Six Tips for More Effective Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning

Foreign-Language-Vocabulary-Learning-RememberEverythingOrgLearning a foreign language is one the most rewarding and beneficial learning tasks I can think of. Even if you only have the time to learn the basics, you get such a boost in cultural understanding and ability to move around in a foreign land. As of today, I am fluent in three languages, and have learned two more to a level where I can express myself and get everything I need in daily life. Ideally, you want to learn a foreign language in a country where it is spoken, however most people initially encounter their first foreign language in school.

No matter where you are, one of the most important tasks is to build a reasonably large vocabulary fast, so that you express yourself, and use more natural learning resources to further improve your learning.

To this end, here are six tips to help you speed up your vocabulary learning, no matter whether you want to learn English, Chinese, French, German, Thai, or any other foreign language:

  1. Use a flashcard program with spaced repetition and automatic scheduling of reviews. You are going to learn at least a few thousand words in the foreign language of your choice. Most of these words, you will forget again, unless you use them at least a few times. This is easy enough for the most frequent words such as I, you, play, and, and so on. For less frequent, yet essential words it is not so easy to keep track and use them often enough to make them stick. What’s more, you want to avoid always having to review the easy words along with the difficult ones. Ideally, a flashcard program should keep track of which words are easy for you, and which ones you need to practice more. Modern flash card software does just that. It automatically keeps track of every word you have learned and shows you a word just before you are likely going to forget it.
    Mnemosyne-Anki-Flashcard-AppsMy two favorite choices
    are the free open source programs Mnemosyne and Anki. Both work on Windows, Linux, and Mac. Anki is also available for most smartphones and tablets, including iPhone, iPad, and Android. If you want to practice your vocabulary on more than one device, definitely check out Anki. It allows you to effortlessly synchronize your vocabulary cards across different devices and platforms.
  2. If you want to increase your active vocabulary (e.g. expressing yourself in a foreign language), spent the bulk of your time using the words, rather than just learning their meaning. You practice active vocabulary by saying words and/or writing them down. If you are using a flashcard program, test yourself by looking at the words in your native language and trying to say and write the foreign language words.
  3. Don’t learn words with a similar or opposite meaning together because this tends to lead to confusion as to which word means what. In cognitive psychology this is also called interference.
    1. Don’t learn synonyms such as big and large together.
    2. Don’t learn antonyms such as concave and convex, big and small, etc. together.
    3. Don’t learn words which belong to the same group together:
      • Items of clothing such as short, trousers, socks
      • Furniture
      • Months of the year
      • Fork, knife, spoon
      • etc.
  4. Don’t learn words which sound or look similar together. So don’t try to learn beside and besides at the same time.
  5. Learn words, as they would appear in a natural story. Here is an example: Tuesday evening, I looked out of my bedroom window and saw a monkey climbing up a coconut palm tree…This sentence includes a day of the week, an animal, and a fruit, but not all of the days of the week, ten fruits, and 20 animals.
  6. Keyword-Mnemonic-RememberEverythingOrgUse mnemonics such as the keyword mnemonic to learn words you find hard to remember. For most words, using them a few times is enough. However, you may find that some words are going to use up most of your time because they just don’t want to stick. The keyword mnemonic is a wonderful tool to fight those time leeches. It goes like this:
    1. Pause, and take a look at the foreign language word.
    2. Write it down and pronounce it.
    3. Try to find a keyword or phrase in your native language which sounds similar. For example, let’s say, you want to learn the German word Flasche (bottle in English). Flasche looks a bit like flash and is almost pronounced the same way. Only the “a “ sounds more like in bark than in flash.
    4. Visually connect the keyword (representing the foreign language word) with its meaning. In the example above, imagine a flashing beer bottle. Try to really see the flashing beer bottle, then say the word in German: Flasche.
    5. The next time, you see a bottle, and wonder how to say that in German, chances are, you will remember the flashing beer bottle – oh – Flasche.

    For more info on the keyword method, please check my post The Mnemonic Keyword Method. More info on mnemonics in general can be found in the article Mnemonics.

I am using these six tips every day in my foreign language learning, and they have helped me to really cut down on the time it takes to learn new words. Besides, flashcard programs relieve me of the scheduling burden, and the keyword mnemonic is really a lot of fun.

I am looking forward to your comments. What is your favorite vocabulary learning strategy?


  1. Wozniak, Piotr. “Formula for Success in Learning.” Supermemo, 1998.
  2. Mondria, J.A., and B. Wiersma. “Receptive, Productive, and Receptive+ Productive L2 Vocabulary Learning: What Difference Does It Make.” In Vocabulary in a Second Language: Selection, Acquisition and Testing, edited by Paul Bogaards and Batia Laufert, 79–100, 2004.
  3. Nation, I. S. P. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. 1st ed. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  4. Schneider, Vivian I., Alice F. Healy, and Lyle E. Bourne Jr. “What Is Learned Under Difficult Conditions Is Hard to Forget: Contextual Interference Effects in Foreign Vocabulary Acquisition, Retention, and Transfer.” Journal of Memory & Language 46, no. 2 (2002): 419–440.
  5. Tinkham, Thomas. “The Effects of Semantic and Thematic Clustering on the Learning of Second Language Vocabulary.” Second Language Research 13, no. 2 (1997): 138–163.

3 thoughts on “Six Tips for More Effective Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning

  1. I really appreciate your effort to explain some of the most effective techniques for language learning. Right now I am working on German, and I would like to study there in college as well. Do you have any extra tips on how to remember a gender of a specific german word?

    Thanks in advance

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