Language learners of all levels share one thing in common.
Every last one of y’all needs to learn more vocabulary.
That’s right—even you, Ms. Almost Fluent.
It’s the #1 priority for students of all ages, abilities and learning styles.
Heck, you can’t even stop learning vocabulary in your native language.
Grammar may be the skeleton that gives our linguistic bodies structure, but vocabulary comprises our vital organs.
It’s what allows us to say what we want to say in the way we want to say it.
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. Don’t you wish you could catch them before they disappear, committing them to memory once and for all?
Well, we’ve brainstormed nine great tips to help you naturally absorb language without having to memorize long (and painful) lists of vocabulary.
9 Imaginative Tips for Absorbing Vocabulary Like a Sponge
1. Find out how you learn best
Our brains all work in different ways, which means we all learn differently.
Forget one-size-fits-all. You know that perfectly-fitting pair of jeans, your most-worn and most-loved pair, is always a pleasure to wear—just because they’re perfectly tailored to your unique body. In the same way, your brain can relax and work at its most efficient when you’re engaging it in a way that most suits you.
Some of us are predominately 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.
So, which type of learner are you?
2. Stick 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 (this is important: we’re far too busy and/or stressed to spend our precious free minutes reading minuscule writing) 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.
I have mine in the bathroom. So, every time I sit down I have to look at ’em. Even if I’m not consciously reading the information, I’m subconsciously seeing those words and absorbing them.
3. Let out your inner artist
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.
4. Make a sentence
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!
5. Use 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!
6. 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.
7. Avoid word overload
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.
8. Practice makes perfect
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 damn good long time, if not forever.
9. Learn language with FluentU
FluentU is all about learning through context.
After choosing an individual video based on your skill level and personal interests, you’ll be prompted to choose between “watch” and “learn” modes. If you opt for “watch,” you’ll watch your videos as normal with interactive subtitles that are translated both by word and by sentence. Missed a word? Simply hover your cursor over the word in the subtitle to see its definition and usage on-screen!
If you click on “learn,” then you’ll go straight to flashcards featuring key vocabulary from the video. This gives you a chance to practice your language skills either before or after watching the clip. “Learn” mode integrates pictures, video clips and additional usage examples into the flashcards, making for truly memorable, visually-oriented, in-context learning experiences. It’s really a visual learner’s dream come true!
Well, there are your nine useful tips for learning new vocabulary. Now all you need to do is begin applying them!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.