When you think about it, learning vocabulary is quite a scary thing: you have to learn hundreds, even thousands of words before finally reaching your goal: speaking French fluently. If you have already experienced the (very) frustrating feeling of forgetting words because of a lack of practice, you already know how difficult it is to anchor all that bunch of words in your memory. This article will help you optimize the way you learn thanks to various simple techniques.
How many words you must know to speak French fluently?
It’s a complicated question, but a legitimate one as well. Before reaching your goal, how many words is necessary to memorize? It’s incidentally not easy to determine how many of these words you know, unless you are ready to count all of them one by one. You’d have to be pretty motivated and have a lot of spare time to do that… I wouldn’t be able to tell you how many words I know in French, English, Portuguese or even Chinese, and honestly, who cares? At least I can say I’m trying to learn as much as possible!
How many words are there in French?
Well, at least for once, that’s not a good question! Indeed, there are always new words appearing, some are disappearing, other change their spelling or even their meaning. So trying to count all of them is just impossible.
To give you an idea, there are approximately one million words in French, if you count all the conjugated forms or agreed forms (with the masculine and feminine) and also different ways of spelling. When you remove these redundancies, you now have “just a few“ hundreds of thousands of words, including many outdated and technical ones. The well-known French dictionary “Le Grand Robert de la langue française” have 100 000 definitions on its official website. When you focus only on the most common terms, you’d find approximately several tens of thousands of words in French. It’s still quite enormous, right? Don’t worry, you don’t need to know so many to start expressing yourself in French.
Just a few hundreds of words is enough to express yourself
If the preceding paragraph kind of cooled you down, read the following: I’ve read in this French article that apparently, most French people use around 5000 words in their daily life, including 600 very frequently. In another article, it says that about 10% of the French people commonly use around 500 words. Since French is my native language, such a reduced lexicon represents a risk of social enclosing, but for people like you, for whom French is a foreign language, it’s actually a great opportunity to start conversing in French!
Learning vocabulary: fair enough, but… which one?
The Pareto Principle and the Zipf’s law
The Pareto principle, also called the “80-20 law” comes from the Italian economist of the same name Vilfredo Pareto. According to this principle, a minority of causes is responsible for a majority of effects. In the 20th century, the engineer Joseph Juran use it to state that roughly 20% of the causes produce 80% of the effects.
In the meantime, the American linguist Kingsley Zipf started a statistic analysis of the vocabulary of the novel Ulysses, of James Hoyce. He use it to formulate what will become the Zipf’s law, noticing that the most common word appears 8000 times, the tenth word 800 times, the hundredth word 80 times, and the thousandth word only 8 times.
I know these statistical principles are a bit of a headache, but here’s what you can get out of it: a minority of words is sufficient to produce a big meaning. You get it? That means by learning vocabulary very simply, ranging from 500 to 600 French words, you can already hold a basic conversation in French. If you go beyond 1000 words, you have enough knowledge to face any common situation of daily living.
Learn the right words: priorities and frequency lists
From a meaning perspective, all words are not equal. You can express much more possibilities with the word “house” rather than the word “neuroplasticity” for example. By the way, that’s why the first months of your learning process are the ones in which you will progress the faster. After a while, you will improve more and more slowly: the words you learn will become more and more specific and difficult to use in a conversation.
For this reason, it’s necessary that you choose the words you want to learn first and that you give priority to the most frequent ones in the French language. For that, you can use frequency lists. As you can guess, they consist in gathering and ranking words based on their frequency of occurrence among thousands of texts. You can find some on the Wiktionary.
But let me warn you of something: don’t use them as you find them. On the one hand, it would be extremely redundant, on the other hand, some words have a very ambiguous sense. These lists often start with prepositions (de, à, par, en…) which can cover many different significations. It’s totally useless to learn them alone.
What’s your lexical environment?
The words and expressions of a language are often the same: present yourself, indicate possession, possibility, location, duty, perception, and talk about food. Once you’ve mastered these fields, it’s important for you to identify in which environment you are or want to evolve.
This simple matter plays an essential role: you will remember much more easily stuff that are closer to you and to which you can relate. Within our society, there are many different fields, mainly defined by professions. A doctor spends his whole day using a specific vocabulary which is different from that of an engineer or a bar tender. If you ever had the experience of talking with a group of people sharing the same occupation, you probably felt like they were not speaking the same language as you.
