Do you want to know how to learn vocabulary fast? Having taught English, Portuguese, Spanish and French to hundreds of students of all levels and many nationalities by now I can assure you that you are far from alone.
Virtually all my students have come to me with this type of concern at some point.
They will tell me: “How can I improve my vocab fast? I have been studying for months but yesterday I tried to ask something in Portuguese and I drew a blank!” Or something along these lines.
First of all, don’t worry! To this day this happens to me in all the languages I speak.
But this is indeed something that you should have as a goal, and even if it sounds too difficult, I have good news! In this article I have gathered info that I learned through experience as a polyglot and as a teacher for over a decade. Here you will learn 5 time-tested secrets to develop your vocabulary effectively.
Get your thinking cap on and let’s get started!
What is the most important idea to improve my vocabulary?
If you’ve been learning Portuguese for some time you might have had the impression that you have a considerable understanding of the structure of the sentences you use.
Conversely you might also have had the impression that your vocabulary is holding you back.
That is not surprising.
If you think about it, it is only natural that the sentences you use confidently make sense for you in terms of structure, even if they are not perfect. Otherwise it would be very unlikely you wouldn’t be able to come up with that full sentence.
On the other hand, you can only refer to concepts and things that you have never come across if you are very lucky and the word you want to use and the word in your native language are very similar.
That is why students usually take risks in terms of vocabulary but feel considerably less adventurous when it comes to new structure.
Because of this students usually feel that there is a disconnect between their grammar understanding and knowledge and their vocabulary level.
And when I say students I refer to myself as well.
I have been studying languages for as long as I can remember. My father used to teach me English when I was a kid, then I lived in Spain where I learned Catalan and Spanish at the same time. Later I tried, and to some extent succeeded, to do the same with French and Italian.
I have faced this same struggle several times and still feel this when I spend a few months without practicing a giving language.
Currently my Italian è un cesso because of my lack of practice.
So the first secret you must keep in mind is that you should keep it consistent to retain your current vocabulary.
This is paramount.
All the techniques you will learn here can only help you if you follow this advice:
1. Keep it consistent
What material will help my vocabulary the most?
Now that we got the basics out of the way, we can get to the juicy stuff.
Think of the time when you had no knowledge of Portuguese. The days before you even imagined learning this language. If you heard yourself speaking Portuguese now, most likely you’d be amazed by your communication level but mostly you would be at a loss about the message because the message was way harder than you could possibly understand.
One of the hypotheses is that Stephen Krashen, a linguist we teachers love to name-drop, concerns exactly this type of exposure.
If you’re exposed to language that is too hard for you to understand, you simply don’t understand it, of course. But his contention is that, much more than not understanding, you will not be able to acquire new vocabulary effectively.
Even simple words get lost in the apparently intricate language and even words that you know might fail to ring a bell.
Krashen defines the ideal difficulty of the language you have to be exposed to as i+1 and is very well explained as:
The learner improves and progresses when he/she receives second language ‘input’ that is one step beyond his/her current stage of linguistic competence. For example, if a learner is at a stage ‘i’, then acquisition takes place when he/she is exposed to ‘Comprehensible Input’ that belongs to level ‘i + 1’. We can then define ‘Comprehensible Input’ as the target language that the learner would not be able to produce but can still understand. It goes beyond the choice of words and involves presentation of context, explanation, rewording of unclear parts, the use of visual cues and meaning negotiation. The meaning successfully conveyed constitutes the learning experience.
So is watching Netflix not an option for me?
I’m not saying you should avoid Netflix, I’m saying you shouldn’t necessarily consider that you are learning when you watch a series in Portuguese.
Many of my students try to convince themselves that they’re studying when watching Netflix series. That’s another mistake you should avoid.
Here is why.
When you’re watching a series most likely just don’t take the time to fully grasp the context of the words that you just heard, sometimes a word you just heard again.You might get the gist of the scene but you miss the chance of finally acquiring that word for your vocab.
Again, that’s not a problem, you just need to understand the difference between practice and entertainment.
Basically if you know nothing, very simple sentences are the ideal level for you. If you’re a beginner you could try a bit more elaborated or simple conversation. If you’re an intermediate you should try a bit more developed dialogue. For advanced students, engaging in conversation about technical subjects might be one example of an ideal situation where you can acquire new vocabulary.
One thing that I have to make clear here is that beginners shouldn’t simply avoid intermediate dialogues or watching a TED Talk. As a teacher I can assure you that these materials have their place in a well-structured study plan, but it’s important to know how to make the most out of it.
When you want to improve your vocabulary, try to keep your material at that sweet i+1 level. When you want to get some cultural insight you can have your Netflix feast.
So the second secret to acquire new vocab is to choose material that is just a bit more difficult than something you would completely understand.
2. Keep it difficult but not too much!
How to acquire lasting vocabulary?
Now suppose you paid attention to the level of the language you will study, that you also slept well and your attention span is fully restored.
Perfect! You have everything you need to study, and you’re ready to acquire new vocabulary.
But how to make sure that it sticks?
Now you need to help only flashcards can offer you.
Over the last 10 years I taught thousands of students, many of them highly motivated but not all of them really managed to achieve fluency.
Of course that has to do with a lot of factors: motivation, availability, consistency, just to name a few, but one factor that is often not taken into account is the technique used to acquire new vocabulary.
There are a few language learning apps that will definitely help you, but in my experience none of them will help you as much as Anki.
Anki makes remembering things way easier because its algorithm is based on spaced repetition, which allows for prioritizing the study of words and structures that are harder for you, and making the selection of such words and structures a natural and continuous process.
Spaced repetition is a time-tested method that has been shown to increase the rate of memorization. The idea here is that spacing out training intervals is more effective than massed training, which is basically studying the same thing non-stop.
The reason for that is still being studied, but it might be related to the fact that forgetting plays an important role in long-term memory. So if you allow yourself to forget something before you study it again, once you memorize it, you will recall it for much longer before forgetting again.
The most important thing about it is that, since it’s a lot more efficient than traditional study methods, you can either greatly decrease your time spent studying, or greatly increase the amount you learn.
This article is not endorsed by Anki, neither is Anki the best option in terms of design for example, but the one reason that makes me mention Anki whenever I’m discussing this topic is the fact that it’s free (in almost all platforms) and effective.
So use the best methods available to you. Anki can deliver that so you get the most out of the time you invest studying. The third secret to expanding your vocabulary is to:
3. Study intelligently.
How to use Anki?
Anki is great because it allows you to add very important information to your flash cards.
Well, when talking about memorizing the names of bones in the human body we can say an image is an important information to add to a flash card.
Now, when we are talking about learning new vocabulary, adding an image to provide context to the sentence you’re learning can be the difference between using it well and never really using it.
For that, using the features that Anki offers is more than just a bonus.
An effective flash card needs an audio file where you can listen to the sentence. This is obvious if you are not only learning to become a writer, but many students don’t take this advice because it adds an extra step in the creation of flash cards.
As difficult as it can be, this makes a huge difference if you struggle with pronunciation.
An image also helps to create a semantic context that will help trigger situations where those words can be used.
And last but not least, I’d like you to notice that I only mentioned “sentences” here. Yes, using flash cards with single words is a huge mistake, because they don’t offer a grammatical context.
The grammatical context is the article, adjective, verbs, prepositions that come in a natural sounding sentence. This context is essential for you to effectively acquire new vocab.
So use as much context as you can when studying, this is what will trigger your memory next time they come in handy. The fourth secret is to:
4. Learn in context
What should I do now?
In this article I’ve shown you how to improve your vocabulary and help you gain the confidence necessary to express your ideas in Portuguese.
These are the secrets:
- Keep it consistent
- Keep it difficult but not too much!
- Study intelligently
- Learn in context
Now, what is the fifth and most important secret of all to memorize new vocabulary?
Language learning has to do with communication! If you know the meaning of a word, the preposition it goes with and all its usages but you don’t ever use it in conversation, you are not making the best use of it.
The only way to acquire new vocabulary is to use it. That’s the key takeaway from this article. The first step is to have contact with words and structures you’re not familiar with and discover their meaning. Once this is done, the fun begins!
Go use it with your friends, your teacher, in forums, on social media, it doesn’t matter. Basically what you have to do is to take risks with language. So the fifth secret to boost your vocabulary is to:
5. Practice as much as possible