Core Study Sequences: Learning Vocabulary

Welcome to Part II in a series of articles in which I show you exactly how I’m learning foreign languages every day.

In these articles I talk about how I’m using my Core Study Time – a 30-45 minute period at the start of every day which I set aside for intensive study.

Before you read this, you should go back and check out the previous posts in the series:

  1. My CRAZY 5am Language Routine
  2. Core Study Time In Your Language Routine
  3. Core Study Sequences Part 1: Listening Comprehension
  4. Core Study Sequences Part 2: Learning Vocabulary
  5. Core Study Sequences Part 3: Lesson Preparation
  6. Core Study Sequences Part 4: Glossika
  7. Core Study Sequences Part 5: Studying Dialogues

Vocabulary Learning Routine

The aim of this routine is to have a reliable, predictable method to memorise vocabulary. 

Learning vocabulary in a foreign language is a complex topic.

You can learn new words and phrases from lots of different sources: books, conversations, movies, and so on.

There are also many different approaches and attitudes towards memorising vocabulary, which range from the very passive to the very active.

The method you use to learn vocabulary depends largely on your circumstances, your environment, and the language you’re learning.

For example, if you live abroad and are surrounded by the language every day, you may find yourself learning a lot of new vocabulary naturally. (Equally, you may not!)

The routine I describe below is what I’m currently using to learn vocabulary in Cantonese (a hard language), whilst living in London (an English-speaking environment).

In other words, it’s a tried and tested method that will work for you, wherever you live, and whatever language you’re learning.

Step 1: Gather your notes

Although I learn vocabulary from lots of different sources, there are two places that most of the really useful stuff comes from:

  1. Study (i.e. textbooks, CDs, online courses)
  2. Conversations with native speakers

I tend to write everything down, so I’m often left with a lot of notes after each study session or conversation.

Start by gathering together all the new words and phrases you’ve jotted down recently.

Step 2: Select the most “important” vocabulary

With potentially hundreds of vocabulary items written down in your notebook, you need to accept you’re not going to remember all of it.

Sure, it would be nice to learn it all!

But there’s a better way!

Look through your most recent notes, and ask yourself the following question…

Which of these words and phrases would I really like to know?

This exercise serves two purposes:

  1. It helps you focus on what’s most important, so you don’t have to waste time trying to learn vocabulary that’s not very useful
  2. It helps you take ownership of your learning by deciding what you want to learn, and what’s important to you

Step 3: Organise your chosen vocabulary

Once I’ve selected the most important vocabulary, I like to transfer it across to another (more organised) notebook. You don’t have to do this, but many people find a well-organised notebook leads to a well-organised brain!

What’s more, I like to organise my notebook by topic.

There are many benefits to doing this.

For example, organising your notebook by topic allows you to quickly find a word you’re looking for.

It also allows you to prepare a single topic of conversation in advance of a lesson with your tutor, for example.

Step 4: Create mnemonics to help remember the vocabulary

For years, writing down new words was all I did.

I would fill up notebooks with endless vocabulary.

One day, I was looking back through my old notebooks, and I asked myself: “How much of the vocabulary in those notebooks do I actually know?”

The answer was… not very much!

Right there, I realised something important.

If you want to memorise vocabulary, you have to do it intentionally.

Writing down new words and just hoping simply isn’t enough.

(Yes, I know there are times when you might learn things naturally, but remember, I’m trying to create reliable study systems!)

So, having done the “preparation work” of selecting important vocabulary to learn, here’s what I do…

I sit down, focus, and create mnemonics to help me remember every new word I’ve selected.

(See the video above for an example.)

This process of memorisation is the key part of my core study time.

I’ll usually spend at least 30 minutes on this process.

You need strong mnemonics that will help you recall the vocabulary at any time, especially in the middle of a conversation!

What’s next?

This is not a memory “quick fix”!

In these study sessions every morning I’m working really hard to memorise new words and phrases.

Sometimes, they’ll stick right away.

Other times, I’ll need come back to one particular word or phrase for a few days in a row. That’s fine. The important thing is the process.

Would you use this routine yourself? What problems would you have?

Please do share this post on Facebook or Twitter if you found it useful, then leave me your comments or questions below!

Steal my weird trick for memorising words Faster

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

Got a question? I'll answer it on the podcast! Just click here!

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  • dandiprat

    I need a way to jumpstart my Cantonese vocabulary for words that don’t exist in Mandarin. I just don’t have the time to sit down and focus on it like I should, since I’m busy with more basic Vietnamese and I spend most of my time just practicing watching TV. Maybe focused attention on native Cantonese vocabulary and idioms and writing it in a notebook should be my new years’ resolution.

    • Thanks for the comment! This seems to be a question of focus, and is one of the difficulties of learning two languages at the same time (a topic that comes up regularly on the podcast).

      When you talk about vocab that doesn’t come from mandarin, why is that a concern for you? You may need to spend more time with colloquial Cantonese material and really immerse yourself in it in order to learn native canto vocabulary.

      • dandiprat

        Vocabulary that is similar to Mandarin is easier to me because I know already know Mandarin fairly well. I want to spend more time on colloquial material, yes. Hopefully I can find a show that will hold my interest.

        • Yeah…it’s so important to find something you’re interested in. You’ve got plenty of options with Cantonese though!

  • Michael Moore should make a “Bowling for Vocabulary” as a language learning sequel to his Columbine movie.

    Do you draw out all of your mnemonic imagery?

    • I don’t. But I do spend significant amounts of time coming up with something that is vivid enough to stick – something I learnt from you!

      • beau bessette

        i was actually going to ask how much of what youre describing in the video is relevant to the memory palaces! is that actual, structured method of memory something you stuck to?

        • What I’ve found is that the more effort you put into memorising something, the more likely it is to stick. Effort in = memory out. There is a lot of correlation with memory palaces (as taught by Anthony), but I don’t usually go as far as integrating locations with the mnemonics.

  • Love English

    how many words do you can learn in a single day ?
    the maximun possible for you I mean,thank you so much for the tips you are a great teacher 🙂
    a big hug from Brazil

    • I honestly don’t think about that. It’s difficult to control how many you learn in one day, and it also depends what you mean by ‘learn’. Instead, I tend to stay focused on the words i intend to learn, and keep working on those until i learned them.

  • Eman ibrahim

    Hello olly.I’m mean from Egypt. Would you please write down your routine .how you get your day for learning languages and how do you shift from one to another .you are successful one and I want to be that one .thank you for transfer your knowledge.

    • Hi Eman. If you search for my “5am study routine” post, you’ll find it there.

  • What an amazing idea ! You are definitely systematic . It seems like a fun game . Awesome and cool !

  • Sebastian

    Hey Olly, I find this article and video both super useful. I haven’t found such a great advice from Polyglots on the internet so far as yours. Thank you so much!! You’re the best.
    God bless you.

  • Kate Purdom

    So many times I hear learners ask why do you say it that way instead of accepting that is the way it is said. Good to see what I am doing, learning phrases, is on the right track. Thanks for the videos x

    • Absolutely. I think one of the best things you can do with many learners is to try to “deintellectualise” their thinking — stop thinking, just accept it!! 🙂

  • Nathalia Vaz Mota

    Perfect! As I have thousands of words to memorize in German, so I will start as you said… with the most importants for me, and creating differents categories…
    Thanks Richards 😉