When learning a new language, one of the first obstacles learners face is building a foundation of vocabulary vast enough to support the learning of the other aspects that constitute a language, mainly grammar.
Indeed, vocabulary is the most basic and relevant aspect in a language, so it is only natural that it be considered the biggest hurdle to overcome; you can say “hungry is me” which violates all grammar rules (and probably all laws of physics too) but people would still correctly infer what you are trying to say somewhat easily, not so much if you don’t know the word for “hungry” even if you do know the correct grammar construction you need to use.
To add insult to injury, learning vocabulary is the one thing we can most easily relate to as it’s something we are probably still doing for our first language. And in the case of our native language, vocabulary building comes naturally, but it can seem dauntingly frustrating when we try doing it for our target language.
It’s due to this assumed difficulty that a variety of different methods have been brought about:
Some people suggest linking words that sound similar, for example: linking the words 閣下 (kakka) which in Japanese means “your Excellency”, and caca which in Spanish means “poo”.
As you can see from this example, this method can end up being more hurtful than beneficial because you’ll end up with two words that sound similar but have two very different meanings connected in your memory. This method is also very time consuming and unpractical.
You can also (try to) learn vocabulary using word lists, but as you probably already know, this method is dependent on rote memorization at its core, which is fine for short term memory, but we need our vocabulary to stick in our memory for as long as we are alive.
Just as useless is trying to learn vocabulary by sticking little notes on random things around the house with the word for the item in your target language written on it.
The problem with this approach is that you are not being actively engaged, you may put a sticker with the word for “microwave” in your target language on your microwave but you can still use your microwave without knowing what the word for it is in your target language. You may force yourself to read the stickers before sitting at the table or before brushing your teeth, the problem with this is, you are still forcing yourself to do something that you don’t really need to do, so after a couple of days or weeks you are just gonna shrug it off and dismiss those little stickers all together.
Effective language learning is triggered by necessity, the necessity to understand and the necessity to be understood, and consolidated by repetition. This guide aims at simulating that necessity and stimulating repetition.
In the previous example, if you don’t know how to say “microwave” in German, you can still use a microwave in Germany or anywhere, however, if you were in Germany and suddenly your microwave stopped working for whatever reason and you needed to purchase a new one, you’d have to go to the store and actively engage in a conversation with the store clerk in order to buy a replacement microwave.
Let’s suppose, for the sake of this example, that the store clerk only speaks German, so you’d be forced to use the German word for “microwave” (mikrowelle), otherwise you risk the clerk not understand what you are trying to say. This necessity to express yourself in a rather clear way (i.e. using the right words) is what will ingrain vocabulary in your memory.
One could infer, from this example, that a foolproof way to learn vocabulary is conversational exchange because, after all, you need to use a vast amount of words to convey your ideas in the way you intend to, so the necessity is very much present; however, conversations pose other problems: a conversation takes place at a fast pace, you can’t stop at every second to look up words you don’t understand or to ask the other person to explain what they said, this means that speakers tend to talk at a level where the conversation is fluid; what this translates to in real life is that the conversation will either be too much of a challenge (your partner speaks too fast, or an at advanced level) or too much of a cakewalk (the conversation is not a big enough challenge for your current level). That being said, if you take a structural approach to conversations, these can become a game changer for you. I talk about how to make them work for efficient language learning further below.
Another method that works, if prearranged methodically, is deducing the meaning of words from their context. However, you don’t want to dive head-first into deducing the meaning of words from their context if you are a beginner for a variety of reasons, first, you could run into a text that is far too difficult for your level which, in turn, creates frustration, but more importantly, you want to avoid deducing incorrect meanings due to a misuse by the speaker. I also talk about how to make this method work ahead of you instead of against you further below.
The Importance of Phonetics
Before we talk about the different methods and mindsets you should adopt to learn vocabulary quickly and efficiently, I want to discuss something that is often disregarded, but that I believe is the corner stone of vocabulary learning: phonetics.
I’ll do a quick summary on how phonetics can make or break your vocabulary learning without dwelling too deep into it.
Every language has a different degree of correspondence between the way it sounds and the way it is written. Ideally, you’d want the way your target language is pronounced to be the same as it is written, as it is the case with some languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese to some degree, to think of some), but that is, unfortunately almost never the case, take for instance: English, French, German, Chinese, Norwegian, Korean, well, just about any language.
Imagine all the effort you put into learning vocabulary, all the hours dealing with flashcards, word lists (told you not to use these), etc., proud, weeks or months later, that you finally learned your first 1000 words in your target language, but oddly enough you’re unable to use them in conversation or even recognize them when you hear them, because the sounds you associated with them are completely off, how frustrating!
This is why it is imperative that you connect the words you read with the words you speak/hear by learning your target language phonetics, ideally, at the same time that you start learning vocabulary as the stronger one’s mastery of one’s target language phonetics, the faster you can learn vocabulary, making the whole language acquisition process much faster.
Let’s talk two methods (that actually work) you can use today to learn the phonetics of your target language
- Audio along with reading: if you only wanted to use one method, this’d be the one you’d want to pick. This is the closest you’ll get to learning phonetics like a native does (unless you move to a country where your target language is spoken).
The concept behind this method is fairly simple: whatever you read, you should also hear it being read by a native speaker; so, if you are reading a book, you should also have the audio-book to go along with the written book; your flashcards should have audio, so you can read them aloud and correct yourself right on the spot if you mispronounce a word; etc.
- Learning IPA: IPA stands for International Phonetics Alphabet, and it was created to work as “a standardized representation of the sounds of oral language”*, so, in other words, by learning IPA, you should, theoretically, be able to pronounce every and any language fairly well, however, IPA, for obvious reasons, can’t teach the accent of any one language, this is why I recommend not learn the IPA in isolation, if you did, you’d probably be learning IPA for American English.
I suggest you pick up a pronunciation guide for your target language. Most pronunciation guides will use some form of IPA for the corresponding language, as do most dictionaries. Go to your local library/bookstore or simply visit amazon.com and look up pronunciation books. Make sure the one you choose teaches you the current pronunciation of your target language (this is easy to figure out by finding out when the book was originally written), that it uses IPA or some variation of it (don’t get one that lists the pronunciation of words using modified English, get one with funny symbols next to the word, like funny (ˈfʌn i), not (fun-e)), and that it comes with an audio CD or MP3 downloadable file (very important).
Is learning IPA truly necessary?
Short answer, no. People have been learning languages for centuries, long before IPA or anything like it even existed, and they have been doing it fairly well too, but if you have access to something that will speed up your language learning process, why not take advantage of it?
I suggest that even if you don’t like IPA, find it boring or anything, you force yourself through it, you’ll have it down in a month or less. Imagine all the people that struggle with pronunciation and foreign accent issues for years, and others for a lifetime, ask yourself if you want to be one of those people. The power of compounding really adds up in language learning, all the effort you put in now, will mean 10 times less work later on.
Let’s talk about the actual vocabulary-learning methods now. I divided them into fluency levels for easier categorization, however, which one you want to use will depend on the difficulty of the word you’re trying to learn rather than your level of fluency in your target language, this is why these methods are suitable for learners with a different degree of skill than the one I put them under, feel free to use whichever you like: