How to Build Your Foreign Language Vocabulary

Memorization is a word that many desperate language students say with a chill up their spine.

Vocabulary weaknesses are one of the main reasons cited by many, if not most of the people who stop studying a foreign language. When I ask even good college students who’ve just completed the required sequence of classes whether they plan to take more Spanish, they often say that they “just can’t stand all that memorization.”

Retaining Foreign Language Vocabulary

For most, vocabulary drill is a painfully dull process. Discounting the obviously poor “study” habit of waiting until a few minutes before a quiz or “studying” in a noisy dorm with radios, TVs and video games (and parties) going on, even the good students report that they have tried stacks of flashcards, bought or made. They often tell me of their late night cramming with written lists of words on reams of paper, with the Spanish words and phrases on one side and the English translation on the other. They report going over and over the lists with little of it sticking. They often tell me of their heroic efforts at memorizing one-word-for-one-word, and feeling as if they are climbing a hundred feet of rope hand-over-hand, only to fall when they get to the top. Nothing sticks, in other words.

Very few freshmen heed my advice about the basics of vocabulary building at the beginning of every fall term when they show up with their shiny books and eager faces. The advice I give, when heeded by a very few, pays off. It boils down to a simple maxim:

“Vocabulary can only be committed to long-term memory by using short, intense and frequent sessions with short lists, with full attention to contextualization.”

Short Lists, Sessions and Contextualization

Let’s expand on this maxim, starting with what I mean by short lists. The average person can learn three lists of eight words each, in one day, more easily than if all 24 words were on one list. In fact, if a student had twenty-four words to learn, I would probably recommend making four lists of six words each. They can be written on a folder paper, a 3X5 card, anything portable.

What about short, intense and frequent sessions? I tell students to study their lists five times a day. I tell them there are only two times when I insist they study them: at night before turning out the lights and in the morning before getting out of bed. They can pick any other three times. These sessions should be no more than fifteen minutes long.

As for method, they must learn from English to Spanish, in order to develop an active vocabulary, not merely a passive, or recognition vocabulary.

Finally, contextualization is also important. If anyone wants to retain a word in long-term memory, they can’t just learn it as an isolated item. If I want to remember that an apple is una manzana in Spanish, and that manzana also means a city block (in Spain), I might want to use visualization, even a strange image, to help fix these meanings in memory. For instance, I might repeat the words una manzana aloud as I visualize a city map with an apple in the middle of a city block. Another way to contextualize otherwise almost meaningless vocabulary is to use the new words in a very simple sentence or sentences, using vocabulary you already know. For instance, I might say Como una manzana (I eat an apple), even imagining the taste and smell of an apple.

If learners take just a few seconds to contextualize new words by using them with already familiar material, they will make the word meaningful, that is, bring it to life and greatly increase the likelihood that they will retain them.