Vocabulary learning made easy

A polyglot friend (7 languages and counting) once told me that there is no point knowing the rules of Russian grammar inside out and theoretically how to ask for a loaf of bread if you don’t know the word for bread (хлеб). I found this reassuring as personally I don’t find grammar rules absorb as naturally for me as vocabulary!

If, like me, you are a fan of vocab lists and learning quirky new words and phrases in the language you’re learning then read on as I share some other learning approaches that, if applied appropriately, can really accelerate your learning and speed up your journey towards fluency.

Chunking & Collocations

This might sound like an anti-diet regime, but it actually makes language learning a lot lighter! The idea is that words rarely exist in isolation but co-exist in quite predictable patterns alongside other words, so if you learn the ‘chunks’ of words, you will sound much more fluent. Equally, it can be useful to learn a phrase such as ‘where are the toilets’ without knowing much of the grammar of the sentence, because certain elements of language are made up of fixed chunks.  Similarly to chunking, collocations are words that frequently appear next to each other and there is usually a fixed expression such as ‘a round of applause’ or ‘nooks and crannies’ or ‘to err on the side of caution’ where if one word were changed it might sound odd to a native speaker such as ‘to err on the side of care.’ You can see some good examples of collocations here: https://www.englishclub.com/vocabulary/collocations.htm


As words that share a root or similar construction to lexical items in your first language. This makes them much easier to remember as they are so similar! This can be a good place to start when you are trying to get to grips with a new language and you will find some cognates cross many languages, such as ‘taxi.’

Frequency Dictionaries 

Sometimes the colossal task of learning all the vocabulary in one language can seem a bit like trying to gather all the grains of sand on a beach into your hands; the more you try to cram in the less likely it is to stay. And where do you start? I find using a trusted and reliable frequency dictionary is a good place to start, especially when you have mastered some of the basics as it gives you focus and you can rest assured in the knowledge that you are learning useful words you are likely to encounter in everyday situations because they are based on frequency in live usage across a range of settings. 

Iain and I use the Routledge frequency dictionary series for French, Russian, Spanish and Portuguese and would highly recommend them as they are clearly laid out and very accessible for all levels of language learners from beginners to advanced. If you want a real challenge, you could even take a word a day from the book to learn to build up your vocabulary more consistently. We have teamed up with Routledge to offer Lingua Centra readers and subscribers a 20% discount on all frequency dictionaries in any language you might be learning – great for your language learning kit or to give as a gift for the language lovers in your life!


Post it notes

I’m a self confessed sucker for colourful things and am a visual, kinaesthetic learner, so find post it notes a great way of incorporating colour into my language learning! Think of ways you can use the colours to your advantage such as different colours for singular and plural versions or genders of nouns or topics. It is worth placing them strategically where you know you spend a bit of time each day in your home – for me this is the bathroom mirror so I can read them all through as I brush my teeth! 

Write, cover, repeat 

Probably the oldest method in the book and sometimes this works well for people. I find it useful to have a list of up to 20 words a week and read them through each day originally from the target language to English and then in reverse as I become more confident. At the end of the week make sure you test yourself or get others to test you.

Learning synonyms and gradations.

Sometimes we assume we have a concept or word all sussed out and so our learning slows and our language progress plateaus. Learning synonyms is an easy way to combat this and expand your vocabulary beyond your usual ‘safe phrases.’ Looking for alternative ways to express familiar concepts keeps your learning and speech in the language fresh and flexible. For example ‘good’ could instead be: great, wonderful, excellent, brilliant, fantastic, amazing. Or ‘hot’ might become: boiling, piping, scalding, roasting.

Hobby related jargon.

Being able to associate a word with an experience has been for me the most effective way at memorising a word or phrase. One of my hobbies is dining out and I once confused the French for pineapple with ‘pamplemousse’ (grapefruit) when ordering in a café on the Champs Elysée in Paris and I can’t stand the bitter taste of grapefruit so will never make that mistake again! Equally, if you have a hobby or a passion, why not watch tutorials on YouTube on your favourite subject as you will have something to relate it to and will be able to discuss your passions with native speakers much more easily.


