Memorizing vocabulary when you first start learning a language can be pretty fun. Picking up a bunch of words in a new language is the easiest way to feel like you’re progressing. Last week you didn’t know a naranja from a manzana, and now you can name all the fruits at the grocery store.
After a while, learning vocab gets a tad harder. Similar-sounding words get jumbled in your head, new words don’t seem to be sticking and you even start forgetting some of the first words you learned.
Fortunately, there are a number of techniques for making memorization easier. We collected a few of our favorite study methods that make learning vocab less difficult and more fun.
Space Out Your Learning
If you’ve read anything about effective learning methods, you’ve probably heard of spaced learning. It’s the science-backed theory that it’s better to study for a little bit every day over a long time than to try to learn everything in a single day.
People tend to dislike spaced learning because it takes longer, and cramming seems to work. Anyone who’s spent a night cramming for a test and done well on it can attest to that. But if that person were tested again a week or so later, they would do much, much worse. Cramming can get vocab words into your short-term memory, but they never make it to the long-term memory. So you can read an entire English-French dictionary in a weekend and feel pretty good about your language skills, but the knowledge really won’t stick. Language learning is a journey, and you’ll need to keep at it for a while to develop skills that will stay with you.
Write It Down (Like, Physically Write It Down)
Because of computers, handwriting is on the decline. You can probably make it through your life using your phone or laptop for almost everything. That doesn’t mean you should, however; recent research has shown that taking notes by hand helps you learn things better. It’s a simple trick, but a useful one.
If you need a reason to write down vocab, you can combine this tip with another time-tested language-learning tactic: sticky notes all over your house. This might seem silly, but labeling your belongings in the language you’re learning helps in two different ways. First, it keeps you immersed in the language, so you’re made to think in your new language throughout the day. Second, because you’re labeling the objects you use most, you’re reinforcing the most relevant vocab in your life.
Study The Words You Want To Know
Jumping off from that last point, memorizing vocab is much easier when you’re learning the words you want to and need to know. Many textbooks and programs will start you off with “fun” sections like all the animals, but that won’t help you much in the real world unless you’re visiting the zoo.
Depending on your motivation for learning the language, you might have different priorities. If you’re learning for vacation, you’ll want to learn how to order food and ask where the bathroom is. If you’re learning for business, you’ll need to know vocab for talking about your job. When you decide to learn a language in full, you can’t just learn what’s relevant to you, but it still provides a great place to start. It’s also known to be better to learn vocab in thematically related clusters so that you can create associations between various terms.
Keep Things In Context
Learning the definition of a foreign word in your native language is useful, but it has its limits. For example, when you learned your first language, you probably didn’t do so by looking everything up in the dictionary.
A study was done on whether it’s better to learn vocabulary by translating the foreign words into your native language, or by learning the words in their natural context. The results showed that the group of people translating the words helped people learn more words faster, but they had a harder time using the words in real-world contexts. Ideally, you can use a method that combines both translation and context, but if forced to choose between the two, using context is likely to help you comprehend the language better in the long-run. Instead of making flashcards with English definitions on them, try creating sentences with your vocab.
Use Various Mediums
Spending all your time reading vocab in a new language will teach you how to do one thing really well: read vocab in a new language. The same goes for pretty much anything if you try to learn all of a language through a single method. Learning vocab can be done more efficiently if you take a multisensory approach.
There are a lot of ways to learn vocab using your whole array of senses. You can listen to music or podcasts, read books or the news, and of course, you’ll want to find ways to practice conversationally. There are countless ways to immerse yourself in a new language, so don’t get stuck in a learning rut.
Try Using Babbel
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention Babbel for memorizing vocab. The app has been designed with all of these cognitively tested methods in mind. Babbel uses several different approaches for learning new words, puts words in conversational context so you can see how they’re used, and lets you choose what lessons to take so you learn the vocabulary most useful for you. Babbel also uses spaced repetition so that words move from your short-term to your long-term memory. We have several resources to help you learn your new language, and we encourage you to give it a try.