In one of our Advanced Spanish classes for adults last week, we got talking about the problems and pitfalls of learning vocabulary and how tricky it can be to learn and then retain it.  I shared some of the tips I have found have worked for students in the past (myself included!) and it got me thinking about vocab learning and the simple ways we can easily improve our vocab without it being time-consuming and laborious.

Don’t learn words alone

Try and learn words in a sentence or phrase  e.g. if you are learning the word ‘birthday’ then learn the sentence ‘My birthday is in June’ or ‘Happy Birthday’.  Not only does this give you a more memorable way to recall a single word but it will also help you ensure that you know how to use the word in a sentence and that remember the gender.

Make it relevant

Some people find associating words with something relevant to them helps.  For example if you are learning the word for ‘nuts’ and your friend is allergic to nuts, then associate the word with them so when you need to recall the word you think of them as a trigger.

Cognates are your friends

We all know learning a language can be tricky but cognates (a word that has a similar derivation in one language as another, that is for English speakers, a word that looks like an English word) are the language learning friends that make boosting your vocab that bit easier.  For example, the word ‘cockroach’ in Spanish is ‘ la cucaracha’, I have a friend who only studied Spanish briefly at school but because these words are similar they have stuck with him.

“Same language cognates”

I think this is a term I have made up but for me it describes those words in a language that come from the same derivation.  For example the word to eat in Spanish is “comer” and the word for food is “la comida”.  Whilst in English the words ‘to eat’ and ‘food’ are completely unrelated, in Spanish they have the same stem in’com’ and this can make them is easier to remember.

Bite size chunks

I’m sure we all know that sitting down with a dictionary and planning to read it from start to finish is not going to help retain new vocabulary long term.  However, if you create small lists of vocab e.g. 10 words a week and decide to focus on these words for that week you might have more success.

Reverse exposure

In an ideal world we would all be living in the country of the language we are learning, immersed in the language and continually exposed to it everyday.  This way if you were trying to learn a new word you would stand a good chance of hearing it used and have the opportunity to use it yourself and this would help you to retain it.  As this isn’t the case for most of us, our best chance is to ‘reverse’ the exposure.  If you are trying to learn a new word, then listen out for when you hear people say it in your own language and when you do translate it to yourself into the language you are learning.  For example, a student of mine was really struggling to remember the word “therefore”, so I suggested they tried this exercise.  The following week they said that between colleagues at work, chatting with friends, at home with family they predicted they had heard the word at least twice a day.  Each time they heard it they said the word to themselves in their head in Spanish.  By the end of the week it had stuck!

Use the quiet moments

Everyone has those times in their daily lives where they find an unexpected moment of inactivity.  Perhaps it’s on the train in the morning on the way to work and you find yourself staring out of the window.  Or maybe you are waiting to meet a friend for coffee and you are at a table watching the world go by.  It might even be stuck in a traffic jam, at the school gates, in a queue at the shops, the list is endless.  Make the most of these moments and challenge yourself to think of words to describe what you can see.  Depending on your level you might just want to look around and see what you can spot that you can remember how to say in the language you are learning.  For more advanced learners you might want to see if you can describe full sentences or play a little ‘I spy’ type game with yourself and see how many things you can see that begin with a specific letter.  It’ll improve your recall of vocabulary and make the time go quicker!

See the words …. everywhere!

If you are a visual learner then you have probably tried this and found it works!  Often people will find that seeing words over and over will help them.  Make stickers and put them at the bottom of your computer screen, on the back of the bathroom door, on the fridge anywhere that you will see them regularly.  My only advice with this would be make sure you change the words regularly to avoid becoming used to seeing them and just ignoring them, they will need to catch your eye to stick in your mind.

Create an image in your mind

This is a popular technique with neuro-scientists.  It advocates creating a picture in your mind of what the word you are learning reminds you of and the meaning.  For example the word ‘monkey’ in French is ‘le singe’, if you draw a picture in your mind of a monkey singing then when you need to remember the word you can look up and see the picture in your mind and it will remind you.


I’ve saved this until last as some of the tips previously allude to this but repeating words really is the main way to get them to sink in.  You may have heard of passive and active vocabulary, passive being the vocab that you recognise when you see/hear it but couldn’t have recalled it otherwise and active being the vocab that you use regularly and find easier to recall.  The goal would seem to be to make all vocabulary ‘active’ and the best way to do this is to repeat it, in as many different ways as possible, hear it when you are watching films, read it in books, use it in sentences, practise it in some of the ways mentioned above all.  Repeat, repeat, repeat!

I hope you find these tips useful, if you have any of your own tips to share let us know!


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