Effective Strategy For Making Foreign Language Vocab Stick

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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Effective Strategy For Making Foreign Language Vocab Stick

G’day all.

I’m so glad that this bloody Winter is almost over!

Even though it’s still only 5 degrees celcius here I actually braved it and wore a t-shirt outside today (being the Queenslander that I am I’ve been impatiently waiting for the warm weather to hurry up and get here). 🙂

The arrival of Spring means two things for me: it marks 5 months that I’ve been living in Korea on a challenge to become fluent in the language and it also means that I’ll be starting to venture out to explore the nooks and crannies of the country soon, sharing my experiences using Korean.

As I said before, my aim is to demonstrate that fluency in a language like Korean is not the difficult Goliath people make it out to be (it’s placed in the most difficult category for English speakers by the FSI alongside Arabic). With a language like this there are obviously major differences that take time to adjust to but like every language it has features that are simple compared to others too.

I’ve also had some success asking around about the possibility of meeting somebody from one of the most isolated nations on Earth – North Korea. If you ask enough people, eventually somebody knows somebody who knows somebody! I’m really looking forward to learning more about the dialect variations and hearing some stories from people who left NK.

My Korean is reaching new heights every week which has been great (hard work pays off!) but I’m realizing that I need to work on acquiring key vocab that’s been holding me back from going further in my conversations.

It’s true that when you’re a beginner everything in your target language is a bit of a road block but as you progress further it’s really the insufficient vocab that causes most communication breakdowns.

Today I thought I’d share some of my personal strategy for effective vocabulary acquisition – a few points that you might benefit from. In the last few weeks my vocabulary has improved a lot by sticking to this approach.

Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comment section below! 🙂

Words and sentences are acoustic patterns – not writing

Written words are only representations, symbols or images of an acoustic pattern which has a semantic value (meaning) attached to it.

The familiar sound patterns trigger an interpreter in our brain, making us picture or sense the corresponding object/concept/emotion, etc. When we hear the sound pattern of the word ‘dog’ for example, we don’t need to visualize or recall the written word (D O G) but rather we conjure up a picture or a sense of the animal itself as soon as we hear it.

Writing is only something that we invented to record and transmit symbols corresponding to the sounds which in turn represent meaning.

Sounds a bit technical I know but it’s pretty straightforward!

Think of it in this order:

Interpretation -> acoustic representation (spoken word) -> written representation (written word)

Most people learn vocab in the reverse order.

Although I’m a visual learner and I benefit from seeing the transcripts of what I’m hearing, I believe that the idea of internalizing written vocabulary first is problematic (just as memorizing grammar rules is) because by doing so, you’re attempting to memorize a visual representation of a sound rather than the sound itself.

This is why written tests can be deceptive because they can convince you that you’ve learned a lot more than you actually have.

You may have noticed the difference between recognizing a written word that you’ve studied on paper and trying to catch the same word in a spoken conversation.

Use written texts as an aid to your audio material, not the other way round!

Because our goal should be to internalize acoustic patterns rather than written words, this means:

  • Vocab study should focus on audio material. By all means use transcripts if visual aids help, but remember that the acoustic pattern/sound is what you’re really aiming for. Just because you can recognize a few dozen written words in a stack of flashcards doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve learned those words.
  • Use it immediately and just small amounts at a time. Learn just a few new words at a time and use them relentlessly until the acoustic patterns become familiar. As I’ve said before, I’ll often spend an entire day focused on one or several simple language chunks that contain just a few new words. By the end of the day, that small amount of new content is completely learned – it’s much better than doing an ineffective, half-arsed job trying to learn a lot more. Know your limitations.

Don’t waste too much time studying vocab that can be elicited using basic or body language

There’s so much vocabulary that can be elicited using simple language or gestures.

For example, I may not know the word for ‘baseball’ in Korean (they have a different word for it here) but it’s such an easy thing to elicit using body language. If I ever needed to, I could simply say “I play” + pretend to swing a baseball bat and that will be enough for me to elicit that word from a native speaker.

When I lived in Egypt and I wanted to learn fruit and vegetable names, I went to the market to each stall and asked vendors what the name of the fruit was (I remember one street vendor holding up an orange and telling me its name was Ahmad :)). I could of sat at home playing with flashcards as an alternative but why miss out on fun opportunities to speak?

