Simply learning 1,000 words in a foreign language can get you far in your ability to understand texts and communicate with people.
Statistics that show that the average English-speaking adult knows only 20,000-35,000 words, and it’s estimated that the top 1,000 words account for 80% of all English texts!
With a little strategy and the right tools, you can learn much faster and easier than you might have imagined.
Follow these steps to get started and boost your foreign language vocabulary learning.
- 1. Narrow it down
- 2. Figure out what the most common words are
- 3. Seek out opportunities to use new words
- 4. Break out those flashcards
- 5. Learn new words in context
- 6. Use a dictionary
- 7. Learn word parts
- 8. Embrace memorization techniques
1. Narrow it down
The first step to learning effectively is to identify what you want to focus on and set goals.
If you have a strong interest in a particular subject, start with that. Perhaps you want to to read about soccer, or you want to learn how to cook like a native chef. The most effective learners are motivated to study because they choose vocabulary based on their interests and needs. If you select words you don’t find useful, you’re much less likely to succeed in memorizing them and being able to use them in context. You should be as excited as possible about learning new words!
If you have a more general goal, like wanting to be able to communicate with people on an upcoming trip or read the news, it’s a good idea to focus on the words that are most commonly used in your target language.
2. Figure out what the most common words are
This is a good tip for anyone, no matter what your particular interests may be. The most common words will be the most common words in any kind of speech or writing. They pop up everywhere!
Typically, there are four general categories of vocabulary words we can talk about in any language: High-frequency words, academic words, technical words and low-frequency words.
You can generally ignore academic, technical and low-frequency words, unless you have specific need to learn them. Focus on high-frequency words to quickly improve your ability to communicate. These are the words people use most in everyday writing and speech, so learning them will take you in the right direction so you can start understanding what you hear and being able to respond appropriately.
An online search for the phrase “most common words in X language” can help you identify a list of high-frequency words to focus on, like this one in Spanish or this one in French. After identifying these words, try doing an online search to find articles and videos that use these words in context.
3. Seek out opportunities to use new words
Do you know what it means to “learn” a word?
Learning any vocabulary involves two separate processes:
- Being able to recognize a word when you hear or read it
- Being able to say or write a word
It’s more difficult to produce a word than it is to recognize it, so we typically learn to recognize words in writing or speech before we’re able to produce them ourselves. It takes additional, concentrated practice to learn a word well enough to think of it and say or write it when we want to.
On an average day, you get much more practice hearing and reading words than you do speaking or writing, whether in your native language or a language you’re trying to learn, and even if you’re super extroverted and talkative.
That’s why it’s important to always seek out more opportunities for productive language practice, such as writing emails to friends, writing in a personal journal, talking with others in a conversation club or chatting with people who don’t speak your native language.
You can also check out guided conversations like polyglot Olly Richards’ Conversations course, which is designed to help you set up workable, step-by-step systems for learning the most common phrases and words in your target language.
Opportunities for real-life use of words are also important because you need to learn to use words in context and understand their connotations. Simply memorizing a definition won’t necessarily provide you with enough information to use a word effectively.
4. Break out those flashcards
Shuffling those good ol’ flashcards is one of the best ways to learn foreign language words.
Flashcards are efficient, allow for flexibility and make it possible to stagger your learning with a few minutes of studying here and a few minutes there, adding up to big language gains over time.
There are two general types of flashcards, and a third if you count the most innovative variety:
- DIY paper flashcards. Buy a pack of index cards from the store and start writing vocabulary words on them. It’s cheap, easy and low-tech, and it’s sure to be effective.
- Digital flashcards. If you prefer to go high-tech, there are many online and computer software programs for flashcards, such as Anki, StudyStack and Quizlet. Most programs allow you to create your own flashcards and access flashcards other people have created, making it possible to find lists of useful words to study without creating the cards yourself.
- Multimedia flashcards. If you need a lot of stimuli to stay focused, then flashcards that use multiple types of media (like pictures, videos, and audio) might work well for you. One language learning program that uses flashcards like these is FluentU. Its flashcards also work off of a spaced repetition system (SRS) algorithm for enhanced efficiency.
No matter which method you use, there are a few keys to making useful flashcards:
- Write the foreign language vocabulary word on one side of the card and the meaning of the word in your native language on the other.
- Keep your cards simple. It can be tempting to include on details like how to conjugate an irregular verbs, but you’ll learn best if your cards have very little clutter on them.
- Include pictures with your definitions, if possible. Some people learn best with words, while others do better with images. Combining both can help you make the most of your study time.
After creating your flashcards, it’s time to start studying! Here are some tips to get the most from your flashcards:
- Always take a moment to guess the meaning before turning the card over, even if you’re unsure of yourself.
- Change the order of cards. If you’re using a computer program, it will likely do this for you.
- Start by learning the words receptively. Look at the foreign language word and try to identify its meaning in your native language. After you’re comfortable doing this, then work on learning the words by starting with the translation side and identifying the foreign language word.
- Speak aloud as you practice. You learn words better when you speak rather than simply read them.
- Use spaced repetition. Gradually increase the amount of time between repetitions of a flashcard. Research shows that learning through spaced repetition is better than learning through massed repetition. Rather than spending 15 solid minutes reviewing your flashcards and not looking at them again for a week, it’s better to review them in shorter intervals each day or several times a day and to review them again every few days, increasing the amount of time between each repetition. Some computer flashcard programs do this for you.
