An open dictionary.

Vocabulary building: frequency hacks for faster fluency

It’s not surprising that foreign languages can seem overwhelming to new learners. Vocabulary is the memory monster of language learning, scaring beginners away. Foreign language dictionaries are beasts of books. Even beginners’ word lists and glossaries in textbooks can top 1000 words!

There are ways to tackle vocabulary systematically. Books like the excellent Mot à mot (French), Wort für Wort (German) and Palabra por palabra (Spanish) can be great road maps to a language. They present a broad range of words and phrases for more advanced learners, arranged by topics like family and education. Even humble phrase books, like the Lonely Planet range, can prove a handy (and cheap) tool for basic, thematic vocabulary.

Generally speaking…

Guides like these bring some order to the chaos of words in the dictionary. However, they are predominantly situation-specific. They equip you to talk quite narrowly within set parameters, like ‘at the doctor’, or ‘ordering in a restaurant’. Surely, the goal of true fluency should be the ability to communicate generally and more freely. You might learn how to ask for headache tablets in a Japanese pharmacy, for example. Or you could request a shirt in a different colour in a Swedish department store. But is this limiting your ability to communicate?

Vocabulary with vigour

Fortunately, there’s a completely different approach to learning vocabulary. It’s an efficient hack, cutting out slack, and It’s also totally free. It involves applying the principle of word frequency to your vocab drilling. Did you know, for example, that the 100 most frequent words in English account for around 50% of the language you’re likely to come across in the language?

In that top hundred most common words, you’ll find lots of function words like the articles ‘the’ and ‘a’, but also content words such as ‘thing’, ‘look’ and ‘day’. The same goes for other languages, and you can leverage this fact to ensure that the stuff you’re learning is the stuff you’ll come across more often than anything else. Stretch the limit to the 1000 most common words, and you’ll cover 75% of what you hear and read.

Finding your frequency

The first step is to find a frequency list for words in your foreign language. There are some superb commercial lists available, like this Spanish frequency dictionary from Routledge. But thanks to online collaborative and Open Source projects, a lot of material is available for free too.

The first place to look is Wiktionary’s catalogue of links to frequency lists. It’s quite exhaustive; you’ll find links to the big, mainstream languages, as well as smaller ones like Estonian and Lithuanian. There aren’t many commercial resources for learners of these less common language choices; frequency lists like these can be a real boost to your learning material.

It’s also worth checking out the blog site of Neri Rook. This prolific linguist has published a series of eBooks for free, including several extensive frequency lists. Some of these are accompanied by example sentences, putting the vocabulary into context. It’s a remarkable set of resources to make freely available, and worth making the most of!

Ready, set, go!

When you have your list, there are plenty of ways to start learning it. At the simplest level, paper flashcards are easily made from index / revision cards. Simply write the target language on one side, and the translation on the other, and test away. In the classroom, you could extend this to wall art featuring the most common words in the target language. Alternatively, you could use one of many online quiz tools, like Quizlet, to create interactive games with them.

However, I’m a big fan of the desktop and mobile software Anki for creating electronic flashcards for self-testing. You could take the top hundred and key them all into Anki yourself. But one of the joys of the software is the treasure of publicly shared card decks available. Many of them even have native speaker sound files included. Chances are, someone has already created that electronic card deck for you! Just search on the word frequency and see what comes up (screenshot below).

Shared frequency vocabulary lists on Anki

Shared frequency vocabulary list decks on Anki

Take advantage of the word frequency trick. You’ll become familiar with half of the language you’ll read and hear by learning around just a hundred words. And we all like a shortcut, right?

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