Back in my high school days, teachers used to assign me lists of vocabulary that I was to ‘learn’. Unfortunately, they didn’t explain ‘how’ to learn the vocabulary effectively. It seemed that by ‘learning’ they meant deliberately ‘memorizing’. This does not work well in language learning at all! Why? Speaking a language fluently is not dependent on recalling words from lists. It is an organic progress whereby having used the different words with their various shades of meaning in multiple situations over time, they begin to become a functioning part of your active vocabulary.
Do you know every word in your native language? Did you ever look in a dictionary and realize the number of words that you don’t understand? This doesn’t prevent you from communicating effectively in your native tongue because you encounter most of the words you don’t understand very rarely and when you do, normally you can deduce their meaning from context. Therefore, the conclusion that you need to know a huge number of words in any language in order to be ‘fluent’ is misplaced. Putting a particular number of words that you need to know is also not productive. Words normally have multiple shades of meaning depending on the context in which they appear and communication is in large part dependent on using the vocabulary that you do know well for the task at hand. My aim is to be ultimately ‘functionally fluent’ in the languages that I learn. This means that I am able to understand and use the vocabulary that I encounter in context nearly all of the time and not that I know the meaning of every single word in the new language.
In the beginning you need to build an active use of basic words, i.e. the most common words for you, especially connectors (words like ‘also’, ‘as well’ and although’, and the words that are going to be the most useful for you to use personally are best to focus on. If you can, I recommend asking native speakers how to say the things you want to say and look up only the most important words but don’t try to memorize them deliberately. Frequent exposure to words and expressions in context over time will allow you to develop a large active vocabulary.
You can also use software to help you with this but significant and consistent reading and listening (otherwise known as ‘input’) in the language on topics that are interesting and most useful to you, will give you sufficient spaced exposure to the right kind of vocabulary in context for you personally even without any technological aids.
Remember: Deliberately trying to remember a word is ineffective!
For the next chapter or ones that you would like to reread:
Chapter 4 Grammar
Chapter 1 Overview
Chapter 2 Accent
In these pages, I will briefly outline the fundamentals of my language learning routine. A more indepth description of these principles and their application to language learning will be published in a forthcoming eBook. So please subscribe to my mailing list (below) if you are interested in being notified of when this will be published and other important developments at Language Tsar before they are announced on my website or YouTube channel.