How To Master The Vocabulary Of Any Foreign Language

Which would you say is more important in learning a language, vocabulary or grammar? You might be tempted to sit on the fence and say both.

In my opinion, vocabulary takes the front seat and should be given a little more importance than grammar.

Imagine you are in a foreign country and you’re looking for a telephone booth. Sputtering out words in the logical sequence of your mother tongue would probably still get you useful directions. You would no doubt sound absurd, but grammatical rules alone won’t help out much.

In speaking and writing, words have more impact on their own than in the way they’re linked and arranged. The same goes for listening and reading. Although you need to know a fair share of grammatical intricacies before you can recognize the different forms of a word or verb, you’ll need to know the words themselves before you can grasp the grammatical rules.

Your second-language teacher at school might have stressed time and again the importance of learning your vocabulary and grammar together while reading. This method might be effective in terms of quality and comprehensiveness. But it eats time and how many of us really have as much free time as a school kid does?

Even if you do learn a foreign language in such a comprehensive and progressive manner, you will still start forgetting things as you are forcing yourself to memorize new words. In fact, learning vocabulary and grammar separately is a much more effective way to approach a foreign language.

Start with simple words which have less ambiguity. Nouns are a good starting point as they are the least dependent on context. Verbs, however, have many variations and special cases so only basic verbs should be learned separately. There is a way to overcome this, which will be introduced later this chapter.

Once you’re well versed with the basics of pronunciation, conversation and grammar, you should, ideally, begin learning your vocabulary and grammar separately. However it is important that you do not completely isolate them as well.

At this stage of your learning process, you’ll have to keep in mind that neither vocabulary nor grammar is the end of your language learning phase. In fact, proficiency in these two only serves as the foundation for the expansion stage of your entire language acquisition process.

Remember earlier I’ve given you 600 essential words?

Keep in mind that these 600 words serve as just a foundation. In other words, I consider them as the pre-requisite to learning the language. Within these words, there are nouns and these are probably the most important in your vocabulary as they are harder to guess. On the bright side, they do not have multiple meanings, like adjectives and verbs do.

So how exactly do you go about studying vocabulary? Do you go through each word, repeat them countless times and pray that they stick around in your head long enough? This may have worked while you were cramming the day (or hours) before a test, but it might not work here. There are many other strategies mentioned in this manual and it is important to find the strategies that work best for you.

My role here is to introduce you to the basis of an excellent language learning system which you can modify to suit your schedule, ability and interest.

The Easiest Vocabulary For You

Research has shown that it is easier to memorize words that have a special significance for us. For instance, if you decide to learn how to say “I Love You” in an exotic language to please that special someone, chances are, you won’t forget that phrase easily.

So be sure personalize your vocabulary to correspond to your interests and it’ll make learning that much more enjoyable.

There Is More To Foreign Vocabulary Than Just The Spelling

When learning vocabulary, apart from taking note of the spelling and the meaning of the word, you’ll also have to give due attention to other elements such as, genders of nouns, demonstratives, and using the right article.

Demonstratives for instance are dependent on the context in which you are speaking and environment of object you are trying to describe. Many beginners have problems using the right demonstratives for nouns. This is especially so in languages like Spanish, where there are more variables determining the use of demonstratives.

Also, I have noticed beginners in Dutch having a hard time learning the right article of every noun and the associated demonstrative.

For example:

de auto
het boek

de – deze – die
het – dit – dat

De auto
Deze auto
Die auto

Het boek
Dit boek
Dat boek
The simplest and most effective way to get this right is to learn the nouns with the right article.

het boek
de auto
het huis
de man
het meisje
de vrouw
het glas
de boom

Regular vs. Irregular Words

Most natural languages have their share of regular and irregular words unlike purely constructed languages like Esperanto, where learning grammar is a breeze.

Any grammar text or dictionary you come across will have an entire section dedicated to regular and irregular words. Though it might be easier to deal with regular words as they follow a standard set of rules, there is no need to despair when trying to grasp irregular ones too.

