No matter how good your grammar is, if you don’t know any words that you can use it with, you (literally) won’t get very far with your language skills: Vocabulary opens up doors to new worlds and makes learning fun and satisfying.
But expanding the range of word you know is like a diet: You have to put in some effort and there’s neither a magic trick nor a secret or one-approach-fits-all way to do it. Everyone has to find what works for them; but being patient, setting realistic goals, and rewarding yourself if you reach them are a good strategy that can be complemented with any of the following points.
1. Use Memory Techniques
A popular way to memorize vocabulary is the use of mnemonics, which are mental shortcuts that help you remember more complex concepts or words. For example, you can create associations between words: If you don’t know how to spell the words accommodation, just remember that it has two cots that need two mattresses. Or you come up with an acronym: Like, when you need to go to the STORE to buy Spaghetti, Tomatoes, Olives, Rice, Eggs. The problem is, of course, that you still have to memorize the acronym, song, or association, but with a little bit of practice, you’ll get good at coming up with creative and useful connections. And: The longer you think about acronyms or associations, the better will you remember the words that come with it.
2. Create a learning environment
When you’re studying abroad, you will hear and read the language everywhere and learn much faster through immersion. But you don’t have to go abroad to slowly increase the number of words you know – you can create an inspiring and study-friendly environment wherever you are: Buy magazines or books in the new language, watch movies, and cook (or just eat) the local food.
3. Put the words in context
A good idea to learn more words faster is to put them in context: Instead of writing lists of random words, try to put them in sentences. That way, you know how the word is used in real life. Plus, if you come up with funny sentences, it will be easier to memorize. Depending on how you learn, you can also make drawings or find images that will complement the sentences and put the words into their natural habitat.
4. Learn from real-life situations
Speaking of context: Movies, TV shows, books, podcasts or songs are not only a great source for the most common words, they can also help you memorize the vocabulary because they always come associated with a scene, a person, or a (real-life) event. So, try to read books or watch movies in the original language (with subtitles) and figure out what the words mean. If you see or hear a phrase or sentence that you don’t understand, write it down, look it up and start memorizing it.
5. Take it to the next level
If you want to take language learning to the next level, leave enough space for mind maps with associated words, synonyms or antonyms. If you want to get the most out of your learning process, try not to translate the word into your native language, but instead, explain and describe it in the language you’re trying to learn.
6. Find the tools that work for you
Everyone learns differently, so if you don’t already know what works for you, try as many different ways – or a combination thereof – as possible: Flashcards, apps, lists, games, or post-its, are great ways to memorize vocabulary. The same goes for finding the right time: Some people want to set apart a specific time, others learn more spontaneously. No matter which approach you choose, be sure to get into some kind of rhythm – practice makes perfect, after all.
7. Make it interactive
Just like you have to find the right tools that work for you, it’s also important to make the learning experience as encompassing as possible: Don’t just read the words from cards or lists – hear them pronounced, say them out loud yourself and write or type them. The more you make your encounter with the words an experience for all senses, the better. (Why not eat ice cream while learning what the different flavors are called?)
8. Focus on useful words
If you want to expand your vocabulary because you want to work at a marketing firm abroad, you probably don’t have to read Shakespeare’s novels or focus on words that pertain to the Middle Ages. The more practical and popular the words are for your career, hobbies and real-life conversations, the easier they are to learn – and you will be able to use them more often. (This can be like a game: You can reward yourself every time you used a certain word in a real-life conversation.)
9. Repeat and then repeat some more
Remember to not just repeat current words, but also the “old stuff” that you think you’ve memorized already. You don’t have to look at the stored words as often as the new vocabulary, but the more you use the words, the better you’ll remember and recall them.