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How to Use the Power of Context to Boost Your Foreign Language Vocabulary

I've studied languages for over 30 years. Many long-time language learners may be able to sympathize with my love and hate relationship with flashcards and vocabulary lists.

Many moons ago I was quite zealous about creating cards and vocabulary lists. I even once created a list of over 35,000 German vocabulary words and idioms using books at the university library, etc. and then had the list bound into a book. I thought that if I could gather all the information I needed to know together in one place and then learn it, I would be fluent in the language. However, despite all my efforts, it turns out that learning advanced vocabulary like this is not only extremely boring, but you also tend to forget the words quite quickly if you do not later meet them in real life. Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t matter how long of a list you make, there are always more words to learn.

It did not take long before I realized that it was possible for me to put considerable effort into learning a particular word and then in reality, I may never ever come across it in real life or if I ever did encounter that word (while reading or listening), I may be able to guess its meaning through context anyway and I needn’t have spent the time studying it.

I took a variety of materials in my language (books, magazines, etc.) and read a random selection from each, writing down each word I did not know or had never encountered before and beside the word, I wrote down my best possible guess as to what the word might mean given the context. Sometimes the guess was obvious, sometimes a stab in the dark. There are always context clues that give you some idea of the word/phrase’s meaning. (Is it a noun? Does it describe something positive or negative?, etc.).
After obtaining a list of about 100 words in this way, I then proceeded to look them up in the dictionary. I gave myself one point if I correctly guessed the meaning of the word and half a point if I came reasonably close. It was kind of like a game. The result was that I found I was able to correctly guess the meaning of a word over 75% of the time. It is highly likely that if I were to see the 25% of the words I missed again in a different sentence or context, I would probably be able to increase this to 85%-90%.

Another interesting idea is to read a book (preferably not a library book) with a pencil in hand. As you read, lightly underline each word you do not know (and quickly guess at its meaning). After you’ve finished the whole book, go back to the front and look up the underlined words and I’ll bet you’ll find you won’t need to look up most of them. 

The trick is to find something you enjoy reading and since authors tend to re-use the same vocabulary, by the time you reach page 100 or so, you will be so into the story that there will be less and less unrecognizable vocabulary. Books for young adults (such as Harry Potter, for example) are good because there tends to be more context for unknown words.

Sometimes you meet a word over and over again that you just cannot seem to grasp. If you come across the same word repeatedly and still have only a vague idea as to its meaning, go ahead and resort to the dictionary. Since you have now seen the word a number of times before looking it up, you probably will never forget the meaning. This happens to us all the time in our native language. We hear people using a word that we do not know until finally we just have to go and look it up in the dictionary – and then you never forget it. 

By learning words through reading, I avoid the original problem of studying lists of words that I will never meet again. The more frequently I encounter the word (while reading), the faster it will become part of my vocabulary. If I never encounter the word again, then I won’t learn it – but then I probably don’t need to.

However, don’t throw your flashcards or vocabulary lists away too quickly. I still find them useful in two situations. Firstly, when you are studying beginner’s vocabulary (dog, cat, sing, wish, etc.) they can be useful because these are high-frequency words that you will soon encounter over and over again in your textbook.

Secondly, I still use flashcards and vocabulary lists
(and vocabulary notebooks) to learn words that I want to know, but am unlikely to learn through context. An example of this being slang, vulgar and very colloquial expressions. Depending on the type of books you like to read, it will take you longer to acquire this type of language through reading since these words occur more often in speech.

The same also works for listening practice. Just as it is possible for you to learn words by reading, it is also possible to acquire vocabulary by listening. 