Here are some of the tricks that can help you learn your irregular words:

  • Get familiar with the rules and instead of trying to tackle the huge dictionary tables in one go.
  • Try to remember the usage of these words in simple sentences. You can then substitute the words accordingly.
  • Don’t try to learn everything in one day. Spread it across a minimum of 2 weeks and try to internalize it as you go. You can either break it up and deal with it in parts or learn by repetition as a whole.
  • Even irregular words can sometimes follow a particular pattern, depending on how irregular the word is. Certain combinations of letters can sometimes follow the same rules , for example :
    • In English,“ee” in most cases becomes “e” in the past tense: bleed vs bled , meet vs met, feed vs fed
    • In German, “ie” in most cases becomes “o” in the perfect tense: biegen vs gebogen , bieten vs geboten , fliegen vs geflogen
  • Words with gender can also be identified easily in certain languages. For example, in German, words ending with “ung” are feminine, while words ending with “er” or “ir” are usually masculine, and those ending with “lein” and “chen” are neutral. And in Spanish, words ending with an “o” are masculine, while those ending with an “a” are usually feminine.

Try to identify the rules and patterns that stand out and it’ll make your learning experience that much easier.

The Fundamental Principle Of Photographic Memory

“y r a l u b a c o v”

If I asked you to memorize this letter sequence, how would you go about doing it?

Constantly repeat it to yourself and hope you will eventually remember it?

Or taking note that it is Vocabulary spelled backwards?

The latter sounds much easier, doesn’t it?

This is known as memory by association.

There are basically two types of memory acquisition. One is by repetition, which is a rather commonly used method.

The second is by association, where we remember new information by linking it to what we already know.

So what is memory, really? Rather than telling you about the biochemical process (which you can find in Appendix 4), let us define the term memory this way:

Memory is the web of knowledge residing in one’s head. The most efficient process of memorizing is to establish new linkages of new information to things you already know.

The great thing about language and vocabulary is that once you have learned a word using this method, you will establish a natural link to it without having to recall the bridge every time.

The point is to create a linkage from existing information to the new information.

The memory tricks you are going to learn not only apply to learning languages. They can be used in virtually every aspect of your life. Therefore, spend some quality time on it so that it’ll save you years in future.

Secrets Of Bridging What You Know And What You Learn

There are several very effective ways to establish connections between the representation of a word and its corresponding meaning(s). Some of them are more powerful than the rest and would suffice in most circumstances and I will refer to them as first-tier memory weapons. However, in certain situations, the second-tier techniques can also be equally potent.

You’ll realize that you’ve already used some of these techniques before even without realizing it. Now you are going to learn how to apply them both consciously and systematically.

Mastering these helpful memory tricks can cut down your language learning time by about 50-80%. You must remember though, to spend enough time mastering each technique and revising them before going on to the next step.

The first-tier memory techniques are:

  • Association
  • Visualization
  • Outstanding
  • Color
  • Humor

The second-tier memory techniques are:

  • Faking
  • Rhythms
  • Overview

Direct Association

Like I previously mentioned, the shortcut to memorizing new information is to use what you already know and then create a “memory-placeholder” so you can retrieve the new information when you need.

It would greatly help you when you’re trying to remember this association if you were to make them as memorable or as ridiculous as possible.

First let’s look at a common example of something you need to remember quite often… numbers. We all have various important sequences of numbers to know like telephone numbers, credit card numbers, special dates, and so on.

How do you remember a new acquaintance’s telephone number? Well, you take note of it, and you’ll eventually remember it if you refer to it often enough. Or you might keep repeating it for 20 – 40 times and usually you’ll remember it for a short period of time say a few hours.

Some people associate certain digits with their own special numbers. Let’s say John wants to remember a telephone number 8736532. This is how he might do it: 87 is the year in which his first daughter was born, 365 is the number of days in that year. 32 is the number of classmates he had back in high school.

We normally have many numbers associated with us in our daily lives, be it birthdays, age, car plate number, and even our serial number at school. But you would have to be very systematic and lucky to be able to link everything up without getting awfully confused in the end. To avoid this you can have a standard system at hand. This is however a primitive example of association.

Broadly speaking, here is a list of types of association you can make for yourself:

  • Link the word to the sound of a word in the native language or in another language
  • Link the word to the situation in which it appeared
  • Attend to the meaning of a part or several parts of the word
  • Associate it to a keyword
  • Note the structure of part or all of the word
  • Place the word in the topic group it belongs to
  • Visualization/creating an outstanding mental image of the word
  • Create physical sensation and link it to the word

When learning a foreign language, you’ll encounter new information all the time, such as new vocabulary and grammar. You need to associate all this new information or at least certain elements of it with what you already know and create linkages between them.

