How to Learn Vocabulary Fast

Hello everyone,

and welcome to a special episode, because today we’ll not deal with a bunch of words. Today, we’ll deal with a Shitton of words. That’s Japanese for “an amount as numerous as the petals of cherry trees in spring” and it’s the perfect word because today we’ll talk about learning vocabulary.
I
n my opinion, learning vocabulary is really THE key, especially in the beginning. Like… you can go to  intensive courses all you want. If you don’t have a way to effectively learn words, it’ll be a drag and the language will always feel frustrating. But if you DO have a way to quickly learn vocab, that really is like a turbo boost.
So today, I want to share with you a method for learning words. And no, it’s not some app.
It’s my very own way of going about it and I call it Learn LOV-LAB™

Learn Lots of Vocabulary – Like a Boss ™

With this method,  you can learn a lot of words in little time, without pressure, failure and the most important thing is… with very little effort.
Sounds amazing, right?
Just a warning… the article is long. Not because the method is complicated but because it sounds weird and I want to explain why it is working.
So read this, if you have enough time.
That said, let’s jump right in and find out…

And that method is… drum roll…

old school rote learning with self written vocabulary lists

Now, this probably sounds like one of those super funny jokes that I do all the time. But it’s not. I’m serious.
Now you’re like “The 1960s called, they wants their method back.” and I know it’s super old school. But the thing is … it works incredibly well, even if you’re lazy. If you’re NOT lazy… 500 words a month is no problem.
And the key is in the details, so let me explain my method to you and also the reasoning behind it and why I think it’s works as well as it does.
And even if it doesn’t work for you, you’ll still get some new ideas and perspectives on learning words, that might help you.

Cool.
Let’s start with a sort of mission statement. Here’s what the method is for:

 learn a LOT of words with little effort in a short time.

Not grammar, not building sentences, not refining anything. Just binge-ing words.
And the first thing we need is the right mind set. 

1. The Mind Set

Have you ever moved to a new apartment? Then you know how it goes.  The van parks outside, you take out the bookshelf, carry it upstairs and assemble it. Then you get a box of books, carry it upstairs and unpack it. In alphabetical order.
Now you’re like “What the hell, this system is ridiculous.” And of course you’re right. No one does it that way.
What you do is taking all the boxes and the stuff out of the van and you dump it into the new place. And then, you unpack over the next two weeks. Or months. And some boxes you might bring back down to the basement.
Now, why am I talking about this?
Because that’s exactly the mind set we need. Just throw it all in there and clean up later. Or in a bit more fancy terms

quantity and speed over quality and accuracy

For a beginner, it makes way more sense to learn 100 words kinda sorta than 20 words “properly”. You can express more and also, the more words you’re sort of familiar with, the higher your chance to recognize something when people talk. Even if you don’t understand the content… breaking up the stream of sounds into words is a HUGE step already.
To give you a personal example for the mind set… I am learning Bulgarian at the moment (I’m SUPER lazy about it). Bulgarian has three genders, just like German. And I do not have them on my lists. Because I don’t care at this point, and it feels like work. And work shmork.
Now, people (especially teachers) say that it’s super important to learn everything properly right away. Because  it’s super hard to correct something once you’ve learned it.
Nonsense, I say!!

You can ALWAYS relearn

Life is motion and transformation. The only thing that keeps you from relearning is clinging to old stuff. And just because you said die Fahrrad  ten times doesn’t mean that it’ll be super super hard to switch to the correct article  das Fahrrad. It’s just a little odd for a couple of days. You might think “But why should I work twice when I can do it properly once.” And my answer is: learning a word isn’t much work and neither is relearning something, when the urge arises. What makes it feel like real work is the idea of having to do everything properly right away.
I’m not saying you should skip the gender in German. If you don’t mind it, then add. Just don’t be perfectionist about it. Be quick and relaxed. We’ll do the cleaning up later along the way to fluency.
Cool. So that’s our mind set. Now let’s look at the core of it all… the list. Because it’s quite a lot to be done wrong.

2. The List

The list itself and how it is constructed is really important for the system to work. But don’t worry… there’s not like this detailed, fine tuned plan you have to follow. Just a few underlying ideas and principles.
Here’s how a list might look like, if I were a beginner in German…

  • because – weil
  • to walk – laufen
  • to convince – überzeugen (von)
  • and – und
  • although – obwohl
  • since – seit
  • tree – der Baum
  • to learn – lernen
  • although – obwohl
  • to walk – gehen

A real list would be longer, of course, but this sample contains all the important aspects. And the first one is…

Word choice

Of course, as a beginner especially, you want to have the most common and most useful words on your lists. That are verbs and all those small words like  but, and, maybe, sometimes, never, difficult, behind and so on (adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, if you know the jargon).
What you don’t really need that much are nouns. Like… there’s actually only one noun in my snippet. Not that nouns aren’t common, but they’re not as common as those small words I just mentioned. Also, nouns tend to be rather defined. Like… a noun stands for one thing. Verbs are more versatile. And also, many of the every day nouns are things you can point at. So you can basically communicate them. You can absolutely not point at because. If you don’t know the word, you cannot express the idea. Sure, there are lots of nouns you can’t point at. But they often are based on a verb and verbs are always the better choice, especially in German.  Oh and while we’re at it… you probably know this method of putting post its all over your flat with the German word for it, chair, table, fridge and so on. I’d invite you to put a fitting verb on the note instead. Open, close, turn on, turn off, sit, write… that’ll be MUCH more helpful than a bunch of words for things you can point at.
So yeah… your list should be the exact opposite of the lists that you can find at the end of chapters of a beginner’s textbook. Because those are full of nouns and the lack those super important small words because “your grammar’s not ready yet.”
Whatever, you dumb textbook!! Keep your egg plant and gimme if instead.
If I have word for I want say, I not need grammar.
12 words, 2 nouns. Case made :)! Let’s move on to the next crucial feature.

redundancy

You all know these words that just won’t stick in your mind. Well, if a word is being a bit of a princess just put it on more than one list. Or on the same list twice (like although in the snippet). The idea is not to have each word only once. The idea to learn as many words with as little as effort, and if one word is hard to memorize for you, then you need more exposure.
And in fact, redundancy is not only for those words that are being a bit of a diva. It happens automatically. Imagine you’re making a new list, you brainstorm for words, and you think “Oh laufen would be a good word.” Then just put it down. It doesn’t matter if it is on another list already. Apparently, you don’t know it well enough. This happens to me all the time.
And it doesn’t end there.  I actually add words that I more or less know to a new list. And the reason for that is the next feature.

familiarity

A page full of words you’ve never seen before is super intimidating. Humans always look for some familiarity, a feeling of “home”. A few familiar words on a list will do just that. They give you a moment of rest, AND a moment of success because… you get them right. That makes it MUCH easier to deal with all the weird new words.
The key really is to mix various degrees of familiarity. Some words that you know well, mixed with some words that you half know and of course all the new words. Not only will that help you feel “at home” on the new list, it’ll also stimulate your brain because the “intensity” while going through the words varies constantly. And, words you half know will change to words you know quicker than completely new ones, so you have a constant feeling of progress, but without putting numbers and goals on it. Ugh… goals. Anyway, let’s now talk about what might be the most important feature of those lists…

the beauty of    C h aos

You might have noticed it … the words on the list are all over the place. And that is on purpose. This probably seems counter intuitive. I mean, most apps and programs organize vocabulary by certain topics. But let me tell you why I think this isn’t all that efficient.
First of,  in daily conversation, the words in a sentence are also quite “chaotic”. Take a look:

“I am hoping for a good summer.” 

That’s a normal every day sentence. Now let’s put that into a list:

  • I
  • to be
  • to hope
  • for
  • a
  • good
  • summer

Do you see what I mean? This kind of looks like my snippet. It’s pretty chaotic, too. And by the way… there’s only one noun in it.
But that’s not all. I think, this clustering up is actually counter productive. Why? Because the idea a single word evokes in your loses intensity because of all the other words of the field.
Here’s what I mean..

