that clearly represents the name. This can be a common association (Mary > Virgin Mary), sound resemblance (Siegel > Seagull), etc.
- Enlarge the image in your head and combine it with the person you want to associate it with. If your contact’s name is Bree, for example, don’t just think of a small slice of cheese, but imagine Bree balancing an enormous round of stinky in her hands!
- Remind yourself of the image through the day, and a few more times throughout the week, to solidify it in your memory via the spacing effect
And that’s it! Follow these three simple steps and you’ll never be the one awkwardly thinking of a way to attract someone’s attention without admitting you forgot the name their mentioned just five minutes ago.
Mnemonics are a bit of a controversial topic in the language learning community, but they can be incredibly effective for some people. The key here is to use them as yet another tool, not the be-all, end-all learning method.
Like with example sentences, to make this method really effective, make sure that your mnemonics are both visually and emotionally powerful--hence the benefit of thinking of a funny visual, and enlarging the object in your memory beyond natural proportions.
6. Pool new vocabulary from a frequency list
Before you can use any of the above learning hacks, you’ll need a list of vocabulary to start learning. Ideally, much of that vocabulary should come from encounters in daily life, whether through reading, listening to songs, watching movies, or paying attention to conversations in the elevator. In reality, you’ll likely need to supplement these with a more abstract words to target.
A common theme across my suggestions, and earlier blog posts, is that language should be learned in a way that allows you to use it at the earlier opportunity. That is a key value of learning in context, of learning vocabulary that is personally relevant, and generally engaging with words as blocks you can use to construct something bigger, rather than individual pieces of information.
It should then come as no surprise that my preferred source of abstract vocabulary are lists ordered by the frequency at which they are used in day-to-day language. I’ve rarely seen this approach in classroom setting, but found it extremely effective and popular among many successful language self-learners.
In many languages, learning just 1000 basic words will make you understand 90% of the spoken language, and even the first 250 most common words will give you a good sense of the conversation.
If you acquire just 10 new words a day, getting up to speed in a conversation will take less than a month of casual learning. Learning a language is a huge undertaking, and it’s misleading at best when edutech companies promise fluency in a matter of months or even weeks, but mastering a core vocabulary list will make you very comfortable in all day-to-day situations. And from there, it’s just a matter of faking it, till you make it!
7. Have some fun with the words you learn
Word games may not be enough in and of themselves, but they’re a fun and effortless way to increase the recall speed of the vocabulary you know already, as well as to pick up an occasional new word from your peers.
Crosswords and Scrabble are a good place to start if you’re learning Arabic or Indo-European languages. Boggle is also great fun and localized for several language using the Latin alphabet. Quiddler is a good way to improve your vocabulary, but unfortunately only exist in English.
Languages like Japanese or Chinese are unfortunately not well suited for this type of board games, but looking through the app store on your mobile device should lead you to at least a few options adapted for phonetics and writing systems.
If you don’t want to spend money on board games, or prefer meeting with friends over coffee or hiking, you can try playing a spoken word game instead. Some old time favourites include Word-chain or Shiritori (reply with a word starting with the last letter of the one that preceded), Associations (quickly say the first word that comes to your mind after hearing the preceding word), and Metaphors (think of metaphors for things you see around you).
Bonus: Appreciate the language
You can try every learning method you want, but at the end of the day, you’ll only make rapid progress when you begin begin to truly appreciate the language... for its expressiveness, its intrinsic beauty, the subtle differences between seemingly identical words and phrases.
Find yourself using the same word again and again? Open the thesaurus and try to integrate a few nuanced alternatives into your language. Notice a pattern? Try looking up the word’s root, prefix, and suffix, and how they’re used in other vocabulary.
Rather than learning words as meaningless syllables, discover their etymology. More than half of English words come from Greek and from Latin, and most advanced Japanese vocabulary comes from Chinese.
Learning about the origins of the words you use can be very effective at solidifying the connections in your brain, and guessing the meanings of the vocabulary you come across in the future. Once you know that ‘ortho’ means straight, you can quickly guess the meaning of complex words like orthodontist (a doctor who straightens teeth) or orthography (the proper way of writing).
Beyond the practical benefits, etymology can also be inspiring, and incredibly fun! Did you know that the word dim sum (點心; small little dumplings from Hong Kong) means to ‘touch the heart’ or ‘dotted heart’? There are countless legends explaining the hidden meaning behind the word.