So you’ve decided to find a language partner or take conversation lessons on italki. Congratulations! Committing to oral practice is a great step for your language learning. The date is set on your calendar, and you’re ready to go. But wait - are you? You have lots of hobbies and interesting things that you have in mind to talk about, but you don’t know nearly enough words to express those thoughts!
Yes, you can probably find a way around some of the words you don’t know. While this is a great skill to have, you do need to possess a minimum amount of vocabulary to be able to really engage in a conversation. Otherwise, you may get stuck saying the same thing over and over again, or quickly run out of things to talk about. Gaping holes in conversations are always awkward. Even more, sustaining prolonged conversation will be difficult if the shared vocabulary between the two of you is limited.
Do you have trouble memorizing long lists of vocabulary? Do you find the process long and tedious? Maybe it’s time to change the way you’re going about it. We’ve put together some tips that will help you learn (and retain) loads of new vocabulary quickly before your next italki lesson -- and have fun doing it in the process.
1. Focus on the most useful words first
Frequency lists will be your best friends when learning a new language! These are put together using various sources, such as movie subtitles or book databases, and list the most commonly used words in a given language. (There’s even a frequency list for all 600+ episodes of The Simpsons! “D’oh” is number 223.) These are great tools because they allow you to focus your studies on the most useful vocabulary. There’s little point in memorizing the words for “cladding” or “cantilever” if you don’t ever plan on becoming a carpenter. We like to go by the 20-80 rule: learn the 20% of words that are applicable in 80% of situations. Use spaced repetition to maximize your vocabulary retention.
2. Stock up on some commonly used phrases and questions
When learning a language, first determine your motivations, and adapt your content accordingly. If you’re planning for an upcoming trip, you’ll obviously want to think about some situations you might find yourself in and what your needs might be. Then, figure out how to express those in your new language.
The same goes for your italki conversation. Like with words, don’t waste your time learning phrases that you’ll likely never use. Pick out a few standard questions or phrases to try out on your conversation partner or teacher, and work on committing them to memory. If you have at least a few sentences that you’re really confident about, you’ll feel better going into the conversation.
3. Train your ear
What if I get to my italki conversation and don’t understand my partner? This is a common fear, but we also know that listening and speaking (and even making mistakes) are key components to the learning process, so you can’t let this apprehension hold you back.
YouTube and TuneIn are two great (and free) resources for training your ear and boosting your listening skills. Pick a topic that interests you, and it’s easy to get lost in the English-speaking Internet for hours! A bonus of this exercise is that you’ll pick up tons of new vocab, without even realizing it! You’ll hear new words and expressions, and natural sentence structures, and subconsciously incorporate some of them into your own speech. Don’t be afraid to turn on the subtitles the second time around to check if you understood correctly.
4. Associate new words with mental images
Experts recommend developing mental visualizations to go along with new vocabulary words. Great mental pictures should have the following four characteristics:
- Exaggeration (unrealistic proportions make objects distinguishable).
- Movement (to catch your attention).
- Creative association (be imaginative and create out-of-the-ordinary illustrations).
- Emotional reaction (the image should mean something to you).
One technique for creating an effective mental image is to pick out English sounds that you can find in the word, and imagine them together. For example, to remember the French word for “trash can,” which is “poubelle,” the author of this article associated it with an image of a disgusted person (emotion) shutting the lid on a giant bell-shaped trash can (exaggeration, movement) because it smells like poo (creativity)!
5. Use funny stories to memorize difficult words
In the same way that we use the nonsensical mnemonic device “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” to remember the order of the planets, we can invent funny anecdotes to remember new vocabulary words. The more imaginative and detailed, the easier to remember. The popular polyglot Benny Lewis thinks of the bright orange Garfield cartoon character waiting in a train station in Valencia while on his way to a lasagna eating contest in order to remember the French word for “train station” (“gare”). Just by reading that description and creating the ridiculous image in your head, you learned a new word. I bet that even if you don’t know a single other French word, you’ll remember this one for a long time!
6. Create ties and relationships between words
One easy way to do this is to group words into categories or families, for example by purpose or similar sounds. Learning words that are often used together in the same context, like vocabulary related to school, cooking, or travel, is a no-brainer. Try drawing vocabulary trees, a visual representation of these categories, by choosing a root word for the trunk and as many related branches as you can think of. This will not only create ties, but also work a different memory tool: kinesthetics. Now, make up more complex stories or mental pictures including several new words, reinforcing the relationships you just created.
7. Get enough sleep
It may seem like a good idea to stay up all night studying vocabulary words before your italki conversation, but it’s actually a much better idea to make sure to get some sleep. Many studies have shown that sleep is a very important step in the memorization process, because this is the time when memories are consolidated, or protected. Mornings are generally ideal for learning new concepts or words, and evenings are a great time to review (this goes back to the spaced repetition technique). When you’re finished reviewing, shoot for seven to eight hours of shuteye to be awake and focused for your conversation the next day.
8. Eat well
We all know that a healthy diet has positive physical effects on the body, but did you know that eating right also helps you out mentally? Your brain, and it’s capacity for memorization and long-term retention, relies on the nutrients you give it. Antioxidants are particularly great for your brain and memory, and can even help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Here are some items to put on your next shopping list (and a great opportunity to memorize some food vocab!):
- red and purple berries (even wine) for anthocyanin.
- tomatoes for lycopene.
- spinach and broccoli for selenium.
- avocados and almonds for vitamin E.
- dark chocolate for flavonoids.
- onions for fisetin.
You should also be sure to drink plenty of water to keep your mind alert and combat fatigue.
9. Bring your notes
While you may not always have access to notes or flashcards in real-life situations, there’s no shame in - and we actually recommend - bringing along some helpful vocabulary to your first few italki sessions. They will give you a healthy boost of confidence knowing that if you draw a blank, you can fall back on them. And if you don't end up needing them, great!
You can also jot down a few new words that you’re working on memorizing, and challenge yourself to bring them up in conversation. Have fun checking them off as you use them, and get feedback from your partner about whether or not you employed and pronounced them correctly.
10. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
I personally have a tough time remembering words’ gender in German, and sometimes will go out of my way not to use words I am unsure of out of embarrassment. But making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process, and definitely nothing to be ashamed of! If you continue to use the same “safe” words and expressions in your new language, you’ll never expand your vocabulary. italki is a great, non-judgemental space to learn and progress, and your teachers or language partners are there to help. If you are easily discouraged by errors, ask your partner to wait until the end to give you a summary of the mistakes you’ve made so that you aren’t distracted in the moment.
Now, it’s time to get started! Ready to test out your new terms and expressions? It’s easy to schedule a conversation or lesson on italki. First, choose your target language. Pick a teacher from the database by watching their video introduction and reading their reviews. Then, set a date and time that works for both of you, and start putting your new vocabulary to use! If you follow these simple learning tips, you’re sure to have a stimulating conversation.
About the author
Luca Sadurny is a polyglot and language expert who speaks 7 foreign languages. Luca is one of the creators of the MosaLingua apps which have helped more than 2 millions users worldwide to quickly memorize vocabulary and improve their speaking skills. To get more info about MosaLingua and try the MosaLingua apps, visit the site here.
Other resources from MosaLingua:
- MosaLingua has great travel conversation phrasebooks available in six different languages to help you get started.
- Check out some other lifestyle changes that can make a difference for your memory.