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...