We live in a society where we are constantly seeking self-improvement, whether in the hopes of securing a promotion at work, finally mastering a second language, or making the switch to another industry. For millennials and generation Z in particular, there is an immense desire to learn things at speed, hence the plethora of resources promising to teach you Russian in 12 weeks, or coding over a single summer.
Being a fast-learner is a skill that inspires envy in others and for good reason too; you appear to be a sort of superhuman or genius. In reality however, there is often nothing superhuman going on behind the scenes at all. Sure, someone might have a better memory than you, or process information more quickly. But, what truly separates those regarded as being of average intellect from those perceived as geniuses, is the relentless pursuit of knowledge, fearless approach to making mistakes, persistence, foresight to secure a mentor or a study buddy, willingness to seek and try out new approaches and most importantly, passion of the said ‘geniuses’. All of these factors conspire to produce positive outcomes vis-à-vis learning a language in shorter periods than the average person might achieve.
If you perceive yourself as an average learner, chances are you just need to learn how to use your brain to its fullest potential and discover how to study and acquire knowledge more efficiently. Once you’ve mastered this, you’ll be less likely to give up before you achieve your goals because of the positive feedback loop created by seeing yourself excel enough to finally hit significant milestones in your language-learning journey, such as comfortably reading and understanding material in your target language, speaking at a basic level, or understanding music or films without subtitles.
I’ve scoured the internet in search of the best hacks for learning new vocabulary from some of the most brilliant language-hackers and linguistic minds out there. As a polyglot myself, these methods have my approval because I’ve either used them myself to acquire multiple languages, or see the benefit of incorporating the approach into my study routine. As an addition to their suggestions, I’ve also added more illuminating explanations and multiple ways in which you can apply the theories in practice. Enjoy!
Luca Lampariello explains his approach to learning new vocabulary in a foreign language on Youtube here. Below are his best tips.
1. CONTEXT IS KING
Finding and recording a sentence, or constructing your own sentences, with the target word in context. Luca is on the right track here, because learning words in isolation is far less effective as there is nothing for your brain to latch on to if you don’t connect the word to a scenario.
I truly believe seeing words in context is important, hence why my guides to the 6 grammatical cases in the Russian language contain so many examples. In addition to this, I recommend that you write down the part of speech and produce a transcription of the pronunciation either in the form in which you would articulate the word phonetically in your native language, or in IPA if you know it. I created a free Russian Vocabulary Journal resource precisely for this purpose.
When you write down a word, try to record when you learnt the word, make reference to the book you were reading, the page number of a resource, or the person from whom you acquired it and / or the context in which you learnt it, as doing so will help your brain to create connections between events and thereby help you to memorise the new vocabulary more effortlessly.
For those learning Russian, you can use an online dictionary such as Forvo to hear the correct pronunciation of a Russian word in order to record it phonetically.
2. COMBINE AUDIO WITH TEXT
Listening to subtitled audio or audio with a script provided. The logic here is that as a beginner, or intermediate learner, listening to the words of a podcast, film, or song without the support of a script is not as effective as you miss out on key opportunities to acquire new vocabulary if it is repeatedly going over your head.
3. PUT YOURSELF FIRST
Only pull out words which are relevant for you from texts you consume. The key here is to think about what is useful for you to know in terms of your personal interests, your academic needs, or your profession. You’ll only waste time and expend energy needlessly if you do otherwise. If you abide by this principle, you’ll find constructing sentences spontaneously to be a breeze.
4. LINK WORDS TOGETHER
Create associations between newly acquired words, attempting to link them together by writing short texts. For example, you could express your opinion on things, or write about recent experiences, or create a fictional story. This is very useful where you have a short vocabulary list you wish to memorise.
5. DECONSTRUCT SUPERSIZED WORDS
Break down large words into smaller parts before attempting to tackle them. To increase the likelihood of your brain storing new vocabulary in your long-term memory, or at least in your short-term memory so that you can give yourself enough exposure to the word over time to memorise it naturally, try to research the etymology of the word, understand if individual words have been combined to produce the whole word. Deconstructing a word in this way and understanding its roots, may make it less daunting and much easier to understand.
6. DIVERSIFY YOUR STUDY ROUTINE
Try to adopt a variety of different methods that will increase your exposure to the new vocabulary, engaging your listening, reading, writing and recall skills. For example, you could listen to a song containing the word, read a book or an article featuring the word, write sentences with the word, or test yourself to recall the word. Switching things up whilst still gaining exposure stimulates the brain more and makes it easier to retain the information.
7. ALWAYS CARRY A NOTEBOOK
Essentially, don’t leave your house without a notebook in your pocket. Recording the date you heard a word, from which source (including the page number) or from whom and in which context, is an excellent way — requiring minimal effort – to boost your brain’s capacity to recall the information later.
Jim Kwik outlines his method for acquiring vocabulary in foreign language on Youtube here.
8. VISUALISE THE WORD
For visual learners in particular, aim to create an image in your mind representing the word in question. This image will serve as a crutch until you have finally committed the word to memory, at which point you’ll forget all about the image when using it in conversation or in a piece of writing. Kwik says that the more action-packed, wacky, illogical, emotional or exaggerated the image,the more memorable it will be. You should also try to attach a story to the mental image.
Let’s take the Russian word заводила (pronounced zavodila) for example, which describes an extraverted person with an ability to motivate others to do something, or influence their behaviour. The ending sounds like the name of a creature related to dinosaurs in my mind. Then we have ‘avo’ which we could connect to the fruit ‘avocado’. Avocados have long been associated with lawyers. Therefore, I would think of a young dinosaur. We can call him ‘Z’. Z looks an avocado, is dressed in a suit in court and is trying to galvanise the people in court to believe that his client is innocent. This method is great for visual learners who find it difficult to remember words if they simply hear them, or write them down. If you’re struggling to connect the phonetic sound of a particular Russian syllable to a sound, head to Scrabble Word Finder.org to discover words in the English language which might improve your ability to visualise in a productive manner.
9. SET A GOAL
Appeal to your competitive instincts and make yourself accountable through goal-setting. Choose a sustainable number of words you can commit to learning each day and record your success and failure rate in a programme such as Microsoft Excel, or in a notebook. As time goes on, you’ll be able to calculate how many new words you have memorised in Russian and there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a visual representation of your progress.
10. IF YOU DON’T USE IT YOU LOSE IT (OR NEVER LEARN IT)!
Your passive vocabulary consists of words you know and understand, but not sufficiently well to use them independently. On the other hand, the term active vocabulary refers to vocabulary which you can recall and use at will. Even native speakers experience this, although naturally to a lesser degree. Passive vocabulary words tend to be low-frequency words are encountered less often in a language. Developing the ability to use them actively often requires greater exposure to the word (through reading and listening exercises), or a conscious effort to use them if they arise more rarely in the course of conversation or textual contexts. In summary, use the word in conversation in order to transfer it from your passive vocabulary to your active vocabulary.
11. THE EXPLANATION EFFECT
Teach someone else the word. Teaching something you have had to learn yourself is one of the most sure-fire ways to identify gaps in your knowledge (hopefully prior to the moment of teaching the concept!), force yourself to study until you have reached the ‘ah hah!’ point of mastery, create connections between the new content and your pre-existing knowledge and most importantly, remember what you studied. If you don’t have any friends on the same Russian language journey as you, find a community of people online with the same interests, such as onReddit or the Duolingo forum. If you can think of a helpful way of deconstructing the word to memorise it, a memorable story to attach to the word, or design a cool image, you’ll find plenty of willing and grateful learners.
12. IT TAKES TWO TO MAKE A THING GO RIGHT
Enlist the help of a family member or a friend to learn new words. There is nothing like the pressure of someone else potentially seeing you fail, to get you to memorise a larger quantity of words at greater speed, particularly if you incorporate drill-learning into the process. Simply ask your learning partner to give you the word in your native language and then provide them with the translation in return. Remember to mix things up by having your language partner test you in the opposite direction too (that is, from your target language Russian, to your native language) as well as in a randomised order. This will help you to master the content inside out.
Ways To Study opts for the traditional approach to memorising new vocabulary here. It won’t work for every type of learner, but if you’re a diligent student and can put your head down to learn even if the content you are learning isn’t stimulating, it will probably work for you.
13. CHUNK HARD
Perhaps you’re a fan of approaches to language-leaning which involve extensive writing. If you have a test or major exam coming up and little time to spend implementing memory techniques to learn information in a way that maximises your chances of remembering and recalling it in the long-term, sometimes old-fashioned rote-memorisation is the way to go. The ‘chunk’ method ,as the name implies, involves dividing vocabulary into smaller groups for memorisation and concentrating on mastering these small sections before moving onto another ‘chunk’. Revision is weaved into the process at regular intervals, in order to ensure that you haven’t forgotten previously-memorised vocabulary. As with drilling with a language partner, be sure to change the order in which you learn the vocabulary and the language direction for maximum effectiveness.
Marina Mogliko from Lingua Marina explores some more unique approaches to the acquisition of vocabulary here.
14. DON’T MISS A THING
Why stop at just one word when you can get plenty of others for free? In English, a single word may appear in multiple parts of speech with little to no change in form. It may also possess a non-literal or colloquial meaning which is very different from its standard use and makes the task of learning the vocabulary much easier. Unlike in English, Russian nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs have specific endings which correspond to the part of speech, so you won’t be able to rely on memorising just one form of the word. However, once you learn how to identify the different parts of speech in Russian based on their endings, it won’t feel like such a big effort to remember how to form each part of speech featuring the spelling of the noun as its root.
15. SEARCH ENGINE POTLUCK
When you encounter a new word, type it into the image depository of a search engine such as Google Images. You may discover an image which you can easily associate with the word in order to boost your memory.
16. SPEAK YOUR OWN LANGUAGE
Look for words your target language has borrowed from your native language or a language you know well. A master list of foreign loanwords (or ‘cognates’) in Russian from over 100 languages can be found here . For English speakers, over 700 words in English can be found here . All you need to do to read the words properly is learn the Cyrillic alphabet .
17. PARETO EFFICIENCY (The 80/20 Rule)
“ It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundame ntal principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details, or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” – Elon Musk
By applying the Pareto Principle to language learning, around 20% of what you encounter at each stage of learning is truly of value to you and contributes to your progress. What that means is, if you focus on these high gain items, you will witness a more rapid increase in your performance. On the other hand, by concentrating on the other 80%, you’ll probably learn a lot of information that is ultimately useless at the beginning stages of learning a language.
What is the use of memorising vocabulary that is too complex for the types of conversation you can have at each stage? Without applying the vocabulary on a regular basis, you’ll quickly forget it. Why spend hours learning grammatical rules if you don’t even have a sufficient vocabulary base from which to draw from when applying the rules in everyday conversation?
Your hard work will simply go to waste if you don’t think about how much you can benefit from the task you intend to undertake today. Nervousness tends to be the reason we think we have to keep learning more and more before we can start putting into practice what we have learnt. Don’t make this mistake which will ultimately slow down your learning.
Instead, search for a frequency list in your target language and aim to memorise these because that is the quickest way to improve your comprehension of the language and your ability to construct sentences so you can start speaking early on in the process of learning a language. In our case, you can find a frequency list organised by part of speech at OpenRussian.org, or frequency lists organised thematically at RussianPod101.com .
18. FEIGN NATIVE-SPEAKER MASTERY
When watching films or listening to music, note down appealing phrases and try to use them in conversation as soon as possible. Native speakers don’t always speak using the literal vocabulary often found in textbooks. Even speakers of English often intersperse their speech with phrasal verbs . Drop in a cool phrase from a film or two and watch as a native speaker of Russian is taken aback by your ability to use metaphorical or idiomatic turns of phrases in their language.
19. FALSE FRIENDS
Look out for false friends which sound or even look similar to words in English, but differ in meaning. A list of false friends in the Russian language can be found here .
Ari In Beijing explains a highly effective system of learning called spaced repetition here .
20. SPACED REPETITION
Spaced repetition involves exposure to new information at regular intervals, with the information taking longer to ‘stick’ appearing more frequently until it has been mastered. A growing body of research has shown spacing to be an effective technique. Whether you develop your own Anki cards, or use an app with spaced repetition at the heart of its philosophy such as Memrise, you will see rapid improvements in your ability to memorise large quantities of words.
Ari notes that at more advanced levels of language mastery, you can simply acquire new vocabulary through ‘osmosis’, relying on content targeted at native speakers. This content will effectively replace the need to make a conscious effort to space revision, as words you should know will appear at a sufficient frequency in a natural way.
Steve Kaufmann elucidates his philosophy which centres on extensive reading for the ultimate gains here.
21. READ, READ, READ
Steve recommends consuming lots of word-rich content such as books, podcasts, films, TV series and more. Having used an application which enabled him to monitor the source of vocabulary he acquired, he was able to determined that the majority of words he knew were picked up incidental to learning. That is, he didn’t make any special effort to learn them; he simply gained the vocabulary from frequent exposure which made it impossible to avoid memorising the words naturally.
Whenever you come across a word of value save it. Digitally, or in a good old notebook, it doesn’t really matter (although transferring it to a digital form does have significant advantages for gamifying the learning process through apps such as Anki and the web-based version of Memrise) – just choose whichever is most convenient for you.
Make it a priority to choose content which is aligned with your interests. This will make it much easier to remember. As you encounter the word on further occasions whilst consuming media of your choice, they will naturally become a part of your active vocabulary without a need to try and memorise them. I actually wrote about a similar method which I used to acquire a number of languages in my article 12 insanely powerful yet simple methods used by polyglots to learn a language in record time outside of the classroom .
Needless to say, it is much easier to encounter words on a sufficiently-frequent basis to learn quickly when you’re living and / or working in a country in which your target language is spoken. However, you can also create an immersive environment by reading extensively and listening to audio and video resources in your target language.
22. FEEL THE PRESSURE
Earlier, we discussed the different between passive and active vocabulary. On the topic of moving vocabulary from passive knowledge to active use, Steve recommends engaging in conversation in the target language as frequently as possible. The moments of stress or tension which arise when you struggle to complete a train of thought because you lack knowledge of – or the ability to recall – a certain word in your target language, will cause you to seek out the word if possible and remember it.
Now we’ve explored a variety of methods to help you triple the rate at which you learn, it’s time to get down to business and start studying! What are you waiting for? For more language-learning hacks, be sure to subscribe or bookmark the How to study Russian page. If you’re a beginner in the Russian language, start here . If you’re an intermediate learner, or at an advanced level and keen to take your understanding of Russian to the next step, check out my comprehensive Russian grammar guides .