How to learn vocabulary in your chosen language
The problem with learning vocabulary…
…is that it is often seen as a simple matter of equating one word with one meaning. For example: the Polish word for bread bun is bulka; the word for butter is masło. So, if you put them together to get bread and butter you get: bułka z masłem. Piece of cake – expect that is what bułka z masłem really means in Polish: piece of cake, as in: well, that was so easy it was a piece of cake!
Unfortunately, when it comes to learning vocabulary, the example above isn’t unique. In fact, most words have a variety of meanings which are completely obscure if you take them out of context. So, the first tip for learning vocabulary is:
Tip#1: Always learn the words in their given context.
That leads to the question of where to find words in their context? Luckily, that is an easy one to answer and is discussed in the next point below.
Tip #2: Read, read, and read! The more you read the more you will see words in their context.
Reading more is always a good idea when learning a foreign language – it will give you the chance to practise seeing what you have already learnt in a real text. Of course, depending on your level, you might not understand a lot from an authentic text but you will be able to pick out what you do know.
View the text as an opportunity to pick out a few items of vocabulary – maybe between 5 and 8* – to look up and learn. Remember, most words have numerous meanings, so learn the meaning you read it in!
* The suggested number of 5 – 8 is based on education research from the University of Plymouth.
Tip #3: Practice, practice and more practice!
Recognising words in their context is one aspect of knowing a word. There are many more, including understanding it, pronouncing it and being able to use it.
So, if you have already got a text which you have read and picked out a few items of vocabulary, why don’t you copy and paste it into a text document on your computer and blank out those words.
Leave the text for a few days and come back to it and see if you can put the words in their right places. Come back again to it a week later and repeat the same activity. Then two weeks later. Then a month later.
This way you will have continuous practice and you will be working not only on your understanding of the words but also your ability to produce them in their given context.
Tip #4: See it again, again and again.
As Thornbury writes, it isn’t enough to see a word once or twice to learn it. You have to come across it again and again. You need to have multiple encounters with it. That doesn’t necessarily mean reading the same text again and again – though that can be help – it really means you need to be actively seeking out the vocabulary in other texts. There are two ways of going about this:
- Keep your vocabulary notebook by your side when you do any reading. That way you can cross reference any words you think you might have encountered before
- Actively search for texts containing the vocabulary you have learnt. You can do this this by typing some of the words into the Google search engine using “ “ around the words. For example: “huevos” “salchicha and “tomar” will bring back links to texts which contain those words.
Tip #5: Learn language in chunks
Michael Lewis is a methodologist in language teaching whose book outlines how best to learn vocabulary. In his opinion, vocabulary is most effectively learnt and acquired when it is learnt in sets of small phrases or chunks.
For example: if you’re learning English as a foreign language, don’t just learn the word run but learn the whole chunk/phrase to go for a run, because that is how you are most likely to use it.
The website smartlanguagelearner.com did a small research project into learning vocabulary and got people to send in their ideas and methods. You can find them here – but be warned, there are a lot of them to read: http://www.smartlanguagelearner.com/experts-reveal-method-learning-vocabulary/
If you have any suggestions or ideas about you learn vocabulary, why don’t you leave a comment for us to read.
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A polyglot and international traveller. Anthony speaks 6 languages and loves sharing his passion of language learning through his writing.
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