How to Learn Vocabulary in a New Language Quickly

The tactics I use to memorize Hungarian

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash

“Jó éjszakát”, my friend said.

Pause. My brain tried to process this new expression in Hungarian. “Say that again”, I asked.

“Jó éjszakát”, she repeated.

“You is a cat?!”, I replied, attempting my best at pronunciation.

She laughed. I did too. And I knew that I had discovered a trick to never forget how to say “good night” in this new language.

One language, way too many words

I’m Portuguese. I never studied Spanish, yet I understand 80% of it. “Home” is “casa” in Portuguese, and “casa” in Spanish. “Why” is “porquê” and “porque”. “Cat” is “gato” and “gato”. You see the logic.

Portuguese also shares a good chunk of words with the English language. So, learning new vocabulary had never been much of a struggle for me. Until one day…

Two years ago, I moved to Hungary. You may have heard of the capital, Budapest, but it’s unlikely that you’ve heard much about the Hungarian language. There’s a good reason for this: it’s incredibly hard, and not spoken outside of Hungary. It doesn’t even help with learning other languages because it’s totally unrelated to any other language in the whole world.

What does this mean when it comes to learning new vocabulary? While “potato” is “batata” in Portuguese, “patata” in Spanish, and “patate” in French… in Hungarian it is “burgonya”. And while most of the world calls “football” exactly that, in Hungarian they decided to go with “labdarúgás”.

It was a nightmare. If I wanted to learn this language, I had to develop ways to quickly and effectively memorize new words. Here are my three favorite tactics to do so.

1. Make lists

You’ve heard this one before, it’s in every article about learning languages. Guess what? It’s because it works!

But you need to be mindful about how you create these lists. Which words you put in them, and which tools you use to make them. Personally, I like to make lists containing the vocabulary words, together with their translations, and sound recordings of the words. The sound recordings help with the phonetic memorization of new words. To illustrate this approach, I created a vocabulary list with the Hungarian words from this article, which you can listen to here.

I recommend making lists on different subjects. A list for body parts, one for fruits, another for common verbs, for example. Once you learn the vocabulary for a topic, it’s very rewarding to take part in a conversation on that topic. Just the other day, I was speaking in English with a Hungarian friend. When we started talking about the weather, I switched to speaking Hungarian. I have a list of weather words!

2. Associate new words with words you know

This is what I did with the “You is a cat” example. When I started learning Hungarian, new words were just weird sounds to me. It’s hard to memorize something if it’s nothing more than a strange, seemingly random sound. The easiest way to overcome this is to associate these new words with others which you already know in different languages.

I remember learning “mindig” in Hungarian. It means “always”, and is a very useful word. But I kept forgetting it. Until I realized it sounds very similar to “medingo”, which means “homeless” in Portuguese, my mother tongue. What do “always” and “homeless” have to do with each other? Nothing. But, somehow, this connection made the word stick in my mind.

You can also make funny sentences with these associations, as it will make it easier to remember. Giving some context to your words works wonderfully for memory retention.

3. Prioritize your words

As this study shows…

“If you learn only 800 of the most frequently-used lemmas in English, you’ll be able to understand 75% of the language as it is spoken in normal life”.

A lemma is a representative of a family of words. For example, in English, “sing”, “sings” and “singing” are all related, but “sing” is the corresponding lemma. So before you start memorizing every word, focus on understanding which ones will be more useful.

Luckily, there is something called a “frequency dictionary” for every language. As the name indicates, it is a dictionary which ranks the most used words in a that language. Make it your starting point for vocabulary learning.

Once you have your basics covered, move further. But always keep in mind that not all words are created equal. Initially, you don’t need to know how to say “cup”, “mug”, “beaker” or “chalice”. Learn “glass” and you will have them all covered.

So, before you spend your time and energy learning new words, make a small effort to select them first. Work smarter, not harder.

Learning vocabulary gets easier over time

Learning vocabulary in a foreign language might seem like a daunting task, but it’s a crucial step to achieve any level of fluency in a new language.

You might know all the grammar rules, but if you don’t know words, you can’t put them into practice. The upside is that the more words you know, the easier it gets to learn new ones. For example, in Hungarian, “leg” is “láb” and “head” is “fej”. Do you know what their word is for “foot”? “Lábfej”, or the “head of the leg”. If you know the first two words, “lábfej” will come very naturally to you. This happens in every language, all the time.

Plus, the more vocabulary you know, the easier it gets to infer the meaning of some words by context. At first, everything sounds like gibberish. But, then you start understanding basic sentences. And it gets easier to understand the meaning of the unknown words in those sentences, inferring from the context.

Learning vocabulary in a new language is a marathon, not a sprint. All you need to do is keep running. Eventually, your brain will be trained to perform at its best without much effort.


“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

— Wittgenstein

Language is deeply related to culture, and you will experience this connection during the learning process. Every now and then, you will encounter words that will give you new perspectives from which to look at the world. Words that don’t even exist in your native language, but which express feelings you have always had.

Instead of viewing it as a daunting task, try looking at vocabulary acquisition as something fun, exciting, and empowering. Your world will expand and you will find yourself with new favorite words. I have mine in Hungarian: “pattogatott kukorica”. It means “popcorn”, and it sounds funny. It makes me smile every time.


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