Grammar is the skeleton and words are the flesh

Learning vocabulary in any language is often one of the most challenging areas, because it never ends! This is true even of our own native languages. We are constantly learning new words, as we could do in our mother tongue too if we continued to explore the language with the same vigor after finishing school.

Long after you have been through the necessary grammatical structures and you've managed to gain a clear pronunciation in the language, you will still always have many new words and expressions to learn.

First off, just accept this fact: You will never learn them all!

Now that the pressure is off, we can focus on what you are actually going to do with your time, look at some techniques and see what's really important when learning vocabulary.

Not all languages are equal to the learner

A linguistics student once said to me that, when it comes to linguistics, all languages are equal. When I say that they are perhaps not all equal, what I mean is that for various reasons learning vocabulary requires more effort in some languages than others.

If you are learning Latin languages from English, you have many words in common, some even identical. English and French both use the word "information", "communication" and "transport". Granted they are pronounced differently, but to remember the words themselves is not a huge mental challenge for us. Likewise when we jump over to Spanish and we only have to change a letter or two to get the new word, we can build up vocabulary very quickly.

The issues come into play when we have new words and how to remember them and sometimes even knowing which ones to learn.

Which words do I learn?

This does go back to my initial blog post about motivation and your reasons for learning the language in the first place. What do you want to do with the language?

If the answer to that is “to go to the country and talk to people”, then you need to look at the general vocabulary topics we use for daily interactions, such as weather, time, hobbies, personal information, wishes, plans and daily routines as well as vocabulary to get around town to go shopping and perhaps eat out. This is the basis for many generic language courses, because we cannot usually function so well without these basic bread and butter topics in any language.

The questions then is how much of this vocabulary should you learn? My thought on this is that we need to be sensible about just how much depth we go into with, for example, weather vocabulary. If you're just starting out in a new language, you don't really need to be talking about sleet and zephyrs. It's good to start with the basic words you know you'll need first, i.e. "it's hot/cold/warm/raining/snowing", then move on from there. If you do the same with all the topics of vocabulary, you will make your learning more manageable. It's less of a mountain to have a core vocabulary knowledge in all the daily topics and move outward than to try to tackle all the words you can think of on a single topic before moving on to the next.

What if I forget?

"Language learning is over learning" is a quote that I read once in an old Teach Yourself book. I agree with this completely. How many times did we need to have words repeated as children in our own language before we knew them and could then use them? The norm is: a lot.

I know this personally; I see my daughter going through the process in several languages and I remember my childhood too.

Why do some words stick out more than others?

Some words are just more memorable to us because of their sound or whatever it is they represent. Perhaps it's a topic that interests us, or maybe the word is made up of sounds that resemble other words that appeal to us.

I know I have experienced this plenty of times. The word hedgehog in English is one I love for this reason. You also get three words for one in that word. A hedge is where the little hog (or pig) lives and so it's called a hedgehog. The fact that it doesn't look like a little pig to me makes it funny and therefore more memorable too.

This is true for other languages as well, like French. The word for bat is chauve-souris, which is another word with three words in it: chauve is a feminine form of bald and souris is a mouse!

Etymology and stories can help you remember

When we look at the etymology of a word and focus on where the word comes from, we can often build a story that makes not only the word but also the story and even, sometimes, other words memorable, like the examples I gave above. Sometimes these words help us to explain words in other languages too, including our own. Other times we need to think of our own stories to make the words more memorable to us. Inventing stories can be done as one-offs for single vocabulary until it sticks, or it can be used in conjunction with other words in a list to create “memory palaces”.

When I come across a new word that is difficult to remember it is usually because it is full of strange sounds that my brain has trouble remembering, or simply because the word is very long. Sometimes it may be very close or the same as a word in another language that has a totally different meaning.

When words are the same or close...

The word gordo in Spanish means fat, but the word gord in Croatian means proud. That means I need to be very conscious of the two meanings when I remember the new word; I can make up a silly sentence to remember it, like, "A Spanish fat man is proud in Croatia".

When words are long or have lots of strange combinations of sounds...

I like to break them down to see how to remember the component parts best. I find that if I remember some chunks of the words it makes them easier to recall later on. Sometimes even just the start of the word helps to jog my memory.

So, the Armenian word for pineapple is արքայախնձոր (ark’ayakhndzor). How did I remember this word?

Remember the start of the word: ark'

Figure out that ark’aya means king and khndzor is apple; the king of the apples is pretty memorable, right?

Make a funny sentence with the words, for example "The king apple of Armenian stood on an arc and started sneezing, "khndzor". The word "khndzor" is pronounced in a way that sounds a little like the start of a sneeze.

So, now that you've figured out a way to remember a tough word, now what?

Use it! You need to use the words you learn as often as possible for them to stick in your long-term memory and remain active vocabulary for you when you use the language. I make myself a promise to use these new words in my next conversation.

You can make a promise too. Write the words down on a post-it note or on your phone and check them off when you use them in conversation. That way you can follow when you are using them and making good on your promise to yourself.

Richard works as the Languages Director at Emoderation. He also has a website and Facebook page about language learning. You can reach out to find out about his learning techniques, which he explores in workshops online and in person for anyone interested in learning how to succeed in their language studies.

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Image by AnnasPhotography (CC0)