If you learn a foreign language, what is the most efficient and fast way to improve your vocabulary?

Answer by Mikkel Ramzuiv Pittmann Wilson:


When I moved to Denmark a little over a year ago, I only had one mission: To learn Danish, and to learn it as well as I could, before returning home for summer vacation. A year is both an extremely long amount of time, as well as an extremely short amount of time; Whenever I meet new people, they are always extremely impressed with my skill in Danish, especially given that I’ve only lived here a year. Why? Well, I was well equipped with the experience of multiple failed language learning projects in my life – I had wasted 3 years of study trying to learn Japanese, and I had a hobby project learning Latin – And while I can’t even understand the most vital of sentences in those languages, I was left with something even more valuable: The experience needed to create a battle plan so my next language learning expedition would not just succeed, but succeed Brilliantly. So what was my plan?

Well, first off, obviously, the first step is obviously to become familiar with the phonology and grammar of the language, but since that’s not what the question is asking, I’m assuming you already have control over those (If you don’t, focus on those first. If you try to build vocabulary without knowing a language’s pronunciation or inflection patterns, you’ll end up making many silly errors despite having a strong vocabulary)

The past year, I was always seen using my two tools that I used to build vocabulary: Reading and Spaced Repitition Software.

Reading seems pretty self-explanatory, however there are a few caveats here. Here, all that you want is text in your target language. It doesn’t matter if it’s something you know by the back of your hand, or if it’s something that you’ve never read before. The only important thing is that you have a text which has many words in it. I’d then slowly read over it, translating each sentence in my head, making sure I knew that I understood what it meant exactly, and if I came across any word or phrase that made no sense to me, I’d highlight it (Or later, simply write down the word on my iPad). I’d probably spend about an hour every day just reading.

Once I was finished reading, I’d then proceed to open Notepad, and go to Den Danske Ordbog (A very good dictionary for Danish – If you are learning a large language like English French or German, I’d advise Wiktionary – otherwise, use your favorite dictionary for your language – or use Google Translate!). I’d then look up each word, and write down the word and it’s meaning in a .txt file.


You’ll notice I also notated how the word is pronounced, and whether it inflects with -en or -et  – That’s why it’s so important that you know a languages phonology and grammar before you try building a vocabulary – otherwise you won’t know what details are important to inflect, and which aren’t. Also note that every 25 words, I seperate the words with a line – this’ll be important later.

Once I have created a list like this with 100 words, I’d then proceed to open Byki – Byki is a program based upon the philosophy of Spaced repetition, and is very powerful – Some people use Anki, which is free, and while I personally prefer Byki, Anki also works really well, and it’s free. Both programs have windows where you can create lists, which is of course, the next step


Once we have our list created (I always try to keep my lists around 25 words, and I mentally organize them in groups of 4 lists for 100 words), we then get to the really fun part, where we get to train our new words, which I think is fairly self-explanatory. Once we have trained our words, and are able to recall all of them from memory, both going from the target word to the concepts they represent (Recognition), and from the concept to the word (Reproduction), you might think we are finished, but really, we’ve only just begun. While we can indeed recall all of them from our memory now, in a few days, after learning a lot more about other things, many of the words we learned today will be forgotten, but the good news is, that once you learn something once, it is really easy to learn it again, so Byki and Anki have a special function where you can refresh the words you just learned, and every time you refresh a word, you can now go an even longer time without seeing that word, and still remember it when you need to, until eventually you forget that you ever had to learn that word.

The system is very efficient with regards to your investment in time in regards to most of the other answers on this page (Looking at all of you who say “Just consume media and you’ll learn” – yes, you will, but only very slowly – Especially in the begining ;] ) – It’s also more efficient than Duolingo, which is all the rage these days (I’ve been able to learn 100 lemmas (unique uninflected words) in 1 day multiple times using my method, while Duolingo, especially after the first few lessons, is extremely grueling and slow – 6 or 7 words (Including variations of the same word – e.g. “Tasche” and “Taschen” are counted as 2 words, while you’d only ever learn “Tasche” with my method) in an hours worth of trying to pass a lesson without making any mistakes; That’s one of the huge drawbacks of DL – it’s way too unforgiving) – There are definitely many points where I’d say it is in want of a better way to do it (especially making lists- I’ve wasted way too much time converting my notebooks and .txt files into lists, if I could just make a .txt or an Excel spreadsheet, and then train with that, I’d have saved so much time), but despite its flaws, it is still the best, most efficient way of learning vocabulary I have ever tried.

If you learn a foreign language, what is the most efficient and fast way to improve your vocabulary?

My take aways from this answer:

– Answer represent possible application of spaced repetition approach to vocabulary building, tried by author.

– Importance of learning a language’s pronunciation or inflection patterns, before starting with vocabulary building, as you’ll end up making many silly errors despite having a strong vocabulary in this scenario

Recognition and Reproduction – these technical terms seems to be obvious when you read definitions, but it is important to be aware about these 2 distinct operation we need to perform when handling vocabulary. So: going from the target word to the concepts they represent called Recognition, and when we go from the concept to the word it is called Reproduction. My guess it that the latter requires more time to acquire – you quickly starting recognize words in text, especially given the hints from the context, but reproduction in writing, or more important in speech doesn’t come equally fast (it should be trained separately/additionally).

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