Language learning tips!
February 24, 2006 6:43 PM   Subscribe

I'm at a stage where I need to memorize vocabulary in a foreign language, and I am looking for advice, tips & useful software.

The more recommendations, the happier I'll be, especially as regards flashcard software and that sort of thing.

I'm also interested in radio broadcasts in Spanish, French & Portuguese, and possibly slowly-spoken Hindi. And in bilingual texts in the latter.

And memorization techniques, can't forget those.

posted by anjamu to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I learned French largely pre-computer, so I can't say for sure I would do the same now, but I suspect 3 x 5" file cards are one of civiliation's greatest tools for learning words and language. They're portable, cheap, and allow you to focus on what you need to learn, and then put that aside and continue focusing on what you haven't learned yet.
posted by ParisParamus at 6:51 PM on February 24, 2006

I was never good with rote memorization for (German) vocab, but usually when I could use it in context I'd remember it better. Flash cards with sentences are pretty effective and are a good way to help with gender.
posted by kendrak at 7:10 PM on February 24, 2006

There's a series of books titled Mastering ____ Vocabulary - a thematic approach (published by Barrons) which have been extremely useful to me for memorizing vocabulary. They do a better job than most at breaking the word lists into parts which can be studied entirely in one session. They use the IPA for phonetic transcription, which is useful if you are interested in linguistics. I have the French and German versions.

For French radio, RFI has daily broadcasts and they even have a "fran├žais facile" version which is spoken more slowly and clearly.

Something that's also been very useful to me is obtaining DVDs that have both audio *and* subtitles in the language you want to learn. That way, you can try to listen to the audio, but if you can't understand, you can fall back to the text and if you still don't understand, switch the subtitles to English.
posted by helios at 7:16 PM on February 24, 2006

Barry Farber wrote a book called How to Learn Any Language: Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively, Enjoyably and on Your Own that is filled with various tips, advice and guidelines. He personally learned over 25 (!) different languages and founded a foreign language learning organization.
posted by blueyellow at 7:45 PM on February 24, 2006

I just read a lot of books--with a dictionary. It's not quite as efficient but there's more context, it sticks better, and I'm more likely to learn the meaning of a foreign word and not just its English translation.

When I was at a lower level in Spanish I had a rather complicated but effective system:

Get your hands on a word-frequency dictionary. As you read a book (or newspaper or magazine or whatnot), make a database or spreadsheet of all the words you look up, along with their frequencies. After every reading session or two, make flash cards for (say) the top 10% high frequency words that you've come across. That way you can read fairly interesting texts, but not waste time on learning very specialized and obscure vocabulary--you look it up once and move on--while cementing more common vocabulary in your head.
posted by Jeanne at 8:04 PM on February 24, 2006

Best answer: jmemorize is a useful flashcard program.
posted by honeyx at 9:06 PM on February 24, 2006

HELIOS: That RFI link looks very interesting. Do you know if they publish a transcript as well (something like Deutsche Welle's Langsam Gesprochene Nachrichten)?
posted by RavinDave at 10:17 PM on February 24, 2006

i've just made flashcards and then take them with me all over. instead of standing in line at the post office staring into space, you can whip them out and refresh your memory.
posted by kooop at 12:10 AM on February 25, 2006

This is a really bizarre idea but how about playing isketch in the non-English rooms. I did that as a sort of personal semiotics test, and used alta vista translator to test my guesses against the rest of the room. Fascinating how art transcends language.
posted by b33j at 1:51 AM on February 25, 2006

Best answer: Everything Barry Farber says about flashcards is true (speaking from experience): Write them such that you flip them around the x-axis with a simple flip of the wrist; make sure you can identify the corresponding item on the reverse without any delay; fill them out not only from the dictionary, but on the street as you converse. Using easy folds (no measuring) and two or three colored pens, you can divide an unlined 3x5 into 18 boxes for short words, without any risk of confusing a word for its neighbors.

Use in context is wonderful. Cements collocations and suchlike. A dictionary with examples, preferably not made-up ones, is five times better than one without. Lacking that, observe and emulate. A word-frequency dictionary would also be helpful, as mentioned, if you could find one.

When starting to listen to native accents (or a new accent) for the first time, allow up to three weeks for your synapses to connect properly. Segmenting the speech stream into words and phonemes is, it turns out, a nontrivial task.
posted by eritain at 2:19 AM on February 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh, and try to pick apart the morphology of every word you read. There's a knack to it, and a basic knowledge of morphemes, which build off of one another. I dunno about the Romance languages, since so many of their lexical morphemes are shared with English anyway; but for my Slavic languages it's been a lifesaver.
posted by eritain at 2:23 AM on February 25, 2006

A rote memory strategy I used while learning Japanese was to make lists. I'd write down the foreign word, then it definition. After finishing, I'd cover up the definition with a sheet of paper, hand, whatever was nearby, and try and recall the definitions as I went down the list. I did this until I could recall all the definitions without checking. I could run through about 40 to 50 words in one go with this technique.

I added to it by writing a new column (so I got practice writing the original foreign words) and then recalling the definition again.
posted by Atreides at 7:44 AM on February 25, 2006

Best answer: This isn't directly related to your question, but for learning to parse a foreign language, I've found that listening to (foreign) podcasts is an excellent technique. You need to have a fairly good grasp of the vocabulary already, but I've found that this works just as well as helois' suggestion on watching DVD's. Sometimes, the DVD's (translated) subtitles don't match the (dubbed) audio, which can be very annoying.

For Spanish language, there are lots of podcasts on iTunes; my favorite is Doctora Isabel, who gives relationship advice in Spanish. She's on iTunes, but can also be found on the radio Univision website,

A general website for Spanish podcasts is

Buena suerte!
posted by math at 8:16 AM on February 25, 2006

I love Supermemo, as I've said before.
posted by Wolfdog at 8:40 AM on February 25, 2006

I recommend VTrain for flashcard software
posted by Sharcho at 9:21 AM on February 25, 2006

RavinDave: The "fran├žais facile" versions have transcripts, but the standards feed don't.

And math is correct that DVD subtitles are often very different from the audio, but I've found that, for example, if you buy a French-language movie from a French movie studio with French actors, the subtitles will be much, much closer to the original than some random english movie with french subtitles and dubbed audio (although in all cases, the subtitles are often summarized when the actors are speaking too fast).
posted by helios at 11:33 AM on February 25, 2006

Another vote for 3x5 flashcards here. I carry a pack of them around not so much for vocabulary quizzes but for conjugation and declension of irregular verbs and nouns. There is no answer but rote memorization for the irregulars, so it's handy to have the cards around to allow you to study in free moments.
posted by forrest at 3:25 PM on February 25, 2006

HELIOS: Nice! Wish they had an archive of old shows (if they do, I couldn't find it). Still, even without it -- and coupled with the other stuff they have on the website -- it's a dandy resource.
posted by RavinDave at 1:44 AM on February 26, 2006

Best answer: Kokuyo makes these small notecards that come on a ring. They are much smaller than regular flashcards but serve the same purpose and are easier to manage b/c of the ring. i always have a set in my pocket.
posted by anonymous78 at 9:31 PM on February 27, 2006

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