For many people, vocabulary is truly the hardest part of learning a language. Grammar can be tricky but mastered, and accents can be coached. But vocabulary seems to be a never-ending slog. People always want to know how to learn vocabulary.
When I first started learning a language, I had a notebook filled with words I had learned and planned on studying again … one day. The second time I tried, I decided to make my own flashcards, but once I had more than 500 of those it became incredibly difficult to keep them all organized.
So how do you do it? How do you find the relevant vocabulary you need and have a system to learn it effectively? Let’s take a look at a better way to learn vocabulary.
How to Learn Vocabulary
Becoming a master of vocabulary requires two important things:
- Knowing the vocabulary that you need to know
- Using effective learning and memorizing strategies
How to Learn Vocabulary – Know What You Need to Know
Knowing what words you need to know is an important thing to think about when you want to know how to learn vocabulary. What do you want to use English for? Do you need vocabulary for IELTS or another test? Are you going to travel? Or are you doing business abroad?
There are lots of words in English, by some accounts over one million words. It sounds like a lot, but the average English speaker only knows 40,000 and only uses 20,000. Better, but that’s still a lot of words.
So what can you do? Narrow it down! If you are using English to travel around the US for a summer, you don’t need to know technical words. Or, if you are doing business with English-speaking clients, then you probably won’t need to understand a lot of English pop culture vocabulary. Make it easy on yourself and learn the words you need to know, and then branch out naturally into what you are interested in.
How to Learn Vocabulary – Effective Learning and Memorizing Strategies
Once you know which words you need to know, how do you learn them effectively? I have broken my strategy down into three main points, which, together, will help you learn how to improve your vocabulary effectively.
1. Learning Through Context
We, as humans, do not learn well in a vacuum. If you sit down and try to memorize 20 words a day from your list of words, it will take you a long time to achieve your goals. Also, you will probably forget a lot of what you learned along the way.
This is why I push people to always try to learn things in context. Learning in context means that you do activities or consume media that will naturally introduce you to the words you need to know. So those specific words you want are not just learned randomly, but are couched in their natural context. Contextual learning has been shown to lead to better learning outcomes and longer retention when compared to traditional rote memorization.
Let me give you an example of two people who want to learn casual English for travel:
Person 1 buys a book of useful travel phrases. He sits down for an hour a day and writes each phrase down, and then he practices saying them aloud. Person 1 then progresses to saying each phrase from memory so that he is confident that he can say them when he needs to.
Person 2 buys the same book and writes down phrases that he thinks might be useful. He then gets a free language exchange partner and practices one hour a week with his language partner. During his conversations with his language partner, he tries out some of the phrases that he had written down. However, he generally lets the conversation flow naturally.
Who do you think will be better prepared? Which do you think is the best way to learn vocabulary?
By couching the words and phrases he needs for his English vocabulary in conversation, Person 2 is going to improve faster and remember more. Person 2 has learned his vocabulary in context, meaning he learned his phrases and words as part of an activity, in this case, a conversation. Luckily for him, while he travels, Person 2 will probably need these phrases while he is talking with other people. This contextual learning should help him recall these phrases when he needs them because he has already practiced them in conversation.
As well, Person 2 is going to get the advantage of incidental vocabulary learning. Although he had a list of useful phrases, there were probably a lot of words or phrases that were important that he didn’t have on his list. By learning through conversation, he was able to learn some of these other important words that Person 1 would not have been exposed to at all.
Contextual learning does not need to be a conversation. It can be reading articles online, watching movies, or really anything you enjoy doing where you can naturally use and learn language.
2. Use Multiple kinds of Learning Styles
I have written about learning styles before. In short, there is little evidence to suggest that catering to people’s specific learning styles leads to better outcomes. However, it has been shown that teaching using multiple learning styles helps people learn better.
So while you are thinking about how to learn vocabulary, you should also think about different ways you can do it. Try to mix it up. Listen to a podcast. Watch a sports broadcast. Write a blog. Or follow an English YouTube video while doing some arts and crafts. Think about different ways you can learn your vocabulary words while using a mix of activities that engage you in unique ways.