There are so many verbs, nouns and adjectives where body language is enough to elicit the term from someone. For many things, core vocabulary can be used to describe and elicit the words as well (e.g. “T**he place we go to eat.” – “Oh, you mean a ‘restaurant’?”).

When doing vocabulary study, try to focus on core, essential words and abstract terms that can’t be described or demonstrated but for everything else, aim to learn most of it through conversation.

I recently started using a little Sony IC Recorder that was given to me as a Christmas gift for recording new words on the fly. I was relying on pen and paper before but now having a slim gadget that records straight to MP3 has meant that I’ve been able to capture the way it’s pronounced by native speakers (good for capturing whole conversations too so they can be played back and analysed later).

Assisted readers/reading and vocab acquisition

I’m a big fan of assisted readers such as LWT and LingQ (I personally use LWT on my laptop).

I often use LWT as a translation practise tool for Arabic, for reading the occasional Irish article on Beo.ie and following along with the Iyagi episodes on Talk To Me In Korean.

It’s tremendously useful.

However, it’s important to again remember that these are written words and unless you have an audio file accompanying the text, it’s not the most effective way to learn spoken words.

My advice for those of you using assisted readers as a way to acquire conversation vocabulary is to make sure you have an audio or video file and shadow it (audibly read along with).

The other downside to reading as a way of acquiring vocab is that you can’t always guarantee the frequency of words.

You may encounter a new word only once in a single article so it’s important to put that word to use immediately otherwise you’re less likely to remember it.

Memrise and memory hooks

I’ve always concentrated on using memory hooks to help me initially recall vocab during a conversation.

For example, the word for joke in Korean is nong-dam (농담) and in Aussie English a nong is an ‘idiot’ while dam in Arabic means ‘blood’. So I think of a joke about an idiot who falls over and starts bleeding.

It’s a memory hook I won’t forget.

The online tool Memrise basically works the same way in organizing these ‘hooks’ and turning it into a bit of a game, spacing study sessions by getting you to come back later and ‘water/harvest’ plants in a virtual garden.

It also does a good job reminding you when you should come back and go back over the words you’ve covered, using a mixture of multiple choice and typing exercises (typing as an output activity makes a big difference).

I must reiterate however: small amounts and use what you learn immediately (if you’re not in country, use italki).

It’s easy to get distracted by the game and its competitiveness by spending an addictive hour or more going over lessons on Memrise. Just like flashcards, it can become a distraction that fools you into thinking you’re making lots of progress when in reality you’re procrastinating.

Try to find lessons on Memrise that focus on targeted, relevant vocabulary and use it as a way to prepare yourself immediately prior to conversations.

What’s your strategy?

Ultimately, we all tackle things like vocabulary study differently and some people have better results than others.

I’d like to hear your thoughts!

Do you have a method that’s worked well for you when it comes to studying and remembering vocab? Share it below. 🙂

This was written by Donovan Nagel.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Alex Olinger

Alex Olinger

Thanks for the good suggestions. I taught in South Korea for two years and found it to be a challenging language because nothing sounded like what it meant to me. Here’s a tip for you. You may have already discovered this, but in order to properly pronounce Korean, you really need to learn to read it. When they transcribe Korean into English, there’s no standard spelling. There used to be, but it changed and now you just can’t tell how to pronounce something by reading it using our writing system. I used to always read signs when I went for a walk. Sometimes I would be surprised to read something in English, written in Hangeul. Best of luck to you! I’m going to try some of your suggestions for studying French.



This is a really great article because it puts my method in question. I’ve been trying to learn French for years, but I can’t understand native speakers at a regular speed, and I can’t converse. That is because I rely too much on flashcards and reading. I’ll definitely try Memrise again, along with other resources, and I’ll concentrate more on the *sound* of basic phrases at the beginning. Thanks for giving me some ideas!



This is me, thank you and l live here.



Body language and gestures definitely help to learn a language. It definitely helped me years ago when I first started to learn Spanish with some natives. Thanks for sharing this Donovan! It’s good to have a reminder of the simple things that help to learn that also are very effective as well.



I love the idea of figuring out vocab by body language and gestures! Once I get to a larger city, I want to try doing that.

