How to successfully deal with vocabulary?

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

Learning vocabulary is a big part of learning a new language. Don’t get me wrong when I say that teachers shouldn’t waste time with vocabulary during language courses. I don’t mean that we don’t need vocabulary to speak a language, but rather that we don’t need the presence of a teacher to learn vocabulary efficiently.

A beginner’s word list

In the very early stages of learning the language, vocabulary is kind of secondary. It can even get in the way in the sense that if our mastery of pronunciation or syntax is still shaky, focusing on communication will make us automatize some beginner mistakes. During the classes I make sure my students work a lot with all the functional words of the language (pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions). They are in limited number and can be seen as the bones of the language. Learning how to use them properly should be a priority.

During that phase, knowing the 200-300 most frequent words of the language is a good objective. It means learning 10 words a day during a month, which is easily achieved. I’ve created a list of 250 items using the following method:

  • I’ve picked the 500 most frequent French words

  • I’ve removed all the synonyms

  • I’ve removed most of the nouns

  • I’ve removed words that are tricky to use and would be best learnt with a teacher or a manual

  • I’ve kept preferentially verbs, adjectives and adverbs with very descriptive and useful meanings

Nouns are really easy to learn in context and to remember. And when missing a specific noun, it’s usually possible to replace it with a more general category such as “thing, object, person, animal, etc.” with some optional adjectives and adverbs. At any rate the students will learn various other nouns that are not in the list, just by doing other activities.

I’ve made an online version of this list on the website, which shows the words as flashcards with their English (or Spanish) translation. The site has a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) that prompts the words according to the student progress, which makes learning very easy. It’s the only time I suggest learning words out of context and with their translations.

Learning vocabulary as we go

As soon as the student gets past that beginner stage, vocabulary will mainly be learnt in context, through texts, videos and conversations. Again I recommend the help of a SRS flashcard system, even though I don’t think Memrise is convenient any more. My preference goes to Anki, which is both a phone application and a free computer software (that syncs between devices). It has a very clean interface that allows you to add new words in less than 20 seconds to your vocabulary list. This is an important feature since the student should add virtually all the new words he’s going to encounter from now on.

There are three ways to create flashcards smartly:

  1. the picture: look for an image representing the word on Google image, and put it on the front of the card. This is great for material things such as a piece of furniture, food, an animal and usually bad for verbs or more complex concepts.

  2. the definition: if you’ve just looked up a word in a French dictionary, you can copy its definition on the front of the card, providing it’s clear and uses words that you easily understand.

  3. the translation: I’d really advice against the use of cards with just the translated word on the front. Instead, try to think of a short sentence making colloquial use of the word (such as the examples we usually find in good dictionaries). That sentence should use characters and situations that you know: for instance, learning how to say “to be on a diet”, you’d write “Oliver is on a permanent diet” so that it reminds you of your friend Oliver that indeed is always talking about diet. On the front of the card, just put the same sentence in your mother tongue. You’ll see that the word will stick much more easily in memory this way and will be easily recalled as well.

Adding words to the vocabulary app should become a reflex and be integrated to any study or practice activity. At first it’s good to filter the additions, and pick only the words that we know we’re likely to use or see again soon. Even if the word for “lantern” is new, it’s not a priority if words like “light” or “lamp” are still unknown. Later on, being exhaustive becomes a possibility and maybe even a necessity.

The last important step about learning vocabulary efficiently is not the least. It’s vital for the student to get the chance to use the newly learnt vocabulary. This mostly means to practice, either by speaking or by writing. Just remember it’s normal to forget part of the things we try to memorize, that’s what the SRS is for.

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