Some thoughts on effective learning of foreign language vocabulary

By | February 5, 2018

(The other day a friend casually asked me about how I learn vocabulary words in Japanese, and at the time I could only give a fairly simple answer. So I thought about it some more and decided to write an article about effective learning of foreign language vocabulary.)

Regardless of what foreign language you are learning, memorizing and retaining vocabulary words is one of the key skills required in order to get beyond a certain level. In this article, I’ll give some ideas and suggestions to help out with this.

Certainly, repetition is important, and (with some exceptions) the more you practice a word the better you will learn it. But if you are reading this, I am sure you are like nearly all people on the planet and have limited time so you can’t afford to practice a word 100 times before getting it.

One thing I’ve found is that experiences, especially emotionally-charged ones, will help words stick in your head. For example, if you accidentally pissed somebody off and they screamed baka (=idiot) at you, even if you didn’t know the word you would probably get some idea of the meaning, and also wouldn’t likely forget it soon (even after hearing it only once!).

This is a little tricky to apply to studying, because by definition nearly almost all studying is quite dry and lacking emotion, even when using a well-made app or textbook. Of course, as with the above example the best way is to get involved with real people who speak the language. But that may cost money and time, \ so you can still try to study Japanese (or whatever foreign language you are studying) with things you enjoy: manga, anime, novels, movies, etc. For this like this, there will be a certain amount of emotional involvement (just don’t use subtitles!). Try make sure to use a variety of genres, especially those that are close to real-life situations.

Another thing you can do is employ general memorization tricks and techniques. For example, associate words with a picture or link together words in an interesting way that helps retention. An old friend once told me a good one for the word yume (which means dream): “you may dream“. Yes, it’s cheesy but I bet you’ll remember that word tomorrow if someone asked you.

However, rather than tricks like that (which I think can actually make recall take longer than more natural memorization), I think its even better to try and learn how foreign words are put together; many words are not random sets of letters, but rather have a certain logic to them. For example the word buji (meaning “safe” “or healthy”) is written 無事, using the characters for “nothing” and “thing”. If you study those characters, you’ll learn that 無 is not only pronounced “bu”, it is sometimes pronounced “mu”. So, let’s say that later you hear the word “mujin”. If you are lucky, you’ll guess that the “mu” that means nothing (無) and the jin comes from “person” (人). You’d be correct: the word “mujin” does mean “unmanned”, essentially a place with no people. Of course, there are other characters that are pronounced “mu” and “jin”, but the more you know, the better you have a chance to guess the meaning yourself. This doesn’t apply to only listening, but also reading words you have never seen. And not only will you be more likely to understand it, you’ll be more likely to remember it too.

Another thing is that you should think about is why you are learning words in the first place. If your goal is just to learn a bunch of words for a test, then you have a clear goal and a clear set of success criteria. You can just cram, pass the test, and then forget everything afterwards.

However if you primary goal is to actually be able to use these words (both passively when listening/reading and actively when speaking/writing), then you should take your time learning them. You should also try to learn words you are likely to have an opportunity to use in some form, ideally actively. If there is a low chance you will actually use the words in the near future, learning random vocab words may be a waste of your time (the exception being is if you have amazing retention naturally, or happen to be very young). A good time to go crazy learning random Japanese vocab words would be right before a brief trip to Japan, or even a longer-term stay. Fortunately, even without traveling there is an easy way to practice using nearly any word, expression, or grammar pattern: simply start a daily blog in that foreign language and choose topics related to work groups you have been studying (just posting random vocabulary lists won’t help as much).

Another thing is that you shouldn’t be afraid to forget words. Forgetting will happen to you, just like it happens to everyone. When it does, give your self a few quick seconds to try and remember. But if you can’t, try to get creative and  express yourself as best you can with the words you do remember. If you succeed in conveying the concept, the person you are speaking will sometimes use the word you were searching for, and moments like this will give an extra kick to your brain to remember it next time.

The great thing about learning words is the more you learn, the better you can afford forgetting a few of them. If you are not in the middle of a conversation, don’t be afraid to look up the word two or three times (or even more). But for the words you find you have difficult remembering, you can try to use some sort of memory trick.

Learning grammar also will help you decode and retain vocab words. Take for example the tongue-twister: 目立ちたがり屋さん (medachitagariyasan). Without knowing grammar or any words it is built from, it’s one massive incomprehensible chain of letters. But even just with knowledge of the -tagaru verb form, you can start to separate it into pieces (medachi-tagari-ya-san). I won’t go into the entire explanation of this term here, but the word means “a person who likes attention”.

While learning vocab words from textbooks, apps, or flash cards can be great, ultimately they are just a crutch to get you past a certain point. To become fluent, you need to develop the skills to pick up words on your own, understand them, and then integrate them into your working vocabulary. This requires a set of other prerequisites, including grammar knowledge and reading/listening skills. One way you can actively practice some of these skills is by setting a goal of a certain number of new words to pick out and remember when listening to a podcast (say 5), and once you are done look up the words, and maybe even use them in a sentence or two. Pausing the audio and looking then up midway can help too, but I if you force yourself to keep the words in your head until the end (which ideally isn’t more than 10-15 minutes away when you first start this) I think it will train your retention skills better.

Having said that, at some point in our lives, some of us will have to learn a bunch of words quickly in order to meet some important goal. In cases like this, to addition to what I said above, I also recommend to try and learn how you learn. Basically, figure out how often you remember, and how often you forget. By numerically tracking your progress learning words, you can find patterns and weaknesses and adjust your studying to compensate for these. If nothing else, you can develop reasonable expectations as to how long it will take you to learn a group of words, and how well you can expect to retain them. I think you’ll find your performance memorizing words is more predictable than you might think. A fun experiment to do is make a list of words you learned “live” (i.e. in conversations with native speakers) or those you learned in a dry study setting, and then see which group you remember more or a week or two later.

Update: Kurt provided a very useful comment detailing some of the techniques he uses, check it out below if interested.


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4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on effective learning of foreign language vocabulary

  1. Leap250

    When I transitioned to self-study (after I’d finished my required units of foreign language in uni) I figured I could just pick up where our class left off. We were using Genki I/II at the time too so there was a clear path, so to speak, as to how I could proceed. But outside of the classroom setting I realized right away that I’d become largely dependant on rote memorization when it came to learning vocabulary because it was the only way I could be prepared for pop quizzes. Now, without tests to in a way sort-of incentivize me, committing random words to memory didn’t seem as effective for meanymore (that or my years in uni had conditioned me to just memorize as much as I can in the short-term only so I can recall them for an exam)

    I’ve since turned my focus to learning grammar while continuing to expose myself to different media. I found that having my e-dictionary with me at all times as I do so: whether it’s listening to a radio show, watching a web broadcast, or when I try to translate magazine interviews; has done me wonders in retaining vocabulary, little by little, owing simply to how often they get used. Though in that regard I suppose it also helps that the content I peruse is in the same general vein.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the interesting comment. I agree that grammar is a key thing that helps to pick up vocab words!

  2. Kurt

    Some great points and tips.

    (Sorry this comment got kind of long.)

    I build my vocabulary in several ways, in conjunction with Anki and of course, more importantly, real life 😉

    For input I use a combination of news articles (usually of the 暮らし / lifestyle variety, eg. not politics or business), manga, anime, language exchange partners (and friends/family), and short 30-minute type documentaries on Japanese TV (something like “Document 72 Hours” from NHK or 食彩の王国 on TV Asahi), using the CC subtitles. (For those outside Japan who have Netflix the show Japanese Style Originator is good, and has no English subs.) Needless to say all this media serves to reinforce known vocabulary as well. So good bang for your yen. I never just ingest a bunch of random words, and likewise I never import a pre-made “Core xxx” or whatever deck into my Anki. Context is incredibly important, and I dare say that for a large number of the words in my Anki, I can still remember where (or from whom) I initially got that word from.

    As for how I study these, I use several Anki decks of varying purpose:

    1) “Kanji”
    – I have a deck almost exclusively of compounds I come across where I don’t know one, two, or all of the individual characters, or where the reading is slightly different than normal (ex: 修行). I’m testing on the reading so this is mostly for my receptive ability, but naturally repeated exposure puts those words in my long-term memory over time.

    2) “Simple nouns”
    – There are tons of words for everyday things or things related to my interests/hobbies/job where producing a sentence would be relatively easy, but I just don’t know (or have trouble remembering) the keyword. An example would be English grammatical terms (sometimes necessary when I’m trying to explain English to someone on Hello Talk, for example, which I try to do exclusively in Japanese to help my written production) like 定冠詞 / definite article. I have a deck which shows me the English I need to reproduce the Japanese.

    3) “Sentences and Phrases”
    – Like many I believe the best way to learn vocabulary is with example sentences, ideally ones I’ve created rather than just copying verbatim from somewhere. However, partly due to limited time (the time it takes to create these sentences, and the time it takes to review them) I make an assessment of how likely I’m to use this word in conversation, or where having a sentence (or a short phrase) will help me to solidify common collocations or nuanced meanings between words with similar means (eg. 状態, 状況, 有様, and other words to mean “state” or “condition”. At this point in my studies this deck is less filled with sentences meant to learn vocabulary than to learn more colloquial and conversational ways to say what I want to say.

    4) “Verbs”
    – These tend to be verbs that I’ve encountered that don’t seem to me critical to everyday conversation but that I still want to know and occasionally use in conversation. I create a simple Japanese/Engilsh equivalent card, and then a card going the other way with a short phrase, eg. for 漂う(ただよう), I have 香りが漂っている. That way if I later discover (or deem) I should try to use this verb in conversation, I’ll have half my sentence already built.

    5) “Adjectives”
    All those ~しい adjectives and ~臭い words go here, with short phrases like 青臭い考え that I can use in various sentence structures I already know, similar to Verbs above.

    One minor thing: where you wrote “…you’ll learn that 事 is not only pronounced “bu”…”, I think you wanted to write 無.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks Kurt, great comment with good info! Good to get more data from someone who is more actively ‘in the field’.

      Also thanks for the correction, I fixed that.


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