1. Use a Dictionary and a Thesaurus to Help You
Using a dictionary or thesaurus is an excellent way to find new words to add to your vocabulary. You can use a dictionary in virtually any language use scenario. Trying to come up with the right Spanish word to use to tell your friend not to go outside because of the hail? Open up an English-Spanish dictionary and it will tell you that the word you’re looking for is granizo. Worried about what to wear when the Spanish language weather forecast predicts un aguacero? Look it up, then go get your rain boots!
If you’re a beginning language learner, you’ll probably want to start out with a bilingual dictionary, which contains English translations of words in your target language. As you become more advanced, you might choose to move on to a monolingual dictionary, which is a dictionary written entirely in the language you’re trying to learn.
Although dictionaries can be a very quick way for you to find new words to add to your daily practice lists, watch out! Most dictionaries don’t give you information about how words are used or about the broader social implications of using them. So make sure you combine dictionary use with plenty of meaningful language practice.
2. Make Reading a Habit
One of the most effective ways to improve your vocabulary size is to make reading a habit. Reading will not only introduce you to a lot of new words, but will also show you how those words are used in context. And because having a larger vocabulary size also improves your reading comprehension, you’ll be able to keep learning more and more words as you read!
Here are some hints about the best ways to learn vocabulary through reading:
Practicing your reading has all kinds of other benefits, when learning a language, too. So there’s really no reason not to crack open a book!
3. Read a Variety of Things
Reading a variety of different things is another great way to sharpen your vocabulary skills. Reading different types of text exposes you to different types of words. On top of that, it also exposes you to different uses of familiar words.
Try these ideas for reading various types of texts:
Remember, as you read, you’ll still want to take notes! You’ll have to practice all the new words you meet by taking up a new type of reading!
4. Subscribe to a “Word of the Day” Feed
Following a “Word of the Day” feed is an excellent way to come in contact with new words. These feeds usually give you a word’s definition, and may come with information that can help you deepen your vocabulary knowledge (e.g., the history of a word or examples of how it’s used). You can find “word of the day” feeds on most social media sites, but they are also available via email. And if you’re a hard-copy kind of person, maybe try a desktop day-to-day tear-away calendar!
Now that we’ve talked about some of the good ways to meet new words, let’s talk a little about how you might go about memorizing their meanings!
5. Make Connections between Words
Making connections between words you already know and words you’re trying to learn is one of the best ways to remember new vocabulary. This is much more effective than trying to memorize a new word all on its own, since the human brain is not great at remembering lists of unconnected facts. Ever try to memorize a list of phone numbers, or a list of strangers’ names? It’s really hard, right? This is because information without context doesn’t stick in our minds very well.
There are several ways you can connect new words to words you already know to help you remember them:
These are some of the ways you can link meanings of words together. But there are other ways you can link new words to old ones. Interested in some of these methods? Check out strategies 6-8 in this list for more tricks!
6. Learn about the Origins of Words
Learning about etymology, or the historical origins of a word, can help you remember a word’s meaning and make links between English words and words in other languages. Knowing a word’s origin can also act as a mnemonic device – connecting a word with a story about that word to help you remember it.
Let’s look at an example:
The Spanish word quebrar (to break), might be hard for English speakers to remember. Unlike some Spanish words that clearly parallel English words, like colección (collection), there aren’t any obvious connections between English words and quebrar.
But the origin of quebrar can give you a hint! Quebrar comes from the Latin word crepare, which means ‘to crack.’ Several English words are derived from crepare. For example:
Learning word origins like this can help you make connections between a word you know and a word you’re learning, and help you remember the meanings of new words.
Where can you find information about the origins of words? Start with a dictionary! Most basic dictionaries have at least some information on word origins. If you want to learn more, track down an etymological dictionary! My personal favorite English etymology dictionary is Etymonline, a free online resource created over the last couple decades as a labor of love by a single very passionate individual!
7. Make Use of Mnemonics
A mnemonic device is a tool that helps you remember something that might otherwise be hard to recall. Mnemonic devices are one of the best tricks to help you remember the meanings to new words.
Here are a few mnemonic techniques you can use to remember new vocabulary words:
Create a song or a rhyme
Creating a song or rhyme is a very good mnemonic device for remembering new words. When you were in kindergarten, you probably learned to sing your ABC’s. The alphabet song is great for learning letters in sequence, because adding a song and some rhymes makes information much easier to retain.
