There are hundreds if not thousands of different ways to learn vocabulary, I talked about some of the most popular flawed ones in the first part of this guide, you will also learn about the importance of phonetics when learning vocabulary, so go read it if you haven’t yet.
In this part of the guide, we’ll go through three field-tested methods for learning vocabulary for beginners. This is the only part of the guide that is geared towards an exclusive level of fluency, that is, if you are not a beginner, you will learn about some methods that you wish you had known when you first started learning your target language, so go ahead and read away.
Cognates are words that sound similar and have the same meaning in different languages. They are called “amigos” (friends) in Spanish for a very good reason as they will be your best ally in learning your first words in your target language.
Although not technically cognates, most languages use words borrowed from different languages, even completely root-unrelated languages such as English and Japanese share common words: タクシー (takushii) is Japanese for “taxi”.
Look up on google “English-yourtargetlanguage cognates”. You can print out the list you like best out of the ones you find, or better yet, with the help of your teacher, you can create simple sentences in your target language using cognates, and add them to your Anki deck.
Watch out for fake cognates, you don’t want to say that someone is “embarazada” (pregnant) when they are embarrassed!
When you set out to learn a new language you want to start speaking as soon as possible, of course. Learning your target language’s most common 500 words is your first step in accomplishing this and will set you off to a great start.
You can visit this Wiktionary link to find a frequency list for your target language, but I personally recommend you invest in a frequency dictionary (I recommend Routledge Frequency Dictionaries, they really are great), which are rigorously and thoroughly researched and put together; they also come with example sentences for every word listed. Add these sentences to your Anki deck.
Important: if you are learning a logographic language (like Chinese or Japanese), you need to find a frequency dictionary that provides some sort of reading aid, otherwise, unless you are an upper-intermediate or advanced student, your investment will yield little returns.
To further ingrain your newly acquired knowledge, I suggest you make use of in-context tools, such as:
- Children’s books: Great for learning basic syntax without feeling overwhelmed.
If you are interested in purchasing a children’s book, make a search on Amazon for “children book yourtargetlanguage”: “children book german”, “children book spanish”, “children book chinese”, etc. Or just click here and select your target language from the list of available languages.
- Phrasebooks: Phrasebooks are, in my opinion, one of the most underrated tools in language learning. Since most are made for tourists, they use short and simple sentences and are thematically structured into different categories, perfect for basic students, and they are small and light so you can take them with you anywhere! I recommend the Penguin series and the Lonely Planet series.
As I previously said, you need to know how the words you are studying sound like, frequency dictionaries, children’s books, and phrasebooks are all awesome resources, but most of them do not come with an audio version, so you really need to either look for a teacher or a native person who can read these resources out loud for you and record them while they do it so you can listen to that recording as many times as needed.
To easily broaden your vocabulary beyond the most common 500 words without substantial extra effort, look up the rules for your target language for converting nouns into adjectives and adverbs: safety – safe, peligro – peligroso, etc.
Ideally, you want to learn vocabulary using full sentences in your target language, hence my tools suggestions under “Frequent words”. However, when you are a total novice, even the most simple sentences can be an unbearable challenge, and finding immersion material that suits your level can be hard to come by. In this situation, I recommend something I call “spoon-fed context”. To learn vocabulary using this technique, you simply take the word you want to learn and create a sentence in your native language around it. If you were learning the French word for “shop” or “store” a spoon-fed sentence would look like this:
“They only sell souvenirs in that magasin”
Make sure to use clear context, don’t create a sentence like this:
“There are a lot of magasins on the main street”
From this sentence it’s not clear what “magasins” refers to, it could be something adjacent to the street, something lying on the street, something else altogether, it’s not obvious that “magasin” means “store/shop”. Make it obvious.
You can see now how easy it is to learn words this way, however, you’re not learning or even familiarizing with your target language’s syntax, this is why I suggest full second language sentences.
Learning beginner level vocabulary is fairly straightforward, and these three methods make it easy.
And if you missed the first part of the guide (compulsory reading), read it here.