Tips for learning advanced vocabulary and grammar in a foreign language?
February 26, 2013 9:31 AM   Subscribe

What are your tips and techniques for learning advanced vocabulary and grammar in a foreign language?

I'm happy with my techniques for learning basic vocabulary (sky, street, house, speak, run) in another language. I'd like to do better with more advanced vocabulary, especially:

* more abstract words (such as the adjective "striking")
* related words with specialized differences ("ship" vs. "boat")

I'm also struggling a bit with the best way to learn and review advanced grammar (for example, in Spanish, the personal subject pronoun can usually be omitted, but there are times when it's required).

What resources do you use?

What techniques do you use?

My main target languages are Spanish and French, but I'd also appreciate suggestions for Italian and German, as well as Russian and Japanese.

I am a huge fan of Anki spaced-repetition software, so I'd be delighted to have suggestions that take advantage of SRS. (For example, if you use additional material, such as example sentences that use the target, do you put them on the back or the front of the card?)

posted by kristi to Education (15 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Absolute best and only way to break into the advanced level in a language: when you read a novel, read a French novel. When you watch a movie, watch a French movie (with subtitles).

Do this not as a chore to learn a language, but as part of your free time. It'll be hard at first, but soon it'll become natural and your level will rise dramatically!
posted by Riton at 9:37 AM on February 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

I was going to suggest something similar to Riton. I think sometimes it's easier to learn more advanced things by learning to intuit it, rather than trying to remember the exact rule for every situation. Also check out podcasts, news, blogs, etc. in the target language. Even if you don't understand everything, you'll start to pick up on trends, phrases, structures that are used in daily language. Once you start to see it IRL, going back to the book or the rule will make a lot more sense and be easier to remember.
posted by hannahelastic at 9:43 AM on February 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Once I've learned basic vocabulary (the 2000 or so most common words), I try and write definitions for more advanced words in terms of what I already know. That goes into my SRS.
posted by atrazine at 9:44 AM on February 26, 2013

I use for Japanese and Chinese. It is SRS.

Anki is my main standby. I make my own decks.

If you are at the advanced stage, which means to me that you have at least 5,000 words in the target language, I find that do not need to actively study grammar because I have internalized the great majority of common devices. From that point on, I pick up new grammar from native materials. For example, if you are reading a Japanese newspaper and come across 結果いかんで as an unknown construction, then you can go to a grammar book.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:54 AM on February 26, 2013

I read in that language as much as possible. And, weirdly enough, from a vocabulary point of view I find that trashy books are better than well-written literature, because the vocabulary in trashy books is often more repetitive. So every time some one gets mad, they narrow their eyes and clench their teeth, and every time someone gets nervous, they wring their hands together, and by the end of the book, by Jove, you know how to say "clench [your] teeth" and "narrow [your] eyes" and "wring [your] hands together" in that language.
posted by colfax at 9:58 AM on February 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

For learning any kind of vocabulary: flashcards. I use software (Anki) or you can make them the old-fashioned way.
* more abstract words (such as the adjective "striking")
* related words with specialized differences ("ship" vs. "boat")
For these kind of subtle distinctions, you need two things: (1) lots and lots of experience reading and listening to native speakers. Watching films and reading novels is a great way to get this, if you're not able to immerse yourself. And (2) a Spanish-Spanish dictionary (or whatever). The English equivalent of a word is not the word you're looking for.
posted by caek at 10:06 AM on February 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Quick update:

I absolutely do read as much in my target languages as possible (most recently, Jules Verne for French and a translation of Good Omens for Spanish; switching to a history of Spain in Spanish next). However, simply reading isn't making much of the vocabulary stick (grammar may be sticking a bit more; not sure).

I want to actually add at least some of these new words to my active speaking vocabulary.

posted by kristi at 10:29 AM on February 26, 2013

I learned Arabic largely but rote memorization of flash cards and reading. With my SRS flash card program, I just used 1 foreign language word and then the definition, occasionally I would use phrases.

