If you’ve learned another language to an intermediate level, you’ve probably run into this problem:
I know (most of) the grammar and can have decent conversations, but I still find myself reaching for words to describe more complex concepts, emotions, and situations.
Certainly, this has been my experience. After a year and half of study, I’m at a solidly intermediate level of Spanish. I know everything necessary to live my day to day life in a Spanish-speaking country, and I can even act as an interpreter for those who don’t speak English/Spanish.
But I’ve found myself hitting a bit of a wall in my learning. It shows up when I’m having conversations with native speakers, and it manifests itself this way:
I know what I want to say, but I end up having to “talk around” a concept because I can’t find the precise word. This makes my conversations, well, less rich and concise than I’d like.
Clearly, then, the problem is a lack of vocabulary. I’ve known this for a while, but only over the past couple days have I resolved to take an active, methodical approach to fixing the problem.
Luckily, this is a fairly easy problem to solve. Increasing your vocabulary is, in essence, as simple as learning (and retaining) more words and then using them in conversation or writing.
When you sit down to do it, however, “learning more words” can feel overwhelming. Mostly because it’s a vague objective.
The next question, then, becomes Which words do I learn? And in what order?
As I see it, there are two different approaches to learning new vocabulary:
1. Consume media in the target language
This is the approach I’ve used for most of my language learning journey. I’ve read articles, watched movies, and listened to podcasts that are in Spanish. I’ve found this approach to have two main advantages:
- Unexpected vocabulary acquisition. When you’re consuming native language media, you’re going to come across all kinds of cool vocabulary that you’d never find in the dictionary or a textbook. For example, when I was watching the Mexican TV show Club de Cuervos (Club of Crows), I learned the Mexican word güey, which basically translates as “dude”. I wouldn’t have come across this word in more formal material.
- Context. Besides unexpected vocabulary, native media provides context. Sure, a word in an online dictionary usually has an example sentence, but these sentences are devoid of context. And context is key to forging strong memories. A dictionary doesn’t provide a very vivid context, especially when compared to a scene from a TV show or a passage from a novel.
There’s also a disadvantage to this approach, however. Namely:
- Overly specific context. While native media is a great way to learn off the wall vocab, sometimes this vocab can be too specific to be broadly useful. Güey, for example, is a word that I’m only going to encounter in Mexico. So unless I’m planning to travel there, there’s not much use in knowing it. This is especially true with a language like Spanish, which can have broad regional differences even within the same country.1 How do we overcome this problem? That’s where approach #2 comes in.
2. Use a frequency list
I first came across this approach when I read Fluent Forever by Gabriel Weinberg. A frequency list takes a set number of words in a language and organizes them by decreasing frequency. The exact methodology varies according to the frequency list, but the most useful lists for language learning tend to be those that are organized according to a word’s “dictionary” form.2 Because as a language learner, you don’t care if, for example, the past tense of a verb is more common than its present tense — you just want to learn the base form of the word.
Choosing a frequency list is a matter of personal preference, but I suggest you pick one that a researcher or group of researchers has created, as opposed to the lists available on Wiktionary. This is because the “official” ones use a broader corpus of material that includes literature and nonfiction, as well as accounting for regional variations.
Many of the free lists floating around, in contrast, use material such as the Open Subtitles Project as their basis. This results in a less well-rounded list, since it’s skewed toward whatever words are most common in the specific set of movies available with user created subtitles.
For Spanish, I recommend either A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish by Mark Davies (expensive, but very thorough) or the University of Leeds Centre for Translation Studies Large Corpora (free and accurate, but a bit more difficult to navigate).
So what are the advantages of using a frequency list to learn vocabulary? I think there are two main advantages to this approach:
- Learning the most common words first. A frequency list gives a clear answer to the question Which words should I learn first? Just go through the list from start to finish and learn every word you don’t know.
- Learning broadly applicable vocabulary. Unlike media, which can be very culturally specific, a frequency list takes the most broadly used words across the language’s cultures, dialects, and countries. This ensures that the words you learn will (most likely) be ones that you can use in a variety of contexts. So even if a local slang term also exists, native speakers will still understand what you mean (which is far better than the opposite situation in which you use an obscure slang word from a different country and no one can understand what you’re talking about). For example, even though the more common local word for “lock” in Colombia is “la chapa,” the local locksmith still understood me when I said “la cerradura”.
The frequency list approach also has its disadvantages, however:
- Intimidation. I remember the sinking feeling that would sweep across my 6th grade class when the teacher assigned a list of 20 vocabulary words to memorize for Friday’s test. I get a similar feeling when I look at a list of the 5000 most common words in Spanish and think Wow, I know nothing. Moreover, the prospect of taking each of those words and adding it to my Anki deck feels like it will take forever, which invites procrastination.
- Boredom. Going through a frequency list word by word is much less interesting than reading a book or watching a YouTube video. So, once again, the danger is procrastination.
- Lack of context. The words on a frequency list may or may not come with example sentences (the ones in Mark Davies’s book each have short examples from relevant media), but the context they give is nothing like what you get from native media. Plus, the meaning of a word can vary widely from country to country. The word coger, for example, can mean “to take” or “to fuck” depending on the country. And that’s just one of many examples — see this post from Speaking Latino for more.
As you can see, each approach has its pros and cons. So which one should you use? Both!
The method I’ve developed tries to take the best of both approaches in order to overcome their individual disadvantages.
Here’s what the method looks like:
- Continue to consume Spanish language media… I like the pleasant surprises that come from this approach. Plus, it keeps me interested and helps me work on other skills such as listening.
- …while also using a frequency list. To balance out the lack of broad applicability of some of the words I learn from native media, I’m also going to go through a frequency list to fill in gaps in my vocabulary and learn words I can (generally) use across countries and cultures.
- Always considering context. Whenever I learn a new word, whether it be from media or a frequency list, I’m going to check its cultural context and see if the meaning varies from country to country. That way, I can make sure I’m understood and avoid awkward misuses of vocab.
- Using technology to make frequency lists less boring. To overcome the intimidation and boredom that comes from considering an entire frequency list, I’m creating an IFTTT applet to email the new words to me each day. I’ll then go and look up the definition and create my Anki vocab card as normal. This way, I can set the system up once and then just focus on learning the words without having to worry about decision fatigue each time I want to study.
- Using Anki to optimize my studying. If you haven’t heard of Anki, it’s a program built on the principle of spaced repetition. As the program’s official website describes it, Anki allows you to create “powerful, intelligent flashcards.” Unlike in a traditional paper flashcard system, Anki makes sure you only review the flashcards when you’re about to forget them. It’s a lot simpler to set up than it sounds. If you’re interested in using it to study languages, I recommend this blog post from Fluent Forever.
- Taking a monolingual approach. I’m at the point in my language studies where I can use monolingual definitions of words in my flashcards. If you’re just starting, I recommend you take a more visual approach. I still use images when the word is very visual, or as a way to augment the written definition. Whatever you do, try to avoid using your native language in flashcards, as that just means you’re memorizing a translation, not the actual concept or thing that the word represents. For my definitions, I’m using WordReference “Definición: español”.
- Learning at least 5 new words each day. I view this number as my target “average” number of words. Some days it will be many more — others, perhaps less. With the frequency list approach, I have somewhat more control over the number of words the program will “serve” me each day, so I’m going to set that number at 5 to start with and see how it works.
- Tweaking and experimenting. I may realize this method is complete B.S. — or, more likely, could do with some improvement. Moreover, this article from Lingholic suggests that my approach of learning a set number of words a day may be doomed to fail. We shall see. So I’ll be noting my observations along the way and adjusting my method as necessary.
I hope you learned something from this look at my vocabulary learning process. This post, and most of the (useful) information I know is deeply indebted to Gabriel Wyner and Fluent Forever. I suggest you check out his latest project, a language learning app based on the methods he first explored in his book and continues to explore on his blog.
What do you think of this language learning content? I plan to write more about my evolving journey towards C1 fluency in Spanish. And what it’s like to “live” through Spanish here in Medellín, Colombia. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what strategies you’ve used to increase your foreign language vocabulary.