How to pick up vocabulary in a foreign language?
December 16, 2012 7:42 AM   Subscribe

I need help in acquiring a lot of a vocabulary for a lot of languages. How can I best proceed and what should be my expectations and timetables be?

I have spent about three years learning Russian and Latin, and not yet a year for Danish and Ancient Greek. The problem is that my vocabulary size remains incredibly inadequate. Unfortunately, my memory has not conducive to this task. Compared to my peers, I more than anyone else will forget the small details that are touched upon in a unit, but then you never come across again: (things like the grammar for telling time, but also, vocabulary).

I spent a lot of time reading Russian on my own this past summer, and I got a lot out of it. Particularly the readers that started at a very basic level, for someone in their first or second semester, and then progressed up. Unfortunately, there aren't many productions such as these, and all they did for me was make me feel natural when reading Russian I could understand more than they did for my vocabulary. I also translated a few short stories though these turned out to be long efforts without much educational capacity. This method did little for my vocabulary outside the realm of me picking up a few universally important verbs that weren't taught in class.

I have a Russian frequency dictionary, whose editor states that his expectations for his students are such that they should have a vocabulary size of 2,000 after two years in American university, 4,000 after three years, and 8,000 for graduate school level competency. I am not anywhere near 2,000 even though I should be at 4,000, but want to be at 8,000.

I know a few people who know multiple languages, but all I can gleam from them is how they maintain their vocabulary rather than originally built it.

My problems then are as follows:
(1) What are the best ways to learn vocabulary, particularly in this context of two or four languages? Is the only decent method going to be to load up a spaced-repetition program and go to town?
(2) If spaced-repetition programs are the key, then what should my schedule or expectations look like? How many words should I go through daily? How long should I spend at this?
(3) Does it matter if I try to expand one language, two languages, or four languages at a time? Russian is the most important, with Latin running behind. Greek is still in the race, but he's far behind and no one even wants him to win. People forget Danish is still in the race, but he'd just like to not be forgotten.
(4) This may be a bit more chatfilter: but how realistic this is? Do you have any stories of having accomplished something similar? The biggest obvious problem is that I'm on here asking and not doing this already, so the biggest problems seems to be a lack of discipline. Perhaps I can get into a routine though if others have done similar things with positive results. I'm very apprehensive at the sheer amount of vocabulary that I need to learn and question the efficacy of simply memorizing this stuff raw.

For what it's worth, the most important thing is to get to 8,000 words in Russian by August 2013. It's somewhat important to me to improve my Latin though given my time investment with it already. Danish and Greek I can hold off on for a while.
posted by SollosQ to Work & Money (9 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I found Rosetta Stone very useful for French, Spanish, and Russian.

RE how realistic, I think only you can answer that--how much time are you wiling to put in, and how good are you at memorizing things? For myself, I have never been able to focus on more than two languages at a time, but I have friends who say that it is actually easier to do more rather than less. They feel that their brains kind of "open up" when they work really hard outside their native language. YMMV.
posted by rpfields at 7:44 AM on December 16, 2012

I have taken classes in four languages at once, and it was sometimes helpful but mainly because they were semi-related, like groupings of Latin, Italian, and German or Latin, Italian, and Ancient Greek. Latin and Ancient Greek have the downside of being less conversational than any of the modern ones, but they have the advantage of providing a lot of derivatives in English. Especially with Ancient Greek, I found that it was helpful to learn those roots and the way they reappear in English and anglicized Greek words, because then I could build a better framework for associating a word and its meaning. The parallels in grammer were also helpful to me. I haven't tried Russian so I'm afraid I can't address that directly, but have you tried working with a native speaker one-on-one? For me reading is relatively easy but actually putting those words into play in a conversational manner was much more difficult even though it had a better pay-off in fluency in the long run.