Let’s take an example: virtually all manuals and software contain a section about animals. It’s easy to learn how to say “dog”, “cat” or “rabbit” in French. However, a “bat” is a “chauve-souris” in French “literraly: “bald mouse”). If you are a beginner, you are likely to forget this word (unless the literal translation really stroke you) because of it’s length, and because bats are ugly and not really interesting. However, if you happen to live near a forest with a lot of bats at night, you will learn this word very fast, because it directly concerns you, and you can use it in your conversations. To fully understand this phenomenon, let’s look at how our brain and memorization work.
To memorize effectively, work with your brain, not against it
If you feel like you forgot everything about your French classes in high school, maybe it’s because you never learned it properly. You probably were another countless victim of the infamous vocabulary list filled with technical terms to learn by heart for the upcoming week. You were revising it a bit every day, a lot the day before the test, hoping you would not forget everything during the test. With a little luck, you could manage to put the right words, and forget them just a few hours later. In other words, you spent most of your time filling your short-term memory instead of patiently feeding your long-term memory. In the following part, you will see how learning vocabulary can be done intensively, and how to make it inerasable.
What is a memory?
Despite the numerous new discoveries concerning memorization, little is known of the functioning of our brain. Of what is known nowadays, it seems that memories are not directly contained in our neurons, but rather in the networks they build between them. Indeed, our brain is extremely flexible, and our neurons are always creating new connections and destroying older deprecated ones. The more an information is important, the more it becomes part of a dense neuronal network. Hence, the brain of a musician is different from the one of a taxi driver or a football player.
So if, after learning vocabulary, you want to never forget it, you must work deeply with your memory in order to make each word as memorable as possible. So how do you get there?
Very strange combinations
Our brain works by constantly combining different stuff in a completely unconscious way. To convince you, here’s a funny little test, try to quickly answer these questions:
What is the color of a cloud?
What is the color of a bathtub?
What is the color of snow?
What is the color of a sheet of paper?
What is the color of a dove?
What is the color of rice?
What do cows drink?
If you have proudly answered “milk!”, you understand what I mean. You have unconsciously made the following combination: white + liquid + cow = milk
It doesn’t make sense at all (I hope you know cows don’t drink milk…), but it works very well. You can try it with your friends, adding more questions with the answer “white” if possible, and you will almost for sure have the same result.
Regain control of your memory
Unfortunately, your brain is not a perfectly rational and logic machine you wish you had. For example, did you know that episodic memory, which controls events experienced in the past, is very unreliable? When you remember something that happened to you, sometimes you reconstruct it by adding elements which actually never happened. In fact, our brain works according to its own logic which sometimes seem very strange, but we can also use it to learn more efficiently.
How to learn dozens of vocabulary every day
Learning vocabulary: two complementary ways
It’s possible to distinguish two ways of learning vocabulary. The first one is the natural way, with the context: whenever you have a conversation with a French native, by reading a book or watching a movie in French, you discover new words and you understand their meaning thanks to the context. They will slowly fit into your memory.
However, let’s look more in detail at the 2nd way which consists in learning vocabulary through Spaced Repetition, which is the best existing tool for me. For the record, it’s based on the use of flashcards containing the word or the sentence you want to memorize which you have to revise on regular intervals.
You just have to use these two methods together, and you will be learning vocabulary in huge amounts, in a very short time; an active immersion in a way!
The memorization techniques
Here’s some techniques which will help you create better flashcards.
The strength of images
Human beings are visual beings. You’ve learned to recognize and name objects surrounding you before learning how to write. Hence, it’s natural for you to use images to help you memorize. After all, children also use images at the beginning, so why not use the visual aid as well.
You have two ears, use them!
Sounds is too often neglected when people learn languages. If possible, use a SRS (Spaced Repetition System) comprising audio recordings, like Memrise (for a few courses) or MosaLingua. I’ve tried it, and I remember words much better if I also have its audio pronunciation. Since French has a pretty different pronunciation than English in general, it can be useful to add also a phonetic transcription of the word.
Use mnemonics and combinations of ideas
Our little game with the cows and the milk demonstrated one thing: the brain works by combining ideas seemingly quite messed-up. Mnemonics use this principle by associating a difficult information to memorize with another more memorable one. This kind of association is called a mnemonic.
Have you ever noticed that in supermarkets, the parking spaces are always indicated with very simple images, like animals, fruits or also names of nearby streets? It’s simpler to remember something like “I parked toward the monkeys” rather than “I parked on the fourth row on the right coming out of rear entrance of the shop”.