The trick to constructing associations is to make them as concrete and tangible as possible. A striking image like a flower will always be easier to remember than random abstract information.

So how do you create an image of new word in the first place? If you think about it, a foreign word is just made up of a few syllables which wouldn’t normally make any sense to you unless you already know the translation. The only way to make those obscure sounds meaningful is to substitute them with groups of sounds that you’re already familiar with.

However, do keep in mind that there are a thousand and one ways to create mental images and you should choose the version that works best for you. If the suggestions from other sources don’t work for you, make up your own even if you can’t possibly put them into words. As time goes by, you’ll get better and better at it.

The objective here is to extract some semblance of a meaning from a seemingly incomprehensible word using the most outrageous mental association you can come up with.

The substitution of sounds and associations given below are just some examples of what I might use. In fact I just made them up as I wrote, but with a little bit of extra thought I’m sure you can create better and more associations that work for you.

Some examples:

Look at the nouns in the 600 word list in the package. The first four most frequent words are:

morning, afternoon, evening, night

Here are some of their translations:

Arabic: صباح, بعد الظهر, مساء, الليل

Chinese: 早晨 (zǎo chéng), 下午(xià wǔ), 晚上(wǎn shàng), 夜晚(yè wǎn)

French: matin, après-midi, soirée, nuit

German: Morgen, Nachmittag, Abend, Nacht

Russian: утро, после полудня, вечер, ноча

Spanish: mañana, tarde, tarde, noche

Here are some examples of how you can make associations between the English word with each of the translations in different languages:


Morning: z-Zorro, aoch-the cry of pain (“ouch”), eng-English

Association—In the morning, a ninja and Zorro are fighting in a moor. Zorro’s sword made a “z” cut on the ninja who shouted “ouch” and insulted Zorro in English.

Afternoon: x-xxx (porn), i-I, a-volume A, wu-woo

Association—In order to woo my girlfriend, I give her the volume A of a porn movie in the afternoon at 3 o’clock.

Evening: wan-van, shang-Shanghai

Association—Driving a van all the way to Shanghai in an evening

Night: ye-“yeah”, wan-van

Association-Finally reached destination (could be Shanghai) in a van at night and shouted “yeah!”


Morning: ma-mama, tin-a tin can.

Association—mama always gives me a tin can in the morning.

Afternoon: après (“after” in French)-apple. midi (“noon” in French).

Association— Apple always comes after a meal at noon, which is also called mid-day. Eat apple only after mid-day in the afternoon.

Evening: soi-soil, rée-read.

Association—In the evening, read a book in the soil.

Night: ui-“oui” (“yes” in French)

Association—In the middle of the night (pun intended), a certain activity generates a lot of cries of pleasure such as “yes” or “oui”.

To effectively utilize the principle of association you must be able to identify relevant associations that are applicable to both the new and existing knowledge. Initially, this might seem like a difficult task, but over time and with practice, it gets much easier.


Visualizations can help you remember your associations better. This technique involves picturing the association that you’ve created in your mind and being able to see this with your mind’s eye.

Now in order to recall this image every time the word comes up, you will need to use the following tactics:

  • Linking two concepts : Whatever picture comes to your mind it must always remind you of the meaning of the word you are looking for. If your image is too complicated you might end up confusing it with something else.
  • Outrageous : The easiest way to remember something is, if it’s so out of this world that it stands out from the rest of the information in your head. Using images that are normal and would naturally occur to you is not effective as you can just as easily forget them. It is always better to have a mental picture that will strike you every time you encounter the word.
  • Concrete : Do not get too carried away with visualizations and try to associate a word with a very abstract image. Chances are you’ll confuse yourself later on.

An illustration would be : “Breakfast” in German is “Frühstück”, so you can imagine a piece of fruit getting stuck in your throat and you choking on it during breakfast. The next time you come across the word “Frühstück” this image will immediately come to your mind.


