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. Core Study Time In Your Language Routine
  2. Core Study Sequences Part 1: Listening Comprehension
  3. Core Study Sequences Part 2: Learning Vocabulary
  4. Core Study Sequences Part 3: Lesson Preparation
  5. Core Study Sequences Part 4: Glossika Language Training
  6. Core Study Sequences Part 5: Studying Dialogues
  7. Core Study Sequences Part 6: Transcribing Audio
  8. Core Study Sequences Part 7: Reverse Translation

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!

[Tweet “A well-organised notebook is a sign of 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!

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