Something we all struggle with when trying to learn a foreign language is memorizing the enormous amount of vocabulary that we need to accurately express ourselves when we learn that language. Vocabulary is the basic ingredient of any language because you can’t express anything without vocabulary; you can learn all the grammar you like, but if you don’t know the word, the grammar is useless. Vocabulary is the first thing you need to start learning a language, and that’s why it’s one of the major struggles, especially when it comes to languages that are not similar to our own.
In this article I am going to set out five important techniques that will help you with learning vocabulary, based on my own experience as a language learner, and walk you through them in detail so you can use these techniques in your own learning process. These are cognates, loanwords, memorization techniques, context, and combining existing elements to form new words based on known vocabulary. We’ll start off with the easiest and work our way through all of these five. Remember, however, that vocabulary never exists on its own, and that you always have a starting point. Learning vocabulary is like solving a puzzle, with some of the clues already given. Once you pick up on one of the five clues above, you can solve the puzzle much more quickly.
Cognates are words that come from a common root in related languages. Every language belongs to a language family; some languages, however, are what we call isolates; languages that have no known existing family (maybe they did have family in the past, but that language has gone extinct now). These are words that are shared among a family, although in a few cases the meaning might shift in one language or the other, or they may have become old-fashioned. Either way, if you know a related language to the one you are already speaking, this allows you to use that language as a bridge.
The simplest example is the correspondence between English, Dutch (my two native languages) and German. When I was a school girl learning German, I found it easy, precisely because I realized that most German words have an English or Dutch counterpart, and all I had to do was “Germanize” it in order to be understood. A very clear example is the word “water”. This word is exactly the same in both Dutch and English, spelt the same way, but it is pronounced slightly differently in Dutch. When I learned German, I found out that the German equivalent is “Wasser” (with an s sound, not with a t sound). This pronunciation change held true for so many words that it made my life easier and allowed me to start reading after only a few months of studying the language.
Keep in mind, that cognates can sometimes be obscured by the pronunciation or the writing system. Languages have different phonetic systems, so sometimes the cognate can be obscured by how the word is pronounced. French “eau”, Spanish “agua” and Romanian “apă” are all related, but the problem lies in the fact that French and Romanian changed some of the sounds in the word from the basic Latin “aqua”. Remind yourself, then, that French loves to delete letters, and is therefore bound to eliminate a few sounds here and there. Romanian is an outlier in its family, so it will change sounds strangely (the kw sound of the original becoming a p), but it is related nonetheless. (And for those asking, that final letter ă denotes a schwa vowel sound, a bit like the uh sound you get in English when you’re hesitating, or like the French e when it doesn’t receive stress). Once you know these sound correspondences, you can use them to change the words effectively on your own in speech. There are so many times I’ve guessed a word correctly by using this technique. It just basically means you’re speaking your own language with a very thick accent, which is what learning related languages is actually much like doing!
And sometimes, cognates are made invisible by the fact they’re written in another alphabet or writing system. The best example here is the difference between Czech and Russian. Видеть means the same as “vidět”, but it has been written with Cyrillic letters. Once you learn the alphabet, you’ll see that the two correspond to the same word with the basic meaning “to see”. Remember that an alphabet is just a choice we make; it’s a way of representing the sounds that we use to speak. Using a different set of symbols doesn’t stop us from recognizing that fact.
These are also related words, but they’re not related for family reasons. These are words that have been taken wholesale from other languages, because the people in that language had contact with it and needed to fill a gap in their own language, thought it was cool, or to denote new concepts for things that weren’t there in old times, such as words for things like computers. What language the loanwords tend to come from depends on the location, culture, and preferences of that language. As a rule, there are two groups of words here: old words that were integrated into the language and spelling long ago, and modern words that are borrowed without being altered too much.
