Building vocabulary

There’s some useful advice on a site I found today called Language Learning Tips. One of the tips for building vocabulary is that you try to learn three new words in the language(s) you’re studying every day, and that you write them down in a diary or blog. After a year, you’ll have a vocabulary of over a thousand words.

I think this technique could be expanded by trying to use the new words in sentences, and maybe even building up a story with them.

I tried to learn five new words a day in seven languages for several months with some success. Though I think maybe I was a bit overly ambitious. Maybe three words a day in five languages would be more achievable. The trouble is, which languages? Definitely Welsh, Irish and Spanish, and perhaps Japanese and Czech.

Have you used this technique or something similar?

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This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

12 Responses to Building vocabulary

  1. Sara says:

    I have several “word a day” rss feeds that I read in my feeder every day. I kind of glance at them, but only take the trouble to write down and study the ones that are relevant to whatever language I’m focused on at the moment. The others I check just in case I find an extremely useful or interesting word that I can’t live without. I also believe that if I just read the word and definition once, even if I don’t retain it at that moment, when I do try to learn that word later on it’ll be that much easier for me to remember.

  2. Geoff says:

    I’ve always dreamed of working my way through wordlists and building up a great vocabulary that would see me far in my study of one language or another. It’s never worked. What I find is that I know the word in the context of the lists, or even if asked to translate. But when it comes to using the word, it all falls apart.

    What has worked for me is either learning a small number of words each day, like the three suggested, but learning them plugged into sentences, or learning two or three phrases a day while taking care to understand how the parts fit together. On my own blog, I’ve talked about this in the context of a couple methods – reading aloud and self-talk to name two – but the thing that always holds it together is creating a structure where instead of learning words, I’m expanding the number of things that I can say.

    Some people, I understand, can learn the list and make the mental leap. But if, like me, list learning doesn’t seem to work for you, learning fewer words but within a framework or context where you can actually use them might be the ticket.

  3. Jamison says:

    I’ve taken it a step further, by learning about 20 words a day for the last few years in Spanish. I have a very tight system of flashcard building and review. I have literally over 15,000 flashcards with a complex order of antonyms, synonyms and “modismos” (idioms).

    I know – it’s waayy aggressive, and I don’t think it would have worked if I were not on such a mission. I constantly keep about 100 cards with me at all times and I am around Spanish-speaking people with what I do, so I constantly introduce a new word in my vocabulary to them. They find it hilarious sometimes, because after you get out of the stratosphere of common words, you start getting into the “fifty cent” words. Of course, coming in from the outside, all the words are fifty cent words! But I constantly use different expressions and observe their reactions, also noting where they are from. You definitely have regional variations that at times even have opposing meanings.

    I actually wrote an article on my technique last week:
    Seven Steps to Master Spanish Vocabulary
    . Again, most probably would balk at the idea, but now I feel like I really own a lot of the Spanish language due to this and other methods.

    I’m totally into the one-language-at-a-time method. It’s just that the focus must be strong to move over the hurdle from being a language fan to really being able to use it on a semi-professional level.

  4. Benjamin says:

    Wow, 20 words a day?! And I thought 60 words a week was much. On the other hand those 60 words I have to learn each week aren’t Spanish, but Chinese*, which is much more difficult because they all look odd and you have absolutely no connection via Latin, French or English or something else (at least as a German, that is).
    Okay and those words also have characters I have to learn as well – that’s maybe 80-100 characters a week… but I think if I survive the first few weeks it’s getting easier, just for knowing more characters and being more into the foreign vocabulary… we’ll see.

    *I’m studying Chinese at univesity – in case you’ve wonderer why I HAVE to learn those 60 words a week. ;)

  5. jdotjdot89 says:

    I have to tell you, I don’t think that method works.

    My personal opinion is that really the only way to learn a language well, accurately, and relatively quickly is by immersion, but of course, that’s not always possible.

  6. Syberpuppy says:

    When I first start learning a language, I like to find a good workbook. But if a good one is hard to come by (as is the case with Icelandic), I get a dictionary. Everyday I open the dictionary to a random word–three times–and then I write it in a notebook. I don’t move on until I have those three words from the previous day memorized.

