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12 unusual ways to learn foreign vocabulary words fast and effectively

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What’s the most important aspect of learning a foreign language?

Some say learning grammar is the foundation. Others stress the importance of reading, writing or listening to unfamiliar words and phrases. And of course, speaking the language is fundamental if you want to be fluent in conversation.

But arguably, under-pinning all of these elements, focussing on learning new vocabulary words – nouns, verbs, adjectives, idioms, even slang – is the one thing that will help you across the board when you’re learning a foreign language.

How to learn (and not forget) new foreign vocabulary words quickly  in 2022

Just as there are dozens of different languages you could choose to study, there’s also countless ways to learn and memorize new foreign words.

In 2022 it’s now widely recognised that rote learning, ie using repetition and memorization, rather than reasoning or thinking, is not the most effective way to absorb and remember new facts and information.

Simple memorization can be useful in some circumstances when there are single, immutable answers, ie dates, names, multiplication tables etc.

But when you have thousands of new words to learn in a new language, it’s fruitless to try to learn them all with memorization. Rote learning is only a short-term memory strategy and it doesn’t promote deeper understanding, such as social skills or cultural appreciation of the language.

So here’s our list of 18 methods, hacks and learning strategies to quickly and effectively learn and grow your foreign language vocabulary.

1) Discover the root meanings

Etymology (the study of the origin of words) might sound like a dry and dusty topic, but it’s super relevant when learning new foreign language words.

That’s because many words in different languages share common roots. For example, the English language is thought to contain as many as 150,000 words borrowed from Ancient Greek.

So before you look up a new foreign word in the dictionary, have a guess at what it means.

Are there any prefixes? For instance, the suffixes ‘bien‘ and ‘mal‘ both mean ‘good’ and ‘bad’ respectively in Spanish AND French.

Similarly do you recognise the stem of the word? Is there a suffix at the end of the word?

When you start to understand the nuts and bolts of how the language is structured you will soon start to recognise patterns and connections that will help you to learn new words more easily.

2) Have fun with mnemonics

A mnemonic, if you’ve never heard the term, is simply a pattern, idea or association that helps you remember something. They are like little memory hacks and can consist of words, pictures, sounds.

People have used mnemonics for centuries and as well as being useful for learning vocabulary, they’re useful for memorizing shopping lists, phone numbers, speeches, jokes, poems and much more.

The idea behind mnemonics is that it’s easier to remember meaningful information than it is arbitrary data.

So, to give an example, let’s say you’re trying to learn the French word for hat , “chapeau” (pronounced ‘shapp-oh’). Using a mnemonic word association we could create a mental image of famous comedian Dave Chappelle (‘chappelle’ sounds a bit like chapeau, geddit?) wearing a ridiculous top hat.

mnemonic language-learning

So next time you want to remember the French word for hat, instead of trawling through your memory for meaningless connections you can think of the funny image, which should hopefully jolt your memory in the right way.

It’s important to remember mnemonics are just a tactic, a brain hack if you like. They can be extremely useful, but they’re not supposed to be a primary way of memorising information.

Further resources

There are thousands of ways to construct mnemonics and one of the best resources I’ve used is the language learning program Memrise. It’s awesome, give it a try!

3) Learn phrases instead of single words

We speak in sentences and phrases (unless you’re a caveman!) so it’s sometimes not only easier, but sometimes more instinctive to remember a whole phrase than just a single word.

This works in lots of situations and particularly well when you have phrasal verbs. These are verbs which use more than one word. Examples might be:

  • to catch up
  • to fall down
  • to run away
  • etc

So instead of just learning the verb on its own, you could try learning the phrases

  • catch up on my work
  • fall down the stairs
  • run away from the dog

Sometimes these phrasal verbs translate to a single word in a foreign language, so turning the verb into a phrase makes it easier for the brain to retain words more efficiently

4) Create your own set of digital flashcards

Flashcards are not a new concept and in a way they’re a form of rote learning. It’s a tried and tested method that’s been used by generations of kids, students and adults to aid in learning facts, dates, spellings and many other uses.

