Whether it is in a foreign language or in a specific lexical field of your own language, that you are not familiar with, it is hard to learn new words, especially in the long run. The scope of this article focuses on assimilating words in a foreign language, however you can use most of these tips if you have decided to learn some obscure terms related to hedge finance or nautical science by heart. Good luck!
1. Flash cards
This technique is quite well known by now, yet it is such an efficient tip that I can recommend everyone to start with these. Their main advantages are that they are cheap and don’t take much time. Get yourself some small rigid cards you can write 4 or 5 words on. Write the translation in the back of them and check your knowledge every now and then. You should have these cards on you all the time and use each dead time to swot – red traffic light, lift, underground, etc. After a few days, these words will have seared on your memory!
2. Read a lot
Anything and everything. If you like corny love stories, go for them. If you are into tabloids, that’s fine as well, after all it’s not about the content, but the words. Look out for signposts or ads in the streets, words are everywhere and the meanings of those are usually easy to guess. Even better, if you read about the same topic in your own language and in the language you are learning, you mind will naturally make parallels between the two of them, helping you to learn key words without even looking them up in a dictionary!
3. Watch TV and play video games!
I am aware it is not everyone’s cup of tea to spend time reading books or even magazines. If you are hooked on visual media, then keep on doing it! Now that you know your favourite TV series by heart and know who says what and when, switch the subtitles on and compare the translation with the original text. Would you not love to possess House’s cynical skills in Italian? Not to mention you will build up a large database of rare medical terms. Likewise, consider stop playing your video games in your own language – did you check the settings? Most localised versions, especially in Europe, can be set in French, Spanish, English, Italian and German. By playing Gran Turismo 5 in German, I can now buy everything I need for my car (the real one) without thinking twice.
4. Don’t learn too much
Yes, learning is meant to be fun – you realise it after your teenage years. Better learn one word today and remember it than learning ten by principle and having forgotten them the very next day. Know your own rhythm and adapt yourself to it. If you had a horrid day and don’t feel like learning Polish, then just don’t! You will learn better tomorrow and, more importantly, you will remember the words you learn.
5. Use your new words
Learning new words is fine but if you do not use them, they will rust and fall into oblivion. Just like a car, drive it every once in a while and you will hold on to it forever. So, let’s assume you’ve learned three new words this morning. Challenge of the day: place them in a conversation in before tomorrow. Not only will you have to think of these words the whole day, but you will also have to utter them and use them in context. This is a great opportunity to check if are able to do both properly. If you have the chance to go abroad you will most likely even get some feedback about how you used the word!
Here are five more tips I can give you on how to learn and retain new vocabulary.
6. Be active on the Internet
If you are stuck for foreign interlocutors, then there is only one place you can go where you are guaranteed to find people from all over the world: the www. As I wrote last week, you need to practise if you want to remember. Are you a regular member of rugby games forums? How about checking what is being written in other countries – in other languages? What do the XV de France supporters say about the All Blacks? You will be confronted to a lot of colloquial French (and, granted, grammar mistakes too), but you still get to speak your mind on there – and in French!
7. Listen to music
This is probably my favourite way of learning. Being a big music fan, I can listen to the same song or CD for hours. Needless to say, after a few times you know most of the songs by heart and, of course, the lyrics. Do not hesitate to listen to the song while reading the text. Some singers do not articulate much and it would definitely help you making out the words. It is also nice to know what your favourite singers sing, even though you may be somewhat disappointed…
8. Focus on funny words
You cannot learn every single word in the dictionary, so take that off your “to-do” list. Instead of going crazy trying to read your Vox through, just pick words that appeal to you. Some words are easier to remember because you can picture them easily, i.e. unusual combination of letter. Some other words can be hilarious false-friends; these are not easy to forget! One example that led to more than one misunderstanding is the German word “Pute”, which means “turkey.” The same word in French has a completely different meaning…
9. Play games on the Internet
It’s free, it’s fun and it’s educational. What more can you ask for? Crosswords, memory games, hangman, the list is endless! Instead of taking your 15-minute break gazing aimlessly at Facebook (I know you do it), go for a quick spelling game. It’s a better time investment and a very good way to unwind your brains. You will find plenty of websites offering such activities, but here is a good place to start.
10. Be creative
The nine previous points are all tricks that have worked for me, but you could very well find other ways of learning and remembering words. Each of us has different recipes. I know some who stick pieces of paper on the wall. Some record series of words and listen to them over and over. I like funny associations. I used to mix up the German words “Leder” (leather) and “Leber” (liver). Quite fortunately the word “Feder” (feather) is semantically similar to leather and helps me remembering what is what – leather/feather – Leder/Feder. Do you see the analogy? Bear in mind the best mnemonic devices are the silliest ones!