The trick is that you have to find something to read or a program to watch that is interesting to you and that you would watch anyway. The more interested you are in the storyline, the more attention you will pay and the more you will learn. Chances are that if you are interested in a particular subject (other than languages), you are going to want to talk about that subject, so it only makes sense that if you read about that subject in the foreign language, you will acquire the vocabulary that corresponds to that subject.
Does reading in the foreign language work? Remember that book of German vocabulary I mentioned at the beginning – I dusted it off after it sat on the shelf for more than a decade. Guess what? I know more than 80% of the vocabulary in it and I didn’t have to study. If I had studied the list instead, not only would I have wasted a lot of time, I doubt that 10 years later I would remember more than 50% and I would have also wasted time studying the 20% of that vocabulary that I apparently did not need.

Find a system that works for you. If you enjoy making and studying flashcards, then by all means do it. Whatever works. But if you are not enjoying what you are doing – what is the point?

In summary while it may take you longer to acquire more vocabulary this way, you will be having fun and the words you do learn will be the ones you need to learn and not be so easily forgotten because you learned them in contex

See also:

Turn it Off! How What You are Watching May be Hindering Your Progress in a Language

Star Trek Scene in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Japanese

I can still remember that moment. Every language learner has one if they stick with a language long enough. For me it was back in 1989 when my first foreign language, Spanish, finally "clicked". I had been studying Spanish off and on in school and at home for about seven years and could engage in simple conversations with people at work and in stores, peruse the few resources I could find and get the gist of what most people were saying, but I still did not "feel" like a speaker of the language. I found myself frequently lost in the jumble of sounds I was hearing (especially between two native speakers) and I felt that I would never be able to learn enough vocabulary.

One afternoon, I was watching a television program (an episode of the Spanish talk show Christina) and the topic of the program was so interesting and so engaging for me that it was not until after it was over that I suddenly realized I had understood every single thing that had been said. I was so interested in "what" was being said that I completely forgot about the fact that I had been watching a program in another language. I was watching the program because I wanted to, not because I was deliberately trying to learn the language.

Let's be realistic – not every part of the language learning process is thrilling and exciting. However, when it comes to realia such as movies, television programs, novels and magazines, there is absolutely no reason in the world that using them shouldn't be enjoyable!

Gone are the days when we had only a few movies on grainy VHS tape, virtually no access to foreign language television and we were lucky if we could find some outdated printed matter written for native speakers. Today, with the internet and sites like YouTube, on-line access to streaming foreign television stations and satellite television as well as the ability to read foreign language articles and novels on-line, there simply is no longer any reason (unless it's for a homework assignment) to struggle through something we don't like.

Think about it. When you watch TV at home and there is something on that you don't like, do you sit there and watch it anyway? No, you change the channel (unless, of course, it's something your significant other is watching – then I suggest you not do that). The same is true with movies. I'll give the movie a maximum of about 15-20 minutes and if I am not interested in what is going on, I will simply turn it off. Perhaps it is a program that you normally enjoy, but for some reason it's not capturing your attention today. Turn it off and return to it later.

There is so much content available now that unless it is required for your job or a specific project, there is no reason to waste your time with something that doesn't interest you. This is also true if what you are watching or reading is too difficult for you. Sometimes it is not the language itself that is the problem, but the fact that you are missing something due to your lack of cultural or pop-culture knowledge.

When we watch a movie in English and the characters are "quirky", "odd" or "eccentric", we know that this is intentional and meant to be humorous or for exaggerated effect. However, when we are watching something produced from and for another culture, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate this exaggeration from reality.

"Why are they acting so bizarre? Is that how French people behave? No sane person would react that way to that situation!" If this happens, chances are that you are just not "getting it" yet.

Don't despair. There is no shame in putting something away to watch or read later when your skills have improved. In fact, it can be gratifying to later understand something that was previously incomprehensible to you because it is proof of your progress. Stick with those materials that are enjoyable and you will use them more often. Use them more often and you will make consistent progress and one day have your own language "moment".

Star Trek Scene in Japanese

See also:
How to Use the Hidden of Context to Boost Your Foreign Language Vocabulary
Huge List of TV Shows with audio in other Languages Available on U.S. Netflix
International Versions of Popular Reality and Game Show Franchises

International Versions of Popular Reality and Game Show Franchises

The Apprentice in Brazilian Portuguese
Do you like Reality TV? Why not practice listening to a foreign language at the same time. You can use these sites to find the names of popular television shows produced in other languages. Simply open one of the lists below and find the foreign language name of the show in the foreign language and then paste it into Amazon, Google or YouTube.

