How To Learn Vocabulary In A Foreign Language – Part 1

how to learn vocabulary in a foreign languageThis 3-part series will show you how to learn vocabulary in a foreign language, based on my experience of learning 10,000s words in the eight languages I speak.

You'll learn a straightforward, reliable system which I consider the best way to memorize words without forgetting them later.

When you can increase your vocabulary on-demand, it gets a lot easier to speak your new language, and much more enjoyable too!

Also, you'll also see what Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Miyagi (from The Karate Kid), and a jazz musician can teach you about improving your memory … whatever your age or natural ability.


I hope so, because this is fun!

Let’s get into it…

NOTE: This is a long, 3-part series. If you don’t have time to read it right now, why not sign up for my free email course on improving your memory?

A Word On Memory (For The Sceptics)

(You can skip this section if you want to get right to it!)

Memory and memorisation stir up strong opinions among language learners, and the problems often begin with semantics.

For example, when I have brought up the topic of memorisation in the past, a frequent response is something along the lines of: “I don’t believe in memorisation. The best way to learn vocabulary is naturally – in context.”

This kind of miscommunication is typical of such discussions, so we need to start by defining what we’re talking about here.

Increasing your vocabulary means two things…

  1. Learning new words
  2. Not forgetting them

Now, there are a myriad of ways to both learn a new word, and then to not forget it.

One way to do this is to choose new words and memorise them in isolation through rote learning, flashcards, etc. (Let’s call these memory techniques.)

On the opposite extreme, you might take a more holistic approach and try to learn new vocabulary naturally by reading books or listening to podcasts etc.

Neither approach is better. They’re different.

However, people who favour a more holistic approach will often criticise so-called “memory techniques”, labelling them unnatural.

This is a misunderstanding.

What I argue in this article is that, however you study – with textbooks, flashcards, novels, or word lists – the process of memorisation is broadly the same. (Although it might not feel like it.)

In other words, from the time you encounter a new word, whether in a book or in a list – you need to take it on the same journey through your mind to reach the point where you own it, and can use it naturally in conversation.

The A.R.T. technique you’ll learn in this article is my attempt to crystallise this process, and identify the core process you need to use to learn and memorise vocabulary effectively, in a way that can be happily integrated into any language learning methodology.

Side note: I think the terms memory and memorisation are not the most appropriate, because they appear not to take account of the rest of the language learning process. However, whatever the best term, “I have a bad memory” is the way a novice language learner tends to relate to the problem of growing their vocabulary. For that reason, I use it here.

What’s Wrong With My Memory?

I’m willing to bet you recognise the following feelings:

…and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re just not very good at remembering things.

But it’s not the fault of your memory!

Your brain is an impressive piece of kit, and retains enormous amounts of information on a daily basis.

And you certainly already know plenty of words in your target language – words you’ve picked up randomly over time through exposure.

The problem is how to learn vocabulary “on demand”, right?

The words you want, when you want them.

So, it’s not a problem with your memory – your memory is capable of amazing things.

What you lack is a reliable system for harnessing the power of your memory, and practising in a way that helps you reliably remember new words and phrases – the ones you want – so you never forget them.

You also need to be able to practise them in such a way you can recall them on demand and use them in conversation, so you become more fluent at the same time.

And that’s easy to do… with a bit of training.


The A.R.T. technique

It comes in three parts [coming soon!], and you're reading part 1 right now!

  1. Attention
  2. Repetition
  3. Try it out!

Let's get into it…

PART 1: Look For The Vital Clues, Sherlock!

how to learn vocabulary foreign language

[Image credit: dynamosquito]

When Sherlock Holmes begins a new case, he starts by looking for clues.

He examines a crime scene, and he’ll be faced with hundreds of pieces of information… but only a handful will prove to be important…

And together, those few pieces of vital information paint a picture of what happened.

Sherlock’s task is to decide what’s important, and what to ignore. That’s how he solves the most complex cases.

Applying this concept to how to learn vocabulary, the big question you have to ask, before we even get to the memory stuff, is:

“What are you going to memorise in the first place?”

After all, the English language has 1,025,109 words (2014 estimate) [LINK]… you certainly don’t need all of them!

One of the keys to making quick progress in a language is: Learn vocabulary that is relevant to you.

[Tweet “The secret to a good memory for languages is to ruthlessly learn the most relevant words!”]

In language learning, some words are going to be more useful to you than others. Choosing the right words to learn will help you talk about your job, your interests, or other important things quickly.

This means that you have to be selective about the words you choose to learn.

With only a finite amount of time to study every day, you can choose to learn words that are useful… or not.

Don’t overthink this.

As you encounter new words in your target language, ask yourself: “Which words and phrases are going to be most useful for me?”


Let’s say you’re learning French, because you want to retire to a village in the South of France.

You’re still a relative beginner.

  1. You’re working your way through a popular French textbook, and in one particular chapter of the book, you learn 10 words you might need to go through airport security in French.
  2. Later that week, you attend a language event, and you meet a friendly French man, who lets you practise your French with him. As you get to know each other, you encounter 10 words you didn’t know. (You write them down afterwards, in case you forget!)

The next day, you have a choice…

The answer should be obvious.

Despite this, most people simply work through their textbook, one chapter after another, blindly trying to learn everything they encounter. This is not smart learning.

So, having chosen relevant vocabulary to learn, your next task – like Sherlock – is to become intimately familiar with your new words…

the art of memory

Image Credit: 118316968@N08

The A.R.T. Of Memory

What is “A”?


how to improve your memoryLet’s say you’re reading a passage in your textbook, and you’ve carefully selected a few words you want to learn.


Next, you need to bring your full Attention to each individual word.

Look at the word in depth, read it aloud, and try to create associations in your mind.


Look for anything you can, however small, that can become a “hook” for your memory and help you recall it later.

Imagine you’re Sherlock, with your magnifying glass, looking at the word from every conceivable angle.

Then, expand beyond the word.

Look at the whole sentence and see what other words are there. Like Sherlock – piece together the crime scene and look for the hidden story.

Use all the available context to help make sense of the new word:

Now, this is not an exact science!

Your memory can be unpredictable, but by bringing your full Attention to a word, and attacking it from many different angles, you’ll soon find something your brain will latch on to and remember later.

Attention is the first part of the process, but it won’t always be enough by itself.

You’ll still have some more work to do in order to get the new vocabulary into your long-term memory.

But that’s why we have R. and T.! 

Click here to read part 2 of the series.

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