You can find vocabulary songs on YouTube for a number of languages. Here’s an example of a playlist of songs to learn Korean words, or this list of songs to help with French vocab. Set these songs on repeat and jam out to them while you do your dishes, walk to work, or even sing along in the shower!
An even better way to remember vocabulary words is to write your own songs and rhymes. The time you spend thinking about your words, and trying to get them to rhyme, the better you’ll remember them!
Use nonsense or “silly” phrases
Sometimes connecting a word or phrase to an inside joke or silly phrase can help you remember its meaning. Let’s look at an example:
Trying to get your Hebrew pronouns straight? Remembering the phrase “who is he and he is she” can help you remember that הוּא (pronounced “hoo”) translates to English “he,” while הִוא (pronounced “he”) translates to English “she!”
Make other sorts of word connections!
Several of the methods on our list could be classified as mnemonics. For example, making linkages between words, recognizing word variations, and learning the origins of words, are all mnemonic devices. Try them out today!
8. Recognize Words in all their Variations
Recognizing a word in all its variations can help you learn a whole group of words all at once. If you learn one word, you may often notice that that word is used as the root, or base form, of many other words. Let’s look at an example.
Imagine you’ve just learned the English word fish. If you poke around in a dictionary, you’ll see that there are all sorts of words in English that use the word fish as a base (or a root, in grammatical terms). For example fisherman, fishing, fishy, fishhook, fishing rod, goldfish, fishery, fishpond, and more! Learning the single word, fish, gives you hints about all these other words.
You can do this in reverse as well! If you’re presented with a long or difficult word, breaking it down into the smaller words it’s made from can help you guess or remember its meaning.
Imagine you’re trying to learn the Navajo word áchį́į́shnííʼ which refers to the nasal septum (the piece of your nose between your nostrils). If you already know the more basic vocabulary words, áchį́į́h ‘nose’ and ałnííʼ ‘center’ then the meanings of each of those words can give you a hint about the meaning of áchį́į́-sh-nííʼ.
Another way to make your word-learning more efficient is to learn some of the most common ways the language you’re learning creates new words out of old ones. Here are some examples of ways this is done in English:
If you start recognizing similar patterns in the language you’re learning, you’ll start to be able to guess at the meanings of new words before you even read their definitions!
9. Use Flashcards to Learn New Languages
Flashcards are an excellent way to learn new words and to remember them, for two reasons.
Reason 1: Practicing with flashcards allows you to space out your learning.
Research shows that if you’re trying to learn new facts (like chien means dog in French), one of the best ways to do that is to do a little practice every day, rather than trying to do all your learning at once. Learning words through spaced repetition is a good way to convince your brain that the information you’re learning isn’t just going to be important once, but repeatedly.
You can find decks of digital flashcards online or in language learning apps. A good digital flashcard platform will probably have unique features that make it superior to learning words using physical flashcards. If you study a language with Mango, our review system can help space out your learning of all sorts of things, including vocabulary.
If you’re a teacher who uses the Mango Languages app with your students, then you already know that Spaced Repetition is built into the app’s review system. When your students use the app, it tracks what words and grammar points they haven’t seen in a while and reinforces them with practice opportunities.
However, if you choose to use a service like this, you might be missing out on the second major benefit of studying vocabulary with flashcards, which is that…
Reason 2: The act of writing out flashcards will help you learn words more deeply
Writing out flashcards means that you will spend more time thinking about each word you learn. This can help you learn them more deeply – when you make your own flashcards by hand, you connect a word with its spelling, the way you move your hand when writing it, and even the room you are sitting in when you make it. Each of these steps will help build stronger connections in your mind between a new word and its meaning. So if you really want to get the most bang for your buck when using flashcards, try making your own!
10. Play Games with Words
Playing word games is a good way to cement vocabulary words into your mind. Word games like crossword puzzles, word searches, scrabble, boggle, or bananagrams can be fun ways to get in your daily practice.
Games are fun. This is the number one thing that makes them effective language learning tools. The more time you spend engaging with the words you’re trying to learn, the better you’ll remember them, and the best way to keep yourself engaged is to keep having fun!
But playing word games also provides you with other benefits.
When you do puzzles based on written words, you practice your ability to recall vocabulary words and their spelling. While other memorization techniques might require you to recognize the spelling of a word, letter-based word games like scrabble will make you practice putting the letters in the right order yourself.
Research shows that crossword puzzles are a particularly good vocabulary-learning game, because you need to practice not only word spellings but word meanings as well! You may also find that crossword puzzles prompt you to practice with less common or more unexpected uses of new words, since sometimes puzzles will try to trick you!
11. Regularly Take Vocabulary Tests
Regularly taking vocabulary tests can be a great way to learn and remember new vocabulary. Research has shown that testing yourself on material you’re trying to learn helps you lock it into your memory much better than you would if you were just studying it on your own. This is known as the “testing effect.”
Vocabulary tests can also be used to figure out what words you really know and what words you just recognize. Depending on whose test you’re taking, you may even come across words that are completely unfamiliar!
You can use the results of a vocabulary test to guide your future practice. For example, if you miss a word on a test, you will know to keep it in the study list. On the other hand, if you ace the test, you will know it’s time to add on some fresh words. At Mango, we keep track of what you’ve learned and what you missed for you in our review system. This way, you can be sure that you’ll have a second look at all the new words you learn!
Tests won’t usually teach you vocabulary, but they can help you set learning deadlines for yourself to keep up your learning progress.
12. Check and Edit what you have Written
Writing is a great way to practice using new vocabulary. You can get even more out of the time you spend writing if you go back to check and edit your writing after it’s done. Editing your own writing works well if you want to learn vocabulary, because it allows you to practice using new words in the context of the sorts of sentences you will want to use. This will mean that you will better remember what you’ve written. Try opening up a dictionary or thesaurus to help you find just the right word, or replace a word you use a lot with something more interesting.
Be careful though! Just like when using a dictionary or thesaurus to learn new words, you’ll want to make sure that your editing decisions line up with how words are used naturally in the language you’re learning. If you really want to double-check your writing, it’s always a good idea to have a native speaker read over the final product!
One way to find a native speaker who can review your work is to…
13. Enroll in a Writing Course
Enrolling in a writing course is one of the best things to do if you want to increase your vocabulary through writing. A writing course can provide you with structure and give you access to a teacher who can help you to improve your language skills. Here are a few different ways taking a writing course can help you learn vocabulary:
14. Practice New Words in Conversation
Practicing using new words in conversation is perhaps the most important step in building your vocabulary. You will always be able to recognize more words than you can actively use in conversation, but your job as a language learner is to close the gap between words you recognize and words you use as much as possible.
Being able to actively use a new word in conversation is the ultimate test of whether or not you know that word.
Like writing, speaking is a productive language activity. Any words you use in conversation will have to be part of your active vocabulary, meaning that you have to not only recognize them, but also be able to use them spontaneously. However, a conversation goes by much more quickly than writing.
If you’re writing you can pause for a moment to remember a tricky word, but when you’re speaking you don’t usually have that sort of time. If you can’t come up with the word (and fast), someone else could start talking, and you might have to try again some other time.
Why is vocabulary important for language learning?
Vocabulary is important for language learning because the size of your vocabulary is directly correlated with language proficiency. Knowing a lot of words can influence how much you understand in conversations, and will also help you to express yourself more precisely and naturally.
Vocabulary is particularly important for reading comprehension. Research has shown that the size of a language learners’ vocabulary is directly related to how well they can understand what they read. This means that language learners with larger vocabularies can get access to more advanced reading materials sooner, and so can take advantage of all these texts have to offer. If you want to take full advantage of all that reading can teach you about language (ex: grammar, vocabulary, culture, etc.), though, you have to first be able to understand what you’re reading
So learning vocabulary can mean you learn everything else about a language faster as well!
What words should you learn first when learning a language?
The words you should learn first when learning a language are the words you will use the most frequently. In every language, there are 2,000 to 3,000 words that everyone will need to learn. You can easily find lists of the most common words in Japanese, or in Farsi, or in whatever language you’re trying to learn. These can give you a great place to start, no matter why you’re learning the language.
Once you’ve learned about 3,000 words, it might be a good idea to take a step back and think about your own particular goals. Do you intend to use this language mostly for business? Mostly for travel? Mostly for watching movies? Start thinking about what words would help you to do the things you want to do the most.