International Versions of:
The Apprentice
Family Feud
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Amazing Race
Wheel of Fortune
The Voice
Big Brother
The Bachelor
Dancing with the Stars
The Biggest Loser
Fear Factor
Project Runway
Top Chef
Deal or No Deal
Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?
Undercover Boss
Top Model
The Weakest Link
Kitchen Nightmares
Cash Cab
Don't Forget the Lyrics
The Price is Right
Supermarket Sweep
Got Talent
So You Think You Can Dance?
Wife Swap
Temptation Island
The Mole

Click Here for More Foreign Language TV Shows

Ten Truly Bizarre Language Memes and Myths: Did a mental health clinic really request Klingon interpreters? Was German almost the official language of the U.S.? Are some languages primitive and is French more logical?

1) Klingon Interpreters Wanted for Mental Health Clinic:

2)   John Kennedy and the Jelly Doughnut Misconception:

3) Cinderella's Slippers Made of Fur not Glass:

4) German Was Almost the Official Language of the United States:

5) Typoglycemia: The Order of Letters Doesn't Matter:

6) Some Languages are Primitive:

7) The Chinese Have An Alphabet:

8) French is a Logical Language:

9) Spanish is Fast, but Mandarin is Slow:

10) Eskimos Have Fifty Words for Snow:

Four Difficult Concepts of the Russian Language Made Just a Little Easier

Russian Vowel Reduction
Vowel Reduction in Russian
Russian Vowel Reduction
Rules of Reading Russian: Vowel Reduction
Russian Lessons with Olga - Stressed and Unstressed Vowels
Russian for Everyone: Vowel Reduction

Russian Verbs of Motion
Verbs of Motion: Russian Grammar
Russian Verbs of Going
Russian Motion Verbs: A Video Introduction
Verbs of Motion with Prefixes
Russian Verbs of Motion Introduction
Introduction to Verbs of Motion for Beginning Students
All You Ever Wanted to Know About Russian Verbs of Motion
The Main Difficulties When Studying Russian Verbs of Motion
Tolstoy Grammar Reference: Verbs of Motion
Prefixed Verbs of Motion
Language Hacking: Russian Verbs of Motion
Verbal Prefixes on Verbs of Motion

Russian Perfective and Imperfective Verbs
Aspects of Russian Verbs
Russian for Everyone: Verbal Aspect
The Fundamentals of Russian Verbal Aspect
Russian Verb Aspect Tutorial
The Magical Aspects of Russian Verb Construction
Russian Verbs: Perfective and Imperfective Aspects
Verbal Aspect in Russian: A Video Introduction
Russian Verb Aspect Rules
Russian Aspect Pairs
Aspect in Russian Verbs
Russian for Beginners: Verb Aspect
Imperfective and Perfective Verb Aspect Test

Russian Noun and Adjective Cases:
Russian Noun Case System
Those Agreeable Russian Adjectives
Russian Noun Declension
Russian Adjective Declension
Videos: Russian Noun Cases
Russian Cases: A Trick to Learn Them

Notes of a Wordhunter: An Experimental English - Russian Dictionary of Prickly Words & Phrases

Russian Swearing: 104 Swearing Russian Verbs Conjugated in All Tenses with Examples
Russian Motion Verbs for Intermediate Students

Modern Russian Civilisation: Learn Russian with Russian Celebrities

750 Russian Verbs and Their Uses

A Comprehensive Russian Grammar

Taking the Confusion out of the Bewildering Concept of Arabic Verb Forms

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Anyone who has ever studied Arabic can tell you that the most difficult part is the verb system. There are sound verbs (the Arabic version of "regular" verbs) that are easy enough and textbooks generally provide sufficient details and full conjugation lists for them. However, there are also hollow verbs, weak verbs, "defective" verbs, geminate (or double) verbs, assimilated verbs, hamzated verbs and passive verbs. If all that is not enough to scare you away, each of these different types of verbs can come in one or more of nine different forms or "measures" and you have to learn them all if you ever want to get anywhere with Arabic.

