The sheer amount of vocabulary there is to learn when you start studying a second language can feel overwhelming. From vegetables to furniture, weather to numbers, classroom greetings, body parts, shops and transportation words, there is a seemingly endless list of terms. Should you spend time learning how to say tomato or is it more worth your while to know bathroom and thank you? Do you need to know a word’s gender, part of speech and collocates or just its spelling and pronunciation? In the first few months of language study it can be quite difficult to learn new words because your brain isn’t used to the language yet. That’s why it helps to take an informed approach and work out a plan that complements your coursework from the beginning.
Vocabulary is important. In fact it is so important that applied linguistics researchers commonly use measures of vocabulary knowledge as an indication of proficiency. The big difference between an intermediate and advanced language learner isn’t grammar knowledge, it’s the size and depth of their vocabulary knowledge. Words are the building blocks of language and without them you’ll be unable to understand spoken or written language, let alone express yourself.
A language course will typically provide you with word lists but it is still your responsibility to develop your vocabulary on the side. There are a few reasons for this. First off, if you really want to achieve fluency you’re going to need to know a lot of words. Second, it’s impossible for someone designing a course to know exactly which words you as an individual will need to speak about your job, your home and your day-to-day. Lastly, we retain language through repeat exposure so you’ll want to engage with vocabulary outside of your lessons to reinforce what you’re learning in memory.
Breadth vs. depth
The best way to study vocabulary is by taking a balanced approach. You want to ensure you learn both a wide variety of words (building out breadth in your vocabulary) and that you get to know those terms well (achieving depth).
Let’s start with the latter. When you first hear or see a new word you gain receptive knowledge of it. In other words, you recognise it. As you get to know that word better you may be able to produce it either by pronouncing it or spelling it correctly. But there’s more to depth than that. You have to know how to use it in a sentence, which words it commonly appears with, if there are any secondary meanings. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to memorise all of its properties on day one (though keep in mind gender and part of speech can be helpful to put on a flashcard). Depth is acquired gradually. Every time you meet a word in context you’ll learn more about it.
TIP: The bonus here is the further you dig down, the greater your understanding of a word will be and the stronger it will become in memory!
Breadth refers to the extent of your vocabulary knowledge. There are high frequency words which tend to show up in many different situations but there are also context specific vocabulary nodes. For example if you like to go sailing you’ll know there are plenty of nautical terms in English that only come up in conversation if you’re on a boat: starboard, rigging, bow. There is no point in learning these words in your new language unless you think you’ll be on a boat with native speakers anytime soon.
Instead, consider common environments and situations you’re likely to encounter and then learn the basic words you’ll need to survive them. For example, banking and money exchange words are always helpful, food and drink vocabulary, family names, job terminology for talking about your work, etc. etc.
TIP: Studying a group of words that are often used together is a great idea. Your brain likes to build connections so when you access a vocabulary word it activates the whole area, making it easier for you to find the second language word for sailing if you’ve just heard boat or sea.
Approaches to vocabulary study
It may be tempting to pull out your dictionary, open it up to A (or whatever the first letter of your new language’s alphabet is) and start making flashcards. But learning every word in the book is not necessarily the answer. The most effective approach to learning vocabulary mimics the experience you’d have living abroad.
Meet words in context. If possible, find words to learn by looking in their natural environment. To carry on with our sailing example, this might be reading an article about a girl who sailed around the world or watching a documentary on sailing boats (do this in your target language). If you first meet a word in context you’ll have to either look up its definition or take a guess at what it means. Both activities mean you’re spending extra cognitive energy and attention on the term, which makes it stickier in memory.
Follow up with isolated study. Once you’ve extracted a handful of new words, work on depth by finding out more about them. See what kind of sentences they show up in on the internet. Look at pictures of them from Google images. Research their part of speech and gender. Practice pronouncing them and using them in your own speech and writing.
Learn groups of similar words. If you are at a beginner level, try studying a list of related words and their definitions and then consulting a chart or image that shows how they are connected. For example you could study a list of vegetables and fruits and then bring up a supermarket website, a recipe or even a food and healthy eating pyramid. Label the words, sort them and use them together in new sentences. Learn any terms that are part of the same category/group but that you didn’t have on your original list. The more you build connections between vocabulary in memory, the stronger the spreading activation effect will be down the line.
Tips for learners
- Learn words you’ll need. Don’t just rely on a course to teach you vocabulary in a second language. Make a list of your favorite subjects, activities you engage in regularly, hobbies or even your areas of expertise. Next, start learning words you think you’ll need to know. You can even get a scanner app on your phone so you can look up and learn the words for objects you encounter throughout your day.
- Use flashcards for review. Making flashcards, particularly electronic ones, helps you maintain your vocabulary. It’s great to build out breadth and depth but what if you can’t remember anything you’ve learned? It’s crucial to get all of your words into systematic review. There are some great free apps that do this using a technology which maps your personal forgetting curve. It shows you only the words you need to see each day, spaced along intervals to ensure you don’t forget them.
- Pay attention to frequency. Learn the most frequent words first. Most language courses (including Language Infusion) put the highest frequency words into the initial language lessons. However, it doesn’t hurt to pull a list of the 2,000 most frequent words and study them on your own. In this way you’ll be able to read most common publications, such as newspaper articles, and from there you can focus on subject specific terms.
- Use all of your senses. Vocabulary words are easier to learn when you involve your eyes, ears, mouth, nose and even hands in the process. If it’s the word for ball you’re learning then go to the store and pick up a ball. Roll it around in your hands as you say the word. Write the word down, draw a ball and then make the letters go around your illustration. This may be a bit harder when it comes to abstract terms like freedom and liberty but try related activities such as viewing a flag or playing a recording of a national anthem. Go to a field, smell the grass and say football out loud, or play a video of a sports announcer and crowds cheering. The more you bring vocabulary words to life, the easier it will be to remember them.
Work your words
The best way to enhance the depth and breadth of your vocabulary is to use your language every day and keep yourself immersed in target language rich environments.
It’s only through using your language that you will discover holes in your knowledge. For example, if you participate in a regular language exchange you might go to say something important and realise you don’t know the term you need to complete your thought. Look it up, use it right then and there and make a note to review it later.
If you read regularly and listen to your foreign language as often as possible it will help you gain repeat exposure to the words you’ve learned, which simulates the experience of living abroad. Not only will it reinforce them in memory but you’ll also build out a greater understanding of how they function in different phrases, which adds to the depth of your vocabulary knowledge.
Do you have any tips to add? Join the discussion in the comments!