How to Expand Your Vocabulary Without Memorization

How to Expand Your Vocabulary Without Memorization

Accumulating words is the fundamental task in language learning, in other words it is very important to acquire new words. Many learners are under the impression that this is done through memorization. This is not, however, how to expand your vocabulary in the most effective way. I’ve never been able to learn new words by deliberately trying to memorize them. The more effective way to learn new words is simply through exposure to the language.


I recently visited my brother who is not well. I brought him an iPad and got him set up on LingQ learning Spanish. It has been interesting hearing his experience so far, as he’s not an experienced language learner. One of the things he keeps saying is that he can’t remember the words and sentences that he’s studying, and this frustrates him. I told him that he shouldn’t worry about trying to remember words, but just move on, working through the content, and eventually the words will stick.


How to Expand Your Vocabulary: My Language Learning Method

My language learning method consists primarily of reading and listening, while looking up new words using LingQ. When studying content on my iPad, I will even review the definition of a word that I more or less know but am not fully confident about. I may even have to look it up again next time. This doesn’t bother me. It’s part of the process of being exposed to new words in different contexts and becoming more and more familiar with the scope of their meaning. Over time, the words will start to stick although it is hard to predict when this will happen.


How to Expand Your Vocabulary Without Memorization

Using Flashcards

While the majority of my time studying is spent reading and listening, sometimes I will use flashcards. I don’t use them the traditional way, with the target language word on the front and the learners having to rack their brains for the meaning or definition, which is written on the back. I’m not saying this doesn’t work for some people, but just that I personally don’t like it. If I’m looking at a flashcard, I’m not trying to quiz myself. I want all the information on the front, as another form of exposure to the word. I know that if I continue to present this information to my brain, eventually I will learn it.


Learn New Words Faster

Words can have different forms, tenses and persons. When I come across a word I know but in a new form, I often don’t have to look up the definition since I more or less know the meaning. Nevertheless, I sometimes do so just for reinforcement. Through more and more exposure, I become familiar with the word and how it is used in different contexts. In this way, I find that my “known words” count on LingQ grows much faster than if I were to try to memorize words.


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Don’t Worry About Your Memory

Often, people will say “I can’t learn a language, my memory is too poor.” The truth is that memory isn’t the most important ingredient to language learning success. The key to success in language learning is committing yourself to the process, and staying with it, enjoying it. You need to immerse yourself in the language and trust that your brain will gradually learn more and more over time.


So, my advice to my brother, and in general, is to not become discouraged because you can’t remember words. You will acquire the words even as you forget them. But it won’t be through deliberate memorization. It will not happen overnight.  But if you are able to apply yourself,  to focus on exposure and to trust your brain, your vocabulary will expand. You just need to be patient.

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