Eight Tips For Improving Your Vocabulary

Words. We all need them. However fancy your grammar may be, without words you can't communicate.

And that sucks.

The trouble is, there are a lot of words to learn. Here are eight things to keep in mind on your quest for a larger vocabulary.

1) Love dialogues

When I'm starting out with a new language I find that recorded conversations from self-study books (such as the freely available FSI courses) tend to stick in my mind quite well.

The reason is that they're usually very simple and the situations are familiar to us – greetings, shopping etc. These resources also come with text so you can see as well as hear the language.

We all want to use the least effort possible to remember things, so for this reason, I'd always recommend beginners to start out using any good self-study book that comes with an audio CD.

2) Find text with audio recordings

We learn with all five senses. We're not always going to be able to smell, taste or touch all the vocabulary we learn (not such a bad thing!!) but we can always exploit our eyes and ears.

Learn with material that has audio recordings and text together.

You're much more likely to learn something if you can also hear what you're reading. A lot of the stuff we tend to listen to is too fast for us to take in (TV, radio) – slow it down to a manageable pace by reading it as well.

The problem comes in finding material. For beginners, it's easy. Any self-respecting self-study book comes with an audio CD. If you're more advanced, head to websites that provide this facility.

Some good examples are Natural Arabic and NHK News Web Easy (Japanese). The fantastic paid site LingQ has a huge library of text with audio in a variety of languages – a truly invaluable resource if you're willing to pay.

3) Don't expect to remember things first time

Some things will stick, some won't. Some studies suggest you need to encounter a word 7 times before you “know” it. This might be an overall average, but there's no telling for any one word how long it will take, no matter what tricks you use to try to remember it. There's not a great deal you can do to control this, but if you simply accept that you won't always remember everything, you can eliminate the frustration and start enjoying it more.

It's interesting to look at some statistics. By using the statistics on the SRS app that I use, I can see that at any one point in time I'm successfully remembering about 70-80% of the vocab in my list. Now, I try really hard (!!) but there's a persistent 20-30% of language that just won't stick.

Knowing that this is the case, what I actually do is exclude the vocab that won't stick (there's a specific function for this) and just move on to new ones. If 70-80% of the new stuff sticks, great. You're still moving forward at a good rate.

By all means get all worked up over that one word or phrase that you just can't remember, but it's inefficient and a waste of valuable time and energy. Play the odds.

4) Don't let vocabulary escape unrecorded

Whether you find a new word in a conversation exchange or in a movie, capture it. I like to jot new words down using a pen and paper in order not to interrupt the flow, then come back to them later to figure out the meaning.

Then, before I do anything else, I “lovingly” transfer the new vocab into my flashcards app (in complete sentences of course). It is then captured, and the SRS will take over from then and do the scheduling for you.

So you need a good SRS. Anki is the perennial favourite, but I hate being glued to my laptop (the iPhone app is expensive). The best alternative to being glued to your laptop is being glued to your iPhone – hey, at least you can walk around with it! Seriously, you need an SRS app on your phone. Then you can use dead time at the bus stop.

5) Learn that vocabulary which is around you

If you live in a foreign country, learn the words that you see everyday (name of a shop, station/road name, some random sign that you like). By encountering them regularly they'll sink in quickly. In Japan, I learnt the train announcements by heart.

When I came to study certain grammar points later, I realised they were used in those announcements that I'd learnt. It's grammar ‘for free'.

6) Use mnemonic devices

That's a fancy way of saying: try to form an association of some kind with the words you're learning. Do they sound like anything in English?

Imagine the situation – what actions/events spring to mind? Can you link the action with the word in some way? Can you link the word with an image in your mind?

After struggling to remember the Cantonese word chut3 fat3 (to go out) for ages, I eventually got it by imagining a really fat guy trying to leave through my front door out into the street. Ridiculous, right? But it works!

7) Put the language to work

Having learnt your new words, produce them somehow. Chances are you won't get the true meaning right a lot of the time. The only way to get closer to the true meaning of the words is by using them and getting (or asking for) feedback.

8) Learn the script!

It amazes me how many people ask questions like “I'm learning Chinese/Japanese, is it OK if don't learn Chinese characters? I can just learn words from the romanised script, right?”

I sympathise. It seems like a huge task. There are two important points to make. Firstly, it's not as huge a task as it seems.


At first it's confusing but it gets easier as you start to notice patterns and it ultimately becomes one of the most rewarding parts of learning the language (it also seriously impresses your friends!).

Secondly, learning a language involves truck loads of input. Hours, days, months and years. If you can't read, where is that input going to come from? Sure, you can listen, but not enough.

So if you're learning a language with a straightforward alphabet like Arabic or Korean you have no excuses. If we're talking about Japanese or Chinese, then try visualising how great it would be to eventually be able to read and write, suck it up, and get started!

Check specialist blogs like this one for ideas on good materials to help you.

Please Like this post on Facebook, then leave me a comment below to let me know what else is important to remember in learning vocabulary!

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