Learning a new language involves much more than just grammar rules and verb conjugation. We need to learn lots and lots of vocabulary to become proficient in a foreign language. If our goal is “regular interaction with native speakers… without strain for either party,” described as B2-level proficiency on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), we’ll need to learn somewhere around 4,000 words.
Building a vocab base of 4,000 words doesn’t happen overnight though. Our brains can only learn so many new things at once and our memories quickly begin to deteriorate. We need lots of review in order to make sure what we learn sticks in our long-term memory.
To become seriously proficient in a foreign language, we need a strategy for finding new vocabulary, memorizing it and reviewing it so we don’t forget over time.
Table of Contents
- The formula for effective vocabulary building and long term retention
- Learn vocabulary in context
- Create target language vocabulary lists with Google Sheets
- Importing new vocabulary into Anki
- Memorizing vocab with Anki: best practices
- Boosting vocabulary to achieve fluency faster
The formula for effective vocabulary building and long term retention
What is the best way to memorize and retain new vocabulary in a foreign language? In our experience, the most effective formula involves relevant vocabulary, memorable context and spaced repetition memorization (we use a flashcard program called Anki).
In the sections below we’ll outline exactly how to find new vocabulary, attach context information and create vocab lists that can be imported into Anki.
Successful language learners dedicate time every day to learning new vocabulary and reviewing old vocabulary. Some learners might be able to pick up 10 or 15 new words every single day while others might be limited to two or three. The important thing is that you spend some amount of time every day expanding your vocabulary.
There are thousands upon thousands of words we could potentially learn in our target language, but which ones are the best use of our time? Our brains have limited capacity and we can only dedicate some of our time to studying, so we can’t possibly memorize and retain every single new word we encounter. There are plenty of apps and websites dedicated to providing lists of vocabulary words but often these words aren’t directly applicable to us. For example, one app we recently used for German had a list of about 30 animal names. We should definitely know the more common animals like “cat” and “dog” but the words for “leopard” and “elephant” and “zebra” simply don’t come up often enough to be worth memorizing.
The vocabulary we learn should be directly useful to us. We should prioritize only the most commonly used words and phrases – things we’re realistically going to use in everyday life.
A steady stream of new learning material
We’ve been studying Russian for the last two years and we’re currently at a low intermediate level, meaning we still have a lot of vocabulary to learn. We’re currently using Anki to learn 5 new words and review 35 old words every day. 5 words doesn’t sound like a lot, but Russian is a tough language and we want to make sure we dedicate enough time to each flashcard. Usually it takes us about 30 minutes to work through those 40 cards.
Learning 5 new words per day means we need to have a steady stream of new material. It needs to be organized beforehand because we can’t spend time every day looking for 5 new words to learn – it would be too inefficient.
We keep a list of all the noteworthy vocabulary words we encounter in apps, news articles, podcasts, shows/movies, chat conversations, etc. If we’re reading a news article and come across an unfamiliar word, we’ll add it to our list so we can memorize it later. We always try to keep the entire sentence if possible (and even add a few extra sentences) so we can better remember. In the language learning world this is called sentence mining.
Sentence mining is the process of finding new vocabulary in its natural context and memorizing it with SRS (spaced repetition systems). Rather than focusing our time on predefined lists of words, we discover new vocabulary through immersion. That could mean reading a news article, watching a foreign-language Netflix series, speaking with a native, or any other immersive study activity. We’re more likely to remember the words and phrases we extract from our immersion material since we’re the ones choosing them.
Our favorite sentence mining activity for learning Russian is podcasts. We have two go-to podcasts (Russian With Max and RussianPod101), each of which have transcripts so we can read along.
As we go through our study material we take note of words, phrases or sentences we’re not familiar with. The screenshot below is from one of RussianPod101’s podcast episodes. We came across the phrase “Хорошо, я проверю. (Okay, I’ll check.)” and since we haven’t seen this phrase before, we’ll add it to our vocabulary list.
We’re more likely to remember this phrase since we picked it ourselves. We remember listening to this dialogue about a workplace conversation, we remember the man asking the woman about the presentation material, and we remember her voice saying “Okay, I’ll check.” If we had found this phrase on a vocab list we wouldn’t have any connections to it and it would probably be a lot harder to memorize.