This is when you associate a story with the word you want to learn to conjure up the word if you are finding it tricky to remember or recall. I was, until recently, very cynical about mnemonics as an effective way of memorising a word. That was until I created a mnemonic to remember the Portuguese word for ‘boyfriend’ (namorado) by thinking of Iain rescuing me from doing difficult sums on a computer, hence ‘no-more-add-o’ making it much easier to remember ‘namorado!’ 


This is a free app that uses gamification as a language learning tool through repeated interval exposure to words and phrases so that you gradually come to recognise the word and internalise it. There is both written and spoken content so you have a chance to learn the sounds of words as well as the written form.

Using the vocabulary (writing and speaking).

For most of us, the main aim of learning a language is to communicate, so make sure you are using all the words you learn either by writing a letter, journal / diary or shopping list or slipping them into conversations you’re having with native speakers.

Good luck with your vocabulary acquisition – let us know how you get on in the comments below and keep us posted on your vocabulary successes on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter too!

Portuguese Fluent in 3 months – 1 month progress report

I feel like I’ve covered a lot of ground in the last five weeks and have had a couple of opportunities to put my Portuguese to the test in conversations as well, which has been entertaining..!

This month I have added to my vocabulary by learning:

  • Time phrases
  • Numbers
  • More present tense verbs
  • Colours
  • Animals
  • Food
  • furniture
  • Introducing people
  • Basic phrases about my life such as where I live and work

I took a 30 minute italki lesion with a Portuguese teacher to try to practise a few phrases, ask about vocabulary and pick up some basic grammar. I had by ‘language stabilisers’ on by having tabs for wordreference and Google translate open. This really assisted with speedy translations to keep conversation flowing in Portuguese! We spoke probably 75% in English, but the teacher was great at correcting my pronunciation as I still have quite a way to go with some aspects such as vowel sounds and pronunciation of the consonant ‘s’.

Portuguese map puzzle
Portuguese is an official language in 10 countries

I was also chuffed to be able to have a short conversation with a colleague in the facilities cleaning team at work mostly in Portuguese as she is also in the early stages of learning English. We spoke about 80% in Portuguese and I managed to explain in very basic terms that I had just got engaged, which I was very happy with having been learning for such a short length of time!

My main reflections from the last month are:

  • Thank goodness I’m learning a romance language! So much of the vocabulary resembles French, which I speak fluently, and the grammar and syntax is typical of a romance language such as French with subject-verb-object word order it has made it much easier to pick up
  • Duolingo is great for vocabulary. Duolingo has without a doubt been my best tool in picking up Portuguese vocabulary so far as the mini modules are broken down into manageable chunks with frequent repetition and a range of tasks, so I am able to retain much more of the vocabulary than by using a simple list-based approach.
  • Italki is fantastic for time with teachers if you have specific questions. The 30 minute session I had with a teacher on italki was great and very focused. Before the lesson I specified that I wanted to focus on a few specific verbs and also pronunciation and the teacher was great at keeping us on track. She was also very patient and suggested some great resources for me a this A1 level I am currently speaking at.
  • Speaking is quite intimidating, but finding a patient native speaker to listen and iron out any errors in a positive way is essential. This is something I am now doing with a colleague at work who is in the facilities team and is not much further ahead in speaking English as it’s great to get to know her and also motivates me to keep on learning. I would definitely recommend finding a tandem language partner at a similar level to yourself as you can really empathise with where each other is at in the language learning journey.
  • Finding time for structured study is a bit more challenging. I work full time, so am struggling to squeeze more study time into each day. At the moment I am doing one Duolingo module on the way home from work and listening to one or two sections of the Teach Yourself Portuguese lessons. Occasionally in the evenings I am also writing key vocabulary on post-it notes and putting it round the flat so that I can see them while brushing my teeth or preparing dinner. 

