How to Increase Your Vocabulary in a Foreign Language

When we are in school, teachers give us assignments to help to increase our vocabularies. They give us vocabulary quizzes too. However, when we are not in school, we can still be working on our vocabularies, and the larger your vocabulary in in a foreign language, the easier it is to get around and do what you want to do in that language. I hate to sit in a church services or watch a movie and be lost, but there are ways to stop being lost. Here are some ways I have found.

When I was in Japan, I went to church all the time, and in the beginning, I was usually lost because they didn’t provide a translator. I made up my mind that I wanted to understand what was going on. I brought a note pad to church with me. I listened as they spoke. I listened for words that were being used over and over again that I didn’t know. I wrote them down. When I got home, I looked them up in the dictionary. Every evening, I studied my list of words before I went to bed. I began following a few things at church, but I still didn’t understand it all. After I realized I knew all the words that hey were using the most often, I began jotting down words they were using that I had never heard. I did the same with those words too. I looked them up when I got home and put them on that list I studied every evening. I was understanding more and more at church and able to discuss the Bible with people. When you listen like this, you need to realize that what they are saying may be a conjugation instead of a word. Those won’t be in the dictionary. If you hear something that isn’t in the dictionary, that is when you ask a friend who knows the language so they can explain it to you. If you aren’t in Japan, you can do the same thing with Japanese movies online.

I use a Korean/English Bible. I read it in both languages and look at the English when I don’t know the Korean. I did that with Spanish until a Mexican lady suggested I go to an all Spanish Bible, so I did. I don’t need the English when I read in Spanish now. Romanian/English Bibles don’t exist, but since I know my Bible well, it was really helpful to read the Romanian Bible because if you already know what is happening, then you read it in a foreign language, it is easier to understand and helps you with the vocabulary and the grammar.

Since I couldn’t read kanji, it proved to be a really good way to increase my Japanese vocabulary. However, if you are studying a language that isn’t as hard to read as Japanese like Spanish or Korean, you need to get books and read them besides listening to movies , sermons, and the news. When you are reading, when you run into a word you don’t know, write the word in the margin and look it up writing the definition in the margin too. The next time you run into that word, you already have the word and the definition written right there in your book. You don’t have to study these words every evening unless you just decide to push harder. With this, as long as you keep reading, you will learn the words through simple repetition as you read because each author has a certain vocabulary, and when you read their book, you are learning their vocabulary. You are also learning the vocabulary of the particular subject of the book. If you are reading a romance novel, you learn the words and phrases you need to talk about romance. If you are reading a grammar book, you learn the words and phrases you need to talk about grammar. If you are reading the Bible, you learn the words and phrases you need to talk about God, but also there are many subjects in the Bible, so you end up learning much more by reading the Bible. You learn about many different subjects when you read the Bible. Reading the Bible in Romanian and Spanish both really increased my vocabulary wonderfully!

I have also learned a lot from singing in foreign languages, especially when I already know the song in English.

Another thing I have done that has increased my vocabulary is keeping a diary in the target language. I learned how important keeping a diary is from my Japanese teacher. She assigned me a diary to keep when I went on a school trip. I had to look a lot of words up. However, I learned that I was using those words over and over again because of the way I expressed myself. I was learning to talk about my life in particular by keeping a diary. I asked my Japanese friend to look at my diary and correct my grammar, and I also learned grammar principles that I needed to express myself by keeping a diary. Each person does different things everyday. We need the vocabulary to talk about what we do. Since I was a student, I learned the vocabulary a student needed to talk about their life. At that time, I was also learning vocabulary about traveling and sight seeing since that was what we were doing. If you work in an office and keep a diary in a foreign language, you talk about the things you do in your office. If you spend a lot of time playing video games, you learn the vocabulary you heed to talk about your video games Each person has what is called an idiolect, It is like their personal dialect. That idiolect consists of words that are unique to that person. You will be learning to talk about your life, about things that are unique to you when you keep a diary in a foreign language.