Here are a few links to help you better understand Arabic verb forms or measures

Introduction to the 10 Arabic Verb Forms
10 Sentence Model Story Illustrating the 10 Measures
The Arabic Verb Forms
Arabic Verb Forms Interactive Sound Chart
Arabic Grammar - Verb Forms
The Meaning of the Ten Measures
Wikipedia Arabic Verb Forms
Meaning of Arabic Verb Forms
Form II Verbs
Form III Verbs
Form IV Verbs
Form V and VI Verbs
Form VII and VIII Verbs
Form IX and X Verbs

Arabic Verbs and Essentials of Grammar

Practice Makes Perfect: Arabic Verb Tenses

See also:
Easy Way to Learn Colloquial Arabic Verbs
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Arabic Dialects or Varieties (But Were Too Overwhelmed to Ask)

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Arabic Dialects or Varieties (But Were Too Overwhelmed to Ask)

Click Picture to Enlarge
Which Variety of Arabic Should You Learn?
Varieties of Arabic
Arabic Dialects in 10 Minutes
Arabic Dialect Project
Arabic Variant Identification Aid
A Language with too Many Armies and Navies?
Arabic Dialects: Egyptian, Levantine, Gulf and North African
Is Arabic Really Just One Language?
The Relationship between Classical Arabic and Modern Arabic Dialects
Standard Arabic or Dialect?
An Arabist's Guide to Egyptian Colloquial Arabic

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or fus'ha is the formal variety of Arabic that is written and spoken throughout the contemporary Arab world in certain situations. Most native speakers learn MSA in school or from exposure through formal television programs, such as the news, or through some movies. However, they speak a different form of Arabic at home, on the street and with their friends.

The numerous spoken varieties of Arabic, sometimes called "dialects" or "varieties", differ considerably from Modern Standard Arabic. However, in most cases, they tend to do so in predictable ways. In some cases, the differences between one particular variety and MSA will be greater than the differences between one variety of Arabic and another. In other cases, two different varieties will each be closer to MSA than they are to each other. Geographic reasons are part of this. The further apart the countries are, the greater the differences (and unintelligibility) will be between the varieties, but each will still show a kinship to MSA. Speakers of each dialect tend to believe that their variety is the closest to MSA.

In addition to culture differences in the various Arabic-speaking countries and regions, the main variations typically involve 1) pronunciation, 2) grammar and 3) vocabulary. The good news for language learners is that there is typically a set of predictable differences between MSA and the dialects and varieties (just like there is a set of predictable changes between Spanish and Portuguese).

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With regard to pronunciation, there is a small set of letters that show the most differentiation between varieties: (qaaf, jiim, etc.). For example, the word for pen is pronounced qalam in MSA, but 'alam in Egyptian Arabic and galam in Saudi Arabic. Once you recognize this fact, you must simply learn how the particular dialect you want to learn pronounces these letters. This is similar to learning the difference between the Spanish and Portuguese "s" or palletizing the "d" and "t" sounds in Brazilian Portuguese.

Then there is the pronunciation of unwritten vowels (including those used in verbs - (yashrab, yeshrab, yushrab, etc.) which may (or may not) differ from MSA and differ between dialects. This is like learning to pronounce Spanish final "o" as a "u" in Portuguese or perceber vs. percibir, escrever vs. escribir.

One of the most frequent divergences from MSA grammar is that fact that almost all of the regional varieties eliminate (to one extent or another) the grammatical case endings and change the form of the possessive pronouns (baytka vs. baytak for "your house (m)."

