How do you learn foreign language vocabulary fast? Let’s talk about the two strategies you need to focus on if you want to learn your foreign language vocabulary quickly and efficiently.
The first strategy that you need to learn foreign language vocabulary fast is called spaced repetition or SRS. Spaced repetition is really just a fancy way of saying that you see your more difficult concepts more often and the words and phrases that you learn fastest, you don’t see as much.
This is different from how we’re taught to learn foreign language vocabulary because we generally have a whole bunch of flashcards. We go through those flashcards time and time and time and time again. Some of them are easier and kind of get into our brains much quicker. And some of them we just have to really force them into our brains, if we ever can really.
While the original strategy isn’t bad, it is a waste of time because if you’re spending 50 to 75% of your time studying words that you already know, then that’s all that time that you don’t have to really focus on the words that you’re struggling with.
So if you’re used to just going through all the words all the time, how do you make the switch to spaced repetition so that you’re using your time more effectively? The easy answer to that is most modern language learning apps will teach you vocabulary and teach you whatever concepts you’re trying to learn using spaced repetition.
So everything from Anki to Babbel to Drops to Lingvist, basically anything that when you use it, it keeps track of which words you’re responding to really well and which ones you aren’t and shows you the more difficult concepts more often. And if the app doesn’t say that they do that themselves, then it’s easy enough for you to find out.
Just take two words, get one of them right, get one of them wrong, and see if it shows you the same two words the same number of times and with the same consistency. Or see if the one that’s easier for you just kind of falls away and the app doesn’t bother you with it. This strategy will save you a ton of time because while it might feel like you just kind of have to force a difficult word into your brain, consistency really is king and you do not need consistency for vocabulary words that are really easy and almost second nature to you.
So instead of spending a whole hour refreshing the same vocabulary you already know, give that amount of time to more difficult concepts and you’ll learn them a lot quicker because you’re dedicating more study hours to them.
I like to offer you guys suggestions for which language learning resources are best to support any strategy that I’m talking about in a given video, but this particular strategy is actually really common across most language learning resources that offer you practice with your vocabulary.
That are some apps that don’t necessarily do this, and they’ll just like give you five words and make you go through each of those five words three times. But the easiest way to know if any particular resource is going to have space repetition or if it’s just going to give you the normal flashcard method that’s really not the most efficient, time-wise, just take a look around at the resource and see if it looks fairly modern. If it still looks the same as it did when it was built in like 2000, the strategy hasn’t changed, which means it isn’t updated with space repetition or any modern-day strategies that are available in a zillion other current language learning resources that have been built in the last like 15 years.
And you’ll definitely know if you’re using a resource that isn’t using spaced repetition if you find yourself bored learning the same words over and over and over and over and over again, it gets really boring. Which gets language learners checked out really fast. And that’s a bonus, that spaced repetition will also keep you engaged in your language learning because you’re consistently challenging yourself and not just rehashing the same stuff over and over again.
Learning with context
And the second strategy to keep in mind, if you want to learn foreign language vocabulary fast, is learning within context. Going back to the flashcard idea, there’s a difference when you’re using physical flashcards, which is fine as long as you’re doing it appropriately, there’s a difference between using flashcards with just the translation on the front and the English on the back, and you flip back and forth and just like learn the word and its translation.
There’s a difference between that and learning like a sentence and filling in the blanks of the sentence. Or for example, if you find a certain word when you’re reading a book or listening to a song or any number of things, and you take the sentence that you heard and you put it on a flashcard and you try to remember what it is that they’re talking about, that’ll make a huge difference. And here’s why.
When we are treating foreign language vocabulary just as a translation of our native language words, that is all our brain will recognize it as. Basically what you’re teaching your brain to do is keep a file cabinet of glossary terms. So, for example, instead of hearing the word árbol and automatically registering it as a tree, like in your mind, in your thoughts, in your imagination, you might hear the word árbol and think, “what does that mean in English? It means tree. Okay. How do I respond?” And you have to go through a whole translation with like all of these different thought processes, which, (a), is really, really difficult, and, (b), it really just takes too long.
On the other hand, if you have yourself like a picture book with a picture of a tree and you have like “ella le gusta el árbol” and you recognize that as “there’s a girl and there’s a tree and she likes the tree”, it makes it so much easier for your brain to put two and two together and help it to understand: “that’s a tree, and sometimes we refer to it as an árbol”.
When I talk to language learners and I talk to my clients, I always recommend context, context, context, context. Because learning words just as translations of English words or whatever your native language is, while that might work if you’re just testing yourself to translate, it’s not going to help you actually understand or use the language because you’re just teaching your brain a collection of words and not a collection of words that interacts with each other and you conjugate them and you use them to communicate certain things and you’re basically breathing life into the language that you’re learning.
And just like with spaced repetition, learning foreign vocabulary through context is going to make it much more interesting and much more engaging. So you’re less likely to get bored, which will help you stay consistent.
So what kind of resources should you look for if you want to find context for your foreign language vocabulary? This is anything where you are learning the language in a natural way. This means reading stories. This means listening to audiobooks, this means having conversations. So for example, if you’re using Trancy to watch YouTube videos and you get the subtitles and you learn a new word in a YouTube video, learning a new word within the context of a video you’re watching, within the context of a sentence or a story, is going to be much easier for your memory to grasp than just a single word with a translation.
Because when you have the context, it reminds your brain of what it was doing and what you were thinking about, and maybe a story that you were enjoying or any number of things. Or if you enjoy reading something like Olly Richard’s Short Stories books, those are really interesting because they are really just short stories created to teach you new vocabulary and help you to gain that contextual understanding of the language.
Basically, your focus here is to make sure that you’re picking up new vocabulary in a natural way where there are no orphan words, which means the words are not by themselves, they’re within a phrase or a sentence or some other form of context. This will help you learn foreign language vocabulary fast because it gives your brain something to stick its teeth into.
Now that you know the best way to learn vocabulary in a foreign language, the best way to find resources to support these strategies is by using my free language app search. All you gotta do is choose your language, choose your level, and choose a skill that you want to use to pick up vocabulary and you’ll get a ton of resources to learn your target language doing just that.