If reading helped you, my suggestion would be buying Russian books aimed at children and young adults. They will lack, obviously, the grammar notes and vocab of teaching materials, but it's a more natural way to get exposure to vocabulary (book series are great because they often use the same sets of words over again) than just rote rote rote learning, which is really boring and never worked well for me. I don't know if your goal to expand your vocabulary fourfold in the next eight months is viable, honestly. That is a big leap while doing multiple other languages and not in an immersion setting. Keep at it, even when it's hard. Listen Russian music, keep an eye on Russian new sites or news videos, write postit notes and label all of your belongings with their names in your languages...and good luck!
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:13 AM on December 16, 2012

I know some people love it, but I think Rosetta Stone is pretty bad. I think you will find this to be the general consensus of the internet language learning community.

These comments are based on my experience in autodidactic language learning. For learning vocabulary, I recommend an SRS system. I have advocated for Anki a number of times on AskMeFi. Since you have a frequency dictionary, you already have what you need. Go through it and start inputting words by frequency. For most languages, knowing the most common 2,000 words will get you to about 80% within a few percentage points for materials of general application. I think it is vital that whatever SRS system you use, it must be installed on your smartphone or another such device that you always carry so you always have it at hand.

Assuming you started today at zero words and need to be at 8,000 words by September 1, 2013, that means you would need to acquire 31 new words per day. That is a tall order but doable. When I am starting on a new language, I set a goal of 40 new words per day through SRS. You should do it as long as it takes you to learn the 31 words for each day. Hopefully no more than an hour, and this is spread throughout the day. And by "word", what I really mean is "lexeme". For example, говорю and говорит are two words but variants of one lexeme, говорить. And of course, 31 words per day anticipates no days off, ever. Since there many be a few days where you simply cannot do the work, you might want to set your software to have 40 new cards per day.

Given the goal you have set, I recommend that you focus almost all of your efforts on Russian. You may want to do a bit of Latin or another language occasionally as a break from the Russian, but since Russian is your most pressing goal, I think you should target your efforts on it. Do the new Russian vocabulary every day without fail. Your motivation will eventually be (1) the rapid progress you make or (2) the consequences if you should fail. Only you know if this sufficient motivation, but it is not encouraging that you have far less than 2,000 Russian words after three years. I think you need a fundamental change in motivation and diligence if you wish to succeed in this task.

Best of luck. Feel free to MeMail if you've specific questions.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:14 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Two years ago, I spent one and a half months learning 150 new French words or expressions a day using Anki. I used two-way flashcards, so I had to translate them in both directions. Including repetitions of old words, this meant reviewing about 500*2 cards each day, which took 2-3 hours of study (although it would have taken much more if it had been a more difficult language).
posted by martinrebas at 8:46 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have extensive vocab in a few languages. The following is based on my own experience and not necessarily on any ideal or universally recommended way to learn. Some like dictionaries.

(after note- my numbering is unrelated to your numbering)

1) read. as much as possible. don't bore yourself by stopping and trying to understand every word. Although if you don't understand about 50% of the words you're reading, you should read a simpler text. There are several readers available for different levels of comprehension. If you want you can get a dual-text book, and that way it will be easier for you to quickly check meanings of phrases you've just read. But using a dictionary makes the process boring to your brain and therefore it's less likely that you'll read much. You have to learn from the context- is that something you're good at? Contextual learning generally really is key to learning a language fast. It's a reason why Rosetta works if you can actually sit through the mind-numbingly dull process of using it.

2) practice with people in a natural environment. That means that you're not making up situations and role-playing, you are in situations. The best way to do this is to make friends with someone who speaks the language you want. One way to do this is by getting a language buddy in a local ESL program. You'll speak English too but a lot of times they just want a friend to help integrate them into local society, and will speak their own language much of the time. Do stuff. Go shopping. Point at the bananas and say 'I want to buy some bananas.' If you don't know the word for bananas, say 'I want to buy those.' Your friend will say, 'What, bananas?' and then you'll have your introduction to the word, and the next time you hear it you might remember it. This is the kind of interaction you should look to have to increase your vocabulary. Don't be afraid or shy of not knowing. No one expects you to know, which is what will make it so much fun when you eventually do know.

3) That frequency dictionary you have is golden. Make flashcards of the words you don't know and review them. When you learn them slowly pare down your set. Don't worry about memorizing them so much. This way, when you read your books, you're much more likely to understand the word both from the context and from your faint memory of what the word might mean.