In the case of language learning, flashcards usually consists of a set of small paper index cards, and on one side you have a word in English (or whatever your first language is),  on the other side you have the word written in the foreign language.

The problem with traditional flashcards is that they’re time-consuming to create, and once you’ve learnt them you have to throw them away and create a new set.

Thankfully in the 21st century there are lots of ways to easily create your own custom flashcards which instead of using time-consuming pen and paper, can be created and used on your phone, tablet or laptop.

Many of these have hundreds if not thousands of readily downloadable flash card sets for specific languages, specific groups of words,

Further resources

Here’s a list of some of the best flashcard apps in 2022 for learning foreign languages:

5) Be specific – don’t learn random words

One of the worst ways to get bogged down with learning new foreign vocabulary is to slavishly follow  a book, a list or a web page that tells you these are the 50, 100, 500, 1000 most commonly used words, and then proceed to religiously memorize every word on the list.

Reason is, there’s no universal list that’s going to work for everyone. Think about it. If you’re a 19 year old university student, your common words are most likely going to focus around studying and socialising.

But if you’re a mom of 4 kids, or a 70 year old retiree and you’re interested in learning a second language, then you’ll no doubt be using a whole different foreign vocabulary range to the 19 year-old physics undergrad.

You’ll be much more likely to remember a new word if you can use it in context or in your daily life so it makes sense to create your own word lists rather than rely on third-party lists of ‘common words’.

6) Learn the opposite meaning too

Learn foreign words easily
If you learn a new foreign word, make sure to learn the opposite word too Photo: by Vecteezy

Another great tip for aiding the memory is that when you come across a new word, if it’s an adjective or a noun that has a contrary meaning, seek out the word which means the opposite.

It sounds obvious, but pairing opposites not only strengthens the association in your brain, it also doubles your vocabulary immediately.

So, for instance, if you learn the word ‘beautiful’, seek about the word for ‘ugly’. If you learn the word for ‘benefit’, see if you can find the word for ‘disadvantage’. Not only will this speed up your acquisition of new words, it will help enrich your conversations and add more meaning to your every day conversations.

7) Find a song in another language and learn the lyrics

learn lyrics foreign language song

Couple of weeks ago I was on a one hour road trip, looking for something new on my Spotify playlist. Randomly I decided to type in the favorite band of my youthful mid-teens (they shall remain anonymous to preserve my embarrassment…).

Hitting random play, I was amazed that as each song came up, I could recall  90% of the words,  even though 20 or more years had passed since I last played some of these songs.

Despite scientists having many theories, exactly why we can remember decades-old song lyrics, but forget a list of 4 shopping-list items we created a half hour ago is still a mystery.

But this amazing feat of the brain can be used to your advantage if you’re trying to expand your foreign language vocabulary.

All you have to do is find a song that you like, it can be in any genre – pop, hip-hop, jazz, easy listening – the only caveat is that it must have lyrics in the language you’re trying to learn.

Then, search Google for the lyrics (just type ‘song title + lyrics). If you can’t find the lyrics online, get a friend or teacher to transcribe them for you.

Then just print them out, and in your own time, try and learn to sing the whole song, even if you don’t understand every single word.

What will happen is that as you listen, because you already like the song, this will reinforce your ability to remember, and of course recall the lyrics with hardly any effort.

This really is an effortless, easy and pleasurable way to learn new foreign words and quickly build up your vocabulary.

8) Practice foreign words in your native language

This is a simple but effective hack that anyone can use to learn more vocabulary words quickly and effectively. It works particularly well if you’re a relative newbie and only know a few words in the language you’re studying, be it German, Portuguese, Russian or Arabic.

So, if you’re learning the Spanish word for dog, ‘perro’, you might start saying thinks like, ‘good perro’, or ‘oh what a cute little perro’.

