How to improve your vocabulary: 6 tips for language learners

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After five months in South America followed by several months of self study, I’ve finally got a handle on Spanish grammar. I’ve now shifted focus onto vocabulary which is much more fun. As part of my efforts, I’ve put together six tips on how to improve your vocabulary, along with useful tools that will help at each juncture. If you’ve successfully improved your vocabulary in a foreign language, share your secrets in the comments below.

1. Gather a list of cognates

In linguistics, a cognate is a word that is very similar to another. There are hundreds of cognates shared by English and the Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian). Many of these are ‘perfect cognates’ (i.e. words that are spelled exactly the same and which have the same meaning) while many others are near perfect.

English – Spanish: examples of perfect cognates

  • Animal – Animal
  • Capital – Capital
  • Cultural – Cultural
  • Director – Director
  • Doctor – Doctor

English – Spanish: examples of near-perfect cognates

  • Attention – Atención
  • Celebration – Celebración
  • Dramatic – Dramático
  • Perfect – Perfecto
  • Secretary – Secretario

Gathering a comprehensive list of cognates will demonstrate just how much vocabulary you already know – before you’ve even started studying! As a first step, search in Google for ‘English [Spanish] cognates’, replacing ‘Spanish’ for the language of your choice. Save these in a flashcard app like Quizlet.

Don’t worry if you’re not learning a Romance language. Many other languages including Russian, Japanese and Bengali have ‘loaned’ words from English and integrated them into their vocabulary, so it’s likely you will already know some words despite the different script.

how to improve your vocabulary
Dreamstime Like for like: Gathering cognates will demonstrate just how much vocabulary you already know

Bonus tip: Check the meaning of cognates you encounter in everyday reading before adding them to your list as they could be false friends (i.e. words that sounds alike but do not mean the same thing). For example, embarazado in Spanish does not mean ‘embarrassed’ as one might suspect, but pregnant.

2. Translate the ‘300 instant sight words’

Dr Edward Fry, author of [easyazon_link identifier=”1576907570″ locale=”US” tag=”atbo0c-20″]1000 Instant Words, found in 1996 that a mere 300 words make up approximately 65% of all written material in English. Download his list of 300 instant sight words and work on translating the words to the language you’re learning. Store the translations in Quizlet and revisit them regularly.

This won’t necessarily mean you will understand 65% of all written material in your new language (you need grammar for that!), but it will give you a great start. You may wish to sort them into verbs, nouns, prepositions and so on to help your learning.

3. Use word association

Learning by rote isn’t always effective in language learning. Sometimes, you need to use shortcuts or tricks to remember specific words. This is where word association comes in.

First, think of what the foreign word reminds you of. What do the syllables sound like? What do they call to mind? Then, try to bridge that to the meaning of the word. For example, the Spanish word sacar means to take out. ‘Sacar’ sounds like ‘sack’ and ‘car’ so if you imagine taking out a sack of rubbish from your car, it may help you remember that sacar means to take out.

4. Learn phrases; not just words

Our native languages are so easy because we recognise not just words but hundreds of common phrases too. We process these as a single entity rather than individual words. They range from prosaic phrases such as ‘how are you?’ and ‘I’m very well’ to more colourful ones like ‘an axe to grind’ and ‘at the crack of dawn’. Learning phrases has two advantages: first, it adds context to words that may be otherwise difficult to remember and, second, it allows you to recognise blocks of words, making overall comprehension more fluid.

Consider maintaining a separate Quizlet set for phrases so you can add not just everyday niceties but idioms and proverbs too.

5. Use virtual immersion

The best way to improve your vocabulary is to immerse yourself in the language you are learning. It won’t always be possible to do this physically in which case you have to rely on virtual immersion. Try the below sites.

how to improve your vocabulary: woman reading by the water
Dreamstime Use Alexa to identify top sites in the language/region of your choice

Listen: Visit TuneIn to find radio stations in the language of your choice.

Read: Use Alexa to identify top sites in the language/region of your choice. You may have to filter out all the search engines and social sites, but it will give you an idea of interesting content sites.

Watch: Use Yabla to watch videos in the language of your choice. Foreign language films are also a great way to improve your vocabulary. As mentioned in language tools for lazy learners, simply search in Google for ‘IMDb: Highest Rated X-Language Feature Films’ where ‘X’ is replaced by your language of choice.

Speak: Visit italki to find foreign language tutors for as little as $5 an hour. Additionally, consider joining a local meetup group. InterNations, a global community of expats, hosts over 4,000 events throughout the year and offers a great way to make new friends who speak the language you’re learning.

Naturally, it’s important to dedicate time to proactive study too. We recommend Duolingo and regular drills with Quizlet.

Bonus tip: Save your foreign language articles to Pocket to read in your spare time or, as detailed in language tools for lazy learners, install the Google Translate and Diigo extensions for translating articles and saving annotated versions online for later reference.

6. Interrogate difficult words

When you’re starting out, it’s okay to skip over words you don’t understand but once you reach level B1 in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, it’s good practice to interrogate these further.

For example, when reading and translating an article on BBC World, I came across the word ‘embargadora’ for which I failed to find a translation even in stem or infinitive form. As a beginner, I would have let this go but instead I asked for a translation on Q&A site Quora and received some helpful responses. Granted, we will seldom use words we can’t even find in the dictionary but isn’t discovering new words part of the reason we’re learning a language in the first place?

For a full list of common English words, get 1000 Instant Words: The Most Common Words for Teaching Reading, Writing and Spelling by Edward Fry.

Lead image: Dreamstime

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