    I also cut pictures from magazines and, after labeling all the pictures, I secure them in a binder. I usually pick words I don’t know and find the translation in a dictionary. If I feel confident, I’ll also use the words in a sentence, which I write down on the page beside the picture. This method really helps me learn new words.

  7. Chase Boday says:

    I think it depends on your style of learning. I’m very visual, so flashcards work great. Usually, I read something short in Russian that has intermediate to advanced vocab (News is great for that) and all the words I don’t know get put on a list, then transferred to flashcards. I tried lists only, but it just never seems to work.

  8. Although I do use flashcards (on the computer), I have found that learning words in context is much easier for me than reading isolated words on a flashcard.

  9. bulbul says:

    I’m with jdotjdot89 and Geoff, this method simply doesn’t work, not in the short run (try two weeks) and definitely not in the long run. What is often forgotten is that the building block of every language is a sentence, not a word. Plus, as Benjamin says, learning words without a context is simply useless – verbs require objects, nouns usually appear with prepositions, adjectives with other nouns etc. etc. You’re trying to learn a language, not become a walking dictionary.
    In addition, I personally think it is the greatest mistake of any language learner to try to speak from the first moment on. It doesn’t work and notice that little children don’t start speaking right away, either. One needs to acquire passive vocabulary first and the best way to do that is reading. But not just reading anything – read something you like, something you’re interested in. Pick a novel you really really want to read in translation. Or a comic book you in the language of your choice. Something that will keep you hanging on. It will be difficult at first, but in what will seem like no time at all, you will find yourself understanding more and more.

  10. Geoff says:

    Having read the whole of the language-learning-tips.com essay collection, I’m quite impressed with what I’ve found. But what it offers is not a quick and easy way to ramp up your language learning, but more commonsensical ideas about staying in it for the long haul until you actually learn. Among other things, it suggests incorporating your new vocabulary words into sentences, just as Omniglot suggests. Whether it’s building sentences à la Omniglot and the LanguageLearningTips site, trying out your words on friends, à la Jamison, or something else, however, I think a program like this can only work if, as bulbul says, there is mastery at the sentence level or in some other real-world form. In short, this method will not work if it’s taken to be as easy as it first sounds. But if you’re willing and able and have the time to put in the work it actually requires, that may be another story. I hope so, for while I was dubious of the simple version, I’m enthusiastic about some of the author’s ideas about better ways to approach the hard work that is actually required for a method like this if it’s worth it to you for the potential results.

  11. tetsu says:

    Wow, great comments everyone! We all benefit from these inputs because I think that we all have different styles and having these helpful tips (and this great site) helps us find what suits our personal learning styles.

    If I can put in my two cents, I feel that an important element in learning a language is MOTIVATION. Any type of motivation will do.

    Wanting to PASS a course is a motivation. Wanting to be certified for a certain level in any language is a motivation (example in Japan, TOEIC or TOEFL). Preparing for a trip is a motivation. Some motivations cost more than others and so you gotta find what suits your situation. But having that goal or objective (which MUST BE realistic) will give you that necessary push when frustration builds up.

    Now, after being pumped up with motivation, you want to build vocabulary. Again, gotta learn the stuff that you LIKE, which in a certain way, is giving yourself motivation. What I do is I find stuff that interests me (book, magazine, newspaper, DVDs, etc.) in my target language and I simply translate it until I’m satisfied with what I got out of it. I’ll naturally want to do it because I want to know the CONTENT, but not solely because I want to accumulate vocabulary (which is an indirect goal in this situation). And because the vocabulary that I learn from this is CONTEXTUALLY relevant to my life and my likings, I will have a better chance at retaining them.

    Speaking of contextual learning, once I have a bare minimum of vocabulary, I also pull out other tricks like doing my best to take notes in various classes using my target language or speak to myself using my target language.

    For those interested, here’s my detailed methodology:
    http://tetsu-2006.blogspot.com/2006/11/learning-languages-tetsus-way.html

    Take care and good luck to all.

    P.S. I speak (in order of fluency) English, French, Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish fluently. I’ve passed my intermediate Italian and German. I can get by in Portuguese, too. This is besides the dialects Taiwanese and Haka, which I can understand and speak a tiny little bit.