4) generally speaking, the idea is to simply see/use the word in various contexts until it sticks. Avoid rote memorization because it's incredibly boring and fatiguing to the brain.

5) My brain does best with one or two languages ramping up at a time- but you can keep the other ones on the back-burner. In the long-run, the best way to learn several languages and maintain them is to regularly rotate which languages you're working on and which are on the back-burner. I feel inclined to say you shouldn't ramp up on several languages at once just because you're indicating trouble with acquiring vocabulary. This isn't something you should have to think about how to do if you want to study several at once. Slow down a little bit and let your brain learn how to learn vocabulary before you get so many projects going at the same time. Use the back-burner approach to ensure that you still learn all these languages if that's what you really want.

if you find any of this helpful feel free to memail me with any follow-up questions.
posted by saraindc at 8:52 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

For Latin:

The good news is that the most frequent word list is much smaller. There's a list of "the 1400" words that comprise about 80% of any text's vocabulary.

You don't say what your background in Latin is (other than "three years"), so I'm assuming somewhere in the intermediate range. If you like picking up vocabulary by reading, try using one of the reading-method courses (I recommend the Cambridge Latin Course) and run through all the stories. Meeting a word in context is so much more helpful to remembering than 'random' flashcarding. (But for the words you want to flashcard, yes, spaced repetition is the way to go.)

Having done something like that, again, try lots of easily comprehensible input, i.e., don't try to read something like Horace (which requires much close study), but something you can read a lot of at a reasonable speed. What that is depends on you, but: Vergil, maybe, with, yes, vocab help -- the Pfarr edition of 1-6 is great for that, or the revised version of it with just the AP selections by Weiden Boyd; Cicero, maybe: I think the philosophical works are pretty good for that, and there's student editions of several of them with vocab help; Plautus, if you want something that feels like a 'real' language; the Gesta Romanorum, if you like medieval stories -- but in general, a student edition with facing vocab included will save so much of the frustration of dictionary work.
posted by lysimache at 9:09 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing to work on in Greek — which basically gets you a lot of extra vocabulary for free — is learning to recognize "irregular" verb forms which aren't really irregular.

So like for instance, most aorist stems have a sigma after the root, right? But then there's a lot of "irregular" aorists that don't have that sigma. In a lot of cases the sigma used to be there, in an earlier form of the language, and has left changes behind when it went away. The irregular-looking ἔ-μειν-α used to be *ἔ-μεν-σα, for instance; but then there was a sound change that made the sigma disappear, and the previous vowel lengthened in order to keep the heavy syllable heavy.

So if you remember the general pattern — basically, as a reader, the rule is "when you see something that looks kind of aorist-y but you don't recognize the root, try shortening the vowel and see if it turns into something familiar" — then you get all those funny first aorists for free. Instead of taking up lots of brain space memorizing individual forms like ἔ-μειν-α or ἔ-φην-α or whatever, you just keep a single rule of thumb in mind.

(This is especially true in Greek, since you don't need to write or make conversation. It's okay, for practical purposes, if you can't produce the word ἔμεινα, as long as you can recognize it when you see it. But it's also a useful exercise in heavily inflected modern languages. I don't know Russian, but I suspect there are similar patterns there which it would be useful to brush up on.)
posted by and so but then, we at 11:24 AM on December 16, 2012

For polish, which like russian has almost no resemblance to English, I found the "imagine a crazy picture that sounds like the word" method worked quite well. Like this.
posted by kjs4 at 2:35 PM on December 16, 2012

If you're a visual learner, you may get benefit out of a visual dictionary -- pictures of things and labelled in Russian. The Oxford Picture Dictionary series is more for Russian speakers learning English, but other companies may make them. Although now that I think about it, the whole noun declension thing may make this approach less workable.

I've found something like the BBC World Service to be helpful; you already have the context, so when Президент США Обама speaks at школе Сэнди-Хук в Коннектикуте, you sort of already know what the other words he's saying are. Bonus is that there's an infinite supply of material.

Oh, and I would concentrate entirely on Russian.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:18 PM on December 16, 2012

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