on October 28 2009 09:41 pm 2

Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning: Which Words to Learn First

When you’re just starting to learn a foreign language, the thought of trying to build the kind of vocabulary you need for real fluency can be overwhelming. It’s hard to know where to start. The good news is that when you’re learning for first few hundred words, there’s nothing wrong with starting slowing.

Be Picky

Linguist Erik V. Gunnemark believes 90% of the everyday spoken vocabulary of most “common” languages is made up of around 400 words. I’ve never made a count myself, but that number feels about right for essential communication.

Until you reach that level, try to study only the most essential words. If you can’t imagine needing a word every day, don’t add it to your vocabulary list. Imagine any day now you’ll have to go to the country where the language is spoken and speak only that language. What kinds of things might you need to say? Based on that, what words do you want to give priority in your “communication tool chest.”

Avoid the mistake of learning assuming you need the “kindergarten basic” words that “everyone” knows. These are words like “horse,” “mitten,” and “rainbow”—words that little kids’ books are full of, but that the adult learner could go months without needing. Those are basic words, but they’re not necessary for essential communication. That’s true of most words you can point to, draw, or mime somehow. You can save those for a little later.

Use Your Phrasebook as a Guide

A good place to find the words and phrases you’re likely to need on a daily basis is with the “basics” or “essential phrases” section of a concise tourist’s phase book. This is where you’ll learn “Good morning,” “How are you?,” “My name is…” and all that good stuff.

Remember that you aren’t just learning words alone. In fact, it might be better to think of what you’re adding to your list as “vocabulary units,” which might be single words or short phrases.

Don’t shy away from adding a whole phrase to your vocab list just because you don’t know the exact translation or understand all the grammar. In the beginning, learning phrase by phrase is more efficient than trying to pick apart the grammar to get at the dictionary forms of conjugated verbs and declined nouns and adjectives.

Choose by Parts of Speech

A good way to make sure you don’t miss any of the real basics is to organize your vocabulary by part of speech. Some of the most important are:

  • Pronouns (I, he, we, etc.),
  • Prepositions (in, at, on),
  • Very common verbs (be, go, like),
  • Adverbs of time (sometimes, often, never),
  • Common adverbs of manner (well, quickly),
  • and a few essential adjectives (big, difficult, cold).

Notice nouns are missing. That’s not because they’re not important, but because they tend to take care of themselves. They’re easy to remember because they’re easy to visualize. Add relevant basic nouns as you come across them, but don’t worry too much about them.

Cognates and Other Easy Words

Depending on how closely related your target language is to your native language, there may be dozens of cognates (words with similar sounds and meanings, like the English “dance” and the German “tanzen”) that you could pick up with minimal effort. Try to get a list of these and at least browse it for easy pickin’s.

Also browse through your phrasebook and bilingual dictionary for words that are just so catchy you can’t help but remember them. Keep these in a separate file from your main vocabulary words and review them when you have time.

In the book Faster Foreign Language Learning, I’ve included a thorough list of the essential phrases you’ll need to get by comfortably in an immersion situation. This is the list I collected through eight years’ experience in four countries, so it’s tried and tested.

Related posts:

  1. How to Learn Foreign Language Vocabulary When You Have No Time to Study
  2. Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning: A More Efficient Way to Use Vocabulary Lists
  3. Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning Made Really Easy
  4. Vocabulary For Unexpected Childcare: “Will You Watch my Kid for a Minute?”
  5. How to Learn a Foreign Language Faster

Filed under Getting Organized,Vocabulary

2 Responses to “Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning: Which Words to Learn First”

  1. […] all the essentials.By: Amelia Green About the Author: For a specific list of which types of foreign language words to learn first, visit Faster Foreign Language […]

  2. […] a specific list of which types of foreign language words to learn first, visit Faster Foreign Language […]

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