To help with this, you should picture the history of your own language. Think of Czech, and where the words in your own language come from. Where did you borrow your words? German, right? Latin? Some words from Greek perhaps? Modern words from English? French, maybe? If you can complete this picture for your own language, you will understand that other languages are no different. In most European languages, you’ll find that the base language for loanwords is often Latin, for church and liturgical reasons. Modern words for technology tend to come from English, the language of science.
And the funny thing is; that’s actually true for many languages! It’s hard to find a language where “Internet” isn’t pronounced “Internet”, just with a local accent. This holds even for languages like Korean, where you wouldn’t recognize it directly through the alphabet, but Korean actually contains loads of English loanwords borrowed in the modern age! Sometimes you have to pronounce them the Korean way, allowing for their pronunciation, but a Korean will understand “Internet” just the way you do! They just write it 인터넷 (In-teo-net), using their alphabet.
For other language families outside of Europe and the Americas (where Spanish is dominant), the basic old language tends to be something other than Latin. In East Asia, it’s often classical Chinese. (That’s why knowing Chinese helps when you are learning Korean or Japanese or even Vietnamese, even though these languages come from different families than Chinese). In the Middle East, it’s often Arabic, with a dash of Persian. If you’re interested in these groups of languages, it might be worth your while to learn some basics of Chinese or Arabic, just to help you with the vocabulary building. As an example, I am currently studying the basics of Japanese, which contains many Chinese words, often written with characters, and the fact I have lived in China for half a year and studied Mandarin really helps with figuring those words out.
Sometimes using existing words does not help enough. There are going to be unknown, unfamiliar, and different words, and these… alas, you will have to just remember them. In this case, and only in this case, memory techniques come into play. This is the time when you just need to memorize that flighty word, however you manage to do it. Memory techniques come in various sizes, and here are a few that I have found helpful:
- SRS (Spaced Repetition System) is a way of entering flashcards electronically, so that you can be tested on your memory. I find this especially useful for words in unrelated languages that I can never remember, and I relied heavily on it for Russian when I was studying that in the beginning, years ago. There are several apps you can download to do this: Anki and Memrise are the most popular. I find, though, that many people go overboard on adding words to Anki as a catch-all method of learning vocabulary, when I find it’s especially effective if you use it only for words that never stick! Be very careful with what you add into Anki. If there’s a better way to memorize the word, use that instead, and don’t use Anki.
- Mnemonics: sometimes a silly association or story can help you with remembering a word. As an example, I’m going to use a word I learned recently in Japanese, 主婦 (shufu), meaning “housewife”. As you can see, it comes from Chinese, because it’s written in kanji (Japanese representation of Chinese characters). However, I didn’t know the Chinese equivalent for this word, but there is a Chinese word that I did know, called 舒服 shūfu, which means comfortable. So I pictured a somewhat elderly, polite Japanese lady, making her house comfortable for a guest exchange student. This image stuck, and so I will never forget that image. You can make up any story you like, as long as it helps you remember the word, it’s good enough!
Other people have used methods such as old-fashioned paper flashcards, word lists with a repetition system, and my friend who is studying Chinese for a trip to China has stuck sticky notes on all her appliances with the Chinese word on them! If you see the words everywhere you go, you won’t fail to memorize them!
Sometimes the word is just not necessary to memorize because it’s obvious from context what you mean. This is especially effective if you’re on holiday where that language is spoken, or even if you’re living there. In this case, there are certain words for local concepts that you will encounter, and these can just be learned on the spot when you need them. In this case, people will just point at those words, or even leave it unsaid, and it’s clear what you have to do.
As an example, I once was in a Chinese supermarket, and I was trying to order food to go in a box. However, I didn’t know the words for many of the food items on sale. I used to just point at things and say “that one” in Chinese! At some point, this frustrated the lady behind the counter so much, that they said I had to learn the Chinese for it, and they gave me the names of the words. This is how I learned the word 土豆 (tǔdòu) for potato (Note: mainland China only; this word isn’t used in Taiwan. But I was in Beijing at the time). I didn’t need to memorize anything; the context showed me that I was indeed pointing at potatoes, and my Chinese supermarket lady did the rest.
