Learning Vocabulary in Another Language: My Favorite Techniques and Resources for Fast Memorization
Is your brain all muddled up with huge lists of words but unable to use the right vocabulary in conversations?
Have you tried memorizing words with flashcard apps, only to find that you can’t fit these isolated words into full-on sentences?
All this has probably made you wonder:
Why the %#@! can’t I learn foreign language vocabulary?
Well, the confusion stops here.
In this post, we’ll look at the best techniques and resources for learning vocabulary in another language.
- 1. Write Down the Vocabulary You Want to Learn
- 2. Find Useful Phrases and Words
- 3. Learn the Phrases by Heart
- 4. Use the Chunking Method
- 5. Shake It Up to Avoid Over-reliance on Scripts
- Best Resources to Practice Foreign Language Vocabulary
- And One More Thing...
1. Write Down the Vocabulary You Want to Learn
The first step is to list all the words you want to learn.
So, grab a piece of paper or a blank document and list down all the words you need to memorize.
Haven’t got any specific foreign vocabulary you need to learn?
You can skip this step and go straight to the phrase-finding.
2. Find Useful Phrases and Words
Next, you should find some phrases that use those words. If you can double up words into one phrase, then you’ll reduce the amount you have to memorize.
That’s not necessary though—it’s fine if you can’t fit the words on your list together. The main goal is to find a phrase for each word on the list.
Here are four places to find useful, correct foreign phrases.
Don’t rely on automatic translators, which might produce badly worded phrases.
Also, focus on finding phrases made up of useful chunks, not sentences that will only make sense in one situation.
The good old fashioned phrasebook can be a good starting place. However, before buying one, make sure that it’s of full sentences, not just word lists. It’s surprising that many modern phrasebooks are filled mostly with isolated lists of words.
One excellent option that never fails is Lonely Planet.
The phrasebooks put out by Lonely Planet go way beyond a handful of words.
Online Phrase Lists
The modern version is the online phrase list.
These are easy to search and there are more being written on blogs every day.
FluentU already has countless phrase lists on blogs for our nine languages:
- Chinese Blog
- Spanish Blog
- French Blog
- German Blog
- Japanese Blog
- English Blog
- Business English Blog
- Russian Blog
- Portuguese Blog
- Korean Blog
Books and Other Learning Materials
When you’re reading in another language, jot down those words that you don’t know.
This is part of the intensive reading strategies that you should definitely be using to boost your language learning.
Be sure to copy out a whole chunk from the text, not just one word alone.
As an example, here’s a sentence from a random book in English, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” by Charles Dickens:
“At these words he fell into a reverie, in which he thought of several things.”
The word to learn—reverie—means “a state of being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts; a daydream.” It’s not a very common word, so it could be hard to remember.
But the chunk we can use is “fell into a reverie.”
This chunk means something like “started daydreaming.” Keeping these words together will be easier for us to remember than just trying to learn the word alone.
Firstly, you can learn the whole phrase “at these words he fell into a reverie.”
Then, when you’ve really learned it, try shaking it up by following Step 4 below.
Videos are excellent resources for learning vocabulary in another language.
You learn words in context, with the added bonus that they already include the correct pronunciation.
YouTube, along with other online services, are full of videos where you can find useful phrases.
Many of them also have subtitles or “closed captions,” which allow you to see the phrase written down.
However, for a shortcut, FluentU provides a completely self-contained vocabulary learning system, which uses chunking and includes subtitles.
The most useful videos are already chosen for you, meaning you can spend less time sentence mining and more time learning.
With FluentU, you hear languages in real-world contexts—the way that native speakers actually use them. Just a quick look will give you an idea of the variety of FluentU videos on offer:
FluentU really takes the grunt work out of learning languages, leaving you with nothing but engaging, effective and efficient learning. It’s already hand-picked the best videos for you and organized them by level and topic. All you have to do is choose any video that strikes your fancy to get started!
Each word in the interactive captions comes with a definition, audio, image, example sentences and more.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and easily review words and phrases from the video under Vocab.
You can use FluentU’s unique adaptive quizzes to learn the vocabulary and phrases from the video through fun questions and exercises. Just swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you're studying.
The program even keeps track of what you’re learning and tells you exactly when it’s time for review, giving you a 100% personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store or Google Play store.