French, like any language, is full of mnemonics. A good example every French kid learn at school is the sentence to memorize all the coordinating conjunctions: –mais ; –ou ; –et ; –donc ; –or ; –ni ; car. If I say them like this, it’s quite hard to remember right? But when I say “Mais où est donc Ornicar ?” meaning “(But) Where is Ornicar?”, it’s immediately easier to remember!
The words’ etymology is without doubt the most used mnemonic for languages. In fact, thanks to these combinations of ideas you can learn Latin-related languages so well because you can recognize the same root of a word you are also using in English. On the opposite, for more distant languages like Asian languages, it’s more difficult and you feel quite lost with them.
If you take for example the French word “communiquer”, you can easily guess its meaning “communicate” since they both come from the same Latin root “communicare”, which also created the word “comunicar” in Spanish. You don’t need to master ancient languages (at least I don’t), at some point with experience you end up developing a certain intuition.
You can also choose not to give importance to etymological logic to build up your mnemonics, they will actually be even more memorable: after all, your brain did tell you that cows drink milk!
To give you a personal example, I remember the Chinese word “垃圾箱” (lā jī xiāng) meaning “trash can” because I had a fun experience with a friend trying to find the translation of “diarrhea” in Chinese which is quite similar: “拉稀” (lā xī). These two terms have no etymological relation and there are not really pronounced the same, but I thought they both have quite a “disgusting” sense, so this combination helped me to find a reference point in Chinese. So have fun finding the most far-fetched mnemonics, the main point is that they work for you!
The role of emotion
Let’s go back to our example with the bat: if you live near a forest with lots of bats, you will remember more easily the French word “chauve-souris” because it directly concerns your situation, you have an emotional link towards the idea of a “bat”. From a more scientific point of view, your neuronal network concerning this ugly animal is very dense.
If I strongly advise you to get out of your room and go talk to people in French, it’s because it’s easier to create these emotional links which enable you to memorize much better
Another personal experience: I perfectly remember a very bad Spanish word a friend of mine has taught me (I’m not going to tell which one!) even though I never have to use it on my daily life. The only reason why I remember it is because I associate it to a very funny moment I had in my life, and since then I always remember it.
Create your own catchphrases
One field of occupation uses all these elements (images, sounds, combinations of ideas, emotions) to make elements memorable: advertisement. Advertisements associate abstract ideas to our five senses to better create an emotional link with us, the customer. When you watch a commercial on TV for a new car, do they talk about how the engineers have smartly conceived the cooling system of the engine? Absolutely not, they try to sell you the happiness of a trip with your family, security, the respect of the environment, performance or even more success in front of the ladies…
Hence, it’s in your best interest to take example on advertisement to efficiently memorize phrases and exceptions. Create your own catchphrases or your catchy songs. I believe if English is one of the most well-known language in the world, it’s largely due to its culture. Maybe you don’t realize it if you live in an English speaking country, but here in France we are constantly surrounded by slogans, songs and other famous catchphrases which easily stay in our minds: “Nespresso, what else?” or “Hey, what did you expect?”. I’m sure you can find similar stuff with French, stuff like “Dior, j’adore” or whatever.
Two good habits to never forget anymore
It’s almost the end of this article. I’m just going to tell you two last advices if you don’t want to forget words anymore.
When you are revising and learning vocabulary, don’t just blatantly read it and listen to it all the time: it’s not enough. You have to always remind it actively. It’s called the active reminder.
When you force your brain to pick a word in the depth of your memory, it understands how important this word is. Your brain will then reinforce the neuronal connections associated to this word.
Vocabulary must be used
Learning vocabulary only constitute one part of learning the language. If you learn words just for the sake of knowing as much as possible, you will find yourself knowing thousands of words you don’t know how to use. No matter how many times you try, you’ll be unable to formulate a normal and flowing sentence with these words when you speak.
After learning vocabulary, you must actively use it throughout the learning process. Of course, when you recognize a word in a movie, in a book, or even when a native talk to you, this word firmly remains in your mind. But, this process is even more effective if you make the effort of speaking or writing this word.
Learning a language is like a cycle: you receive new information and you implement them to better memorize them. You recognize them much better and are able to reuse them much faster. You should create this virtuous circle and you will see the amazing progress you make.
When you think about it, if you only learn 5 words every day using the same techniques I explained you, within only 1 year you’ll know more than 1800 words. As we have seen it, it’s more than enough to handle any daily conversation.