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Top 5 Language Vocabulary Building Techniques

Like all language learners, some memorization techniques have served me better than others. As such, they’ve become my default resort when the need to memorize chunks of new vocabulary presents itself. If you’ve been looking for memory techniques you can use, maybe you’ll find this short list of my favorites helpful in your own language learning efforts.

1. Language Diglot Weave

I like using Diglot Weave for memorizing individual words and short phrases in a target language. While it’s far from the most efficient technique for committing large amounts of new vocabulary to memory, I’ve found it very effective for getting acquainted with short lists of words and phrases.

In this technique, you memorize foreign words by inserting them into sentences formed in a language you already know. For example, if you’re learning Spanish:

“Let me tell you un cuento about a beautiful girl”

In this sentence, we replaced “a story” with the Spanish “un cuento.” As you can tell, it’s a lot easier to work with “un cuento” when put in the context of a language you actually understand. A sentence that incorporates both a foreign language and your native language is easier to memorize, easier to recall and easier to repeat. Plus, you can use it in actual conversation with your friends without causing much confusion (it’s just one foreign word out of a whole sentence, so they could fill in the blanks easily). You can also combine this with rhyming and visual techniques built into the sentence if you think those additional elements can help you.

Some people use this process to learn the translation of full sentences, replacing words with their equivalent in the target language one by one. That, however, is a discussion for another time. Suffice to say, the Diglot Weave can be extremely useful for memorizing isolated words and phrases at a faster than normal pace.

2. Language Elaborative Processing

The best example of elaborative processing are actors memorizing their lines. While there are actors who memorize lines by rehearsing them repeatedly, studies have found that most actually commit lines to memory using a different technique altogether.

Instead of simply reading through their lines over and over, these actors first focus their attention on the underlying context that sits beneath the words. They work on fleshing out the meaning of each line, the corresponding motivations of the character saying them and other related information. Basically, they elaborate on the context surrounding the lines, making it more meaningful than just a bunch of lines whipped up by a screenwriter.

In language learning, you can use this by really understanding what the phrases you memorize actually mean and, if you can, making up situations in your mind where they apply completely. A lot of language learners already do this when they study vocabulary in related groups — that way, all the vocabulary items can be linked to each other with concrete and specific contexts. In elaborative processing, you go deeper by creating scenarios in which you can imagine using this item appropriately.

3. Language Mnemonics

There are tons of mnemonic techniques available out there. In fact, a quick search on Amazon will turn out dozens upon dozens of books dedicated to specific mnemonic techniques that you can use to aid your memorization tasks.

While I can appreciate the value in a lot of mnemonic techniques out there, the one that I’ve always used for language learning is the Town Language Mnemonic. I’ve found it extremely efficient and helpful for keeping track of large chunks of words. Maybe, it can serve you the same way.

In this technique, you create a literal town in your mind, assigning different groups of words to different parts of the town. For instance, I use the street I live in (this is in my imagined world, by the way) to assign nouns and pronouns that refer to people; I use the local mall to memorize nouns that refer to objects; I use the large park just outside the mall to memorize adjectives; I use a basketball game being held in the park to memorize adverbs; and so on.

The idea is to create a virtual world in your head where each item is associated with a word or phrase in the target language. That way, all you have to do is visualize this mental construct whenever you need to recall specific vocabulary items.

4. Language Retrieval Practice

Testing yourself on information you’ve memorized is one of the best ways to enhance retention. We’ve all experienced this first-hand from our early days in school and it’s one of the reasons why practice exercises are always a regular part of any language learning curriculum.

If you can find pre-made tests in books and websites, you should definitely make use of them to practice your retention of vocabulary items in the language. If you can’t, what I’ve regularly done is to find comic book drawings online, copy and paste the image to a software like GIMP, and then label each item I can identify with the word describing it in the target language. I’ve opted for comic book drawings, rather than actual pictures, since they’re a lot more fun to look at with a lot of the objects prominently drawn (compared to pictures, which will often focus on a single subject). Plus, many comic book scenes can be memorable or funny, further aiding retention. Oh yeah, I’ve also made a habit of finding full-color drawings rather than black and white ones — they’re just a lot more fun to work on.

5. Create Language Flash Cards

I will forever be a huge fan of flash cards, even though I don’t actually use those small index cards anymore like I used to. Instead, I’ve replaced it with a smartphone app that, pretty much, does the exact same thing.

Flash cards have been a consistent favorite because they’re, literally, something you can pull out whenever you have downtime (even a short one, like 3 minutes) to quiz yourself on your retention of a word or phrase. With flash cards moving to smartphones, they’ve become even more efficient (you can hold as many cards as your phone storage will allow) as a repetitive memorization technique.

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About Sally Morgan

My name is Sally Morgan, I'm American and currently a Language Teacher in New York State Schools for French and Spanish. I have studied Foreign Languages, translation and teaching at the Columbia University in New York. I lived for 3 years in Europe including France, UK and Italy.

I am a passionate linguist and love how speaking another language opens the doors of communication and therefore a whole world.

Please ask me any questions below

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