No matter what kind of image you create for the association, it must be extremely striking. This means that certain parts of the image have to be out of proportion, exaggerated or strange. In fact, the stranger and odder the image is, the easier and longer you’ll remember it.

Try to create really dramatic images with the words and their meanings. If you find that hard to do, then try to exaggerate everything about the image till it becomes outstanding enough to be memorable.

For example, cake in Italian is “torta”. Now create an outrageous story about a tortoise that raced against a hare to get to the cake at the end of the line.

You will use this memory trick heavily along with other tricks, and you’ll find that it makes memorizing fun and effortless.


Your brain can see color. Bright vibrant colors and shades in every hue. So why deprive yourself of this and stick to learning dull boring texts in black and white. You don’t even need a photographic memory, just a good imagination.

Using color is one of the easiest yet most neglected ways to enhance memory. All you have to do is to simply assign colors to the different aspects you need to remember. If you have a long list of words and you want to also remember what group they belong to or how they differ, a little dash of color can work wonders.

While learning different words, if you are trying to also keep track of their gender, then all you have to do is color the masculine words blue, and the feminine words pink and the neutral words grey. This makes it easier for your brain to absorb it and recall it later on.

For example, zebra in Spanish is una cebra and it is feminine. Picture a zebra with pink stripes… It’s as simple as that. It’s not an image you’re likely to ever forget, is it?


Studies show that people tend to remember humorous sentences better than similar sentences that are not funny.

Make use of this fact by trying to incorporate humor into your images and associations. Your picture can be funny, weird or utterly ridiculous. And the crazier it is, the longer it will stick around in your head.

You know you’re on the right path if you visualize an image that makes you think, “This is absurd! Where the hell did that come from?” This just means that it will leave stronger impression because of its unconventionality.

If you use logic instead then you will find that the logic will either elude you or not strike you immediately. That’s why I had a ninja who speaks English and Zorro fighting in the example of “morning” in Chinese.


Apart from using your sense of hearing (during repetition) and your sense of sight (during visualization), you can use various other senses in increase your memory retention.

Kinesthetic – Get on your feet and act out that mental picture. A moving scene with a story is a whole lot better than a still image. Pretend you are a character in your imagined story and act out the scene for real. So for the Chinese word “morning”, imagine you are Zorro and use your imagined Zorro sword to inscribe a huge “Z” on your opponent Ninja’s chest. Look at how furious he’s become and how funny he looks yelling at you.

Auditory – Vary your tonality to speak out the lines of your image.

Gustatory and Olfactory – You need to have a bit of imagination when using these two senses. For objects in your picture having a strong smell, really feel them. Taste them and smell them as hard as you can. This will enhance your memory significantly.

Rhythm & Rhyme

Associating keywords to a known sequence is yet another fairly simple way to remember words. This method can help minimize gaps in information while also making it easier for visualization.

Remember the telephone number example I gave at the beginning of this Chapter? Let me now present a “number pegging system” to you:

one – bun

two – shoe

three – tree

four – door

five – hive

six – sticks

seven – heaven

eight – gate

nine – wine

ten – hen

See for yourself how fast you can memorize all the above 10 associations. If any of the images don’t stick easily, then switch them with something more meaningful.

There’s no need to stick to the list I just gave you. If they don’t stick, here are more of them:

one – fun, sun, ton, run, gun

two – do, sue, blue, crew, zoo

three – tree, free, decree

four – score, tore, door, floor

five – hive, dive

six – sticks, picks, slicks

seven – heaven

eight – ate, late, date, rate, great, state

nine – dine, wine, recline

ten – den, win, sin, vin

Now try to memorize a random phone number example, say, 8736532. You can create an image or story like this: You enter the gate that leads to heaven, and you cut down a tree to get sticks when a hive from the tree falls on your shoe.

You’ll hardly need to force yourself to remember this story. You can decode it to get your number in a matter of seconds. Moreover, it’ll be obvious if there are holes in the story and you’ll immediately know you are missing out on a digit.

Rhythm and rhyme, though simple, are highly effective methods of learning. Even adding a familiar rhythm to something can make it easier to remember. How do you think you learned your ABCs? Applying it to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” made it much easier, right?


