4 tips to learn new vocabulary

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Whatever language you learn, it is crucial to expand your vocabulary. Flashcards, underlining words in a text or writing words while watching television; every language learner has his own method. But what works best? In this article you will learn more about how your brain works and how information sticks best. Use it to your advantage!

Connections in the brain

Your brain constantly stores new information. But to have access to that information, you must store the information in the right place.
Imagine you want to store the word koelkast in your memory, you can of course work from the translation. But is that effective? In this way your brain only connects with the word through translation, so that you continue to think through your native language. This is not effective!
The trick is to make multiple, lively connections with the new word. You have to puzzle with the word and put your imagination to work. In the case of koelkast you can for example:
  • draw a picture of a fridge while you learn the word.
  • google the word while you learn the word.
  • study pieces of the word (koel and kast).
  • make a donkey bridge or rhyme.
  • stick a memo note with the word on your fridge.
  • say the word out loud every time you open the fridge.
This way, the word is effectively stored in your memory and you have access to the word when you need it.


Students often make a list of words that they would like to learn. Usually also with a translation next to it. In this way you learn the words separately, outside the context, whereby the meaning of a word is again anchored in the memory through the translation. Learning the word in a logical context is much more effective. This can be done by working with images or reality (saying the word fridge aloud when you open the fridge), but also by making sentences.
Example: Ik heb de cola in de koelkast gezet, zodat hij lekker koud blijft.
This is an example of a sentence that is rich in context. Even if you forget the word koelkast, you will be able to guess what the word means through the context. Learning words with these sentences is much more effective.


Now that we have smart ways to learn a word, it is still important to repeat the word sufficiently. You can assume that you have to see or hear a word about 7 times, in different situations, before you can say that you have learned the word.
It is important when that repetition takes place. Learning a word 7 times in one day is of course not that effective. You have to let a word sink into your memory and retrieve it later. This really puts the word in your long-term memory.
There are smart apps and websites, such as Anki, that help you repeat the words at the right moment. First the app shows you the word a few times in a short period, but the periods between repetitions get bigger over time. These apps often work like flashcards, but of course you can use context-rich sentences instead of single words.

In ink

Then one last tip: do not learn everything from a computer or telephone screen! It has been proven that reading from paper and writing on paper stimulates memory. So grab pen and paper and write those desired words down! And don't forget to pronounce them while you learn them! The more skills you combine, the easier you will remember a word.

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