Writing also helps--if you are writing something and are unsure of what word to use, and have access to a good dictionary that will help you navigate word choice, then you can really hone your ability to pick the right word in a situation and express the nuance that you want.

I also studied at Middlebury, which helps learning a foreign language easier in many ways.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:30 AM on February 26, 2013

How do you document any new vocabulary you've learned from your studies? For example, I keep a notebook for new words and phrases, and I review the notebook once a week. I test myself with these new words and phrases.

Also: believe it or not, but not all native speakers are "advanced" or "superior" speakers (there are a lot of people who speak English who don't know the difference between "ship" and "boat").

To move to a "superior" level, native speakers often have to achieve post-secondary or even advanced degrees, and there is often an emphasis on writing.

Now, it may be difficult to enroll in a Spanish-language university, so the only think you can do is continue to read (and listen to) materials that are intended for an advanced audience. The newspaper won't cut it, but scholarly journals might, or at least the Spanish-language version of the New Yorker, American Prospect, Harper's, or Granta.

You also need to focus on one language. Time is limited. Choose French or Spanish, and just focus on that.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:58 AM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For French, I do a couple of things. The podcast News in Slow French is great for aural comprehension. I haunt the forums at - they're a wonderful resource if you have any questions and have threads specifically dedicated to grammar resources and vocabulary resources. I also subscribe to the newsletters from - that site in general is great for grammar review. They have a tool called the Subjunctivator that lets you know whether or not a given phrase requires the subjunctive.
posted by Devika at 12:23 PM on February 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

I second (or third, or whatever) reading a lot in that language. If it's not sticking yet, just keep doing it.

Also, I recommend getting a quality dictionary in that language (French to French, Spanish to Spanish, and so on). Take the time to look up the words you don't know to get at their nuances. Read the supplemental info like the etymologies, too.
posted by Leontine at 12:51 PM on February 26, 2013

English is my second language and reading has absolutely improved my vocabulary. It does stick. One reason might be that, at the beginning (say, the first dozen books or so), I tended to re-read the same book several times, and I still remember where I first read some of my favorite words/expressions.

So yup, reading, and especially re-reading. Find an author you like and read several of their books, authors have their favorite words too ;) Also, try to read several books/articles on any given topic to help retain the words you just learned.

Also, learning stuff by heart. Songs, bits of prose, speeches.

Talking to yourself in your target language, at least in your head. Makes you aware of any gaps in vocabulary.

Changing the language settings on your computer, cell phone, any other gadgets you use.

Seconding - awesome resource (at least the French section).

Be selective about your sources, there is lots of poorly written material out there, and native speakers =/= necessarily good spellers.

Oh, and if you can, find some French friends. I know, not easy, but very very helpful. I used to find someone to chat to a few years ago, and it was great.
posted by M. at 1:09 PM on February 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

I watched a lot of TV, in German, with the German subtitles on. If I didn't understand something, I would go back and see what they were saying in English. For phrases that I wanted to remember, I would then put them into Anki. I think I put them in with the German on the front first, and then flipped them once they were familiar.

One thing that would be good for and Anki deck is idiomatic prepositions. "by car", "at university", "pushed against", those sort of things. You can pick them up, but a bit of repitition makes them stick faster.

Oh, and one great tool is google. If you aren't sure how to say something, google the options. The one with the most hits is probably right.
posted by kjs4 at 4:24 PM on February 26, 2013

Best answer: I have recently put into effect a really good system with Anki for Spanish and my Kindle. I downloaded and combined several Spanish decks from Anki. There is a lot of simple Spanish, hacer, poner, como estas, etc, etc, but a great deck of irregular verbs and their conjugation some cards about rules, pronombres, etc. I also have a Spanish English dictionary on my kindle that can translate one word at a time and clip and note words and phrases that I try to incorporate into my Anki deck a few times a week. My current deck has 18000 cards from basic to fairly advanced and colloquial spanish. It has many sentence examples as well. If you want memail me and I can send you the deck.
posted by Che boludo! at 8:04 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also and movies in the target language with subtitles in the same language if possible.
posted by Che boludo! at 8:05 PM on February 27, 2013

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