Secrets Of Conquering Forgetfulness

You might be a diligent student who devotes a lot of time to learning new things every day. You might even have a lot of the wonderful memory techniques at your disposal to remember what you’ve learned. I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but this is not enough.

It is only natural that you will end up gradually forgetting what you have learned. There are many reasons that contribute to forgetting a particular word. The nature of the word and the effectiveness and validity of your mental associations are key determining factors. After all, you can’t guarantee that all your word-meaning associations are unforgettable.


Forgetting things is part of the learning process and this is why it is important to always review what you have learned.

Like I’ve mentioned before, regular and periodic revision of what you have previously learned will help keep the information fresh in your mind. Revision can also increase your familiarization with the topic. Constantly looking back at what you have learned will also eventually increase the depth of your understanding.


Repetition, more than anything, is crucial. Repeating words breeds familiarity and allows time for the meaning of the word to sink in. Extended repetition does the job of upgrading information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory.

From day 1, each set of vocabulary must be repeated within 24 hours. Otherwise you will have wasted more than half of your efforts for that day. Let me repeat, and I hope this sinks in: You are wasting your time, if you don’t practice repetition.

Here is something called the forgetting curve established by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885:

Or more specifically:

Elapsed Time Since Learning Retention (100%)
Immediately 100
20 minutes 58
1 hour 44
9 hours 36
1 day 33
2 days 28
6 days 25
31 days 21

According to the Ebbinghaus graph, you’ll forget more than half of what you have learned after just one day, so you have to consciously review what you have learned within just an hour of learning it!

The rule of thumb here is to review at least 3 times on the first day. And then revise within the next 24 hours, the next 3 days, next week, and next month.

As you can see reviewing what you have learned is an excellent investment of your time. If you don’t regularly revise your material you will end up spending a lot more time re- learning what you have forgotten.

So how exactly do you go about this?

One suggestion is to learn 10 words at a time in a list. Review the last two lists before each new one is learned. Review the words once the same day and again over the next two days as well.

Another good way is to keep a vocabulary journal. I personally prefer this approach to using software tools as it is a lot easier for you to control. But if you use your computer on a regular basis then you might want to consider getting hold of a useful piece of software.

“Word Bank”

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the amount of words you have to learn, then try breaking down your information into parts. Start by constructing vocabulary lists. This vocabulary list should be like your personalized simplified dictionary. It can help organize your information, sort them into different groups and also track your progress.

Some suggestions when creating lists are:

Mark out words that you have difficulty learning, and put them on a separate list. Keep adding your “weak” words to the list and this way you’ll know which words you need to spend extra time on.

Separate words that are easy and moderately easy to learn. This can save time when you’re reviewing words later on.

Create a list to learn from for every day of the week, and you can mix different types of words to learn each day. Once you’ve learned these words, save the list and add it to your review- list to be reviewed a week later.

Sort words out into different categories like nouns, verbs, adjectives etc. You can further sort your groups into smaller lists. You can also split your nouns into objects, animals, clothes, etc. Your verbs can be sorted into regular and irregular verbs, and your adjectives can be divided into those that describe people, moods, scenery and so on.

You can constantly update these lists as you learn more words. An advantage of creating such lists is that you will remember the common characteristics of words on the same list, and their relationships with words on different lists.

Honestly, there are more words in the dictionary than you will never need. Instead of having a list full of words that you are never going to come across, or are not going to use, customize your vocabulary list to suit your needs and your interests.

Things that should make their way into your vocabulary list include words, phrases and certain common idiomatic expressions and this will make your vocabulary learning process more systematic.

Two-Way Vocabulary

When learning a foreign word, you should not only focus on translating it to your own language but also be able to work “backwards”.

To illustrate, let’s take the French word “pluie” which means “rain” in English. Once you have learned this word, if you come across it in the papers, you should recognize that it means rain.

However, during a conversation when you want to say something about rain in French, your mind draws a total blank. This might perplex you because despite knowing the meaning of the word, you were not able to extract it when you needed it.

This is mainly because your mind only established a one-way association and you were unable to work your way backwards.

So the next time you are faced with a vocabulary list make it a point to refer to both sides. This will tremendously enhance both your speaking and writing ability and ensure that you remember the translations when you need them most.

Establishing this two-way vocabulary association might slow down your learning process but the benefits it brings far exceed the troubles. It helps you think in your target language too.

