Strategies for learning languages

A general distinction you can make is that between:

  • direct study, and
  • learning from context

Direct study is more important when you're learning a non-cognate language. It's also more important in the initial stages of learning a language. Learning from context is particularly useful for cognate languages.

Of course learning a language requires both approaches, but the relative proportions will vary.

You need both definitional and contextual information to "know" a word properly. It is also helpful to process words at a "deeper" level - by playing with them, using them, thinking about them.

And of course, you need multiple exposures - a requirement for which extensive reading is the best remedy, but in the beginning, is probably best answered by programmed texts/courses that repeatedly present words in slightly different contexts (e.g., in different sentences).

Let's look at some particular techniques:

Decontextualized vocabulary

Word lists - can be a useful resource. generally decontextualized; however, sometimes they are provided in conjunction with a reading passage, thus providing context - this is, of course, more effective. lists of "most frequently used" words can also be quite motivating. however, lists of difficult or less frequent words are probably more useful. lists are also fairly tedious to learn from. their main use is therefore as a resource - e.g., in order to make flashcards or semantic maps. (look below for some word lists available on the Web)

Set yourself targets (daily as well as longer term)

Study words in their "families" - e.g., write, written, wrote, writing, typewriter, etc


Drill - good for getting in the needed repetition; most useful when they involve multiple media; when they group words according to context (words that "belong" together, for one reason or another), rather than, as is often the case, according to frequency; when they provide full and immediate feedback

Bilingual-dichotic method

This is a somewhat specialized technique. Dichotic listening refers to a technique used in the psychology laboratory, whereby a person wearing headphones hears different messages in the left and right ear. The technique has been used with some success in teaching foreign language words - the foreign word is heard in the right ear while simultaneously the native translation is heard in the left ear (most people process speech better in the right ear). The student is instructed to attend to the foreign language word. The student also has a list of the words to read while listening.


Graded reading - is, after all, the means by which most of us acquired the bulk of our native language vocabulary; the main problem with this approach, when applied to another language, is that you need to understand around 95% of the words in a text in order to infer the meaning of the rest. this makes it harder to simply grab books aimed at the native speaker - you need graded readers, specifically created for students of the language. another useful resource to build up your vocabulary are bilingual readers.

The great benefit of reading is the repeated experiences of the same words in slightly different contexts; the down side is that it is a time consuming method of learning. also, infrequent words will, of course, appear infrequently - these words really need to be given special attention.

Dictionary use - using a bilingual dictionary is of course helpful, and often necessary; however, it is better if looking things up in the dictionary is NOT your first strategy - better to try and guess the meaning first. effective students tend to use a dictionary flexibly and thoughtfully; they are also better at judging when guesses are likely to be accurate, and which words in a sentence are most important for understanding the meaning.

A useful strategy to prevent you getting too bogged down, is to mark the words you're in doubt about, on your first reading, and then look them up at the end of the passage.

The Web is a great resource for language students - find a newspaper in your chosen language and practice with it regularly; find a radio station that broadcasts in your chosen language

I find DVDs wonderful - look for ones that offer your chosen language. You can listen in your native language and have subtitles in your chosen language; listen to your chosen language with native language subtitles; or, have both the soundtrack and the subtitles in your chosen language.


Try to retell passages of text in your own words

Recounting what you have learned to someone else is an excellent way to reinforce learning (trying to teach them is better still!)

Remember to speak aloud words as you read/think them

Talk to yourself - tell yourself what you're doing as you do it; make up sentences about what you can see when you're walking, or waiting for something

Try and think of different ways of saying the same thing


Have a notebook to record new words and grammar points; don't simply list the words as you come across them, but organise them into categories - categories that are personally meaningful. for ready reference, start the notebook with a list of words you find or think you'll find particularly difficult. (note: useful groups include generic categories, e.g., animals, fruit; functions, e.g., greetings, prepositions; situations, e.g., Post Office, airport, shop)

Make labels for items round the home and stick them up - and don't limit yourself to single words, create sentences. remember to read them aloud at appropriate moments.

In the bathroom and toilet, put up lists of declensions/conjugations or even passages of text or dialog.


Even unrelated languages throw up words that share similarities - look out for these. Be creative.

Physically act out words and sentences - use mime and gestures.

Associate words with pictures

Visualize words



Periodic review - vital!

To make sure words are "fixed", you need to overlearn them - don't tick them off too soon!

Daily practice is essential, but try not to get into a rut. Routine is useful for establishing a habit, but ring the changes with your activities, both to keep your interest up, and because it is a more effective means of learning.


  • Experiment with different strategies till you find what works for you.
  • Aim to have a variety of strategies to choose from.

Some word lists

English top 1000 words:

I like this because it groups words according to their stem, thus: able: ability abler ablest ably abilities unable inability


1000 most common words in French


1000 most common words in German


List of High-Frequency Baseword Vocabulary for Japanese EFL Students


also check out the supermemo language collections:

tags strategies: 

Approaches to learning another language

How many words do you need to learn?