Flashcard learning is an extremely effective method of learning, but it doesn’t provide opportunities to learn words in context. Make sure to combine your flashcard learning with opportunities to read, listen, watch and speak.
5. Learn new words in context
Learning in context means being exposed to new words through reading or listening. This enables you to naturally run across unfamiliar words and learn their meanings.
Research shows that people learn words best when they see them used in context, so seek out opportunities to learn new words from sources such as:
- Textbooks, which usually provide lists of words and texts to help you practice them
- Talking with a conversation partner or friend
This strategy can be used alone or in combination with other methods such as flashcards or using a dictionary.
When learning in context, it’s important to choose texts and conversation opportunities that won’t be overwhelming. You need to be able to recognize most of the words you read or hear so that you can identify the new words. Researchers suggest that a ratio of one new word to every 20-50 familiar words is ideal.
Learning in context is slower than learning with flashcards because you aren’t as focused on the sole task of memorizing, and because you need to do a lot of reading or listening before you encounter a new word. However, it’s very effective because it provides you with a lot of information about a new word. It also provides lots of practice using your target language, reviewing other vocabulary words and practicing grammar structures.
One great way to learn in context is to use FluentU, which provides foreign language videos that native speakers actually watch, along with interactive subtitles, translations and even active learning tools like multimedia flashcards, quizzes and custom vocabulary lists. Use the content here to learn and practice new vocabulary words using flashcards, as well as to access real-life contextual information about how the words are used and pronounced by watching videos!
FluentU takes authentic videos videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
6. Use a dictionary
Use a dictionary to look up:
- Unknown words you read or hear
- Translations for words you want to learn
- How to spell a word
- How to pronounce a word
You can also use a dictionary to find grammatical information about new words. Most dictionaries will tell you things like which preposition(s) or noun case(s) to use with a word and provide sample phrases using the word.
There are two different ways to access a dictionary:
- Print dictionaries. Find one that is made by a reputable company and used popularly. These are usually well-researched, accurate and thorough.
- Online dictionaries. These provide easy, fast opportunities to look up words and may include features like audio pronunciation samples. However, you may find it frustrating to type in your foreign language, and it can take some research to find the most reliable and accurate online dictionary.
You can also choose whether to use a bilingual or monolingual dictionary. Bilingual dictionaries are the easiest way to learn new words. However, monolingual dictionaries often provide more grammatical information and examples of a word in context. It may be helpful to use a combination of both dictionaries, or seek out a bilingual dictionary that provides thorough grammatical and contextual information.
7. Learn word parts
One of the most effective ways to improve your ability to predict the meaning of new words is to study word parts—the roots and affixes that make up words.
This process is less familiar to language learners than learning whole words and is best used after you’ve developed a substantial vocabulary of whole words. However, if done right, it can provide you with the capacity to guess the meaning of new words without looking them up, greatly increasing your comprehension of the language.
Word parts include the stems that give a word its general meaning, as well as affixes that modify the grammatical form or structure of the word and provide important information about its exact meaning.
An example of a word stem in English is -STRUCT- which means “to build.” It’s the root in words like “structure” and “construct.”
The stem is also used in a wide variety of other words, including “destruction,” “instructive” and “obstruct.” Each word has a different meaning, but you can see how they all relate to a general sense of “building.”
Affixes are also useful in predicting the meaning of a word. In English, these include prefixes like “de-” and “non-” as well as suffixes like “-ment” and “tion.”
Knowing what these affixes mean can help you understand that “destruction” is a noun (the suffix “-tion” tells you this) that means to tear something down (the opposite of building, as you can see from the prefix “de-“).
This approach requires that you find sources for information about word parts in your target language. The book “Leveraging Your Russian with Roots, Prefixes and Suffixes” provides students of Russian with a thorough source of word parts to study.
Online sources like “Building Your Vocabulary: Prefixes” provide word parts to study in Spanish, and lists of Greek and Latin roots can help you learn these languages or learn English words derived from these languages. There are also many sources of information about Arabic word roots, which function slightly differently but use the same general concept.
8. Embrace memorization techniques
As you use the methods described above, you should make use of memorization techniques that will help you remember new information. A few of the best methods include:
- The keyword technique. Make up a story using the new word, the meaning of the word and a word in your native language that sounds similar. If you want to learn the Turkish word ev, which means “house,” you might think that it sounds like the English word “every.” Your story might be something like, “I’m in my house every day.”
- Visualize and vocalize. When you learn a new word, take a moment to visualize an image of the word’s meaning and say the word aloud.
- Use the word in your native language. Practice the new word not only in your target language but also in your native language. If you’re learning the Spanish word siempre, which means “always,” you might say things like, “I siempre meet my friends for lunch on Thursdays.”
- Make gestures. Research shows that the brain learns better with sensory inputs like physical actions. If you’re learning the word for “ball,” try making a ball with your hands and pretending to throw it as you repeat the word aloud.
Learning vocabulary takes practice and time, but it can be rewarding and fun and, with the right methods and techniques, you can speed up your learning enormously.
As you learn, don’t forget to look back on your notes or flashcards to remind yourself how much you’ve already learned.
And remember to practice the new words you learn in context by doing a general online search for articles with the word in them, writing stories, writing journal entries with the words or watching videos on FluentU.