Building Vocabulary Tips

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Accustom your ears and eyes

Listen to music and watch TV as often as you can in this language. Your subconscious mind will record the sounds and actions related to the words you hear and see. Soon, you will recognize basic words, your mind is designed to make these connections. A child learns to speak by watching and listening. He relates the action with the sound he hears; if he is hungry, he learns to say something related to food because that's what he has heard. The simple mind of an infant does not reason enough yet to understand verb tenses or word definitions, but his innate communication skills help him to connect the physical sensation with the corresponding word. We must activate our ability to let thoughts flow through our brain spontaneously, making these connections with the world around us in this new language.

How do I build my vocabulary?

A word a day, keeps ignorance away

Find a vocabulary book in your new language and learn one new word every day. Start the day with it and use the word throughout the day. When you're in a conversation and you say the word in your own language, think the word in your new language. Visualize it and pronounce it (you don't have to do this out loud, but if you can then do say it out loud.)

What are some tricks I can use to help me memorize new vocabulary?

Vocabulary Memorization Tricks

Sometime in order to remember a new vocabulary word you need to tie it to something that will help you recall it. A trick used by ancient and medieval scholars is to invent some strange or unusual image, a pun on some oddball phrase in English, a popular song; anything. The more bizarre the better. When you need to recall that word, very often you can use the image or wordplay or whatever you've mentally attached to that word as a way to access it. With a little practice, it's remarkable how effectively you can use this technique to recall otherwise unfamiliar words. Gradually, you'll learn to remember the new words without the need to use the memory aid.

Should I buy ready-made flash cards or make my own?

Making Your Own Flash Cards

Although you can buy ready-made flash cards in many languages, it's probably best if you make your own. The process of creating the cards, of writing down the words and their meaning can help you internalize them and learn them more quickly. You can also buy blank flash cards, but here's another trick. Go to drug store or office supply store and buy two or three packs of one hundred 4" x 6" index cards, unruled. Then take these to a local copy shop and ask them to cut these cards in half vertically and laterally. This turns one hundred index cards into four hundred cards that are the perfect size for flash cards. Most copy centers or print shops will do this very inexpensively.

How do people learn new words?

How People Learn New Words

Unfortunately, learning vocabulary is often the most time-consuming part of learning a new language. How much time is required depends on where you begin and where you want to go. For instance, if you are an English speaker who wants to learn German, you will find that there are words in German that strongly resemble words you already know in English. For instance, the German verb stoppen means “to stop”. Humans remember things in one of two ways. The first is repetition; you hear something or read it enough times and you'll recall it. The other is by association. If someone asked you to draw the outline of France, you'd probably find it difficult. But if they asked you to draw the outline of Italy, you'd have an easier time. Why? Because like most people, you know that Italy resembles the shape of a boot. Try to find things you can associate with the words you are learning to help you remember them. Even if they don't exactly make logical sense, they can help jog your memory until the repetition factor fixes it in your brain.

What can I read to help improve my foreign vocabulary?

Children's Books

For learning basic vocabulary words, children's books are a great place to start. Ask you local librarian about how to find books in the desired language. Dr. Seuss has been translated into practically every living language and at least one dead one (Latin). You can read them alongside the English version if you want, but try to stick to reading them in translation if you can. Comic books in a foreign language are another good choice; each comic book is usually good for at least a couple dozen new words. From there, move up to popular novels. James Bond, romance novels, Louis L'Amour... whatever you fancy. These kinds of books are not exactly written for the brightest of literati, so they make a reasonable challenge for the beginner to intermediate reader and will help you acquire loads of new words.

Which vocabulary words should I try to learn first?

Word Frequency and Vocabulary Study

Most people would be shocked to learn that when linguist Hartvig Dahl studied over one million words of conversations, the twenty most commonly used words constituted 37% of the conversations! This points up an important fact about learning vocabulary. If you learn the one thousand or so most commonly used words in a language you should be able to understand about 80% or more of an average conversation or text. But the second thousand most common words will increase your comprehension by only about ten to fifteen percent at most. So it is important to focus on the most commonly-used words and master them first to get the most mileage out of your vocabulary study.

How do I use flash cards effectively?

How to Use Flash Cards

Flash cards can turn any “down time” into study time. If you're standing in line, waiting for a movie to start, or sitting in a waiting room, whip out your cards and expand your vocabulary. Go through the cards in bunches of ten to twenty. Start by looking at the foreign word first and trying to recall the English meaning. When you can do that perfectly, reverse the process and translate from English to the target language until I know all the words in the stack cold. Keep a stack of cards you've mastered out where you can see it and watch it grow. Watching your “done” stack mount higher and higher is a great little motivator.

How Much Vocabulary Do I Need?

How Much Vocabulary Do I Need?

There are several ways to try and answer this question, but most studies seem to indicate that if you know between 2,000 and 3,000 word in a given language you can function in most any environment. Some of the better studies conducted by teachers of ESL (English as a Second Language) show that foreign students who acquire a vocabulary of the 2,500 most commonly used words in English can handle any university-level academic text. The percentage of technical terms they encounter is less than 1% of the total vocabulary, and even their native English-speaking classmates will probably need to look up many of those words. Once your vocabulary reaches a certain size, you can pick up words by context, or if someone tells you the definition, you'll know enough to understand it. The goal is to acquire a big enough vocabulary that it can build itself.

What is an easy way to build my vocabulary?

Watch TV

Watch television in your new language. See reruns of programs you have already seen in your own language or watch a movie on DVD with subtitles in your new foreign language. It doesn't matter if you don't understand every word, it's important you get the big picture. If you are able to do this, then you can start watching programs you haven't seen yet or watch a movie in a foreign language.

Should I buy a large foreign dictionary or a smaller pocket dictionary?

Using a Pocket Dictionary

When you get started in learning a new language, you might be tempted to go out and buy a great big foreign-English dictionary. But really, all you need to get started is a pocket dictionary. These are roughly the size of a paperback novel or perhaps a little smaller. The beauty of these dictionaries is that they contain the most commonly used words in the language, so about 95% of every word you are likely to need will be there. Besides, you can take it with you and look up the words for those things that are part of your daily surroundings. Imagine you are trying to describe where you live and what you do to a person speaking the language you want to learn, and look up the words you need. It's a great little vocabulary-building game.

Should I get a phrase book?

Phrase Books

Phrase books are written for people who can't speak the language, so should you buy one? Some people who are learning a new language will buy them, but once you learn to form your own sentences the phrase book gets used less and less. Still, they are useful learning tools. A phrase book can form a fascinating puzzle by itself. You can learn a lot about a language by looking at how they put their sentences together. For instance, look at how words are arranged in a question compared to a regular statement. These kinds of mental games can give you a jump on learning how your language is put together. As you learn more about the language, you'll also find that phrase books are a good way to learn idiomatic expressions that will mark you as a competent speaker.

Will knowing a language similar to the one I'm studying be any help?

Using Other Languages to Build Vocabulary

Knowing another language related to the one you're learning will give you an advantage in learning vocabulary. If you know Spanish, you'll have a much easier time learning French or Italian vocabulary than someone who doesn't because all three languages stemmed from Latin and share a lot of similar vocabulary. Those new vocabulary words you are learning in your new language will dramatically shorten the learning curve should you wish to go on and learn another language from the same language family. Even if you go into a completely different language family, the techniques you perfected in learning vocabulary now will serve you well in learning other languages.

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William Pirraglia