If you want to learn Spanish in order to help patients at the hospital where you work, think about focusing on vocabulary words you’re likely to use in a hospital. Try to find some lists of medical terminology in Spanish (try out Mango’s Medical Spanish course specifically for this!).
If you want to learn Danish to communicate with your family members overseas, on the other hand, you might want to focus first on the sorts of words that you’re likely to use in your own particular day-to-day interactions with them.
Remember that you know what words are important to you better than anyone else does!
Are language learning platforms effective for vocabulary building?
Language learning platforms are great tools for building vocabulary because they help you stick to a daily practice schedule.
If you read our advice about using flashcards above, then you already know that if you want to remember something for longer than a couple of hours or a couple of days, it’s important to space out your practicing. Most language learning platforms, including Mango, are designed to help you do just that. They will bring up words or phrases days or even weeks after the first time you saw them. That will help remind your brain that the knowledge it stored away last week about the meaning of a word is still relevant now, and will probably still be relevant sometime in the future.
Platforms like Mango also follow specific review patterns that tend to produce the best results for learning, like asking you to respond to prompts in a variety of formats (ex: out-loud response, through writing, multiple choice, etc.). Mango’s review system will even keep track of what you missed last time to keep you practicing words and phrases that are particularly tricky for you.
Interestingly enough, vocabulary teaching is often neglected in traditional classroom lessons. Language teachers choose to focus their class time on teaching grammar, practicing speaking, and helping students work through trickier problems rather than focus on vocabulary. As a result, students studying a new language in a traditional classroom may find their vocabulary skills lagging behind their other language skills, unless they start practicing outside the classroom. In light of this, using a language learning platform to help you learn vocabulary is a no brainer!
Burston, J. (2005). Theoretical foundations of crossword puzzle usage in foreign language vocabulary acquisition. Paper presented at the Conference on the Use of New Technologies in Foreign Language Teaching UNTELE, Compiegne (France).
Crystal, D. (1995). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Dizon, G., & Tang, D. (2017). Comparing the efficacy of digital flashcards versus paper flashcards to improve receptive and productive L2 vocabulary. The EUROCALL Review, 25(1).
Fan, M. (2000). How big is the gap and how to narrow it? An investigation into the active and passive knowledge of L2 learners. RELC Journal, 31(2), 105-119. (free read access)
Hilton, H. (2008). The link between vocabulary knowledge and spoken L2 fluency. Language Learning Journal, 36(2), 153–166.
Laufer, B., & Ravenhorst-Kalovski, G. C. (2010). Lexical threshold revisited: Lexical text coverage, learners’ vocabulary size, and reading comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language, 22(1), 15-30.
Li, Z. & Hegelheimer, V. (2013). Mobile-assisted grammar exercises: The effects of self-editing in L2 writing. Language Learning and Technology, 17(3), 135-156. (free read access)
Leow, R. P., & Mercer, J. D. (2015). Depth of processing in L2 learning: theory, research, and pedagogy. Journal of Spanish Language Teaching, 2(1), 69-82.
Milton, J. (2008). Vocabulary uptake from informal learning tasks. Language Learning Journal, 36(2), 227–237.
Murre, J. M. J., & Dros, J. (2015). Replication and Analysis of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve. PLoS ONE, 10(7).
Reichle, E. D., & Perfetti, C. A. (2003). Morphology in word identification: A word-experience model that accounts for morpheme frequency effects. Scientific Studies of Reading, 7(1), 219-238.
Sánchez-Gutiérrez, C. H., Robles-García, P., & Serrano, M. P. (2022). L2 Spanish vocabulary teaching in US universities: Instructors’ beliefs and reported practices. Language Teaching Research, 0(0).
Stæhr, L. S. (2008). Vocabulary size and the skills of listening, reading and writing. Language Learning Journal, 36(2), 139–152.
Verkoeijen, P. P. J., Bouwmeester S., & Camp G. (2012). A Short-Term Testing Effect in Cross-Language Recognition. Psychological Science, 23(6), 567-571. (free read access)
Webb, S. (2021). Research Investigating Lexical Coverage and Lexical Profiling: What We Know, What We Don’t Know, and What Needs to be Examined. Reading in a Foreign Language, 33(2), 278-293. (free read access)
Zarei, A. A., & Keysan, F. (2016). The Effect of Mnemonic and Mapping Techniques on L2 Vocabulary Learning. Applied Research on English Language, 5(1), 17-32.