Translate the words you don’t know
When we were learning French we read the entire Harry Potter series on our Kindle and listened to the audiobooks while doing chores around the house. We only understood about half of the material but figured we’d just naturally pick it up over time.
This was true to some extent, we did pick up some new words here and there, but at the end of the day there’s no such thing as language learning osmosis. We didn’t realize that we should have been making an active effort to understand the words we frequently came across.
When you see an unfamiliar word or phrase we’d recommend doing a quick translation to see what it means. Many of the words or phrases you’ll run into aren’t worth the time and effort of memorizing, and that’s okay. The important thing is to acknowledge the unknowns. Sometimes you’ll run into a word multiple times then finally decide it’s worth learning.
Fortunately, Google Translate has a “Click-to-Translate” extension available for Chrome. It’s ideal for language learners because it makes quick translation very easy.
Click-to-Translate with Google Translate extension
One of the most helpful tools we’ve come across is Google Translate’s “Click-to-Translate” extension for Chrome. As you might have guessed by the name, this extension allows you to select text in Chrome and click a button to see the translation.
When we were reviewing Spanish recently, we spent quite a bit of time reading travel articles such as the “Coolest Travel Destinations in Mexico” and “Intro to Buenos Aires and Argentinian Culture.” Reading things related to your interests is a great way to find new vocabulary to learn and the Google Translate extension helps speed up the process. We’re able to quickly translate unfamiliar words and phrases as we come across them rather than having to copy and paste them in another tab.
How to determine if a translation is correct
Google Translate is very helpful for cases like the one above, where we just want to get a general idea of what something means, but it has limitations.
Machine translation tools generally provide literal, dictionary translations. Slang and colloquial expressions will often translate incorrectly. Plus, many words can have several meanings depending on the context. Google Translate is a useful tool for understanding the general ballpark meaning of something, but it should always be taken with a grain of salt.
Once you translate the unfamiliar words and get a basic understanding of the meaning, you can decide whether or not it’s worth the effort of committing them to memory.
How to decide what is worth memorizing
As language learners we constantly encounter words and phrases we’ve never seen before. Deciding whether something is worth memorizing can be difficult since we naturally want to be able to understand everything we come across. Since study time and memory are limited, we need to be selective about where we dedicate our effort.
One way to approach this is to ask yourself, “Have I used this word in the last week or will I realistically use this word in the next week?” If the answer is “no” then you might want to save that word for another time or wait and see if you run into it more frequently.
Recently, we were listening to a Russian-language podcast about food. The narrator was talking about some delicious baklava he ate for breakfast: “Baklava is made of thin dough, honey, nuts and sometimes dried fruits.” A lot of these words were unfamiliar to us in Russian: thin, dough, honey, nuts, dried. They’re relatively common words, yes, and we initially considered adding them all to our vocabulary list. But we can’t spend time memorizing every new word we see.
We thought about our conversations over the last week and conversations we are likely to have in the next week. We decided to add thin and honey to our vocabulary list since we’re most likely to actually use these words in the near future. At some point we’ll definitely want to learn the words for dough, nuts and dried, but right now we need to be very selective, prioritizing only the ones which are most common.
Once you decide to learn a given word or phrase, learn it in context. Learning new material in context helps ensure you use it correctly and remember it better.
Learn vocabulary in context
It can be difficult to learn individual words by themselves. Our brains need details in order to create strong memories we will more easily remember. If you learn a new word along with the context in which it’s used, you’re able to create stronger neural networks and retain information longer.
Additionally, learning vocabulary in context ensures you’re able to use vocabulary correctly and in the appropriate situations, which helps you sound more natural and native-like.
Context creates stronger memories
The best way to create strong memories is through memorization in context. This can mean memorizing a new word along with one or two sentences that use it, creating mnemonic devices or even attaching an image to a flashcard.
Let’s imagine an English learner is reading an article about air travel and encounters the word “plane” for the first time. They want to make sure they remember that word since it comes up rather often in conversations, so they decide to make a flashcard along with some context to help them remember. Out of context, it’s easy to forget words or mix them up. Memorizing “plane” by itself is less effective than memorizing it along with other relevant details.
