A huge portion of speaking a language is really just knowing enough words, making vocabulary is generally the more underrated of the two core components. Think about how often you struggle to understand the sense of what is being said because of a new grammatical construct versus not recognising a word. Words are a far more common barrier.

For a language like English, the number of words you’d need to be fluent is over 10,000. Focusing on vocabulary is therefore always a useful task if you don’t know what to study. While 10,000 is a large number, you will get there eventually by chipping away at it every day.

Key tip: Prioritise words over grammar
Prioritise increasing your vocabulary over learning advanced grammar. In conversation, advanced grammar can often easily be understood through context. This is rarely true of unknown words, unless they happen to include roots or affixes that are already familiar.

How to learn words

As human beings, our brains are designed to regularly discard information unless it receives some signal that the information is important and needs to be retained. Hence, most words you encounter that you learn the definition of you will immediately forget the first time you look them up. Unfortunately, this is a subconscious process, so we can’t just flick a switch and memorise words. There are ways to help our mind receive the signal that a word is important and hence be more likely to remember it. You can deliberately harness these to learn better. Here are the factors that will determine if you learn a word:

  1. Repetition—We’ll start with the king. It is rare that you will learn a word simply by being introduced to it once. Vocabulary is learned after repeated exposure, either in content or with flashcards. It might take you seeing it ten times before a word sticks in your memory. Drills such as flashcards are the best method for deliberately repeating specific words.

  2. Noticing—This is the stage in which we first encounter a word. Discovering a word in your content or course, noticing it, then realising you don’t know it is the first stage to learning it. It might seem obvious, but it’s very common for learners to glide over words they don’t know if it doesn’t impact their understanding too much.

  3. Understanding in context—This means you understood the word in the context in which it is used. The addition of context helps your brain see the word as a key piece of a larger language puzzle, and is hence something worth remembering.

  4. Conscious focus—Spend a bit of time and mental effort consciously focusing on a new word and it’s meaning. Tell yourself that it’s important and that you intend to learn it. Make sure you actually mean it! If you don’t feel interested or motivated to know the word, you will find it slipping from your memory more easily.

  5. Connection to known words—Words are easier to remember when they are linked to others. This can be as simple as different forms of the same root word, but they might be invented abstractions, such as mnemonics, which create mental imagery associated with your word. These are discussed later.

What words should I learn?

There are two primary criteria you should use. These are personal relevance and frequency.

Learning words that are personally relevant to you is a good way to ensure you are practising what you are learning. To meet this criterion, the words you learn need to be appearing in your resources often or be ones you think you will need to meet your goals.

Choosing words based on the frequency they appear in the language is useful as they are the most likely to be useful to you in the future. Words in natural language approximately follow something called Zipf’s Law. This means that the most common word will occur twice as often as the next most common word, three times as often as the third most common word, and so on. This means languages are heavily dominated by the most common words. Once you have learned 2,000–3,000 words, you have covered almost all the words you will hear in daily conversation. With only a few hundred words, you will have access to almost all the filler words, which make up most of spoken language.1

Key tip: Don’t learn closely related words together
Although it might seem like a good idea, it’s best not to learn words together if they are related or in any way similar, as this can cause you to confuse them. This includes near synonyms (rely/depend), opposites (fast/slow), words typically recounted together (days of the week, numbers), or even similar-sounding words (delay/relay).

Key tip: Learn numbers
Learning numbers, particularly large ones, can be a surprisingly difficult task, making dates an early challenge for many learners. It helps to spend focused effort learning them through drills. You may find LangPractice helpful for this.

Word Lists

You may find it helpful to keep a list of those words or phrases you have looked up and find interesting enough to want to remember. This can serve as a useful reference and the act of writing a list by hand can aid memorisation. This is not mandatory.

Word lists should not simply be read over, but revised with one side covered to get your memory working.

You can find more info on learning vocabulary in Appendix C.


Mnemonics are a versatile tool that turns vocabulary into easy-to-recall mental images that help you remember a word. Mnemonics can be very useful to learn vocabulary quickly; however, the word won’t be truly learned until you don’t need the mnemonic and can use and understand the word automatically. Mnemonics should be considered a useful stepping-stone towards getting there, not an easy way out of having to absorb the language.

The most common method is the keyword method. This links the word you want to learn to a similar-sounding word in your native language. For example: Imagine you want to learn the French word for car: voiture. You might note that the word voiture sounds like vulture in English. You can mentally link the two by imagining a car with a vulture on top of it, or, if you are very imaginative, a car shaped like a vulture. Now, when you want to talk about a car, you’ll remember the vulture and that the French word sounds like vulture, hence reminding you to say voiture. The more vivid, bizarre, or surprising your mnemonics are, the more effective they will be. You will be surprised by how well they work.

Further details are too much for this guide, so I will provide you with some links to learn more on your own if you are interested.

Prev Next
  1. This isn’t a completely free shortcut, as much of the meaning is contained in the less-common words. What it will do is put you in a good position to learn these words naturally and better derive meaning from context.