3. Learn the Phrases by Heart
Once you’ve gathered some phrases, you need to learn them all by heart.
You can do this the same way you used to learn individual words.
For example, you can:
1. Play recordings of the phrase and repeat it back until you can say it properly (try Google Translate’s “Listen” button if you have no recording of the phrase). Then, record yourself and compare with the original.
2. Put the whole phrase into your favorite flashcard app and learn it in the usual way.
3. Use mnemonics to fix the words into your brain.
4. Write down the phrase from memory and compare it to the original phrase.
4. Use the Chunking Method
“Chunking” is when you take all the words you need to memorize and turn them into smaller “units.”
We’d do this by turning a list of words into a few smaller phrases. So instead of learning 15 words, you’d learn five phrases (where all 15 words are used in a phrase).
Some chunks are self-contained and only make sense as a unit.
However, many words can be applied to lots of chunks.
When you’ve learned your first chunk, you might want to apply the same word to a new chunk.
For our word “reverie,” we could use the following chunks:
- When writing his sermon, the priest drifted in and out of reverie.
- My five-year-old broke out of her reverie and asked a difficult question.
- He tried to rouse her from her reverie.
I found these chunks by searching for terms like “a reverie,” “her reverie,” “into reverie,” “out of reverie,” etc. (with the quotation marks included) in Google Book Search and Google News Search, which are multilingual resources.
This video from Interactive English is extremely well put together and explains the chunking method in depth:
5. Shake It Up to Avoid Over-reliance on Scripts
Learning specific phrases by heart is fine, but it can mean that you’ll become overly reliant on scripts.
If you’re memorizing those scripts, you might not be able to change them up in conversation. You want your phrases to be flexible.
The real power of chunking is that you can reuse the same chunk in many different phrases.
Let’s take our example of the chunk “fell into a reverie” from the last step.
The original phrase “at these words he fell into a reverie” might not be very useful in most situations.
But here are some other possible phrases you can use this chunk in:
- We were chatting, then suddenly she stopped talking and fell into a reverie.
- After watching the film I fell into a reverie for ages, it really made me think.
- My grandpa used to fall into a reverie every time we talked about the war.
If appropriate, use the chunk often in conversation and when talking to yourself—try to say it out loud 10 times in a day and see how effective it is.
Best Resources to Practice Foreign Language Vocabulary
Memrise is a flashcard app and website that uses spaced repetition software to push new vocabulary into your long-term memory.
You can find thousands of premade decks or create your own.
After starting a deck, Memrise introduces about five words to you per review session (which takes around 2-5 minutes), and shows them to you again at optimal intervals for fast memorization.
Once you’ve learned your new words using the steps above, you can create flashcard decks of them on Memrise so that you continue to review them at the best times without having to remember to flip through old notes.
You can read all our thoughts on Memrise in our in-depth review here.
Like Memrise, Anki uses spaced repetition software to ensure new words stay in your long-term memory.
It comes as an app on your phone, a desktop version, or a downloadable app for PC and laptops.
Anki’s interface is extremely simple, and you can choose review options like fill-in-the-blank or the traditional flip-style digital flashcards.
It’s easy to create new decks on Anki, but there are also premade decks like on Memrise.
Unlike Memrise, Anki sets a limit to how many words you can review and study in a day (which can be adjusted in the settings) to make sure you’re not cramming.
With Memrise, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when you see you need to review hundreds of words. So Anki makes reviews a bit more approachable.
You can check out our full Anki review here.
HelloTalk is a language exchange app that connects you with native speakers of your target language who are trying to learn your native one.
Language exchange apps like HelloTalk are perfect for practicing your new vocabulary in real-world contexts.
Downloading the app and signing up is free, and you can have phone calls, video calls, text message exchanges and send voice messages to your partners.
Your partners can also correct your mistakes in the app, and you’ll learn lots of new words as you try to find the right ones during conversations.
If HelloTalk has caught your eye, you can read our full review here.
Learning vocabulary in another language doesn’t seem so scary anymore, does it?
With these five simple steps, you can learn new words in your target language and take your language-learning journey by storm!
And One More Thing...
If you dig the idea of learning on your own time from the comfort of your smart device with real-life authentic language content, you'll love using FluentU.
With FluentU, you'll learn real languages—as they're spoken by native speakers. FluentU has a wide variety of videos as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn't catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU's "learn mode." Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You get a truly personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store.