Learning a language involves so many different skills. You may be feeling daunted by the grammar involved in being able to describe things in the past, present AND future, or by different genders for different nouns. One fact that you really cannot avoid though, is that you will need to learn vocabulary at some point. If, like me, that brings back memories of sitting in front of an exercise book with a list of 20 words and trying desperately to memorise them before Monday’s test, then this won’t be your favourite task.
Sadly, I lost my “photographic” memory when life got busy and my brain filled with other important things like appointments and to do lists. The good news though is that there are many different ways to learn and that you should be able to squeeze one or two of them into your routine. Here are 10 tips for learning vocabulary:
1. Write it down. It seems obvious, but however sure you are that you will remember that “un éclair” is French for “lightning bolt” the chances are that you will soon forget as you focus instead on your next meeting or to-do list.
2. Keep a notebook handy so that you can refer to your lists and add to them whenever you have a spare moment.
3. When you write down a word, make sure that you include relevant grammatical information too. For some languages the gender of a noun is very important, for verbs it may be the past participle.
4. “Little and often” is best. The process of moving information from short term memory to long term memory is best achieved by regular practice. You can’t learn to play a musical instrument by one three-hour mammoth session per month and the same applies to languages. 10 minutes vocab practice 3-4 times per week is better than half an hour the night before your next class!
5. Keep this week’s vocabulary in an obvious place. Maybe that is by the kettle so you can review it every time you make a cup of tea. Alternatively, maybe by the bathroom mirror so you see it as you clean your teeth. Whatever works for you.
6. Consider using apps and online resources to help. Programmes such as DuoLingo or their offshoot, Tinycards, can be invaluable as they provide chances for repetitive practice in an easy-to-use format.
7. Are you a kinesthetic learner? If you learn better by doing rather than seeing or hearing, then consider making flashcards. The act of moving the English word to be next to the French one can help to cement the relationship between them. Even better, in the case of simple nouns, would be to label the objects around you – and to move the labels to repeat the task regularly!
8. Keep on top of it. 10-20 words per week may seem like a little, but busy lives can get in the way of the best intentions. Before long you have a list of 50 or 100 words and the task begins to look more daunting. Especially in the case of exam students and those with a learning deadline, making sure you keep on top of your vocabulary learning will make revision much less stressful.
9. Advanced learners – look up other relevant words as well. So, if you have the concept of “lesson” then also look up “learn”, “learner”, “student”, “teacher”. If it is a verb such as “to surprise” then also learn the noun “a surprise”, the adjective “surprising” and the adverb “surprisingly”. This kind of focused work will help you to see the patterns of language formation and also widen your vocabulary beyond the simple first word which you wrote down.
10. Finally, review your vocabulary regularly. It is easy to add in new words and then forget the old through a lack of practice. If you find that you can no longer recall the word for “shirt” then take time to check you can remember the rest of the wardrobe as well!
If you are really keen you could write mini-tests for yourself as you go. If you keep them in the back of your folder or notebook then you can check regularly which topics are due for revision!