How to Learn Vocabulary Effectively and Make It Stick
Have you ever looked at German words and asked yourself how on earth anyone could tell them apart? Let alone learn the vocabulary effectively?
sagen, sehen, sein, suchen, ...
brauchen, bleiben, besuchen, behalten, bekommen, bedeuten, ...
They all look the same!
Yes, that’s a problem every German learner faces. Tons of words that tell them absolutely nothing.
So how can we learn vocabulary effectively even if the words are so hard to remember?
First, we need to truly understand why vocabulary is paramount. Learning what vocabulary means helps us shift our priorities, to be able to recognize situations and automatically take the right decision when it comes to learning.
Next, we need to start to pay attention to the words to be able to find them and pick them out in our listening and reading sessions or daily contact with the language. CONSTANT VIGILANCE!
Then, we need to set up an environment that will help us learn vocabulary effectively. Ideally, we will use Anki for that purpose.
Last, we need constant free practice. Don’t worry, this will all make sense in a bit!
So, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, let’s begin at the beginning and go on till we come to the end, there we’ll stop.
As easy as that.
Why You Should Focus on Vocabulary
In order to learn vocabulary effectively, we need to first understand why it is so important. This will truly help us in the next steps. If you don’t know why you are doing something chances are you will end up quitting.
To speak a language we need words. Many words. I’m sure you’ll agree that the more words you have in your Wortschatz (literally your treasure of words) the more you can say. But the story doesn’t end here.
How would you define successful communication? Speaking so well that everyone understands you?
As a matter of fact, it means getting your message across. Flipping the bird is successful communication. A sign without any words. A finger pointing somewhere. They are all examples of successful communication.
Have a look at these sentences and decide which you would personally accept as successful communication:
- Imperative second person! subject possessive case present simple prepositional phrase!
- Look! Neighbor cat house walk roof!
I’m pretty sure only the second will make you run for a ladder.
What if instead, that person would have screamed “Huǒ” or “hariq” or “Kasai” on the top of their lungs? If you don’t speak Chinese, Arabic or Japanese, probably nothing.
But if they would have screamed “FIRE!” you’d know exactly what to do.
Words are not only powerful, but they are also the bricks of communication.
Grammar, on the other hand, is the mortar that holds them together. Of course, it’s nice to have good mortar so that our walls don’t come crumbling down on us in our sleep but it is an undeniable truth that words come before grammar.
It’s always better to know more words than to know more grammar: Many words and less grammar leads you to say tons of things –although a bit off. Lots of grammar and less vocabulary leads you absolutely nowhere.
In addition, vocabulary is not only so that you can communicate. One of the biggest problems any language learner has is that they can get their message across but they never understand the answers. Of course, a native uses a completely different and complex vocabulary.
The more words we know, the more we can understand, the more we can listen, the more we can hear words in context, the more we are practicing the language, the more we are learning.
The 80-20 approach
You’ll agree that an 80-20 approach to learn vocabulary effectively is of great use because we can’t just learn all the words.
We can’t just grab a dictionary, start with the very first word –which by the way would be Aal meaning eel – and then work our way up.
That’s why in order to have a list of meaningful words we need to always be on the lookout for:
- Frequently used words (“big” is better than “shallow”, “enough” is better than “hardly” and “dog” is better than “elephant”)
- Words that are not very specific but refer to general ideas and things as long as they are used in everyday conversation (“vehicle” is better than “SUV”, “bus”, “trolly”, “lorry”, “truck”)
- Those that you expect to be useful for any personal reason (“fertilizer” might not be a good word for most people but it’s great if you’re a gardener or love gardening.)
Remember, constant vigilance! Effective learning starts with becoming a learner.
As you advance your words will become automatically more specific, just like a tree.
At first, you go for the most basic words which constitute the trunk. As you advance you start to go for the different branches, then the smaller branches of those branches and so on.
Where to find the vocabulary you need
Once you understand the importance of vocabulary and the 80-20 rule you’ll start to see the words you need everywhere.
Every important word you encounter that you are failing to save in some form for later review is a lost opportunity.
Among others, you can get your words from:
- Frequency lists, most important words list.
- Reading: your reading material, if well chosen, will have the exact right words for your level.
- Listening: your listening resources as well will have the words you probably should be able to understand.
- Speaking: Obviously, speaking is one of the best resources. But you have to take advantage of it. You might think it’s rude to interrupt someone to say: “One moment, what did you say? No, that word before. Ah! Can you say it again slower?”. This is the right moment to become even a little selfish.
When to learn vocabulary
Vocabulary should be learned right in the morning during or after your first coffee.
Not just is this the most perfect time of the day, we are also giving vocabulary the priority it deserves. It only requires a short span of time for something we should get done as early as possible.
If you start your day with German (especially a hassle-free and quick study as you will see) you will feel so accomplished in your learning, there’s no chance your lazy self will be able to convince you to quit.
We are building momentum here. You will have accomplished one of the most important tasks of the day before even putting on pants.
Besides, our mental performance is usually at its best in the very first hours of the day. There are even some sources stating that retention can increase up to 10% if you study vocabulary in the morning. Take that with a grain of salt though because this is nothing you can measure easily.
Still, the benefits heavily outweigh any disadvantages your lazy-self could make up.
Speaking of it: Everyone can make time. Just put your alarm 10 minutes earlier.
How to learn vocabulary effectively
Once all this is successfully implemented in your routine you won’t be wasting time anymore. The process will be quick, effective and hassle-free.
In order to learn vocabulary effectively, we need two more steps: review and free practice.
Thanks to our fellow humans who were tired of forgetting things we can now predict quite accurately when we will forget a word that we’ve learned with a system called Spaced Repetition.
Apps such as Duolingo, Memrise, Quizlet, and Anki do that job for us. The best spaced repetition app is the one that lets us choose our own words.
Anki is pretty much the best option out there. It’s a bit old but it gets the job done marvelously.
But I’ve been told there are people who are absolutely not into getting help from technology.
Last but not least comes the most important part to learn vocabulary effectively: daily practice.
The dry and somewhat boring review of words is just one piece of the puzzle. We also need to actually be able to use and recognize the words when the opportunity arises.
Sadly, outside of a classroom environment, it’s rather difficult to practice specific words. Instead, we are aiming for general practice in the hopes of getting to use our new words.
We use vocabulary when writing and speaking. And as we don’t always have the possibility to speak in German there is a huge lifesaver: Writing. The single best action-oriented practice you can do on your own, which is also free and painless, is being ignored by so many learners.
If you cannot talk, because you have no German people around and can’t spend any money on talking to a native then for god’s sake write!
With this in mind, there is no single reason in the whole wide universe that you could use as an excuse for not improving your German.
We also practice vocabulary in context by recognizing the words when reading and listening.
Ideally, your learning routine should also have these two. Have a look at the German learning library.
We will have a closer look at reading and listening practice in your German learning routine in future posts.
For now, focus on vocabulary which is where your priority lies.
Happy vocabulary learning!