When learning a language there are a few hurdles you might have to jump. There’s parsing out the gibberish you hear when you first try a listening comprehension exercise. There’s overcoming the jitters of anxiety or excitement when trying to communicate with a native speaker. And who could forget the challenge of having to learn a completely new writing and phonetic system. Really, the milestones are endless and the list could go on forever with subtle differences across language, but one hurdle that is universal to learning any foreign tongue is acquiring vocabulary.
Even outside of personal challenges that make it hard to retain vocabulary (like different attention spans, learning thresholds, schedules etc), learning the vocabulary of a new language can be hard because there are just so many words— hundreds of thousands of words and millions of ways to use them! But even though the vocabulary of the world is vast, don’t feel daunted. When approached with the right attitude and tactics, acquiring vocab can be easier than you’d think.
Here are 5 of the best ways to start chipping away at the vocabulary block:
1. CONNECT YOUR VOCAB BY THEMES AND NARRATIVES
People tend to have a fantastic vocabulary for the topics they like and that is in part due to how the same words may appear together at the same time in the same spaces over and over again— you pick up one word, you’re bound to pick up the others. As language learners, we can create these conditions for ourselves by trying to find links between the vocabulary we’re trying to acquire. This linking can be done quite naturally by studying vocabulary by theme, or more intentionally by actually creating little stories that help to link ideas and words together. In this way, you kinda attach a ‘face’ to the ‘name’ allowing you to create more reliable associations.
2. USE MULTIPLE MEDIUMS
One thing that can surprisingly help when trying to retain new words is encountering them in different mediums. For example, if you’re used to reading about a theme with problematic vocabulary, perhaps you could try watching a video on the same theme instead. Watch a film that deals with a similar subject; listen to a podcast that uses a unique way of delivery. The idea is to engage with the theme and vocabulary in different ways that stand a better chance of creating an impact on you. We all respond differently to different stimuli after all!
Rote memorization, repetition and regurgitation are some of the oldest learning tactics in the book, and while the science of education has become more sophisticated over the decades one could argue that these approaches still have their place in our learning systems. Sometimes you really do have to just write down a vocab list 20 times to get things to stick in your head. Maybe you’re the type to chant new words fervently as if you were praying, so you won’t forget. Whatever your brute-force method is, as long as it works for you that’s all that matters. Of course in the interest of in-depth learning, you may want to incorporate gentler or more efficient methods but that’s up to you and your ideal system.
4. LISTEN MORE, READ MORE, SPEAK MORE
When learning a foreign language you will hear this bit of advice ad nauseum: listen more, read more, speak more. This tip will tell you nothing different. If we train our ears, eyes and tongue to be more in tune with our target languages, over time it will be easier to pick up new vocabulary. Improving your visual recognition might help you to envision a new word that you hear based on its phonetics, for example. Or, practicing your speech can improve your ‘muscle memory’ making new words feel more at home even when you’re saying it for the first time.
In addition to what has been discussed above, another benefit of improving these three skills is having a broader base vocabulary to build on. You’ll acquire language more efficiently if you know 9/10 words in a given sentence than if you only know 4/10. There isn’t a scenario imaginable where strengthening these core language skills won’t help you in the long run.
5. FOCUS ON YOUR WEAK SPOTS
Have you ever had those moments when you’re trying to express yourself in your target language but you just can’t find the words to do so? Well, remember those moments and remember them well. ‘Brain-farts’ like this are an apt opportunity to address a gap in your learning. If you consistently make the same mistake over and over, especially if it’s dealing with a topic you find yourself needing to talk about a lot, then it’s probably worth paying attention to. Think of this tip as reverse engineering of sorts: instead of trying to tackle the endless word bank of your language en masse, target the areas that will serve you best.
In sum, vocabulary doesn’t have to be a scary part of language learning– it doesn’t even have to be taxing. By refining the way you approach your studies there is always more insight and retention to be gained. No two students are exactly the same and our study methods should reflect that.
Another thing we should keep in mind is that even the wordiest wordsmith in the world doesn’t know all the words in a given language (or at least, doesn’t have every word stored in their brain). Temper your lexical pursuits by keeping in mind that dictionaries will never go out of style! 😉
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