LTL: more strategies for learning vocabulary

What’s the best way to memorise new vocabulary?

In a previous post I looked at ways to choose what words you should learn first when you start learning another language. Now that I’ve chosen my words, I’m going to think about effective ways of committing them to memory.

How can I learn a hundred new words in another language quickly and easily?

My best guess would be to go for cognates – loan words that travel pretty much intact from one language to another. Lots of languages share the same words, but the problem is they are not all common words we can use in everyday topics. You might not get a lot of chances to use words like ‘carbon’ or ‘dolphin’ or ‘telescope’, but don’t let that stop you from catching on to words you already know from your own language and focusing the mind-power you save from learning a word you already know into practising a convincing second language pronunciation instead.

Making vocabulary cards is a much more efficient way to learn new vocabulary than endlessly writing lists of words and their meanings … and then memorising the lists. Everyone in ESL / EFL knows this, but people still love drawing columns in their notebooks and copying down lists of new words to memorise. Why? Maybe it is a bit different now that everyone has computers, but I don’t think so. A lot of people are still in love with vocabulary lists; probably because they come ready made in text books, and it seems like an easy thing to do.

Initially, a list is a good way for some people to organise their thoughts:

  • What topics do I want to talk about?
  • What words describe me?
  • What new words have recently come up on more than one occasion?

Make your lists, and then jumble them up. Try and recall all the words on your list by writing them out on a separate piece of paper (or Word doc, whatever). When you have finished your new ‘recall’ list, you can cut the list into individual word cards. Using word cards to learn new words in another language is more efficient than just sticking with lists, because the words on the cards are more closely connected to their meaning, or at least your first language translation of that meaning. Words on a list are strongly connected, in your memory, to the other words that come before or after them on that list you have been so in love with. By all means write a list of words you need to learn, but make sure you get those words off the list and onto word cards sooner rather than later.

So here are three strategies for an independent learner beginning a second (or ‘subsequent’) language to learn new vocabulary quickly and efficiently:

  • Identifying and learning basic words that occur in almost every conversation
  • Learn new words according to meaning, rather than their place in a list
  • Practising fluent-sounding pronunciation of loan words that you already know from other languages

Learning another language is a long-term task; these short-term strategies will help language learners make a start on the long and interesting journey of another language, but this is just the start. Once we have learnt our first words we will need other, different, strategies to get us using our new words in real world situations.

In my next post:

Using the new vocabulary

Read about my own experience with word cards

In this post


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