Learn Vocabulary: Four Simple Methods

Strict memorization of vocabulary words can be a dreadful experience. Flash cards can be downright painful when it comes to learning a new language. But learning new vocabulary words doesn’t have to be so dull. I’d like to offer four simple methods to learning vocabulary to make it somewhat more enjoyable – and certainly more effective than straight memorization. I refer to these four methods as:

1) The Holistic Learning Method,

2) The Word Association Method

3) The Object Association Method, and

4) The Context Acquisition Method.

Before I get more into detail let’s take a step back to see the big picture. The most important thing to understand before actively studying vocabulary is that you’re learning a language. Just like you can’t lose sight of the forest for the trees, you can’t ever lose sight of this when studying vocabulary. And before proceeding to your vocabulary study, it’s a worthwhile exercise to consider why you’re learning the language. This will help you maintain the right mental state so that it feels more like you’re doing what you want to do (and less like traditional school). So, with that out of the way…

The Holistic Learning Method of Vocabulary Study

The Holistic Learning method takes the flashcards to a new level. The idea is similar, but is much more effective at helping vocabulary words to “sink in” in less time. Learning often falls into three categories: 1) Visual, 2) Audio, and 3) Kinesthetic (or learning through doing).  Holistic Learning incorporates all three learning methods. Here is one way to achieve this:

  1. Get a blank piece of paper and a pen/pencil.
  2. Write the vocabulary word in your target language AND your native language side-by-side. Example from Spanish:         Papel        Paper
  3. Say the word aloud as you write it (in both languages).
  4. Repeat 15-20 times for each word.
  5. Put this word aside as you move on to other words, then review it periodically to make sure you really learned it.

There are, of course, other ways to incorporate all three learning methods. This is one simple way I’ve used many times with a worthwhile degree of success.

The Word Association Method of Vocabulary Study

This method works best when learning a language related to your native language (for English, this works well with other Latin-based languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, German, etc.). If you have ever seen a word that is a cognate of another word you’re familiar with, you know exactly what I mean. Here are a few examples:

  • Velkommen is Danish for “Welcome”
  • Hier is German for “Here”
  • Oscuro is Spanish for “Dark” (see the similarity with “obscure”?)
  • Turista is Portuguese for “Tourist”

This is simple word association. You already know those words in one language, so it’s relatively easy to see the similarities.

Another example of the Word Association method is to think about what a word reminds you of, then use visual imagery to help you remember the word. Here’s a silly example of that thought process:

  1. The Spanish word for ball is “pelota.”
  2. Pelota sounds kind of like the “lotus” flower.
  3. Many flowers are round.
  4. Balls are round.
  5. My pelota looks like a ball with flower petals around it.

It’s fairly low-tech, but if it helps you remember the word then we can consider it mission accomplished.

The Object Association Method of Vocabulary Study

As far as “memorizing” goes, this is probably my favorite method. It helps you skip the step of mental translation and launches your brain toward fluency. Most vocabulary learning is done through word association; in the first example above, the word “papel” is associated with the word “paper.” The problem with this is that every time you hear the word “papel,” you have to do a rapid translation and find the word “paper” associated with it. It also works in reverse – when you want to find the word in your target language, you first have to find it in your native language, then translate.

You can skip this translation step by associating the new vocabulary word directly with the object (or emotion, or concept, etc.). This is a powerful way to learn new vocabulary because the human brain works very well with visual imagery (that’s why we dream primarily in images instead of only words and sounds). So here’s how it would work with the paper example above:

  1. Take a piece of paper in your hand.
  2. Learn the new vocabulary word for that object (in this example, the Spanish word is “papel”).
  3. Refer to the object in your hand as “papel” instead of “paper.”
  4. Establish that link in your mind (i.e. this is a “papel” instead of a “paper”).
  5. When trying to remember the word “papel,” think back to the object (the paper) instead of the word (“paper”).

When speaking your native language, there is no problem putting words together because you don’t have to think about it. Connecting new vocabulary words directly to objects, emotions, and concepts eliminates the “middle man” that is your native language.  It’s one step closer to real fluency. Eventually you’ll get to this point anyway, so you may as well start now!

The Context Acquisition Method of Vocabulary Study

Of the three, this method is the most natural way to learn vocabulary. The foundation of its effectiveness rests on the Object Association method above, but it’s not a formal attempt to acquire new vocabulary. The idea is that a new vocabulary word is picked up when trying to understand it within the bigger context of the conversation. It’s more advanced than the other methods as it relies on the fact that you understand most of what’s going on, but you’re missing this key word. The “a-ha” moment that happens when you figure out what that word means is the critical point where you acquired that word in the context of the conversation. When you reach this stage of language learning, this can be a powerful means of learning new vocabulary.

When you reach a point in your language study when you can use the media for learning, this method will occur naturally. However, it’s important that you understand that it is taking place when it happens so you can embrace the occurrence. It will help you with some things in significant ways, such as maintaining your motivation to learn,  in addition to increasing your target language vocabulary.

Have you used any of the above methods for learning new vocabulary? Let me know what happened in a comment below!

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