How To Learn Vocabulary In A Foreign Language – Part 3

how to learn vocabulary in a foreign language part 3

This is my comprehensive guide to how to learn vocabulary in a foreign language!

To catch up on the earlier posts in the series, use the links below:

In the first two parts to the series, we looked at:

  • Some common misconceptions about memory
  • The first crucial step in memorising vocabulary
  • Why repetition is the engine of memory

This is the final part of the series, where we’ll travel back in time to discover the secrets to memorising vocabulary and being able to use it effectively in casual conversation.

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?

Part 3: All That Jazz…

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If you happened to walk into a 52nd Street jazz club in New York in the early 1950s, you would see something pretty amazing…

Dozens of musicians, hanging out and playing, learning to improvise…quite literally creating modern jazz as we know it, night after night.

It was one of the most energy-fuelled, vibrant music scenes ever seen, and those musicians were among the most natural and talented improvisers of all.

But here’s what’s interesting…

Most of those musicians were 100% self-taught, and had no formal musical training.

How was this possible?

Dedication, enthusiasm and practise. Those guys lived for the music. They would spend every night in the jazz clubs, playing.

They had no need for formal education…they would just do.

Pretty soon, people started thinking about how to replicate their success, and so jazz departments in music colleges began springing up.

Newly appointed jazz professors would teach their students how “the greats” played – their scales, harmonic devices, and so on.

The students would spend hours in practice rooms, trying to emulate their heroes.

Except it was never quite enough.

Despite working hard, and knowing all the tricks, most of the new generation of jazz musicians would never be able to play like the pros from 52nd Street.

Why not?

The theory wasn’t enough…

Even when coupled with hours of practice.

The musicians from 52nd Street learned to improvise by doing – by actually performing – night after night.

Sure, they would practise in their free time. And the practice made them good.

But it was the performing that made them great.

The lesson was clear…

No amount of study and preparation can ever replace experience from performance itself.

Language Is Performance

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So, what on earth does this have to do with language learning?

Well, when you speak a foreign language with someone, you are performing.

It’s like theatre.

It may not be nice to think of it that way, but that’s exactly what it is.

It’s the moment when all your preparation is put to use…

And, if we are honest, you are often judged by your performance.

This brings us to the “T” in A.R.T., which is…


Yes, it’s a bit trite, but it makes the point clearly…

KEY POINT: Learning words isn’t enough. You need to take the vocabulary you are memorising, and start to use it in conversation with real people!

You’ve got to get the words out of your head, and into the real world.

When your new vocabulary comes up in a real conversation, you achieve two things:

  • You practise recall, so it becomes easier to remember the word on demand
  • You practise recognition, so you learn to recognise the words when used by other people

Often, actually practising the things you’ve learnt in your textbook is considered an afterthought.

“Oh, I should probably practise those new words a bit!”

But, no!

Real conversation is unpredictable, with lots of ups and downs to navigate with the other person…

A real conversation is not an easy place to practise using vocabulary you haven’t mastered yet…

And that’s precisely why you have to do it!

Use It Or Lose It!

how to learn foreign language vocabulary

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Just like the 52nd Street musicians, trying out their new scales in performance every night…

The essence of language is, first and foremost, to actually use your vocabulary.

And that’s why Try is the last part of A.R.T. – you’ve got to try it out!

But it might not feel so easy.

In fact, when you come to speak with someone, you might feel the words you’ve studied aren’t always available on the tip of your tongue.

(In other words, you can’t remember new vocabulary during the flow of conversation.)

Understanding how to do this effectively is the last part of the puzzle.

If you know how to not only select and learn vocabulary, but actually practise it in conversation, the sky’s the limit!

It’s only when you truly start to use new vocabulary that you begin to master it.

You’ll be able to reliably learn anything you want, and use it confidently in conversation, recalling words on demand.

This last part can take time, but it all starts by Trying!

How To Try Out Your New Vocabulary

As we saw earlier, conversations can be a tough place to practise new vocabulary, especially if you’re talking with strangers and feel under pressure.

This means you need to Try using your new vocabulary in a way that doesn’t rely on random opportunities in random conversations.

Here’s how:

  • If you’ve followed the A.R.T. procedure, you should have selected the vocabulary you want to memorise, perhaps even creating a list
  • Simply send that list of vocabulary to your tutor. Alternatively, show them the chapter from the textbook you’re studying. Something that puts you both on the same page
  • Tell them you want to practise it!

Then, in the lessons itself, your job is to use that vocabulary as much as possible in conversation – however basic or unnatural it may be!

The point isn’t to have an elegant conversation

The point is to train yourself to recall the words on demand, and to hear another person using them.

With a bit of practise and creativity, there are tonnes of ways you can both play with the words to help you practise them.

It’s a lot of fun!

The only thing you need to do is make sure your tutor knows what you want to do, and is happy to help you!

Did You Get The Basics Right?

olly richards languageSo, you know it’s important to Try out your new vocabulary!

But, there’s one very important point I want to make here…

Most of the hard work is done before you come to speak.


You shouldn’t rely on the speaking to do all the hard “memory work” for you!

If you’ve done your job with Attention

If you’re using the right techniques for Repetition

You will find that Trying out your new vocabulary should be the really fun part, and the majority of the vocabulary you’ve been studying will already be on the tip of your tongue!


Every language learner you meet will tell you something different about the way memory works, and the best way to learn vocabulary in a foreign language.

I suppose it’s only natural, given that our brains are all unique!

However, whatever method you may come across…

Every approach to learning vocabulary ultimately uses the same foundations.

One way or another, each new word you learn needs to be taken through the 3 stages of the A.R.T. technique that I’ve described in this series, in order to become a permanent part of your active vocabulary:

A word you’ll never forget.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series! If you’re ready to learn more about improving your memory, be sure to sign up for my free email course below.

Finally, please take a second to share this post with your friends – they’ll thank you for it! 

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How To Memorize Words In Any Language...And NOT Forget Them later!

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  • “T” for “try”, very important part of the process of learning a language, in fact, it happened to me when I was learning English, that I created some strong memories with certain words and expressions, I actually wrote a post on my blog about those funny memories because they became like flashbacks to me every time I heare those specific words. Very interesting series olly, I already signed up for the Email course! 😀

  • Man I love how you talk about the Jazz musicians!

    Whenever I’m in class and the teacher mentions how Renaissance people all knew how to improvise and sheet music was just a by-product it amazes me to see how the tides have turned.

    Being a Classical Musician that isn’t versed in the art of improv, I think it’s a pity. But nobody seems to actively want to change that…

    The jazz guys during my Undergrad were absolutely killer and always playing places and jamming. Classical musicians were always stuck in their rooms with music stands blocking the windows so you couldn’t see who was making mistakes…

    Glad language learners aren’t like that!

    • Well… I think quite a few language learners might be like that! I mean, how many people learn languages in a classroom, or in their bedroom, and never really go out and speak it?

      On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for discipline. Jazz musicians learn to be great improvisers, but often lack the technique of classical musicians, or knowledge of music theory.

      Ultimately, it’s good just to learn as much as possible from the “other side”! Thanks for the comment.

      • Point taken. I think I’ve been brainwashed by having been to two polyglot events so far. I’ve also forgotten that that was me at some point in time.

        There definitely is something to learn from both sides. Something we all must continuously strive for! Thanks for the ideas Olly!