This method is particularly useful if you travel a lot, or if you have lots of contact with native speakers, where you will get the opportunity to use it. This technique is especially recommended for those who like to wander around and learn things on the go. When I was abroad, travelling, this was one of my main sources of vocabulary, in places as far apart as Greece, Spain, China and South Korea.
It also works if you’re a voracious reader, where the story will give you clues as to what that unknown word might mean; but in that case you need to really know some of the language beforehand, and then it’s meant more for intermediate and advanced students of a language. As an exercise, try to find any words in this article you didn’t understand, and see if you can use the context to discover the meaning!
Some words can simply be created as if they were blocks of Lego, stacked together. Once you have basic words, this tends to be a very effective method for creating or guessing what compound words mean. Many languages have clever ways of putting words together, and they basically fall into two categories: adding affixes (little particles that go in front of, behind, or between the words), and stacking words together wholesale. I’ll discuss two examples: Russian and Mandarin Chinese, because Russian uses affixes more and Mandarin Chinese because it’s a superb example of how you can stack words. Keep an eye out for these tendencies; they will surely help in your learning!
In Russian, like in Czech, you can add prefixes to verbs to create nearly any meaning you like. Let’s take the verb писать (to write). Adding a host of prefixes will create related verbs such as прописать (prescribe), дописать (finish writing), написать (write down), переписать (rewrite). Once you know what these prefixes mean, you can create words on the go, using them; most of the time, their usage will be your intended meaning. (And when it isn’t, don’t worry; someone will most likely point this out). You can also add things at the end, for example, if you want to change a verb into a noun: писатель means writer. Note that you can see the resemblance in the English translations! It’s just harder in English because the rules for forming words in English have been blurred over the years. But you can often use a similar trick even in English.
In Mandarin Chinese, however, you can just stack entire words together and create a new concept that way. This is especially effective because their characters denote concepts, and often they prefer using two characters together to create word (Mandarin words rarely are just one character). An excellent example is the usage of several base characters that combine with others to form a host of words: 机 nearly always means that something is a machine, for example, such as in 手机(shǒujī, hand-machine, meaning a mobile phone),飞机(fēijī, flying-machine, meaning an airplane). The word for volcano is simply a fire-mountain, the word for train is a fire-vehicle (from the coal that was used to power trains), and a computer is an electric brain! With this type of thinking, it’s not hard to see why Chinese doesn’t use so many base words; they can stack the old ones on top of each other! This is also done in the Germanic languages (that’s why those German words are so long), and you can find an amazing combination in Hebrew, where the system of roots and word stacking leads to a very mathematical, effective way of creating new words.
As you can see, these five different methods are all very good ways of creating links, memorizing, and learning vocabulary at both beginner and advanced level. The real skill doesn’t lie in being good at memorizing, but in knowing which tool is necessary to use in which situation. Being clever pays off when learning new words, and many people have gone before you and mastered these techniques, cleverly bypassing steps or quickly integrating new vocabulary thanks to their skill built up using these techniques. And perhaps you will also understand why just memorizing lists of words simply isn’t enough to truly learn a language; it’s a method devoid of logic, and vocabulary is precisely one of those things where logic and insight will help you learn faster!
I hope that these five techniques help you onwards in your language learning, and that the next time you see a new word, you will remember one of these techniques, and learn your language just a little faster. Until then, you can find me at my blog, writing on language learning and other subjects (link in the profile section), and on Facebook, or at any of the various polyglot events when they’re being organized. I hope to see you there!
Joanna van Schaïk je nizozemská polyglotka a učitelka, která učí nizozemštinu a angličtinu na Italki. Má ráda básničky, queer-témata, hru na kytaře, šachy a hudbu. Bydlela v různých zemích, proto plynule mluví asi patnácti jazyky, a studovala jich ještě mnohem víc. Také má svůj blog: https://likeapolyglot.wordpress.com