It goes without saying that learning a new vocabulary is an important step in mastering a second language. After all, without words, we wouldn’t be able to understand or say anything at all! However, the importance of vocabulary for learning a second language goes far beyond this simple observation. Studies have continually shown that second language users who know more target language words are better at reading, writing, listening, and speaking in that language1. What’s more, learning vocabulary can lead to substantial Matthew effects for future learning2; that is, the more words you know now, the more words you’ll be able to learn in the future. One question you might be asking is, “What is the best way to learn vocabulary in my second language?” While there is no one “best way” to learn vocabulary (or any other aspects of a second language for that matter), one tidbit of advice is that good vocabulary learning balances incidental exposure and intentional practice. Let’s take a look at what I mean by this.
Incidental vs. Intentional
Tip 1: Learn words incidentally by reading or practicing your second language!
Researchers agree that a good way to jumpstart second language vocabulary growth is through incidental exposure – that is, by using your second language (e.g., reading a book, listening to a podcast, watching television, or simply chatting in your second language) whenever you can! This is because, during meaningful communication, our brains unconsciously take note of different aspects and characteristics of new words that we hear, such as what they refer to, how they sound, and what other words they tend to occur with. Some studies with reading have suggested that a new word needs to be encountered at least 7 to 10 times just to start learning it, so it’s important to increase your contact with a second language as often as possible34. Seeking out these kinds of opportunities has the added benefit of helping you learn other parts of the language as well (e.g., grammar, pronunciation, etc.)!
Tip 2: Study words intentionally!
Although researchers agree that incidental exposure should be part of any vocabulary learning regimen, studies have shown that words are learned more quickly and more memorably if they are studied intentionally – on purpose and with desire to learn!5 Some research-tested activities include creating word flashcards, associating target words with mnemonic devices (to facilitate recall), keeping vocabulary notebooks, and using dictionaries to look up words while reading. These activities are thought to be helpful because they maximize engagement with words; that is, they help you pay more attention to words, manipulate words, and overall make you spend more time with them6. Like incidental vocabulary learning, intentional vocabulary learning also has its limits. While explicitly studying new words is great for learning their basic meanings (e.g., that tree refers to a tall plant with a trunk, branches, and leaves), it may be less effective for acquiring the different nuances of a word (e.g., that tree can refer to an abstract branching structure, or that it is frequently found next to words such as family or house). For this, we need to meet a word many different times—in other words, through incidental exposure.
Putting it together
The natural takeaway from this information is that vocabulary learning should be both intentional and incidental! A sample plan for self-study could be as follows: (1) choose something you like to read/watch/listen to; (2) while reading/watching/listening, identify words you don’t know and write them down; (3) study these words intentionally using word cards, a dictionary, mnemonic devices, vocabulary notebooks, etc.; (4) repeat repeat repeat. Keep up this pattern, and I’m sure you’ll become a second language vocabulary expert in no time!
1 Milton, J. (2013). Measuring the contribution of vocabulary knowledge to proficiency in the four skills. In C. Bardel, C. Lindqvist, & B. Laufer (Eds.), L2 vocabulary acquisition, knowledge and use: New perspectives on assessment and corpus analysis (pp. 57-78). Euro SLA.
2 Stanovich, Keith E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 22, 360-407.
3 Chen, C., & Truscott, J. (2010). The effects of repetition and L1 lexicalization on incidental vocabulary acquisition. Applied Linguistics, 31(5), 693–713. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/amq031
4 Webb, S. (2007). The effects of repetition on vocabulary knowledge. Applied Linguistics, 28(1), 46–65. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/aml048
5 Laufer, B. (2005). Focus on form in second language vocabulary learning. EUROSLA Yearbook, 5, 223–250.
6 Schmitt, N. (2008). Review article: Instructed second language vocabulary learning. In Language Teaching Research (Vol. 12, Issue 3, pp. 329–363). https://doi.org/10.1177/1362168808089921