learn french vocabulary moving beyond flashcards, step by step

How to Learn French Vocabulary Faster by Moving Beyond Flashcards

Flashcards are a good method to build your vocabulary, but at a certain point, rote memorization can become a bit boring.

So to move beyond flashcards, we first need to know how they work, and then we need to realize that they’re not the only way.

Understanding what all of your options are—and what the ultimate goal is—will help you learn French more efficiently and have fun along the way!


Square One: French Flashcards as Rudimentary Translation

You might think you don’t know anything about translating.

But by using flashcards, you’re already doing some translation on a very basic level.

Sure, matching a French word with its English counterpart is simpler than rendering an entire French sentence into English. But it’s the same general idea.

By moving beyond words and phrases and learning to work with sentences, you’ll increase the amount of vocabulary you can learn in a given amount of time. You’ll also learn to use the words you already know more effectively.

Even if you’re not interested in translation as a career option, it’s a great tool for learning French.

Starting here from square one, I’ll show you some steps that will get you moving toward translation—and have you exploring other aspects of vocabulary learning while you’re at it.

Baby Steps: Real-life French Flashcards

Here are a few things you can do to change up your flashcard routine. The methods listed below bring flashcard mechanics into your everyday life.

By flashcard mechanics, I mean word or phrase A = word or phrase B. The following are ways to use this formula in a more hands-on environment. Doing so will keep you from getting bored and present a fun challenge.

You can, if you like, use any of these as sources to mine words and phrases for making flashcards. The most important thing, however, is to get comfortable applying vocabulary to the real world.

Power Shopping: Compare Ingredient Lists and Product Information

French and English are two of the most widely spoken languages on the planet. For this reason, many products on the shelves of your local supermarket or pharmacy likely display information in both languages. Look through the items you have in your pantry at home. Check out the contents of your medicine chest. Keep an eye out while you’re shopping, too. You’ll probably find at least a few items with French writing on them.

These products give you the opportunity to compare words. It’s like using flashcards, but with the added benefit of a little context. For example, if you’re looking at ingredients on a package of cookies, you’ll expect to see words like farine (flour) or sucre (sugar). Memorizing words in a real-life scenario like this helps divide vocabulary into logical groups, all without a lesson plan!

Movie Night: Watch Movies in English with French Subtitles

If you’re already using movies as a tool for learning French, bravo! Watching French films is an excellent way to improve your understanding of the language as it’s spoken. Another way to use movies, however, is to find English-language movies (or TV shows) that you already love and are familiar with and watch them with French subtitles.

This way, you’ll be watching someone else’s translation of the English phrase into French, which will give you some perspective on word choice. You’ll also be learning huge blocks of vocabulary at once, which will stick better due to being placed in context alongside words you already know.

Digital French: Change Your Computer Settings to French

Browsing the Internet in French is one great way to supercharge your learning experience, but you can learn a lot just by changing the settings on your browser and a few basic accounts that you use (e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, smartphone, etc.).

Even if you only change them long enough to glance over the differences, you’ll benefit from being able to figure out vocabulary from the physical placement of words and phrases.

Advanced Class: French Context Work

Now that we’ve looked at some ways to make flashcard technique more interesting, let’s go over some exciting alternatives to the standard flashcard method.

These techniques are more challenging. They’re immersion-based, focused on learning new words entirely through context with no help in English.

That might sound a little scary, but context work is important, not only because it’s a fresh option to change things up, but because it forms the missing link between flashcard memorization and fluent comprehension.

As you try out these methods, you can enhance your experience by using a French-to-French dictionary (rather than French-English) whenever possible. Reading definitions in French not only reinforces vocabulary you already know, but helps you immediately place words in context outside of their English definitions.

Reading in French for Vocabulary Context

Once you’re able to read in French at the most basic level, you might be eager to load up on vocabulary so you can tackle more advanced reading.

What you might not realize, though, is that you can actually use reading to learn more vocabulary.

If you make a habit of reading content in which you understand many of the words, you’ll often figure out new words from context.

Think of it this way: Words you’re already familiar with are “sticky.” The more times you see a word used in context, the “stickier” it gets. And the more it’s surrounded by other “sticky” words, the more likely you’ll retain it. Reading multiple, similar texts often can turn your French comprehension into the linguistic equivalent of flypaper.

So if Céline is giving you trouble, don’t hesitate to spend some quality time with that copy of Elle magazine instead.

MosaLingua has a web app that not only provides you with authentic content selected for learners, but helps you along in your reading with a translation tool and the ability to create flashcards from scratch. Between this customized content and the pre-made flashcard content available from MosaLingua, you can be sure you’re reviewing language that’s relevant to your learning and interests.

Listening to French for Vocabulary Context

Using audio and video to learn additional vocabulary follows the same basic idea as reading, but with added benefits. For example, you’ll learn the pronunciation of a word at the same time as the word itself.

The main downside is not seeing the spelling of the word immediately, but looking it up later will further reinforce the definition. And if you’re using a French-to-French dictionary, even better!

You could also try finding some audio and video clips that have transcripts online, or if you want a little extra support, use FluentU—it’s a language learning program based on authentic videos with interactive subtitles. If there’s any word that you don’t know, you can simply hover or tap the subtitles to see a definition, image and useful example sentences. Later, you can practice these words with multimedia flashcards that incorporate contextual clues.

By learning words in context, you’ll have a much more nuanced understanding than you’d get from just flashcards.

Contextual Flashcards with French Words and Definitions

To take these techniques to their logical extreme, start making French-to-French flashcards!

Whether you use a French-to-French dictionary or write your own definitions, make sure to verify the definitions through reliable sources. Doing so will help prepare you for the next step in your French vocab-learning journey: translation!

Full Circle: French to Native Language Translation

And here we are at the summit. Shall we continue?

Actively translating from a language you’re learning into your native language is one of the best ways to get your brain working at an advanced, fluent level.

It’s also a highly effective way to strengthen your existing vocabulary, because you’ll constantly be relying on your knowledge of French in context.

What to Translate

Let’s start off easy. Remember those products we were talking about? Find something simple—like directions on a shampoo bottle—that has already been translated from French into English, or the other way around. Try not to look at the English version until you’re finished with your translation. Then, compare the two.

Even with the most basic text, they’ll probably differ somewhat. This doesn’t mean that your version is necessarily better or worse, but comparing might clue you in to a shade or subtlety of meaning you may have missed.

How to Translate

Try to look at every sentence as a complete unit. Translating word-for-word is a less reliable method and doesn’t get you thinking contextually. You may end up writing a sentence that’s much shorter or longer than the original. That’s okay, as long as you’re preserving the basic meaning. Learning to choose words and phrases and put them together trains your brain to use vocabulary correctly and fluently.

Using Translation to Learn Vocabulary

A short blurb or paragraph that you’ve translated from French into English yourself is the ultimate homemade flashcard. Making translation part of your French-learning routine will give you the chance to exercise your French comprehension fully, and keep your existing vocabulary toned and intact. If you use it along with the other two methods detailed above, you’ll find that all three support and enhance one another.

That said, the frequency with which you use each method should be determined by how much you enjoy it. Some learners may find flashcards boring and discover that reading or watching videos for vocabulary saves them from giving up on French altogether. Others may find a sense of accomplishment from flashcards that can’t be achieved through context work.

The majority of learners will probably benefit from some combination of all of the above, but consider this: Vocabulary, for most people, is the single most tedious part of learning a language. It can easily cause discouragement if you’re not considerate of your own learning needs.

So study smart and use methods that are fun for you.

Your brain will thank you.

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