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

Cognates

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.

Mnemonics.

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!’ 

Duolingo.

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!

16 simple language hacks to transform your daily routine into an immersion environment

  1. Change mobile phone and social media accounts into the target language – our phone is a portable language learning tool in our pocket, so make the most of it by switching it into the language you’re learning. The average person will spend nearly two hours (approximately 116 minutes) on social media everyday according to Social Media Today, so make the most of your minutes by learning common words such as ‘like / follow / share / comment’ and other useful vocabulary. 
  2. Change your computer’s language settings – as above, but only if you’re really confident navigating and finding things.  Especially take note of how to get to your language settings so that you can change it back!
  3. Set up a language lunch club – if time is short in the evenings and you can’t get to a event, why not bring the language social to you by setting up a language lunch club at your place of work or study? This is something I have done with British Sign Language and French in the last few years and I’ve made some great language buddies and friends along the way.
  4. Phrasemates – rather than go it alone, why not use a the Phrasemates app for iPhone and Android to get native speakers from around the world to help you translate words and phrases? The app also includes an extensive phrase dictionary that you can scour by searching keywords and is great for travelling when you need to communicate something urgent such as ‘I’m allergic to seafood.” Focusing on phrases, collocations and ‘chunking’ of vocabulary in this way is a really natural way to learn and if you help others out, you can get karma points too!
  5. Podcasts – another great way to make use of otherwise potentially useless time. Do you spend 30 minutes a day on a train or in a car? If so, download podcasts and spend that time immersed in a foreign language world of your own! Iain has some great tips on getting the most of podcasts in a recent blog post.
  6. Use Post-It notes our brains are wired to remember things by association and in context much more easily than when we see a list of words in a textbook out of everyday context. For basic nouns and phrases, it can be useful to put the word on the object to help it stick in your mind. I find it really helpful to allocate specific colours to different genders or types of words (e.g. masculine, feminine or neuter nouns or verbs and adjectives). After 1-2 weeks of regularly seeing the word associated with that object you won’t need the written cues anymore.

    Post It Notes Notice Board Sticky Notes Note
  7. Write to friends overseas – keep in touch with friends overseas by writing letters, postcards, emails or messages in the target language. If you don’t know any native speakers of the language, you can find pen pals online at Language Forever Exchange
  8. Learn with an online tutor from the comfort of your sofa – for a small fee you can spend an hour practising your languages with community teachers or learning with qualified teachers on sites like italki.  There is also the option to offer lessons for credit, so it can be a cost neutral way of learning. Sign up to italki via this link and get $10 credit from our referral link!
  9. Duolingo – this fun app has gamified language learning and will take you through various interactive exercises and introduce a range of vocabulary, grammar and phrases you’ll need for the language you’re learning. Great for short bursts of 10-15 minutes per day. They even have High Valyrian so you can find almost any language you’re passionate about!
  10. Get a frequency dictionary – Iain and I use the Routledge frequency dictionaries for French and Russian as find them well laid out and easy to use. This can be a good place to start when you feel you need to structure your vocabulary learning. I find up to 20 words per week is a good number to aim for so you don’t get overwhelmed but you can start to embed them into your active vocabulary. 
  11. Go to free Meet Up or Mundo Lingo socials – for the price of a drink, you can meet new people in your city and spend the night socialising with other speakers of the language you’re learning. It’s a really informal environment and great for language users at all levels. Read our Mundo Lingo blog post for a behind the scenes look at this language social that lets you meet the world on your doorstep.
  12. Listen to radio in another language – every morning while you’re getting ready or in the car on the way to work, have the radio on in the background so you can soak up the language as you get ready or drive.
  13. Sing along in another languagethis is useful whatever level you’ve reached; you could sing along to and learn children’s nursery rhymes, the national anthem or whatever song is at the top of the charts in the language you’re learning, depending on your level. Keep your learning fun and tailored to your music preferences. YouTube and Spotify have plenty of songs if you’re stuck for inspiration and are great resources for international music. YouTube often has lyrics to songs embedded in videos, which is really helpful.
  14. Read articles in the language, online or in printI find it useful to follow the key newspapers in the language I’m learning on social media so that the language regularly pops up in my feed. If you prefer to read in print you could always print online versions and read them. Alternatively, you could take out a subscription for a magazine or paper to be delivered to your door.
  15. Read books in the language – there are lots of language books on Amazon, at Grant and Cutler or even at your local Oxfam charity bookshop where you can often discover classic titles tucked away in the bookshelves. 
  16. Watch films on Netflix or Amazon Prime – many of us have access to hundreds of films and series on our TVs, but when was the last time you searched for the foreign language section? Take a look and discover some new series or films while soaking up the language.