Forget about what other people might think at your strange utterances. If they ask, just tell them you’re practicing your new vocabulary and maybe they might learn something too!

9) Play a board game

Best foreign language board games
How about a game of Scrabble in Russian, French, or Spanish to increase your foreign vocabulary skills

Most of the time when we talk about acquiring language skills we think about studying. We think of it as a task. We think about it as work.

However, to truly immerse yourself in a foreign language you need to enjoy the process too. And one of the best ways to do this is by seeking out the best board games for learning new vocabulary words.

Board games are not only fun, they’re a social experience so you can involve friends, family or fellow learners into your learning experience whilst having fun at the same time. Here’s some of the best board games for learning a foreign language.

Kloo Game – the winner of 10 international awards, Kloo turns language learning into a fun card-based board game suitable for children and adults alike.

Scrabble – it’s a timeless classic. Arrange letter tiles to gain points by creating words. Available in 29 languages Scrabble is an excellent fun way to learn new foreign words while you have fun

Spot It – this fast-paced card game, know as Dobble in Europe is great for learning basic vocabulary words on a range of subjects such including animals, clothing, family, foods and more

10) Learn with people (not books or screens)

In a digital world, it’s become easy to achieve or learn virtually anything with a combination of books and online resources. Whether you want to learn how to bake the perfect meringue, change the oil filter on an ageing Toyota Corrola, or understand Ancient Greek philosophy, there are hundreds and thousands of online resources, videos and tutorials to indulge your interest.

But learning a language is something different. Humans are a social species. We’re programmed as babies and infants to naturally, effortlessly acquire language skills by listening to, mimicking REAL PEOPLE, not books or screens.

Stepping away from the laptop, and making the brace step to practice your language skills with a native speaker will massively speed up your learning time – because it’s how we learn best.

Talking to native speakers means you will hear lots and lots of new foreign words you’ve never come across before. And the bonus is you’ll be hearing them in context.

11) Remember more words by writing on paper

writing by hand improves memory
Studies have shown writing by hand improves memory recall, compared to typing

Writing long-hand, with pen and paper is quickly going out of fashion. I mean when was the last time you wrote a letter to a friend or loved one? Me, probably 20 years ago.

The ubiquity of phones, tablets and laptops has meant writing, note-taking, messaging has overwhelmingly moved away from pens and paper to the qwerty keyboard and our phone screens.

But recently, neuroscientists and researchers have been discovering that physically writing things down (compared to tapping out letters on a keyboard) produces vastly different cognitive and memory outcomes in the brain.

A recent study in Japan fond that the process of writing by hand on paper leads to improved memory. The researchers said that writing by hand facilitates unique, complex, spatial and tactile information.

Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai, a neuroscientist at Tokyo University said “actually, paper is more advanced and useful compared to electronic documents because paper contains more one-of-a-kind information for stronger memory recall.

In summarizing Takai said ‘”Our take-home message is to use paper notebooks for information we need to learn or memorize”

Other studies over the years have produced similar findings,

12) Read stories to stimulate the social brain

Just like language acquisition, story-telling is a uniquely human trait that dates back to our earliest ancestors. But narrative story telling is not just about entertainment – it also engages the brain in unique ways that improve brain function.

Reading a fictional story is like to being in a simulation. Fiction narratives stimulate the same brain networks s real-world situations and allow us to better imagine what it’s like to be in another person’s shoes – or as it’s technically called, developing a healthy theory of mind.

Reading fiction material in your target foreign language is a double whammy as not only are you absorbing more words and vocabulary as you devour the pages, you’re also imagining what’s it’s like to think  as a native speaker.

In addition, reading fiction has been shown to be generally helpful in promoting better working and procedural  memory.

In short, reading stories is a great way to discover new vocabulary, learning in context and improving your overall memory capacity all at the same time!

 

We hope you enjoyed our list of unusual methods of improving your foreign language vocabulary. If you have any questions of comments, please feel free to drop us a line at mail (at) brainfodder.org