An analysis of English vocabulary* has found that the first 1000 words account for 84.3% of the words used in conversation, 82.3% of the words encountered in fiction, 75.6% of the words in newspapers, and 73.5% of the words in academic texts. The second 1000 accounts for about another 5% (specifically, 6% of conversation, 5.1% of fiction, 4.7% of newspapers, 4.6% of academic texts). In other words, if you learn the top 1000 words, you would understand 84% of the words used in ordinary conversation, and if you learned the top 2000, you would understand 90% of the words used.

While the effort to learn this second 1000 words may seem a lot of effort for not much gain, the difference between understanding 84% of the words and understanding 90% is actually quite dramatic. Learn those first 2000, and you can go out there and talk to people, and the words you don’t understand will be obvious by context a lot of the time.

You will also have enough to read novels (87.4%) — not quite as good a coverage as in conversation, but good enough, especially when you consider the advantage a book has over conversation — you can take as long as you need to understand what’s being said.

I haven’t seen such analyses in other languages, but I imagine that the results would be similar (perhaps even higher coverage given, since it is generally agreed that English has a particularly large vocabulary).

I.S.P. Nation says, in his widely regarded text on learning vocabulary in another language1, that “high-frequency words are so important that anything that teachers and learners can do to make sure they are learned is worth doing.”

In one sense, high-frequency words are easier to remember because you come across them so often. But words are inherently different in how easily learned they are. What factors govern the learnability of individual words?

Factors that affect how easily learned a word is

The most important factor in determining how easily words are learned is, of course, how similar they are to the words in one's native language (or another language you know well). Learning a language that is closely related to a language you already know is obviously a very different proposition to learning a language that is unrelated. Thus, learning Spanish when you already know French and English and Latin (my own position) is made infinitely easier by virtue of the vast number of words that are "cognate" (words that are the same or very similar in both languages).

You do need to pay particular attention to so-called "false cognates" - words which appear similar, but have different meanings. But in most cases that doesn't require any special strategy; the observation that they are different is enough (provided, of course, that you are sufficiently aware to remind yourself every time you come across the word - this is much easier if you are immersing yourself in a language).

Another factor is the similarity between the word and other words in the chosen language that you've already learned.

Another factor is the context in which you are learning the word. You generally don't learn only one word at a time. So factors that will influence ease of learning will be:

  • the relationship between the words (it's more difficult to remember words that are similar in meaning, if you try and learn them at the same time);
  • how many words you're learning at a time (if the words are difficult, learn fewer);
  • the order in which you learn them (words you learn first and last are more easily remembered, therefore you need to give more attention to those in the middle, to make up for it)

What's your goal?

Your strategy will also be very different depending on whether your primary goal is to understand the language (either in reading or listening) or to produce it (speaking or writing). Learning to speak or write is of course much more difficult than simply learning to understand (which requires recognition rather than the harder recall).

Approaches to learning vocabulary

Your approach to learning a language depends therefore on all these factors. Most particularly, how you learn a language depends on why you want to learn the language.

A large proportion of teach-yourself language books assume your purpose is to travel in a country that speaks that language. Accordingly, the emphasis is on learning appropriate phrases for situations such as eating in a restaurant, buying a train ticket, etc. Another, growing, section is aimed at business travelers, with appropriate phrases for formal introductions, conversations in an office, etc. Both of these categories emphasize the conversational — learning to speak and listen.

None of these, I'm afraid do anything for me. I’ve tried, but they are too far from what I want. Any time I spend on them is wasted by the little voice saying, ‘So? Do I care? Why should I want to know this?’ My own desire is always to be able to read the language.

I was wildly delighted when I found "Literary Chinese by the inductive method" - a 1948 book that teaches Chinese by presenting the text of the simplest classic Chinese text - the Classic of Filial Piety - and providing notes on the meaning of each character, including notes on the derivation of those characters and their elements. This method probably would not appeal to many people, but since my primary reason for learning Chinese is to read the classic texts, it appeals to me hugely.

A large part of the appeal is that you are learning, right from the beginning, something "real". This is a text that people have been reading and studying for over 2000 years. That alone gives the words an intrinsic fascination. And looking at each character through its etymology gives each word a depth of meaning that immediately provides connections, and sometimes, emotional resonance.

For me, that is. I recognize that, for many people, this approach would leave them cold.

The point is that, regardless of how "good" a course/book/program is, what matters is how well it works for you. Which is why, even if you're using a "canned" system, you still need to customize it to your own quirks and style. To do that you need to have a wide variety of strategies to call on, and an understanding of the principles involved.


General resource for learning another language

Learning English:

learning words in context: (news items with difficult words and phrases explained) give it a word and it will find words that rhyme with it, and also point to definitions, and quotations in which the word appears exercises to improve your English new idiom to assist students of English. They provide a definition as well as audio files of the idiom itself and the idiom used in context.


Nation, I.S.P. 2001. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge University Press.

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