Let us know which hacks you’re planning to use from our list and share your top tips for creating a language learning immersion environment with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!

Holiday Survival Phrases

Have you ever been on holiday and desperately wanted to know how to communicate some basic needs and niceties, but didn’t know where to start with traditional phrase books often overloading you with complex phrases? Iain and I have visited a whole range of countries and needed to know a few key phrases in the local lingo to get by and make the most of our stay.

After a recent study by the British Council discovered that 45% of British tourists assume that people will speak with them in English, I think it’s safe to say that we need to up our game when it comes to using languages on holiday!

We can’t be fluent in every language under the sun, but I would always recommend learning the following ‘survival phrases’ in the language of any country you’re visiting as it will make your visit much smoother and might even get you out of a pickle or two

Please / thank you
Yes / No
Hello, my name is … Nice to meet you
Where are the toilets? Is the entrance / exit / hospital / pub?!
I’m lost.
How much is it?
A table for two please.
I need a doctor
Do you speak (language) ..?

Our Survival Phrase Success Stories:


I don’t speak Italian (yet!) and when Iain and I visited Rome a few years ago I used my pocket phrasebook Italian to ask ‘where is the entrance to the Colosseum’ (Dove entrata colosseo?) admittedly it wasn’t grammatically perfect, but the kind policeman I had asked really appreciated my efforts and answered me with the information I needed!

I don’t speak any German and when we visited Berlin I spent two days perfecting the phrase: ‘a table for two please’ (ein tisch fur zwei bitte) getting the accent and intonation just right and was so proud when I managed to use it in a restaurant: #languagewins !

What language essentials do you pack when travelling overseas? Please share your key survival phrases and success stories using them with us below or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – we look forward to hearing from you!

Maximising language practice on your holiday

For many of us, holidays are a great opportunity to put into practice the language skills you’ve learnt so far whilst soaking up the sun, sea and culture. Below are some of the language rituals I embed into my trip whenever I hop across la Manche (the English Channel) to France to make the most of the time I’m there for maximum language gains. It’s really helped me to come away feeling a sense of achievement and given me lots of stories and vocabulary to weave into my learning and practice at home too! 

My holiday challenge to you is to pick one or two activities to do each day that you’re away, so you can make the most of practising and learning the lingo on your holiday:

  1. Order food or drink at cafés and restaurants – this can seem nerve-wracking especially if the waiter’s or waitress’ English is very good or it’s a busy service. But remember – you are the customer and staff are being paid to be patient with you when you’re ordering your food, so make the most of it! If you’re looking for an extra challenge, try initiating a conversation by asking for a recommendation or enquiring how the meal is prepared or where the ingredients are sourced.
  2. Listen to the radio in a hire car – this was a lifesaver for me when working at a car hire company in France for 2 months and turned a lot of solitary driving into a useful learning experience! News bulletins and debates are good for formal register and call-ins or competitions might be better for informal language, but make sure you find a station that plays your kind of music so you can enjoy the road trip and maybe even find a new favourite singer or band in the language that you’re learning.
  3. Watch the morning news in the language – most hotel rooms or hired apartments will come with a TV, so make the most of your leisurely morning routine to watch a bit of news; it’s a great way to see the country from an internal perspective too.
  4. Talk to the hotel reception staff in the language – again, the staff here are paid to be patient and give top notch customer service, even if it means humouring you as you test out your language skills – so give it a go! If you get stuck for things to say, maybe ask for recommendations for places to visit, local restaurants or the best travel routes and, if all else fails, there’s always the weather to keep the small talk going.
  5. Use written or audio tour guides in the language – it’s so easy and comfortable to pick up an audio or written guide in English or your native language, but stretch yourself by picking up one in the local language so you can learn at your leisure during your visit and tune into the accent. You can always rewind and listen again if you miss something. I often pick up written guides in both languages to look at how words and phrases are translated too, so try this if you’re looking for an additional challenge.
  6. Do a cooking class in the language – this is a firm favourite of mine as I love to eat! TripAdvisor has lots of recommendations on cooking workshops in cities across the world, so see if you can meet a local teacher and get taste the city from their perspective. If a cooking class isn’t available, perhaps a wine tasting instead and insist the staff explain the process and the wines in the language. Iain and I did this on a recent trip to France and it was a really fun way to use the language (and discover new tipples too)!
  7. Take an activity class in the language – as above, another favourite of mine. I’ve taken salsa classes in Russian and French, horse riding classes in both languages and art and singing classes in Russian. It will open you up to a whole new domain of vocabulary and maybe a new hobby too! If you already have a regular hobby, why not take time to seek out a local group or sports team that you could visit or train with while you’re out there? You’ll already have something in common with the members and they’re likely to be chuffed that someone from overseas is interested in meeting with them and practising the hobby in their language. You never know, it might be the start of an annual trip or tournament!
  8. Write a travel diary in the language – many of us keep travel logs of our holiday adventures so that we can relive the memories when we’re back to our daily routines at home, so why not write it in the language you’re learning? It will help practice the past tense in the language and help you feel more confident when talking to someone about your holiday because you’ve already learnt all the vocabulary.
  9. Haggle at markets in the language – this is definitely not my forté, but Iain is an absolute pro at this! It’s a great way to practise your numbers, your negotiation skills and your nerve in the language whilst picking up a bargain or too. Give it a go – if you’re brave enough! 
  10. Request restaurant menus in the language – don’t be shy, make sure they give you the locals’ menu! You can ask for clarification if needed and you will begin to get used to local dishes and ingredients and how they’re described. If you do make a mistake and order something you weren’t expecting, it’s a sure fire way to make sure you never forget that vocab next time! This happened to me when I accidentally ordered bitter ‘jus de pamplemousse’ (grapefruit) juice instead of sweet ‘jus d’ananas’ (pineapple juice) in Ladurée in Paris aged 11 – you’ll never make the same mistake twice!
  11. Practise phone conversations using room service – talking on the phone in another language is one of the hardest tasks to navigate because you can’t rely on visual clues, body language or hand gestures. That makes it the best training ground – go on, pick up that phone and order yourself a treat to the room!
  12. Haggling with taxi drivers – once again, this one might not be for you but is an essential skill for travelling abroad. If you can haggle and use numbers convincingly, you’re less likely to get ripped off by taxi drivers taking advantage of tourists, so well worth swatting up on your numbers.
  13. Pick up free newspapers or magazines to read (and translate) – I’m a self-confessed newspaper hoarder and always pick up at least one when I’m away. They give you a snapshot of local news and events and will give you something to talk to the local people about as well. If you’re looking for more of a challenge, why not try translating an article back into English or your first language?
  14. Go to the cinema – another favourite of mine, especially if the weather is unexpectedly bad for your holiday: you can turn it into an opportunity by hitting the cinema to see a film and picking up some new vocab. I’ve found that translated films are much easier to understand, but home-grown films provide more of a challenge, as they are more likely to use more colloquial, everyday phrases. You’re much more likely to get a sense of the culture and humour by seeing a film in the original language, plus you don’t run the risk of having distracting subtitles or poor dubbing!
  15. Pick your holiday reading list in the language – whether you’re a book or kindle fan, most of us will spend some downtime on our summer holidays by the pool catching up with some essential reading, so why not pick a book in the language you’re learning? Depending on your level, you might want to look for a dual language book where both English (or your native language) and the target language are featured side by side. 

So these are just a few of my top tips for making the most of your holiday breaks abroad to really get you speaking, reading, learning and generally soaking up the language and culture as much as possible while you’re overseas. I hope it’s a useful starter for ten and let me know how you get on in the comments below!

What are your top tips for speaking / reading / listening or practising your language skills when on holiday? Let me know in the comments below or via social media on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.