I was on holiday last week, so my routine has slipped a bit, but to get on track my main targets for the month two are:

  1. Take another italki lesson
  2. Focus a bit more on understanding grammar
  3. Purchase an A1 – A2 study guide to support with grammar
  4. Try Memrise as another free platform for vocabulary learning
  5. Try to hold two more conversations predominantly in Portuguese at work and at Mundo Lingo
  6. Learn conjunctions and linking phrases to keep a conversation flowing
  7. Learn how to ask questions
  8. Practise my pronunciation through free online drills
  9. Learn vocabulary for countries, languages and nationalities
  10. Consolidate grammar in particular articles and gender agreements

Wish me luck for the next month..!

Are you learning a language or taking a fluent in three months challenge? Let me know how you’re getting on in the comments below or on our social media channels Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Fungarian Hungarian Frolics in Budapest

No romantic city break in Budapest is complete, in my humble opinion, without a foray into the almost unfathomable Hungarian language and so, on our recent trip, Iain and I booked a one hour introduction class with Miklos, Director of Fungarian (as seen on Channel 4 Travel Man).

Iain and I had high hopes for our hour with Miklos looking to master some essential Hungarian survival phrases and we were not disappointed. Miklos has been teaching English since the 1980s and in the last decade has been teaching Hungarian to enthusiastic language lovers through Fungarian and, more recently, is offering language and cultural tours of Budapest that link to the school curriculum for students through Ed Tours Hungary.

I admit I was very apprehensive attempting to speak what is considered by many as one of the most difficult languages to learn, but Miklos put us at ease, reminding us that ‘Budapest is an open air classroom’ and teaching us some of the basics to get by. 

During the hour we learnt that Hungarian:

  1. Is a Uralic language.
  2. Is a phonetic language.
  3. Does not have genders.
  4. Is agglutinative.
  5. Has 18 noun cases.
  6. Uses gemination, or consonant elongation with pairs of short and long vowels.
  7. Has vowel harmony with rules over which group of vowels can be used in the same word
  8. Always has stress on the first syllable
  9. Puts important information at the start of a sentence or phrase as in “English I am” so good for channeling your inner Yoda.
  10. Talks about people as having one eye, one ear, one hand and one leg. To hear something with ‘half an ear’ is to hear a rumour.

We quickly discovered that vowel length can be a bit of a minefield and that there are some ‘false friends’ that can cause some blushes / giggles when misused by the unsuspecting foreigner. We have it on Miklos’ good authority that the following words are always tricky for native English speakers:

  • Busz (English: bus) pronounced with a short vowel means “f**k”
  • “Pussy pussy” is used by some women when greeting each other to mean “kiss”
  • “Egeszsegedre!” (English: cheers!) can be transformed into “to your whole arse” if your vowels are out of place!

With all this fun, how much Hungarian did Iain and I actually manage to learn in an hour? Quite a good amount and I now feel I can confidently say the following key phrases below. Check out videos of us speaking some Hungarian on the Lingua Centra YouTube channel.

  1. Szia = hi!
  2. Jo Napot! = hello!
  3. Köszönöm = thank you
  4. Kösz = thanks
  5. Igen = yes
  6. Nem = no
  7. Út = road
  8. Utca = street
  9. Busz = bus
  10. Angol vagyok = I am English
  11. Skot vagyok = I am Scottish
  12. Clare vagyok = my name is Clare
  13. Magyar = Hungarian
  14. Hol van a mosdó = where is the toilet?
  15. Egészségére = cheers!
  16. Nem értem = I don’t understand
  17. Beszélsz angolul = do you speak English?

Both Iain and I really enjoyed our time with Miklos learning Hungarian outside the Great Synagogue in central Budapest and our only regret is that we didn’t have more time to spend getting to grips with those vowels!

We would highly recommend a Fungarian session to any language lovers visiting Budapest, so make sure you book your session today!

Keep in touch on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and share your Hungarian language experiences.