How to Learn Vocabulary Fast

The most important task in language learning, in my opinion, is the acquisition of vocabulary.

If we have enough words, we can make sense of what we’re reading or listening to and we can somehow express ourselves. Vocabulary is much more important than grammar. The grammar you acquire gradually as you become familiar with the language, with the words, but first of all you need words.


How do we learn vocabulary?

There are two approaches. One is the deliberate study of vocabulary by reading vocabulary lists, flash-carding, keeping handwritten lists, these kinds of things. The other is to learn through a lot of exposure. Now, the strategy that you adopt will depend on your personal preference and also, in my view, how much time you have.

How to Learn Vocabulary Fast

If you have a lot of time, six-seven hours a day as I did when I was studying Mandarin Chinese 45 years ago, then you can take an hour a day for the deliberate study of vocabulary. However, if you have one hour a day and two-thirds or three-quarters of that time, which I call dead time, is in your car, doing tasks around the house, walking the dog, then I suggest you don’t try to deliberately learn vocabulary.


Interleaved learning

There is significant research showing that what they call block learning – where you take some material and try to force yourself to learn it, reviewing it many, many times – is relatively inefficient. Interleaved learning, where you come across some information, then you forget it, you go look at some other information and you come back to that first information, so you’re sort of interleaving layers of different things, forgetting and relearning, actually enables you to learn things better.

Very quickly, the Law of Diminishing Returns sets in when we’re deliberately trying to learn something. It’s no longer fresh for our brain and the brain basically pushes back, whereas if you forget and come back to it you learn better. But if you have six-seven hours a day, there’s nothing wrong with spending some time reviewing flashcards.

If I look at my own pattern where I consume a lot of content through listening, reading and acquiring lots and lots of words, if I had to review them all in flashcards or on lists, I would spend all the time I have with the language doing it. I have to decide, do I want to spend my time reviewing words in flashcards or do I want to spend that time listening and reading to things of interest? I tend to do the listening and reading. I find that I acquire words very quickly and I have an enjoyable time doing it.


When to Speak

Of course, speaking is also helpful. What you hear the native speakers say while speaking is what I call high resonance, just as interesting content is high resonance. You notice things and learn vocabulary better if you’re engaged in a conversation. You also notice when you weren’t able to find the words yourself and then you hear someone else use them.

How to Learn Vocabulary Fast

However, in my own case, I prefer to delay that speaking situation unless there’s a need: if I’m living in the country where the language is spoken. Otherwise, I prefer to delay it until I have something meaningful to say and can understand what the other person is saying. Otherwise, we end up with a very limited range of language that we’re exposed to like, “How are you?” “What’s your name?” “What’s the weather like?” etc.

Therefore, I prefer to give myself that significant exposure through listening and reading, quite confident that the high-frequency words will appear very often, the medium-frequency words will appear less often, but I will eventually get them, and the very low-frequency words, some will stick and some won’t. If they’re that low frequency, maybe I don’t really need them.

Ultimately, the choice is with the learner and my preference is to study in an enjoyable way. If I were in a course somewhere working five-six hours a day having to write an exam, I might take a different approach.


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8 comments on “How to Learn Vocabulary Fast


After working with young children for many years I feel that a combination of exposure and flashcards works well when teaching new vocabulary. I find that if I introduce the word through a conversation or a story first the children are more interested in the word. Then we can review the vocabulary through the use of flashcards


I do not believe in using flashcards with young children. I believe that children learn best when they experience the new vocabulary word in many different contexts. I try to introduce new words through stories and then integrate the new word into our conversations and play.

Arif Hussain

That is a great technique described in this blog how to improve your vocabulary. So it will be very handy for those who still want to memorize vocabulary.

I think the best way to expand one’s vocabulary is to read words in contextually written sentences, like this site does.

I can go on there, read a word I’ve never heard of and understand it immediately.

In my opinion, flashcards seem too old school, over-recommended and uninspiring. Never did I find them to be very effective.


I was in one of those situations where I got to study a language 7-8 hours a day in classes, then more at night. In the beginning we were learning a new alphabet and 15-20 words a day. I’d write each word 15 times while sounding out the word, plus visualizing them. We also had audio tapes for each lesson’s vocab and dialog. The next day we’d test on the vocab and do the dialog, which featured the new vocab, from memory in front of our class. We never used flashcards. We figured we would have been issued them with the tapes and textbooks. Only flashcards we ever got from Uncle Sugar were armor and aircraft recognition playing cards. 😉 Some of us had the card habit from previous languages and made their own. I don’t recall using them in my high school Spanish.


I used to use flash cards 20 years ago, but now I have so much material to work with and I can look up words relatively easily online most of the time, so I don’t bother trying to memorize words. I just review texts I read by rereading them and looking up the words I still don’t remember. Or I listen to the texts (if this is possible). I think it’s better to see words in context. Certainly this happens with passive skills which i believe should be developed prior to active skills. While in the short-term I might not remember quite as many words when i want to use them I do believe that in the long run I remember them and not only that I know how to use them.

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