‘What’s the best way to learn vocabulary?’

When I was teaching English full-time, this was the second question that new students usually asked (after the eternally frustrating ‘How long until I’m fluent?’).

The optimum way to learn vocabulary has eluded me for as long as I’ve been studying languages – and that’s over two decades now. I choked down Latin nouns with the old ‘look-cover-write’ approach, and halfheartedly kept a trilingual vocabulary book for two months during university when a French lecturer told our group that we needed to stop focusing solely on the relationship between L1-L2. I’ve got stacks and stacks of flashcards, diligently made and never reviewed again. I’ve got apps, and books, and picture dictionaries. At one time everything in my room had its own post-it note label in Russian: ‘this is a cupboard’.

As we become more obsessed with our own levels of productivity and ‘hacking’ (shudder) our lives, there is still one language-learning process left to streamline. And what do the experts recommend?

I was a little disappointed last month to see that the British Council had tied vocabulary learning into learning styles rather than preferences (style are a myth! A myth!), but all the usual techniques were there. Then there’s this. And this. And even this – a hefty collection of tips from language professionals across the globe.

So which of these strategies really works?

The answer? They all do.

The best ways to learn vocabulary are just like the best ways to learn anything else:

  • Set a realistic goal
  • Commit to practising
  • Review often

Then, consider your preferences. How you approach any of these points is up to you: one person’s ‘realistic goal’ might be another person’s Everest and, as we know from the hundreds of vocabulary learning articles out there, not everyone likes to practise in the same way. But if you can follow these three steps (and always review!), then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t succeed.

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