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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 organize 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: