Four Common Mistakes Made When Studying Vocabulary

Learning a new language can be a daunting task, especially when the language you’re trying to learn is extremely different from your mother tongue. One of the most wonderful things about learning new languages in this day and age is that the Internet gives you access to a plethora of tools that make second language acquisition much easier (and more fun) than ever before.

However, a lot of new language learners still find themselves making certain common mistakes along the way, especially when it comes to learning new vocabulary. Here are a few of the most common mistakes made when studying vocabulary, and the tips you need to help you avoid them!

Learning Words in Isolation

Oftentimes, new language learners turn to word lists to help teach them new vocabulary words. If you ever took Spanish, French, or Latin in high school, your teacher probably used word lists to drill you on all the new vocabulary you needed to learn for your next quiz or test. However, although word lists are an efficient way to store a lot of new information on the page, they lack context.

Think about it — in your everyday life, you don’t encounter words in the form of lists. Instead, you produce and perceive language in sentences and phrases, allowing different words to build on each other’s meanings to produce a fully-formed thought.

Context makes it much easier to guess an individual word’s meaning by paying attention to the way that it interacts with the surrounding words. Plus, if a word has multiple meanings, paying attention to context is the only way to figure out which meaning is supposed to be applied in a specific sentence.

For example, “The table was blue” and “She was feeling blue” both employ the same word, “blue,” but context clues allow us to recognize that the first sentence is referring to the color, and the second sentence is referring to the feeling.

If you’re learning Spanish, try listening to Spanish podcasts or reading graded readers. By consuming the Spanish language in-context, you’ll better understand how a word is used in everyday life.

Learning Irrelevant Vocabulary

Although learning a new language is a fun intellectual exercise, odds are you’re putting yourself through all the work so that you can use this new language in a real-world setting. When you’re learning new vocabulary words, tailor your vocab intake to your specific interests and needs.

If you’re learning Brazilian Portuguese so that you can communicate more clearly on your business trips, the most important vocabulary you need to learn will likely be business or travel-related. You’ll also want to learn lots about business etiquette in Brazil. If that’s the case, don’t waste your time prioritizing irrelevant vocabulary terms for sports, cooking, or fashion.

Of course, once you become more proficient in the language, you can circle back and learn more niche vocabulary words, but when you’re just starting out, trying to absorb new information in a field that is of no interest or importance to you can be a time-consuming and frustrating exercise.

Not Using Tools

If you don’t already use flashcards as a tool for learning new vocabulary, you should start doing so ASAP! Flashcards are a time-honored technique to help you rapidly connect new words with familiar concepts, with the ultimate goal of making your relationship with these new vocabulary words feel instantaneous and automatic. Over the past couple of years, innovations in language acquisition technology have arisen that take flashcards to a whole new level: Spaced Repetition System (SRS).

Basically, SRS flashcard programs control the frequency with which specific cards appear. They tailor this frequency to your personal flashcard results, helping you achieve near-perfect recall in as little time as possible. There are a plethora of language learning apps that utilize SRS, so find one that you like, and be sure to review regularly.

Learning Words Without Audio Recordings

Most of the time, we teach ourselves new vocabulary words in their written form. However, knowing how to read and write is only half the battle when it comes to language acquisition — you also need to know how to produce words and recognize words when you hear them!

One of the easiest ways to combine orthographic word recognition with auditory word recognition is to learn your vocabulary words with audio recordings. If you’re using a textbook to learn a new language, it will almost always come with an audio CD. Take advantage of this extra resource — the audio recordings on these CDs are often much slower and clearer than the speech on TV or on the radio, which makes it much easier for beginners to absorb and process the sound of individual vocabulary words.

If you’re a more advanced learner, LingQ is a useful website with a variety of audio recordings in a wide range of languages, helping you absorb the sight and sound of new words much more quickly and easily!

Final Thoughts

The average adult native speaker of any given language knows anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 words in that language. When you’re just starting out, the idea of learning tens of thousands of new words can be incredibly intimidating.

Just remember that native speakers have had decades to acquire all of these new words; you don’t need to be in any hurry! The tips in this article are meant to help make the process of learning these new words as fun and painless as possible. Happy learning!


Nick Dahlhoff is the founder of All Language Resources, a website made to help language learners find the right resources for their unique needs. After having lived throughout Latin America for several years, he moved to Beijing and began learning Mandarin.