3. Spaced Repetition
Our final key feature on how to improve your vocabulary is “spaced repetition.” For those who don’t know, spaced repetition is a way of doing rote memorization. I know, I know, I just told you to not do this, but hear me out. Rote memorization has its place in learning vocabulary. The danger lies in using it the wrong way.
So what is spaced repetition? And what is using it the right way? Spaced repetition is a method of memorization where you will encounter a word at different intervals that continue to get further and further apart. So maybe at first you see the word every day, then every week, then every month, and then every year. This system is supposed to save you time and help you get these words into your long-term memory. No one needs to review the word “dog” every day, but for new words you have just picked up, it is good to see them a lot at first so you can remember them properly.
You can use spaced repetition to complement your contextual learning. So, you find a variety of contextual learning opportunities that use different learning strategies to encounter new words and practice old ones. Then, you use a system of spaced repetition to help you remember the new words you learn. So contextual learning helps you find new words and reinforces them, while spaced repetition makes sure that the majority of these words are memorized properly. In this way, these three points work together to help you improve your English vocabulary faster.
How to Learn Vocabulary Fast
Ideally, you will have lots of time to learn vocabulary, but what if you don’t? What if you need to know how to learn vocabulary fast for an exam next week or an important meeting on Monday?
If all you need is to learn a few phrases or some vocabulary for short-term use, then stick with spaced repetition and a variety of learning styles. Write the phrases down, say them out loud, or have a mock conversation with someone. Mnemonics and other memory tools are also pretty handy in a pinch. Rote learning is great for short-term memorization, but again, this is not the ideal for lifelong language learning.
Is there an App for Vocabulary?
There are lots of great apps to help you learn English Vocabulary. I hope to one day do in-depth reviews of all of them, but for now, here are my favorites. I have personally used all of these, and each is a great app for vocabulary learning.
I have been a dedicated Anki user for years. Anki is an open-source flashcard app for vocabulary that can sync across platforms. Anki uses spaced repetition so that you can practice vocabulary every day without wasting time on words you already know. You can download pre-made decks made by other users, or you can make your own.
What I love about Anki is that you can do pretty much anything with it. The app is incredibly flexible, which makes it an incredibly powerful tool for mastering English vocabulary quickly. Anki is free on desktop and Android, but costs money on IOS.
Run by a renowned polyglot Steve Kaufmann, LingQ takes contextual learning to the next level. Stories and articles are paired with audio files so you can read and listen to language by native-speakers. You can then create lingq’s (links) by associating a vocabulary word with your own definition, or a popular user made one.
With lots of topics to choose from, LingQ can help you learn languages through things that you enjoy. LingQ has both a free and premium version that you can choose from. Lingq can be used as an app for vocabulary or you can use the online version.
Learn more about LingQ with our LingQ review.
Duolingo is a great app for vocabulary when you are just starting your language learning journey. It is easy to use, and it has lots of content. People who are intermediate or advanced learners will probably be frustrated because they need to get through words they already know to get to the English vocabulary they want to learn, but overall it is a great experience.
How to Learn Vocabulary – Final Thoughts
Vocabulary is both the easiest and hardest thing to learn when learning a new language. New words are generally easy to understand and require less studying than grammar, but the sheer number of words you need to know is daunting.
Too many people and schools rely on strict rote memorization to learn vocabulary. This can be an effective tool for short-term memorization for tests, but it is usually forgotten as soon as you stop practicing. This is why I encourage people to learn contextually, learn in multiple ways, and use spaced repetition to reinforce what you have already learned.
Also, don’t forget to think about what English vocabulary you need, and then work from there. To me, this is a winning combination that will help you learn English vocabulary faster and better. So take these tips with you, get creative, and good luck on becoming an English vocabulary master.
If you are interested in learning some basic English vocabulary, we have a couple of posts that can help you teach your child about food. They include exercises you can do and free flashcards that you can download. We currently have lessons on vegetables, fruit and meat in English.