How to Hack Language Learning: Vocabulary

How to Hack Language Learning: Vocabulary

Too much new vocabulary places stress on the learner

My Spanish girlfriend had just finished telling me about this English guy named John who had given a 5-minute long speech in a lecture theater full of Spaniards and she could have sworn he was born in Barcelona not Bournemouth.

At that point, I had been living in Spain for 4 months and could barely string a sentence together despite hours of study every day. This sounded mighty impressive, to say the least.

During my first conversation with John, I made a joke in Spanish using the word ‘cochino’. He stopped me and asked what that word meant. I was shocked that somebody with such an advanced level of Spanish did not know the word for ‘pig’. That was the moment I realized:

It is not necessary to know every word in the dictionary to sound like a native speaker much less communicate with one.

In my experience of learning three languages and teaching three others, learning grammar (structure of the language) and managing the verbs is king. Acquiring impressive-sounding vocabulary words comes way down the list of importance.

I used to think that if I could just mentally swallow my bilingual dictionary then I would be bilingual myself. People who are learning a new language will often carry around their bilingual dictionary like a bible and frantically thumb through the pages whenever they hear a new word.

I don’t bother.

Look at it this way. If a word is commonly used then you will hear it or see it many times. After being exposed to it dozens of times you will understand the meaning and how it is used in conversation, all without touching a dictionary.

These are the two groups of vocabulary words that I choose to focus on during the initial stages of learning a new language:

High-frequency words

It turns out that our “active vocabulary,” the language we use when talking to others, contains anywhere from 500 to 1,500 words. This means that fluency can be achieved with a relatively small vocabulary. For those of you who don’t know, what are high-frequency words? For example, “for” is a common word in English and you should know all its uses. “Bossy” or “boisterous” are not common words. Most locals don’t know the meaning of “small talk” and have never used it in their lives. If native speakers don’t even know it, why bother learning it?

I also break down the highest-frequency words into the following categories:

25 most commonly used verbs
25 most commonly used nouns
25 most commonly used adverbs
25 most commonly used prepositions
25 most commonly used pronouns
25 most commonly used conjunctions

I think these are the basics. As with any skill, whether it’s golf or dance, mastering the basics is the key to success. Tiger Woods would spend hours honing his setup and short game, while most amateurs would practice hitting their driver on the driving range because it’s more engaging and exciting. Although practicing the basics over and over can be boring and monotonous, this is what separates the pros from the amateurs.

Cognates and Transformations

If I’m learning a Western language, I focus heavily on the commonalities to speed up my progress. There are thousands of words that are identical in meaning and nearly identical in spelling. Here are a few of the many English-Spanish cognates (words that have the same spelling and meaning but differ in pronunciation):


By ‘transformations’ I mean finding the Latin roots in English (or whatever happens to be your first language) and quickly transferring those words into the language you are studying.

Here is an example of a quick transformation:

All words ending in ‘ly’ in English are the same in Spanish but end in ‘mente’:


There are a handful of these transformations that can provide you with a vocabulary of roughly 3,000 words in your target language that you already know.

By combining high-frequency words with cognates and easy transformations, I have a working vocabulary of around 4,000 words after roughly a couple of months or less of study. Assuming my grammar is decent I will be at an intermediate to upper intermediate level after only a matter of weeks rather than years.

Possessing this vocabulary of high-frequency words and borrowed words from my native tongue I will easily be able to converse with a native and will be able to live independently in a native environment. With this solid base I can acquire more specialized vocabulary and develop my language further should I wish to do so.

The best way to learn vocabulary will be the topic of a different blog post. Do your own research into techniques such as mnemonics and spaced repetition if you want to learn more.

I hope this post helps to remove many of the fears and limiting beliefs many adults have when attempting to learn a second language.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *