5 Expert-Proven Vocabulary Techniques
A new vocabulary technique every Wednesday
I am thrilled to introduce to you this new weekly collection: Every Wednesday you will discover a new vocabulary learning technique, try it out, and let me know if you like it in the comments.
1. A Vocabulary Notebook
Your language teacher at school has probably told you to use a vocabulary notebook.
The most common way of using it is this one:
Divide the page in two columns, write words in your target language on the left column, and translations in the right column. This way, you can cover one column and train your memory by guessing the words or their translations.
- One of the easiest method to use.
- Easy to carry around in order to learn your words when you have a minute of spare-time.
- Very low-tech, all you need is to have your notebook with you and it will always work
- This method can be seen as boring by some, and also not very efficient if used alone. For maximal effect, I recommend combining it with other methods you’ll find below.
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2. Sticky Notes
To learn the names of objects around you in your target language, the easiest way is to stick a note to it with the corresponding word on it. If you’re learning French or another gendered language, don’t forget to add the article, or another indicator of the gender. You will learn the word simply by seeing it each time you look at the object.
No translation. Also known as “immersion”, the technique of not using a translation and letting your brain access the language directly is known to support your memory and help you think in your target language.
You will be amazed at how fast the words stick to your memory when you have them around everyday. Once you remember a word, you can remove the note, or, even better, add an adjective to it, so you learn one more word. You can also write a full sentence on your note (see technique 7: learning in chunks)
The number of words you can learn this way is limited to names of everyday objects, and possibly some related words. You will need to use another technique to learn other vocabulary areas.
You need to spend some time in the place where your notes are. It will work better if you work at home or part-time or if you stay at home a certain amount of time in your day. People who work a lot outside of their home or only come home to sleep for any reason will not have the maximum effect.
You need to make sure that the people you live with won’t mind the new decoration. At best, convince them to also learn the language. ;)
3. Flashcards on Paper
Flashcards are another well known system.
You will need a set of blank cards: write each French word or expression on a card, and the English translation on the back side. Then, stack the cards on top of each other, with the French side facing up. When you review them, take the first card and try to guess the English while looking at the French side. Or, harder, flip the stack and try to guess the French while looking at the English. Only turn the card when you have given your best guess.
Now, here is the technical part: If you could guess the word easily, it means that it is still fresh in your memory, so put it at the bottom of your deck, to review it only after several days. If you couldn’t guess at all, insert it very close to the top of the deck, so you will review it today again. Evaluate how well your remembered the word to decide where to put it in the deck so you can review it before it has completely faded from your memory. Then move on to the next card, and repeat the process.This technique is known as spaced repetition system. It is very efficient, which is why many modern language learning methods are based on it.
- The spaced repetition system will save you a lot of time by both preventing you from reviewing words which you still know very well, and making sure that no word slips out of your memory forever.
- Very low tech: the cards will never be out of battery. You can carry only a part of your cards, for example, the ones you couldn't remember well.
- The manual spaced repetition system can be tricky to master.
4. Flashcard Apps
Last week, we discovered paper flashcards. They were the first technique based on spaced repetition, taking advantage of the natural forgetting curve of our brain. They are great, but they have a major disadvantage: the manual system takes time to master, leading to possibly suboptimal results. Good news, you have the solution to this problem in your pocket. Since the invention of smartphones, many apps reproduce the flashcard process, as described above, except taking over all the technical stuff, so you can focus on learning.
Just enter your vocabulary words, one on each “card”, with their translation on the “other side” of the “card”, and you’re ready to learn. Even faster, most apps let you choose among numerous set of cards created by previous users. My favourites are Tinycards (iPhone) and Quizlet (Android, iPhone, Desktop), but I also like Anki (Android, iPhone, Desktop). A great place to get started are my pre-made French decks.
All you have to do now is to find a little time every day to learn your vocabulary and the app will take care of showing the words to you right before you forget them. As with paper flashcards, try to guess the meaning of the word, and only check the “other side” when you have given your best guess.
The spaced repetition system will save you a lot of time by both preventing you from reviewing words which you still know very well, and making sure that no word slips out of your memory forever.
The automated system takes away the tricky manual work, so you can focus on learning.
Your vocabulary words are always available in your smartphone (I assume you always have it at hand), and you can learn them everywhere without looking weird. A traffic jam? → learn vocabulary. Waiting at the cash desk? → learn vocabulary. Waiting for the bus? For the beginning of the meeting? For anything else? → learn vocabulary. It’s just so easy to find the ten minutes you need everyday.
Like everything high tech, it is dependant on the battery, sometimes on the wifi (make sure your app has an offline version if you don’t have a reliable connexion at all time) and on your phone in general. You need to make sure that you can rely on the technology to have the best learning experience.
This week, I’d like to focus on something important when it comes to learning vocabulary: trimming. It is not a vocabulary learning technique per se, but a way to maximize the technique you use.
When you are serious about learning a language, one annoying thing happens: your vocabulary list grows very fast and tends to get out of control. You fill notebook after notebook, you collect flashcards, your house gets covered in sticky notes, and the amount of words to learn can easily get overwhelming. Spaced repetition based systems such as flashcards can slow this process down but eventually, you have hundreds of words to learn or review and you struggle not to drown in them.
No panic: we have the solution. It is known as “trimming” which means that you basically discard some words. You remove flashcards from your collection, take some sticky notes down, or copy your notebook list onto a new notebook, keeping only the words which makes sense. But how do you know whether to keep a word or not?
Basically, you should discard two kinds of words:
Those you know by heart. Those are basic words which you learnt earlier in your study and now use so regularly that it’s impossible to forget them. For example if your original list features the word “bonjour” (that’s “hello” in French, but you know that), you certainly don’t need to keep it when you trim your list.
Those you don’t need after all. In your list, you certainly have words which are very technical, or regional, and it turns out that you never heard/read them again after you first wrote them down. It’s just not efficient to keep them. Make room for words you do need.
You will need to trim your vocabulary list periodically for maximal efficiency. Ideally you should set a time to trim your list. For example whenever you have filled a notebook, so you can write the words you still need to learn at the beginning of the new notebook and discard the previous one. Or whenever your stack of flashcards hits a predefined number, for example, 200. Or when your spouse/mom gets mad at you for covering the house in sticky notes.
Keeps your vocabulary list under control and avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed by vocabulary.
- Ensures that you focus on the words you need to know, and not loose your time going over words you don’t need or your already know.
You have to do it periodically. We all tend to procrastinate this kind of tasks, like, me too. Still, trim your vocabulary list periodically.
It can take a little time to know for sure whether to keep a word or not. I’ve spent years keeping too many words because I was scared I’d forget those I know, or need those rare ones one day. But honestly just trash them. If it turns out that you need them after all, you’ll rewrite them when the moment comes.