For me, I like writing out the vocab for writing practice, while saying the word. I try to get the pronunciation from a native speaker, and then to use the words in a conversation, and have them correct me until my pronunciation is closer to correct.



Great post! I had never really though about words as sounds instead of visual representations before, but it makes so much sense. I, too, am a visual learner so I often like to see how a word is written before I try and pronounce it.. But maybe I should be using my ears more and concentrating on the sounds involved! I use Memrise for learning vocab as well, but I often find I spend an hour or so whizzing through the levels which results in nothing really sticking in my head. I’ll go back to ‘water my plants’ later and realise that I haven’t learned anything at all!



I thought I’d start using Memrise now, and started one of the Norwegian lessons - by golly some of the ‘hooks’ it uses are bad!

Some examples for the word ‘tidligere’, which means ‘before’, ‘earlier’, ‘former’:
--- tid - time ligere - previous - together they mean the time previous or before
--- from tid ‘time’
--- Before = teedyera

Some people missing the point! There are a couple of okay ones, but I have to admit I didn’t find it especially helpful. I guess the less commonly learned languages work less well.



A lot of the hooks are bad but remember they’re all contributed by the community, so anyone can create them (what works for one person may not for someone else).

I usually add my own anyway. The idea is not to give a memory hook that sounds exactly like the word either, but just something that helps you anchor that term so you can recall it later on.

Terry Waltz

Terry Waltz

Since language acquisition is a human universal, we can be certain there is in fact a means to acquisition that does work for every neurologically typical individual. Separating literacy from language is extremely important. I think interpreters often have a stronger sense of detextualization which positively impacts our sense of this.

Roger Kovaciny

Roger Kovaciny

Not all advice works for everybody. I have a colleague in Africa for whom “learn a little, use it a lot” was a complete waste of time until he finally found someone who sat him down and explained the grammatical structure of the Bantu languages. Until he knew what concordial prefixes were intellectually, it was so much la-la-la to him and a complete waste of time.

I’ve used many methods, but the common denominator is hours of practice. Although I live in Ukraine, and speak it every day, I don’t get any better unless I actually study it, which raises me to the next plateau.



I agree with what you said about vocabulary being a large roadblock to progress, but (and this is actually related to the second half of your post concerning audible vs. written learning of said vocabulary) I’ve found that another equally large roadblock is not being able to understand vocabulary you already know when it’s spoken on the fly, in normal conversation and at a normal conversational rate of speed, by a native speaker. This one is just as big as not knowing the words they’re using to begin with--regardless of why you can’t understand what they said, whether because they used words you don’t know or you were incapable of understand the words they used even though you do know them because of how rapidly they were spoken, it still amounts to the same thing: you didn’t understand what they said. It’s still the same problem, though with two different possible causes depending on the situation.

The way I address this is to tackle the two problems separate by learning new words/grammar in two separate phases: in Phase I I learn the new vocabulary or grammar (via written means), in Phase II I learn to understand what I just learned when spoken at a full conversational rate of speed by a native speaker. Usually this is done while watching a Spanish-language movie or TV show or listening to a Spanish-language song. I’ll look at a transcript or subtitles of what was said (ignoring the actual audio), look up what I need to look up in order to understand the written version of what was said, and then I start playing back the audio over and over again, listening very carefully, by rewinding and playing the same scene (that contains the speech in question, having just learned the words and grammar of which I need to in order to understand) or part of the song until I can perfectly understand what the speaker(s) is saying, without having to look at the subtitles or transcript, at full speed, being able to make out each individual word and understand everything in real time just as if they were speaking English (my native language). That’s when I am done and can move onto the next part which I will proceed to learn in the same manner.




I read your posts pretty regularly and I just had a thought about why IMHO there’s a dearth of discussion on your generally useful posts. Maybe it has to do with the design of the area where your posts end and you invite comments. If you have a look there’s a lot of stuff down there - autogenerated links, text and a bio etc - that altogether for me at least are just noise.

I find it very useful for interaction if a blog makes a clearer distinction between live elements where the author is directly addressing you/ inviting a response and boilerplate elements where the site/blog is trying to inform you, or suggest other links to peruse. Just a thought.



Appreciate the feedback.

You may be right and I have a list of improvements I need to get to over the coming months. I’ll keep your advice in mind.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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