Tips to Improve Your Vocab
If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language – especially a non-Indo-European, non-romance or Germanic language – you might’ve realised pretty early on that one of the main barriers to fluency is simply the staggering amount of new vocabulary. With languages like Mardarin Chinese, which don’t necessarily have difficult grammar, the main challenge is often the new vocabulary. Often the hurdle to comprehension is simply an unfamiliar word or expression.
How do I learn all that vocab?
You might have come across the oft-quoted statistic that 75% of speech is made up of only 1000 words. Yes, this is a fact. However, it’s a statistic that can be misleading! Understanding 75% of the words does NOT translate to understanding 75% of speech.
What’s wrong with that 75% stat?
For example, if you’re learning Chinese, you might come across a sentence like 去洗手间给我柱塞。 And if you’ve got a decent level of Chinese, you’ll understand the bulk of that. You’ll know that 去 (qù) means “go”, 洗手间 (xǐshǒujiān) is "restroom" and 给我 (gěi wǒ) means “give me”. However, you likely have no idea what 柱塞 is, or even how to pronounce it! (btw -it’s pronounced zhùsāi and means "plunger".)
So, as you’ve understood it, the sentence means, “Go to the restroom and give me [something].” You understand six of eight characters – or three quarters (75%) of it. You know that some item is being requested. You know that said item can be found in the restroom. However, you have absolutely no idea what item is wanted – and in the end, you aren’t able to do anything useful with the 75% that you do understand. In practice, that’s almost as bad as not having understood it at all!
So how do I reach conversational “fluency”?
The truth is, in real-life conversations, comprehension often depends on a few key words – often words that are NOT in the list of the 1000 most common. Here’s another example, in English: “The friend that I’m going to live with is a real penny-pincher.” If you don’t know the meaning of the expression “penny-pincher”, it’s really not going to help that you understood the other 90%!
So what it comes down to is that you need to increase the size of your vocabulary. Especially if you’re studying a language that doesn’t have a lot of overlap with English, like Chinese, Swahili, or countless others. A lot of your time is going to be spent learning new names for things.
Convinced that vocabulary matters? Then let’s look at some of the best ways to learn it.
How do I increase my vocabulary?
There are a lot of words out there, but no one wants to open a dictionary and memorize it from A to Z. And that wouldn’t even be the best way to learn!
A better idea is just to read. A lot. Reading will expose you to a wide range of words that you might not otherwise encounter. (See this article for some tips that can be used in not just English but any language.) Fiction is vastly superior than news articles in this effect, or narrative non-fiction, such as a memoir.
But what if my vocab isn’t good enough to read yet?
If that’s the case, you’re not out of luck. Here are some options to get you up to speed.
How to study with vocabulary “flashcards”
Originally, Vocabulary flashcards were – essentially – index cards (or something similar) with the foreign word on one side and a representation of it that you can understand on the other. As a learner, you look through these on occasion, constantly reminding yourself of something until it “clicks”. There are many ways to make vocabulary flashcards. Wikihow has an article on how to make paper ones. However, these are the 2020’s, and paper may not always be accessible or easy to find! So if you don’t want to carry around a binder of notecards, are you out of luck?
Of course not. There are a variety of online options, or Spaced Repetition Software (SRS). Gone are the days when you have to dig up a pen and stack of index cards to make notes as you sit down to rigorously pore over some material in your target language. Here are some great options that modern technology provides:
- Anki is an SRS that is extremely popular with language learners. It is extremely robust.
- Quizlet is another SRS. Like Anki, it’s functionally is similar to paper flashcards.
- There are some language-learning-specific SRS’s. Brainscope provides a number of digital “flashcards” for a variety of languages. It allows you to make your own flashcards to add into your virtual learning deck.
These and a number of additional iOS and Android apps have the advantage of being easily portable – so that you can whip out your phone and flip through them any time without having to carry a stack of index cards in your purse.
But I want to see these new words in action!
However, if you’re looking to learn vocab, it’s hard without context. Without seeing the words in a sentence, you aren’t going to get a good sense of how they’re actually used! And this has always been one of the pitfalls of vocabulary flashcards. This is why, more than just flashcards, actually using the language (reading, listening, conversing and writing) is required to reach a high level in any language.
Some people might try to simply plunge into material in their TL – maybe just looking up unknown words in passing, and moving on. Others might read with a notebook and religiously write down every new term. Fortunately, when it comes to reading, technology has come up with a happy compromise: reading tools.
The first of these was LingQ, with an extensive and impressive library. LWT, a free software version, came soon after. There’s also Readlang, which was recently purchased by Duolingo. OPLingo is a newer one, known for its hundreds of six-minute conversations with transcripts.
Reading tools help learners to track their vocabulary progress. For example, each word can be marked as “unknown”, “learning”, or “known” – with the language learner able to change a word’s designation as they develop confidence with it, and track the percentage of “known” words in each article.
Many learners that use reading tools like to keep track of unknown words and review them until they become known. Others just note the definitions and move on. Either way, reading tools are dramatically changing the vocabulary learning landscape.
Work on getting to 75% phrase comprehension (or more!)
In the end, achieving a high level in a language doesn’t mean that you’ve memorized hundreds of grammar tables and can flawlessly generate the past subjunctive of any verb, even irregulars. It means that you can understand most of what you hear or read without problems.
Understanding the flow of a sentence (or a story) is a lot different than picking one apart and dissecting it like you’re in an anatomy study! Reading in your TL and using paper and online learning tools will help you move from where you can follow, say, 75% of the parts of speech to following 75% or more of what’s said. Comprehension at the phrase level is what you should strive for. So if you hear or read a word that you don’t know, look it up and/or add it to your flashcards!