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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

Is there a quick method to build my English vocabulary?

Learning a new language is not easy, largely because of the heavy burden on memory. A universal “best practice” for everyone probably does not exist, but vocabulary memorization can become more efficient with the help of some good strategies.

The conventional method of building up a vocabulary from scratch is remembering the words in the target language by translating to one’s own language. This might be advantageous if the new language and the person’s mother tongue are related, such as Dutch and German, but proves too indirect for unrelated languages, as for English and Chinese for instance. The learning process becomes more efficient when the translation step is removed and the new words are directly linked to the actual objects and actions. Many highly skilled second language speakers frequently run into words whose exact translations do not even exist in their native language, demonstrating that those words were not learned by translation, but from context in the new language.


To skip the translation step early in the language learning process, it is helpful to visualize what it was like when these words were said in in the learner’s native language and link the response to the new words. The idea is to mimic how a child learns a new language. Another way to build a vocabulary quicker is by grouping things that are conceptually related and practicing them at the same time. For example, naming things and events related to transportation as one is getting home from work, or naming objects on the dinner table. The key is to make the new language making “direct sense” instead of trying to understand it through a familiar media such as the native language. In a bit more advanced stage of building a vocabulary, one can use a dictionary in the target language, such as Thesaurus in English, to find the meaning of new words, rather than a language-to-language dictionary.

Employing a method called “Spaced Learning” may also be beneficial. Spaced Learning is a timed routine, in which new material (such as a set of new words in a studied language) is introduced, reviewed, and practiced in three timed blocks with two 10 minute breaks. It is important that distractor activities that are completely unrelated to the studied material, such as physical exercises, are performed during those breaks. It has been demonstrated in laboratory experiments that such repeated stimuli, separated by timed breaks, can initiate long-term connections between neurons in the brain and result in long-term memory encoding. These processes occur in minutes, and have been observed not only in humans, but also in other species.

It is inevitable to forget when we are learning new things and so is making mistakes. The more you use the words that you are learning, the better you will remember them.

Written by Sylvia Chen & Katerina Kucera

Further Reading:

Kelly P. & Whatson T. (2013). Making long-term memories in minutes: a spaced learning pattern from memory research in education. Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, 7, 589. (link)

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

Questions and Answers

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos