Monday, 9 July 2018

How to Grow your Foreign Language Vocabulary Faster

If you would like to achieve fluency in a foreign language you are learning, you need to learn a lot of new words, i.e. grow your foreign language vocabulary. This is the reason a lot of language learners drop their study: they feel that there are too many words in a language and it will take ages before one learns enough of them to hold a decent conversation on topics other than the weather or how to get to the nearest train station. But what if you could learn new words faster? How do you actually do it?

Before answering this question, however, let’s look at the things that slow you down when you learn new words.

What Slows You Down When You Learn New Words

Learning new words might take a long time for a number of reasons. First, you just don’t really learn them. Yep, that’s right. You have your lessons with a teacher or attend a language course and you think that new words that pop up in texts, exercises and dialogues, will eventually stick. And “eventually” might take a while. Especially if you don’t read or listen a lot or if your level is higher than beginner and the words you don’t yet know are the ones that are used not too frequently. So, if you want to grow your vocabulary faster, you’d better make a conscious organised effort to learn those new words.

Second reason is you try to learn all of the new words you come across. There are two scenarios here. Both are not good. You either get overwhelmed by the number of new words you have to learn and stop learning them whatsoever. Or, if you are a stubborn nerdy type, learning new words gradually turns into a boring chore slash rote learning, it takes up a lot of your time, so that you actually have less and less time left for your other language learning activities.

So, if you want to grow your vocabulary faster, you need to avoid fishing out each and every unknown word from the texts you read or listen to, recording them pedantically and then torturing yourself with constant cramming. The Spanish inquisition methods are not in vogue anymore, in case you didn’t notice. Your task is to be happy and radiate happiness all around making everybody happy too. So as not to kill your happy, you need to look up and record only keywords, i.e. words crucial for understanding of the given text and words you have come across more than once or often enough for you to get curious of their meaning.

Third reason why learning new words takes a long time is that you use wrong tools. And this is usually a good old pen and notebook where you write new words and their translation. Or, instead of a single notebook, it could be lots of notebooks. Or lots of sticky notes. Or lots of sheets of paper. Apart from it being not environmentally friendly and creating clutter on your desk or in your drawers or under your bed or in other random places in your house or office, it doesn’t help you learn new words faster. What you need in this digital day and age, is computer software to take care of storing your new vocabulary in one place and reminding you to learn and revise it regularly, such as, for example, vocBlocks.

Revising new words is actually the key to learning them. Even if you have made an effort to memorise a new word, it takes a few revisions to actually plant this word into your long term memory. Research shows that you need fewer revisions if you space them, gradually increasing the intervals. For example, instead of revising a new word a couple of times on the same day, you need to revise it a couple of weeks later, then a month, then two months later, etc. This method is called spaced repetition and it’s used by vocBlocks.

Once you have started recording carefully selected new words for regular learning and revision into trusted spaced repetition software that reminds you to practise, you have all the chances to grow your vocabulary faster.

Active is the Only Fast and Effective

How do you actually learn new words faster? The answer is you need to fully engage with the task. Yep, how active you are while learning your new words determines how fast you learn them. Learning new words means making them your own. And you cannot make them your own if you are not fully engaged, if you are not active, if you are rote learning.

There are a number of techniques that can help you make new words your own. First is recalling the context in which you came across this word, the thoughts, feelings and emotions you had when you were reading or listening.

Was it a romantic story with an unhappy ending that made you cry, a story of a life lost when a “viper” (the new word you came across) bit the young girl just as she had found the love of her life and was about to get married and live happily ever after? Or was it a documentary unveiling the history of dentistry from which you picked up the new word “barber” and learnt that they used to pull out teeth at the hairdresser’s?

When you learn words from a book, film or song that made you think, cry or laugh, you are already halfway there, you have almost made these words your own. And in case you forget where the word came from and what the story was (after all, you do need to revise words you record for learning even a few months later), vocBlocks allows you to record the context. With vocBlocks you have a separate field where you can copy and paste the context. If you read online and use dictionary extension vocBlocks LookUp, the context is recorded automatically for the words you have looked up. And if you have picked out a paper book, you can take a photo of the paragraph that has this new word as vocBlocks allows you to attach it to the word for your reference.

Second technique helping you make new words your own is using your own images to illustrate the words you are recording for learning. With vocBlocks, you have an option to attach images to your new words. For example, you would like to learn a phrase “tote bag”, you record it and then snap a photo of your new designer tote you have been flaunting recently. Now, this new word is not some abstract object anymore, it has a personal meaning for you as a proud owner of this expensive accessory.

Or, for example, you need to learn the word “jolly”, so you attach a picture of your best friend who is the jolliest person you know and this new word is as good as learnt. It works even if you use images that you have found online and not your own photos, you will still have been selecting the pictures that you like and that illustrate well the words you have chosen, so you will have been actively engaged with the task which is the recipe for learning new words faster. By the way, vocBlocks finds quality images for you when you type in your new word, so you can select the picture you like easily and quickly.

Third technique aimed at making the vocabulary you are learning your own is using your body. And I am not suggesting that you cover it with tattoos of new words. This might be super effective for remembering them but might not be too pleasing for the eye after a couple of years of applying this technique. So, it’s healthier for you and your skin to stick to spaced repetition software for recording new words. What I actually mean by using your body is performing the physical actions related to the words you need to learn.

It’s useful when you learn, for example, some verbs or adjectives. With movement verbs you just perform these movements while learning or revising the words with spaced repetition software. For example, if you need to memorise the word “gulp”, you actually gulp when the word comes up on the screen. Other examples are “nod”, “bow”, “wave”, “scream” and even “kick”. Isn’t it great when language learning implies some loud screaming and vigorous kicking? I bet your neighbours would never guess that all this noise coming from your dwelling is actually about education.

It’s not only verbs that describe your body movements that can get learnt this way. You can apply this technique when learning some other verbs that involve some movements, you just need to use your imagination as well. For example, if you need to learn the verb “wrap”, you could imagine that you are wrapping some presents while making certain movements with your hands; with the verb “gawk” you could stare ahead with your mouth open imagining that you are gawking while an IT guy is working some IT magic trying to fix some mysterious IT problem with your computer.

With adjectives you could imitate your reaction to the phenomena described by these adjectives or your feelings, actions and facial expression for adjectives describing your mood. For example, when the word that means “smelly” comes up on the screen you could imagine you have smelt mouldy cheese in your fridge and crinkle your nose. Or when you see the word “cute” you could smile and hug your teddy. Or with the phrase “withering look” you could imagine that your boyfriend has told you that you have put on a bit of weight and now you are looking at him with that facial expression that tells the lad that he’d better run and run fast.

So, if you would like to accelerate your foreign language learning by growing your vocabulary faster, you need to make a conscious organised effort to learn key words you come across while reading, listening or doing exercises, record these words in trusted spaced repetition software that would keep a schedule of learning and revision of your new words and remind you to practise regularly.

To memorise your new vocabulary faster while learning and revising it with spaced repetition software, you need to be fully engaged with this task and use some techniques that would help you make the words you are learning your own: record the context the new words come from, use your own images or the images you love to illustrate these words and use your body to plug in some muscle memory as well.

Happy fast learning!

P.S. Have you been inventive with learning your new words? Did you sing them? Did you rap them? Did you act them out? Feel free to share your stories in the comments below!