Advice for Learning Foreign-Language Vocabulary

From Saint Louis University



Grammar Helps Index




First, it is often helpful to have some kind of "hook" (i.e., mnemonic or memory-device) to help you to retrieve the word or meaning that you want to remember.

Second, you need practice in recalling the word.

Third, you need to hear, see, and understand the word repeatedly in its various forms and in its most typical contexts.





Practica Quaedam


Face the facts! It is important to realize that you are the one responsible for learning the vocabulary.

You will save much time and frustration by discovering precisely how you learn vocabulary most speedily and securely.

Your goal should be a deep-processing of words. Deep-processing implies that these words become part of you, almost as your native language is part of you.







Consilia (Recommendations)

The following points, or some combination of them, may help you find your own best way to learn vocabulary.



1. Use flash cards.

Flash-card technology is still better than the most expensive educational computer gear that you can buy. It is the quickest way to get just the repetition that you need on just the words that you need to repeat. It is tried and true. And it is inexpensive.

Using index cards or a pack of blank business cards, write the target words and phrases on the cards, putting one language on the front and the other on the back. As you review the words, proceeding through the stack, separate the words into two piles:  those you understand immediately, and those you do not. Keep going through the yet-unlearned words until you attain a speedy mastery of them.




2. Think of cognates and usages.

Think of words directly related to the word in question (cognates) or of common phrases that use the word. For example, Semper fidelis ("Always faithful.") is the motto of the Marines. Therefore you may actually have already begun to learn these words. Also, remember that a cognate of fidelis is fidelity.

CAUTION: the cognate is rarely the exact equivalent of the meaning of the original word. For example, fidelis (an adjective) does not mean fidelity (a noun).


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3. Visualize and vocalize.

Meditate on an image that the word represents or suggests as you say it aloud. If you are walking outside, look up at the sky and say "caelum," "sôl," "In caelô, sôlem videô.

Click on this link for some examples of computer-assisted visualization.




4. Use the diglot weave.

Insert foreign words into English sentences until you get their meanings quickly. For example: semper means always, so repeat to yourself several sentences like:

I will semper have trouble with vocabulary unless I give the time to it.

Romeo told Juliet, "I will love you semper.   (Or put a few other Latin words into this context: "Semper te amâbô.")

Two and two semper make four — SEMPER!

It semper gets cold here in the winter.

The sun semper rises in the east.

Semper in September the fall semester commences.




5. Practice the key-word or key-sound or key-letter technique.

Think of a word (called the key-word) based on the first (or very prominent) syllable of the foreign word (or on the sound of the whole word) and then make up a story or an image involving both this key-word and the meaning of the original word.

Stories are easier to remember than individual words, so this key-word will get you back to the foreign word if you are going from your language to the other one.

For example, semper might suggest the sound of the word simmer, and vice-versa. Think of a volcano that is ALWAYS "SIMMERING." Hold that image. To fix the association of always and simmering you might make up a story about visiting Hawaii or Sicily and not being able to see a volcano because it ALWAYS seems too active. You remember being disappointed, but not willing to take the risk of the trip.

You might also use an association with simper, and think of a person who is ALWAYS SIMPERING (smiling self-consciously).

Even better would be going directly from a syllable of the word to the connecting image. To remember that bolêtus means mushroom in Latin, take the first syllable and think of a bowl that is a mushroom cap turned upside down. Here, there is no need for a story. The striking image is enough to get you to the first syllable -- and the content -- of the Latin word.

One ingenious student suggested that the name of the mythological monster Medusa could help people remember that the Latin word metus means dread.

In the last example of the diglot-weave above, the sound of the word September helps you remember the similar sound semper. The phrase "semper in September" has the sort of ring that might remain with you. Or you might think of a synonymous meaning that gets you to the word, e.g., ever has two short e-sounds, just like semper.

You can more easily remember that tamen means nevertheless by noticing that the last two letters backwards start to spell NE-vertheless: tam-EN. Likewise, nupER means REcently.




6. Read, write, and recite phrases.

Discover, create, and review many comprehensible phrases using the word to be remembered.  This helps you to deep-process the word by working it into a whole web of meanings.






7. Repeat, repeat, and repeat again.

Especially for memorizing important parts and forms of words, sometimes only "brute" repetition will secure your memory for certain hard-to-retain items.  Frequent vocal repetition impresses the forms on your "mental ear." This auditory dimension will help you recognize and recall the words later. A computer device like the Reading Acceleration Machine can be very useful for visual repetition and the practice of reading comprehension.


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8. Attend, Echo, and Associate.

Why do we frequently forget names right after introductions?

Sometimes we are thinking of something else when the name is spoken. (We need to ATTEND to what is said and really hear it.)

At other times we hear the name, but we fail to refresh our memory immediately by repeating the new name to ourselves or to others in conversation. (We need to ECHO the name shortly after hearing it.)

Finally even if we do these things, we might still quickly lose the name if we leave ourselves without some "hook" back to it. We have no hook if we do not connect the name with something or someone else we know. (We need to ASSOCIATE the name with something that is already meaningful to us. This practice helps us note similarities and differences and deepens our original ATTENTION.)





9. Read freely and abundantly.

We can increase our vocabulary through free voluntary reading. However some linguists claim that we must have first acquired about 3000 to 5000 word-families, so that we will be able to know enough of the context to begin to construct accurate meanings for the words that we do not know.



For a phrase-based approach to learning key Latin vocabulary:




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Latin Teaching Materials at Saint Louis University: © Claude Pavur 1997 - 2013.  This material is being made freely available for non-commercial educational use.