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How To Learn Vocab: The Ultimate Guide

When trying to master a language, vocab is key. However, the initial process of learning unknown words can be both laborious and daunting and there is nothing more frustrating than seeing a word you’ve already studied and forgetting its’ meaning. Here are our top tips to make learning vocab simple, easy and effective long-term.

Selecting the right words

The average speaker only needs 800-1000 words for everyday conversation and writing; that might sound like a lot, but if you think about that in terms of 100-word vocab lists, that’s only around eight or ten. Therefore, jotting down every single unknown word you encounter is not necessarily the best approach. When reading an article, be selective with which words you choose; prioritise the most important words and phrases that you are likely to encounter again.

Another good tip is to watch film or TV in the target language with subtitles. In addition to learning how they are pronounced; you can take advantage of browser extensions (such as LLN- Language learning with Netflix) that will allow you to make vocab sets of unknown words.

Setting measurable and realistic goals

Although it might seem like a good way to quickly expand your vocabulary, learning hundreds of new words every day is not very feasible. You’re less likely to select crucial words and be able to store them in your long-term memory; let alone the fact that it’s time-consuming and unsustainable. It is important to create a daily habit that can be sustained long-term.

Our guide is to aim to learn 5 to 10 new words a day, review them after 24 hours, and then a week and month later. This process is simple, will take a matter of minutes, and will ensure that words are retained in your long-term memory. There are various apps (such as the flashcard apps mentioned below) that can help you with this, but you could even do this by writing words in your calendar and set a reminder for a day, week and month. You could experiment to see what works for you, but the bottom line is to make sure you review words in these increments.

Active Recall and Learning in Context

When learning words, it’s important to do something involving active recall. In other words, it’s no good to just stare at words and their meaning on a screen; you need to be actively retrieving them from your memory.

Using flashcards is an effective way to do this and you can use apps such as Quizlet, Memorise, and Anki to help. When making flashcards, put words into sample sentences and phrases. Not only will this help you to recall the meaning of words faster, but it will help you to apply them more easily to everyday life. For instance, if you were trying to learn the French structure ‘autant que + subjunctive’ (as far as/ as much as), a good phrase to learn would be ‘autant que je sache’ (‘as far as I know’) as it’s a common expression you’ll use and a good way to sneak in a bit of subjunctive!

In Summary:

  • Be selective with what you learn: choose to learn useful words that you are going to use frequently. It’s ok not to write down every single unknown word!

  • Set realistic goals: small steps will lead to big gains in the long-term. For instance, if you learn five new words a day, you will have learnt 1800 new words in a year!

  • Test yourself often: use flashcards to prioritise active recall and make sure to review words after a week and month!

  • Use them as much as you can: try to apply the words into relevant situations as often as you can!

  • Don’t give up: We understand it can be tedious and frustrating, but a little bit of work will go a long way; TRUST THE PROCESS!

About The Author: Arun is an Olea Ambassador (Team 1.0, March - Sept 2023) and is currently pursuing a BA in Modern and Medieval Languages (French and Spanish ab initio) at the University of Cambridge. He speaks English, Spanish and French!


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