My kids have learned from playing games in foreign languages. My daughter has a Korean Wii we play sometimes. My kids played The Legend of Zelda in Japanese. My daughter also had a Ferby who spoke to her in Japanese. We have a Korean Monopoly game came Blue Marble we play sometimes as well as a Clue game in Korean. When I was teaching Spanish, I put the game in Spanish for my students to play, and they really enjoyed it and learned to talk about money by playing Monopoly in Spanish. Playing in the target language can make your vocabulary go up and be fun.// Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I can never diminish the importance of watching TV in a foreign language. It is not just good for listening practice. In fact, in Romania, I watched the American television show “Dallas” in English on Romanian TV and watched the Romanian subtitles as the people were speaking. I learned vocabulary as well as grammar by watching the Romanian subtitles. It was a fun way to learn. If you are watching in the target language and have English subtitles, you should only look at the subtitles when you don’t understand, and you can learn vocabulary like that. If you watch a TV show or a movie in the target language without subtitles, you can also use the principle of jotting words down you keep hearing but don’t know or jotting words down you have never heard and studying those particular words.

Never underestimate keeping a diary in a foreign language. Even if you hardly speak the language, trying to write it helps you an enormous amount!//Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

My daughter learned a way that really helped her learn a lot of Korean words. First of all, she read a lot in Korean. After that, she attended her father in law’s Hanmoon classes. Hanmoon is what the Koreans call the Chinese characters they use, but only the scholars use them now. She learned to recognize more complicated Korean words from attending the Hanmoon classes. Often Koreans break words apart and take the two parts and mash them together with a part from another word. Koreans complain about them doing it because some of them can’t keep up with the new words people create. However, when my daughter studied the Hanmoon, she learned to recognize words that could be broken apart and have the pieces mashed into another word. Between her reading and the understanding of the way Hanmoon worked, it really helped her vocabulary soar in Korean. On those TOPIK tests, the Test of Proficiency in Korean, that the Korean government gives, she is a level 6, the highest level you can get. Her reading and learning to understand the Hanmoon made her language abilities off the charts. Americans never reach that high in Korean. Chinese might because of the similarities in the words between Korean and Chinese. People from Bangladesh might because of the similarities in the grammar. People from Japan might because of the similarities in the grammar and the words, but Americans just don’t make it that high, but my daughter did. Now, if I hear or see a word I don’t know, I use her as my dictionary.

That smart phone is helpful in so many ways, and it can also help you increase your vocabulary.//Photo by Tracy Le Blanc on Pexels.com

Often, I have a list of words even now sitting on my nightstand. Now a days, people have smart phones. You can use your smart phone and register words that you want to learn rather than keep a note pad if you want. I had a student who always made 100% on all his vocabulary quizzes in a class I taught. I asked him how he did it. He said he put all the words in his phone with the definitions he wanted to learn. He had to ride more than an hour by bus to school everyday, so he just got his phone out and read over his list to keep from being bored. He said he didn’t really study or drill himself on the words. He just read over his list every time he rode the bus, and he learned the words and got good grades. Sometimes, it doesn’t take that much effort. It just takes doing it. I have pushed hard at times, but this student wasn’t’ really pushing hard at all, but he was still learning the words. There are many different ways, so choose the way that helps you the most if you are wanting to increase your vocabulary.

3 thoughts on “How to Increase Your Vocabulary in a Foreign Language”

  1. My goodness dude, how many languages do you know?! I thoroughly enjoyed this article, and I definitely got some good language acquisition tips out of it. I’m currently studying te reo Māori, French, and also (vaguely) Hindi and Arabic. I haven’t really dabbled in Korean but it is something I would like to do! I really like Korean singer, OOHYO, if you’ve heard of her? It would be cool for me to be able to sing and understand her words. Thanks for posting, and I’m looking forward to perusing through the rest of your site!

    1. I only learned one language at a time, and I speak several. It is actually very confusing to try to learn more than one language at a time. You will make more progress if you try one at a time.

      1. Absolutely agree! Thanks. I’m not learning them all simultaneously I might add. I study te reo Māori at university, and I’ve been studying French throughout high school and uni too. I tried to pick up some Arabic when I lived in Bahrain for a bit, and I just don’t want to lose what I had – but I haven’t been super proactive about it. I was learning Hindi with my ex and their family, and I don’t want to lose what I learned there either! Do you have any experience learning any of these languages? And it sounds like you’ve travelled a lot, is that immersion experience your primary way of acquiring languages?

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