learn vocabulary
➡  How to learn 📆 1 November 2023 ✍️  Konrad Jerzak vel Dobosz

Everyone who is learning a foreign language would like to master it in the shortest possible time. However, if you clicked on the title of this post hoping that you would discover a miraculous way to learn vocabulary faster, it means that you are learning languages ineffectively, because you are basing your learning on two major misconceptions. I would like to talk about them in this article.

How do you learn vocabulary?

For most of us, learning a foreign language is associated with cramming lists of vocabulary. This is not our fault. It’s a remnant of a language teaching method that dates back to the deep Middle Ages, used for teaching Latin. Long ago, when people could neither write nor read, the ability to memorize texts was crucial. People memorized stories, poems… If they were unable to anchor something in their memory, it was forgotten forever. Although the ancient Romans and Greeks invented many effective mnemonic techniques, most people simply memorized texts by heart and repeated them until they could remember them.

Therefore, the first language teachers assumed that the best way to learn a new foreign language was to memorize vocabulary and to cram grammatical rules as well as tables of verb conjugations and noun declensions. 

Unfortunately, this method persists to this day. Although in recent years we have understood a great deal about how our brain works and how learning and memorization processes take place in it, textbooks for language learning, as well as lessons at school and on courses, are still prepared in a similar way. Maybe they’ve added a few more pictures and images to attract students’ attention, but the scheme remained the same: lesson one, we learn to say who we are, so we memorize a list of 20 professions and nationalities. Lesson two, we learn to order something to drink in a café, so we have to cram 30 names of different drinks. 

Did your lessons look like this? 

The reason is simple: textbook authors sometimes go the easiest route – it’s much easier to list vocabulary words than to design a lesson in such a way that students can learn these words in a natural way.

So, how should you learn vocabulary then?

The answer is simple – don’t learn them at all. We need to ask ourselves a completely different question: “How do we increase our vocabulary in a foreign language?” Here are a few tips that might help:

  • Learn words in sentences. If we have to memorize something, let’s memorize whole sentences, not words taken out of context. Context helps us with remembering.
  • Learn only the words that are important to us. If in some lesson we have to remember 100 professions, let’s remember only those that are important to us, e.g., the profession that we ourselves practice.
  • Listen and read a lot. New words will naturally enter our memory.

Now, how do you learn a language in one day?

On the Internet, it’s easy to find offers for courses whose authors promise us to learn a foreign language in a few days. I’ve always been curious about the fact that the authors of these courses speak at most one language. If I knew a magical spell that would allow me to learn any foreign language in a few days, then today I would speak not only 20 languages, but at least 160.

Courses of this kind are based on a simple promise: with the help of clever memory tricks, we will help you remember the most important words in a given language. To some extent, this obviously works. Participants in such courses are able to memorize a large number of words and sentences in a short time.

One of the best courses of this kind, created by the now-deceased Michel Thomas, was also based on smart repetition of material, gradual progression to more difficult topics, and constant referencing to what is known. After completing such training, the effects were very good. Where, however, is the catch?

On such courses, an important detail is often overlooked.

Language cannot be effectively learned in a few days for two reasons:

Firstly, in order to transfer the learned material from short-term to long-term memory, at least several weeks are needed. If we do not regularly repeat what we have learned in the course, all of our knowledge will quickly evaporate. Memory cannot be tricked even with the most elaborate techniques.

Secondly, our brain needs time to become accustomed to a foreign language. Even if we are able to learn to communicate at a basic level, we will still need many months to learn to understand what foreigners are saying to us, as well as to learn correct pronunciation (the brain needs to become accustomed to the correct pattern so that we start speaking in a given language with the right intonation and properly pronouncing individual sounds).

Therefore, learning languages requires time, but this does not mean that it cannot be simplified. From my experience, I see that in 3 months you can learn what they teach in school in two years, and in language courses in one year. However, do not believe that you will learn a language completely effortlessly. A bit of effort must be put into the whole process, but if we approach it properly, learning languages will become a pleasure.

PS: If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to learn more tips related to learning languages, you can find more of our blog articles here: https://elemelingua.com/blog/

Also, you can check out our courses here: https://elemelingua.com/courses/

Article originally published at sekretypoliglotow.pl in Polish. You can find it here.

Konrad Jerzak vel Dobosz

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