  • happy
  • surprised
  • bored
  • sad

This is a classic cluster that you might find in a textbook. Five emotional states in a row. And none of them has room to breathe. How is your brain going to connect a bunch of letters to an idea, if the idea can’t fully flare up?   Now take a look at this instead:

  • happy
  • flower
  • forget
  • until

Here, happy has room to breathe. It can still be there as an echo when we move on to the next word. Just as flower can be there as an after thought when we look at forget. The progression doesn’t need to “make sense”. In fact, it’s better if it doesn’t. Our subconscious loves it and it makes its own little journey from it. Not a journey we are aware of, not a story we can tell. But it’s there, and it helps. Just think of your dreams and how incoherent they are.
A word activates an idea in our brain and that idea needs room. Making a list of similar words lessens the intensity of individual ideas and our powerful subconscious is bored and goes to sleep because it has nothing to play with. No random impressions. Just look at the two lists again

  1. happy   surprised   bored   sad
  2. happy   flower    forget   until

Yes, the first one is the better overview, it’s a great archive job. But which one is the more inspiring? The one that tickles your creativity. The one you’d like to look at more often.
That’s how you want your list to be … chaotic and balanced. 
A few new words, then a familiar word. Or a word you totally know. Never stay on a topic for too long. And not with one word type for too long. Verbs but not too many in a row. You go for useful words, but they don’t ALL have to be useful. Sometimes, there’s a connection between two or three words in a row. And then, you break it. After a bunch of abstract or functional words,  make sure to throw in something random from nature, something you like, regardless of whether it’s useful or not.
Don’t make a plan when making a list, just go with the flow and avoid being too systematical, too much in your head.
The result will be a pretty chaotic collection of words that is challenging you, annoying you, confuses you, makes you feel at home, bores you at time, and it’s tickling your subconscious, it’s inspiring you. Or to put in in one word…

it has a character

You don’t see it at first, but you will get to know it when you learn the list.
And this bring us to our next point.

3. The Learning

When people think about learning vocabulary, they usually think that they have to do something. Like… they have to remember the word. But you can’t really do that. Your brain does that, if it so chooses :).
All you have to do is ask your brain for the word by looking at it in your native language. And then check the solution. And yes, even if you haven’t “learned” the list yet. Just start asking.
Now, I know this sounds weird but it’s actually not that outlandish.
Let’s take push ups. When you want to train push ups you go basically go to your muscles  like “Could you do a push up?”. And if they can, then they do. And if they CAN’T, maybe because they’re tired, they will be like “Oh shit, I failed. Guess I gotta grow a bit.”

With our brain it’s the same. It’s not a muscle, of course, but it also has a built in desire of life, to be up to the task.
If we want to know something, a word for example, we’re like “Hey brain, what’s because in German.” and the brain is like “Sure, hold on.”. And if it can’t deliver, if it FAILS at the task, it has an incentive to memorize it, so it’s ready next time. You don’t have to “remember” it. Your brain is naturally primed to do that. What you need to do is make a query (ask for a word) and then present the answer.
Tree in German?
Tree is Baum.
Again, please don’t feel like “Uhh.. okay, I have to remember that now.”
Just be aware of the random sequence of letters and what it stands for, the mental idea you have. Give it a moment to breathe and observe anything that comes up.
Maybe you think “Oh, that’s like bammm, when the tree falls.” Or you think “That doesn’t sound green”. Or you think of  a gesture. Or of baguette. Or you think how stupid it looks. Or that it looks like this other words on that other list. Or you think about the word before. Or how you’re pissed of  because you should know this one. Or the coffee stain on the list. Or that you hate that part. Or sex. Or how the park is beautiful. Or just nothing.
If you want, you can repeat the word, if you want you can think of an example. But there’s no “must do”.
And then move on. Your brain will do its best to be up for the task next time. Maybe it won’t remember the word, but just a couple of vowels or the length. Or maybe just where the word is on the list. But it will remember SOMETHING.
And next time you go over the word, it will add something more. The list will feel familiar, the order will feel familiar, the list will have a “vibe”. And eventually, maybe even when you don’t expect it, the word will just be there. Because at the end of the day…

Our brains are awesome!

