When you’re learning a new language, it can feel like you come across a new word everywhere you go. You repeat it a few times, telling yourself you must remember it as it’ll come in useful. Then you forget it. Vocabulary lists seem never-ending at first, and there’s no way we can learn every single word in a new language.
In fact, most of us will never know every word in our native tongue, so it’s crazy to expect ourselves to learn all the words in a foreign language. Did you know, in order to be considered “advanced” in a language, you only need to know around 5000 words?
Admittedly, 5000 sounds like a lot, but when you think about how many you already know, it’s actually quite achievable. However, nobody has time to sit and read a dictionary, so how can we expand our vocabulary?
Some of the most common words are the things we use in our day-to-day lives. Before moving on to more complex vocabulary, why not focus on learning all of the words for the things around you? To do so, you’re going to need sticky notes. Stick a note on everything in your living room: the sofa, door, coffee table, sideboard, lamp, if you can see it you can stick a note to it. Every time you see the sticky note, you must read the word on it. After a while, you’ll see the note and won’t even need to read it, you can just say the word. This shows you’ve successfully learned the word. As well as doing this in every room around your home, you can do it with your groceries, items in your kitchen cupboards and bathroom cabinets, until you know every single word for the items around you.
If you want to challenge yourself, you can try to say full sentences using verbs and prepositions as well as your new vocabulary. For example:
- “Je vois mes chaussures devant la porte.” – I see my shoes in front of the door.
- “Je vais mettre le lait dans le frigo.” – I’m going to put the milk in the refrigerator.
You might be wondering how knowing how to say basic words like “saucepan” or “shampoo” will help you become fluent in French. These words won’t be used in all your French conversations, rather, your increased knowledge of French words and the French speaking practice from saying so many words aloud will build your confidence, which is one of the keys to learning a language.
Another great way of expanding your vocabulary is by learning a list of cognates. Cognates are words which have the same origin. As a result, they are very similar to read or pronounce which makes them easy to learn. Examples of cognates in French and English include “opinion”, “taxi” and “restaurant”.
Most language learners have used flashcards before, either in school or at home. Flashcards are simply cards with words written on them. You can buy flashcard packs, download them online or make your own. Some flashcards have pictures on them, meaning the word is both written and illustrated. This is especially good for visual learners who learn French vocabulary more quickly by associating the word with an image. Flashcards are a great tool for any age group, and they are versatile as they can be used anywhere, at any time.
The best kind of flashcards for retaining words effectively is the homemade kind. You don’t have to have any kind of creative skills or passion for crafts, although if you do, by all means go ahead! A basic flashcard can be a simple French word written on a card, and the translation on the reverse side. By taking the time to write out the words yourself you are already taking one big step towards memorizing them. When you look through your flashcards, you can choose to read the French and say the translation, or read your native language and try to remember the French word. Once you’ve got to grips with the basic vocabulary, you can try to make sentences using each flashcard word.
When you learn new words, it’s vital that you write them down to review later on, otherwise you may recognize them but you won’t be able to recall them when you need to. You can use a computer or a simple pen and paper to write French vocabulary lists. A vocab list shouldn’t just be a long list of words, or it will be tedious to read through at a later date. Instead, categorize the words as you see fit. You could categorize based on grammatical elements: verbs, nouns, adjectives, etcetera. Alternatively, you could categorize based on themes such as work, school, hobbies, food and drink. Don’t hesitate to put words into multiple categories if you think they will come in useful in several circumstances.
It’s so easy to write down vocabulary we come across and then never look at it again. Forgetting about your vocabulary lists, whether they’re on your phone, computer or in a notebook, means forgetting the all-important vocabulary too. Set some time aside once a week to read through all the words you’ve noted down over the previous days. Try to use each word in a sentence, and if you can’t remember exactly what context to use it in, look it up and add an explanation to your notes. Every month or so you should take the time to revise your entire vocabulary list so that you can sort through which terms you know by heart and which ones you need to practice more.
If you don’t know where to look for French resources, you can use websites such as Le Point du FLE, which contains over 16 000 links to different resources. Whether you’re looking for pre-categorized vocabulary lists or new sites to practice your French skills, you can find every kind of learning website on Le Point du FLE.
Learning vocabulary doesn’t have to feel like you’re back in school. Nowadays, there are many apps and online games that you can play to learn both grammar and vocab. Examples include Duolingo and Memrise, as well as Clozemaster, where you can complete gap fill exercises to learn French vocabulary covering a range of different topics, using the most common French words and thousands more. The simple concept makes it fun to play, and focuses on learning vocab in full sentences rather than individual words with no context, which are harder to memorize.
There is a huge range of apps for learning French available these days, from flashcard games to video lessons, allowing you to boost your French skills just by playing on your phone.
In this day and age, we don’t just watch TV sat on our sofa after work. Thanks to streaming services such as Netflix, Apple TV, Disney+, Prime Video and more, we can watch TV any time, any place. You’re no doubt already streaming your favorite series on your commute to work, while cooking dinner, or for some downtime in the evening, so while you’re at it, why not take the opportunity to learn some French vocabulary? Simply change the audio language to French, and add French subtitles if you’re a more visual learner. Getting your brain used to hearing spoken French is important, and watching your favorite shows is an easy way to pick up new words and expressions.
Reading is another important skill which can help you learn French vocabulary. You may not have the time or desire to sit and read Molière or Victor Hugo, but that doesn’t mean you can’t read a few sentences in French every day.
Find an online publication that interests you; are you an avid baker? Read a baking blog. Do you love horse riding? Check out an equestrian magazine. Are you passionate about motorsports? Have a look at a race car website. Whatever your hobbies or interests, there are online resources to suit you in the form of blogs, magazines or ordinary website content. Try to read a small amount of French every day. Don’t forget to look up any words you don’t understand and jot them down.
One great option for those who don’t want to spend too much time reading is to read the newspaper headlines. Of course, newspapers don’t have to be real paper copies, you can check out a news website and read the headlines on there too. This will inform you about the current affairs in your country or around the world, and you can read just one headline or several, depending on how much time you have. It’s quick and easy, and you’ll definitely discover some interesting new words in the process.
While there are many ways to learn active vocabulary, the words we use regularly, it’s also important to expand our passive vocabulary. I’m sure you’ve come across words that you understand but don’t yet feel confident using yourself, this is what we call passive vocabulary.
We usually become familiar with passive vocabulary without trying, hence its name, but we can increase the amount of vocabulary we expose ourselves to, and therefore increase the chances of understanding more words.
The best way to do so is by listening to as much French as possible. One way to do this is by listening to French songs. There are pre-made playlists on YouTube or Spotify, or you can create your own playlist with a selection of your favorite French tunes. Secondly, if you’d rather hear conversation rather than music, you can listen to radio shows or better yet, podcasts. Podcasts, such as News in Slow French, cover a variety of topics and you can slow them down or speed them up in accordance with your ability, which will help you to understand the spoken language. You don’t have to concentrate fully on everything that’s being said, as the mere act of hearing French being spoken in the background can help you pick up on certain words and phrases.
While there are many different ways to learn French vocabulary, the best method is by far a combination of various techniques which use all four skills of language acquisition: Listening, reading, writing and speaking.
This means that you should include in your vocabulary practice: listening to words, reading them, writing them and saying them aloud to ensure that your brain is familiar with them in every form.
In addition, try to listen to music, podcasts and watch TV and movies to increase your French intake at every given opportunity. Don’t forget to write down new and useful words and revise them at a later date. By using a variety of techniques and resources, you’ll be able to learn French vocabulary in no time.