Word Analysis

What should you do when you encounter a new or unfamiliar word while reading?

Well, you can either guess the meaning of the word from its context or from its components and formation.

In word analysis, you try to identify the root, prefix or suffix of the word to give you a clue about the word’s meaning. Many people already know this technique and it can come in handy when dealing with languages from the same group that could have similar roots.

However, do take note that although identifying the meaning of a word based on its components is a useful technique, there is a possibility that it might give you a completely different meaning, or one what is inappropriate for the context.

For example :

  • “Pedophile” comes from “ped” meaning children and “phil” meaning lover of.
  • “Pedicure” however has nothing to do with children or curing them. The “ped” here comes from “pedal” which refers to limbs.

Therefore, my recommendation is to use word analysis only as the last resort, if you really cannot deduce the meaning of the word from context.

Avoid Isolated Words

Try asking someone who is just learning English to explain to you the difference between “look after”, “look at” and “look for”.

Chances are, you’ll probably get confused looks.

This is because although it’s obvious to us that they are completely different concepts, beginners view them as individual words (and therefore see them as being related)

Foreign languages are no less different, and what makes learning phrases so hard is that there is seldom any clue to logically guide us to the correct meaning.

Instead of looking at the above 3 terms as one word followed by 3 different prepositions, it is better to learn them as 3 different phrases.

It is worthwhile to shift your mentality and change your perspective to look at all such problems in this manner.

You can also make use of humor to create sentences that facilitate memory retention. Remember, the funnier and more outstanding the image you construct for a word, the longer it’ll stick in your mind.

These so called phrases are usually words or sequences of words that are often used together and are almost a semantic unit of their own. They are called collocations and a common list of English collocations is given below.

Verb + noun throw a party / accept responsibility
Adjective + noun square meal / grim determination
Verb + adjective + noun take vigorous exercise / make steady progress
Adverb + verb strongly suggest / barely see
Adverb + adjective utterly amazed / completely useless
Adverb + adjective + noun totally unacceptable behavior
Adjective + preposition guilty of / blamed for / happy about
Noun + noun parking ticket / window frame

Through Idioms

Idioms can make a language colorful and funny. If you don’t know idioms, you’ll find yourself missing out on a lot of “insider jokes” and the chance to impress natives with colorful expressions.

Languages like German use idiomatic expressions heavily. While you can express yourself in German without using idioms and still be understood, you probably won’t be able to understand everything you hear. In order to communicate better, it would be worth your while to pick up as many commonly used idioms as you can. They can give you unique insights into the culture and people of the region.

Some idioms are literally the same in different languages and a lot of the same ideas are translated across with minor differences. For example, the Italian version of “to kill two birds with one stone” is “prendere due piccioni con una fava” which roughly translates to “to catch two pigeons with one bean”.

Not all idioms can be understood from their literal translations though. A rather morbid German idiom is “aus seinem Herzen keine Mördergrube machen” (not to make a murderers’ hiding place out of one’s heart) which means “to speak frankly” or “to make no bones about it.” So try to remember them by placing them in context and constructing sentences with them.

You can use imagery to remember and understand idioms and your work is already cut out for you as idioms often always represent funny and interesting images. The English idiom “to make a mountain out of a molehill is “aus einer Mücke einen Elefanten machen (to make an elephant out of a mosquito) in German. To remember the German idiom, you can easily picture a tiny mosquito changing into a big elephant.

Say It Out Loud

This is related to the “faking” technique we mentioned previously.

Your auditory senses can play a major role in helping you learn new words the right way. Every time you are learning a new word, make sure you say it out loud. If the situation doesn’t allow for it at the moment, then remember to make up for it afterwards.

There is a world of difference between saying a word out and repeating it silently in your head. If you don’t say your words out loud, like me, you will soon discover that you have difficulties in applying words that you’ve just learned. I was not even able to fully pronounce the word… The sound of which seemed to have lost its way from my mind to my vocal chords. Sometimes I wasn’t even able to recall the word.

Ever since I picked up this trick from a friend, I’ve realized that I learn better saying a word out loud 10 times compared to reading it 50 times over. Listening to yourself say the word has the effect of retaining itself in your memory longer.