Why You Should Only Learn The Words You Use

So often, people rigidly follow lesson plans, or course books, or flashcard decks expecting those things to lead them to fluency, only to find themselves unable to say what they really want to say because they haven't learned the words they use most!

Following programs or courses as they are laid out is a good way to increase your vocabulary, especially in the beginning when you know very little, or nothing at all. But as your skill grows and your ability to communicate begins to take shape, you will find courses teaching you words like frog, statue, and dishwasher, when you really have much more use for words like beer, cigarettes, and rent!

This is a great example of why it's so useful to think about your target language often. When you're listening to a friend tell a story, or when you're talking to your spouse, or whatever you're doing wherever you are, think about the things you're saying or hearing often, and try to figure out how you would say them in your target language.

Make a list

When I don't know a word, I make a note of it so that later, when I get to a computer, I can look up the words on my notes. Then I use them in chats. I write about them on Lang-8. I do whatever it takes to burn them into memory, so I'll have them when I want to use them.

For example, I find myself talking about drunk people a lot, whether it's to point out when someone looks unsavory, or to tease a girl who asked me a strange question... So one of the words that always ends up on my lists is "drunk".

Other words worth that I tend to look for, which aren't usually included in language course materials include: breath, breathe, blow, share, chew, bite, quiet, irritate, spill, drop, mistake, joke, hide, cover, spend, waste, dream... all fairly common in daily conversation (at least for me), but often omitted from language courses.

And then there are all those pause words, and expressions that reflect your personality, even if they don't help the conversation. Things like: well..., the thing is..., actually..., technically..., you know..., cool, awesome, bummer, ok, etc., and so on... (And yes, "and so on" is part of that list.)

It's also useful to write down the foreign words you hear or see often, but don't know. For example, (as you can see in the photo) I noticed I was hearing the phrase "se ne va" in several Italian songs, so I made a note to find out what exactly that phrase meant.

Keep notes separate

In spite of the note taking app on my iPod — or on my iPhone when I had it — I like to keep a small moleskine notebook and a pen with me at all times, for writing notes. It's a bit easier to use, and it's also easier for someone else to write an explanation for me.

This notebook is only for the language I am learning, and not for other purposes. I carry a notebook just for Italian notes. I still have my notebook from last year's Russian. And I'll start a new one next year for the next language.

This allows me to look at what things were on my mind at various points in my learning. It also allows me to cross-reference those languages and see what words and themes are common, so I can plan better for next year!

It's interesting to see which words come up on several pages of one notebook, and it's also interesting to see which words come up in both books. (Such as many of the words I listed above!)

I wonder what will find its way into next year's book...

Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.

Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Great tips! I totally agree about learning vocab that is specific to your own needs. Also, making your own vocab lists is a great way to learn vocab. I found that when I was learning Sámi, the fact that I couldn't get my hands on an actual course was a benefit because I ended up making my own course from materials from the net and I learn it so much easier that way! Also, thanks for the tip on Lang-8. I signed up and got my work instantly corrected. Awesome!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Hi Randy,Just a quick question if you don't mind- do you jot down new words paired with other words they collocate with?Thanks,Robby

  • Randy Yearlyglot


  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I'm not sure what you mean by collocate.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Sorry, I meant if you write down collocations, word combinations, phrases. Say, you write Italian for 'rent' - do you write one word 'rent' or write a phrase like 'to pay rent', 'monthly rent' etc.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I like to learn phrases ("patterns" in my choice of words) separately. Things like "to pay the rent", for instance, mean more to me when completely separated from any other similar word. Putting it next to "pay", "rent", "monthly rent", etc, just makes the situation more cloudy and confusing.
    With that said, I'm much more interested in putting things next to each other that are more directly related. For example, when learning Russian, I would find a root and learn every prefix with it at once: казать, оказать, заказать, сказать... and while Italian isn't quite as logically laid out as Slavic languages, I still find that I can learn portare, compartare, importare, riportare, etc. together, and things make a lot more sense to me that way.
    In English, those modifiers usually appear as words following the verb: something is going on, something is going around, going about something, going over something, going for something, going after something, etc.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I see, thanks for reply! Personally I learn new vocabulary a bit differently but then - different strokes for different folks! I find that when I try to learn a number of closely related words I start mixing them up, but when I learn word combinations that usually go together I can memorize them a lot easier. For me it's also handier to use them when speaking in respective situations.Thanks a lot,Robby

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    :D it made me laugh when i read your russian example in this comment. i think you might want to correct the typo.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Hahahha! That's funny!

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