In terms of vocabulary, there is a set of words that almost always differ from MSA, but each variety does so differently. For example, you can expect that the words for "to want" "to see" "to go" will both differ from MSA and differ between dialects. With exposure to the varieties, you will begin to notice a pattern that certain words or expressions will almost always have dialect equivalents that differ from MSA.

In some cases, completely different words are used (ariid, abghee, biddee for "I want"). The MSA verb "I am going" is adh-hab, but the Egyptians say ba-rooh. The word "I" is ana in MSA, but ani in Iraqi Arabic. This is like Portuguese which uses obrigado instead of gracias or joelho instead of rodilla.

Other times it is simply the position of vowels in and around the word that differ which can be difficult to recognize at first (example: mata, imta for "when"). Remember, Arabic uses a triliteral root system, so the consonants are there, but with different intersecting vowels.

Once you know MSA and one local variety, you will of course not be an automatic speaker of another dialect, but you will have considerable insight about which features of the language are most susceptible to variation and most likely to have a different "counterpart" in the new variety.

Many people will tell you that you can get by just speaking MSA. However, a native speaker's degree of competence and comfort ability in using MSA would differ depending on several factors (level of education, experience, fatigue, shyness, unwilling to make embarrassing mistakes, etc). Thus, even though you may be able to get along fine with just MSA, communication would be limited since the speech and ideas of some speakers would be inhibited due to their level of ability or shyness to speak MSA (which may be akin to speaking a foreign language to them).  

There is considerable debate as to whether one should learn a dialect first and then MSA, or learn MSA followed by a dialect, or learn them concurrently. Whichever path you choose, awareness of these differences can help shed some light on the inevitable confusion when you encounter Arabic lessons on-line or in a book that differ from something you have already learned.

If you are looking for a comprehensive introduction to Arabic, then Ultimate Arabic is a great book. This 535-page textbook and reference guide not only teaches you Modern Standard Arabic (Lessons 1 - 15), but also Egyptian Arabic (Lessons 16 - 20), Iraqi Arabic (Lessons 21 - 25), Lebanese Arabic (Lessons 26-30) and Saudi Arabic (Lessons 31 - 35). You can also get the version with CDs so that you can hear all the dialects.

Related Post:

Here are some other courses about specific Arabic dialects:


  Modern Iraqi Arabic

A Basic Course in Iraqi Arabic

Kalaam Gamiil: An Intensive Course in Egyptian Colloquial Arabic

Colloquial Arabic of the Gulf

An Introduction to Moroccan Arabic and Culture

Moroccan Arabic: Shnoo the Hell is Going On H'naa? A Practical Guide to Learning Moroccan Darija

Five Simple Mnemonics for Spanish Learners

1) Este, ese, esta, esas… This, these, those… Get them confused?
Just remember the simple phrase "this and these have t's". The Spanish words for this/these (este, esta, estes, estas) contain the letter "t" while the Spanish words for that/those (ese, esa, eses, esas) have no t's.

2) You can learn some of the irregular command verbs with the sentence "Vin Diesel has ten weapons, eh?" This can help you remember Ven / Di / Sal / Haz / Ten / Ve / Pon / Sé.

3) Sixty and seventy sound alike?
Try associating 60 (sesenta) with 6 (seis) and 70 (setenta) with 7 (siete).
Just remove the letter "i" in each case (seis = ses = sesenta / siete = sete = setenta)

4) You can use the acronym WEIRDO to remember which situations require the subjunctive tense in Spanish. W.E.I.R.D.O. stands for Wants or Wishes, Emotions, Impersonal Expressions, Recommendations, Doubt/Denial, and is used after the word Ojalá. Another suggestion is WEDDING where the letters stand for Will, Emotion, Desire, Doubt, Impersonal expressions, Negative and Generalized Characteristics.

5) For Spanish gender, you can try the mnemonic used by a lot of Spanish teachers: "Guys are LONERS and girls like DIJON mustard" to remember that words ending in l, o, n, e, r and s tend to be masculine and words ending in d, i, a and -sión are feminine. Of course, there are always exceptions (such as el día and la mano), but it's a start.