on September 16 2009 10:55 am 0

How to Learn Foreign Language Vocabulary When You Have No Time to Study

Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to move to another country and just “pick up” the language. This method will work even if you rarely get the chance to hear or read the language you’re learning.

This is largely for developing the basic vocabulary you need to get by, but can help no matter what level you’re at. Along with this, you’ll also need to learn basic grammar like past, present, and future verb tenses, how to use prepositions (cases), and the accusative and dative cases. (All this varies by language, of course.)

Pick Seven Words per Day

Gain seven words a day for two months (with a couple days off) and you’ll have about 400 words. In their book The Art and Science of Learning Languages, Gethin and Gunnemark suggest you need around 400 active words for a survival speaking level and 800 passive words for survival reading.

I haven’t counted, but that sounds about right. It’s surprising how well you can communicate with around 400 words if you know them well and know basic grammar.

The easiest way to develop your survival vocabulary is to get a phrasebook with a compact dictionary with fewer than 10,000 words. Each day, flip through it and pick out seven words or short phrases that look essential.

It takes some experience to know which words really are important. They aren’t necessarily the “kindergarten simple” words. The word “run” might seem basic, but how often do you really use it? You probably use the word “drive” more often.

Focus on verbs, prepositions (in, on, near), and adverbs of time and frequency (early, today, sometimes, soon). Nouns are important, but they tend to require less intensive memorization. When you do choose nouns, go for more abstract ones like “music” or “mistake,” which are often harder to remember.

Create a Good Mnemonic for Each

You can’t really be staring at a vocab list when you have to make lunch, prepare a major presentation, or prevent the kiddies from lighting the house on fire. You have things to do. So you need to carry those words with you mentally.

That means creating some kind of memory device that helps you recall the words in the short time while you work on putting them into your long-term memory.

The Linkword system is the most popular. With this technique you relate the foreign word to a word it sounds like in your language. Needless to say, not all words in your new language are going to have sound-for-sound links with your native language. So, you may have to get creative.

Say you want to remember that the Russian for “book” is “kneega.” You might imagine someone hit your knee (pronouncing the “k”) with a book and you exclaimed “Ga!” in pain. Hey, if it works, it works.

There are many other mnemonic methods, though, so pick one that words with your learning style and the words/language you’re working with.

Review Mentally, Creatively, Throughout the Day

In the evening, choose your seven words and invent your mnemonics. Next morning, pick three or four words out of your seven.

Briefly review them, remember your mnemonics, say the words out loud, and do whatever else you can to remember those three as clearly as if they were things you absolutely must pick up at the store.

Got ‘em? Good. Now go on with your day. Periodically, as frequently as is practical, mentally review those words. Translate them from your native language (“What is ‘How many?’ in Spanish? It’s ‘¿Cuántos?’”). Envision the spelling. Envision some part of your mnemonic. (For ‘¿Cuántos?’ you might imagine a duck ‘qwah-cking’ at your ‘toes.’ trying to count out ‘how many’ you have.) Use the words in sentences and dialogues.

At mid-day, go back and get the remaining three or four words from your list of seven and review those the same way. Concentrate on those first, then add in the words from earlier in the day. Keep using the words in as many different ways as you can.

Build Your Knowledge and Skills

At first, you may only be able to remember the words themselves. Then you’ll be able to use them in the simplest sentences (“That’s a man.” or “I see a dog.”).

After a few weeks, you’ll be able to create dialogues. That is, think through conversations in you head. Choose a few common situations like buying groceries, ordering in a restaurant, or making small talk with a new acquaintance interested in you, the foreigner.

These dialogues are essential for reviewing all your new vocabulary once you get up to a few hundred words. They also help you discover which words you need but still don’t know.

Ideally, though, this isn’t all you should be doing. Still try to listen to music or radio news, read a little something, and talk with your conversation partner whenever you can. What really gets the words to stay long term is really using them either to understand something or express something.

Related posts:

  1. Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning: Which Words to Learn First
  2. Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning Made Really Easy
  3. Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning: A More Efficient Way to Use Vocabulary Lists
  4. A Real Answer to “How Fast Can I Learn a Language?”
  5. 7 Low-Tech Ways to Study a Foreign Language

Filed under Learning Faster,Vocabulary

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