Yeah… that “at the end of the day” made no sense. I just wanted to sound like a business consultant for once.
But seriously, our brains really are awesome! They store all kinds of stuff without us knowing, and in the weirdest associations sometimes.
We can use that power for learning vocabulary. All you really gotta do is ask the question and then look at the answer and really be aware.
Oh and yes… you do that right the first time, even if you’ve not gone over the list before. There is no point in looking at it and trying to memorize the words first. Just ask, your brain will fail and it will adjust.
It’s really pretty chill. And because it is so chill it is no problem to deal with 100 to 200 words at a time. Me personally, I usually “work” with  four lists…. one completely new one, two sort of new ones and one that I more or less know about.  If you only use one, you will get bored.
I know, I know… part of you is like “No way… I can’t do that.”. But please…  of course you can. Remember… you don’t have to remember anything. There is no pressure. In fact, pressure will make learning vocabulary suck. If after three weeks, you still don’t remember all words on a list, that’s fine.
“But, but  Emanuel, wasn’t our goal to learn a lot of words quickly?”
Well, yes but for that, we need to …

4. Stop Counting!!!

You see, to be anywhere near able to hold a basic conversation you need at LEAST 500 words. Probably more.  That’s a lot of words. A frightening amount.
If we go at a speed of 10 words per day, we need almost two months for that. Ten new words every single day. Miss a day, and, boom, it’s 20 new words. And of course you have to repeat the words of the day before, half of which you’re not sure about. And the day before that. . And you have to repeat the ones of the day before. And the day before that. And those of last week that just won’t stick.
The thing is… you will fail at your goal of ten words a day. Maybe after three days. Maybe after two weeks. But you will fail. Now you might say “Well, then let’s make it five words a day.” but it’s the same. You will probably still fail.
Learning words is not doing dishes. You don’t know how long it’s going to take. Some days you’re like a sponge, other days you can’t take in anything. Some words stick right away, others you can’t remember even after 20 times.
A fixed quota is not how learning works. And all you do with these kind of goal and quotas, all you do with counting is setting yourself up for failure and frustration.

Instead, you kind of just need to surrender and expose yourself. Surrender to the fact that there’s an ridiculously large amount of new words, and you can’t imagine how you could possible learn them all. And then you just dig in. Large batches at a time. Like 50 for instance, which is about how many I usually have on a list. And as soon as you feel familiar with a list, you start a new one and “work” with both. Some days you go over them twice. Some days you don’t. The more often you do it, the faster but the system doesn’t need a fixed routine to work. Like… I usual don’t do anything for like a week. Like… NOTHING. And if the list feels new when I get back… well whatever. I’m still a LOT quicker than I would be with Memrise…. that was an awful experience.
Think of it as throwing pasta against a wall. Some will stick, the rest you’ll pick up and throw again. And if most of them are on the wall, you cook more.
And that’s it :).

This is my approach to learning vocabulary and I think we can all agree on one thing:

5. this was too long :)

But I hope it was worth it.
Seriously, I know this was a lot to take in, but I felt like I needed to explain the system because it’s just so against what the common beliefs are.
But it works really really really well. Like… you really can learn a lot of words in a very relaxed way with almost no effort. I mean, why else would I make sooo much effort to explain it to you.
Sure, everyone is different and yada yada yada but I’d really invite you to try the system for a couple of weeks, even if it sounds and feels weird at first and goes against all your beliefs about learning vocab. As with any method, it’s also a matter of training. If you can really say yes and try it, I’m almost certain you will be surprised by how much you get without it feeling like work.

Now, I’m super curious to hear from you. What do you think about my approach? Does it make sense? Do you have questions? Will you give it a shot?
Or did you get at least some ideas or new perspectives. Or d you disagree? What’s your method and why do you like it?
And of course, if you tried my system, how did it work for you?
I’m really looking forward to hear your thoughts, so I’ll be in the comment section.
Nah, kidding… I’m gonna go outside now :).
But yeah, let me know your thoughts in the comments. I hope you liked it and see you next time.