Maria Oliveira Language Learning
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Learning a Second Language: Build your Vocabulary for Success!

by Maria Oliveira. ©2019. All rights reserved.

Learn a Second Language

If you’ve decided to learn a second language you are probably motivated by one or more factors. For example, the need to speak a second language is often triggered by travels to another country. Or, perhaps the second language is a cultural marker, and you hope to reinvigorate your connection to your roots. Other people decide to learn a second language for the challenge of it. They want to keep their brains in shape, or simply wish to defy the common belief that learning a second language is more difficult as an adult. Filled with resolve, people sign up for classes, or buy CD programs or computer software, and they dive in. They work really hard to meet the challenge, but a few months later, or maybe years later, reality kicks in. Has it happened to you? You find yourself able to use the second language to greet people, or be polite in a store using “please” and “thank you.” You did great in class and you try to practice your skills and use your grasp of the grammar to express your ideas, but the problem is: you don’t have the words! The fact is, the single most significant tool for language learning that will take you beyond the beginner’s level is vocabulary building.

Vocabulary Building

Certainly there is more to language than vocabulary; the grammar puts the words together and clarifies meaning. But without vocabulary you have no sentences to construct, nothing to say, nothing to understand. If your goal is fluency, remember that the broader the range of your word choices, the more accurately you can express yourself. And the stronger your word options, the more confident you become when you speak. Let’s look at several techniques for increasing your second language vocabulary.

Immersion I

Language immersion experiences are incredibly effective. There are groups that go to other countries with the specific goal of surrounding themselves with native speakers because when you are in the midst of real life, the words tend to stick with you longer. That’s great if you can do that, but an alternative to a trip abroad is to build your own world of immersion right there in your own life. Instead of looking at your allotted study time as the only time you can learn, try incorporating new vocabulary into your everyday activities. One way to do this is to place sticky notes around your home. Labeling cabinets, appliances, furniture, and other familiar items will make you conscious of the words as you go about your day. Say the words aloud as you encounter the labels until they become automatic in your mind. If possible you can do this at work, in the car, and any other place you inhabit. The bottom line is to make language learning a full time experience. 

Immersion II

Creating your own language immersion experience is easier when you turn to radio, television, and podcasts to introduce the sounds of your target language into your life. There is an abundance of second language programming available to us. In the car, at home, on the commuter train, anywhere you can listen, tune to the programming that fits your needs. Try to make sense of the words you hear. Listen for the pronunciation, the tone of voice, even if you don’t know a specific expression. It may take a little research to find the programming you want, but it’s worth the effort. Watch movies in your new language, but don’t use English subtitles.  In the same way, look for restaurants, social groups, shops, any place where people gather and reflect the culture and language you wish to learn. It’s okay if at first all you do is listen. The idea is absorb the sounds before you try to use them yourself. Try to isolate the words in your mind.  It won’t be long before you try out a word or two with the native speakers you meet in such places. 

Study Aids

Another tool for surrounding yourself with new words is using vocabulary cards for memorization. You can buy these, or make your own using card stock or plain paper. These cards have English on one side, and the translation on the reverse. The best ones use pictures so that you move beyond the simple and sometimes grueling rote memorization that drags down many a language learning student. With pictures you don’t have to translate from English to the new language; instead, you are seeing something for what it is and calling it by its correct name. Vocabulary cards are portable, quiet, and discrete. You can pull them out when you have a few moments to spare, any where, any time. When you do, you are making language learning a full time experience. 

Digital Aids

If you use computers and handheld gadgets you have a world of choices for maintaining a full time language learning experience. You will greatly increase your storehouse of words when you listen and repeat what you hear on vocabulary CDs. These days, there are lots of portable programs to download or access online that introduce new words in ways that familiarize them and seal them into your memory. With these programs you can stop and start to clarify what you are learning; you can self-test and review; and they are convenient for almost all situations. With audible programs you hear correct pronunciation, and you can focus on the sounds as well as the meaning. 

To sum up, if you can incorporate your new vocabulary into your daily routine you will find your language skills increasing exponentially. It is the difference between saying, “I am studying a second language,” and “I am living a second language.” When you live it, you learn it, and all the other parts of language learning fall into place nicely. The more words you have available to you, the higher your success. 


Article may be reprinted as is with permission from author. No changes or edits are allowed.

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