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How to Learn New Vocabulary in a Foreign Language [10 Tips + FAQ]

Whether you’re still stumbling over putting a sentence together or you’re pretty much speaking like a native, you can never stop learning vocabulary!

It’s a top priority for students of all ages, abilities and learning styles.

Countless new words appear in our textbooks and are thrown at us in classrooms. Most of them fly straight through our ears, in and out, and are off out of the window, gone forever.

Well, I’ve brainstormed ten great tips explaining how to study vocabulary to help you naturally absorb language without having to memorize long (and painful) lists of words.

Contents

1. Use Spaced Repetition

This method involves reviewing words at increasing intervals over time, ensuring efficient retention and recall. There are several popular language learning apps or flashcard systems that employ spaced repetition algorithms, such as Anki.

By revisiting words just as you’re about to forget them, you are able to reinforce your memory and build a strong foundation of vocabulary, rather than constantly forgetting the new vocabulary you pick up.

Consistency is important here, so allocate short, regular study sessions to maximize the benefits of spaced repetition and enhance your long-term language acquisition.

Learn more about how to use space repetition in your language studies here.

2. Target Your Learning Style

Our brains all work in different ways, which means we all learn differently.

Some of us are predominantly visual learners, we have to see the word written down in order to remember it.

Others are kinetic, our hands and bodies need to write it, do it and touch it to remember.

The luckiest ones are auditory learners. They’ve really got it easy when it comes to learning languages. All they have to do is hear the word to commit it to memory.

Think back to school when you had to study for an exam. When test time came around, did you remember how the textbook pages looked? Or did you better remember what you learned while actually doing a hands-on activity or experiment? Or could you hear the teacher’s voice more clearly?

Most of us will favor one of these types of learning, but you’ll also find that we all use all three types of learning to differing degrees. So, the ideal situation would be to apply all three methods in combination and give more emphasis to your preferred learning style. That way those tricky words really get stuck in your head.

3. Put Words on Sticky Notes

Thank God someone invented sticky notes. They’re the perfect size for one word. Write the words you’re studying down on some little sticky notes and stick them all over everything: mesa (table), silla (chair), cuchillo (knife), puerta (door), novio (boyfriend).

You can even get pre-made, color-coded labels for items around your home and office with Vocabulary Stickers sets, which are available for many major languages and easy to use.

When you’re done with those, you can write down your more complex words and stick them where you’re most likely to look at them—on the fridge, above the bathroom sink, on your computer and so on.

Once you accumulate too many words for sticky notes, you can make a poster with big letters and stick it on the wall, in a place where you’re likely to look at it frequently. Even just catching the words subconsciously out of the corner of your eye helps your brain grab onto them.

4. Use Drawings to Memorize Words

For those visual learners among us, or those of you who simply like art and graphics in general, we’ve got an artistic method in mind. Print or draw a picture of the word and then write the word in or around it. Something like mano (hand) might be easy, but how would you depict the word castigar (to punish), for example?

Stick those pictures up where you’ll see them every day. Inflict these drawings and vocabulary interpretations on your colleagues, friends, partners and kids. The funnier the better of course!

For the more modern among you, get out your tablet drawing programs and let your imagination run wild. One picture a day used as your tablet desktop background or screensaver would add to your vocabulary repertoire in no time.

There are even online programs, such as Wordle, that let you create word clouds with funky designs which you can then print as posters.

However, if you’d rather not display your artistic talents to all who enter your home or pass your desk, the good news is that just the mere act of drawing (or trying to draw!) that picture will take you one step closer to never forgetting the word that inspired it.

5. Practice Making Sentences Using New Words

Quite simply, write a sentence with the word in it.

This is important because you’re using the word in context. Your brain will remember the kinds of situations and collocations associated with that word for next time.

For example: You just learned the word burro (donkey). You could write: “Los burros apestan” (Donkeys are smelly).

Then don’t forget to go out and use that word again and again in real life.

Make it your mission to speak to someone and use that word when you speak: “Mira ese burro, es muy gordo!” (Look at that donkey. It’s so fat!)

You may come up with some strange and wonderful things, but your brain sure will remember!

6. Associate New Words with Your Own Language

Association. This can be fun. There are some words in your target language, no doubt, that sound like ones in your own native language. Do your best to associate them with one another in your mind.

For example: Bigote, Spanish for “beard” sounds like “Big goatee!”

Call up the associated word in your native tongue and you’ll find yourself remembering the new word. This works especially well with funny-sounding associations!

7. Use Gestures

For those kinetic learners among you, associating a word with a gesture can be extremely helpful.

Let’s not forget that Latin speakers naturally tend to be far more expressive with their gestures than anglophones anyway. For example, rubbing the bottom of your chin with the tops of your fingers means something like, “¿Qué me importa?” (What do I care?) in Argentina. Why should Argentinians have all the fun? You should go ahead and invent your own!

How would you act out “to land a plane?” (aterrizar) or “to win” (ganar)?

Assign a hand gesture to that difficult word and your brain will be more likely to recall it when you repeat that gesture later on.

 8. Don’t Try to Learn Too Many Words at Once

Generally our brains can’t take in too much new information, so don’t go crazy and try to memorize 40 words a day. Not to mention, you won’t have any wall space left in your house!

Limit yourself to 10 new words a day, maximum. Ideally, I’d start with 5 a day. That’s 35 new words a week, 140 a month and 1,680 a year.

That gets you well on your way to reaching the average of 2,000 words we use on a regular basis and what makes up the core of our vocabulary. That’s plenty to practice with! Don’t forget that you’ll need to review old vocabulary words that slip through the cracks of your memory, so you’ll be busy as it is without piling on more daily words.

9. Use Repetition

Unfortunately, the age old proverb is right: practice makes perfect.

Think about riding a bike. How did we all learn?

Someone explained it to us. We listened and half-understood. We thought we might try and we fell off. Perhaps we held back some tears, but we got back up and then we fell off again. This went on until eventually our muscles learned the movements and we were flying down the road.

So, how do we get the cogs moving in our memory system and get on our way to imprinting information in our long-term memories?

The key, as with all new things, is to repeat, repeat and repeat.

Listen, draw, see, write, act out and speak those new words again and again and they’ll be committed to your memory for a good long time, if not forever.

10. Learn New Vocabulary with Authentic Media

Authentic media is a hugely beneficial way to study vocabulary, as it allows you to experience new vocabulary in context, and review words you have learned recently.

To do this, you can try watching shows or videos in your target language on sites like YouTube or Netflix. You could also try a language learning platform such as FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

P.S. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)

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Frequently Asked Questions About Learning Vocabulary

What’s the best way to learn vocabulary?

The best way to learn vocabulary depends entirely on each individual. Many people swear by flashcards, whether that’s paper flashcards, or a digital tool like Anki.

Some people prefer using word lists, whereas others would rather pick up new vocabulary naturally from conversation.

How many words should I learn a day?

A good amount of new words to aim for per day is five. This is a manageable number that will help you build a steady vocabulary base. You can learn more than this, but try to build up your number day by day so you know what your personal limit is—everyone is different!

How long does it take to learn 5000 words?

If you learn an average of five new words every day, it would take you 1000 days to learn 5000 words. If you learned 10 words every day, it would take you 500 days to learn 5000 words.

Of course, you will reach 5000 words either faster or slower, depending on the number of words you aim to learn every day.

However, don’t be tempted to learn too many words a day, if you can help it. As mentioned above, you may find yourself overwhelmed if you try to learn too much too fast.

 

Well, there were your ten useful tips for how to learn vocabulary in foreign languages. Now all you need to do is begin applying them!

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