How to Acquire Vocabulary

The vocabulary universe

Today I’m very happy to have Ruth Elizabeth–or Thảo, as she is known in Vietnam–guest posting on Lingholic. Ruth is the person behind More Vietnamese, a great website full of really useful information both for general language learners and for those learning Vietnamese more specifically. She lived in Vietnam for 2 years, and besides Vietnamese, she has studied French and Esperanto. Enjoy the post!


An important part of language learning is acquiring new vocabulary. There are many techniques and tools out there to help us. But what is actually going on as we learn a new word? How does this word become part of our active vocabulary?

1. Finding new words and understanding them

The first step is to find a new word. There are a huge number of possible sources:

  • Finding words through reading magazinesClasses – your teacher explains new vocabulary for you.
  • A self-study textbook with translations or explanations of new vocabulary.
  • Authentic materials like newspapers, TV programmes and conversations with friends.

Note that an important part of this stage is understanding the word in the context you found it in. Sometimes you will be able to deduce from the rest of sentence what the word must mean. At other times you may need to look it up in the dictionary or require a friend or teacher to explain it.

After this process you may be able to recognize the word the next time you come across it, or you may need to see and hear it a few more times before is sinks in. This is stage 2.

2. Getting to know the new word and internalizing it

Internalizing the wordGradually over time and enough exposure to the language, those new words would come up many times, in many different sentences. Each time you come across the words you’d get a better understanding of what they mean and how to use them. This is what happens when we’re children learning our own language. It will work for language learning too, but it’s the problem is that it’s quite a slow process.

It takes a lot of repeated experience with the word for it to really sink in. Most language learners try to speed up this stage so the word moves to the long-term memory much faster. Many tools that help with this, like Anki, use a system called spaced repetition which is designed to re-expose us to the word just at the point where we’d be likely to forget it.

As I said, there’s much more to knowing a word than being able to pronounce it, spell it, translate it or even to be able to recall it at will. To truly know a word you must know how it works in a sentence. You get clues on this every time you see and hear the word.

Is it formal or informal? If it’s a noun, are there particular verbs that are commonly used with it? This is one reason why a lot of people, myself included, use full sentences when learning vocabulary.

There are several ways to help you internalize vocabulary at this stage. Some ideas are:

  • Using Anki flashcards.
  • Devising mnemonics or mems to help you remember. This could be by yourself or through a site like Memrise.
  • Playing vocabulary games online.
  • Testing yourself using any study methods you used at school or university for any subject. Lists, mind maps, getting someone to test you… They can all be applied to languages.

3. Using the word

So you’ve come across a new word, you understand it and are familiar with how it looks and sounds and how it fits in sentences.

But the final step, which the other two have only been leading up to, is using the words yourself as you use the language. In plain terms, using it naturally and spontaneously while speaking or writing.

The final step

It’s OK to get it wrong at this stage. This is part of becoming familiar with the word and how it is (and isn’t) used. You may need to revisit stage 2 so you can use it correctly next time.

Using the word correctly and naturally is the end goal. Congratulations!

But it’s not over yet. How do you prevent yourself from forgetting this new word you’ve worked so hard to remember? The solution is to keep going with your learning – keep on reading and listening, keep reviewing vocabulary and keep using it!


Do you identify with these three stages of learning vocabulary? How do you learn new words? Comment below!

12 thoughts on “How to Acquire Vocabulary”

    1. Yes, waiting for enough natural exposure takes a lot of time so it’s good to be concious and try to notice and use new vocabulary. Probably even more so for Chinese where you have to learn additional information like characters.

      If flashcards are used, it’s supposed to be during the second stage once we’ve already come across the word. I find using Anki for words I’ve learnt in class increases my ability to notice them “out in the wild” as you say. For me it just speeds the process up a little!

      1. Fair point about flashcards. I find *making* them (by hand) is actually more useful than *using* them! Perhaps because I’m not a digital native, I still like old fashion flashcards and handwritten notes. Although I do enjoy Duolingo… So perhaps I ought to give Anki a try. Thanks for your ideas!

      2. Ruth. It’s amazing to me that you’re Vietnamese language lover. You’ve just been in Vietnam for only 2 years, but your method of digging down into and internalizing language learning is freakin’ useful. For Vietnamese is considered to be the most difficult language to learn, especially to those from Western countries, though. For me, in fact, flashcard just speeds the process up a little bit, not definitely do some help to use it. You just use your eyes to take a glance at the word, your ears for listening to the pronunciation, your brain for understanding and memorizing the meaning of it. Those are invidually separated steps, that will break your wholistic process of learning a language. Waiting for enough natural exposure to a language is fair enough a waste of time. and it’s just applied to babies. As a concious learner, we must be in the harmony with unconciousness & conciousness learning processs. Let the language all in naturally but take notice at how it works in each cases. The context fits the words and it may deduce from the whole sentence. Especially, it’s necessary to force one’self to use the language. Just making friends with native speakers on Fb is also the best way. Or find somewhere in your country to have a conversation with them. You will get used to the tone & the intonation, the pronunciation without trying to remember at all. And use words freely when you run into the contexts.

        1. Thanks for your compliment, Thien Khanh! It helps that I’ve taught English (and learning Vietnamese helped me to be a better teacher because I could understand the student’s perspective). I don’t think any language should be called difficult. Learning a language from another language family just means it’s more different, not necessarily more difficult!

          I totally agree the best way to be active about the third step is through chatting to native speakers online or in person. If you’re learnt the words well, you’ll naturally bring them up in the right places.

    2. I couldn’t agree more with you, Amy. Just like me as I’m doing with Germany. Actually, English is also my second language as I am a Vietnamese. But throughout the times of learning, I’ve been still struggling to punch new words as it bumped into my way. I found no way out if just browsing words through flashcard, etc,…I forced myself to dive deeply down into the situation the words might be used. and have fun with those words by using it talking to foreigners. The more I expose myself to the real using language, the more fluent I will get. I would say, the most working-out method when starting to learn a language is to encounter to the real world, take hearing skills first, then later on, listening to the real English. just like news, movies, music, reading stuffs written by native speakers. Don’t stick yourself into text book, just sitting there, doing your studying, it doesn’t make any senses to me at all.

    1. That’s why I used the word “internalise” because it’s not just about rote memorisation. Reading and writing is a great way to work through the second and third stages of acquiring active vocabulary.

      1. I agree with you Ruth, there is an important distinction between memorizing and internalizing. (I’m humored my American English as I write this!)

  1. Learning new words in isolation, in my opinion, is not na effective way to learn vocabular. For me, the best way is to learn phrases and after that trying to write or speak other phrases of my own, using the same pattern and similar contexto.

  2. I gat a big hint on how to improve and acquire ones vocabulary. In my own perspective I guess internalising the new words help a lot. Ruth and thienkhanh are right about that.

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