They could pair the word “plane” with a couple sentences like, “My plane landed at 3pm,” or, “Our plane leaves in two hours,” and practice saying those sentences when they review that card. They’ll want to pick sentences as personally relevant as possible. Perhaps our English learner recently went on vacation and traveled by plane. They could search Google Images for an image of the airline they flew with and attach a photo of that plane to their flashcard.
The result is a flashcard which includes useful phrases and personally relevant context, helping our hypothetical English learner attach more association to the new word and remember it more easily in the future.
Context helps us use words correctly
Let’s say our hypothetical English learner comes across a sentence including the word way. If they get a direct translation and try to memorize that word by itself they might not be able to use it correctly; the word way can be used in a number of different ways.
- He’s mad because he didn’t get his way.
- She kicked the ball way out into the field.
- There’s no way I’m going to that restaurant again.
When we come across new words we want to understand the situations in which they’re used. We want to know the different meanings they can have and the different ways we can use them in a sentence. This is an essential step to sounding more like a native: if you’re learning a new word or phrase you need to learn how to use it correctly.
The best way to do so is to learn the new word in its natural context.
Using Reverso Context to find context sentences
There are plenty of context dictionaries available online which will give you context sentences for words in a foreign language. We personally prefer Reverso Context, which offers hundreds of thousands of sentences across 15 different languages.
For example, if we type in the Spanish word “aguardar” we can see plenty of different ways it’s used:
The cool thing about Reverso is that, in addition to individual words, you can also type in parts of sentences. Imagine we want to say, “The best way to learn a language is…” in Spanish, but we’re not quite sure how to say “best way to.” We could type it into Reverso and see multiple Spanish translations in natural context sentences, giving us a better understanding of how to structure the sentence we want to form.
Reverso sometimes provides examples from technical or legal texts, so you may have to scroll (or even modify your search) in order to find sentences which are a fit for you.
Obviously, a sentence like, “Negotiations between parties to a dispute remain the best way to settle differences,” is a bit too technical and arcane of a sentence to focus on. Something like, “Education is the best way to fight discrimination,” which appeared a bit further down the page, is a simpler and easier sentence to focus on.
Discovering new vocabulary on Reverso Context
We often discover new words or phrases just based on our searches – it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole. For example, one of the context sentences we ran into, “Deberá aguardar hasta que él regrese,” uses the verb “regresar (to return)” We haven’t seen the word “regresar” in ages so it was nice to get a refresher. This example also uses the subjunctive form of the verb.
Since we haven’t reviewed Spanish subjunctive in ages, we’ll look for other sentence examples using the subjunctive form of “regresar.” We typed in “hasta que él regrese” and found tons of useful phrases, for example:
Once we find two or three really good context sentences we can add them, along with the original word or term, to our vocabulary list. We use Google Sheets to easily manage vocabulary sheets and quickly add new vocabulary items as we encounter them.
Create target language vocabulary lists with Google Sheets
As you study your target language and come across new words and phrases to learn, you’ll want to add them to a vocabulary list so you can turn them into flashcards later. We prefer to use Google Sheets to keep our vocab lists organized and in one central location. Plus, Sheets has some helpful tools that can save us lots of time in turning our lists into flashcards.
Our vocabulary lists in Google Sheets have a left column for English and a right column for our target language. Every time we find a word or phrase we want to learn we add it to the right column. Then, once the list is a reasonable length, we can import the entire thing into Anki and turn each row into a separate flashcard.
In the screenshot below you can see the beginning of our next Spanish vocabulary list. In the right column we have a few words we’ve encountered, plus some context sentences from Reverso listed in bullets under the dotted line. In the left column we have the English translation.
Google Translate function for vocab lists
If you want to get extra fancy with your vocabulary lists, Google Sheets has a formula that allows you to automatically translate your vocab items back into your target language, saving you time by translating and formatting the English column for you.
The Google Translate function we’re using is =googletranslate(B5, “es”, “en”). B5 is the cell containing our Spanish-language material, “es” is the language B5 is in, and “en” is what we want it translated to.
Once we have a sizable number of new vocabulary in column B we can copy the automatically translated text from column D into column A. Note that we have to use the paste values only option here (ctrl+shift+v).
Once you paste the English translations into column A you’ll want to go through and check for edits, since Google Translate isn’t perfect and will sometimes get things wrong.
This particular format (translations on the left, period after every line, etc.) makes importing the list into Anki easier. It also ensures that our text-to-speech addon reads the target-language material correctly, but we’ll go over that in later sections. For now, all you need to worry about is having a place where you can store your new vocabulary and keep it organized.
Importing new vocabulary into Anki
Once we have a sizable list of vocabulary items we can import them into Anki and begin memorizing them. Anki is by far the most effective vocab memorization tool we’ve found. If you’ve never used it before, we would highly recommend checking it out.
What is Anki and how does it work?
Anki is a flashcard program that helps us memorize new material and review over time. It uses a spaced repetition algorithm to help us review material over time so we don’t forget it.
If we just use paper flashcards we would have to review everything manually. For example, if we have a 20-card deck that we learned a few weeks ago there might be 15 cards we know really well, 3 cards we’re unsure about and 2 we need to re-learn. If we review that 20-card deck manually we’ll spend some amount of time reviewing those 15 cards we don’t necessarily need to review yet; the weakest cards won’t get enough attention. If we have dozens of 20-card decks, our reviews are guaranteed to be inefficient. We’ll spend too much time reviewing strong material and not enough time reviewing our weakest cards.
When you review a card on Anki, you’ll be prompted to choose one of four options to indicate how well you know it. If you know the card very well, you can select “Easy” and the program will wait a while before showing you that card again. If you select “Again” you’ll see the card a few minutes later.
Anki shows us the cards we need to review at exactly the right time intervals, right as we’re close to forgetting. This approach saves us time and enables us to concentrate our efforts on our weakest material.
Anki is a free, open-source program you can download for free on the Anki website. We’ll note that Anki is not the most user-friendly program. It can be a bit overwhelming at first, so you may find it helpful to search for an installation guide or watch a setup video on YouTube.
In the following sections of this article we’ll go into more detail about importing and adding audio to flashcards, so you may want to spend some time familiarizing yourself with the program first.
How to batch-import vocabulary into Anki
Once we have a sizable list of vocab items in our Google Sheet, perhaps 15 or 20 entries, we’ll import them all into Anki. Your process may look a bit different depending on which operating system and programs you use, but we’ll show you our process to give you a grasp of the concept.
Step 1: Copy your vocab entries (English column and target-language column) from your Google Sheet into an Excel spreadsheet.
Step 2: Save the Excel spreadsheet as a Unicode Text file on your computer.
Step 3: Use a text editor (i.e. Notepad on Windows) to open the Unicode Text file you just created and make sure the encoding is UTF-8.
Step 4: Open up Anki and go to File > Import (or hit Ctrl+shift+i) and select the vocab file. The Import dialogue box will appear with several options. You can copy the selections we have in the screenshot below, then hit Import. Another second popup will let you know that the cards were imported successfully.
With our cards successfully imported, we can begin studying.
When we click on one of our decks, Anki shows us how many cards we have scheduled for today. In the screenshot below we have 10 New cards, 9 Learning cards (cards we’ve seen before but had trouble with), and 50 older cards to review.
The amount of New and Review cards to study every day can be configured in the deck settings.
How to add audio to flashcards (text-to-speech)
Anki has a number of cool addons that can help augment your study experience. The most useful for us is called AwesomeTTS. AwesomeTTS allows you to attach audio clips to your flashcards using text-to-speech technology. The Premium version (currently $5/month) has over 600 voices available across dozens of languages.
AwesomeTTS is a game changer for Anki cards. When you turn over a card the audio automatically plays, helping you to help improve your pronunciation and also train your ears to understand your target language better. You can install the addon for free using the addon access code on the AwesomeTTS’s page of the Anki website.
Once you have the addon installed you can select the cards you want to add audio to (in the Browse window) then select the AwesomeTTS option from the top left of the screen. You can experiment with different voices to figure out which you like the best. Our Spanish deck features a variety of accents across Spain and Latin America, helping give us a better idea of the sounds we’ll encounter when we interact with people in the Spanish-speaking world.
Memorizing vocab with Anki: best practices
We’ve been using Anki for quite some time to memorize and retain vocabulary in a number of different languages. In the following sections we’ll go over three tips to get the most out of your study time.
