Ten Ways to Increase your Foreign Language Vocabulary

Emma Buckby

26 Oct 2016

Expanding your foreign language vocabulary is one of the crucial elements on your journey to becoming fluent in another language.

While grammar and pronunciation are important, it is vocabulary that provides the content of our communication, without it we would get lost in the simplest conversations, not be able to make sense of a news article or follow a film on TV. 

A learner can become relatively fluent in another language with 2,000 and 2,500 words

foreign language vocabulary

Experts seem to more or less agree that with somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 words, a learner can become relatively fluent in another language.  So what are some of the best ways of expanding your vocabulary and reaching that number?

1. Learn in ContextTop_10_Ways_to_Expand_your_Vocabulary

Many of us can probably remember trying to learn long, dry vocabulary lists as part of French or German homework – and not being terribly successful!

New vocabulary is more meaningful and more memorable if set in a context, so create sentences or stories using the new words you’ve learnt and try to approach your vocabulary learning by themes or topics.

2. Read, Read, Read

Reading is one of the best ways of exposing yourself to new vocabulary items.  You don’t need to throw yourself into classical literature but instead find publications that are relevant to your motivations for learning the language.

If you are learning for work then find trade or business publications, if it is for travel reasons then follow the local press or travel publications.  Take advantage of social media as well – follow blogs relating to your industry written in the target language or add experts in your field to your Twitter feed.

3. Watch and Listen

Some people are auditory rather than visual learners and need to hear the word out loud.  As your language skills develop you can move on from audio learning material to authentic audio such as local radio, specialist podcasts, or audiovisual material such as films or YouTube clips in your target language.

4. Visualise

If you are a visual learner make connections between new vocabulary items and powerful images.  For example, if you want to learn the Spanish for table, ‘mesa’, you could create a picture of a very messy table to help you remember the word.

5. Use Mnemonics

Create a rhyme or an acronym to help you remember tricky words or spellings.

6. Carry A Vocabulary Notebook

Have a notebook with you at all times so you can jot down new words you come across together with an example in context. You could also use your smartphone or tablet but a notebook can be more personalised – you can add illustrations, for instance, and group words in clusters or mind maps as well as linear lists.

7. Be Curious

Keep noticing new words in your target language.  If you come across a word you don’t understand then look it up online or in your dictionary and find out how you say words that you frequently use in your own language.

8. Little and Often

Little and often is better than leaving it all until the evening before your next lesson or trip.  Try to spend a little time every day looking at new vocabulary, and this will help you to reinforce what you are learning.

Reading is one of the best ways of exposing yourself to new vocabulary items

9. Use It or Lose It

The best way to expand your vocabulary is by actively practising what you are learning.  If you are unable to spend time in a country where your target language is spoken you may need to think creatively; find colleagues who speak the language or join a conversation or cultural group.  Failing that, be inventive and create stories or dialogues for yourself.

10. Review and Refresh

It’s not enough to learn new vocabulary once; you need to continually review and refresh what you have learnt.  Review your vocabulary notebook, work with flashcards or sticky labels but find a way to keep reminding yourself of the new vocabulary you are learning.

So whether you are learning German for business purposes, about to embark on a study year abroad or learning holiday Spanish, set yourself clear learning objectives and take an active approach to expanding your foreign language vocabulary.  Without words, you won’t be able to communicate!


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