Review your cards every day
Language learners should spend a certain percentage of their daily study time learning new vocabulary and reviewing previously learned material. Spaced repetition systems are designed to be used regularly; if you only use it a couple of times per week you won’t enjoy the full benefits of the spacing algorithms.
The exact amount depends on your preferences and goals. Anki makes it easy to customize how many New and Review cards you see every day. We suggest you go through as much material as you can complete in about 30 minutes.
Don’t stress if you’re only able to go through a few dozen cards per day; every learner is different and some languages are considerably more difficult than others. When we study French or German we’re usually able to cover 10 or 15 New cards and 50 to 75 Review cards per day. That generally takes us 30-45 minutes. Russian is a much more complex language and we’re still at a lower level, so it can easily take 30 minutes to go through 5 New and 30 Review cards.
The most important thing is that you don’t rush. Take your time to focus and absorb the material you’re learning. You’ll quickly notice that you’re picking up lots of new material and retaining it much better.
Set a goal and keep a study planner
It can be difficult to create a habit of using Anki every day. Sometimes we get busy and other things take priority, then a week goes by and we realize we haven’t studied at all. We like to call it “falling off the grid” and every language learner struggles with it. We’ve been studying languages for 12 years and still have to constantly work towards maintaining a regular study habit, but we have two strategies that might be helpful for you.
Realistic, short-term goals
It’s important to have realistic goals you can achieve and feel satisfied with. If you simply say, “I’m going to study vocab on Anki every day and by the end of the year I’ll have learned a few thousand new words,” you’re likely to feel guilty when you inevitably miss a few days or fall off the grid.
We recommend focusing on goals you can achieve in the near term, such as “I’m going to study Anki for at least 15 minutes every day for the next 7 days.” When you hit the 7 day mark you can feel accomplished for having completed your goal. And if you don’t quite reach your goal you can make an effort to improve in the next week. Alternatively, if you study more than you planned in your goal you can feel successful for overachieving. Language learning is a long game and goal setting helps keep you focused on short term improvements, while also giving you a sense of accomplishment in your studies.
Use a study planner to track your progress
We recommend using a language learning study planner to keep track of your study progress and short-term goals. Every day, take note of what learning activities you complete and how long you study. At the end of your short-term study goal, reflect on the progress you made and how you can improve in the future.
Actively study, don’t just read the cards
When using Anki to study vocabulary, you should make an effort to focus on and actively learn the material you’re studying. We’ve found that quickly flipping through the cards every day isn’t enough to really learn them. You need to truly concentrate on the material and do your best to etch it into your brain’s memory. We have a few tips for how best to go about this.
When we review a card on Anki, we complete a few extra exercises to learn more effectively, depending on the rating we give the card:
- Again: If we don’t know a card at all and mark it as “Again” we will write the word or phrase twice on a piece of paper, then read it aloud twice.
- Hard: For “Hard” cards, we write it once and say it aloud once.
- Good: If it takes a few seconds to remember the answer, you probably know the material but just need a reminder. In this case we’ll read the card aloud twice and move on to the next one.
- Easy: If you can say the entire word or phrase aloud before flipping the card to see the answer, you’re good to hit “Easy” and move that card to the back of the deck.
Don’t stress out if you’re having a hard time learning a particular word or phrase. Memory is like a muscle that can be trained to work more effectively and you’ll improve with time and practice. As long as you’re making an active effort to study regularly and learn the material, you’re on the right track.
Boosting vocabulary to achieve fluency faster
There are tons of different ways to learn a language and hundreds of books, apps and websites to help you out along the way. At the end of the day, however, the fastest way to become more fluent is to constantly expand your vocabulary.
Every time you study your target language, whether on an app or in a classroom, you should pay attention to the unfamiliar words or expressions you come across and memorize the ones you find most useful.
Even if you just learn five new words every day, you’ll quickly find yourself making rapid progress. By making an active effort to build your vocabulary you can more quickly achieve your goals and reach fluency in your target language.
– written by Drew Grubba for Smarter Language. Drew has ACTFL-certified proficiency in Swedish, German, Portuguese, French and Spanish. He’s also studied Mandarin Chinese, Norwegian and Dutch, and is currently learning Russian.